I’d been taking dance all my life — first ballet, then modern — so when I signed up for Tai-Chi, I thought of it as a dance class with all the attendant sweat, joys, and wear and tear on the body. At first Tai-Chi seemed tame and slow — no one was doing pirouettes in front of the mirrors. During one of those early classes, Jay Dunbar, my teacher, said something that caught my attention immediately: “Until people are thirty, they work on building up their muscles. When they get older, it’s more important to build inner strength. That’s what Tai-Chi is all about.”

A year away from 30, I welcomed this. I still wanted to express myself through dancing, but without the strains and pulled muscles. I’ve come to see Tai-Chi as another form of dance, whose movements are generated from deep within, and increasingly to understand that the dance has been within all along.

At my evening class, Jay greets us with his right fist lightly clenched and set into his open left palm. He bows slightly. We return the bow, then start with warm ups and breathing exercises interspersed with comments from Jay on the philosophy underlying Tai-Chi. As time goes on, Jay will say less and less.

The movements themselves are difficult to describe. The whole body is exercised as you move with legs bent, attempting to keep your attention focused on the “tai tien” where “chi,” or life force, is centered. (The “tai tien” is located about three fingers down from the navel.) Body and mind work together to imitate the teacher’s movements.

For the interview, Jay greets us graciously. [Jeff Badgett, THE SUN’s assistant editor, took photographs.] Jay is dressed in ordinary street clothes, though in his classes he often wears loose-fitting Chinese clothing and black Chinese slippers. With his closely cropped hair, and calm, somewhat enigmatic manner, he seems almost Oriental. I liked it that he’d occasionally shut off the tape recorder to crack jokes — self-effacing remarks about himself as a “teacher.” He doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Jay has been practicing Tai-Chi for about eight years. A former college English teacher, he opened the Tai-Chi Center in Carrboro, N.C. one and a half years ago. [The Center is at 105 E. Main Street, 919-942-1887. Jay has also organized the Southeastern Tai-Chi Chuan Society, P.O. Box 314, Carrboro, N.C. 27510.] The Center is a simple, orderly place — healthy plants in the windows, a few Eastern symbols and other esoterica on the walls. Sometimes there’s incense burning, but today I can smell the Chinese food from the restaurant next door.

— Susan Wallin


SUN: Define Tai-Chi.

DUNBAR: Everyone who does Tai-Chi would have a slightly different definition. I generally see it as an ancient Chinese movement discipline whose aim is to help you develop energy and self-control within a changing environment so that you can respond appropriately in any situation. It gives your body a flexibility and sensitivity easily responsive to the impulses of your mind. It is practiced as a system of health, exercise, meditation and self-defense. Tai-Chi Chuan in Chinese means the “supreme ultimate boxing.” Chuan, which means boxing, also means self-control. One of the major hindrances to the spread of Tai-Chi in this country is the difficulty of arriving at a satisfactory explanation or definition of it.

In this country we’re more interested in overt power — the power of influence, nuclear power, various displays of external, obvious power. The power of Tai-Chi develops through gentleness — through softness. The Chinese technical term for this inner strength is “the needle in the cotton.”

SUN: Some people view Tai-Chi as a form of meditation. Do you?

DUNBAR: It’s accurate to say that it is a form of meditation. It’s very different from how most people might see meditation, as something you do when you’re sitting down, passive and inert, whereas Tai-Chi is a very even, slow, gentle, and delicate form of movement. Tai-Chi Chuan is considered an internal system. The mind concentrates on the subtle form of energy spiralling inside the body, seeking the stillness at the center of the movement. Of course, different Tai-Chi players think about different things, depending on their level of development. Some will be thinking about the martial applications, some about the flowing of rivers or the moving of clouds, and others are hard put just to remember the movements. That’s all as it should be. It’s very personal and molds itself almost infinitely to anyone’s needs. Tai-Chi is a way for the body to meditate, along with the mind and spirit.

I tend to see the set series of Tai-Chi movements as useful in that it forms a still backdrop against which I can perceive subtle changes in my personal growth that might otherwise slip by me. So every morning as I do Tai-Chi I have the potential of learning something new about my body and about my interaction with it, my interaction with energy. I can sense when I have an imbalance in the emotional state which may be mirrored in the physical state. It gives me a chance to think about things with a balanced outlook. Tai-Chi enables you to gather the energy of personal growth and accumulate little learnings about yourself and build them into your practice of the form. So, although the sequence stays the same, the form becomes a constantly evolving thing.

SUN: How did you become involved in Tai-Chi?

DUNBAR: I began Tai-Chi in 1975, not because I’d had a long exposure to things Chinese, but because I became interested in the “Book of Changes,” the I Ching. Because of that interest, I went to a demonstration of another martial art and decided I’d like to do something like that although I wasn’t interested in the violence or competitiveness. And I had never had much success with sitting meditations, but I’d liked meditation. All this coalesced into a desire to do Tai-Chi. I studied first with a woman in New Jersey, then I went to San Francisco in 1976 and studied with her teacher and another Chinese master, Kuo Lien Ying. Then I returned to New Jersey and began studying with Jou Tsung Hwa.

SUN: How is the I Ching related to Tai-Chi and how do you use the book in your life?

DUNBAR: The I Ching is a very old Chinese classic based on the theory of yin and yang, a description of the way things work in nature. The I Ching’s intent is to be both descriptive and predictive. The idea is the better one can describe nature the better the chance of predicting what nature can do. That’s a scientific idea and this is a manifestation of ancient Chinese science. The I Ching describes the world in terms of the blending of polar opposites — light and dark, moist and dry, cold and hot, male and female — to all of which the Chinese apply the terms “yin” and “yang.” From the blending of these fundamental opposites, in different shades or quantities and in different ways, we get what the Chinese call “the ten thousand things” — every conceivable situation, relationship or thing in the universe. The I Ching teaches that these arrangements of yin and yang are constantly changing, for as yang reaches its limit it turns into yin, and yin also is the root of yang. This a way of symbolizing the spontaneity and mutability of all things. Nothing is fixed. Everything is always flowing, becoming, changing.

By studying the I Ching and becoming more sensitive to the changes of yin and yang that occur in nature, you become more sensitive to the energies within yourself. The practice of Tai-Chi Chuan is one way to gain that sensitivity. For Tai-Chi players, the I Ching is a manual of how to live everyday life. For example, in a martial arts sense, if someone strikes at you, you would read their yin and yang, and mold your energy to theirs. Thus, their yang has no effect and will blend harmoniously with your yin. And their yin becomes a weak point for them because your yang can enter into it. It’s not important to be interested in martial arts to get something out of Tai-Chi or the I Ching because in any situation — losing your job, having a difficult time at work or at school — you can protect yourself from upset and injury if you can blend your yin with the yang of the situation and vice versa. In that way you can preserve your center.

SUN: What is Taoism? What does it have to do with Tai-Chi?

DUNBAR: There are two aspects of Taoism, simplistically speaking: the religion and the philosophy. I have no particular interest in the religion as it evolved in China. But Tai-Chi is the philosophy of Taoism in motion. The ideal state is that of the infant. We all start there and then slip. The baby is very flexible, a little bundle of energy, completely chi (internal or “yin” energy). It has no muscles and yet it’s very strong and open. For Tai-Chi Chuan players the aim is to increase the flexibility, sink the center of breathing so it becomes more like the baby that breathes with its abdomen, to increase the level of chi in the body and decrease dependence on muscles and bones. According to Chinese medical theory, this internal energy as it develops in the body sinks to the bones and softens them so they become more resilient and less able to be broken. You can better withstand shocks to the body when the bones are not brittle. It’s a Taoist idea that anything stiff and brittle and hard is called a companion of death. And that which is soft and pliant and yielding is known as a companion of life. As one becomes more yielding and bending as water or a willow, then one gains in light and energy. The Tao Te Ching, a book of wisdom over 2000 years old, says nothing is softer or weaker than water, yet for overcoming the hard and strong, there is nothing like it. Everyone knows that the weak overcomes the strong, the soft overcomes the hard. Tai-Chi Chuan is a way of putting that knowledge into practice. The aim in learning the first set of movements is to put the body into unaccustomed positions so that the mind can catch up with the body. The mind and body learn Tai-Chi together. That’s one of the standard definitions of Tai-Chi — “body and mind in harmony.”

SUN: You have often said in class that Tai-Chi will work first on what is weakest in the body. How is it able to do this?

DUNBAR: Even at the start Tai-Chi moves energy around the body. In Chinese medical theory, the body’s health is governed by the flow of energy through it. Weak points in the body are seen as blockages in the flow of chi. Tai-Chi initiates the movement of chi around the body. When a river encounters an obstacle, it swells up, exceeds its bank and increases flow at that point. So, for example, if someone has weaker knees than the rest of his or her body, the chi will dam up there. I had that difficulty when I started Tai-Chi. I had dislocated my knees several times so they were very weak. As soon as I practised Tai-Chi with any degree of regularity, I started to feel pain. But I only felt pain when I was not doing Tai-Chi. The knees would swell and heat up as I did Tai-Chi and I believe the joint opened up at those times. When they cooled down after Tai-Chi, I would feel pain because there would be an increased blockage at that point. For about a month that pain was excruciating and then it went away completely. The joint was rebuilt so energy could move through it freely. Tai-Chi can be in some cases a way for people to heal themselves without having to resort to a physician or a therapist. It is great for arthritis because it works on the joints.

I think my happiness and other people’s happiness comes from having energy to do the things you want, which is a form of freedom.

SUN: The idea we have about growing old is that one becomes stiffer and harder.

DUNBAR: Yes. In China Tai-Chi has long been thought a form of exercise ideally suited to older people, and is widely practiced.

SUN: What particular problems do Westerners encounter in practicing Tai-Chi?

DUNBAR: There are two goals of traditional Tai-Chi practice that Americans tend to neglect because our culture is different. The first goal of Tai-Chi is longevity, and although we may be interested in that, we don’t particularly believe that we can extend our lives. But the Chinese over centuries have developed theories and methods for increasing the span of life through energy cultivation, breathing, and movement such as Tai-Chi. There are enough examples to show that these techniques work. But I don’t think many people in this country are into Tai-Chi for the aim of longevity. That involves a much more rigorous discipline than most people are able to put into anything. The other goal of traditional Tai-Chi is Hidden Power, and in this country we’re more interested in overt power — the power of influence, nuclear power, various displays of external, obvious power. The power of Tai-Chi develops through gentleness — through softness. The Chinese technical term for this inner strength is “the needle in the cotton.” Many times in the history of China, the people had to have hidden strength and power because conquerors who swept into China over the centuries would often make weapons illegal. During a particularly troubled period, the Shaolin monks, who had preserved Chinese martial arts in their temple discipline, began teaching the people to defend themselves. Many of the Chinese martial arts developed unorthodox weapons. One example is the staff, originally a stick which peasants used to carry water across their shoulders.

Another problem Westerners bring to the study of Tai-Chi is that we don’t have enough discipline. Most people lack discipline in general. A few people can teach us what discipline is — concert pianists, classical dancers, anyone who takes time to accomplish something. It just doesn’t come right out of nothing. I think Tai-Chi in America, at the moment, is seen more as a form of exercise. People don’t want to spend a great deal of time on their exercise. They want to get it over with. Tai-Chi takes extraordinary discipline and perseverance to gain any degree of mastery, and yet, it’s ideally suited to someone who’s interested in a complete series of exercises to do in a short period of time every day. It’s a Taoist paradox. From my perspective, biased as it is, I have a hard time understanding why most people wouldn’t be attracted to something like Tai-Chi. It’s a fascinating and beautiful way to move the body. It has philosophical components that stimulate the mind. It’s a form of poetry in motion. Thousands of Chinese do it every day in parks. I’m optimistic that in the near future the same thing will happen in America. Tai-Chi is maybe 20 years old in this country. One of these days the sight of many people doing Tai-Chi in open places is going to be as usual as seeing people running down the street in shorts and running shoes.

SUN: You often seem quite happy. Are you? What does happiness mean to you?

DUNBAR: I don’t get caught up in anticipating the future. I tend to be able to let things go fairly easily. I try not to let my emotions get caught on something, a hook. I tend to operate pretty much within the present moment. That is why I appear to be happy — I’m not thinking about anything (laughs).

SUN: Is that a result of Tai-Chi or is that just the way you are?

DUNBAR: Part of it is how I was, part of it is due to feeling healthier as a result of Tai-Chi. I have gained a degree of sensitivity through Tai-Chi. I feel more aware of things and, of all those things I’m aware of, I tend to pick out those that are happier to me.

SUN: When you’re not feeling good, what do you do to get back to that good feeling?

DUNBAR: A lot of people say that when they are unhappy, they also have low energy. That’s a common phrase. I feel happiest when I have energy and when I’m using it. Tai-Chi gives me energy. I have much more energy now than when I didn’t practice Tai-Chi. I think my happiness and other people’s happiness comes from having energy to do the things you want, which is a form of freedom. I’m most happy when I can pour energy into the things that are the most important to me — relationships around me, organizations that are important, ideas and issues that are interesting to me. Teaching makes me happy. I feel one of the ways I use my energy best is in relating to people in teaching situations.

SUN: What has teaching taught you?

DUNBAR: I’m more aware of detail in a group of people. I’ve learned to be more sensitive and have become more intuitive to what people need.

SUN: Who are some of your mentors? From which teachers do you derive inspiration?

DUNBAR: I’m a member of Eckankar and work with a spiritual discipline involved in moving upward in levels of consciousness by listening for inner sound and watching for inner light — the manifestations of the ECK, or spirit. One of the things Eckankar uses to gain greater awareness is being aware of your dreams. I use Tai-Chi as something in my waking life which cultivates my attention in dreaming. That’s one of the ways I’ve applied Tai-Chi Chuan to my spiritual discipline. My primary mentor in Tai-Chi is my teacher Jou Tsung Hwa who practices in New Jersey, and is the author of The Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan, and a forthcoming book on Taoist meditation.

SUN: Is there a difference between your public persona and your private self?

DUNBAR: Yes. I project a happier, more balanced persona in public life, as all of us do. I deal with the difficult part of myself in my private life.

SUN: What are the most difficult parts?

DUNBAR: The difficult parts are giving more love unselfishly, being more thoughtful, channelling less anger and frustration, having more patience and perseverance — in general, disciplining myself to give of my best, to give up the rest.

SUN: Taoism has traditionally expounded poverty as a virtuous way of life, or at least it’s been interpreted that way. What does success mean to you?

DUNBAR: Taoism is a way of seeing opposites together. Sometimes it’s a way of seeing that opposites are the same so the best living, according to ancient Taoists, would be a life that balances tensions. It’s not a life of poverty, but a life of poverty and riches. As a true Taoist I’d like to see my business thriving so that it helps people and it helps me. I’m happy with what this business has been doing here. My initial goal, when I started the Tai-Chi Center in Carrboro, was to be able to make a living at what I wanted to do. That’s probably everyone’s goal. Most people have to sacrifice a part of that. You either do what you want to do or you make a living. The happiest are those who can make a living at what they want to do. I was trying that but am finding that here at this present location it is not possible. But I’m not upset because I’ve grown a great deal since I opened the Center. I’ve learned a lot from those who have played Tai-Chi with me here. Should it not last much longer I’ll be happy with what has been accomplished. I’m certainly a different person because of it. I feel I could spend the rest of my life doing this and that has made me very happy.

SUN: What are your views on death?

DUNBAR: Death is another beginning. I don’t believe in death. I certainly don’t fear death. I believe human beings are composed of a variety of bodies. Each one is an energy manifestation. The Taoists see the vibrations in the physical body as interactions between yin and yang. This creates the illusion of materiality. I see the physical body as being the lowest of several inner bodies or the lowest manifestation of our consciousness. When we die the physical body drops away but the other bodies continue and the consciousness moves up to these other levels. To me death is relatively straightforward and probably a joyous occasion. My consciousness is here to learn and I intend to learn as much as I can from my physical body before I lose it. Tai-Chi is one way in which I am doing that.