– by Ian Sinclair
It is sometimes said that the only thing that is real is that which does not change. Yet so much of human experience is measured by what is destined to change. We are creatures of illusion, clinging to that which has no inherent reality, and unable to accept the unchanging reality that defines the true nature of our existence.
This past weekend was a truly special time for me and my family. My wife and I had been given tickets for the 50th Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario. We attended with our 11 month-old daughter and most of our extended family. A few years ago I had decided that I was unlikely to get married or have any children of my own. Now, much to my joy and surprise, I am 44 years old with a wife, a baby, and a remarkable extended family. It is amazing how quickly and thoroughly things can change in such a short time.
Approximately 25, 000 people came to a park on the shore of Lake Couchiching to celebrate folk music and much of what goes along with it. There were old hippies, young hippies, yuppies, clergy, punks, and anarchists, who all came together as folk music fans for a time. One could see in the faces and fashions of the crowd the huge cultural changes that the world has been through since 1960.
The festival celebrated a half century of musical genius and social change, and produced almost no garbage. The audience was diverse and mostly sober, yet united and joyful.
The festival also produced some beautiful moments. One which stands out most for me is the moment when Ian Tyson, nearing the end of his set on Sunday evening, began to sing what he is reported to have said is the first song he ever wrote.
As soon as the first notes of “Four Strong Winds” sounded on the guitar, the audience sighed and applauded. It is, after all, a brilliant piece of work, and a bit of an anthem for Canadians. But the truly special moment occurred when Sylvia Tyson, who had previously finished a brilliant one-hour set of her own, accepted Ian’s invitation to join him on stage to sing the song with him.
Now I don’t know what water is under the bridge for this couple. I have heard that they haven’t performed on stage together since 1986, and only performed once aside from that since their divorce in 1975. But I do know that their version of “Four Strong Winds” is the definitive version for me and most Canadians, with Neil Young’s version somewhere back in second place. I’m told that Neil Young once called this song the best song he ever heard.
The bittersweet music and tender harmonies created by Ian and Sylvia cannot, in my mind, be matched by any other duo. And this still holds true. To hear Sylvia’s voice (which I think has only improved with age) join with Ian’s, sent shivers up my spine and moved many in the crowd, including the M.C. (CBC’s Sheila Rogers) to tears. My wife was on the far side of the crowd when the song began. But less than half way through she had made her way through the throng and joined me in embracing the moment.
The music and harmonies match the lyrics, which haunt me now as much as they ever did. As a teacher of martial arts and meditation, and as a man, the lines speak to the most pure and fundamental longings of the heart, mind and spirit. The lyrics may also, in a possibly abstract way, say something about the relationship between two brilliant musicians like Ian and Sylvia.
Tai chi philosophy teaches us about balance, harmony, power, and the relationship between yin and yang. It explains that everything in the phenomenal universe is an expression of mutually dependant and constantly changing opposites.
“Four Strong Winds” speaks to me about the change which is apparently inevitable and the longing for that which does not change.
In the course of our lives, we are often confronted by both inevitability and impermanence, and we can easily become attached to either. The desire for permanence and the aversion to attachment are often confused or in conflict with each other. Too often, we find ourselves longing for that which is bound to change. By the same token, we often find ourselves reluctant to connect to that which does not change.
The search for happiness is often bound to our need to have faith in something that will always remain the same. When we misplace that faith, or mistakenly identify our own personality, ego, or circumstances with the unchanging reality, we set ourselves up for the inevitable fall.
One of the goals of tai chi, of meditation and of martial arts, is to be able to see the difference between changing things which have no real permanent existence in the first place, from that which does not change.
Tai chi is all about change. We seek the ability to change as an adaptive response to the pressures of the world. Tai chi is also a gateway to the understanding of our true nature. The study of the changes and interaction between yin and yang can lead us to an understanding of that mysterious state where yin and yang combine. This “non-duality” where opposites become indistinguishable and longing is irrelevant, is called Wuji.
Wuji is a state which cannot be defined in words. It can only be experienced. The closest that many will come to it is when they completely lose themselves in the pure and unconditional love for another. Some are able to transcend the normal limitations of the experience and can live their whole lives with this state of mind.
They will have achieved “emptiness” and “stillness in motion” and be “one with the universe.”
It is a state that is known to saints, healers, and the truly great martial arts masters. Perhaps it is also understood in one way or another by certain musicians. Or, maybe the struggle to understand it can lead a musician to write a Zen Koan, put it to music, and create a work of art that transforms hearts and minds in subtle ways that no one can truly understand.
I wish I could thank them in person. Ian Tyson and Sylvia Tyson shared something very beautiful and profound with us at a very special time in our lives. I am truly grateful for it.