From Chapter 54 of Tao Te Ching (Lao-tzu)
Jamie Magnusson, Ph.D.,
Associate Professor of Adult Education & Community Development
OISE, University of Toronto
I am a professor in the Adult Education and Community Development graduate program at the University of Toronto, teaching in a stream we refer to as “Community Development and Social Justice”. Since I began teaching there in 2012, I have worked with three communities in downtown Toronto. One is the LGBT community. Another includes street-involved women who are sex workers. The third are youth who have been exploited in the domestic sex industry. There are significant overlaps among these various communities. For example, trans youth are often beaten and kicked out of their homes. They learn to make a life on the streets, often being exploited in the sex industry where they experience even more violence. You might say I’m involved in anti-violence and harm-reduction community work.
My grass roots work makes me passionate to learn about how urban poverty is organized and reproduced, and how we can create communities differently. I am thought of as a Marxist feminist, but at the same time that I engage Marxism, I try to interrupt my own blindspots. A Dene Indigenous scholar named Glen Coulthard has taught me through his writings how to engage the best parts of Marxism and also to interrogate its Eurocentric history.
I also learned many lessons about decolonizing Marxism from feminist scholar Roxana Ng, my ‘older sister’ who is now passed on, and who was a student of Shifu Andy James at the Tai Chi & Meditation Centre. I was fortunate to be able to work first-hand with Roxana, and learn from her day-to-day when she was my friend and mentor within the Adult Education program. I was her power of attorney for personal care when she became ill, and I was with her in her last days. Time and again, from a deep sleep she would open her eyes and reorient herself to the palliative care hospital room. When we would ask her where she had just been, she told us that she had just been in a lovely park with many butterflies, practicing tai chi. I think she passed away practicing tai chi.
Roxana could claim many ‘firsts’ in her career. She was the first woman of colour and anti-racist scholar hired at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto. She experienced death threats because of her anti-racist, feminist pedagogy. She worked with racialized immigrant women exploited in Ontario’s system of ‘home based’ sweat shops. Among the many “firsts” in her career, she had the courage to introduce the first graduate course on Qigong and Embodied Learning to the Adult Education and Community Development program at OISE. I use the term “courage” because Roxana took much heat as a renowned Marxist feminist for what many within the Marxist communities would interpret as ‘perverting’ Marxism – or at the very least side-tracking ‘the revolution’. The groundwork for the course was learned through the Tai Chi & Meditation Centre, and Roxana would apply the teachings to Adult Education pedagogies of wellness. Herself a Chinese immigrant, she considered the course a ‘decolonizing’ pedagogy.
Roxana, working with the Tai Chi & Meditation Centre, and Indigenous scholars, understood that devaluing and destroying organically evolved and sophisticated knowledges through colonization was never going to lead to the kind of global transformations inspiring social relations that were mutually nurturing and sustainable: materially and spiritually. A dominant perspective in Marxism is that Indigenous societies must first move through capitalism before transitioning into communism. The idea of ‘sacred’ communal life of Indigenous societies is viewed as backward and was actually labeled “primitive communism” by Marx. This perspective only motivated further theft of Indigenous lands and Indigenous genocide in the name of ‘socialism’. Indigenous scholars argue that this perspective is just another Eurocentrism, and that their societies represent highly sophisticated social forms rich in pedagogies of non-exploitive, respectful co-existence with the natural world. The idea of ‘sacred’ enfolds ecologically sustainable, earth-based communal practices of mutual respect. These embodied practices are at once relational and personal, spiritual and material. Qigong, steeped in shamanic traditions, is but one example of such sacred practices.
For Roxana, the distinction between ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ represented just another dialectic: a site to be explored for the contradictions emerging from socially and historically produced binaries. However, Roxana, a committed practitioner of qigong and Vipassana meditation, would contemplate this dialectic through yin-yang theory and the teachings of the Buddha. The material and the spiritual, in constant movement, create each other, and are in fact mutually and fundamentally interconnected and impermanent: “ … if it is of the nature of arising, it has within itself the nature, the germ, of its cessation, its destruction.” (pp. 42, Rahula, 1959). She saw no contradiction between her work as a Marxist feminist, and her qigong and meditation practice.
The Tai Chi & Meditation Centre, Roxana, and Indigenous social movements have taught me that reimagining communities has to involve recentering spiritual wisdoms and relational earth based practices. These are part of what Shifu Andy refers to as Ageless Wisdom Spirituality in his book of that title. Shifu Andy is himself a graduate of the London School of Economics, having grown up part of his life in ‘the colonies’, namely Guyana. For sure, we have to address the critical question of capitalist property relations, but state-based communism as an ideal is mired in its own contradictions from which emerge violences. I won’t point to historical examples, but we can readily see that these are many. The colonizing process has cultivated an arrogant attitude of treating ageless wisdoms as inferior and backward, including within Eurocentric Marxism. Spiritual genocide in the name of socialism is a heartbreaking and soul-crushing contradiction. It’s time for a kind of resurgence of community practices that emerge from ageless wisdoms and their pedagogies of sacred, relational, communal balance. Harmony.
My Introduction to the Tai Chi & Meditation Centre
In 2014 I reached a time in my life when it was important to commit myself fully to internal martials arts and meditation. By this time, I had been training in the external, hard martial arts for over 20 years. I knew that when I reprioritized my commitments, it would be a ‘game changer’ for me: metaphorically trading in the punching bag for a meditation cushion. I was a little rough around the edges, for sure. I still am.
I also knew for several years prior to this time that when I made this commitment, I would study with Shifu Andy James and Shifu Donna Oliver at the Tai Chi & Meditation Centre. They had a stellar reputation in the community, and I had attended some of their tai chi demonstrations and also a weekend qigong workshop taught by Shifu Donna and Sheila Furness at Harmony Dawn. (Roxana Ng took me, and told me I wasn’t allowed alcohol and cigarettes that weekend. I went anyway.) I also have the benefit of learning from all the students at the centre, including Dondrub Wangchuk who I consider like a brother who also teaches and practices with me. And many other people who keep me solid in my practice.
At the time of writing this, I am two years into my practice. It has in fact been a game changer, but in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.
I have completed the Medical Qigong certificate program with Shifu Donna and continue to attend qigong classes. I am on a life-long journey and happy to have people with decades of experience to guide me. I attend the weekly sessions of vipassana meditation with Shifu Andy, and have participated in longer retreats at Harmony Dawn – which, by the way, is the coolest off-the-grid mind-body retreat centre and is run by Nicola Lawrence-James along with Shifu. I am working my way through a reading list on qigong, meditation, and philosophy. And I’m studying tai chi, baguazhang, xingichuan, and push hands.
This is amazing for me. I’m not the most ‘aesthetically pleasing’ performer of these arts. But I remember that when I walked into my first weekly tai chi class with Shifu Donna, I had very little mobility because of arthritis in both hips and in my lower back. The years of hard training and daily running on pavement had had its toll. I had almost ceased moving. Now I’m working out almost every day, and my range of motion is improving by leaps and bounds.
In 2016, I was invited to become an instructor-in-training at the centre. I was, and still am, very honoured and thrilled.
Integrating the Teachings into My University Work
During the time I was training with the folks at the Tai Chi & Meditation Centre our program at OISE was faced with the question: “What should we do about Roxana’s course on Qigong and Embodied Learning”? When I asked if I should offer it, I was told that the program really needs me to be teaching “Critical Theory”, which is basically a course on Marxism. So I agreed, and went on sabbatical for six months. I came back prepared to teach Critical Theory.
However, upon arriving back at OISE, I found to my surprise that the courses were entered incorrectly and I was listed to teach Qigong and Embodied Learning! When I went to correct the error, I discovered that the course was over-enrolled with enthusiastic students. I was advised to teach the Qigong course, and not the Critical Theory course. I taught the Qigong and Embodied Learning course, but integrated critical theory, as Roxana had done.
The course has been over-enrolled the two times I have taught it, and there is much demand to continue course offerings into the future. Young people are looking for paradigms of non-exploitive, mutually respectful existence to blend into their community work. They are looking to Idle-No-More, the Landless Peasant Movements in India (e.g., Ekta Parishad), Black Lives Matter, the Indigenous resurgence in the Landless Worker Movement in South America, and building international solidarity from Turtle Island to Palestine. They want models of community wellness that provide ‘embodied experiences’ of anti-violence practices that work -- not just ‘abstract critical theories’. Many of the students come from colonized contexts and wish to draw upon their own cultural practices of ageless wisdom for community development within their diasporic communities in Toronto.
I have retitled the course “Embodied Learning and Alternative Models of Community Wellness” with “Qigong and Embodied Learning” as the short title. In it students learn and practice qigong and mindfulness. They learn how to integrate these practices, and other creative embodied arts, into programs for community development.
Shifu Andy’s text “Ageless Wisdom Spirituality” is on the course syllabus. I was thrilled that he accepted an invitation to come to class to practice qigong and mindfulness meditation with the students. The students loved this interaction! They were able to have an informal discussion with the ‘author-practitioner’ whose text addresses ‘the poverty gap’, ‘the healthy planet’, and ‘the cost of free market morality’. These are all topics of utmost importance to community development and anti-oppression work.
In Rahula’s text on ‘What the Buddha Taught’, he emphasizes that the Buddha did not take life out of its social and economic context (pp. 81). The Buddha knew that certain minimal material conditions were essential to lay the social groundwork for cultivating a noble spiritual life. He acknowledged the connection between violence and poverty, and advocated anti-poverty and anti-violence. Monks of the order of Sangha did not hold personal property, but were allowed to own communal property (IBID, see footnote 1, page 81). In this way the Buddha encouraged cultivating a culture founded on material social relations that fostered vipassana meditation.
Rahula writes that the word ‘meditation’ “is a very poor substitute for the original term bhavana, which means ‘culture’ or ‘development’” (pp. 68). In his discourse on “Setting-Up of Mindfulness”, the Buddha taught that the ways of meditation are not cut-off from life, but are integrally connected with “our daily activities, our sorrows and joys, our words and thoughts, our moral and intellectual occupations” (pp. 69). Meditation, in this sense, is not just a sitting ritual. It is a relational practice embedded within cultures that we build, and that in turn support us and nurture our spiritual understanding and insight.
My scholarly writing examines gendered and racialized urban poverty and militarized violence within ever growing mega-cities such as Toronto. Speculative real estate in the urban context requires the production of unsafe spaces within the city in order to accumulate through the enclosure and commodification of gentrified spaces. Late capitalism as a historical formation is characterized by the ‘speculative economy’. The speculative economy, or what Marx called capital in its ‘money form’, or ‘financial capital’, has spawned a tumor of deregulated trading, shadow banking, shadow governance, and has achieved global integration of the illegal with the legal economy. In terms of spatial politics, it encourages violent expulsions of poor people from what is considered prime real estate, and produces mass migrations, homelessness, social crises, and environmental chaos.
I was gob-smacked when I recently picked up the ancient text “Tao Te Ching” attributed to Lao-Tzu (551-479 B.C.E.). Verse 53 reads:
When rich speculators prosper
while farmers lose their land;
when government officials spend money
on weapons instead of cures;
when the upper class is extravagant and irresponsible
while the poor have nowhere to turn –
all this is robbery and chaos.
It is not in keeping with the Tao.
(Stephen Mitchell, translator)
In this verse Lao-Tzu succinctly and eloquently outlines the most pressing crises of militarized late capitalism. I cannot help but to pay attention. I find that over time I am increasingly able to integrate my practice with the Tai Chi & Meditation Centre with all aspects of my life: family relationships, community activism, and professional work. I experience this integration as coming into myself by becoming more genuine. I am beginning to create space to let Tao be present.
Coulthard, G.S. (2014). Red skin white masks: Rejecting the colonial politics of recognition. Minneapolis/London: Minnesota Press.
James, A. (2003). Ageless wisdom spirituality: Investing in human evolution. Xlibris Publishing.
Lau-Tzu (1988). Tao te ching. Translated by Stephen Mitchell. Broadway New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Rahula, W. (1959). What the Buddha taught. New York: Grove Press