Jim Lauderdale on Tai Chi and Learning How to Listen
A scene from Jim Lauderdale's video for "Listen," filmed in Australia's Blue Mountains. (Photo by Jess Gleeson)
Between his own shows, recording sessions, and collaborations with countless other people, Jim Lauderdale is a busy guy. But every day he makes time to step away from it all — preferably outside, but anywhere quiet will do — to turn his focus inward through his practice of tai chi.
Often summed up as “meditation in motion,” tai chi is a centuries-old practice that originated in China, promoting focus and relaxation through certain postures and slow movements.
Lauderdale had always been vaguely interested in the practice, he says, but a chance encounter when he was in his 30s and living in Los Angeles set him upon the path of making it a passion.
“I just happened to go into a newsstand and I saw this tai chi magazine,” he recalls. “I was thumbing through and I noticed that weekend they were having a workshop in Oregon, and so I decided to go.”
At that workshop he met a master named George Xu who would become one of his early teachers. Xu had brought with him a 70-year-old grandmaster named Ma Hong.
“I was so impressed by his strength and agility,” Lauderdale says. “He was much stronger than I was. I thought, ‘Wow, this is what I want to aspire to as the years go by. I want to be like that.’”
Three decades later, Lauderdale has stayed passionate about his tai chi practice (as well as the practice of xin yi, another internal-based martial art), and has worked with many teachers, in many styles, on multiple continents.
In terms of fitness — important to any health-minded traveling musician whose life involves often quick switches between long hours on the road and then a high level of energy and focus onstage — “I find that in tai chi and xin yi, it covers all the bases,” Lauderdale says. That includes an element of cardio from faster-moving xin yi and “internal strength,” as he terms it, from tai chi. As research has backed up, such practices are good for both the body and the mind.
“You’re in a relaxed state physically and mentally,” says Lauderdale, who tries to spend anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half on his practice each day. “When I’m on the road, I still make it part of my daily routine. It’s great to be outdoors to do it, but sometimes that’s just not possible due to weather or your circumstances. It’s a great way to start the day and a great way to end the night.”
It’s also a great way to focus your mind, which has helped shape Lauderdale’s worldview over the years. His song “Listen,” in particular, from his new album From Another World, out this Friday on Yep Roc Records, reflects what he’s learned from tai chi about staying quiet and staying open to the energy of the world and the people around you. And it reflects how he himself has changed over the years, with age, with wisdom, and maybe with a little something more:
You think you know everything,
but you don’t know lots of things.
I know ’cause one time I was just like you.
In a video for the song, produced by Jeremy Dylan, Lauderdale’s lyrics play as he reaches and swoops to his own internal rhythm, sometimes alone and sometimes along with fellow tai chi practitioners, whose movements provide a sort of visual harmony all their own. The chorus echoes advice Lauderdale has given himself in recent years:
Listen, listen, listen,
Try not to talk for a while.
Listen, listen, listen,
Even though that’s really not your style.
“Everybody benefits from listening to other people,” he says. “As the years go by, I find that people really do like to talk. And they want to express themselves, to get something out. And I feel like I’ve talked plenty in my life, and so it’s interesting to me to just let other people go and run with things. I learn a lot.”
The song, which he wrote a couple years ago with country songwriter and producer Buddy Cannon, feels especially timely now.
“In current events, we see people that seem to have that attitude like they know everything,” Lauderdale says, “and they actually might not.”
In addition to calming his mind and strengthening his body, tai chi has made Lauderdale a better listener. There’s a practice, sort of a drill with a partner, he explains, called “push hands.” “You’re pushing the other person, and they’re pushing you, it’s kind of this back-and-forth circular motion from your waist and from your feet and your shoulders. You go in different circles or figure 8s or whatever. One of the goals is to move that person off of their balance. So you have to get your center developed more and more, but you have to develop a sensitivity … to listen to their body and to sense where their center is, where the tension is they’re carrying, and kind of almost being able to lead what they’re going to do movement-wise or energy-wise.”
Even amid a busy schedule, Lauderdale has kept his tai chi practice very active, and is always learning new styles with new teachers all over the world. His aim is “just to stay healthy and keep improving in my practice,” which in turn, he recognizes, gives him the energy and stamina to continue recording and touring.
“I feel like these last several months, even, I’m learning things that I’d never learned and getting to a different place,” Lauderdale says. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be a master of it. I’ll probably always be a student.”
And as with any dutiful student, listening will surely continue to be a key to his success.