Tai chi and “quiet mind”

People perceive quiet for being still, but this is not the only way to understand “quiet.” Trying to hold still creates “quiet-but-not-moving,” which is only one kind of quiet. It can lead to tension and clenching, pain, poor balance, especially in beginners. That kind of tension can’t be held long.

“Quiet-in-movement” offers an alternative worth exploring. This kind of quiet results from the mind letting the body move according to its own rules. Not just quiet mind, but quiet body. No anticipation, no judgment, no projecting, no hesitating, no forcing.

The mind provides the intention and the body provides the results. Quiet mind means suspending habitual thinking, or internal dialogue. Observe moves quietly, like scanning the distant landscape for wildlife, or the ocean for whales.

Quiet-body-in-motion means getting out of the way of the qi so it can flow through. Something must “let go.” Allow yourself to feel it. It’s as though you are seeing with a part of you that is not your eyes. Your mind’s eye perhaps. The heart perhaps.

 

 


Paul Tim Richard studies and writes about Chinese internal martial arts and produces instructional videos of master practitioners. He also teaches fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong. He lives in Durango, Colorado and likes to travel for study and teaching.

Tai chi and digital living: a yin-yang recipe

Asian girls practicing tai chi in the outdoor park

“As attention spans shrink,” says the digital design and marketing text I just read. It’s referring to the amount of time a mobile-device user spends on a site, which depends upon design, content, authenticity, simplicity, speed, and value. I suppose attention and time have always been entwined, but it seems that in these “times,” time lords over attention more than ever.

“…success comes from giving your audience what they want, and the experience of consuming your content is a huge part of that. We found, for example, when content is too long or load times are slow, consumers look elsewhere,…”

What does this have to do with tai chi? Well, if I gave today’s “audience” what it wants, they may never learn tai chi. Brief attention spans make tai chi more difficult to learn. Both tai chi and qigong are all about attention, and if you don’t give them proper attention you probably won’t incorporate the benefits very well into your life. Giving tai chi attention means giving it time, but not just that.

It may be that we lose sight of the fact that our perception of time constrains attention, which stresses us out. We also don’t catch this happening before it produces negative health effects. Ironically, tai chi is exactly what digital lives need to offset the pressure that we put ourselves under to live in these digital times. Nothing can be more yin-yang than the relationship between technology in our lives and tai chi/qigong.

I believe this relationship is what many of us seek to know and learn about, particularly in response to stress. It’s like we feel something is missing in our human form and it nags us until we look into what it may be.

I also believe that an equal and opposite response to living at the speed of digital time and its demands comes in the form of a natural human desire for quietude and tranquility.  Slowing down and paying attention to what you’re doing in the moment is natural. Just the thing you can get from doing tai chi.

The numbers of millennials seeking authentic mind-body experiences in a virtual world are growing. For example, one of the most consistently read posts on this blog is the one entitled, “What Do Young People Think of Tai Chi?”

It’s “well documented”, according to report from the American Psychology Association’s 2012  Stress In America Study, that millennials currently are living: “more stressed, anxious and depressed than any other living generation.” Since I began training in 1999 I’ve seen the age at which people become interested in tai chi drop. It used to be mid-40s when the body has been undeniably showing evidence of breaking down for a few years. Increasingly, millennials are contacting me about learning.

Young people, as well as people of all ages, indeed are discovering the appeal of tai chi and qigong. Tai chi is more prevalent in society, more is being written about it, more classes are offered all over, and young people are searching for activities that define their lifestyles.

Our health is another huge issue that influences the kind of lives we’re able to live. Many “noncommunicable” diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, are traced back to how we treat our bodies in our younger years. In my experience, it seems we’re getting symptoms of old age while we’re rather young. Posture is where this is evident, but that’s another discussion.

“Because many adult and older-age health problems were rooted in early life experiences and living conditions, ensuring good child health can yield benefits for older people,” according to a National Institute on Aging article.

I can attest to the fact that you’re never too young to start learning tai chi and qigong. I began practice at age 46. However, knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t wait too long. With the cost of healthcare rising outrageously (in the U.S. anyway), it makes so much sense to seek out preventive, health promoting activities—even looking into old fogy stuff like tai chi.

Want to learn more about millennial stress

From APA 2015 report summary: “Younger adults continue to report higher stress, with money and work as the top stressors. On average, Millennials and Gen Xers report higher levels of stress than Boomers and Matures (6.0, 5.8, 4.3 and 3.5 on a 10-point scale, respectively) and have done so since 2012.”

Google “stress in America” to see what you get. I got 1, 360, 000 hits.

The article, “Millennial Mindset: The Worried Well” summarizes a key findings on how important health is to millennials and boomers. Interesting, but brief for the time and attention-challenged among us.


Paul Tim Richard studies and writes about Chinese internal martial arts and produces instructional videos of master practitioners. As instructor at Durango Tai Chi, he teaches fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong. He lives in Durango, Colorado and likes to travel to study and teach.

Five years of blogging about taijiquan

This week marks the fifth year of venturing into blogging about taijiquan and its internal mysteries. My first post on December 5, 2011 is entitled “What is Tai Chi?”. I’m sure I will be trying to answer that question for the rest of my life. I may have wanted to quit at times, but I haven’t yet. Those peculiar dark slumps into the soul pit of delusion don’t last, and I emerge with renewed hope and insight. Now the sixth year of blogging begins.

I’ve struggled, as other bloggers must have, with whether I should blog. I’ve never been quite sure why I do. Some urge to write just happens. Why ask, then? One thing does come through the mind clutter—writing, just as taiji is, is an effort to extend awareness beyond self. Writing about it is a way of claiming the knowledge that I have amassed. Not that I am very knowledgeable, just happy to have overcome enough barriers to claim a semblance of victory over attachment to self. To savor my growth in some little way.

I’ve learned from practicing taiji that one must seek to eschew cliché and conventional thought if one wishes to exceed one’s limitations. That goes for practice, as well as for writing about practice.

I still struggle to craft words, sentences and paragraphs that help clarify my view and help others discover and organize their own views of the mystery of movement arts. In my case, it’s been taijiquan and qigong; but it could also be other forms, such as yoga, dance, and athletics, like running, skiing, swimming, bicycling, and so on.

When you’re at your best, you’re in nearly perfect yin and yang balance, the essential dynamic of taijiquan. Without perceiving these two points of taiji, you’re wouldn’t quite be doing taiji—the supreme ultimate expression of anything. In my mind, the greatest yogi is doing taiji—expressing taiji, manifesting it, giving it form and substance. As is the most masterful practitioner of internal martial arts that originated in China so long ago.

Thank you reader for your gift of attention. I hope to have been useful in your journey. To risk a little cliché— despite the distances, knowing you makes the world a little less lonely.

As I go forward, probably with the usual oscillation of forward-backwards-forwards again, I jot down an informal invocation for inspiration.

In your practice,
you have to be ready
to see something you’ve never seen before,
to do something you’ve never done before,
and to feel something you’ve never felt before.
And not get too surprised or overwhelmed
because of whatever might throw you off course,
and lose the concentration that got you this far.
You have to be ready for what you want.
That’s what you do this for.

Revitalizing after-work blahs with tai chi

Work and job activities may cause energy to stagnate and decay. This negative inertia seems difficult to overcome after sitting long periods at a computer or performing repetitive motions for hours. We’re worn out when we get to tai chi class. We don’t feel like doing what we fear is more depleting work. From within a state of fatigue, we fight a hopeless battle we can’t win. Or so it seems.

This is when it’s time to transcend and transform. Recognize that this dragged-down feeling is not yours to keep. You don’t have to own it. It is not your energy. It is the energy of your workplace, your job and its energy-depleting tasks. You can release it all.

Transcend: seek to revitalize your own energy simply by asking for it.
Transform: practice will take you to a new place in your energetic configuration and a fresh start. Cultivating mental concentration to release negative, decayed energy is the goal of practice. Achieving a fresh revitalizing energy is the result of practice.

When you feel depleted from the stress, you can assume that qi is not flowing. Often, we aren’t even aware it’s not. Plus, we don’t know (or forget) how to move it if we were aware it wasn’t. We are tethered to the forces that cause life force to stagnate. Qi binds up in our bodies.

The joints are the obvious spots where it gets stuck; but the lymph system is another, the brain, the eyes, the

organs, the muscles, and every fraction of flesh, membrane and cells suffer from this.

Here are a few mental concentration-building tips. In leading tai chi and qigong practice, I’ve focused on learning sequences of moves and postures while introducing techniques for developing internal awareness and concentration. Sequence, or “form,” is the what and the internal technique is the how.

shoulder-rolls-demo-crp

Visualize the hips being the feet. In order to feel the hip on the ground, you need to connect the feet, legs, and hips into a single unit in which energy forms a solid, yet agile, changeable mass. I suggest doing shoulder rolls to practice this. The shoulder roll, which I first learned from Master Wang Hao Da, is useful for beginners. This simple move contains many levels of activity. A beginner will only be aware of, and be able to practice, only one or two at a time. You won’t see beyond them to the next level if you don’t practice what you are familiar with now.

Get a primer on shoulder roll by visiting durangotaichi.com and clicking on my new video page.

Or check out my youtube.com channel—Video: Shoulder roll demo with Paul Tim Richard

Tai chi and choosing a path of change

“You want to change the world? Change yourself.” My Chinese martial arts teacher, George Xu, told me that once. Of course, I already knew that, but it’s always good to be reminded. You can’t get enough reminding, especially in the midst of living under the barrage that is this world in this time. Not that I think I can change the world, but I am interested in changing myself.

I’ve read also in a wellness course I’m taking that “all change is self-change.” For me, tai chi and qigong are tools for change. I began my practice for that reason, although it wasn’t foremost in my mind. I was taking a chance that it would help to solve a health problem. It was a desperate act of hope to alter an illness. It’s that way for many practitioners—deciding on tai chi to correct an affliction or to prevent problems in the future.

It’s not always clear how to change or what to change at first, however. We can know such new and unfamiliar modalities, that really are only hearsay at first, only by doing them. We might fear that they won’t work and we will have lost time and money, but we have to trust something, so we engage them, uncertain of the outcomes.

Isn’t that true all the time anyway? You can either trust others or yourself. Doctors, healers, priests, ministers, shamans come and go, and in the end you still have yourself. All these have value if placed correctly, but tai chi and qigong give you the wheel and allow you to do something about your health for yourself. We have in the end, and in the beginning as well, only our own best judgment to go on and act on the hope for fruitful outcomes and solved problems.

Reminder: Know where your central equilibrium is. Move around it, up and down its length. Forward and back. Straight, strong, alive. Flexible, always regenerating.

Tai chi and personal development

I do tai chi to help discover what kind of person I am. Limitations, strengths, talents. How I used to be and am now. Practice may not make it any easier to gain a clearer picture, but it’s a method that carries me down the path. It’s a challenge, but I learn serenity in the face of adversity that helps me withstand the blows I feel upon realizing I haven’t done as well as I could have—out of lack of information, or knowledge, to outright ignorance and laziness. Taking it personally to a point of negligence slows down learning. To tell myself that I’m good at what I do, or that I’m doing well doesn’t make it happen. Only through honest practice does it evolve.

Taiji and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind

I do tai chi as a way to not do other things that disrupt and cause stress. Practice is a meditation through which I may understand the nature of this moving meditation. When I began taiji, I had not yet explored sitting meditation; nor even moving meditation. I viewed taiji as an exercise that I hoped would help me relax, divert my mind away from stressful things and allow my body to heal.

Now, if I want, I can shift the intention of my practice from exercise to meditation and back; that is from physical practice to energy awareness practice, and to some extent spiritual practice. It’s all meditative, however, and as time passes and my practice matures, I ponder on the nature of meditation itself.

For me, many passages in Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind pertain to taiji practice, as well as sitting meditation (zazen). I became interested in reading this classic treatise on Zen practice while at the Sonoma Mountain Zen Center where we have had our annual five-day taijiquan camp for some years now. We meet in September with our teacher Xu Guo Ming (George Xu).

Suzuki Roshi speaks to why I do taiji. He describes what I aim to achieve in practice. One of those aims is to forget the self and merge with the movement and expand it to merge with a greater self that is not me.

For example, he writes “When you do something, you should burn yourself completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself” (p47). The first paragraph of that page is so dense with meaning that I can reread it over and over and always find fresh insight.

“. . . . usually our mind is very busy and complicated, and it is difficult to be concentrated on what we are doing. This is because before we act we think, and this thinking leaves some trace. Our activity is shadowed by some preconceived idea.” This applies in taiji practice, where movement aids in achieving quiet mind.

In “Mistakes in Practice,” he writes that when you become discouraged with your practice “. . . . you should be grateful that you have a sign or warning signal to show you the weak point in your practice” (p57). Similarly in taiji when we are aggravated by something in practice, it is a positive sign that you are becoming aware of your own nature, as well as gaining clarity on the direction practice can go.

Desiring to attain an ideal or goal creates more ideals and goals which in turn “sacrifices the meat of your practice” (p57). It is not possible to achieve rapid, extraordinary progress, he says. Learning is like walking in a fog compared to walking in a rain. You get wet little by little as you walk and practice is like this. But you must practice without seeking goals.

Suzuki Roshi writes: “When you are practicing zazen, do not try to stop your thinking. Let it stop by itself. . . . let it come in, and let it go out. It will not stay long. When you try to stop your thinking, it means you are bothered by it. . . . it is only the waves of your mind . . . . gradually they will become calmer . . . . (p17). We use movement to achieve this in taiji practice.

In taiji, there is a twist to this topic. Many practitioners assume they are achieving their objective, but in reality they only think they are. I find that it helps to study in a group to test yourself to reveal if you are actually doing what you intend or just think you are. I feel this is also good for meditation. Sit or practice with a group or knowledgeable teacher to help cut through the delusion of thought.

“The cause of conflict is some fixed idea or one-sided idea” (p60), Suzuki Roshi writes. This is so in world affairs and in one’s self. Taiji practice is a method of working this way of being out of the self. For me, the movement itself in a meditative mental state produces, or merges with, the intention of clearing the mind and body and energetic configuration for fixation.

These are just a few nuggets of wisdom corresponding to taiji practice found in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. If a taiji practitioner read this book, their practice would surely be imbued with greater awareness and beneficial results.