Tai chi is … finding your own inner silence

Tai chi is a practice at getting in touch with your own silence. Your inner place of peace where you’re surrounded by sound-proof walls and the external world is held at bay.

I was reminded by this when I discovered this article at Thrive Global: “The One Thing Your Brain Needs to Think Clearly.”

You must shut off something within yourself to go there. When you do all, the pressures of the daily world lose their significance, at least for a while. You can focus more on your interests.

Of course, there are many other ways to cozy up to inner silence, such as sitting in meditation and mindful breathing. I just happen to like tai chi a whole lot.

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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.

Tai chi and a Buddhist notion

Impermanence more than implies motion . . . . through time and space, through body, sensations, mind and phenomena, encountered in our particularized journeys. Our shared journey.

Tai chi practice and teaching is a sacred trust, because I have chosen to depend upon this methodology for attaining better health and awareness, and perhaps, enlightenment. I suppose that enlightenment can take place on many levels and in many degrees of life without actually trying. Maybe at some point there is a great, final awakening; but until then it’s small, incremental ones. Unfortunately, for most of us, they are so small that we don’t notice them. Perhaps that is not so unfortunate.

The tai chi rain dance

I live in a narrow valley isolated from neighbors and traffic. Its steep slopes on either side block my view of sunrises and sunsets, but also protect me from unsolicited intrusions. Drought has become common for several years. This land would flourish if it received twice the rain it has had over recent years. But El Nino apparently has brought more precipitation for some months now. Not too much and somewhat regularly. This spring’s rainfall shows it would take little to green the place up with more verdant growth. The rain dances must have worked. I know I’ve been calling the rain in my own way. Tai chi. It’s like a dance. Your partner is nature. Your senses are your instruments. They touch feel hear taste smell and see the wind and light. Shadows and the sun’s glare. The far and the close. Big and small. Hard and soft. Very powerful stuff. I hardly know what to do with all the extra energy. It often arrives in bursts, making it even trickier to steer. My response lately has been to keep moving. Go to the moves for guidance along with an intention of sharpening the senses to discern new insights in practice.

Tai Chi as sitting meditation

Tai chi is often thought of as a moving meditation performed standing and walking, but you can do it sitting, too. By meditation, I mean focusing attention on a specific point and/or activity with single-minded concentration. You’ll be “active” in either case as a result of your brain’s “mental activity”. This is a form of mindfulness practice.

A practitioner can easily sit quietly and “practice” tai chi form by visualizing moving through the postures and transitions. Well, maybe it’s not easy for a beginning practitioner, but it is kind of fun. Plus, it’s good for the brain and probably helps to improve memory, or the activate areas of the brain that affect our ability to remember things during the learning process (cerebral cortex and sub-cortical parts, such as basal ganglia).

As far as the brain is concerned, the results would be much the same as if you were standing and doing the moves. For a long time, studies have continually recorded evidence that the brain registers the mental imagery same as it does the action itself (sample article).

Tai chi and qigong movement are known to improve many physical and mental functions. For example, your bones, joints, ligaments and tendons benefit from their regenerative movement and relaxation. Balance and injurious falls in the elderly have been the most commonly researched topics full of positive findings, although that’s changing fast. Research is spanning out into brain, cardiac, body mechanics, and several other fields of study.

Another common benefit is improved blood circulation which delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the body’s cells. Just by breathing deliberately in specific ways, such as abdominal breathing, whole-body breathing or reverse breathing, you can activate energizing results. This is much like mindfulness breathing encountered in Buddhist meditation practice. In the case of tai chi, you’re standing and moving.

Could you produce these effects merely by sitting and visualizing them? Why can’t I produce better circulation if I can imagine it? I’m not a researcher in the formal sense, but I’ve gained insights from direct experience. My body and mental attitude have changed after years of consistent, regular practice of employing conscious use of “mind intention” to move—intending a movement before actually performing it. This is a key to advanced tai chi practice. It’s calms me down, too, in response to hectic living and its resulting stress levels in the body. Anyone and everyone already practices mind intention at some, subconscious level, since it’s a very human ability; but how many of actually deliberately practice it?

Simply visualizing doing tai chi form in your mind’s eye as if you were literally moving through the postures and transitions with your whole body is a practice of mind intention.

The more you do it the more powerful results it can produce. A couple come to mind. Improved memorization of movement and better overall memory function in the brain. Tai chi beginners have to memorize the sequence of postures and transitions of form, mostly from rote practice. But most are not going to stop what they’re doing and practice form, or find a specific time and place to practice during the day.

So, I recommend to learners to “practice” tai chi visualization, wherever they may be (office, driving, cashier line, waiting for movie to start, bored, lying down to sleep). Take a few moments to run through each move of the form in their mind’s eye. So when they do stand up and move through the sequence they’ll guess less, hesitate less, and their movement will be more connected and graceful—not to mention the health benefits they’ll be cultivating.

Another pretty obvious benefit is this kind of mental practice can enhance the brain’s memory functions. Your ability to remember anything is enhanced, which is great for overall mental well-being and overall brain function. I’ve even found it useful to visualize the parts of the brain in order to intend better function, such as memory. Check out the work of Richard Davidson (investigatinghealthyminds.org) and Clifford Saron’s research on the science of contemplation (http://mindbrain.ucdavis.edu/).

Maybe, just maybe, we can improve memory function by tapping into some unknown potential hidden somewhere in our bodies and brains. And maybe the practice of tai chi and mind intention can help to shake loose that potential from its moorings and bring it to where we can harness its power for better well-being overall.

Paul Tim Richard studies, teaches and writes about tai chi. His school’s mission is to make tai chi and qigong accessible and affordable to more people everywhere.

Tai chi is like sweeping a dusty floor

Doing tai chi is like sweeping a dusty floor. You don’t want to miss any spots.

A note on “change” in tai chi

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In taiji (tai chi) practice, I’ve heard people say: “change the mind, change the body” which has a catchy sound. Sometimes, I’ve heard the opposite: “change the body, change the mind.” I don’t think it’s one or the other, rather both have relevance at different times. Sometimes it’s one and sometimes it’s the other. Knowing when may help in your taiji practice.

You can approach taiji practice by changing your mind first or by changing your body first. What does change mean? In taiji movement it means changing from one state of being to another. From stillness to movement, movement to stillness, or being quite when moving and being active when still (think about that for a while). It can be changing from one direction to another, from a posture to a transition to stepping forward or backward. Or it can be changing from one stance to another. Many types of changes are available to the practitioner. Movement and change make up the core of taiji.

The beginner usually, by force of habit, emphasizes physical aspects of movement. Specifically, we move by flexing muscle. Mental focus is always a key part, of course, but mostly not the main intent. The mind is only a tool for directing muscle movement. It may not be so obvious at first, but with practice and patience mind intention becomes the main focus of your taiji activity.

Most of the time when I shift my mind’s eye to move in a manner specific to taiji—a sequence or a pattern—the body responds easily. This relates to the progression of mind-energy-body, or “yi-qi-sing li,” as I’ve heard my teacher, George Xu, say. In yi-qi-li progression, mind creates intention, energy flows, and the body follows. In more practical terms, you focus your attention on a locus in the body and the qi flows there on its own, then the body moves effortlessly with intention thus set.

This may not be the case in a beginner’s taiji practice. We may have tension in our bodies that we’re not aware we have. We unconsciously clench and hold back, which hinders free-flowing movement. Taiji practice is partly a process of discovering these tight spots and changing that state of being. Move deliberately, without deliberation; with continuity, not hesitation; with smooth, rounded movement, not sharp, sudden changes. Achieving these is the activity of learning taiji.

We often are not sure of ourselves at first, so taiji is a practice in learning to feel familiar and comfortable with the movements. At first, it’s often rote memorization. Your muscles, bones, joints, ligaments and tendons are introduced to new movements. Later, maybe not very long, you discover that your body remembers differently from how your brain remembers. I wouldn’t call it “muscle memory” exactly. You might even relate it to the saying that “you never forget how to ride a bike.” In the case with taiji, your body is the bike and it retains the memory of taiji movement. It’s cumulative over time.

At more-seasoned levels, I would say that it’s a change in feelings and awareness. Obvious, right? Maybe. Maybe not. At first, the effort to merely memorize moves and sequences makes eloquent movement elusive. Free flowing, graceful movement imbued with intention is the supreme ultimate expression of movement. Only through regular, consistent practice will you achieve it. More for some, less for others, but required of all.

When I feel good physically, I usually also feel good mentally. When I feel bad mentally, my physical body is fatigued—weary, shut down. Opening the chest, for example, takes immense effort because my emotions are squeezing the ribs and fascia shut. When this happens I really have to try hard to open the body up, but when I do my mind opens with it.

Changing the mind is very much an exercise in sharpening your awareness. We all developed habits of movement through life. Those habits become invisible to us. We have “internalized” that habit. Ironically, in taiji we seek to internalize new movement, which produces great benefits. New movement has healing power. It generates healing energy, or qi, that flows though the body and even beyond it like a cleansing force, like running water through a cup or vessel to wash out the dirt.

Next time you practice taiji you might like to try these concepts: change the body, change the mind, or change the mind, change the body.

Editorial Specialist, Paul Tim Richard, MA, studies, teaches and blogs about fundamental principles of taijiquan and qigong as he understands them. He also produces and edits instructional videos of master practitioners.