So much to do

So much to keep track of . . . . to juggle in life. In our final days we let go and our struggle is a simple one of life holding on and death overcoming. In meditation we seek awareness and understanding of this struggle. Just to take a single, simple moment to feel being alive is a luxury we resist even if we remember. In meditation we seek silence and stillness while raising awareness. In tai chi we seek the same while in movement. Advanced practitioners might say yes, of course, this is obvious. Why dwell? Because so many of us so much of the time could use reminding.

Quiet the mind and still the heart,
Feel your feet on the ground
And your head top radiate.
One goes first and others follow.

A meaning of “internal”

Different people will define internal in different ways according to their experience. Internal can be described depending on the context and the particular movements you’re engaging. In the context of this post’s topic, I describe it as focusing narrowly on more intricate, or deeper, levels of movement. This practice always leads to the most minute motion deep in your whole being, not just your body. The body is where you point your attention to in the beginning of your practice. But you also have your mind, your “spirit” or “shen,’ and your “Qi,” or energy.

By “internal” I am referring to “life force,” “energy,” Qi, which is what practitioners are trying to connect with. You’re not just learning moves and sets of moves. You’re learning how to feel the energy in any given moment. You’re learning how to be alive in the present moment!

Tai chi practice offers two basic areas of training: learning/memorizing a sequence of moves or form, and cultivating awareness of movement at deeper levels. The first helps to develop the external appearance of movement and the latter develops the internal. Single basic moves allow you to narrow your focus on both in interesting ways. Internal awareness takes more concentration. Not that it needs that much, just that we don’t typically ever focus on that, and require familiarity with it to utilize it more effectively.

At some point, a regular, sincere practice of focusing attention to deeper levels triggers changes in the quality of your movements. Your move may become bigger or more power may come with it. It’s exponential, as in what I’ve heard my teacher, George Xu, say often “minimum effort, maximum results.”

This idea defies what average people usually think. If your long-held thinking has grown static, shallow, and relies on unexamined assumptions you’ll have difficulty picking up on the more intrinsic details of taijiquan. Understanding this boils down to being free in your movement so that you will adjust to the constant flux of the energy of being alive. Let the qi move your body. Let the mind picture the move before you move at all. This might sound deep or even meaningless, but it fits with what I mean.

 

A note on “change” in tai chi

The following text published Nov. 2015 is the most-shared post of more than 2400 posts that readers shared. I thought I would republish it today.

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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.

Taijiquan: Martial Art, Life Art

What is Tai Chi? It manifests in many forms. I was made aware of the following view early on when my progress stagnated. My teacher said (I paraphrase), “Oh, you’re at the ‘wall of resistance’. … That means you’re close to a new plateau of learning.”

Taijiquan is much more than just learning moves. By making the effort to learn tai chi, practitioners cultivate energy to become more adept in the art of life, not just martial arts. The knowledge and clarity they seek in tai chi, they also seek in life.

Achievement in martial arts practice certainly can cultivate a clearer perception of one’s self in, and perhaps even more reverence for, our world and relations. The saying, “know thyself,” takes on real significance as we seek greater clarity in our practice, the direction life takes, and how we cultivate well-being.

It takes a certain quality of effort to accumulate clarity and ability; not just the prerequisite sweat and time put in. You must seek understanding, which comes incrementally until you store enough energy and, suddenly, new knowledge assimilates. Reaching that hallmark of martial arts training—poised at the cusp of reaping new skill, knowledge and understanding—can be a challenge when fears and uncertainties arise.

Each of us has our own particular challenges. I have seen efforts to learn tai chi loosen unwelcome memories of events and experiences from their moorings, exposing sensitivities from out of the subconscious like an anchor heaving up mud from the ocean floor.

Many memories are wonderful, of course, yet occasionally we can become frustrated, angry or elusive in training and in living. But such emotions may actually be reactions to issues buried in the subconscious, lurking just beneath the surface. Some of these manifestations, however harsh and unwelcome, can actually be opportunities when we recognize them as such. By virtue of self-discipline and perseverance in training, we can work through them and eventually step onto new ground, discover new understanding and recognize positive potential.

Two Practices for a Micro-Training Idea

The microcosmic orbit (小周天), or small circuit, is a rather simple and easy breathing exercise for meditation and concentration to cultivate the flow of qi along particular energy paths in the body.

By Paul T Richard

Doing a single basic “quan” on northern California beach.

I used to lead a simplified version of the microcosmic orbit meditation for circulating and filling qi. Also called the small heavenly circulation (小周天, xiao zhou tian), it seemed to help beginners cultivate a calmer physical and more-focused mental state.

The practice entailed guiding the breath and attention up the back (Du Mai-Governing vessel), then down the front side (Ren Mai-Conception vessel). Touching the tongue to the top palate behind the teeth connected the two paths. This direction up the back and down the front is called the “Fire Path.”

We would focus attention on moving from one to the next of eight vessels, or reservoirs, located along the Du and Ren, and fill each with breath and intention before moving to the next. The reservoirs are: dantian (navel area), perineum, sacrum/tailbone, between shoulder blades, back of neck, crown of head, between the eyebrows, solar plexus.

This in-class practice was rather simplified I suppose, but it seemed easier for beginners essentially seeking relief from daily strains. More-detailed discussions can be found in Yang, Jwing-Ming’s in-depth The Root of Chinese Qigong and Ken Cohen’s Way of Qigong, which is less intricate.

My aim in class was to reveal beneficial ways of thinking about how to perform the practice and the resulting feeling.

To this end, for good results, we wanted the sequence for moving up and down the channels to be fluid and free, without care for external concerns. This entails letting go or releasing attained by focusing on the task at hand, listening more closely to your natural self, and letting the activity have its results.

I say this because we might unconsciously hinder circulation of breath and blood, maybe even stop the energy from flowing. Sensations of crumpling, collapsing, or binding up point to resistance, or reluctance, to let go.

These physical results may stem from a mental position, or habitual frame of mind of which we are not cognizant. Often, qi itself may reveal that you’re holding on, or perhaps closing too much; both mentally and physically. An exercise like the microcosmic circuit helps to identify these tendencies, and allow us to replace the weak or immobile qi, and (re)connect body and mind in a reciprocal and balanced relation.

In application, since energetic force (qi) can flow linearly, you can adjust body position to affect its action. For example, as you sit and perform the microcosmic circuit, shift the hips slightly from whatever position you find them in, maybe tilt the pelvis down and forward, maybe up and back, then allow the resulting energetic pulse to rise up the spine as the vertebrae open and flex.

Qi can also fill expansively. For example, when the breath enters the sacrum you can direct that energy to fill, similarly to how the lungs fill with air, causing the sacrum to expand energetically. You may even feel aliveness in the smallest confines of the membrane.

These are subtle, unforced changes initiated in the mind’s eye that have physical results. Any subtle shift in position (postural alignment) could elicit qi to freely go through and you would feel it.

You can arrive at some clarity about the tendency to hold or clench out of unrecognized habit by trying these techniques. I know a few students became increasingly successful with their results by working consistently over time. Practice culminated in a clearer concentration that even spilled over into other activities of life.

Perform microcosmic circulation in sitting position.
“Attention”

I know that some in class came to recognize resistance in their selves from practicing the microcosmic circulation. Fighting against one’s own self is tiring physically and mentally. Sooner or later, you can’t ignore it anymore. But, consciously focusing on breathing in an exercise like the microcosmic circulation not only can reveal resistance, but also reveal the answer to it. Practice can improve the ability to intend useful shifts.

Sometimes our attention oscillates in and out of focus during the meditation. This reminds me of absentmindedly thinking about something or someone while performing some mundane task, such as pulling weeds, taking a walk, reading, or talking to another person.

Then, like waking from a dream, you suddenly realize you had been lost in reverie while your physical body was involved in some activity you barely noticed you were doing. “I don’t seem to realize I’m doing it and yet there I am doing it.”

This kind of waxing and waning of attention initially happens in meditative exercises such as the microcosmic orbit. It is like losing continuity in the flow. Attention breaks, like cutting a taut string, and wavers in and out of levels of awareness. This relates to the concepts of being connected and whole body moves as single unit.

You might discover in your efforts that qi and breath are blocked at the diaphragm. Instructors tell us to breathe “abdominally” during the microcosmic circuit, but the breathe abdominally instruction may be a little misleading.

From my observations, people think that it means to move only the abdomen/stomach. While it is a beginning, the motion should fill all of the lungs (without lifting the shoulders). The diaphragm can harden from constraining the breath to the abdomen, thus blocking air/qi from passing fully into the lungs.

I have just as often heard from high-level teachers to breathe naturally, which for me means to at least breathe freely and fluidly. This is more aligned with diaphragmatic breathing, in contrast to abdominally. The combination of breath with diaphragmatic movement (and abdomen) and breathing can soften the whole structure. Over time with correct practice you incorporate the eight reservoirs in whole-body movement with all the benefits of letting go.

“Single Basic Moves”

We also practiced “single basic moves”—rhythmic, repetitive motions that help to loosen tight spots and strengthen coordination and balance. We found them useful in class to support relaxation and which complemented the microcosmic circulation.

The microcosmic circulation is essentially an action of opening the areas from the inside out. In contrast, single basics affect the stuck areas from the outside in by moving the whole body; not as directly as with breathing and filling the eight reservoirs.

The microcosmic meditation and single basics combine to form an effective, complementary micro-practice through which you can wake up and feel the energy. This then feeds further practice and growth. Plus, these practices carry over into relief from mental and physical positions that are not essential to our well-being.

So, as least for a little while, the intentional act of letting something go (a thought or a physical feeling) is emancipating. The body responds accordingly conscious movement, and becomes more contented and rested. The mind becomes sharper and more satisfied in its ability to function more clearly.

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Dear reader, I give thanks for your continued interest and for those who left us so much knowledge and skill, inspiring me to write this blog. If this information is useful for you, please share your thoughts. For further reading about other basic exercises, see Practicing Tai Chi: Way to Enrich Learning for Beginning and Intermediate Practitioners, 2018, that I wrote for Durango Tai Chi students.