Here is an audio clip of me describing the goal of tai chi from my perspective. Comments are welcome on the usefulness of audio clips on this blog. Thanks for listening.
There is a progression to tai chi. First is to relax places where we’re tight (often painful, too). Often it can be described as “clenching.” For most of us that is true. The next step in the progression is to move. Move around and through the tight places with a mindful intention to dissolve the tension. The moves are designed to help you to relax. Moving changes the body.
We use different methods to get that change to happen: loosening, stretching, and single basic exercise. Repetitive, rhythmic, single moves, in which we employ awareness of and intention to the six directions, and then in shapes and patterns. The six directions are up down front back left right and the shapes are circles, figure 8s and spirals.
Begin with circles and visualize with your mind intending to circle inside your abdomen. This location is particularly important in the beginning, but you can move in circles anywhere in your body with the intention.
Moving the abdomen and the hips are key to relaxing and loosening the tightness in the lower back and spine.
This article states that, “Meditation doesn’t have to be stationary.” Welcome to tai chi, people.
George Xu told a story a few times about visiting his aging teacher in hopes of obtaining “secrets” from him. But his teacher never told him anything. Master Xu visited him often hoping for some insight, but his teacher passed away before he ever did. After he died he asked his teacher’s wife what he did when no one was around and she said that he didn’t do anything.
“What do you mean?” Master Xu asked, surprised and distraught. “He didn’t do anything?”
“Just sit there and drink tea all day,” she said.
Although he must have learned a lot from his teacher, Master Xu worried that his teacher would pass away without divulging more of his knowledge . . . . which is what happened. Many old masters have taken much knowledge of Chinese internal martial arts to their final resting places.
Master Xu then told us that he eventually learned that the old master was actually visualizing the moves of the form and other applications in his mind. He wasn’t just sitting and drinking tea all day. He was actively going through his practice in his mind’s eye.
Master Xu tells his story hoping it’s the revelation for us as it was for him and we would see the lesson for our own practice.
Master Xu actually used the word “imagined” instead of visualized, which I see in the context of “imagery.” Susan A. Matthews refers to this as “mental practice.” She instructs the learner to see a move before your body does it. Don’t jump to doing it and sacrifice concentration.
Imagery helps to maintain continuity, which in turn cultivates powerful results. Indeed, research into sports has confirmed the power of imagery in cultivating competitive success. You become more precise in your coordination, your timing is more accurate, you’re stronger, quicker, and you develop power. Memory improves as does your skill at remembering. You can read many articles about this subject by googling, “sport imagery” or “sports visualization.”
Master Xu’s story resonates with me to the degree that I even instruct beginners on the importance of visualization as a powerful tool for learning and remembering things. But I think that few actually understand at first, probably because visualization lacks context with their own experience. Yet, perhaps we are all familiar with visualization, which is so ingrained in habitual mental processes that we no longer give it the attention it deserves when learning new information.
It’s certainly not easy for most of us to do at first. It’s like trying to swim without having learned. Or like trying to drive a truck with a stick shift after seeing it done only once or twice. It’s meditative and takes a little more effort than we are accustomed to. Learning new things keeps us on our toes and stimulates the inherent faculties we have to learn; abilities that, if we don’t use them, will shrivel and be lost.
Every beginner to tai chi is challenged with the very idea of learning itself in order to cultivate a familiarity with the information. Imagery and visualization are tools for learning. Growing adept at them will undoubtedly lead to greater knowledge and ability. Then when you are old and have mastered a great skill, and students come to visit in hopes of learning secrets, you can tell them they already know what it is.
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.
People don’t know what tai chi really is, or could be, or how much more they could know about it and the potential it holds. Narrowing it down to a phrased description I would say tai chi is a whole-being movement art. It is body-mind movement. Even more, it is mind-energy-body movement meditation. It is being.
The body possesses a sentient awareness unique from the brain, which in turn has its own way of interpreting data provided by the senses. A quiet mind allows this to happen. The body is close to the life force. Thought is not essential, yet knowing is possible. The body can be kept alive even if the brain is dead. The body knows when it is sick and when it is well. It doesn’t need the brain to tell it. It has its own way of knowing. This way of knowing, the tai chi practitioner seeks in practice: to know with the body, to think with the heart, to feel your way, rather than have a discussion in the brain about what the body is doing.
Be in wu chi (wuqi) in stillness and in motion. It is the center around which everything moves. It is the beginning and the end of movement where taiji becomes yin and yang. It is that part of us that is aware of everything even while our surface minds have forgotten its existence. It is replicated in the body and the mind, the whole being. It is now and never at once. It extends in all directions, yet is forever shrinking into itself. It is both unconscious and conscious simultaneously. It is timeless, placeless, yet here anyway. It is here, yet not here. It is the Tao and not Tao. It carries you in motion and in stillness. Focus attention on it to not forget it and it will have a life that you give it.
“A mind once expanded with knowledge
cannot return to its former way of thinking.”
I forget where this quote originated. Maybe Albert Einstein. But it applies to taiji. Expanding one’s perception is the core of taiji practice.
It’s not about “thinking” however, which is chatter to one’s self. If anything, taiji is about visualizing new possibilities in movement. This entails perceiving beyond habit and even though taiji is repetitive, its most creative progress comes from dissolving complacency and discovering something new with every repetition.
We are changing our minds and assumptions about an invisible future. Taiji teaches you to be in the present moment, to watch closely the changes in the most recondite corners of your being and to have control over what you do with your whole being: your physical, mental, energetic, spiritual.
You can never go back once you have truly entered new internal landscapes. You look forward to new discoveries with anticipation and joy.