A martial art lesson learned

I went to China in the autumn of 2007 to learn, to meet people and to see places and things. I had in mind to train in martial arts and add to the skill level I had reached after nine years of practicing taijiquan. I had been to China once before on a similar quest and I expected I would be exposed to my weak points once again. I also hoped to gain insight into my potential. As it turned out, I glimpsed what I actually already knew, what I had heard or read somewhere along the way. This time I was renewed with a feeling that I could actually put insights into practice. 

In tai chi there is a learning method we use. You progress from visualization to internalization, from initial exposure of an idea to eventual incorporation into everyday practice. The specifics vary, but I think the lesson I sought had something to do with this: What I already knew, but had yet to place into practice (internalize). 

One event represents the lesson. It’s simple and mundane; but isn’t that where so many of our lessons are—hidden in the everyday? It was the last night of a training trip that my teacher, Master George Xu, had organized. We were all going to be together as a group for the final night before returning to our respective countries and homes. There must have been 60 or more individuals in our training group. We arrived late to our hotel after an unexpected all-day bus ride from our training location. Friday rush hour in Shanghai delayed us by hours. The traffic jams challenged even the most patient person. Once we finally filed off the buses the hotel registration process was chaos. There were not enough rooms even though they knew we would be arriving. 

Many of us ended up at another hotel 10 minutes walk away. We paid extra for a luxury suite, but I never figured out what luxury meant because our room looked just like the standard double that we had stayed in all along on our journey. It seemed that names of things were sometimes more important than substance. 

I took two hours to get a room and finally move our baggage up to the 14th floor. I waited with the bags while my companion checked us in. The lobby was cluttered with luggage and people standing and milling around, lined up for room check in. There was barely enough of an aisle for individuals to negotiate among the mounds of luggage.

Across the narrow expressway where I waited stood Eldrid, an amiable woman from Norway, with whom I chatted while we waited for our partners to procure housing for the night.

After a long day some people were frustrated and short-tempered. Some were ill from intestinal disorders (I do not recommend eating the cold duck). Some, like me, contracted upper respiratory inflammation from the heavily polluted air. I felt particularly bad for two women suffering from diarrhea and who still had to wait for a room like the rest of us. They were too ill to be angry.

Right in the middle of all this, Eldrid said in broken English with a happy, smiling face, “I don’t know why anyone should be angry, they are martial artists. Isn’t this just the sort of situation that we train for?”

I stepped over to her side of the aisle to clarify what she said because of her broken English and because I could not hear well over the din. I knew what she meant, because it rang a bell in my mind and reminded me of something I had read in a book by Carlos Castaneda in which he had asked his teacher, a mysterious shaman known as Don Juan Matus, what he meant by the term “discipline.” 

Don Juan’s answer was “Discipline is simply the ability to face the unexpected with serenity within yourself.” To find a serene heart and clear mind where things don’t go as expected.

Eldrid was correct. This is exactly the kind of thing that martial artists prepare for. It was an astute observation on her part. It was also just what I had been subconsciously practicing. She woke me up to the lesson that I had been seeking. Sometimes you are practicing the principles without realizing you are. You have internalized them.

Looking back on that three-week journey I found a number of similar situations in which my patience was challenged. Some in which I reacted with patience and forbearance, other times with frustration and a fretting mind. 

The bubbling spring and your gongfu

In the beginning, you want to develop sensitivity to the bottoms of your feet, or the “Bubbling Spring,” also called “Bubbling Well,” or in Chinese, Yongquan. As you practice over time and develop your gongfu, that feeling that you once had to concentrate so much in order to develop, now results from a more-mature practice.

Gongfu = Effort done over time that creates knowledge and ability.

A highly sensitized bubbling well liberates you from the initial task of focusing attention on that spot and sustaining concentration as you move from, or through, it mindfully.

Once that’s achieved, you can move on and focus on other aspects of practice, such as other parts of the body and the physical mechanics of movement, or the energetic configurations of your movement.

The irony in seeking silence in tai chi practice

Tai chi is getting in touch with your own silence. Your inner place of peace. “Quiet mind,” as the teacher says. Quiet, not inactive, or complacent.

The irony is that the ultimate goal of tai chi is to see beyond one’s self. Not just to look inward and find silence, but to go outside of one’s self from a place of silence within.

You could argue that you must first find silence within in order to hear what’s out there. If so, then maybe the best avenue to silence in the whole being is to look at what nature offers. We could evolve our practice, thus ourselves, as a result of observing nature.

More irony: When we do try to observe nature, we often seem to hold on even more to our habitual self-talk that we are trying to quieten in the first place. Then what do you do?

Practice. Focus your attention on the dantian, for example, and move from there. Gradually extend the movement outward from deep within yourself, utilizing all of your senses, eventually.

We have expectations, not in the sense of demands. We just expect things are such that they fit with our ideas about them.

It’s like taking things for granted without realizing we are. Transparent and invisible. We become vulnerable to outside influences primarily by virtue of not being aware (apparently) that we’re taking something for granted.

I see people do tai chi with this habit, thinking that tai chi is what we think it is. Even though we’ve never done it before. We’re the same way with everything we do, especially involving movement.

To illustrate this difficult-to-grasp idea, you can look at the two aspects of training in tai chi: physical and energetic.

I notice it most when teaching other learners. They take to the physical rapidly, although it’s a little alien at first, because it requires unpracticed effort and memorization. They learn the moves and sequences, which are difficult enough and take time to get familiar and comfortable doing.

But we more readily balk at grasping the energetic basis of movement, which requires us to employ a different skill than we are accustomed to. Energy doesn’t stand still. It fluctuates, pulses with life, and is much more elusive and difficult to put a finger on or hold it back. You have to learn to work with it on its own terms. If you do, you’re rewarded with practically magical results.

One doorway into this skill is to change awareness from rote memorization to the sensation of movement itself. We shift perception and observe how, or of what, we are aware.

With beginning practitioners, I focus on a point in the body at first, such as the dantian—a point of departure, so to speak. We sustain the focus on this point while executing a move.

The first stage is developing energy awareness in tai chi is to simply become aware of qi. This is followed by being aware of it moving, or “flowing,” then realizing that it can be directed with mind intention.

We all use these skills, but it has not been a focus of our attention for most of our lives. We’ve taken it for granted to the point of it losing its effectiveness. With tai chi we realize that it can be redeveloped and we can get more out of it than we had imagined.

Assumptions obscure obvious opportunities. If only we would look more closely. …in tai chi and in the world itself.



A goal in tai chi

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.

Tai Chi movement, qi and yin-yang equilibrium

The word Qi (pronounced “chee”) in Chinese refers to vital energy and is found everywhere in nature. The Chinese refer to Heaven Qi, Earth Qi, and Human Qi. In learning tai chi, when we talk about Qi, we often talk about Yin and Yang— two opposing, but complementary, forces that are seen in endless variations. Taijiquan and Qigong are activities that you could think of as exercises, or methods, for working towards a balance of yin and yang in the relationship between our minds, qi, and bodies. I lead tai chi practice with these relationships in mind.

According to Chinese thought some of us are too yang, some too yin, generally speaking. The movements introduced in practice can help balance out your Qi whether you are too yin or too yang.

You can be both at the same time, as well. Too yang in some aspects and too yin in others. For example, you may be too yang in your Qi and too yin in your physical body. As Yang, Jwing-Ming writes in The Root of Chinese Qigong, “A person who seems to be externally strong and healthy may be weak internally” (p4).

Either case can result in the whole being being weakened. Most of what I teach focuses on both external and internal exercise with mental concentration, or mind practice. You’ve probably heard of mind-body connection. I try to bridge the mind and body with what is often the missing link in rebalancing one’s being—vital energy. I truly believe that the motivation to learn and practice tai chi comes from feeling the need to rebalance your energetic configuration. It’s marvelous that tai chi movement performed with mind intention can result in profound shifts in mental, energetic, and physical equilibrium.

A Basic Tip

The mind, energy and body interact in a sequence of movement. Your attention travels from mind, to energy, to physical in that order. It works this way: You focus attention on a specific point in the body, which invites the energy to go there. You actually feel it. Then the body is invited to move in the way that you intend. So you allow it to move. Over time, you refine this progression to build inner strength and skill.

How this happens is a kind of mystery to me, but it happens. You may not detect the sequence at first as a beginning practitioner, especially the feeling of energy flowing to a place where you direct your attention. You will with practice, but I think everyone is familiar with it very quickly.