From ‘Chang San-Feng’ Tai Chi Chuan Classic (translated by Wee Kee Jin)
‘So Err … What is Tai Chi?’
As a tai chi instructor it is not uncommon to find myself being quizzed about the nature of tai chi chuan. I dread the oft-asked question ‘so err … what is tai chi?’. Why do I dread it? Why is it so darned difficult to answer? There are so many preconceptions about tai chi chuan – its weirdo mysticism, its floaty, airy fairy dancing, its breathing exercises, its like yoga but different, its like karate, it’s the Japanese art of sword-play, the art of making oriental cranes out of folded paper, its just relaxation, or you have to be a Chinese pensioner in a park at 6am. Well, it can be many things and some of the preconceptions are more accurate than others but it is essentially about how we are in the world. Trying to be snappy and concise in passing about matters of great existential import is not easy. So I end up saying something like ‘well, it is a martial art but it takes a long time to be effective, it’s a kind of relaxed movement’ and this is about as inadequate an explanation as you can get, so inadequate as to be not really true. It is not inspiring or the kind of thing that gets most people stirred to get out & queue at the nearest tai chi chuan class for years of practice and exploration. Not surprising that people glaze over - I only wish they could somehow get a year or two of practice under their belts in response to their question.
There was something rather poignant about the conversation with the nurse and was hauntingly familiar. Why should someone not see themselves as a tai chi teacher after 4 days training if I, after over a decade of practice, find it so hard to say what tai chi chuan is in a few choice phrases? I felt somewhat to blame for not appearing clearer and therefore defining my ground more effectively. There was familiarity in encountering the view that a subtle path of transformation and discovery can be reduced to a series of add-on techniques that once assimilated lead to knowledge and completion – this misses the point entirely, the point being that the techniques, even if they can be learnt in a few days, are just the beginning and what follows is then practice, practice, practice and more practice to move towards some understanding. This is certainly not just an intellectual understanding: it is experiential and is the process and fruit of a deep-reaching transformation on many levels. This transformation simply cannot happen without practice, there are no short-cuts and the path itself is the goal. This is not usually the contemporary, Western ‘cultured’ but cheapened perspective where we expect almost instant results that are added on to an essentially unchanged self.
I see the issue as a deep one and essentially a schism between world views. For me tai chi chuan is not an add-on to an otherwise relatively normative life to help make things a little more bearable, it is not just another leisure pursuit or hobby, it is not just a clinical intervention to attempt to restore one back to a kind of normality or to make one more efficient. Tai chi chuan is instead a practice, path and perspective through which one gradually opens up to a more grounded, relaxed and insightful experience of life in its fullness. Tai chi chuan is potentially transformative. Yes it does have a martial aspect and does include relaxed movement but that does not capture what tai chi chuan is. Not something I find easy to say in a few gripping sentences. To have a go, I can put it more briefly but not necessarily more satisfactorily:
Tai chi chuan shares in experiential and enlightening processes involving subtle and sensitive bodywork and reflection in a martial and enlightened context through which we may more deeply & progressively understand our human condition.
Now, may be I’m wrong but I fear not snappy enough for a passing conversation!
May be it is so difficult to talk about tai chi or other similarly subtle work since its intrinsic qualities run counter to our modern worship of the gods of superficial impressions, speed/efficiency and swift result-orientation. We tend to want results but without real change and we tend to not really want to put the work in to realise that change. What can we do?
We live in a nexus of relationships with each other, our environment and even ourselves. We have an experience of being an individual in this moving and inexplicable nexus. This idea of individuality called ‘self’ has an aspect we may call an ‘inner life’, and we relate to a world that we perceive as being outside of us. We experience desire to have more of what we need and enjoy, we experience aversion to that which we find painful and we fear having what we identify with taken away from us or fear being impinged upon by what we imagine will be harmful to us in some way.
Through awareness and love we have glimpses of life without this clinging to ‘self’ that seems to exist in separation from others, and we open to the flux of life with its wonderful interconnectedness with all phenomena. With this openness we relax the urgency of our self-centredness with its limited desires, aversions and fears. The most important word here is ‘relax’.
Speaking in more poetic terms for expediency, we can imagine ourselves as an organism consisting in concentric inter-connecting sheaths or bodies of ‘energy’ (I don’t like this word ‘energy’ as it seems so ungrounded but I struggle for a better term and ask that you stay with it as a poetic image) that becomes more refined, transitory & diffuse as one travels further from the centre ie. physical body at the centre, emotional body, thought body, spiritual/etheric body as we move away from the centre. But this model is too static and crude as the bodies also are non-separate and not fixed – each body is just a congregation of energies around a certain ‘wavelength’. Energy by nature moves and energetic changes mainly associated with one ‘body’ will have implications for other ‘bodies’, as we are talking about an energetic organism functioning on a spectrum of inter-relating wavelengths. The labels of ‘physical’, ‘emotional’, ‘thought’, ‘spiritual/etheric’ are also not to be to be taken too literally, they are labels indicating what may be identified experientially as broad categories and approximations of more subtle experiences.
These bodies are far from distinct and are actually intimately related, being aspects of the same ‘energetic’ phenomenon. For examples, experientially, we can directly experience the emotional body through the sensations of the physical body (one’s heart can ache with emotion); the thought body is in intimate relationship to the emotional body (our thoughts like the ever shifting waves of the deep ocean of our emotional being), each one influencing the other; the spiritual/etheric body illuminating the clarity and quality of the emotional and thought bodies; physical posture and qualities of the physical body can inform the quality of the other bodies and vice versa (for example, opening up a stooped posture can have an immediate and dramatic brightening influence on a darkened mood). Some aspects of the body are more transitory than others – our bones and teeth change slowly, the immune system can change within milliseconds. Emotionally some patternings are deep-seated and change can be glacial, some patternings are superficial and may change more quickly; like the ocean, more superficial currents may be aspects of far deeper, more essential currents. Thoughts can be deep and slow or mercurial. An energetic shift in the spiritual body can change everything.
Life Unfolds through Bodywork
If we wish to move from a state of darkness, a habit-driven reactivity to a more aware, open and loving creative way of being then there are many ways to engage, and even need to engage, on many different fronts during the course of our lives. One such way of engaging is conscious body-work in an enlightening context.
Tai chi chuan is one such modality of body-work. Tai chi chuan requires refined awareness of changes in the physical body and how these changes relate to each other, is rigorous in its attention to details of timing and alignment and requires a rigorous practice of consciously letting go of unnecessary tensions in as much of the musculature as possible. In the martial context tai chi chuan involves partner work and sensitivity of the partner with an understanding of the forces involved. It is in relation to working with others that our instincts to grasp, push away and close down through fear are brought to light to be transformed. This latter aspect brings us into relationship with the emotional, or even instinctive, body. Through understanding, practice and insight we start to relax physically, emotionally and energetically setting up the conditions for openness to the spiritual/etheric body. How this openness manifests will be determined by our views and personality, and will be concerned with a refinement and clarification of our thought body so that understanding may not come from physical practice alone whether single-form or partner work: we also need to have some conceptual grasp of what’s going on. Tai chi chuan has behind it a traditional and sophisticated Chinese world-view.
Speaking Personally …
Here’s an example from my own life and practice:
My father died several years ago. I loved my father and had a positive relationship with him, although, like most of us, there are some darker emotional corners in relation to both of my parents (although not enough to stop me grieving). Losing a parent, for most of us, is a major life experience since the relationships with our parents are typically primal and formative. However everyday life has its demands and I found it hard to make the time and space to let the necessary processes take their course, some things got put on hold until the time was right for further unfoldment. If we can get out of the way, this unfoldment leads naturally to wisdom and to love. Without really being aware of it I was left carrying an emotional burden as a result of an incomplete unfoldment and I was unconsciously waiting to put it down. This burden had a weight, for me this was a heaviness of heart and mood, and difficulty in letting go, relaxing and being playful; at times I would experience this as a physical heaviness in the chest and upper back. I carried some anger towards him and, again, this would stop me from settling, I feared becoming as he was, as I didn’t like aspects of his character; this led me to be often restless and pushy, manifesting tendencies to take refuge in achievement and always moving on rather than opening to the reality of just whatever was present.
Who knows how these unresolved issues may have manifested physically and otherwise in ways that I was not aware of? Who knows how many illnesses as a population may have contributing factors in the burdens we carry from incomplete processes of unfoldment following life experience? It is received wisdom in the West now that repressed emotions can be associated with underlying, and perhaps unconscious, stress patterns, that stress in turn is an underlying cause of many serious chronic health conditions. As well as potential physical maladies, perhaps we also close ourselves off from spiritual fruits of the unfoldment of experience, closed off a genuine opening of the heart.
Over the years there have been times when practising tai chi chuan that I have found myself coming into some relationship with the more subtle physical aspects of these unresolved issues in relation to my father such as chronic heaviness and tension in the chest and upper back. These encounters unfolded experientially to a coming into relationship with some of the emotional aspects of these same issues. These encounters, whilst not always comfortable, have allowed me to move through the anger, aversion, fear, disappointment, hurt, love, gratitude (sometimes in this order, but not always). Reflection naturally arose and the thought body moved. In turn I found myself progressively relieved of the burden and feel a greater sense of resolution so that I can be present with the loss of one of the most important people in my life, I can appreciate him more, learn from some of his mistakes and cherish what remains. I appreciate more deeply that loss is part of the substance of life. Perhaps there is further to go with this but I am not going looking for it or looking to fabricate anything: whatever needs to arise will do so when the conditions are ready.
The Dzogchen tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism speaks of the ‘Self-Liberation through Seeing with Naked Awareness’. In this context it is the energy locked up in habitual emotional patterns that is liberated through bringing ordinary but vivid, kindly and sustained awareness to our inner lives. The liberation of mental/emotional energies naturally unfolds to a felt wisdom of interconnectedness and kindness as our habitual clinging and defensiveness starts to open up to more expansive ways of being. Meditation allows us this space but all too often, over the years, meditation can become a merely mental or abstract practice that happens within the confines of a certain habitual psychic bandwidth or furrow we have worked at over the years. What is needed is a real living relationship and integration of awareness with bodily felt sensations that provide a real grounding in what is happening right here and right now. In the context of a reflective awareness or mindfulness practice subtle bodywork such as tai chi chuan can give us this grounding. Body awareness helps to keep it real.
“… Sink the qi to the dantien”
From ‘Wang Ts’ung-Yueh’ Tai Chi Chuan Classic (translated by Wee Kee Jin)
The Classics remind us of the enlightening context of tai chi chuan. Instructions include ‘sink the qi to the dantien’. Speaking briefly and from my own understanding, qi corresponds to the energetic aspect of our experience of vitality, the dantien is associated with the lower abdomen. Body awareness motivates the qi, through an awareness of the lower abdomen the qi is allowed to sink to the dantien. Unresolved emotional issues can hinder us from a relaxed and full awareness of the lower abdomen. Resolution of emotional issues facilitates the dropping into a more full, integrated and comfortable emotional experience. The emotional aspect of allowing the qi to sink to the dantien is that the emotions become more conscious, integrated, grounded but also refined. My experience of this is that, to the extent that the qi is allowed to sink to the dantien, I live from a still, substantial place at the core of my being, experientially that core is focused around my lower abdomen, I’m less blown around by events and others emotions – it’s a good feeling. The processes of unfoldment are associated with allowing the qi to sink to the dantien.
I see the example of unfoldment I describe above as not simply catharsis or release of pent-up emotions but an instance of making conscious, integrating, grounding, refining and so resolving carried-over emotional burdens following the death of my father. This took time and conscious bodywork within a reflective framework that facilitated this unfoldment. I believe I am a healthier and more integrated individual having moved through this process and perhaps, by degrees, a little wiser. May be all this would have happened anyway without tai chi chuan after all I have had a seated formal meditation practice for nearly 20 years. I’ll never really know but I believe that body-based tai chi chuan practice set up the conditions for the awareness, relaxation and space that made this possible at that time. No doubt there is further unfoldment and deepening to take place, only time will tell.
Just Scratching the Surface
This personal example illustrates how tai chi chuan has helped me to live with life more intimately. I see this more intimate experience as being non-separate from spiritual ‘insight’, perhaps it is a precursor to it. Perhaps this was an example of the natural process of the waves of life experience moving through the physical body, emotional body, thought body and touching the spiritual body which in turn illuminated and healed the energetic organism moving it towards wholeness.
Of ‘so err … what is tai chi’, I’ve spoken from a personal perspective and there is so much more that could be said by others and from a more objective point of view. I have hardly said anything since tai chi practice gives so much more – a sense of grace, physical relaxation, health and well-being, peace of mind/heart, friendships, some serious challenge and even adventure. It is the opening to a more intimate experience of life that so far is one of the most valuable and enduring aspects I have experienced. I am not saying that tai chi chuan is the only route to such places for all of us on all occasions, but may be for some of us some of the time.
Perhaps if we paused more to listen to the songs of the soul we would be in less of a hurry to achieve superficial results and we may experience real positive change in self-liberation through seeing with naked awareness. Instead of just scratching the surface and moving on, I say let us take our time and listen, after all we might learn something.
London, February 2010.