We all want to connect – to be loved, to belong – it is a human need. But how do we do it? How do we learn the skills of connection? It can be especially hard, if we were raised in a culture or family that lacked these skills, didn’t value them, or otherwise failed to share and teach them. Many of us were raised in a culture of shaming and blaming, and have struggled with the many self-destructive behaviors that follow – addiction, pleasing for approval, perfectionism, low self-worth, etc. And nowadays, there are multiple ways to overcome these problems – just look at the success of the self-help and psychology industries.
We have all heard that Taiji (Tai Chi) is for health and balance and is good for older people to practice. When most people think of Taiji they think of the old folks in the park moving slowly in the solitary form.
So what does this have to do with connection?
One could look at it this way: The solo form is preparation. It is preparing the self for connection with another. In the solo form, one practices self-composure – breathing, calming, centering, rooting, feeling, following and directing the flow of energy within one’s own body, while moving in space. Pretty complicated stuff, really – but all things one needs in order to connect with another. In other words, I need to know myself to know another.
So, in addition to the Taiji solo form that most of us are familiar with, there are many partner exercises in the traditional Taiji curriculum –
the 8 flat-disc method drills (1-8),
the four hands study of the square energies of peng, lu, ji, and an, and their various changes,
the moving step explorations,
the da lu study of the diagonal energies of cai, lie, zhou, and kao, and
the culmination of these exercises in the 88-move attack and defend form.
From here, the sky’s the limit, the variations of partner play are infinite. At both the foundation and at the pinnacle of these exercises are the sticking, listening, understanding, and receiving energies. In other words, to do these exercises well you need the energies, and most importantly by practicing these exercises, you develop these energies. It’s a virtuous circle!
It’s a practice of connection. For what is connection with another if not sticking with them, listening to one another, seeking understanding, and being willing to receive the love and friendship we each have to share? Is this not belonging?
Inner Outer Mutually Harmonize (nei wai xiang he)
Taijiquan trains the shen [spirit]. Therefore it is said, ” the shen is the commander and the body serves as the messenger.” If the shen cane be raised, one’s actions will naturally be light and agile. The outer frame is nothing more than: ’empty, full; open, close.’ What is called ‘opening’ refers not only to the opening of hands and feet; the xin yi (heart; mind, will; intent) simultaneously opens. What is called ‘closing’ means, not only the hands and feet close: the xin yi simultaneously closes. To be able to harmonize inner and outer, thus unifying the qi, this must happen perfectly without gaps. [this is one of Yang Chengfu’s Ten Important Points for the Practice of Taijiquan with original commentary, translated and interpreted by Sam Masich].
Often in the more advanced class, I will invite students to name a focus for the evening’s practice. Tonight we heard breath, breath and movement, moving from post to post, and the one I chose for myself for tonight – Harmonize Inner and Outer. After the practice, we reflected on what the form taught us; what we observed or learned from the focus we had chosen. When I ask my practice a question I usually get either a very straight-forward answer that illuminates a whole world, or I get more questions. Tonight, I got more questions. Harmonize? What exactly is meant by this? Clearly it is different from one must follow the other – inner doesn’t follow outer, or vice versa – as in a previous point about upper and lower. No, harmonize implies an equality of aspects. Inner and outer must get along, somehow – and perfectly without gaps, no less!
Perhaps to harmonize is to unify. Doug Wile’s translation in Tai Chi Touchstones: Yang Family Secret Transmissions is ” The Unity of Internal and External.” He translates the previous point not as Upper and Lower Mutually Follow, but as Unity of the Upper and Lower Body. His consistent use of ‘unity’ seems to slide over some important nuance in the different meanings. But, it is nonetheless helpful to me to consider the notion of unifying as part of understanding harmonizing. Like the yin/yang symbol – the ultimate symbol really of harmony of opposites -contained within a unifying circle. The harmony creates unity.
And that is what I am looking for……ultimately. Unity or harmony of head and heart, spirit and body. I’d like to feel that my insides match my outsides; that if I seem cool and collected, kind and thoughtful on the outside, that I truly feel those things on the inside. Similarly, that if I feel disturbed, or upset on the inside, that I can appropriately express those feelings on the outside. Like everything in tai chi, it is more likely a matter of doing less, than doing anything new and special. Just tune in and stop hindering my expression, and also notice that when all is well ‘out there’ go ahead and just let myself enjoy a little easy all is well in here, too.
The middle of next month, I resume my career as a certified public accountant with a regional auditing and accounting firm. I am pretty excited about this.
The thing about coming full circle is that sometimes it can feel like you are right back where you started.
And, well, you are.
And you aren’t.
Life’s journey is through time….so every circle we make is really a spiral. Every circle around the sun makes me one year older, and if I am paying attention it may make me that much wiser, right? That’s why the true pilgrimage, begins when you arrive.
Same holds true for the Taiji curriculum – every time you come back to something you have studied before, you’re actually bringing all your accumulated progress to the new study – so you feel like you’ve come full circle, but you’ve really come full spiral!
And that’s me, today. I’ve come full spiral. Wondering what it will look like, feel like, be like, this time around.
“I want you to teach this stuff, not cause you know anything, but because I want you to learn it.” My teacher lives 5000 miles away and I was blessed to be able to travel and study with her every other month for a few years. But she knew nothing lasts forever – so better make training partners in your hometown, and teach this stuff so you can learn it.
Well, I am happy to say, as I sit and reflect on where we are today, I realize I have indeed made some training partners. Where once there was not, today there is a group of keen taiji players, interested in the principled study of the full traditional Yang style curriculum willing and interested in playing with me. Together we are continuing to grow this art. ( and grateful, too, for our teachers, Jan Parker and Sam Masich)
As Jan also has said, many times: “training partners are gold. ” And I am rich!
There is still much to learn, so I will continue to teach. But today I want to acknowledge: I have training partners in Western Massachusetts.
(Of course, I am always looking for and welcoming more!)
Have you checked out all the health benefits of Tai Chi?
There are studies showing that tai chi improves balance, flexibility, strength and motor coordination….yeah, we knew that….
No wait, there’s more….
Today I read about a study that shows that practicing tai chi makes your brain bigger! Apparently that means less dementia as we age. Geez, what else? Tai chi has been shown to reduce the symptoms of arthritis, fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s disease and I don’t even know what else.
I am interested in what science is discovering about tai chi – and accumulating the evidence to prove the health benefits are ‘real.’ If you are curious to learn more, I am keeping a list at RESEARCH CENTRAL. Check it out.
Meanwhile, I am also just as happy to know that when I practice, I feel better. Glad the science proves it!
“Slow Fitness” means taking a more reflective approach to exercise and fitness; an approach that is mindful of impacts on the body, joints, and muscles, and that incorporates resilience – our ability to ‘bounce back’ from the consequences of old injuries, poor posture, habits of rushing about, multi-tasking and other stresses. It’s about slowing down and becoming more mindful of our basic connection with gravity, with mind, body and spirit, and with each other. [Adapted from SlowLivingSummit.org ]
Jan Parker first told me that these are three of the most debilitating words to any practice. And she was right!
In seven years, I have learned the 108-move solo form three different times from my two taiji teachers. This most recent time was an 8-day intensive with a focus on principles and applications.
Of course, the first time I learned the form, I knew I knew nothing, so I was a sponge. It took me nine months and much practice every day. Everything my teacher said was the first time I’d heard it, considered it, looked at it, or thought about it. Maybe it reminded me of other things I’d learned in other arts, but still it was new. That was great. I loved it. I couldn’t stop practicing, because there was so much new to experience and embody.
The second time I learned the form, three years later, I was, of course, not the same sponge. I was looking for new information, something to add to what I already now knew. (uh oh….there’s that idea that ‘ I know that’ feeling). And what I found is that my teacher was right about “I know that’; there really is nothing like already knowing something to shut down the mind to the possibility of going deeper in one’s understanding of something, or even of really receiving correction. I lost something real important in my practice, some enthusiasm or something. I kept it up, but I had a little too much of the “I know that” mind. This is why the zen masters talk so much about beginner’s mind.
This third time learning the 108…..for whatever reason, I felt much more like a sponge again. And lucky me! I feel like I have a brand new form…from the inside out. There are some moves I will do the same with a different understanding of what I am doing. And there are a few moves that I will practice quite differently from how I ever did before. And in one or two cases, I am correcting a misunderstanding that has actually kept me from moving forward in the practice of my art. So glad, I didn’t know that!
If you are one of my students reading this, I hope you are excited about the new aspects of the 108 practice that I will share with you. And I invite you to notice the power of believing “I know that” to close your mind to the possibility of what is still to discover in another person, in a field of study, or in an art, or even in a form you have learned.
And for me,…. I am inspired again and again to cultivate beginner’s mind every day. (Thanks for the lessons, Sam). Not only in seminar with my teachers, but in my practice, and in my teaching. And everyone else, beware of those three little words: I know that!
“I don’t want to practice, cause I am afraid I don’t know what I am doing, and I don’t want to practice wrong. “
How many times have I heard a new student tell me this?
And I understand the sentiment. I do.
Learning something new, we all want to do it well, we want to get it right.
But in reality, when we are just learning something – how can we practice in anyway other than wrong? And then, by practicing we discover how to learn. We see where our questions are, and where we enjoy the movement, and what part is hard for us. Practice becomes our exploration. And the exploration is the journey. The journey of taij.
It’s like saying I want to live, but I don’t want to make any mistakes, so I won’t start living until I am perfect. Well, none of us would have learned to walk or talk, much less become functioning competent adults in the world.
Same thing with Taiji – you can’t wait until you are good at it to practice it. You have to start where you are.
The only caveat……don’t hurt yourself. Practice, practice wrong, and if it hurts, stop and talk to your teacher to find out what is wrong so you can correct it. And then go back and practice your new learning some more.
I had one of those moments the other day in practice, when my arms and legs just seemed to know what they were doing, and they just did it in the most easy and perfect manner.
And it reminded me of chapter 17 from the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching).
“When the master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists……The master doesn’t talk, she acts. When his work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing, we did it, all by ourselves!’” ( Stephen Mitchell, translator)
The Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) is a guide for both the microcosm and the macrocosm, seeing how it is in heaven and earth, describing principles of governance for political systems, we can see this also applies to human social activity, and even to the activity within each of our own bodies.
Regarding my body’s movement in the taiji form, if I replace ‘master’ with ‘mind’ and ‘people’ with ‘limbs’, this is the feeling I had moving in the form. If the arms and legs could speak, they might’ve said , ”Amazing, we did it, all by ourselves!”
Let the mind reside in dantien
We learn the choreography of the form, so that the deeper taiji lessons can be practiced. One of these deeper lessons involves teaching the heart-mind, the Yi, to govern with less effort, to act and not talk, to reside in stillness, at center. The mind must learn to let the limbs move according to their inherent structure, in accord with the shape and function of the joints, muscles, sinews and tendons of the limbs themselves, without hindrance from the mind’s ideas.
The mind’s job is to lead without leading; wu wei. Wu wei refers to the Daoist notion of ‘doing without doing” or “non-action action” Wu wei refers to the state of being in which our actions are effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. This alignment allows us – without even trying – to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.
In this case, it is natural for the heart-mind to lead the body, and so it must be the organizing force around which the limbs coordinate. The mind must hold the shape of the form, but it must back off, and let the body express the form according to the natural tendencies and structures of the body.
At least that is what it felt like for a moment or two.