Practicing Tai Chi is not just moving through the forms of the tai chi set. It’s not just practicing the other Taoist Arts, foundations or meditation. It’s not just coming together and finding our connections, relaxing and working with one another. Practicing Tai Chi also includes how we interact with people throughout our lives. It is our exchange of energy with the environment. It is respecting the spectrum of yin and yang aspect of all things. It is achieving balance throughout our lives and by balance I mean the appropriate amounts of different things, not equal amounts. Everything to it’s own accord. It is knowing thyself and our particular balance of self to others and self to environment. It’s our personal biz integrating with the biz of those in our lives. Practicing Tai Chi is about continuous and incremental change as we progress along the path in our particular life.
What we are now is not what we were seven years ago. In that time our bones have completely replaced themselves through normal biological processes. We are not what we were a month ago when we had an entirely different liver. We think we are the same as we used to be physically, psychologically and spiritually in the past. We are not and we will not be what we are now in the future. This to is practicing Tai Chi. It is the wisdom of our unique situation as individuals and as conscious beings. In this wisdom we are practicing Tai Chi with the rest of humanity whether they know the tai chi set of movements, Tae Kwon Do, Jeet Kun Do, football, Catholicism, Wicca, Islam, weight lifting, working, retired, schooling or whatever we may do.
Exchanging energy, changing throughout our lives, and practicing the forms and rituals we do is the grand ultimate.
Practicing Tai Chi or any martial arts after an injury is an excellent opportunity to learn or relearn basic principles. I recently sprained my ankle. After a few days of taking it easy on my affected leg, I practiced some forms and was reminded of how important it is to connect with the bubbling springs.
Every time we bend our knees and hips to lower our center of gravity, being grounded in the sole of our foot allows the structure to carry the weight instead of the soft tissues. A small deviation away from balanced structure is felt immediately with an injury somewhere along the chain of pearls connecting our feet with our spinal engine. Moving slowly through the forms also allows us to listen to the rest of our structure as a small change outside of proper alignment can be felt with the injured tissues.
A couple of principles of martial arts apply here:
The fundamentals are always good to practice and relearn.
Listen with all of your senses to ensure alignment and connection.
Be mindful of injury, but do not allow the injury to define you or your movement.
We can learn our form from anyone, even someone who doesn’t practice our form, even from our own injured body.
Good form is the most efficient manner to accomplish the purpose of a performance with a minimum of lost motion and wasted energy.
-Bruce Lee, Tao of Jeet Kune Do
This is true no matter what martial art you practice. Focusing on effective and efficient movement enables us to achieve our end goals in our art forms. It also allows us to understand when poor instruction seeps into our classes or when movements do not work with our particular bodily capabilities and constraints. To understand effectiveness in our form requires us to be aware of the purpose of the individual movements, their function and what is intended in the movement. To understand efficiency is being aware of what it takes to achieve the intent and eliminating the unnecessary. Thus, to practice good form, it is imperative we understand the intent of the form and individual movements.
During the Dan-yu there’s a rhythm of movement to be synchronized with our breathing. When we descend, our bodies draw life in. As we ascend our bodies naturally exhale. This drawing in and letting go is the nature of the up and down in the dan-yu.
The dan-yu is integral to the movements of Tai Chi, Lok Hup and Hsing-I. Finding the dan-yu in the movements and listening to our bodies allows us to find the rhythm of drawing in and letting go. With much practice the movement becomes more natural and timed with our particular body and its unique attributes. Using our entire lung capacity, we may find ourselves timing the set of movements slowly. Focusing on the beat of our hearts and flow of our cardiovascular system, we may find ourselves timing the movements more rapidly. The key is not the timing nor the finding of connections with the various parts of our bodies. No matter how “groovy” it may feel to tune into those things, the key to chi kung is simply to listen to the rhythm and let the movement express what’s needed in any given moment. We must listen to our own timing which changes with our situation, environment, our health and age.
Master Moy Lin-Shin talked often of “up down same time.” In classes we would work on the connections between the outer movements of arms and legs and the inner movements of our spines or for those more adapt at chi kung the movement of energy. In the movements of chi kung, we have the capacity of moving both up and down at the same time. Our outer form may be ascending, but our tailbones are already descending. Our arms may be down in the bottom of the movement while our spine is already going up. This internal timing is the following of the internal rhythms of our bodies and energy. It is the flow of the movements if we can simply let go our conscious selves and listen with all of our thoughts, senses and perceptions. Listening with everything we are stills the unnecessary in our experience and connects us with something more than can be explained with a few words on a blog.
I had a most excellent conversation with a fellow martial artist about balancing our internal and external work. For the last two years, he’s been focused on his job, rebuilding his house after the floods, and dealing with his mother passing away. As he described his focus and use of energy over the last couple years, I got the distinct sense he was putting his life in order externally but not internally. I shared this with him and he agreed. He has practiced both internal and external martial arts and has a good grasp on the intent of both approaches to development.
From a pure practicality perspective, there is no internal or external martial art. We practice both whether we are aware of it or not. We develop in both manners whether we are aware of it or not. Our school or practice may focus on one or the other which helps us understand a cohesive system of development. Of course, maintaining a sole focus on one or the other while exploring the minute details can lead us of the path of balanced development into the proverbial ditch. We can become lost in the nuances and forget the overarching goal. In doing so, we can become obsessed with beating people up and winning in the external forms. We can become lost in letting go of our ego and killing off the external world in our practice of the internal forms. We can lose ourselves in the practice of martial arts, religion and for that matter our careers.
Balance is the key. We have to have compassion for ourselves while developing it for others. We have to not lose site of our own objectives while pursing the objectives of our particular practice. As stated in a Biz of You post from 10Sep15, life is a choice and it’s our responsibility to manage ourselves. The same holds true in our practice of martial arts. External and internal paths are balanced whether we focus on one or the other. Our particular focus is unique to us and it’s up to us to find a school or practice meeting the needs of our personal development.
A Lok Hup instructor once said, “You should be able to stop at any point in the form and be balanced.” This isn’t an easy task. I’ve been working on it for years. The more I work on it, the more stable and grounding the form becomes. It helps me connect with my surroundings more. It’s worth trying, no matter what form you practice. Obviously, if you are doing a flying kick, the instruction is not applicable. For the most part any of the internal martial arts can use this instruction to discover more connectedness.
Constellate this with the idea out of industrial engineering of walking the process. In the quest for continual improvement, a process is walked through. During this, someone sees what the actual work being performed is, asks questions and learns what is happening. This activity is then aimed at reducing waste and inefficiency. Process engineering of this nature is about making every step and movement of product count.
I’ve been living this for some time in my life. I try to optimize my activities so I can squeeze as much life as I can out of the time I have. Recently, my wife made an observation. We get up at the same time. She starts a shower while I go feed the dogs. In recent times, I’ve been able to get back up stairs by the time she starts her shower. One morning she said, “Do you even feed the dogs?” I laughed and shrugged it off, however, thought about it over the next few weeks. The thing is, I optimize my time by expending as little energy as possible so I can have more energy for other things like getting back up stairs in the morning to do a couple martial arts exercises, stretches or writing before I take my shower. The dogs just want their breakfast as soon as possible so my leaning of my tasks helps them and helps myself.
As in business, so in martial arts. If we can use the smallest amount of energy in our movements of the forms, we optimize them. The movements become more simple and easier to remember if you go without practice for a while. Forms become more efficient and thus more powerful. We are told many times by our instructors to keep the form simple or trust the form. Simple form is efficient form and has a greater impact on our ability to use the form for its intended purpose. When we move simply, we relax and enable ourselves to do more with what we have.
This is economy of movement. When we are aware of the energy our movements take, we can more readily take corrections and learn new aspects of the form. We can establish good habits quickly which then become the foundation of more advanced movements using the same form. When we get lost in all the things the form can do, it can quickly disintegrates into something other than what our instructors showed us originally. The key here is to keep it simple, balanced and use as little energy as possible thereby enabling us to use the form to discover more advanced aspects of the forms or deeper elements of ourselves. With enough economy of movement the form itself can take on a stillness of sorts where there is not thought required.
This is one of the experiences of the ancient art forms that can incrementally transform our lives. It occurs when stillness is born from our movements and movement is generated out of our stillness.
I was recently reviewing my notes from Master Moy Lin Shin and a few ideas ring today as much as they struck a chord with me when I first heard them. I’ve strung the ideas I jotted down with other thoughts but maintained the intent nonetheless.
You can actually cultivate your internals and improve your health by cultivating each of the five virtues associated with those internal organs. When we focus on kindness we support our liver like wood supports our houses. Practicing self-sacrifice stokes the fire of our heart. Through propriety we strengthen our lungs like metal reinforces a building. Sharing and learning new wisdom nourishes our kidneys like water brings life to our gardens. And, when we work with trustworthiness, we support our spleens like the earth provides for our lives.
Let the insides direct the movements.
Play tai chi. Coil and uncoil the spine, not too fast as you’ll lose control, and not too slow as you have to keep things going.
Taken together, these ideas for the basis of life long practice. First we must learn the movements for sure, but the movements are but the tip of the Arts. The art form is something we practice day-to-day in our interactions with people and our environment. Over time, our practice helps us connect with what’s deep within us. Once we establish these connections we further our art form by letting our insides direct our movements and interactions. And, most importantly, it is up to us to find the fun in our daily form. When we can play with our internal nature and express that through our movements and interactions, we cultivate the best in ourselves allowing our health, stillness, and connection with life to emerge.
Stillness, health and connection to live emerge as we cultivate ourselves through our daily interactions.
The efficacy of acupuncture another other ancient Chinese systems of health are being evaluated by modern medicine. Some studies show benefits. Others are inconclusive. Whether you believe in the ideas of the Taoist Arts or not, the ideas can help us learn by focusing our attention.
Take for example the idea of chi. Chi is touted as many things including the life force, energy, and spirit. Perhaps it is all of these things, perhaps not. After practicing the internal martial arts for a long time, one can begin to sense the flow of energy. It can feel like a spirit or alive-ness in the body. When practicing push hands and other interactive forms, this sense may be used to affect others.
One particular idea shared with me by a long time acupuncturist and Taoist Arts practitioner helped me understand how to use the idea of chi in my own movements. “Chi follows thought. Focusing thought, focuses chi. When chi accumulates without thought, it stagnates and creates pain.”
What I’ve learned from this is our attention and focus determine our ability to move, relax and achieve any sort of stillness. As I talk about in the bizofyou blog (see post on 13Aug15), our focus is a fire we can use to create the life we envision for ourselves. Our focus is our directed attention, attitude and action. This directed intention is energy. How we use our energy or chi creates joy or suffering. It’s up to us to decide how to use our energy.
This idea of energy can also be related to mechanical, electrical and thermodynamic energy as our bodies have all of these aspects. We can use the sense of physics or physiology to understand this energy no matter what it is called. Whether we believe in the ideas originating centuries ago or not, there is still usefulness in them. The utility of the ideas comes through practice and reflection on how it effects our lives. Those ideas having a positive effect should be shared. Those that do not should simply be let go in order to make room for discovering other ideas old or new.
Yang is clear and Yin is murky; Yang moves and Yin is still. Starting from the root and flowing to the branches, it gives rise to the myriad things. Clarity is the source of murkiness, movement is the foundation of stillness. When people can be constantly clear and still, heave and earth return to their places. . . .
. . .Although it is called attaining the Tao, in reality there is nothing to attain; But in order to transform people, it is called attaining the Tao.
These are some lines from the Taoist scripture of Clarity and Stillness. There’s additional information about how we are entangled in desires, cravings and ideas about banishing them. I’ve found some truth in the words within this particular scripture in my personal studies and experiences.
In the movements of martial arts, stillness arises after a lot of practice. The first time I experienced stillness emerging out of movement is after a day full of tai chi practice at a workshop when I was tired and past the point resistance. I found I hold my body in ways to prevent opening myself to others. After a lot of tai chi I learned to relax in ways unbeknownst to me before. My interactions with people became more authentic and open. Connections were more readily made. I found a stillness I had not known before. I liked it. I spent years chasing the experience attending workshops, learning new forms, giving more of my time, meditating and the like.
Then, life hit and I started a family project. Now practicing the art forms for hours at a time is a luxury. Even so, I retain the stillness within. This leads me to an understanding of sorts. Practice is a vehicle to transform us just like the concept of the Tao. Ultimately there’s nothing to attain. Stillness is something to be uncovered within ourselves. Sharing my experience with others in and out of the Taoist arts has lead me to understand stillness is something under the daily routines, our quest to be a hero or heroine, our religions, our gods and even under the god that rules them all. These things are not paths up a proverbial mountain but to the still point within where everything else dissolves leaving us alone in our our truest experience of reality connected with everyone and everything around us.
Joseph Campbell talked about finding that still point in our minds where things drop away. From this perspective the peak of the mountain is where all the paths up the slopes vanish to reveal our experience in it’s rawest form with no strings attached, no religion, no deities, no sense of ‘other’ committing us to the myriad things. Our movements and wandering in life beget stillness. Out of stillness, all of our movement, interactions and understanding emerges as the forms of our life.
We practice forms to discover stillness. Once found, our cultivation of stillness allows our forms to emerge. Stillness is the root of clarity, movement, transformation and ultimately the Tao.