Taiji and the Tao
Taiji and the Tao – A Way to Enlightenment?
Article by Alan Baker published in Tai Chi Chaun and Oriental Arts Magazine (Tai Chi Union Of Great Britain) - August 2020
The ideas expressed in this article are based on personal interpretations of texts on Taijiquan, Qigong, Daoism, Buddhism and Traditional Chinese Medicine. They are also based on over thirty years of personal experience and study of Taijiquan, Qigong and Tui Na. The final version of this article came about after extensive conversations with my Taiji brother Phil Muil.
In many spiritual philosophies (particularly Daoism and Chan/Zen Buddhism) there is an assumption that over time we all develop an acquired conditioned mind that we recognise as our real self, but in fact obscures our true nature. There is a belief that if we could rid ourselves of this acquired conditioned mind then our true nature, or real mind, would be revealed. This uncontaminated real mind is thought of in Buddhism as the enlightened or ‘luminous mind’. Often people think that the enlightened mind has some special mystical power that transcend human laws of time and space, which it may have, but most disciplines do not focus on this possibility. In Zen Buddhism there is a saying: “The enlightened mind is no more than the ordinary mind”. The luminous mind is likened to the sun hidden behind clouds. It is always there. If we could only disperse the clouds, then the sun would shine through. There is another Zen saying: ‘Before enlightenment there is chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment there is chopping wood and carrying water.’ This implies that the essentials of life go on as usual, you are the same person, but you see things differently. The body still requires sustenance, with respect to Taijiquan we could say the routine must be upheld though the way of practice may have deepened. Unfortunately, escaping from one’s mental conditioning and breaking habits of a lifetime does not come easily, and very few are said to have achieved enlightenment in this lifetime.
Different philosophies present various views or methods on how we might rid ourselves of acquired conditioning and return to this original, or ordinary enlightened mind. Often some type of meditation technique or mindfulness practice is recommended, along with advice on how to gain insight into what one is looking for and what it is that is holding us back. Some advice is not to bother trying too hard, as any attempt to grasp the original mind leads us further away from it. There does seem to be a consensus that the original mind has a quality of expansive awareness and is at one with the Dao. Although we might not be aiming for enlightenment, given the difficulty in knowing what that actually is, we can still recognise mindfulness practice as a means of developing awareness and finding more peace in our lives.
Most meditation or mindfulness training usually begins with attempting to calm and quieten the mind through focus of attention. Known as ‘concentration meditation’, there are techniques which involve focusing the mind, or concentrating, on just one thing (i.e. the breath, sounds, body sensations, a part of the body, a mantra, a crystal/candle and so on). This will generally quieten the mind as it is not possible to concentrate fully on one thing and be thinking about other things at the same time. Some advocate a deliberate cessation of thoughts in concentration meditation, whilst others just allow the mind to quieten by itself as a consequence of the practice. The first method could be likened to cleaning a mirror to remove obscuring dust, and the latter like allowing muddy water to clear by letting it settle in stillness. If one, in a state of quiet absorption on a subject of focus, looks out for thoughts arising they will naturally tend to dissolve, providing one doesn't get caught up in them. Focusing the mind, concentration meditation, is not the end of the process, but it is seen as an essential beginning. One could describe the concentration meditation process as focusing the mind like the beam of a torch, so that it can be used to see clearly and begin the process of cutting through one’s entanglements.
Concentration meditation does not mean losing consciousness or awareness. It means not allowing the mind to flip about unheeded, not cogitating, but staying in a state of focused awareness. Generally, most thinking (lost in thoughts about the past or future) will distract us from the here and now. There is a zen saying that unless the mind is quiet, then seeing is not really seeing, hearing is not really hearing, tasting not really tasting and so on. Quieting the mind can also have a positive effect on the bodies functioning. Western science recognises that when the mind is quiet, the cerebral cortex is inhibited and the self-regulating mechanisms of the body work more efficiently. In yoga there is a state known as sleepless sleep (Yoga Nidra) which suggests, with a quiet mind, the body can rest and repair itself as it does in sleep.
I have often come across students who will say that it is impossible not to think, that thought is self-generating and unbidden. It is true that the mind is always active, it is not true that we have to think (as in having thoughts about things). The conditioned mind may have developed a habit of constantly ruminating on things, and this can have a dissipating effect on one’s vital energy. Though there may be great benefits to calming the mind, it is not easily done, and can require a great deal of practice. To keep complete focus, a steady concentration on the breath or any phenomena, might not be achieved in a lifetime. The mind, it is said, is as difficult to tame as a wild tiger. Keeping a steady focus on one’s Taijiquan or Qigong practice is a good example. I remember a time, after ten years or more of daily practice, where I caught myself thinking about things going on in my life throughout a short taijiquan form. A bit like driving, when at first one by necessity must focus one’s whole attention on the mechanism of driving, but after years of driving one can daydream away and drive at the same time. Drivers, for example, might experience the feeling that they haven’t noticed the last few miles of a journey. Driving becomes automatic and the mind can rest on other things. This tendency of mine toward ‘automatic’ practice was a good thing to have become aware of, and after this remaining present became a vital component of all my training. Even so, and after all these years, I can never get through the whole of a twenty-minute form without my attention wandering and having to refocus again on my practice. I might be paying close attention to an aspect of Chansijin for example, watching and feeling internal spirals, when I suddenly catch myself thinking how I might pass on the experience to my students. Not an unworthy or valueless thought, but one that is taking some of my attention away from the experience itself.
Meditation or mindfulness practice does not necessarily involve the cessation of thoughts. A component of meditation practice is to strengthens one’s awareness of everything that appears in consciousness: thoughts, emotions, urges, physical sensations, and so on. Developing the skill of being aware of it all, without getting caught up in it. When practicing taijiquan we want to keep a deep concentration on the physical body, thoughts may arise, but we redirect our attention back to the sensations of the body. The difficulty in keeping the mind steady can easily be experienced. Have the intention of keeping the focus on your breathing and see what happens. You will probably have a thought pop into your head before too long. Practice helps to quieten the mind by acknowledging when a thought has taken place and then refocusing on the breath, your Taiji form, or whatever it is you are being attentive to. The main thing is not to entertain thoughts and not to get involved in them. A Buddhist allegory imagines the thoughts as mice scurrying around the brain. The part of consciousness that is aware of thoughts is imagined as a cat. When the cat appears (watching thoughts) the mice run away. However, the cat is lazy and not a good mouser and in no time at all it has forgotten its purpose and the mice return. It takes the cat a while to realise that the mice have returned but eventually it notices, and the mice run off. After a good deal of practice, the cat becomes more focused and is very quick to respond to the mice (the thoughts) as soon as they appear.
In Taiji we could say that the initial concentration meditation method is focusing on the sensations of the body. The important thing is to stay focused and not to allow the mind to drift off. In our Taiji practice there is always much more to learn and experience, so there is no real excuse for practicing without attention. Though it is important to focus on the body to develop the many requirements of Taiji practice, ultimately our awareness should also encompass the external world. At first, we might simply focus on relaxing, breathing and posture, but later we must develop an awareness of many other things simultaneously. Being aware of all the various components of Chansijin while executing the form, for example, while at the same time allowing one’s attention to also encompass one’s surroundings. We must not concentrate on only one thing or we will lose our attention on the other things. In Vipassana (Buddhist meditation) there is also an initial focus on bodily sensations, an observation-based exploration to the root of mind and body, which is said to dissolve mental impurity and reveal the ‘luminous’ mind. Not so different perhaps from Taijiquan where, ultimately, we are also seeking to integrate mind and body, form and spirit. The Taiji classics inform us that the spirit should be like a cat ready to pounce on a mouse, or like an eagle seizing a rabbit. This implies a very awake and aware state of mind indeed, one that is fully attentive and engaging all the senses. It would not be possible to be wholly in this state, if one’s attention was caught up in thinking about other things. Often people who find themselves in precarious situations, such as rock climbers, report experiencing states of expanded awareness. To quote Krishamurti: “I do not know if you have ever noticed that when you give total attention there is complete silence. In that attention there is no frontier, there is no centre, as the ‘me’ who is aware or attentive. That attention, that silence, is a state of meditation.” A friend undergoing mindfulness training (a sort of secularised Buddhism) told me he was asked to concentrate on things happening in the present as if one's life depended on it. Another part of the Taiji classics refers to the mind as a General and the muscles as the troops. One wouldn’t want a General in the midst of battle who is disinterested in the troops, wandering off all the time to engage in other pursuits.
Conflicting opinions about meditation are perhaps based upon differing ideas of what meditation actually is. Also, there is a difference between the meditative state (expansive open awareness, fully engaged in the moment) and meditative technique (the preparation of the mind for the development of this awareness). As the Zen Buddhist’s say; ‘don't mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon’. The finger is needed to know where to look for the moon, but if you mistake the finger for the moon itself, you will never know the real moon. This is confusing the means for the end. Some spiritual practices advocate the complete shutting down of the mind’s activity (including sense of self) in order to reach a state of absolute nothingness. Others do not. In fact, some Taoist commentators see such practices as pointless. In Taijiquan we could say that there is an attempt to be at one with the Dao and of allowing the spirit to lead. The highest level of achievement is said to be Shen Ming or ‘divine realisation’, a natural and spontaneous response to all situations. The development of this does not involve shutting down sensory awareness, but rather developing it through increased levels of attention and wakefulness.
To deepen one’s practice then, it is a good idea to develop one’s concentration meditation in stillness, particularly in Zhan Zhuang or Taiji Standing Post. In essence, Taijiquan is meditation in movement, and this aspect should be acknowledged as a vital component, underpinning all of our practice. Though we can use formal exercises to develop awareness, such as Taiji form or Standing Post, as time goes on this will begin to permeate our everyday activities. There is another Zen saying, ‘When drinking tea, just drink tea’. The Taoists advocate meditating in the marketplace, in the hubbub of the city, and this seems to me in perfect accord with the practice of Taijiquan, just as the master would be centred and fully aware in the midst of combat. Minding the mind is a good habit to cultivate in all our daily routines.
Taiji is a profound training which is martial, medicinal and meditative. The consequence of practice is a gradually more developed state of awareness, and the ability to be more attentive to both our internal and external reality. As one commentator put it ‘we must endeavour to be masters of attention and awareness’. Though we might not attain the “luminous” mind, or achieve oneness with the Dao, our practice could be considered to be on the same path toward enlightenment and each step along it brings great benefits.
The Taiji Journey
(Poem by Phil Muil)
The more you relax, the more you integrate.
The more you integrate, the deeper you go.
The deeper you go, the more of yourself you find.
The more of yourself you find, the more of your issues you confront.
The more of your issues you confront, the more truly you become yourself.
The more you truly become yourself, the more internal strength you have.
The more internal strength you have, the more relaxed, integrated and true to yourself you are able to be in adversity.
The greatest adversity is within oneself, so the journey to your true state of being is thus facilitated.