The ideas expressed in this article are based on personal interpretations of ancient texts on Taijiquan, eastern spiritual philosophy and with some understanding of Traditional Chinese Medicine. They are based on over thirty years of experience and study.
In many spiritual philosophies (particularly Taoism and Zen Buddhism) there is an assumption that over time we 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 would be revealed. The uncontaminated real mind is the enlightened mind, or Buddha mind. In Zen Buddhism there is a saying that “the enlightened mind is no more than the ordinary mind”. Different philosophies present various views on how we might rid ourselves of acquired conditioning and return to this original ordinary-enlightened mind. Often some type of meditation technique 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 at all, as attempting to find the original mind leads us further away from it. Perhaps, unless one has actually managed to return to the original mind, there is little that one can say about what being enlightened is actually like. Even those who are believed to have obtained the ultimate realisation cannot easily describe it. There does seem to be a general consensus that the original mind is more expansively aware and generally more at one with the universe than the acquired conditioned one. Although we might not be aiming for complete enlightenment we can still use Taiji as a means of developing awareness and finding more peace in our lives.
Emptying the mind
Most spiritual philosophies that advocate the practice of meditation usually start with attempting to clear and focus the mind through concentration of attention. Actually known as concentration meditation, the technique involves focusing the mind on just one thing (i.e. the breath, sounds, a part of the body, a mantra, a crystal/candle etc). Doing this will generally quiet the mind as it is not possible to be completely focused and think about other things at the same time. Some schools of meditation advocate a deliberate cessation of thoughts whilst others just allow the thoughts to clear by themselves. If one watches thoughts arising they tend to dissolve providing one doesn't get caught up in them. The first method could be likened to polishing a mirror to clear obscuring dust, and the latter like allowing muddy water to clear by allowing it to settle in stillness. Ceasing thinking does not mean losing consciousness or awareness. It means not dwelling on things, not cogitating, but staying in a state of open awareness. Generally, thinking (having thoughts) 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. Thinking can also have an 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 that suggests that with a quiet mind the body can rest and repair itself as it does in sleep. It is not true that we have to think, in terms of having thoughts, however not thinking is not something that comes easily and it does require practice. It is also possible to observe the mind working and gain insights into ones nature. This type of practice (insight meditation) does involve thinking. However, one would still need to practice concentration meditation in order to focus the mind. This has been described by Buddhists as like focusing the beam of a torch until it is like a laser that can cut through one's illusions.
The difficulty in not having thoughts can easily be demonstrated. Just have the intention of having no thoughts and see what happens. Unless you’re a seasoned practitioner you will probably have a thought pop into your head before too long. Concentration meditation helps to subdue thinking and usually advocates acknowledging when a thought has taken place and then refocusing on the breath or whatever it is you should be focusing on. The main thing is not to entertain thoughts and not to get involved in them. A Buddhist technique I practice suggests seeing the thoughts as mice scurrying around the brain. The part of one that is aware of the thoughts is considered as a cat. The cat is woken up and given the instruction to get rid of the mice. As soon as one does this thoughts will generally cease as the mice run away. However, at first the cat is lazy 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 wakes up again and the mice run off. After a good deal of practice the cat becomes more focused and is very quick to pounce on the mice (the thoughts) as soon as they appear. In time the cat tracks down the mouse hole, the origin of thoughts. Waiting at the mouse hole the cat can stop the mice from ever coming out and before long the mice move out. In other words a thought cannot come into the mind without being noticed. One is then left with the problem of getting rid of the cat. The cat has served it's purpose.
In Taiji we could say that the initial concentration meditation method is to concentrate on the sensations of the body. Some might focus on the Tan Tien, or perhaps the breath, relaxing, or just bodily sensations generally. As time goes on though we need to be aware of many things simultaneously. The important thing is to stay focused and not to allow the mind to drift off. In fact it is when we have learnt to do the form automatically that we are in the greatest danger of doing this, just as we can daydream away when we are used to driving. Fortunately in Tai Chi there is always much more to do, 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.
The idea that meditation would involve all mental activity (including sensory awareness, internal feeling, mental imagery, etc as well as thinking) being left behind is obviously not the case with Taiji practice. The classics tell us that the spirit should be like a cat ready to pounce on a mouse, like an eagle hunting a rabbit. This implies a very awake and aware state indeed, and one that is fully engaging the senses. It would not be possible to be in this state though if one were thinking about things that have happened in the past or may happen in the future.
Often people who find themselves in precarious situations, such as rock climbers, report experiencing states of expanded awareness. There is they say literally no time to think. To quote j. 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.
The conflicting opinions about meditation are perhaps based upon differing ideas of what meditation actually is. 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). There is a possibility of confusing the means for the end. Also some spiritual practices do advocate the complete shutting down of the minds 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 there is perhaps an ultimate requirement to be at one with the Tao, and of allowing the spirit to lead, but the development of this is specific to Taiji practice and obviously does not involve shutting down sensory awareness. For most of us on the Taiji journey the lofty aims of enlightenment, satori and so on, are put on the back burner as we struggle to develop our sensory awareness through increased levels of attention and wakefulness.
Awareness and Qi
There appear to be wide ranging opinions regarding the nature of Qi and its importance in the practice of Taijiquan. Some would argue that there is no such thing as Qi as it is not scientifically verifiable. This can also be the case in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and qigong. In acupuncture, for example, there are theories concerning the stimulation of nerves and the release of chemicals under the skin, which seek to offer a more scientific rationale for the way in which needling can effect health. At the other extreme there are practitioners of qigong who talk about Qi as a tangible and undeniable energy that can be manipulated by adepts to heal the sick, move objects, fight people, start fires along with other incredible feats.
Within the field of Taijiquan I have met, and heard of, instructors that give no importance to the concept of Qi and do not see it as helpful in teaching the discipline. These teachers can often be scathing towards those that do. This stance might be taken by those who see no practical use for talking about Qi when it comes to correct use of the body, push hands or the ability to defend oneself. I have come across others however who take the view that one cannot reach the essence of Taijiquan without referring to the nurturing of Qi. This view is held by some of the most senior and respected figures in the Taiji world. Many that hold this view may be more concerned with nurturing health but others state that ones push hands and fighting ability would be compromised by not understanding the role of Qi.
However, as is often the case in the world of Taijiquan, what appear to be contrary points of view can turn out to be just differing perspectives. It may be that we need to clarify what is meant by nurturing or moving Qi in Taijiquan. I would like to offer a point of view that I hope might be acceptable to all parties.
Having hopefully made a case for Taijiquan developing awareness and wakefulness, through its own specialised meditative technique, I would like to discuss another branch of developing this awareness, other than for martial purposes or spiritual enlightenment. That is the cultivation, guidance and leading of Qi in the body. In traditional Chinese Medicine it is stated that where the mind/attention goes the Qi goes. The idea of energy manifesting at the point of attention is not at odds with western science. If we put our awareness, or attention, in any part of the body there will be increased activity in that area. If you put your attention in your palms you will quite quickly feel more sensation in them. This is the same with any other part of the body, but some people, who are not used to being attentive to their bodies, may not feel all that much. A link, a feedback loop, is made via the nervous system with the brain and the area in question. There will be increased activity (energy/Qi) in that area which is measurable. One will find increased blood flow and nervous/electrical energy. This may be sensed as tingling or heat. This stimulation may also cause the release of chemicals into the bloodstream, particularly when focusing on areas with cells known to have this function. The key point here is that focusing attention or awareness can be felt in a tangible way. If you concentrate on any part of your body you should, if nothing else, feel an increased presence of that area. Some parts of the body have less nerve endings and are therefore more difficult to sense. This is especially the case when attempting to feel internally.
Try spending a little time focusing the attention at different points along the arm. Start with the hands, then move up to the wrists, fore arms, elbows, upper arms, shoulders. Keep the attention on each part until you feel a strong presence of that part (increased sensation). Now work back down the arm part by part. Repeat this process a few times. Notice how much fuller the arms feel.
That was a simple exercise for beginners who may not be used to sensing the body in a focused way. This will inevitably be due to an inability to focus the mind. As one becomes more practiced at focusing the mind and more attentive, one can guide/lead the awareness more easily and one can very quickly feel increased sensation in any parts of the body visited before moving on. We can also begin to focus and feel increased sensation in more than one place at the same time. One can then start to move the awareness fluidly through the body (try with the arm first). As the awareness moves fluidly so does the sensation. It feels like something (energy/Qi) is moving through the body. Whether or not one wants to call it Qi, or just think of it as sensations accompanying awareness, doesn’t really matter. The feeling and outcome is the same. I was wondering if this way of looking at Qi could be used as one explanation for the line in the classics; ‘In stillness it fuses, in motion it separates’. When motionless the attention/awareness can be passive and in all parts of the body at the same time in a uniformed manner (or in just one part of the body, such as the Tan Tien). When we move in Taiji the awareness must by necessity move around the body as it leads and follows the movement. The awareness moves in Taijiquan from the centre to the peripheries and from the feet to the hands. It follows the inward and outward spiralling of the limbs. The awareness is extremely agile and can be trained to follow/lead in myriad ways. When we watch one of these routes of movement unfold we can feel increased sensation at each part of the body as the awareness flows through it. Following the model of Traditional Chinese Medicine we could say that the Qi is being led through the body (so that it can then dredge and clear the meridians). To be continuously attentive to all the various internal spirals involved in Taiji movement is in itself demanding and a type of meditative practice. There is no room for thought.
Though we can use formal exercises to develop awareness, such as Taiji or Wuji standing, it is also possible to practice meditative techniques whilst engaged in everyday pursuits. Try practicing cessation of thoughts, through total attention, when driving for example. I noticed a profound difference when I first tried this. Usually, when driving, my mind is full of thoughts, from problem solving to fantasies. I would quite often be listening to the radio. When I ceased thinking (the mice taking longer to show themselves by then) I discovered that I was driving through the most incredibly beautiful countryside. It was a route I’d often travelled but I’d apparently not been taking much notice of my surroundings before then. 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.
Taiji therefore can be thought of as a type of meditation practice, and this practice involves the quieting of the mind and I would suggest, due to the attention required, the cessation of thoughts. Over time we are led through various levels of concentration meditation culminating in, hopefully, a more all encompassing level of awareness (ultimately the use of spirit rather than mind). The consequence of practice is a gradually more developed state of awareness and the ability to be more attentive to both the internal and external reality. As one commentator has put it ‘we must strive to be masters of attention and awareness’.