Softness and continuity are the essence of T’ai Chi Chih. It is the soft water that wears away the hard rock; the tongue outlasts the teeth. Hardness and confrontation are brittle and destructive; softness and a gentle manner of thinking are life-enriching.
Contrast the oak tree and the bamboo. When a storm comes, the sturdy oak stands solid against the wind until it is overcome and breaks and dies. The bamboo however, bends with the wind and when the storm has passed, snaps back into place unharmed. Softness proves more durable than hardness. Assertiveness takes a back seat to gentle firmness. Overtly the sage does nothing, and thereby all things are accomplished.
T’ai Chi Chih becomes a way of life. It is true that the gentle movements of T’ai Chi Chih form a moving meditation and an exercise of great efficiency – exercising the inner organs and promoting healing – but eventually it goes beyond these and permeates the lifestyle of the practitioner. We do not all see the same world, which is a reflection of ourselves. With the accumulation of Chi (Vital Force) through T’ai Chi Chih practice, permanent changes in the metabolism and the thinking process take place and renewed energy conditions the whole way of life. Just as the thought conditions the Vital Force, so does the flow of this Chi, this Intrinsic Energy, condition the way of thinking. As these changes occur we get in touch with ourselves and the world we see begins to change. Joy becomes our natural heritage.
I gather chrysanthemums at the eastern hedgerow
And silently gaze at the southern mountains.
The mountain air is beautiful in the sunset.
Overhead the birds, flocking together, return home.
In all this is a real meaning, but
When I try to express it, I get lost in no-words.
These words (above) by a 4th century Chinese poet Tao Yuanming present a graphic picture of a mind at ease, spoken by a contented person. Notice that all allusions are to natural things; there is nothing of the artificial. Our way of life is being ruined by the artificiality that leads to a superficial outlook, away from natural things. Our world glorifies the computer and the airplane, the television set, and the telephone. The latter has become our master and few are willing to turn it off.
Culture of Discontent
These are all artificial objects that can never lead to a contented frame of mind. And, in our culture (spreading so rapidly throughout the world), all advertising is aimed at creating discontent: “Don’t be satisfied with what you have, buy something new.” In other words, earn money so you can exchange it for objects. Unless you are discontent with what you have, you will not rush out to buy and consume. We are thought of as potential consumers. Geography is divided into “markets,” population into “demographics,” but humans are not statistics; within us lies Divinity.
With all this urge to discontent, how can we achieve peace of mind and health and vigor of body? Without these, how much is life worth, no matter what we “own?” Actually, the Sufi master says we only own what we take with us when we dive naked, over the side of a sinking ship! Without going into the deeper aspects of karma, made by the habit energies of the mind (vasanas in Sanskrit), what do we really “own?” Do we possess the flowers, the evening sky, the soft snow that falls on rich and poor alike, or the seasons that come and go in orderly progression? Do we even control them? These are profound questions that should be studied and the answers can change our attitudes.
How do we counter this urge to discontent? In the rush of busy lives it is not easy. Probably we find it too difficult to sit quietly and do sitting meditation; the mind that has been racing all day is not going to suddenly turn off, though breathing exercises will help quiet the mind. Ah, but we can move, and find it pleasant to move softly and rhythmically. With the gentle movements of T’ai Chi Chih, even if we do only a few of them repetitively, comes a quieting of the emotions as the Chi (Vital Force) circulates and is then balanced. When the substantial and insubstantial – the yang Chi and yin Chi – are brought into balance, we are in a relaxed and meditative state. Since this is cumulative, the practice of T’ai Chi Chih in the morning upon arising, or in the afternoon before dinner, or both, can become a very pleasant habit that builds up the Vital Force stored in the bones and below the navel. With this accumulation, we begin to notice the rapid growth of intuition, of creativity and energy, and a strength far different from muscular strength. We may find ourselves moving to the phone before it rings or opening a book to the exact sought-for page. In our work we find a growth of confidence, a belief in ourselves and our center-of-being. In my book Abandon Hope: The Way to Fulfillment, I have called this “The Growth of Certainty.”
It always makes me smile when a student – or T’ai Chi Chih teacher – writes that he or she is now much more confident and energetic in his work, or that he or she doesn’t kick the cat and yell at the children from fatigue. Always, they ask, “This doesn’t have anything to with T’ai Chi Chih, does it?” To which I reply, “What’s the difference, as long as it is happening?” Our attitudes change and we become more like the bamboo, rather than the oak. Then the outer world reflects this inner serenity.
The resentful mind helps create illness. The greedy mind brings war and great discontent. For each frame of mind there is a corresponding Chi. Our thinking cultures our Vital Force. Thus we can influence what we are and what we become by what we think. But, similarly, what we think is greatly conditioned by the Chi, the Vital Force, so our pattern of thinking is not, as we might presume, an absolutely free process.
Posture & State Of Mind
While teaching “Comparative Meditation” at an American university, a week before practicing the Buddha’s great Meditation of the Four Awarenesses (the Satipatthana), I would ask students to do two things during the week:
To watch their posture (they would immediately straighten up, though I had not asked them to correct the posture);
Frequently, during the day, to watch and ascertain their state of mind. This is not easy to do. At any given moment it is hard to define the state of mind. However, a noisy plane flies low overhead while we are talking and we look up in annoyance; this is “mind with annoyance.” We worry about a bill we will have to pay; this is “anxious mind.” And so forth.
When students came to the next class, I would ask them if they had practised as requested. “Yes,” one would answer, “and I noticed something funny. My state of mind seemed to have a lot to do with my posture, while the posture seemed to affect the state of mind.” That person had been successful in realizing the purpose of the assignment. Thinking influences the Chi and Chi influences our thought.
One man I know, the manager of a brokerage house, always walks bent over from the waist. Imagine the inner tensions that must present! With such a state of mind, it is hard to see how calm and correct decisions can be made. In India, the hand and finger positions as well as the general posture are known as mudras. The way we hold our hands can tell a Master much about our state of being. I look at new students’ wrists, as well as the pliability of their waists, to determine the amount of inner ten- sion they are bringing to class. As surely as handwriting, which cannot be faked, will tell a graphologist (handwriting expert) much about the character of the writer, so will the body postures paint a clear picture of the inner life of a T’ai Chi Chih student.
When we forget something, we cannot force the mind to remember. The more we try, the less we accomplish. Then, at another moment when we are thinking of something else, a casual association of ideas brings the forgotten something to mind, quickly and effortlessly. This is how the T’ai Chi principle works. When there is effort, tensions result and the meridian channels of the body, through which the Vital Force (Chi) flows, close and the flow is cut off. This is why softness and continuity are stressed in T’ai Chi Chih practice. The effortless effort, which we compare to moving “slow motion in a dream,” brings results and the energy-giving flow of the Chi proceeds without pause.
Softness & Effortlessness
How important is this softness? There is a famous story of a student and a T’ai Chi Ch’uan Master that provides the answer. Every day the student came to study with the Master and every day, no matter how hard he tried, the Master tersely remarked: “Not soft enough!”
After one disappointing class, the student went home and that night dreamed both of his arms fell off. The next day when he did T’ai Chi Ch’uan at his lesson, the Master finally nodded and remarked, “Now that’s soft!”
When the effortless flow goes on, first felt in the fingers and fingertips, we become thirsty. The aqueous excess is drying up. This provides efficient weight control (70% of the body weight being composed of fluid) and the ability to lose large amounts of weight (where needed) without any starvation. We are surprised to find that perspiration and fatigue do not have to accompany a weight losing effort. And, at the same time, the inner organs are exercised. Constipation is certainly not characteristic of the T’ai Chi way. Many women have been helped with the flow of blood, and one T’ai Chi Chih teacher has given birth twice using the Around the Platter rhythmic movement in her home delivery.
We have been concentrating in the soles of the feet to bring the Heart Fire down, and as the Chi flows through the body in a downward arc, healing heat flashes may occur in parts of the body, those with blockage. These heat flashes, however, are more apt to occur hours after we have brought our hands to our sides in rest. In movement (circular movement), the yin Chi and yang Chi separate; then when we come to a position of rest, the yin and yang flow together and we become whole. At such time, the feeling is that of having had an internal bath. All this is accomplished softly and without effort.
What are the meridian channels, through which the Chi flows, and which are used so admirably by Chinese acupuncture? (We have probably all seen, on television, a Chinese operation being performed painlessly without anesthesia, because of control over the meridian channels and the flow through them.) Belonging to the ancient yin-yang science, going back at least 3,000 years, there are many versions and descriptions.
This is not surprising when we consider that after only hundreds of years the Latin language has become Spanish, French, and Italian, as well as contributing to English and Portuguese. However, some Chinese authorities claim there are 12 major meridians. These channels connect with innumerable minor meridians. There is a meditation where one takes the Chi – purely through the power of thought – through many of these meridians in the legs, the torso and arms. It is too complicated to detail here, but it is efficient in circulating the Chi, as is the Nei Kung discipline (performed lying flat on the back) that I have taught in Meditation for Healing: Particular Meditations for Particular Results.
It is through these meridians that Chi, really the Life Force, flows, and many of the meridians lead to the inner organs of the body. This makes possible acupuncture, moxery (conveying heat to selected inner organs), and Chinese self-massage. It is interesting that these inner organs, reached through the meridian channels, correspond to heavenly bodies and to the elements in our world. Thus the heart is the Great Yang, corresponding to heaven and the sun, while the kidneys are the Great Yin, in correspondence to the moon and the earth. This correspondence goes further, into the elements such as iron, wood, and fire, with water obviously standing for the yin and fire representing the Yang.
The ancient Chinese sage knew where the Chi was strongest at certain times of the day, in certain times of the year (doctors seem to ignore the seasons of the year completely, though our grandmothers and folk doctors certainly didn’t) and a great T’ai Chi system of defense, called T’ai Chi Gik, was devised through use of this knowledge. In one way, this flow of Chi through the channels is our connection to the cosmos, just as our breath makes us conscious that there is a power behind and beyond our own will.
Incidentally, the spleen, affected by the aspirated sound Hu in the practice of the Six Healing Sounds in T’ai Chi Chih, is thought to be very important in Chinese medicine, though “modern” doctors feel it is useless and remove it at the slightest provocation. It is very hard for the patient to recover strength after its removal.
Those who practice T’ai Chi Chih do not have to imagine the flow of the Chi through these channels! It is very real, and pretty soon the fingers begin to tremble or other confirmatory signs appear. Since we concentrate on the soles of the feet while practicing, the heat travels down and the fingers may actually become quite cold while still trembling from the flow of the Vital Force. The inner organs become warm, however, and cold drinks must never be consumed immediately after practice.
Spiritual teachers have always told us that when we find fault with the world, the fault is with ourselves. Zen Master Yunmen, in the answer to a question, brushed it aside and said, “Every day is a good day!” Such a joyous outlook is only possible where the opposing forces, yin and yang, are in balance and flowing freely. Ignore the physical functions and it is hard to achieve contentment. The Buddha reminded us that this mind-body continuum is what we must work with. Modern psychology has recognized how much our thought process influences the physical – hence the term psychosomatic – though it does not realize how much the physical, the state of the Life Force, influences our pattern of thought.
Since thought and the physical are mutually conditioning, there are two ways we can practice our self-culture. We can begin to control the mind and influence the habit patterns, as in Zen or Yogic meditation. Or we can work through the physical, as in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, T’ai Chi Chih, and Hatha Yoga. The latter, however, is a preliminary Yoga and not an end in itself.
Zen practice, the control of the mind, is too difficult for most. Even in the past, in Japan, Zen practitioners were always few in number, though their influence was great. It seems much easier to work from the physical side, to circulate and balance the Chi, with its attendant effect on the thinking process. To start with the mind is difficult – and often leads to ill health, which I have observed in many Zen monks – while working through the physical, the Vital Force, is much easier and joyous to boot. Who says that spirituality must be gloomy and grim? The closer we are to Joy (not pleasure), the nearer we are to Reality, God, or whatever we want to call It. A gloomy, unhealthy sage would be a contradiction.
If we examine it closely, we find that awareness is the root of T’ai Chi Chih, which is essentially inner-oriented. Circularity is the fundamental. And we already know that softness and continuity are the Essence. When we practice T’ai Chi Chih faithfully, we will find that Love Energy is the fruit.
This article is published in Spiritual Odyssey.