Tai Chi Ch'uan-The Art of Mindful Meditation
There is a saying in the Taoist philosophy,
“Stillness in stillness is not the true stillness, that only through stillness in motion does the universal rhythm become manifest.”
This is the goal of Tai Chi, to incorporate and harmonize the rhythms of the universe within our human bodies. It is, I made add, no simple feat. As a teacher of Tai Chi, I find that students who come to me are too full. Their bodies are too busy acting and do not sense enough to move with the delicate universal rhythm. This is because the world is very noisy and the universe speaks only very quietly. It is the committed who learn to hear.
This is why I call Tai Chi, mindful meditation. This mindfulness of meditation is achieved by the focused awareness of the practitioner and the internal calm within. Awareness can be honed by investing in the state of emptiness or wu-wei. This is accomplished through sung, learning how to relax and sink, to become aware of our bond with the earth. As a matter of fact relaxing appears to be one of the hardest things for us to do in our society, as we are a doing based culture. Doing is rewarded, relaxing not so much so. It is seen as wasting time, not accomplishing. The Tai Chi meditation teaches us how to do more and more things without much physical effort. The more we learn to harness emptiness, the more we find ways to use sources such as inertia to achieve effectiveness and results. This can be seen in the power of gravity, which while it seems to govern everything, is in itself a weak force. Can we become more like it, attracting the positives in our lives and deflecting the negatives?
How is this state of mindful meditation developed? Most importantly, it starts through our breathing. Taking a breath can put us in the state of emptiness, notice how effortless it is to take a breath. However, breath can also be very powerful. It can not only fill a balloon, but if you don't stop breathing into it will cause it to burst explosively. Yet by itself, a breath seems so gentle. This begins to give insight into the power of wu-wei. By understanding the applications of wu-wei one also starts to develop the ability to listen with the entire body as one did before with just the ear. In the state of emptiness the body begins to respond to harmonic vibrations, the way plucking a string of the sitar sets off sympathetic strings to also begin to sound. If we are full this does not happen because our bodies are not yet empty enough to react to these external sources.
So we sink our breathing, which immediately begins to soften out outward structure. In Tai Chi the breath is diaphragmatic, it sinks to the lowest part of our lungs. The Taoists take it one step further and say that the breath is drawn from the “bubbling well” which is in the soles of our feet. Interestingly, these are our connection to earth, do we draw energy from the earth into our bodies through the soles of our feet?
Then the breath becomes focused and concentrated in the tantien, which is the body's center, located below the navel and about two inches in. When the movements of the Tai Chi Form originate from the tantien, external effort is also minimized. So the breath, which is effortless, extends through the body movement by allowing it to lift just like the breath inflating the balloon. Now we can begin to sense the universal rhythm, through the gentle lift and drop of the body that occurs with each breath. We know this is the true rhythm of the universe because it is exhibited everywhere. The heart, which fills us with life, is filled and emptied with each beat, as do our lungs with each breath. The seasons cause life to spring forth only to die then begins the cycle of rebirth anew. By practicing the mindful meditation of the Tai Chi Form, we feel our connection to these rhythms and we relax as we allow them to take control of our movement, calmly lifting and extending our movements and then dropping and re-concentrating our energy to be generated in its next release.
It does take a bit of skill to be empty enough that we feel the center point of the body as the origin from which we direct our delicate flow of energy out to our extremities but this enables powerfully effective movement. Normally, when we are moving we are anything but meditative, as it takes exertion. In Tai Chi movement is derived from deep immersion in the meditative state. In this state, we begin to associate effectiveness and energy with the emptiness of meditation. This is what allows us to catch the timing of events and develops the spontaneity of discovering the power of being in the moment.
I find it shocking how we, as a culture, do not quite embrace the power of being in the moment. Often when the moment is occurring we are either ahead of it, anticipating the future or dwelling in the past and often, by milliseconds miss the state of being able to effortlessly accomplish our goals. By the time it takes for the mind to have a thought, the moment has already passed. The idea is to learn to act by spontaneously being in the moment. There is no effective action unless it is devoid of intent and desire and is generated simply by the spontaneity of the moment. This, of course, is a formidable challenge. Because, as if you may have discovered, the moment keeps changing. The hardest thing I am faced with is letting go of each moment and passing into the next as it unfolds. When I am able to do this my power and abilities seem almost unrivaled. The minute I begin to anticipate the next moment or immerse myself in critiquing the past one, these abilities decrease dramatically.
Once again these abilities and skills find their roots in emptiness, fulness takes us out of the moment, emptiness immerses us in it. Thinking separates us from being in the moment, non-thinking allows us to feel it. It is the state of yin, in the yin yang. Do not think that acting or doing is all wrong, as that is the state that springs from emptiness. The Taoists say that in the beginning there was nothing, the void, known as wu chi and from the state of wu chi the state of tai chi (everything that exists) was created. This demonstrates that from the state of emptiness true effectiveness also springs. How can we, by becoming empty, learn to allow spontaneous action and response occur? This is the state of mindful meditation we strive to achieve, and we discover that it is accessed by the mind, but not by leading the body with it but by following it.