The Tai Chi Way Of Mindfulness
Central to Tai Chi is the study of internal energy ('Chi') for practical day-to-day use in all situations. This study is an inward journey whose gateway is mindfulness. Modern mindfulness programs are commonplace in many countries now and are used by western medicine to combat stress, anxiety and to boost a positive outlook on life. They are derived from ancient Eastern meditative practices: specifically distilled from Buddhism but also existing in many other traditions.
On investigating exactly what modern psychology means by mindfulness I came across this Wikipedia entry on 16/10/2013 on the internet:
“Several definitions of mindfulness have been used in modern psychology. According to various prominent psychological definitions, Mindfulness refers to a psychological quality that involves
bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis,
or involves paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, or involves a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.
Bishop, Lau, and colleagues (2004) offered a two-component model of mindfulness:
The first component [of mindfulness] involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.”
Traditional Tai Chi Chuan is based around discovery through practice. Some of the very many essential communications are concepts like:
- remain sunken and relaxed
- use mind intent
- be at your centre and move without losing your centre
To be honest no matter which Tai Chi ideas you looked at, at no point is mindfulness explicitly referred to in the Tai Chi classics, yet I am sure that most seasoned practitioners would read the above
definitions of mindfulness and realise they practice it all the time. Why? Because it is extremely difficult to make genuine progress in Tai Chi without figuring out mindfulness. In essence mindfulness occurs as one of the natural by-products of training Tai Chi.
For example the first concept of “remain sunken and relaxed” means to let go of all tension and to have a continual downward intent in mind, body and spirit. If you are a relative beginner and were to concentrate on whether this was truly happening the chances are that you will quickly discover pockets of tension all over the place and that you didn't really get much feeling of downward intent. As most tensions in the body are instructions from the mind, the next conclusion you should reach is that you have to be able to 'see' what your mind is doing in order to alter how it is using the body.
Creating an ability to watch your own mind is like anything else in Tai Chi - a skill which can develop further and further. Within the first years of mindful practice it can feel like you've really understood yourself as you have seen so much about what stops you being relaxed and raised all sorts of essential questions about yourself, your motivations and your beliefs about the world. But beware of this illusion – it's still just the beginning! Like all aspects of Tai Chi you can go deeper for as long as you live. What you should begin to discover is that your opinion of yourself moves from 'I am aware of myself' to 'I am aware of what my mind is currently allowing me to be aware of'. That in itself is being mindful of the process of learning mindfulness!
I still remember my first experience of watching my own mind and the realisations that came from it. Perhaps it's an interesting example of discovering mindfulness. As I had done traditional martial arts before switching to Tai Chi I had a daily training regime setting aside between 40mins to two hours most days for practice. So from the first lesson of Tai Chi I would practice at least 20 minutes of standing post (Zhan Zhuang) Chi Kung each day. At the time I was an extremely tired and stressed 29 year old: my first marriage was ending against my own desires, I had two young children and I was a director of a highly professional company in the insurance industry working anything up to 60 hours a week. On top of this I'd lost my father a few years before but hadn't understood how to mourn the loss and knew I was suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, but believed financial success would cure all. The typical scenario of wanting to appear externally strong and 'hold it all together' whilst being internally weak.
In this state I totally believed I was everything my thoughts and feelings showed I was. I was stressed, I was tired, I was angry, I was upset. I was moving very fast in my mind and 'that' was who I was. My
mind was continually running in fight or flight mode – flooded with adrenalin.
However after two weeks of Chi Kung something strange happened in class. At that time the teachers would make us stand in Chi Kung for between 12-20 minutes. As I stood there with my rapidly moving mind, trying to be still and sink and relax to my centre a couple of inches below my navel, I suddenly dropped down from the agitated swirl of my mind. It was as if I'd been on the surface of a busy swimming pool with hundreds of shouting and excited swimmers and suddenly plummeted down to the bottom in deep, quiet calmness. It was amazing! I could still see the busy swirling procession of my mind but I was watching from another place! This was my first experience of being able to watch my own mind. And it calmed and soothed me immeasurably. My stress levels halved and I was at that moment hooked on Tai Chi: not only for the promise of better martial skill; but also for more complete self development and physical health.
And that was just the beginning! Beyond the base realisation of mindfulness that came from looking at remaining sunken and relaxed I was also working on the next concept of 'use mind intent' ('Yi'). Normally at the point of performing an action we have no separation between what we intend and what we do. For example we think about getting a coat off a hook and our arm moves without awareness to take the coat. As a result there is no mindfulness in the motion and no governance of the energies or focus involved in the task. To uncover mind intent we must be able to watch, not just the procession of our emotions and thoughts, but also the procession of our movements. So successful physical intention requires several factors to come together. You need to find a quiet place of the mind that can watch the thoughts. Then you need to quieten and still the mind. Then you need to be be watchful of what you intend to do. The actual isolation of mind intent occurs when in a moment of relaxation and quietness you can stay absolutely with the idea of wanting to make the movements to take the coat without performing them. Then when the intent to take the coat is extremely strong you smoothly take the coat in a manner which doesn't disturb the strong intent and quietened, focussed and mindful self.
It is separating the will to move from the action of movement that leads to internal energy ('Chi') flow. Once we have flow of energy we are irrefutably and demonstrably applying mindfulness to Tai Chi. Then it is about taking it further.
Progressively Tai Chi becomes a power game. How strong can you make your mindfulness and how much can you let Tai Chi change and strengthen mind, body and spirit? Activating Chi flow through your intent is not enough. Although you may be exhibiting useful mindfulness you will still end up all over the place after a short while because you will eventually be carried away by the strong energies of yourself as they naturally cycle and perhaps more of an issue, the energies of other people.
Just think of how a charismatic person can make you feel sad if they decide, happy if they decide or talk you into going out when you were going to stay in. This can end up similar to when a parent fears their teenager falling in with 'the wrong crowd'. The intent and centredness and energy flow of this crowd can lead your child into all sorts of problems. However a child with a firm centre for their behaviour will remain mindful of what is right and wrong despite the lure of 'the wrong crowd' and not weaken themselves even if they maintain friendships within that crowd.
And so it is that we progress more deeply into the next concept of 'being at our centre'. When you are there it is like being able to see everything, yet it's all ok. You can use typical phrases to describe it such as 'being in the moment' or 'realising emptiness'. But really it's about inhabiting the place where mind and body are balanced and when you view things it's the same in all directions. A lot of work goes into finding one's centre. Both physically by understanding how to keep intention on your Tan Tien (the area roughly two inches below your navel) and mentally by inhabiting what may feel like the equivalent in your own mind.
Building a strong centre means that the energies of mind and body can move around it freely yet 'you' – the mindful, watchful you are kept securely in place, undisturbed by the maelstrom of yourself, of others and of the process of life itself. Yet you do not 'hold' yourself in place. In fact when you achieve it, it feels exactly like freedom, perhaps more like a gravitational pull to your centre through intent. But if you stop the intent you will slowly lose your centre and eventually be carried away in the procession of your mind again.
The successful integration of mind, body and spirit through the unique mindfulness training embedded within traditional Tai Chi Chuan training feels incredible and changes you in so many positive ways. After a period of training each component begins to strengthen, solidify and support each other. It takes time and effort, but there are rewards at each stage in the development pathway. My Sifu (teacher) Master Ding says that if Tai Chi had a limit, an end to the journey, it wouldn't be Tai Chi. So train and see how far you can take the art!
At Master Ding Academy Midlands we are passionate about sharing the Tai Chi passed down to us by Master John Ding, 6th Generation Yang Style Traditional Tai Chi Chuan. Find out about our activities in Milton Keynes, Northampton and Birmingham at www.chunggong.co.uk