Distraction and Listening (Teng Jing)
Teng Jing (Listening Energy) is an important Tai Chi concept and its basics must be understood if you want to develop a meaningful level of skill. But as you work on it, it is possible to notice that there are hidden depths, especially as you move into the action of one's mind, beyond mere body skill.
If you dig into the meaning of the English word 'Listening', it is more than hearing a sound. It has the added quality of cognitively interpreting what has been heard, paying attention to it and taking heed of what it has to say. This means there is a suggestion of compliance with what is said, as in, "I listened to the great teacher and became at once enlightened".
Viewed from the perspective of Taoist philosophy, to fail to listen or to listen and not comply can be to go against nature and naturalness. For example if the sprouting bean won't listen to gravitational force, the feel of the soil and the source and quality of light, it is much less likely to thrive.
So to uncover a basic skill in Teng Jing we must at least learn to pay attention to all the natural information from within and without. This is done chiefly by devotion to relaxation and is often experienced in the very first lesson. Not in an ultimate sense, but in a sense of knowing something happened in the class that made us more relaxed than when we began the lesson.
So it is that the practitioner becomes entranced by the effect of relaxing and is prone to spending long periods of time trying to figure out how to relax. This is important, because most beginners are living with some sense of stress, overwhelm and disappointment in life and relaxing gives space and relief from that. But it is not the ultimate goal, simply the gateway to a greater journey.
From a Tai Chi perspective relaxation has purpose. This is why Tai Chi teachers tend to say, "Relax! Not collapse!'". We are seeking to relax to increase attention, not zone out. Why? So we can listen better. In our lineage we begin each lesson with standing post Chi Kung (Qigong). This ancient practice contains the basic Taoist meditation approach, which is to be quiet, still and noticing. This is also, simultaneously, very advanced practice.
It is advanced because an untrained person's degree of distraction is normally so large that on first beginning Tai Chi it is far easier to work on technical aspects of the practice, rather than to feel and listen. So people look for tension and try to let go, look for the Tan Tien and try to focus on it, learn of the concepts that activate the spine (lifting the spirit, hollowing the chest, tucking the tail bone etc), in fact anything other than directly addressing the distraction from noticing, feeling and listening (and, interestingly, the overwhelm that can come from that).
For those still at this early stage it is not clear that the incessant thinking and analysing which is going on in their minds is serving as a distraction from increased ability to feel and listen. For many the mind will simply not present that as a possibility. So cloaked is the mind that they cannot see how the mind is actually behaving. After all, they do relax, they do open their energy channels, they do experience a level of letting go, calming, stilling the mind and also the body. All these things are true. But actually these practitioners are still distracted from the simple original idea of open listening. They are doing too much thinking, so their Tai Chi only works up to a point. You could say that the limitation in their Teng Jing is related to how their mind is organised, which areas are emphasised and where one's sense of self habitually resides.
None of this is a 'modern problem' caused by the way we live now. It is a human problem we have always had, as evidenced in the Taoist writings on this topic from thousands of years ago. If you want to dig into this it is very interesting. Good enough translations of the Tao Te Ching and Chuang Tzu are readily available for free on the Internet as either pdfs or audio books on YouTube. I repeat it is all free and presented in multiple ways. Therefore you'll only read it and understand it when you are ready to go there, not because there is an excuse to avoid it.
So this human mind we have is capable of being trained to organise differently to how you currently have it. The proposition of Tai Chi is that it is a tool set that can do this, though it is true that many have to reach a certain point in their journey before they will undertake the work. As Master Ding once said to me, "the mind is vast". It really is. But the more time you can spend practicing being, relaxed, open and feeling, the more the mind will allow itself to be experienced differently.
So we practice standing in open awareness with feeling and listening. This is when standing post Chi Kung can more readily become a pleasure. It can become a place where you feel and listen, rather than think, sinking into a more relaxed, undistracted state. When viewed from a place of feeling and awareness, logical, analytical thinking is as equally distracting as emotions and desires. There are whole systems devoted to the exploration and understanding of this: how the mind spends so much time fulfilling desire, whether in attraction or aversion mode. The two statements "I like this", "I don't like this" encapsulate the issue of desire. Normally people see desire as indulging in pleasure, but it also means to identify that which we are adverse too and to try to avoid that. It is logical. If you have no need to avoid displeasure, you have no beginning point to find the opposite - pleasure. Or if you have no need to experience pleasure, you have no need to fear displeasure.
Attraction and aversion can consume all your waking moments. It is a constant reaction to the feelings generated by your mind. You experience sensation in your body, react instantly with "how do I solve this?", then, if that goes well, move to the next agitation. It is entirely driven by not being comfortable to be experiencing how you feel. Consequently our method is to actively practice being comfortable as we feel. For example whilst in a stationery Chi Kung posture you are encouraged to be in a state of active Teng Jing, or active listening. All we need do is feel. Feel what you can feel. Feel the ground beneath the feet, feel what the hands feel. Feel what the skin of the body can feel. Feel how any pain feels. Feel how any tension feels. Feel how any emptiness feels. Feel how the mind feels, feel how hunger feels, thirst, smelling, breathing et cetera. Feel all the different things we feel. Then by logical reduction, most of the other sensations left in the body must be those caused by our emotions.
This way of getting to what you are experiencing emotionally is very important and useful because it allows you to experiment with bypassing the areas of mind that hijack you into using your attention to unnecessarily solve attraction and aversion issues. When one is distracted and thinking, one's listening energy is vastly reduced.
Therefore it is important to become ok with our emotions. This method asks you to not label these emotions. If you are someone who gets swept away easily by emotion, practice this at a time when you sort of feel alright, so that you can succeed.
Labelling emotion can be an issue, because as soon as you do the mind will be very interested in solving the 'issue' with thought and bam! In that moment you will be swept away and locked into thinking and worrying and solving and resolving and....totally forget to be listening. In fact most people create the metaphoric "mountain out of a mole hill" quite often. It is a fundamental truth that emotion can end up begetting more emotion until the first small emotions are now a serious problem. But not because they were ever originally a problem. What overwhelms is often the huge ongoing emotions invoked to solve the beginning emotions.
Over time, as you get more used to not labelling what you are feeling, but instead simply feeling the sensations, you will get more used to not needing to think to resolve your feelings. Just let them be. There is hardly ever anything to do about them. On most occasions the only action required is to acknowledge them and relax. They will pass.
This has the potential to reframe the mind towards resilience without resistance: resilience with softness, stillness and apparent emptiness. How Tai Chi!
Once you can choose to reduce attraction to pointless thinking and emotions, things can become a little clearer. Once the power to drop the thinking and/or emotions that your mind attaches to builds up, listening energy increases more and more. One can become calmer and less reactive. With this sufficiently in place, when an opponent threatens you, you can cope better with how that feels and keep the mind clearer and more settled. The Chi can remain settled and sunken and alertness from relaxing and feeling comes to the fore. Then, in the rare case that the situation is unavoidable and one has to defend oneself, one will enter into it listening, feeling and interpreting with more energy flow and less distraction caused by thought, worry and emotional sensation.
Being able to stay relaxed, centred and calm, with strong intent, sunken chi and elevated Teng Jing is the gateway to subtle, refined and powerful application of Tai Chi Chuan. Integrating the action of mind and body, thought and feeling, self and other, without tension or distraction is an important part of making the Art really work. Once you can listen without distraction your Teng Jing will truly hear all important information from the opponent or situation and nothing will interfere with interpreting and responding according to an integrated response. This response arises from mixing nature's way and human wisdom. Mind, body and spirit in prefect harmony. Best wishes to you all.