The practice of mindfulness meditation, originally taught by the Buddha 2500 years ago in India as a ‘middle way’ to spiritual enlightenment, spread across Asia through Nepal, Burma, Tibet, China and down to south east Asia. However it wasn't until the 1960s, when the hippy movement started adopting exotic spiritual practices as a way of rebelling against the mainstream ideas, that the practice of mindfulness began to spread through the west. During this period, Tibet was taken over by the Chinese, Vietnam was at war and many Buddhist teachers such as the Dalai Lama, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Thich Nhat Hanh began teaching Buddhism to a western audience. During the 80s, western researchers such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard Davidson started looking at how mindfulness meditation may be of benefit to the wider population outside of just the hippy movement. Western secular mindfulness practices such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) were born. During the last two decades, the popularity of these practices have exploded into the mainstream. This article will explain the basic practice of mindfulness and how it relates to the practice of tai chi.
The practice of mindfulness can be simply defined as bringing awareness to the present moment. Often, our awareness is caught up in our thinking mind, with either ruminative thoughts about the past, or forward projections and fantasies about the future. When we become too caught up in thoughts about the past, depression can arise. When we become too caught up in thoughts about the future, anxiety can arise. Being present with the current situation as it is now, allows the possibility of acceptance and equanimity to arise. When the Buddha taught this practice, he taught it as a tool to be used to cut through delusion in order to see reality clearly as it is. When we see reality as it truly is, we see that its nature is uncertain, that there is no fixed point of reference and that everything is impermanent, continuously arising and dissolving. The Buddha saw that our suffering arises out of clinging to an imagined sense of permanence and predictability. We feel that we are able to control our environment, our life and even our death. When we gain a sense of control in our life, we feel safe and secure, but when a sense of control is absent, most people feel deeply uncomfortable. The Buddha taught that if we can become comfortable with uncertainty and the impermanent nature of life, if we can learn how to truly accept each moment as it arises and dissolves, we will experience tremendous freedom. Mindfulness practice gives us the tools to explore this reality and build our tolerance for discomfort. Commonly in Buddhism and also now in western secular mindfulness practice, the four foundations of mindfulness are taught: mindfulness of body, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of mind and mindfulness of phenomena/reality.
Mindfulness of body
The first foundation, mindfulness of body, is about discovering the reality of our body beyond the concept of body. If somebody asks us to contemplate our body, our mind immediately begins to create a mental image of what our body is like. We have thoughts about how it looks, it’s shape, the different parts of the body, the processes that occur in the body, whether it’s healthy or unhealthy. We may also make value judgements about our body: “my belly is too fat”, “I’m ugly”, “I have beautiful hair”, “I’m not strong enough” etc. All of this is happening in our heads. We have created a body with our minds, it is not the actual reality of our body. To come to know the reality of our body beyond the concept of body, we have to start to contact it in the present moment. This means to sit down and actually feel our body.
This practice typically begins with the breath. Sitting in meditation allows us the space to feel our own breath as it enters and leaves the body. We begin to feel the rise and fall of the chest, the expansion and contraction of the abdomen, the air in the nostrils and in the back of the throat. We become aware of other sensations in the body too; the aching muscles as we try to hold the sitting posture, the connection between our body and the ground, the feel of our clothes against our skin. This practice brings a sense of groundedness and connection to the earth. When we contact our body, we begin to see through our conceptions of how the body is. We begin to feel the impermanent nature of the body, how it changes from moment to moment, from week to week, from year to year. We start to feel what it is to be human and to have a human body.
Mindfulness of feelings
The second foundation, mindfulness of feelings, is awareness of felt sensations without categorisation into pleasant or unpleasant. As with the body, we spend a lot of time thinking about our feelings rather than just feeling them. As soon as a sensation is registered in the body, the mind immediately begins to analyse it: “I feel pain, this is unpleasant”, “I feel the warmth of the sun, this is pleasant”, “I feel hungry, this is unpleasant”, “I feel relaxed, this is pleasant”. To practice mindfulness of feelings, we have to let go of clinging to the sensations and adopt a light touch, where we contact the feeling and immediately let it go. When we practice in this way, we begin to notice the transient nature of feelings, that they come and go like waves on an ocean. Here we begin to notice the flow, without being caught in the peaks and troughs. We are not however, on a cliff observing the waves from afar, we are in the water, feeling the waves against our body. We ebb and flow with them, but are not swept away by them. Being ‘in it’ without analysis, brings a sense of aliveness and an inner strength and resilience develops.
Mindfulness of mind
The third foundation, mindfulness of mind, perceives mind clearly and directly. This includes our thoughts and emotions. Thoughts arise in the mind and when they are mixed with our felt sensations, they create emotions. We then have a tendency to verbalise the emotions, either internally or externally, which solidifies our thoughts into a fixed frame of reference. When we begin to observe the mind and start to notice how these mental states are formed, we can begin to let go of the mind’s interference and the whole situation becomes workable. It is no longer fixed and a sense of movement appears. We can change direction. When we notice anger arising for example, we can be aware that it is just a mental formation. Through awareness we can disentangle the thought and the felt sensation of the emotion. Aware that both the thoughts and the feelings are transient, we can choose to just ride it out without reaction. This is different from suppression and is related to right effort or effortless action. We begin to notice the transient nature of mind and begin to relax more. We stop taking our mind so seriously and become more playful.
Mindfulness of phenomena/reality
The fourth foundation is mindfulness of phenomena or reality. Here we begin to become aware of our habitual patterns. We start to notice how the different mind states interact with each other. What triggers certain emotions. Perhaps there are deep seated associations from childhood? For example, if I was frying something in a pan and it began to stick, I may start to feel frustration with the burning food, I may get more and more agitated and eventually throw the food away in a fit of rage. Was it the food that triggered this response? When we begin to develop the fourth foundation of mindfulness, we begin to notice what is underneath. We may see that instead of the food or the pan being to blame, the sticking food actually triggered a memory from childhood, where I was shamed by my parents for not being able to cook. The rage which caused me to throw away the food, actually arose from a feeling of inadequacy. Having mindfulness in the moment of frustration arising, allows you to perceive the pattern of behaviour and its origin before it develops into an external or internal expression. This awareness allows us to see what would help and what would hinder us in any moment. It promotes intelligence and discrimination between skilful and unskillful means. Here we become fully present and intimate with the moment, our moment, knowing it and ourselves completely.
Tai chi offers plenty of opportunity to practice the four foundations of mindfulness. Whilst standing in Chi Kung, we can feel our body by focusing on the dan tien, feeling the ground through the bubbling wells, aligning our hips, tucking the tail bone, hollowing the chest, sinking the shoulders and lifting the spirit. The warm up exercises and form practice offer a chance to experience our body in movement, noticing the impermanence of the body as it constantly shifts from posture to posture. Partner work, such as posture testing and push hands, not only tests where our energy is blocked, but also when we begin to lose our mindfulness, when we stop feeling the body and slip into concepts of the body. The more we think, “maybe my shoulder needs to sink more?”, “I must tuck the kua”, the more we loose connection with actually feeling the energy in the body.
During our practice of tai chi, mindfulness of feelings is also important. We also need to adopt a ‘touch and go’ approach. Becoming aware of the felt sensations, without being caught up in them, allows a sense of flow to be felt in the form and during applications. This is the basis of Teng Jing, ‘listening energy’. If we cling to the sensation we stop listening, but when we touch and let go of the sensation, we stay alive to the moment. Having mindfulness of mind and of phenomena is very useful during our practice and in any moment we want to apply tai chi. It is useful to become aware of our thoughts and emotional content and how to work with it in a skilful way, so that it doesn't inhibit our action. It is also good to see if our action is fuelled by our emotions rather that coming from a place of wanting to benefit the situation. When working with a partner, often our ego can rear up and we stop being useful to them and our own practice. Being mindful of this as it occurs and of what may lie beneath it, allows us to ‘change direction’ and become more present without ego.
Whether practicing mindfulness through the sitting practice of meditation, through tai chi or generally throughout our daily lives, the benefits to our mental wellbeing are clear. It helps us to cut through delusion in order to see reality clearly, accepting each moment as it arises and dissolves. We become present in our body and mind, which promotes groundedness and a sense of what it is to be human. A sense of aliveness, inner strength and resilience develops. We become less caught up in our emotions and patterns of behaviour, allowing us to act with intelligence and compassion. Living moment by moment allows us to accept life as it is and ultimately to let go of it when the time comes.