Blog Installment # 10: The Essence of Tai Chi Meditation"
This year, inspired by the enthusiasm of several of my students, I’ve dusted off the original Tai Chi meditation I learned in the mid-1990’s from Master Jou Tsung Hua. I have also been dipping into some of the books by Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming to help contextualize the practice. It has been a deeply moving exercise as it strongly resonates with the training I received twenty to thirty years ago in Korean Zen and Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist temples.
The principles of developing internal power can be understood in a number of different ways. For example, the essential framework of psychic development in the Tibetan Nyingma tradition is that first one engages in physical yoga which trains the body, then energy yoga which trains the meridians, and finally psychic yoga which empowers one to perceive reality. Other Buddhist traditions break down the progression in different ways but are in general agreement.
It is said in "The Taijiquan Classics" that Tai Chi has a martial and a civil aspect. The martial aspect is described in terms of the ability to fight effectively. The civil aspect, usually seen in terms of health promotion in modern times, is described in the old texts as a kind of “spiritual illumination”. It is also seen as the outcome of a process of discipline and self regulation.
In his books The Root of Chinese Qigong and The Root of Taijiquan Dr. Yang Jwing-Ming provides a very comprehensive progression which corresponds to the road-map I received from my primary Buddhist and Tai Chi masters:
1. Regulation of the Body.
2. Regulation of the Breath.
3. Regulation of the Emotions.
4. Regulation of the Qi.
5. Regulation of the Spirit.
1. Regulation of the Body: The Tai Chi form is a martial Yoga. Regulating the body through the form provides the foundation for everything else. Tai Chi practice requires that we explore issues of balance, coordination, flexibility, and alignment. These are issues which have both physical and psychic implications.
The pressures of life tend to damage us in many ways, both physical and psychic: illness, injury, the infirmities of age, ambition, grief, disappointment, anger, and envy. We collect and carry them. They compromise our balance, disconnect our coordination, make us rigid and inflexible, and put us out of touch with what is upright and true.
The discipline of the form, through mass repetition and the inculcation of patience, addresses all these elements through the rectification of the body. The form restores a sense of alignment and balance, gently trains flexibility, strengthens the muscles and the bones which attach to them, and virtually arrests the progress of osteoporosis. These, and many other physical benefits, provide the foundation.
One of the most important changes the body undergoes is that its connective tissue becomes more flexible and its spinal and pelvic configuration shift. Without this change higher level skill is inaccessible. These changes are the substance of the first 5 of Yang Cheng Fu’s 10 Essential Points.
2. Regulating the breath ...comes naturally when we regulate the body. As we practise, our breathing changes. In general it becomes longer, quieter, deeper, un-strained, and self-regulated. The physical form teaches us how to breathe. When we raise our arms in Commencement, our rib-cage lifts. As it does, our lungs fill. When we lower the arms we naturally exhale. In a sense, we do not really have to worry about the breath as the movements of the form breathe for us.
I am referring primarily to Yang style here. When I learned Chen Cannon Fist from Grandmaster Jou Tsung Hwa he emphasized pre-natal breathing throughout. Similarly, technical breathing is important in the Old Yang middle-frame tradition (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NarXssNqbic) and its many associated qigongs. It should be noted that this style is yoga-intensive!
However, for most Tai Chi practitioners the emphasis should be on natural breathing. The chest does not swell as we inhale. Instead, the lower abdomen naturally inflates with inhalation and deflates as we exhale. Everything is done easily and not to excess. The loosening of the connective tissue and waist and the altered alignment of the spine and pelvis facilitate this.
The average individual in our society has a breath rate of 12 to 17 breaths per minute. The average Tai Chi veteran has a breath rate of 5 to 7 per minute. C.J. Rhoads in the U.S. has published research which establishes that an effective control on acute chronic pain is slow breathing in combination with slow physical movement and mindfulness (Rhoads CJ (2013) Mechanism of Pain Relief through Tai Chi and Qigong. J Pain Relief 2:115. doi: 10.4172/2167-0846.1000115.). This sounds like a pretty good description of Tai Chi!
Generally breath should also be even unless the practitioner is addressing specific health conditions. A long inhalation and short explosive exhalation will tend to raise blood pressure. A short inhalation and longer exhalation will tend to lower blood pressure. Tai Chi generally moderates BP. This is something to take care with.
3. Regulating the emotions is a by-product of the regulation of body and breathing. As I was taught by Dr. Shen Zaiwen, in Tai Chi we achieve emotional balance by regulating two aspects of the mind, xin and yi. Xin can be thought of as the heart-mind. When we say that we are down-hearted, heartsick, heart-sore or that our heart is troubled we are referring to xin. Yi is often spoken of as intent but it is more than that. Yi is also the attentive mind. It is the aspect of mind that pays attention, that naturally concentrates and is objectively aware.
These two aspects of mind are like the two pans of a balance scale. If we wish to moderate one, we must activate the other. When we come to our practice, often “the world is too much with us”. We may be worried about the kids, about work, about our car insurance, about finances…. Then we commence Tai Chi and for the next 20 minutes we let our attention rest upon the details of movement and our awareness of where we are in the continuum of the form. Our breathing quiets, our awareness is tuned, we become calm, and by the end of the form we are a bit more sane. The activation of our attentive mind has quieted the troubled waters of our emotional storm. Our problems may still be with us but we are able to regard them in a way that is quieter and less troubled. To paraphrase one of the old Classics, once we are able to sink into a clarity of relaxation, we “are ready for anything from any of the eight directions”.
4. Regulating the Qi: It is said that, “Where the Yi goes, Qi follows”. In the same way, if the mind becomes quiet, the Qi is not rushing and agitated but flows naturally and smoothly in a balanced and grounded way.
We may think of all subtle energy as Qi but in fact there are many different kinds of Qi with which we are working. The energy associated with the Lower Dantien (which for this context includes kidneys and genitals) is called jing. It is the energy associated with desire, appetite, vitality and drive. In macrocosmic terms it corresponds to the lower realm of Earth. Qi, as a sub-category of subtle energy rather than as an over-all classification, is centred in the Middle Dantien and is associated with love and relationships, the forces which motivate the middle realm of the People and of living things. The Upper Dantien is the seat of the spirit or shen. It is the home of compassion and in macrocosmic terms corresponds to the upper realm, Heaven.
When the Qi is regulated, it is said to have sunk. This state is the outcome of all the changes, physical and psychic, to this point. When the Qi is sunk we feel calm, balanced and solidly connected to the earth. It is as though our entire centre of gravity has been lowered and not just physically! We also may be able to feel the pulsation and movements of our inner subtle energy and also that of others. Regulating our emotions and thoughts requires that we balance and fully live in all three realms. We must balance them, feel them within us, and respect their priorities and needs.
5. Regulating the Spirit encompasses all of the above and is the culmination of the whole process. In esoteric terms, it involves the transformation of energies and may involve the attainment of certain unusual psychic abilities.
In practical, everyday terms it means that we live our lives as fully as we can, free from anger and fear, animated as fully as possible by sincerity, love and compassion. If we are able to live in this way, we reform and re-shape the world around us. As the Buddha taught,
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts;
With our thoughts we make the world.
How we move through the world testifies to our realization of the values of Tai Chi: dynamic change and growth, balanced by harmony and the powers of enlightened awareness. We are motivated, not by selfish egotism, but by an appreciation and concern for others.
So, how is this process reconcilable with the pursuit of martial skill?
As physical beings, we are endowed with the capacity for self defense. Further, we are capable of defending others just as we are physically capable of abusing them. Spiritual training ensures that we are motivated by positive values, not negative ones. Animals in the wild are generally governed by the imperatives of appetite and fear, fight or flight. Many believe that all human action must be subject to the same grim imperative. Tai Chi offers another way. Violence is just a thing. It has no inherent worth, positive or negative. How we employ our skills therefore determines whether we are humane or merely bestial.
If we seek to have spiritual and moral worth we must absorb the lessons Tai Chi offers us and seek to leave the world better than we found it. To paraphrase the final document of the Yang family 40, “In the end, the ultimate goal of Tai Chi is simply…sincerity.”