Physics, Perception and Tai Chi

I've been reading with some fascination Carlo Rovelli's The Order of Time (ISBN: 978-0-7352-1610-5). It is certainly a mind-bending book about quantum time which endeavours to explain how time (a) does not fundamentally exist and (b) does indeed exist as a flow arising from our perception.

Did you know that time passes more quickly at high altitudes than at sea level? I didn’t, though I was aware that time passes more quickly for someone walking toward you than it does for someone walking away; that is, in relation to your time. What works on the macro level for the relative motions of stars also applies to us! In short, there simply is no such thing as a standard or ‘normal’ time. As a constant, time does not exist.

In New Age circles ‘quantum’ is a magic word. It often provides a useful smokescreen for people who really don’t know what they are talking about (including me!). But the quantum model is fascinating. Among other things it posits that:

  • Things do exist, but not the way we think they do.

  • Nothing is permanent.

  • Everything exists in a field of interdependence and change.

  • Reality, as we know it, is the creation of our perception and senses.

Further, it grounds these understandings on cutting edge mathematics, physics and astronomy.

One key realization is that the universe is governed not by energy but by entropy - the inherent capacity for change. This idea can be seen as a useful analogy for certain kinds of Tai Chi movement. An example is how the potential for explosive fa-jin is maximized when we are very relaxed; we rest-in to our structure, think in one direction (as Wu Yu-xiang prescribed) and let it go! Entropy has to do with the latent capacity for change as does the inverse relationship between potential power and kinetic force. The key is how we interact with change, how we perceive it. If we try to fa-jin by using physical muscular force - well, that's not it.

As we all know, our perception of time is altered when we practise Tai Chi. This effect is also accentuated at moments of extreme stress when time slows down for us and allows us to do things we would never be able to do under normal circumstances. Is this not just a matter of perception as opposed to what is really happening? But that’s the point; there is no ‘real’. It’s all relative, a matter of perception. Our perception plays a great role in creating the reality we have to negotiate.

‘Flow’ is fundamental to this. Flow is how we organize a temporal continuity from the myriad discrete but interacting elements which make up the fabric of ‘reality’. It is how an infinite multitude of ever-changing inter-reactive forces and elements are perceived in a meaningful (but deceptive) way. Consider the amazing eyes of the race driver who perceives the elements of an occurring crash and organizes them into a flow of high-speed avoidance!

Our perception of flow is called somaesthetics. I addressed this in 2016 in an article at: Our late friend Richard Rooke identified 'flow' as an essential element for Tai Chi Beginners. It was the 4th. of his 5 principles: I think he was right!

Paraphrasing Richard:

"Seeking the flow takes time and is usually not accessible to the beginner. Beginners are focused primarily on the demands of sequencing. For a beginner, the form consists of a collection of postures and the student must proceed from one to the next. Only when this is no longer a huge priority can the flow manifest, and it manifests as the cumulative effect of the earlier points in this list. It is also at this point that the breathing becomes natural."

"As one realizes the inner sense of flow, one accesses deeper levels of relaxation and more energy. In turn, these result in more flow…and so it goes! This is a big part of what some folks call “the magic”.

"It takes time. Initially you have bits of it but, as familiarity with the entirety of the form increases, the flow develops."

Over the past several months I have been correlating several exercises: silk-reeling, BANG, Cannon Fist 'Commencement', and the first of the Yang family's 'Brocades'. My objective has been to affect how we perceive the 'flow' of Taijiquan in both form and applications. Pushing hands is another useful means of bringing this sense to fruition.

Tai Chi is not a single fixed item. We create its harmony as an interaction of body and mind. Gently guiding this act of creation is the task of the teacher. An error in my habitual approach has been to focus on power. It fascinates me - how the shapes of the art can overcome brute force. But the key is not so much power as the capacity for change within a field of spontaneity.

Conventional explanations of the quantum view tend to get mired down in issues of chaos and the disintegration of order. The quantum concept, as I have come to understand it from the work of authors such as Rovelli, is much more elegant. It relates to astrophysics, to sub-atomic reality and to the role of human perception.

It is sometimes said that, while reality is quantum, we all live in a Newtonian world. While this is true in many respects, it is also true that Newton never addressed perception except in his research on the mechanics of light and optics. In Tai Chi the issue of perception is absolutely key to our growing ability to take myriad discrete phenomena and experience their totality as flow.

While the quantum world seems to make sense at extreme micro and macro levels, our experience of Taijiquan allows us to experience something analogous at a personal level. Our engagement with the processes of perception and change is just one of the 'endowments' that Tai Chi affords us.

The first half of Rovelli's text is focused on explaining how time does not exist in the way we think it does and the second half then reconstitutes time as the creation of our minds, of our sense of 'flow'. But he then goes no farther. He never gets around to asking 'Why?' Why is it that we perceive things in the way we do? I believe that, if we have the courage to ask this question, we are dealing among other things with theories of beauty, art, aesthetics, meaning, and spirituality.

I also believe this relates directly to our Tai Chi practice... as it does to everything else!

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