Amongst the claims made for tai chi is that it is a form of meditation in movement, that it can be considered a spiritual discipline. However, there is not really much written about this aspect of tai chi, when compared with, for example, Vipassana meditation, Taoism, or Buddhism. Are there ideas from these other Eastern spiritual traditions that may be able to illuminate our tai chi practice? I would like to suggest that some ideas from Taoism, particularly ‘wu-wei’, which can be understood as ‘not forcing’, are central to the practice of tai chi. Alan Watts (1975) explains that:
‘…the principle of “ nonaction” (wu-wei) is not to be considered inertia, laziness, laissez-faire, or mere passivity’ (p.75).
Instead, wu-wei has the meaning of not forcing, not using artifice:
‘Thus wu-wei as “not forcing” is what we mean by going with the grain, rolling with the punch, swimming with the current, trimming sails to the wind, taking the tide at its flood, and stooping to conquer… and must be understood primarily as a form of intelligence – that is, of knowing the principles, structures, and trends of human and natural affairs so well that one uses the least amount of energy in dealing with them’ (1975, p.76).
In tai chi practice the attitude of ‘wu-wei’ gives rise to relaxation, and a softness and sensitivity that enable an intelligent connectedness to one’s own body and energy, and that of an opponent. Lacking an intent that we wish to assert, any intention to do anything to the opponent other than to maintain balance, assists in the development of the required sensitivity (ting) to the opponent’s energy.
Susanne K. Langer, in ‘Philosophy in a New Key’, notes that human behaviour has meaning beyond the simply functional:
‘The great contribution of Freud to the philosophy of mind has been the realization that human behaviour is not only a food-getting strategy, but is also a language; that every move is at the same time a gesture’ (1957).
In practising tai chi, what might we be gesturing towards? Cheng Man-ching spoke of tai chi as being a study of the Tao. As Taoism forms one of the influences on the development of Zen Buddhism, as well as on tai chi, we can look to Zen for some clues. Alan Watts, in ‘The Way of Zen’ draws attention to this influence, noting that Zen’s, ‘flavour is so peculiarly Chinese’ (1971, p.23). He goes on to state:
‘Taoism is, then, the original Chinese way of liberation which combined with Indian Mahayana Buddhism to produce Zen’ (1971, p.47).
Zen Buddhism administers a slap in the face of the Christian doctrine of Original Sin and the Protestant ethic of hard work and ‘pulling yourself up by your bootstraps’. There is a well known Zen saying: ‘Sitting quietly doing nothing, Spring comes and the grass grows by itself’. We may hear an echo here, of the Taoist idea of wu-wei – ‘non-action’, or ‘not-forcing’.
Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, expands on this theme: ‘All the elements for your happiness are already here. There is no need to run, strive, search, or struggle. Just be. Just being in the moment in this place is the deepest practice of meditation… In aimlessness, we see that we do not lack anything, that we already are what we want to become, and our striving just comes to a halt’ (2017, pp.52-53).
Thich Nhat Hanh explains that to Zen master Linji (Japanese: Rinzai) the ideal example of what a person should be was ‘the businessless person’: ‘…the businessless person is someone who doesn’t run after enlightenment or grasp at anything, even if that thing is the Buddha. This person has simply stopped. She is no longer caught by anything, even theories or teachings. The businessless person is the true person inside each one of us’ (2017, p.72).
Many of us are engaged in a kind of struggle with ourselves, perhaps stemming from a sense that we lack something, that we are incomplete. For a society geared towards selling us ‘things’ whether it be a new car or a new slimmer, more desirable self, creating in us a sense of lack is a profitable tactic.
There’s a cartoon from the New Yorker, titled ‘The Mind Body Problem’, which, in depicting a man lounging on his sofa, finds humour in reducing our inner struggle against lethargy to its most basic elements. A speech bubble from the protagonist’s mind urges his body to: ‘Get up’, and his body emphatically replies: ‘NO!’
What has the Buddhist notion of ‘aimlessness’ or ‘businessless’ got to say about ‘striving’, ‘grasping’ and ‘forcing’ to those of us on the tai chi path delineated by Professor Cheng?
We live in an age where a few taps on a screen takes you to a Youtube video of a tai chi master demonstrating awesome powers of fa jing and na jing. Tempted by the acquisition of such powers, it’s all too easy to turn your tai chi practice into a goal-orientated daily struggle with the recalcitrant flesh, (or fascia as modern tai chi theory would have it) in order to approach even the foothills of such abilities. And ‘struggle’ equates to tension.
Professor Cheng was a traditionalist in terms of classical Chinese culture. As a traditionalist, his tai chi drew upon the influences of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. A foundational Taoist text - the Tao Te Ching - can be translated as: ‘The Book (Ching) of the Way (Tao) and it’s Power (Te)’. The implication is that following ‘the Way’ gives access to a particular kind of power. The Way, the Tao Te Ching tells us, cannot be spoken, cannot be caught in a net of language. However, it can be intuited, traditionally by the practice of an art such as archery, the tea ceremony, flower arranging, or tai chi.
The notion of ‘trying harder’ to achieve some goal is fostered in us by our materialistic culture, which conceptualises us as economic units competing with others for a bigger share of society’s ‘goods’. The Tao Te Ching turns this idea on its head and suggests to us that we ‘try softer’, that we cease struggling and competing:
‘Best to be like water, Which benefits the ten thousand things And does not contend.’ (1993, verse 8).
‘Nothing in the world is soft and weak as water. But when attacking the hard and strong Nothing can conquer so easily.
I have heard that if Professor Cheng saw sweat on a student’s brow while practising tai chi, he would point to their forehead and point to a chair, saying ‘tai chi is not shaolin’.
In tai chi, what we are after is the attainment of ‘sung’ – relaxation, letting go, and sinking (chen) the chi - which promises to give rise to ‘peng’ – an expansive upward and outward power that is the foundation of tai chi’s martial skills. It depends upon letting go of our tension, making friends with gravity. But the development of ‘sung’, ‘chen’ and ‘peng’ takes time, a quality of relaxation beyond your idea of relaxation, and a gradual restructuring and opening of the body.
In past Summer tai chi workshops, Wolfe Lowenthal has remarked that the attainment of gong fu (skill) in tai chi arises from ‘time spent in principle’: time practising tai chi form, sensing hands and sword, in the spirit of the Tai Chi Classics, especially the principle of using softness rather than hard force. More than this, Wolfe says we should come to embody softness:
‘To achieve the martial benefit of softness it has to become even more than second nature. Softness has to define our energy. It has to become the parameters of what we can do. It has to in effect change us into a relatively unique human entity. We can’t just be a hard, tight person who sometimes gives softness a try. The required change is that we have to give that person up’ (Wolfe Lowenthal, private communication).
For Wolfe, tai chi is ‘a study of Tao’. He adds: ‘The Tao is not a destination, it is the journey. The payoff for me is who I need to be to take the journey. A presence aligned with Tao’ (Tai Chi Thoughts Internet Journal, January 2017).
Similarily, in Yang’s Ten Important Points, Yang Cheng-fu (the famed teacher of Cheng Man-ching) draws on the Tai Chi Classics in exhorting the student of tai chi to ‘Use mind and not force’. He goes on to say:
‘The T’ai Chi Ch’uan Classics say, “All of this means use i (mind) and not li (force).” In practicing T’ai Chi Ch’uan the whole body relaxes. Don’t let one ounce of force remain in the blood vessels, bones, and ligaments to tie yourself up… If you use i, not li, then the i goes to a place (in the body) and the ch’i follows it. The ch’i and the blood circulate. If you do this every day and never stop, after a long time you will have nei chin (real internal force).’ (2008, pp.108-109).
It is not enough to acquire the correct physical structure, difficult in itself. Wolfe Lowenthal notes that one needs the yang and the yin – the correct physical structure, but also the correct attitude, one might say ‘the correct state of being’.
Chen Wei-ming, senior student of Yang Cheng-fu, recounts an answer Yang Cheng-fu gave to one of his questions:
‘Q: It is said that one must not use force in push-hands. But if my opponent is strong and uses great force against me, what can I do? A: If you fore-go force and practice push-hands for several years you will produce a natural energy (p’eng chin) which will stop an opponent’s force without strain. If a beginner practices relaxation for several years with no tension anywhere or practices push-hands with WARDOFF he can get this energy’ (1985, p.25).
On a recent occasion I sent my teacher, Wolfe, a long email detailing some special training I had spent a year struggling with, and asking him if he saw it as a correct path. Wolfe answered my question, and picking up on the impatience for results hiding in the question, wrote: ‘Be sure to remain relaxed about the whole thing’.
Paul Cavel recommends an antidote to the Western ‘give it 110%’ mindset. His ‘rule of thirds’ advises only using two thirds of your energy and effort in training internal arts like tai chi, keeping one third in reserve. He notes:
‘When pushed beyond their comfortable limits, the body, mind and qi become strained and trigger the body’s instinctual self-defence mechanisms. When activated, the nervous system pulls all parts of the body towards its centre to prevent damage.’ (2017, p.20).
This results in the muscles hardening, the nerves tightening, and the blood and qi becoming constricted. The body, fearing injury, learns to distrust the mind (ibid., p.20). What’s more, forcing can lead to unconscious resistance which undermines your practice, or causes you to cease practising altogether. If you do not enjoy your practice you will more than likely give up, like the gym membership taken out for the New Year and abandoned at the end of January.
In the same vein, Alan Watts explains that Taoists do not force themselves to sit in meditation any longer than they want to:
‘…those who understand the Tao delight, like cats, in just sitting and watching without any goal or result in mind. But when a cat gets tired of sitting, it gets up and goes for a walk or hunts for mice. It does not punish itself or compete with other cats in an endurance test as to how long it can remain immovable – unless there is some real reason for being still, such as catching a bird’ (1975, p.90).
Watts considers forcing oneself to meditate longer than one wants to, to be spiritual pride: a kind of grasping, or spiritual greed. Wolfe Lowenthal is fond of quoting Confucius:
‘In order to illuminate the luminous virtue, one must eliminate the desire for things.’ Here ‘things’ refers to wealth, possessions, status, roles, relationships – anything the ego grasps at.
On the other hand, it makes no sense to try to be without desire, as surely this is just another kind of grasping, a desire to be without desire. The solution to this dilemma, Watts maintains, is an intuitive understanding that there is nothing but the Tao:
‘But it is worth re-emphasizing the principle that “you” cannot go along with “things” unless there is the understanding that there is, in truth, no alternative since you and the things are the same process – the now-streaming Tao. The feeling that there is a difference is also that process. There is nothing to do about it. There is nothing not to do about it. There is only the stream and its myriad convolutions – waves, bubbles, spray, whirlpools, and eddies – and you are that’ (1975, p.98).
Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘In aimlessness we see that we do not lack anything’, in one stroke wipes from the existential blackboard the need for us to struggle in order to attain some desired quality. In our tai chi practice, as in our life, what is of most importance is ‘being in the moment in this place’ (2017, p.52). Thich Nhat Hanh observes that he enjoys the time spent in mindfulness meditation, and mindful walking. It’s refreshing and restoring, not something he has to force himself to do.
And what I notice when I cease struggling, cease trying to ‘push the river’ of my tai chi; when I climb out of the future into the back seat of the present moment, is a letting go of striving and it’s associated tension. Thus enabling a letting go into the correct posture, a bringing together of mind and body, which allows peace, relaxation and joy to manifest, and the qi to flow.
I think it is not helpful to ask myself whether my tai chi is good, or compare it to someone else’s perceived progress in tai chi. Everyone has their own tai chi. We all have our own, unique internal world, our own strengths, and our own constellation of emotional and spiritual challenges. This is the territory of the psychological professions… and the poets:
‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to but they do. They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you.’ (Philip Larkin, 1988).
I sometimes think of war correspondent Michal Herr’s startling sentence about the Vietnam war and the young correspondents who reported on it: ‘I think Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods’ (1977). And I reflect that maybe: ‘tai chi is what we had instead of happy childhoods.’ Wolfe Lowenthal, too, speaking in his Summer Workshop, has at times described tai chi as a salve for our psychic and physical pain.
By definition, only you can do your tai chi. The aim is not simply to replicate the outward appearance of someone else’s tai chi, but to embrace your uniqueness, your individual Tao or path. So many of us are like Woody Allen, who once remarked that his greatest wish was to be somebody else. Many years ago I had a long psychoanalysis. My therapist used to say that what we are most afraid of is our individual uniqueness, our unique perceptions and desires; of being our true selves. And this is understandable in a society informed by the central Christian myth, which tells us that if you speak out, if you challenge the structures of power, someone is liable to nail you to a wooden cross.
In practising tai chi without forcing, spending ‘time in principle’, your tai chi will deepen. You are complying with Cheng Man-ching’s injunction to ‘emulate the stream that gradually forms its own watercourse rather than brutishly forging ahead’ (1999, p.10). Tai chi will enable your intrinsic self , the ‘uncarved block’ beloved of Taoists, to emerge, as you allow the obscuring physical and psychic tensions to gradually melt away. And, you can’t have a ‘sung’ body, without a ‘sung’ mind.
So be sure to remain relaxed about the whole thing.
References Addiss, S. and Lombardo, S. (Trans), Lao Tzu (2017) Tao Te Ching, Boston and London, Shambhala.
Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo, Inn, M., Amacker, R., Foe, S. (Trans), (2008) The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan: The Literary Tradition, San Francisco, IRI Press.
Benjamin Pang Jeng Lo and Smith, R. W. (Trans), Chen Wei-Ming (1985) Tai Chi Ch’uan Ta Wen: Questions and Answers on T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Berkeley, California, North Atlantic Books.
Cavel, P., (2017) The Tai Chi Space: How to Move in Tai Chi and Qi Gong, London, Aeon Books Ltd.
Hennessy, M. (Trans), Cheng Man-ch’ing (1999) Master Cheng’s New Method of Taichi Ch’uan Self-Cultivation, Berkeley, California, Frog Ltd.
Herr, M. (1977) Dispatches, London, Picador.
Langer, S. K. (1957) Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art, Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press.
McLeod, M. (Ed), (2017) The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh, Boulder, Colorado, Shambhala.
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Watts, A. W. (1971) The Way of Zen, Harmondsworth, Pelican.
Watts, A. W. (1975) Tao: The Watercourse Way, New York, Pantheon.