I was struck by the following idea from Cheng Man-ching, quoted by Robert Smith (1995): ‘Everyone’s form will be different – like fingerprints or snowflakes – but the basics will be the same. The structure will be pretty much the same while the flow will come to express some of the personality of the person doing it... Professor Zheng would go on to say that structure and flow together – the technique – make up only thirty percent of taiji... Seventy percent of taiji is naturalness, the intrinsic “you”, which can only come from inside you’ (p.56).
This passage sent me on a little intellectual excursion. I began to wonder about the nature of this ‘intrinsic you’ which our tai chi form comes to express. Is it in some way related to our ‘self’, the ‘self’ which English Psychoanalyst, Charles Rycroft (1979) defines: ‘the self refers to the subject as he experiences himself’?
It seems unlikely that ‘the intrinsic you’ could be equated with our everyday experience of our self. After all in Buddhism, the Second Noble Truth conceptualises the cause of suffering as being the belief in a solid, enduring ‘self’ or ‘soul’. Conradi describes this self: ‘This self (ego) spends much time trying to establish personal territory, a nest orcocoon, to defend. It generally imagines itself as vulnerable, rather than robust… It is subject to incessant hope and fear. It goes on interesting forays into the future. It builds itself up and its main activity is daydreaming’ (2004, pp.80-81).
That the notion of the ‘self’ in philosophy is a complex and contested idea is illustrated by a book, growing dusty on my shelf, called ‘Continental Philosophy since 1750: the rise and fall of the self’. The story begins with the miraculous discovery Jean-Jacques Rousseau made while walking in the forests of St Germain – the discovery that he had a ‘self’. It was ‘a true and absolute self that was not each person’s alone, but which was shared with all humanity’ (p1). The book then goes on to delineate a bewildering variety of ideas of the self including chapters on: Hegel and the Apotheosis of Self as Spirit; the Self turned Sour – Schopenhauer; The Attack on the Self – Nietzsche; and the final chapter – The End of the Self (in Structuralism and Postmodernism). Perhaps the idea of ‘naturalness’ can help us find a way through some of the complexity. When I think of nature or naturalness, the idea of the Dao is never far away, derived as it is from the observation of natural processes. A Malaysian tai chi teacher, who strives for faithfulness to Cheng Man-ching’s tai chi - Koh Ah-tee - reportedly maintains: ‘Correct Tai Chi Chuan is formless... All the movements we have in our Tai Chi Chuan styles were created by the old masters to reflect their ideas about the Dao. They are ideas and creations. They are not the Dao. The real Dao is formless... We must understand the way of the Dao and apply that to our bodies, speech, minds, functions and activities’ (John Chow 2005). Koh Ah-tee, in this passage, does not tell us how to come to an understanding of the way of the Dao. However, his devotion to the tai chi of Cheng Man-ching, suggests that this practice may be of help.
I’m assuming that the ‘intrinsic you’, the 70 percent of tai chi that is ‘naturalness’, is the deeper part of ourselves which is connected to everyone and everything, which accords with the Dao. The formless is approached through form. Is there a suggestion too, that on the tai chi path, the ‘intrinsic you’ is found more through the experience of the self moving through the form, or not resisting the push, than through ideas about what it might be? In discovering the ‘intrinsic you’ it is necessary to become less attached to the circumscribed self which constantly strives to defend itself. Hence Cheng Man-ching advises us to: ‘lose, lose, lose until you have nothing left to lose’.
References Chow, J (2005) 'Master Koh Ah Tee: a brief report by John Chow of his Tai Chi Chuan Institute on his Taipei trip', Internet document. Conradi, P. J. (2004) 'Going Buddhist: panic and emptiness, the Buddha and me', Short Books, London. Liu His-heng, Translated by Rick Halstead, 'The Concept of Central Equilibrium in T’ai-Chi Ch’uan'. Rycroft, C. (1979) 'A Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis', Penguin, England. Smith, R.W. (1995) 'Zheng Manqing and Taijiquan: a clarification of role', in Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol.4 no.1, pp.50-65. Solomon, R.C. (1988) 'Continental Philosophy since 1750: the rise and fall of the self', Oxford Univ Press, New York.