Being Way Oriented

The beauty of Tai Chi is that anyone can do it. There is an old saying: “Tai Chi can be done by anyone: male, female, young, old, strong, weak, intelligent and slow, healthy or ill.” It is one of the few forms of exercise at which you can improve continuously as you age. Tai Chi masters are not found in their teens, twenties or thirties, but in their sixties, seventies and eighties. Traditionally, one cannot be recognised as a master until the age of sixty. Of course you do not need to become a master in order to gain profound benefits, physical, emotional, mental and spiritual from this practice.

As well as proper instruction, there is only one quality that anyone needs in order to benefit from Tai Chi, and that is perseverance. While perseverance sounds rather hard and dogged, it really doesn’t have to be. All it means here is that one continue to attend classes. Just keep coming.

Sadly, this is what many people do not do. Even though they obviously enjoy and benefit from the classes many people stop. There are all sorts of reasons why this happens, circumstances change etc., but there is one reason in particular that accounts for a large proportion of those who drop out.

The way it goes is something like this: Someone joins a Tai Chi class and enjoys it. They find it is interesting and challenging, and that it shows them a new way of connecting and moving their body. They begin to let go of some of their tension. They make friends and enjoy the tea breaks. But some way into the form they have to miss a week or two and when they return to class they find that they have missed a move. Now they have a gap in their form. This gap flusters them and they begin to feel lost in the sequence. Fairly soon they decide to stop attending the class and to wait for the form to start again. They are never seen in the class again.

People hate having gaps in their forms. They would rather stop than keep going and fill in the gaps when they go through the form the next time, or when there are revision classes. This attitude points to one of the dominant fixations of our culture: the desire for perfection. If you can’t do something right it is not worth doing at all. Ironically, Tai Chi is an antidote to this fixation, but you have to give it time. Or rather you have to give yourself time to adjust and recognise the benefits of letting go of perfection.

Tai Chi is not a perfection practice. It is a letting go practice.

After studying Tai Chi for some time, it will gradually dawn on you that there is actually no end to the form. Just like the seasons, each round allows the opportunity to explore further the nature of change and free flow. Learning the sequence of the form, beginning to end, without obvious gaps does not mean that you have completed the form, only that you are ready to explore the next layer. This is true of everyone, no matter how many times they have been through it. Each round shows you that bit more, allowing you to get connected at deeper and deeper levels as you let go into yourself.

At the same time, you come to realise that there will always be gaps in your form, the only thing that changes is the level of subtlety involved. At first the gaps are large and obvious with whole movements missing. Then the gaps start to shrink as you notice that only certain elements of a move are missing. Once you have the moves clearly, you notice more subtle gaps: places where all or parts of you stop moving. More subtle still, you start noticing that various elements of the sixteen basic components of Daoist neigong are missing. Then within each component aspects are missing and so on. As you penetrate deeper inside, you find gaps in your emotions, in your mind and your spirit. Consider the Daoist maxim that if you could stay fully present (without any gaps) for the time it takes a leaf to fall from a tree, you would be enlightened.

Becoming aware of these gaps is only disquieting or off putting if you maintain a goal orientation, which is to say the doing of something to have done it, finished, perfect. Such an orientation is not conducive to being comfortable, at ease and happy in the world. With such an attitude one misses out on enjoying the world, on enjoying the banquet rather than eating on the run.

One of the phrases that Daoists have for the alternative to being goal oriented is xiao yao 逍遙, which means ‘happy wandering’, ‘free and easy rambling’ or ‘sauntering carefree, at one’s ease’. It is, in fact, the title of the first chapter of the Zhuangzi, one of the great Daoist classics.

Xiao yao is about being way oriented. It is to find the value of something in how you go about doing it as much as in the result. It takes into consideration the state you are in during and after each cycle. It also makes clear that where you end up has a great deal to do with how you went about getting there, and who you are when you get there, because you become what you practise.

Paramount in the internal arts is not getting stuck. Thinking that you have done the form, completed it, mastered it, is to get stuck. Just as demanding or expecting that you be perfect at anything is to be stuck. As you get comfortable with this practice that has no end, but which is endlessly fascinating, you can apply it to the rest of life. Life is not a race to the end. The first one there does not win. It is a journey to be enjoyed. Tai Chi can show you how to relax into the journey.

Here are some useful questions to ask yourself about your practice. Is what I am doing moving me in the direction of letting go of my tensions and frustrations? Or am I winding myself up further? Plenty of people use Tai Chi as a torture device, as another reason to beat themselves up and practise their usual tense habits. There is no sense in getting stressed over your relaxation practice.

Continuing with your Tai Chi, neigong or qigong, regardless of the gaps, can help you let go into life and to enjoy your stroll along the way.

 

© Matthew Brewer, Daoist Internal Art, 2009 & 2017

Winter: the Dao of Storage

藏之道

The three months of winter are called closing and storing.
Water freezes, earth cracks.
Do not disturb the yang at all.
Early to bed, late to rise. (You) must await the daylight.
Make that which is of the heart/mind as though hidden, as though concealed,
as though (you) have a secret intention, already obtained.
Leave the cold, seek warmth.
Do not leak the skin.
Urgently hold onto the qi.
This is the winter compliance of qi;
the cultivation of the Dao of storage.a
To oppose these principles injures the kidneys.
(Consequently) spring will bring paralysis and fainting
(and) there will be little to offer (your) sprouting.1Neijing Chapter 2.

Winter is the time of the kidneys, which are the basic source of energy in the body. They act very much like batteries. At this time of year we need to recharge them by protecting and nourishing them. This is done by storing our energy rather than expending it.

This is the most yin of the seasons. When the weather turns cold, everything in nature goes to sleep. As the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic, the Neijing, tells us, ideally we should reduce our activity, go to bed earlier, and get up later, so as not to ‘disturb the yang at all’. Like fish sinking to the bottom of an icy pond, or like a daffodil bulb in the cold ground, we should let our energy sink deeper inside us. It is only by storing its energy in winter that the daffodil can flower in spring. Similarly, it is only by resting and storing our energy now that we will be able to ’sprout’ – have the energy to increase our activity – when spring comes. So, this is not the time to start jogging, doing aerobics or anything else that will bring our energy to the surface and make us sweat, or, as the Neijing puts it, ‘leak the skin’. We should avoid rushing around. Instead we should go to bed early, get up late and stay inside where it‘s warm.

The mind also needs to rest. The kidneys are closely associated with the fundamental drive that is called zhì 志 in Chinese. Zhì is often translated as ‘will power’. At its most basic level, it is the survival instinct; that which keeps us going in the darkest times. In less extreme situations it is that faculty which identifies and works towards goals and towards attaining the things that we want. It is the zhì that is spoken of in the line: ‘Make that which is of the heart/mind (zhì) as though hidden, as though concealed’. Now is not the time to activate the zhì. To do so would call on the energy of the kidneys. Rather we should put away our desires in winter and let them rest. In this time of letting go and quietening desire, chapter 46 of the Laozi, the great text of Daoism, is worth contemplating:

Calamity: there is none greater than not knowing what is enough,
Offence: there is none greater than desiring gain.
Thus knowing enough of what is enough is always enough!

Knowing enough of enough is reflected in our passage from the Neijing in its instruction that we should make the heart/mind ‘as though (you) have a secret intention, already obtained’. It is usually with the attainment of our desire that we are, if only briefly, satisfied and able to truly relax. These passages point to a more subtle option, that of letting go of desire itself, which leads to a much more profound and enduring stillness.

Basho, the great master of the Japanese poetic form now known as haiku, who was deeply influenced by writings of the Daoist master Zhuangzi and Chinese Chan/Zen Buddhism, beautifully invokes the importance of stilling the heart-mind at this time of year in his winter poem 1687:

First let us cherish
the plum blossoms’ heart
winter dormancy.2No. 341. The original is: まづ祝へ梅を心の冬籠り (mazu iwae / ume o kokoro no / fuyu-gomori). My thanks to Rachelle Allen-Sherwood for her help in translating this poem. Any mistakes are my own.

Just as in Chinese, the ‘heart’ in Japanese is also the ‘mind’. It is the core of who and what we are. This poem celebrates the flowering of plum blossoms in the spring, which is possible only because they conserve their essence through the cold of the winter. In the terms of the Neijing, by observing the winter compliance of qi and cultivating the dao of storage, the plum blossoms have plenty to offer their sprouting when spring arrives.

Autumn is, ideally, the time when we gather that which nourishes us and let go of that which is no longer of use to us. Now, in winter, it is time to store what we gathered and to allow our systems to rest in stillness.

The dominant element now is water, which naturally flows downward, cleanses, nourishes and goes very calm and still when not disturbed. When water becomes still, it is able to let go of what it is holding in suspension, allowing the sediment to settle out of it. It then becomes clear and reflective, like a mirror.

Both Daoism and Buddhism use this image of still water becoming clear and reflective as a metaphor for the stilling of the emotions and the mind through breathing and related mindful practices.

Tai Chi Fundamentals (Energy Gates) is a powerful winter practice. It activates the water element in the body. Standing is very yin, as is Cloud Hands when we focus on the downward flow of energy. Both practices strengthen the kidneys and help them to store energy better. One way of complying with winter in our Tai Chi or Qigong, is to allow our form to go as smooth and liquid as possible, attending more to the inward and downward flows. To this end we should avoid stopping to correct ourselves. Instead, we should simply note any mistakes to adjust the next time around while maintaining the flow of our movement as best we can, without strain. The closing and bending actions of any form are the ones that encourage the storing of energy. It is also useful to focus on allowing the hands and feet to become very soft. This is the time to let go of the desire to accomplish anything in our practice.

At this time of year, it is best lie down and rest for a while after practice and gently put our attention on the kidneys, letting all of our energy collect there. During the day 3.00-5.00pm is a particularly good time to rest as it is the time that the kidney system is strongest.

Eating what is in season is always a very good way to comply with the qi of the time. Nuts, especially walnuts and chestnuts, are particularly good for the kidneys, as is lamb. Avoid cold food and drink as your body must burn energy to warm it up before it can be used. This is part of ‘leaving the cold and seeking warmth’.

Text and translations ©Matthew Brewer, Daoist Internal Arts, 2017-18.

Notes   [ + ]

Articles & Interviews in PDF

Articles

For those who like properly formatted articles, here are all of the articles from the blog (and some that have not yet made it there) in PDF format.

Embodied Philosophy

Being Way Oriented

Do Not Let the Great be the Enemy of the Good

Making Use of the Middle

Nurturing Life

Rounding Off the Corners

Study not Studying

Taiji and the Procrustean Bed

Tailoring Change

Why So Slow 1

Why So Slow 2

Seasons

Autumn

Winter

Spring

Summer

Long Summer

Bibliographies

Laozi (Daodejing, Tao Te Ching)

Interview

with Master Bruce Frantzis on the Tai Chi Classics.
Reproduced from Tai Chi Chuan & Oriental Arts, Vol. 35, Autumn 2010,
with kind permission from the editor.
Bruce Frantzis on the Tai Chi Classics

Chronic Pain

This article is written for teachers who are interested in this aspect of Tai Chi for health preservation and rehabilitation.

Teaching Tai Chi for Chronic Pain