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INVEST IN LOSS

"Snake Creeps Down" from Yang style Tai chi.

“Snake Creeps Down” from Yang style Tai chi.

Body alignment and posture have a profound effect on your state of health and emotions. We maintain “attitudes” within our bodies, which then affect the posture. The slumped shoulders express the attitude that we are so troubled that we are “carrying the world on our shoulders”. The prideful, arrogant attitude has the chest puffed out.

To many people, these attitudes are their identity. They are how we feel who we are. But they lock us into a set of behaviors that limit our ability to grow and be creative. Tai chi frees us from being locked into attitudes. It allows the creative person, who you truly are, to become the core of your life.

When you are locked into a posture, energy cannot flow through the body. Blood cannot flow freely. The inter-cellular fluid, which brings nutrients and oxygen from the capillaries to the cells, cannot move. The lymph, which takes waste from the cells to the bladder and lungs for removal, does not move. The body then deteriorates.

A body locked in attitude is a fearful body. It is afraid to let go of that attitude because that attitude is the only place it feels safe. Relaxing feels like jumping off a cliff. Yet if you take the chance and relax, you find that the cliff is only a few inches high.

I believe that most people are locked into these attitudes and that is destroying our health and our ability to enjoy our lives. Tai chi can be a lifesaver if you are willing to go beyond merely memorizing the movements of a form. Tai chi has been described as “investing in loss”. This means that you put time and effort into letting go of your locked attitudes. You stop investing in tightening up your muscles to express fear or “strength”.

Invest in health and relaxation. Invest in making the rest of your life the most enjoyable life you can imagine. Learn Tai chi.

WHAT IS MIND?

Bob Klein

Bob Klein

When practicing Tai-chi form (or any other activity in life), it is important to distinguish the two parts of “Mind” or what I call “attention”. A Tai-chi saying is that, “Mind leads, body follows”. This does NOT mean that your thoughts tell your body what to do.

This saying is a clue to the real relationship between Mind (attention) and body. There are two aspects of Mind when you are practicing. One is knowing the movements and mechanics behind the movements. The other aspect of Mind is the ebb and flow of attention, its expansion and relaxing. This aspect is like the ocean currents. The “knowing” aspect is like a scuba diver who wants to get from here to there and get things done. He still has to yield to the ocean currents, which are much stronger than him.

The flowing aspect of Mind is not fixed at one spot, such as in the head. It does not give orders to the body. It flows, and the body responds because that is its nature. I also want to make clear that I am NOT talking about imagining the movement in your head first and then doing it. Attention simply flows here or there, it sinks or expands. It is Yin. It is the job of the other aspect of Mind, Yang, to exert influence on the body so that the movements are specific. But Yang Mind does not interfere or overcome Yin Mind.

Another saying is that “The one begets the two, the two begets the three and the three begets the ten thousand things”. At a beginners stage of training, the two aspects of Mind and the body are fused. Everything is tight. There is no relationship among these parts of us. In order to have a relationship, each member of the relationship must be free and independent yet coordinated with the others. If any one member is frozen, there is no relationship. If each is completely independent, with no connection, there is still no relationship. When all three are fused and locked, there is certainly no relationship.

Yet that fused, locked state is the condition of modern people. In order to develop relationship you can practice the form in this way: First allow your attention to move towards where your body will go, and then move the body there. The attention will be like a bungee cord, pulling the body, or like a boat, pulling a water skier. The attention will create a pathway that the body will follow.

You will gradually become aware of the Yin and Yang aspects of attention and their relationship with the body. In fact, everyday the Yin aspect of attention tries to “break its chains” and flow but we are so unused to that that we tighten up right away to stop it. If you know this, and look for it in your everyday life, you can attempt to extend the time that Yin attention is free by not reacting against it. Then you will have a chance for a real relationship between the parts of attention (“Mind”) and the body. (Don’t do this while driving).

When you first begin your Tai-chi practice you bring to it the state of Mind you have. But that frozen state makes it hard to learn Tai-chi. So you either do Tai-chi stiffly, or you struggle to do it in a flowing way. The only way you can really do Tai-chi well is through a transformation of Mind itself, allowing for the relationship described above. That new state of Mind then stays with you all day. You bring it into your everyday interactions and you find that, not only does this new Mind help you in your Tai-chi practice, but in your everyday life as well. And that is one of the great benefits of Tai-chi.

TAI-CHI AND THE BIG BANG THEORY

How can the big bang theory and other scientific concepts be used to illustrate principles of Tai-chi? Both science and Tai-chi principles can be difficult to grasp but if they are compared, then both become clearer.

In this example I use the big bang theory to explain an advanced aspect of Tai-chi training. The scientific theory of the origin of the universe begins with nothing – no space, matter, energy or time. The universe exists as a “singularity” and then explodes, creating space, matter, energy, and time. As it progresses, the individual stars, planets and other heavenly bodies evolve. The question is, will the universe keep expanding until its energy gives out and then die out? Will it expand to a certain size and then shrink back to a singularity? Will it reach a steady state? These questions are worked out mathematically and I don’t attempt to out-think the physicists and astrophysicists but just use their attempts to understand the universe to clarify our attempts to understand Tai-chi.

One of the most difficult aspects of Tai-chi is that you have to become aware of every joint and muscle of the body and how each operates at every second of your movements. This requires a type of attention that is everywhere at the same time. Yet our attention is fixed and located in a specific place (the head). It doesn’t have to be so, yet our culture created this condensation of attention in the head.

In my studies of animal behavior (I was an ethologist), and work with thousands of animals in the field and in captivity, I have found that their attention is more evenly distributed throughout their bodies. Human athletes also have this quality of attention.

For a student to be able to function with precision and grace, he has to go through a process in which the attention is allowed to individuate (to be located in each joint and muscle of the body). The head cannot direct this attention by the thinking process, because thinking is slow and awkward.

In order to have the attention individuate (seep into every part of the body and function there), the fixed point of the attention in the head (the singularity of attention) has to empty. Every increase in individuation of attention requires an equal emptying of the singularity of attention in the head.

If we look at the big bang theory, this would mean that as the universe individuates, the singularity must continue to empty. So the singularity doesn’t cease to exist, rather, it is in a balanced relationship with individuation so that its emptying is equal to the evolution of the universe. The existence of the universe doesn’t end the singularity but is one side of the whole while the emptiness is the other side.

Again, I am not trying to be a physicist but just trying to illustrate a Tai-chi principle. So what is this concept of “emptying”? In Tai-chi it is relaxing, letting go and not fixating on anything. Our attention is usually so weak that it can easily be grabbed by our senses, thoughts and emotions. Most of us are at the mercy of these sensations and have no independent existence. Any form of meditation helps to develop the “passive observer”, a state in which the attention is vibrant but cannot be grabbed.

If your attention is not in this state then it is very hard to concentrate on many things at once. The very idea of “you” concentrating on something else means that you are in a state of fixed attention in the head or in the thinking process. If attention is more individuated the individual parts of the body have more say over how you do your form or your push hands and it becomes more creative and spontaneous.

The attention in the head and thinking process does not have to end in order to allow the body to be filled with attention, but rather it has to “empty”. It has to move toward the “passive observer” state, which we call “Yin”. Yin is not the absence of “Yang” but the balancing of “Yang”.

Yin attention is not “held” and can seep into every part of the body and function there. It can seep into your surroundings as well. When it seeps into a natural area, in which randomness predominates, the attention can easily stay Yin. When it seeps into our modern world, with its geometric, fixed structures, the Yin attention turns Yang. We order the world around us to maintain a fixed Yang attention, which is why it is so hard for us to flow in a Tai-chi form or to relax in everyday life.

If we then use these ideas in Tai-chi to understand the big bang theory, then we have to look for a process of “emptying the singularity”, which again does not lead to an end state of but is a continuing process that balances the evolution of the universe.

This is a very difficult achievement for Tai-chi students – to realize that letting go is not a goal with an end but is a continuous process. It is the letting go that initiates the movement. Tensing does not initiate a movement. One of my students realized that he keeps putting breaks into his letting go. He lets go a little and then stops because he feels he has “achieved” the letting go.

In astrophysics there is an increasing understanding of how “black holes” help in the evolution of the universe. These holes are really matter that is so dense and has so much gravity that nothing can escape them, not even light. It is like attention that is so settled into the body that it cannot be disturbed and grabbed.

When a person is comfortable within their own bodies and relaxed, this draws other people to them, just as a black hole pulls matter into itself.

The real question for Tai-chi students is, once this individuation is achieved and each part of the body becomes conscious and functional, then where does the intention come from to do anything? If all the attention is dispersed into each cell, organ, muscle and bone of the body and there is only a “passive observer” at the “helm”, then how can things get done?

In Tai-chi theory, it is the balance of the individuation and the passive observer that allows creativity to flow. That creativity is the cooperative conscious activity of every part of you combined with the flow of consciousness through you. The “flow of consciousness through you” requires further explanation.

In ancient cultures consciousness was not considered to be just the activity of nerve cells in the brain. That is a modern idea. Consciousness was considered to be a natural energy, just as as gravity or what we now know of as electro-magnetic force and subatomic forces are natural forces. Each creature lives within these forces and adapts to them. We have joints and muscles to provide leverage to counteract the force of gravity. In the same way, our brains use the flow of consciousness to function. Since this is the understanding of the culture that Tai-chi evolved from, we have to take this into consideration in our training in order to make sense of it.

The state of balance between Yin attention (release) and Yang attention (holding) is the proper state to achieve creativity, not to mention health. But to be willing to “empty” the condensed state of attention in the head is the most difficult task of the Tai-chi student.

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(This is a technical aside for those familiar with these ideas. If you are not involved in the technical aspects of Tai-chi, please skip this paragraph). Yin is often used to denote “condensing” while Yang is used to denote “expanding”. In this case I am using Yin to mean release and Yang to hold. Yang attention is likened to grabbing a bird to see it. While you can see it, the bird is frightened and unmoving and all you can see is its external appearance. Yin attention is when you release the bird. You can see it until it disappears in the trees but what you are seeing is its true behavior, not just its appearance. When Yin is released, it is said to turn into True Yang or expansion. When that True Yang connects, such as the attention connecting to other parts of the body, the connecting is called True Yin. You can also see that holding or Yang (such as holding attention in the head) results in Yin (condensing). This interaction of Yin and Yang where one generates the other shows their interdependence, but you do not need to know this to understand this blog post; I’m just injecting it here for technical clarity. Now back to the blog post.
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The teacher has to use his or her teaching creativity to guide the students to that state. The feeling of this type of letting go (of the singularity in the head) has often been compared to jumping off a cliff. If the teacher has helped to develop the body consciousness (“Body-Mind”), you will have something soft to fall on when you jump off that cliff. You will find that the cliff is only two inches tall.

This brings me to an important point. In each culture the dynamics of the culture are expressed in terms of their cosmology. Their description of how the world started and what is really going on within it is a reflection of the dynamics of their culture. Whether their explanation is of the interaction of the Gods or the mechanics of science, these explanations change as cultures change.

It seems to most of us that science is in a different category than other cosmologies because we strictly test all our theories. But the very structure of our minds is what gave rise to the scientific method and re-enforces it. As someone trained in the sciences, I am dedicated to the scientific method and believe strongly in its effectiveness to reveal “truth”. But I also understand that to some degree, culture affects how we perceive the world around us.

This is clearly shown in Tai-chi training. It is shown in how students interpret what the teacher says, for example. It is difficult for them to accept the teaching in its most simple form because their minds are not ready to receive the ideas and their bodies have not experienced them. And so they interpret teaching in odd ways. A typical example is that in Tai-chi we use “whole body movement”. This means that every joint and muscle is in continuous movement appropriate for what it is doing at that moment. This results in fluidity. Yet many Tai-chi students (and teachers) interpret this to mean that you keep the body stiff, with no movement whatsoever in the torso but the body as a whole moves slowly and smoothly. This latter understanding is clearly absurd yet it is commonly followed.

I was teaching a student to “release your attention out the back as much as you move your attention forward”. He interpreted that to mean that he pay attention to his back (the back of his torso).

We can only understand what our minds allow us to understand. As the dynamics of our minds change through time, our relationship to our bodies and to the environment changes. And then our cosmology changes. Just think what the changes to our attention, caused by our addiction to electronic devices will do to our cosmology in the future.

Tai-chi students must understand the relationship of the dynamics of their attention to their perception and seek to maintain a dynamic, balanced and alive attention, consistent with what is required by the body to maintain health and joy. When you learn to let go, you find that tremendous energy fills you. How would our modern cosmology be affected if everyone practiced Tai-chi?

If every part of our body is experienced as being alive and conscious, then the world around us is experienced the same way. We no longer look at animals as dumb, but filled with consciousness, just of a different nature than ours.

The big bang can be seen as the birth of a living organism and its growth as the growth of that organism, including the growth of consciousness. By making ourselves more alive and conscious as individuals, we are participating in this evolution of the living organism, the universe, just as each cell in our bodies participates in the evolution of ourselves as individuals. And just as the death of one cell of our body is not seen as our own death, the death of individual people is not seen as the end of life but as part of the growth of the larger cycle of life.

If consciousness is a force that flows through us, then the death of an individual is not the death of consciousness. On the other hand when we block the flow of consciousness within us as when our bodies are deadened with our unhealthy life-styles, this is more like a death.

HOW TAI-CHI CAN SAVE THE WORLD

Demonstration of Chen Style Tai-chi

How can the ancient Chinese exercise of Tai-chi save the world? It transforms individuals, improving their health, eliminating stress, helps them let go of self destructive behaviors and feel more connected to their community. By transforming individual people in this way, the world can be transformed.

HEALTH

Tai-chi strengthens each cell of the body. The movements promote the movement of intercellular fluid, which brings oxygen and nutrients to the cells and removes their waste. Without the type of intricate movement you get with Tai-chi, the cells receive little nutrients and oxygen, food is stored as fat and cellular waste is not removed. The cells metabolize poorly and degenerate quickly, which leads to early aging. Tai-chi prevents these problems.

Tai-chi keeps the connective tissue flexible. This tissue surrounds all the organs, muscles body cavities and bones and forms ligaments and tendons. It tends to shrink and lose elasticity with age, which condenses the body. It is as if each part of the body is slowly being crushed. Tai-chi movements keep you young by keeping you flexible and maintaining full range of motion of the joints. You are also able to breathe more easily.

The National Institutes of Health lists many research papers showing that Tai-chi helps with arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and other conditions as well as improving balance. If we can be healthier as a society, then we will need less medical intervention and the cost of health care will be less. Our productivity will increase because we will be more energized and spend less time being sick.

COMMUNITY

Our lives are becoming more disconnected. We interact through our cell phones and computers and less through face-to-face interaction. We don’t see our food being grown but purchase prepared, chemically enhanced, nutrient poor food, and just warm it up. We need body skills less and less, except for our thumbs for texting and so we live in our minds, considering our bodies to be “down there”. Our floors and streets are perfectly flat so we don’t even need to be mindful of how our feet interact with the ground.

Tai-chi works by first connecting our minds and bodies. We become aware of how every muscle and joint works in an intricate and beautiful harmony. Our awareness is in every part of our bodies, not just in our heads. When we step, or breathe or smile, it is with full awareness and full participation of every part of us, connected and alive. When we speak with another person, we learn how to really listen, rather than just argue. The Push Hands exercise teaches us to be completely aware of what is going on inside of another person so that we understand their behavior. This allows us to be comfortable with them and appreciate their individual spirit. Can you imagine if everyone felt like this?

We learn to move slowly and smoothly so that our attention flows like water. Rather than our minds ordering our bodies what to do, both mind and body flow together and work together. The mind doesn’t sit on its throne in the head. Each part of the body becomes conscious and consciously participates in the movements. This eliminates the master/slave relationship of the mind and body. It is said that the relationship between the mind and body is the basis of our relationships with other people. Isn’t it the mind, sitting on its throne, which argues that my way is right and yours is wrong?

Yet that very mind has been filled with attitudes and behaviors from outside influences, with their own agendas. What we take to be our identity is to a large extent, pushed into us. It is as if we were forced to wear a suicide vest as we go through life. When we practice Push Hands we have to let go of these attitudes and programmed behaviors, because that is what our Push Hands partner uses to push us off balance. Instead, we have to resort to our creativity and sharpness of attention. We learn that many of our patterns of tension just set us up to get pushed and so we learn to let them go. Letting go is a large part of the training. We even let go of fear itself by examining what fear feels like and understanding that it is just a pattern of tension.

What would the world be like if everyone could let go of self destructive behaviors? What if our identity was no longer based on our intellectual differences and fears but on realizing that the consciousness that flows inside of me is the same energy as that which flows inside of you? We may each be creative with that energy in a different way, but we are all “swimming in the same water” of consciousness. We learn this in Tai-chi.

ENDING CONFLICT

We even learn this lesson in Tai-chi-Chuan (the fighting training of this art). At the beginning we may see sparring as two opponents each trying to win. But the result of proper training in this martial art is to flow with the “opponent” so that there is only one flow. While there is action, your goal is to take control of the interaction so there is no opposition. You are always in a position of power but with no anger. This allows you to feel confident, yet not aggressive, not only in sparring, but in any interaction in everyday life. You are no longer battling your way through life as if you were always on the outside of it. Creativity takes the place of battling.

We say that we cannot take control of the sparring partner’s body – only his mind. If your mind is free and creative, as it is through Tai-chi training, it can never be trapped. As an example, if someone is grabbed, they usually tense up. This just makes it easier for the grabber to control his victim. But if you are loose you can easily slip out of the grab. And so sparring teaches you how to avoid getting trapped in life.

While most people do not learn the martial aspect of Tai-chi training, each part of the training teaches all the principles. You can learn slow forms (movements), aerobic forms, chi-gung (simple exercises), Push Hands – just learning as much as you like. You can also learn healing (Tai-chi Body-work). There is something for everyone in this system of exercise and healing.

HEALING

There are several types of healing that are connected with Tai-chi practice such as acupuncture, acupressure, Tai-chi Bodywork, herbal medicine and more. This type of healing is based on the idea that the body is an ecological community of many types of cells and organs that work best when kept in balance. There is a biological energy that flows through the body called “chi”. When chi flows evenly through every cell and organ of the body, the body is in the best health.

The healing principle “The inside and outside reflect each other” means that we are part of the ecology of the planet. When we heal ourselves we are healing part of the planet. Since each part of the planet is connected to each other part, healing our self really helps to heal the whole living planet.

Tai-chi helps to heal the “chi” that flows through all of us and through all living things, heals the relationships among people and heals us as individuals. What would happen if everyone did Tai-chi?

JOY

When we were little we found joy in movement, singing and in other simple things. We don’t do much of that anymore. Tai-chi reminds us how simple movements can bring the feeling of joy back into our lives. Some types of chi-gung are based on the movements of animals and are great fun (“Zookinesis” is one such series of animal exercises).

By eliminating habits of tension and worry and making each part of the body more aware and sensitive, Tai chi allows us to experience more joy. We can feel the beautiful things around us – art, nature and the human spirit – more intensely. The movements of Tai-chi are an art that weaves the beauty of our biological nature and human spirit into a life of joy that can be shared.

We learn to become connected to the earth, to other people, to our own spirit and body and to a great history of teachers who passed this training down through thousands of years. While originating in China, Tai-chi is not just about one kind of people or one religion or one political party. It is about how we are all part of the same consciousness and the same system of nature. It is about becoming healthy and comfortable with the great variety of life. It is about letting go of the fear that holds us back from joy.

What would it be like if everyone did Tai-chi?

LEARNING FROM YOUR DREAMS

Dreaming can be used to help us let go of negative, programmed behavior in our lives. While many people think that dreaming happens only during the night, this process is always with us, even in waking.

During the day our senses and everyday activities “outshine” the process of dreaming so it is hard to notice the dreaming. It is similar to the way the sun outshines the stars during the day so we can only see stars at night.

Whether during the day or night, there are two processes working in our consciousness which Taoist philosophy refers to as “Yin” and “Yang”. Yang is the creator, forming ideas, assumptions, ways of perceiving the world and habits. “Yin” is the dissolver, melting those thoughts and habits so they don’t become too ingrained. In Hindu philosophy “Brahma” is the creator and “Shiva” is the destroyer (or dissolver). Both are needed in a balanced and dynamic way.

At night Yin is stronger and so our thoughts and habits start to dissolve. This allows us to become more creative, like starting with a new canvas to paint a picture. During the day Yang is stronger and our attention is more trapped by our habits of thinking.

But day or night, there has to be a balance. The healthy function of consciousness requires that creation and destruction (I like the term “dissolving” better) play with each other. An unhealthy person may be too dogmatic and extreme or on the other hand, flaky and air-headed, easy to push around.

The dissolving aspect of attention is called, “Yin attention”. I have written about this before. It allows you to let go, to let music take you away, for example. I believe that in our society Yin attention is almost absent and this is part of the reason we have gotten more antagonistic politically. When either form of attention (Yin or Yang) becomes so predominant that it pushes out the other, health deteriorates.

By noticing your dreams you can sense whether Yang attention predominates (anxiety dreams), Yin attention dominates (can’t remember your dreams) or if there is somewhat of a balance. It is important to notice the “dreaming within the waking”, that is, this same dream process of creation/dissolving, during the day as well. If you can notice this process during the day, you can gain a great deal of understanding of your inner state.

The Tai-chi and Zookinesis exercises are designed to help you keep this process in balance (if they are taught properly), and to help you to be aware of this process so you can understand yourself better. They also help you to not be a slave of your habits.

THE KEY TO SKILL

Any student of movement struggles to make their skills automatic, so they don’t have to “think their way” through their activity. While long hours of practice are essential to develop skill, another factor is necessary for high levels of achievement and that is what this post is about.

We each have a “vantage point” – a place where we feel we exist. Usually this vantage point is in the head because that is where our eyes, ears, nose and mouth are located. We see and hear from the vantage point of the head.

In Zen training there is a saying that the five senses are like five thieves that rob us of the ability to use other senses. In pre-modern cultures other senses are recognized, so that Tai-chi speaks of sensing “chi” and other cultures speak in similar ways.

In Tai-chi training we are taught to “center our attention” in the center of our bodies, like a spider lying at the center of its web. From this vantage point we can perceive in a different way because the strength of the senses on the head are no longer predominant.

The difficulty is that we are so programmed to believe that we have no other senses that we resist even the idea that we do. Yet we learn from practicing Tai-chi that we have a proprioceptive sense – the sense of momentum flowing through our bodies and how the parts of our body line up with each other. As we practice the push hands exercise (a two person interaction), we learn that we can sense the state of balance within our partner and even how his body prepares to carry out an intention to push even though our eyes are closed.

And so it becomes easier to accept that we also have a “sense of chi”, that is, the intelligent communication among all the cells and organs of the body that keeps everything running effectively. We find that our “head-oriented” vantage point battles against the “body-oriented” awareness.

This is because the head-oriented awareness works in one dimension. It is aware of one thing at a time. The body-oriented awareness is aware of everything that is going on at the same time. It is three dimensional.

In order to achieve great skill the student must develop a harmony between these two types of awareness. You can think of it like a map of a mall. The map shows where all the stores are located and also shows where you are in that map. You need to know both in order to get to your store.

We have become a society of “where we are” awareness but have lost our awareness of the “map”. Our schools don’t teach labor history, womens’ history, art history, the history of the human mind (cultural anthropology), financial history, etc., and so we don’t know where we came from. The history of religion and its interaction with science would be too controversial to teach in schools.

We certainly don’t learn how we humans have become so stiff, so sick, so angry, so stressed, so anxious, etc. But when we practice Tai-chi we have to delve into these issues and recognize the patterns of behavior and tension that have been programmed into us. We have to recognize how they have power over us and by doing so, we learn who “we” really are.

We have to learn how the dreams we had as children have become co-opted by the agendas of those who control our society. The path to achieving great things is to let go of the ropes that bind us to the their agendas and allow your dreams to empower your life.

This doesn’t necessarily mean quitting your job. It means understanding your own behavior. Which behaviors are a reaction to your fears and which emanate from your creativity and your joy?

This is true even when practicing your Tai-chi form. Are you pushing yourself through it to feel you have accomplished something or is the form organically emerging from inside of you and expressing itself? In the latter case, the thinking mind has to sit back as the audience and allow the play to take place without interference.

In many cases it is NOT the lack of skill that holds you back from a beautifully performed form but the unwillingness of the vantage point of the thinking mind to yield its one dimensional control.

The reason I mentioned the importance of understanding our many histories is that all of them contributed to the behavior patterns that we think of as being who we are. In order to achieve an “escape velocity” to become independent of those patterns, I have to believe that there is a “me” that is more creative, more connected to feeling and connected to the world around me in a more powerful way our present society allows.

That awareness is what is achieved through the sense of chi. The world experienced through that sense is described by many pre-modern cultures in many different ways. If you have the experience then you can hear each of those ways and understand that they are describing the same thing – the world as perceived without the coercion of the prejudice of your society’s training.

It is the “you” who is part of that world who does the form, or plays music, or lives one’s life. And the form or the music or the way one lives one’s life is the path to experiencing that world. Each of these art forms is also the way of showing others that there is another way of being. So when you see someone performing a Tai-chi form you should ask, “Is he just going through the movements or is this an expression of something greater?”

Tai-chi practice is more than martial arts, more than a performance art, and more than stress reduction. It is a path to liberating the full potential of your health and creativity. It allows you to become aware of the intelligent “dance of biology” within your body and how you are connected to the rest of the “dance of life” around you. We no longer “exist” just in our heads – in our minds. We exist in the full continuum of life.

TAI-CHI HEALING WITH THE ELEMENTS

The modern idea of healing is to cure a disease or injury when it occurs. Tai-chi represents an older, more traditional approach to healing and that is to keep the body healthy so that it can resist disease and injury.

The idea that your body must deteriorate as you age is a modern idea. Those who practice Tai-chi know that you continue to strengthen as you have more years to practice Tai-chi. It is common to see people practicing extreme Tai-chi forms well into their ‘90s.

Tai-chi Tiger Form

If you read this blog you know that Tai-chi training consists of a variety of exercises (forms, chi-gung and push hands) and healing practices (massage, herbal medicine and acupuncture). There are simple principles to all of these practices and they are expressed in the teaching of “the elements”. This set of principles is common throughout the world. A version of “the elements” can be found in Native American, ancient European and other cultures.

There is great variety in how the elements are explained but in the following description I hope to specifically convey the principles of healing.

Earth
Earth is the physical world. It represents how we need to make sense of the world around us by trying to create a coherent story of who we are and what is going on around us. Our society provides this story to us. Within that story we can find ideas that limit us and ideas that free us. The social movements throughout human history are an effort to change the story of the society about who we are and where we came from. They attempt to fashion a story that frees our creativity and allows us to fulfill our potential as human beings.

Earth also represents simplicity. We are encumbered by fears, patterns of habits and tensions, regrets as well as by “stuff” (junk that we buy and don’t need). By simplifying our lives we can remove the ball and chains we are dragging behind us. We can also learn to let go of negative people who are pulling us down and have no intention of really helping themselves to heal.

Earth is also the food that we put inside of our bodies. That food is sacred. When we shovel pre-made, chemically infused who-knows-what into our bodies, we not only injure our health but break the bond between us and the earth. Simply growing some food that you eat repairs that bond. Eating organically, healthy food helps to repair your body.

Earth is the center as our bodies are the center of our consciousness.

We could go on much further about earth, but let us continue to metal.

Metal
Metal is transformation. It is creativity, the ability to allow yourself to change and to see things differently. We take base ore and melt it in heat to extract the metal. In the same way, you (base ore) go through the fire of life and of your training to become the shining pure gold that you are capable of becoming.

And then this metal is turned into useful implements, swords for example. Do you just live your life to take up space or is your life being used to help the world around you? To help heal our world, you must first become transformed in the smelting process and then become fashioned into a healer of some sort. Simply by having been healed, your presence, by example, can help to heal those around you.

Metal is also the element of “animal consciousness”, or the natural “body-mind”. This mind is contrasted to the “clever mind” of modern times. Not that there’s anything wrong with the clever mind – it has produced technology. But the natural mind is the common sense and sensitivity to the natural world that lies at the base of our consciousness. It becomes aware of imbalances in our lives and pushes our behavior to correct those imbalances. In contrast, the “modern mind” seeks the extremes.

When you wake up in the forest and breathe in the beautiful scents, your natural awareness is awakened. Metal is associated with the lungs in Chinese medicine.

Wood
Wood is the element of life itself. It is the way nature unfolds and provides energy to all its creatures to promote the consciousness of metal. It is wood that provides the fuel to transform the metal ore.

Wood is the tree whose branches and leaves reach towards the sun to absorb energy and whose roots reach deep into the soil to absorb water and nutrients. It is an example of the balance of “heaven and earth”.

If you are not rooted well, the events of your life will throw you over easily. To be rooted in an understanding of your personal history and the history of humankind is essential to really know who you are. To be rooted in a love of the natural world and therefore a love of your own health will strengthen your body and soul. To be rooted in your family and community will balance and empower you.

“Heaven” does not refer to the mythological place we go to when we die (if we are good). It refers to yielding to the forces of nature around you so that your life can be lived in harmony with the promotion of the living world. It means accepting that you can become greater than you are now and yielding to teachings of all kinds so you can continue to grow (towards sources of “light” which means knowledge). Wood allows you to become transformed for the better (as it is burned to transform metal ore) while remaining rooted in the real world (earth) so you don’t become an air-head.

A tree provides a home for birds, monkeys, insects and others. It provides food for everyone. It provides the raw material for homes and furniture. It holds the soil to prevent erosion. Wood takes care of the basic needs of life to make our lives easier. Is your life like a tree?

Fire
Fire is the energy of enthusiasm. When you let go of the encumbrances of life, the bitterness, resentments, self-righteousness and anger and learn to appreciate the simple, sacred beauty of the world around you (natural and human), they you can be enthusiastic about life. That enthusiasm goes a long way to healing you and it can be considered to be the result of healing.

Fire is what gets you up in the morning because you love your life and want to live it. It is the heat in relationships that makes you want to interact with other people. Yet it is earth that moderates that heat so you don’t become too aggressive. In this way the elements balance each other and the job of the healer is to find out which element is too strong or too weak. It is the balance that leads to health.

Fire gets you involved in practices like Tai-chi because you appreciate the beauty of the teaching. In this way it transforms you as fire transforms metal ore. Fire is the movement of the exercises, like the dancing flames of the campfire or fireplace.

Fire is the energy flowing through your body when you release the blockages to the flow of chi or when you let go of sorrow. When your muscles let go of their tension through Tai-chi Massage, you feel energy flowing through your body. While you feel very relaxed, you also feel cleansed and energized. Fire has burned up the fear stored in the muscles and released the energy.

Water
Water connects. It is love and compassion. It is the end of the feeling of isolation so that your spirit can “enter the world” and become part of it. Yet it is balanced with earth, which establishes clear distinctions and boundaries, so that we don’t lose our individual identity.

In any relationship there is the fear of losing oneself, yet the desire to lose oneself in the relationship. The balance of water and earth allows both to happen.

Water cleanses. When you release sorrow or physical tension and feel a rush of energy through your body, the element of water then cleans out the debris (like tears cleaning out sorrow). The body is mostly made of water. The lymph cleans out lactic acid and carbon dioxide from cellular metabolism. The intercellular fluid transfers nutrients and oxygen from the blood vessels to the cells.

Yet these fluids have no pump other than the movements of the body. Each muscle of the body must be used, in fluid movement, in order to move the lymph and intercellular fluid. Otherwise the nutrients and oxygen won’t get to the cells to be metabolized and the cells will be bathed in waste. Your food will wind up as fat and you will be tired because your cells are not metabolizing well.

Water conforms to the shape of the container. It is what allows us to be “invisible” during push hands or fighting because we flow with the movements of our partner. It is the principle of not opposing force but flowing around it to continue to come in and accomplish our task.

Water is strategy as it is so adaptable. It allows us to “shed” our fixed patterns and become more creative. This is called “shape shifting” in some cultures. We identify more with our creativity than with our fixed patterns of behavior and thought.

Meaning of the Elements
This is just a hint of the levels of meaning of the elements, their interactions and use in Chinese Traditional Medical Theory. It is a holistic approach in that it considers the body, mind and spirit and the relationship of all aspects of our lives. Each element is associated with a season, a direction, a color, an organ-system, etc.

And so you can discuss the elements in diagnosing an ailment as well as in how you live your life. It is a set of principles based on balance that is useful in every aspect of your life. The way that most people start to learn this system is through Tai-chi practice. The teacher explains how the elements are used to explain aspects of the movements of your Tai-chi form, chi-gung exercises, push hands, massage and, if you go further, the self defense.

This training strengthens each individual from the inside out. It strengthens not only their bodies but their lives as well, allowing them to live full, productive, long and fulfilling lives.

INDIVIDUAL CONSCIOUSNESS (INDIVIDUAL TAO)

The concept of “Individual Consciousness” or “Individual Tao” in Tai-chi theory is very important to understand in order to practice properly. Individual consciousness is like a wave in the ocean, from origin to its end on the beach. Universal consciousness is the ocean.

If you can detect the universal consciousness within yourself, you will understand the point of view that there is no real birth and death. Waves flow across the ocean all day and night yet the ocean is not depleted by this action.

When we grab for things, ideas or even for an imagined perfect emotional state, we are like the wave, racing to reach the beach. In meditation we are like the calm sea.

When we practice our Tai-chi form we sustain a wave of momentum through our bodies. It may change angles, circle around in different directions, sink into the earth and rise into the heavens, but its course is even and steady. In this way the momentum of the form is like a wave in its movements and like the calm ocean in its slow steadiness and depth.

When our daily interactions are fully intricate and effective yet not rushed, we have brought the principles of Tai-chi into our lives. We can enjoy the things in our lives without desperately grasping. We can appreciate each experience no matter how simple.

Recognize your identity as the life force of nature and you will be able to let go of fear. When you let go of fear no one can manipulate you. Even your habits of tension and patterns of thoughts won’t be able to control you. You will become creative and be able to appreciate beauty more deeply.

POWER OF TRANSFORMATION

“The inside and the outside – they are made of the same flesh”.  This is reportedly the cry a student of Chan (Zen) cried out when he reached enlightenment.  It is an apt description of the basic principle a Tai-chi teacher tries to teach to his students to bring them to their first perceptual breakthrough.

Every discipline of personal development is based on the principle that, to change one’s life, you need to change what is going on within yourself.  What else can we do?  We can’t change the whole world around just to our liking.

And so we learn how perfecting proper body mechanics allows us to perform physical tasks easily.  Learning about the mechanics of our attention (mind) allows us to be effective in interpersonal relationships and in navigating our lives.

As we discover the physical and mental behavior patterns that presently fill us, learn which ones are effective and which interfere with our power in life, we can reconstruct the very mechanisms we use to live our lives.

And then we discover that much of the way we perceive the world around us is really a reflection of the patterns of behavior within us.  As we become more creative in gaining Tai-chi skills, the world itself seems to change and not be as threatening or as cold.

The student discovers that much of what he took to be the cold reality of life was just the projection of a story he was telling himself, onto the world outside.

At this point he realizes that part of that story was his identity.  To really gain power in life, to be able to drop the behavior patterns of battle and self destruction, you have to allow that story about your identity to change.

And then you become just a simple person.  In another Zen story, a Buddhist student brags to his Taoist friend that his Buddhist teacher can create miracles.  “With a movement of his arm he can make an entire dinner appear in the middle of the forest.  He can knock over a band of robbers with one breath.  He can clear a valley of fog with one in-breath.”   The Taoist student was not impressed.  “That’s nothing compared to my teacher,” he said.  “What can your Taoist teacher do?”  The Taoist student replied, “When my teacher is hungry, he eats.  When he is tired, he sleeps.”

To what degree do the stories we have been told, affect our perceptions and our behaviors?  We trust that pieces of paper (money) have great value and then numbers in computer memory have great value and then learn, as we have lately, that there is nothing really backing up that value.  These are stories we tell each other to help our lives run smoother.

But we have all learned what happens when some of us no longer believe those stories.  Perhaps we need to base our lives on stories that are not “built on shifting sands”. 

In the novel, The Doubting Snake, I suggest this battle of stories is the basis for the underlying drama of our times and that those who become the new story tellers, can lead us into more meaningful lives.

But we must begin by understanding the stories that we have based our lives on.  To what degree is health, loving relationships, and a feeling of connection to the earth important in our lives?  And to what degree does the quest for money overshadow these values?

If you tell yourself a new story, a healthy one, that story may resonate with others and become their story.  The power of life is to be the story teller and not just the actor portraying someone else’s story.

Transform the inside to transform the outside. This is what every Tai-chi student must realize at deeper and deeper levels.

Wheeling and Dealing

Tai-chi principles can be used to better understand the economic troubles we are facing.  Most of the classroom training focuses on using the least energy to create the most effect.  We learn how we too often waste energy, both physical and mental, and we learn about how to use proper mechanics of the body and mind.

In the 1970’s many economists were worried about the fact that so much of our economic energy went into buying and selling companies rather than on actual production of goods and services.  Financial transactions became the predominant business of our country rather than manufacturing or non-financial services.  We stopped “doing” and spent most of our time “wheeling and dealing”.

I think the economic collapse is largely a result of this problem.  How much of our personal lives consist of wheeling and dealing and how much do we actually get done?  What do we do for our health, for our continuing learning, keeping in touch with friends and being creative? 

It feels like our energy is getting sapped just by working more to pay bills or trying to find work.  But sometimes exercising or engaging in creative activities acts like putting more wood in the wood stove when you are huddling under a blanket and unable to function.

When I was young, play consisted of moving and interacting with other kids.  Today it seems to consist of moving only your thumbs on the Xbox remote. 

We use the term “not doing” in Tai-chi. This term really means “not doing anything ridiculous”.  It means not wasting your energy because of poor mechanics.  So when you are “doing” the form or push hands or self defense practice, you are certainly “doing”.  It’s just that you understand what is meaningful and useful and what is wasteful.

I think we need to examine this principle in our personal and national lives.