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Animal Push Hands

The Tayra - a powerful and playful animal.

The Tayra – a powerful and playful animal.


When I studied Tai-chi-Chuan with Grandmaster William Chen I was a zoologist. One of my jobs was to import animals from around the world for captive breeding programs. Most of my time was spent working with hundreds of species of animals.

They were often much stronger and quicker than I and were sometimes in a bad mood. I had to learn the dynamics of their movements, attention and their body energy to survive day to day. There was something they all did that took me a while to understand. That dynamic is the basis of what I teach in the Tai-chi exercise of “push hands”. This makes my push hands different from that of other teachers.

We talk about “energy” in Tai-chi. The animals were doing something with that energy. In most push hands interactions you will see each partner trying to keep the other partner away from them. Hands are flying and each tries to impose their force on the other. In some cases a partner may be mechanically well grounded and very fast and so it goes well for him. Their attention is always on counteracting the partner and imposing their will.

The animals were doing something very different. They were extending their energy into me, and allowing my energy to enter them. They were certainly not trying to “keep me away” in the normal push hands sense. Yet they were very powerful and I could do nothing with them – until I learned their method.

When I watch push hands competitions, my main interest is in the “orientation” of the joints of the body. If each joint was an arrow, pointing in the direction of its energy, to which direction would the arrow be pointing? What I see in most push hands is that the orientation is downward into the partner. It is as if each partner is falling onto the other.

When I worked with the animals, the orientation of each of their joints was upwards, in an approximately 45 degree angle. In addition, they seemed to absorb my force, which in turn, was fed back to me. With further study, I found that they were absorbing my force into their ligaments and tendons, which they used like a bowstring. My own force, stored in their bodies, was then released back into me.

My degree in “ethology” (the evolution of animal behavior) came in handy, as I had learned how to study animal behavior in a systematic way. My training in Tai-chi-Chuan, including push hands, gave me another approach to understanding this behavior, that of thinking in terms of energy flow.

I realized that they were manipulating my energy within their bodies, and their energy within my body to control me. We became in essence, a single energetic system and their attention was at the center of that system. Mine was not. It was only on my side. Furthermore, they could place the fulcrum of interaction at any point that was must beneficial for them. The fulcrum in this case, refers to the reference point their joints use to pivot around. For example, I can move my body pivoting around my tai-tien (about an inch and a half below the navel at the center of the body) or around my sternum. Just by placing my concentration at such a point, the joints function with that point as their reference.

As I fought or played with the animal (depending on its disposition), it could constantly change that fulcrum point which confused the heck out of me. Tayras and grisons were my favorite. These Central and South American weasel-like mammals are about eight to fifteen pounds. They are like little wolverines. There were many species of cats, monkeys, honey bears, coati mundis, anteaters, as well as pythons up to thirteen feet, monitor (dragon) lizards up to eight feet long, many birds and others. Each had its own way of using energy and I had to learn them all.

When I practiced push hands with the other students, I would use these methods of using energy, and push hands became more fun than competition. Many of the animals could throw me off just by using their breath and I brought this into class. When I learned something in class, I brought it back to the animals. Eventually, the animals all learned to do push hands with me and their moods were always good.

So now when I teach push hands to my students, I substitute for the animals, using one dynamic in one class and another dynamic another day. When I still had the animal importing set-up, I used to bring the animals themselves into class. Now I just bring in the energy so my students can get a similar experience.

I found dozens of energy dynamics in the many species and integrated them into what Grandmaster Chen taught me. Today my push hands is not so much about how many times a student can push over another student to get points. It is about learning these energy dynamics, which can then be used in everyday life. These dynamics don’t necessarily require physical contact. They can be done even in a verbal interaction, because there are always energy dynamics going on underneath.

My students regularly tell me how they used a particular dynamic in an interaction, often at work. Translating push hands dynamics into everyday life is the greatest benefit of this exercise. It is also humbling to realize that animals are so much smarter in certain ways, than people.

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 HEALING

Tai-chi Yang Form with Bob Klein

Tai-chi Yang Form with Bob Klein

The medical field is based on military strategy. We are attacked by micro-organisms and we defend ourselves with weapons (medicines) or surgery. Tai-chi is based on a different strategy so its concepts seem strange, or low tech.

My main job as a Tai-chi teacher is to develop an even distribution of attention in the student. The modern human is trained to withdraw attention from the body and concentrate it in the head. This weakens the body and over stimulates the head. The result is an “empty cleverness”.

We are taught to rely on the thinking process to interact with our world and to depress other means of interaction. The Tai-chi teacher’s job is to remind students of their original state of attention and of the ways we can connect with and interact with the world around us, rather than just thinking about it.

When we do push hands, for example, we have to be able to feel the state of readiness of every muscle and joint in the partner and the ever-changing pattern of attention from moment to moment. In this two-person game of “pushing” each other off balance, using tension by just shoving with the arms puts you at a disadvantage. The only way we can be this aware is by keeping our own attention completely calm and even, even though we are being pushed and shoved around. We then use this awareness to easily take advantage of the partner’s inefficiencies.

The Tai-chi forms teach us to generate all movements from the center of the body, and then, like a wave, allow each joint and muscle to flow out from that wave. The initiation of that wave is a relaxation – just like a pebble dropped into still water, creates circular waves.

It is very difficult to bring the student to this natural state of attention but it is the basis of healing in this system. As long as the attention is “trapped” in the head and thinking process, all the drugs and surgeries in the world, will not bring him to great health.

Yet, even these ideas about attention seem meaningless to someone who has not experienced them. You have to be brought to that experience by a teacher in order to even understand what it is and how powerful the experience is. It has been described as feeling like you jumped off a steep cliff. We are, indeed, standing high up on a steep cliff, struggling to stay on top of it and wearing ourselves out.

It is this struggle that wears out our minds and bodies and leads to disease. Yet the student asks, “If I let go of the dominance of my mind, how can I function?” In reality it is the even balance of mind and body that is required for true creative functioning, rather than just robotic functioning.

Tai-chi practice leads you to this very gently, yet it is a tough practice – very exacting and specific. The journey leads to freedom from fear and stress and a healthy way of interacting with people and situations, which in turn, results in a joy filled life.

Suggested training aids:
The books, “Movements of Magic – the Spirit of Tai-chi-Chuan” and “Movements of Power – Ancient Secrets of Unleashing Instinctual Vitality”
http://store.movementsofmagic.com/msbose.html

The dvd series: “How to Learn and Teach Tai-chi”
http://store.movementsofmagic.com/howtoletetap.html

BE LIKE VAPOR

Tai-chi is fluid.

Tai-chi is fluid.

Why do we tense up in response to stress? Tension makes us feel stronger and more present. When we are relaxed, we feel that we are like vapor, drifting away.

Tai-chi teaches us that we are more effective in defending ourselves when we are relaxed. Let the opponent fight a vapor rather than a solid object. When relaxed you can be quicker and more effective.

If the situation is not physical, such as a verbal argument or a life situation, staying relaxed will keep your mind clear and you will react more creatively. But how can we learn to stay relaxed when we are so programmed to tense?

Imagine a “black hole” (a collapsed star) that is so dense that even light cannot escape from it. If the entire earth were as dense as a black hole it would be the size of a peanut. So in comparison to a black hole, we are not very dense. We are almost not even here.

We tense (become more dense) in order to “feel more here” so we can be more formidable. Tai-chi teaches us that our vaporous nature also has power. It teaches us how to use the power of relaxation to get through life more easily.

The nature of a black hole with its immense gravity, is to pull everything towards it, to grab, to own. The nature of vapor is to merge with everything around it and to become part of the world.

Chi-gung, forms, push hands and Tai-chi bodywork are all designed to teach you the value of fluidity, the value of empty space within you, the value of merging. Internal space is defined as the ability of each joint and muscle to move. Even though the form is quiet, with minimal external movement, there is a free flow of internal movement, like waves flowing through the body.

This is the healthiest state of the body and it allows a relaxation of the mind and emotions as well. Embrace your fluid state and learn about its power.

Our dvd series, “How to Learn and Teach Tai-chi” discusses these ideas in detail. (See http://store.movementsofmagic.com/howtotetavo1.html for more information).

BREAKING DOWN THE WALL

Push Hands

When you visit another culture you realize how differently other people see the world. We tend to feel that our “modern” world-view is the most correct because we are the smartest people who have ever lived on the earth. And yet, the fact that we are willingly destroying the life support system of the earth creates questions about how smart we really are. The way in which our life-style is destroying the life support system within our bodies also calls into question even our dedication to survive.

Tai-chi practice is a way of introducing into the modern world, the concept that each of us is an ecological environment, completely connected to the larger ecological environment. How we balance the internal ecology with the external ecology should be a large part of our “personal culture”. If we can experience our bodies as living and conscious, rather than just a machine that carries our head around, we can begin to restore our health.

Our modern culture is based on the isolated individual, each of us fighting against all the others. To maintain this feeling of isolation we “condense”, that is, we tighten ourselves physically and mentally, turning ourselves into a walled city. We feel that, as long as our lawns are green, the rest of the environment doesn’t affect us.

According to Tai-chi principles, the destruction of the natural world and the destruction of our own physical health, arise out of the same mind-set. When we practice the two-person exercise of push hands, for example, there is a tendency to use physical strength to push the “opponent” over. It is common for someone, being pushed, to grab the arms of the pusher to avoid getting pushed and thereby be able to say that he didn’t really get pushed.

Push Hands is a game of transformation. It is based on not using tension but fluidity. It is based on allowing the push of your partner to be absorbed by your body, the force distributed among all the muscles and joints, and then transformed to go back to the pusher. Your role is to transform the force that comes to you. In this way you learn the connection between your inner self and its connection to the forces around you.

When you learn Tai-chi forms, it is not just a question of memorizing movements. You learn to generate movement from the relationship of the hips and legs to the root (your connection to the ground). The rest of the body then expresses that relationship. So forms teach you how to express your relationship to the earth.

There is a tradition, in Zen practice, of expressing your feelings at the moment of enlightenment. One student expressed it this way, “The inside and the outside – they are made of the same flesh”.

Every time you tense up and isolate yourself, you damage not only yourself, but also your connection to the earth, and even the earth itself. Every time you set yourself against others in anger, you do equal damage.

Tai-chi practice teaches you how to live an ecological life in the modern world. Practicing Tai-chi this way is a powerful way to transform your life.

Pushing Hands

The Tai-chi exercise of Push Hands teaches you to let other people into your “space”. While the goal is to push your partner off balance, you also have your hands and arms connected and you move towards his center of balance to push.

This creates an emotional tension. You don’t want your partner getting into your space to push you, yet you want to move into his space to push him. The unique Tai-chi resolution to this tension shows the genius of Tai-chi’s creators and also explains many of our society’s modern problems.

Some push hands players will tighten up and spend most of their energy keeping you out. They are not really paying attention to you (your balance, movements and state of attention) but just to their own mental strategies. When they push, the movement of the push is disconnected from the flow of movements that came before. This reflects their internal state, that of the thinking mind ordering the body around but keeping the body at “arms length” from their own thinking mind. It is similar to the politics of isolating people according to their differences and setting them against each other.

The Tai-chi approach to push hands is to consider the partner’s actions and your responses as one single unit. You allow the partner to make the decisions of movement and you stay connected with them, but offering little resistance. Whatever position they put you into, you are happy to be in that position, but you concentrate on being properly aligned and centered in that position. Part of that alignment is that you are in a good position to push the partner off balance. You use his movements to set up your body in proper alignment, rather than trying to take control and force his body to move according to your will.

The forceful, disconnected approach gives you the feeling you are strong and in control. But if you are partnering with a good push hands player, your own feeling of strength and control always leads you to being in a weak position. The good push hands player fills the spaces within your power, preventing you from functioning. Yet he does this lightly.

When two good push hands players are partnered, each tries to bring the forces within his own body. When his partner pushes, he absorbs the force, distributes that force among all his joints and into his root to empower his own response. In this way, the forcefulness of the partner is experienced as “raw material” you can use to add to your own power and return the combination back to your partner.

Push hands then becomes an attempt to connect to, and transform forces rather than to build barriers to those forces. You become part of the flow of forces rather than a blockage to that flow.

We are living in an increasingly “external” culture, in which we see each other as isolated physical objects battling against each other. We see the natural world around us as a store, providing products on its shelves, rather than as a living system that we are part of.

When I practice push hands with most people and softly merge into their “space”, they harden up and resist, desperately trying to maintain their isolation and to them, Push Hands is a game of maintaining your isolation and feeling physically strong (tight).

If the two partners can both merge, then Push Hands becomes a game of integration balanced with the attempt to push. It is a balance of merging and being an individual, a skill needed in any kind of relationship. Push Hands used to teach people that skill, but in a world of increasing isolation, this game too often reflects its host culture.

If we can embody that skill in our everyday lives, then we can begin to heal the rift between the body and mind, allowing them to merge, which brings us internal peace.

Remember the “Principles of Tai-chi Forms with Applications to Push Hands” workshop on Sunday April 17th 2016. Call (631) 744-5999 for more information. At the Tai-chi-Chuan School in Sound Beach, Long Island, N. Y.

MORE TAI-CHI LEARNING TIPS by Bob Klein

How to Learn and Teach Tai-chi DVD

1. “The feet are the gateway to consciousness”. When you walk in a natural area, the feet conform to the shape of the ground, which is formed by the geology, botany and weather of the area. As your feet conform to the ground, each joint of the body adjusts to keep you aligned and in motion, thereby also participating in the natural history of that area. Our flat floors deaden the feet and also the whole body and cut us off from participating in nature. So when you step, allow each joint and muscle of the foot to individually settle onto the floor, to help enliven the foot.

2. When you breathe out and the upper body settles downward, its weight sinks through the hip area and into the feet and “root”. When you breathe in and expand upward, that expansion has to pass through the hip area. If the hips are rigid, these transfers of energy cannot take place. Keep the hip level open, like an open pipe, so that momentum can flow through it.

3. The head is part of the body. We do not consider it to be the “seat of consciousness”. The whole body is the seat of consciousness. There is a tendency to keep the head and neck rigid, as if it were a stone throne that the king sits in, ordering the body around and judging the results. “Think” with the feelings of the whole body and allow the momentum, created by your form or chi-gung, to flow through the neck and head. While the head does not flop around, it moves in circles about an inch in diameter. If the head is rigid, the body will be rigid.

4. Release energy at the beginning and end of each breath. If you are not yet familiar with the experience of “chi”, think of energy as momentum. At the end of the in-breath, when the momentum flows up and out, let that momentum go, never to return. Then allow the body to begin sinking back down, drawing into it “new” energy until the end of the out-breath as you sink into your root. At that point, allow the chi (or momentum) to be released into the ground, never to return. When you begin to breathe in again, expanding upward, allow new energy to fill the body from the bottom. If you hold energy within the body, you will not get the health benefits of Tai-chi.

5. At the end of each in-breath, expand the palms and feet. Allow them to relax as soon as you begin to breathe out.

6. Once you are comfortable with the sequence of movements, don’t think of the movement before or the next movement. Allow the form to unfold, as the mainspring of old watches, unwind during the day to move all the little gears of the watch, allowing “time” to unfold. If you have been trained how each part of the body participates in each part of the form, your form will have been imbedded into each part of the body, like a mainspring ready to unfold.

7. Practice one thing at a time. Your teacher may have presented you with a hundred principles and you can’t keep them all in your mind at the same time. Practice just one or two for a while and then switch to another one or two principles. Trust that such practice will add up; that the body will store skill you have gained in each practice session.

8. Don’t “hold yourself together”. Most of us start all bound up, tied up in knots, as if we would fall apart if we relaxed. For each posture, notice which muscles are “holding” more than they have to. Can you allow that muscle to use less tension? Even less? Use the minimum tension possible just before the arm or the whole body starts falling down.

9. There is an intelligence within your body that is greater than your thinking mind. Yield to it. It may be hard to notice at first. The forceful, thinking mind is like the sun, overpowering all the stars in the sky. Yet those stars are still there, even during the day. The “Body-mind” is always there but requires inner quiet to be noticed.

10. Don’t forcefully try to quiet the thinking mind. That is only the thinking mind trying to quiet itself. It is just a trick. Rather, pay attention to the flow of momentum and allow your attention to ride the flow of momentum like a surfer rides a wave. Yield to the momentum. Yield to the breath that helps to create the momentum. Yield to the relaxation that helps to create the momentum. Yielding to life quiets the thinking mind and strengthens the Body-mind.

These principles are described more fully in the dvd series “How to Learn and Teach Tai-chi” by Bob Klein available at:
http://store.movementsofmagic.com/belevi.html

IS TAI-CHI DYING?

Is Tai-chi dying? Are there still teachers teaching the intricate mechanics, the physics, the dynamics of mind and energy that underlies the beautiful movements? Or are we playing “Simple Simon”? Simple Simon says, “do this”; simple Simon says “do that”.

Are we, as teachers, worried that if we actually ask students to learn the principles that they will leave our classes and switch to a simpler form of exercise? Has Tai-chi become a collection of “techniques” or is it still a transformative experience?

These are the questions I ask as I look around at the practice of Tai-chi as it is today. I see push hands players standing in tense, misaligned positions and knocking their arms around. I see people doing forms with all their energy bound up in their heads and upper backs, with locked hips.

I hesitate to bring this up because each Tai-chi teacher feels he or she is doing Tai-chi the “right way”. It is just those other people over there who are doing it wrong. We should be open minded and allow for variations of practice, I am told.

In this post, I am asking other Tai-chi teachers this question, to answer just within yourself. Do you feel that you are aware of, feel and practice the internal practice? Is your mind connected to each muscle and joint? Is your mind evenly distributed throughout your body or can you pay attention to the body only from the head? Is each part of the body independently conscious and is it in a creative relationship with each other part of the body or is this question meaningless to you?

Tai-chi is a practice designed to lead you to an experience of, and healing of your internal state which then affects your relationship to the rest of the world. Has it been that for you and have you found ways of transmitting that experience to your students so they actually feel it?

What do you feel is the state of Tai-chi practice today?

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.
***
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.

THE TAI-CHI MIND

Tai-chi has a powerful effect on the way our minds work. We are used to using our minds linearly, as you would when reading words in a book, one word after the other. We are trained to use our minds in this way and cannot stop even in our everyday lives.

So when we practice Tai-chi it is very difficult to allow all our joints and muscles to move at the same time. We can only concentrate on one thing, then the next, etc. You may see Tai-chi forms in which the body is held stiffly but the arms and legs move gracefully. This shows the limitation of how many things the student can pay attention to at once.

The goal of Tai-chi practice of course, is to have no such limitations but to allow each part of the body to pay attention to itself, in coordination with all the other joints and muscles. This requires our thinking mind, delegating authority to the body. Yet the thinking mind thinks it is the only thing that can perceive and react to things. It can barely conceive that the body is intelligent.

The Gnostics tell a story of Sofia (representing the seeking for wisdom) trying to find God. During her journey she gave birth to the demiurge (lesser God) and then continued on her journey. The demiurge looked around and realized he was the only one there and thought he was God.

This is a way of saying that the thinking mind is not the King – that each part of the body is a center of intelligence. Tai-chi allows us to achieve this decentralized attention so that we can be better coordinated, healthier and have better relationships with other people.

If our attention is isolated in our heads, as if in a box, then all perception is related to the head. We feel isolated in that box and perceive other people as being boxes. Each of us wants to be a bigger box, or a more powerful, or smarter or braver box. Our identity is related to our isolation.

With decentralized attention, our identity is related to our connections – to other people, to nature, of the mind and the body, etc. We don’t feel opposed to others but connected to them, part of them.

Imagine if everyone in the world had a mind like this. Their very identity would depend on their connection to everyone else and every other living thing. How would the world be different? When a Tai-chi teacher teaches, he or she not only tries to improve his students’ health, but is laying the groundwork for a more peaceful world.

The body requires an even distribution of attention in order to maintain its health. When attention is locked up in the head, the body is starved of the energy of attention. Notice how you feel after finishing a Tai-chi class. Your body feels empowered and connected, relieved of stress. You feel more open to other people and to nature.

You are helping to heal the world every time you take a Tai-chi class or spend time practicing. Remember the principle: “The inside and the outside reflect each other.”