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WHY IS TAI-CHI SPIRITUAL?

Tai-chi is considered to be a “spiritual” practice and many people wonder how a physical exercise can be called spiritual.  While most people begin their Tai-chi practice to improve their health and to reduce stress, they soon learn that there is much more to this ancient exercise.  As a child, you may have opened the back of a watch (when they were made with gears and mainsprings) and were amazed at what you saw.  You gradually came to understand how the watch worked and may have even embarked on a career as a mechanic or engineer.

When you understand the mechanisms that control how you behave as a person you can be more creative with yourself and improve those mechanisms.  We gain our basic skills in working with the body until every joint and muscle becomes relaxed, alive and conscious.  You feel alive like you never felt alive before. 

When you practice a Tai-chi form, you feel that each part of the body has a will of its own and wants to do the form.  As in a music band, one member may play part of the song a little differently and the other band members, hearing this change, go along with it and support it.  In the same way, part of your body may want to move differently and the other parts are consciously aware of this and support that creative change.

The result is a consciousness or feeling of self, which is evenly distributed throughout the body and not just located in the head. In some disciplines you are taught to eliminate the ego or feeling of self.  In the Tai-chi approach you just share this feeling of self with every cell, organ, muscle and bone in the body.  You become a cooperative community of living individuals who all feel they are part of the same “tribe” (which is you as a whole person).

How would this world be if all people felt they were part of the same tribe?  In Taoist theory, how all the parts of yourself relate to each other determines how you as a whole, relate to other people.  If a whole culture is taught to believe that we live in our heads and in our thoughts and our bodies are just a dumb machine, then that affects how that culture relates to other cultures.  If the head just orders the rest of the body around and doesn’t care how the body feels, that affects your relationships with other people.

When we practice the Push Hands exercise (described in detail in several other articles below), we quickly learn that if we forcefully try to push the other person over, this locks us up and actually allows the other person to push us more easily. 

If you use force, you have the attitude of force in your mind and your opponent can use that attitude to defeat you.  In a similar way, if you are the type of person who is always trying to get away with something, to take more than you give, then you are actually more susceptible to get scammed.  The internet spam emails only work if you think you are getting something for nothing.

That is why, in our practice, we always try to have even exchanges with people, to not cheat them and to not be cheated by them.  In Push Hands, where the other person comes in to push, we yield.  But we move into the part of their body which is inactive.  The balance of yin and yang is maintained but the result is that we always feel empty to the other person and we can always move into them to push.

The other person learns that if he is tense and has an aggressive attitude, then his body is really dead.  It is dead to awareness.  It is locked.  The attitude of balance always leads to maximum awareness.  The attitude of maximum aggressiveness leads to a deadening of awareness.

In this way we learn about the mechanisms behind our behavior.  We learn about balance of aggression and passivity.  We learn what deadens our consciousness and what enhances it.  We learn that the relationships with other people or with how we deal with situations, mirror the relationships among the different parts of ourselves.  If our minds are aggressive towards our bodies, we will probably be aggressive to other people.

If we think of our bodies as lowly, we will probably think of other people as less worthy than ourselves. 

Spirituality is about relationships.  It is the recognition that all life is connected and you are not more part of life than another person, another animal or plant.  Tai-chi allows you to feel that.  It speaks of the experience of “chi” (internal energy or biological energy) that connects all life. 

Some of the practices of chi cultivation require that you move your chi around in various ways, which are supposedly better than the way it is moving now.  My teachers taught me that the secret of chi cultivation is quite different and it is an important lesson in spirituality.

The body, they say, knows how to move chi.  All you can do is to interfere with chi.  By making you practice moving chi along certain pathways, you remain within an aggressive frame of reference with regards to the body.  You are whipping it into shape.

My teachers taught very differently.  Through the Zookinesis and Tai-chi exercises they taught me how my frame of reference interfered with accomplishing the task.  If I tensed up to push them I was just locking myself up and becoming ineffective.  Yet to me, pushing meant tensing the body as much as you can.  They taught me to send a pulse of energy through the body from the feet up, like a whip which remains loose as it strikes.  That required a completely different frame of reference. 

The typical student who learns this method will start with a pulse at the feet and then when the thought comes into his mind, “Push Now!” he tenses up, blocking the pulse and deadening his body.  Instead he has to release the pulse into the other person, not push his tension into the other person.  He should really say “Release Now!” and relax. 

This is the same approach in learning a Tai-chi form.  It takes a long time to really learn the movements but at some point you must release the form to the body and let the body do the form.  Your usual sense of self just sits back and watches.  You don’t eliminate the sense of self.  That sense of self becomes the audience that can appreciate the creativity of the body.

Gradually the body, mind, emotions and all other parts of yourself become equal partners in your life.  There are no bullies within you.  Then chi flows naturally all by itself and “you” sit back in wonder.  You understand your connection to the rest of life.  You understand how all the parts of your body communicate with each other so that your actions in life become effortless and effective.

When you encounter a situation your first thought is of balance – active balance.  All parts of you are alert but relaxed.  You see the situation and the people in that situation clearly.  Just as you can now see inside yourself you can see inside them.  You understand something of their internal relationship which is reflected externally and you know how to use the principles of Tai-chi to your advantage, without taking advantage of them. 

While Tai-chi is not a religion, there is a morality – the morality of balance.  There is an empathy of understanding for the torture many people live with because you yourself extricated yourself from that internal torture.  In this way, you see that there is a spiritual path in life. 

It is not the path of maximum power of one part of you over another or of one person over another.  It is not about thinking this as opposed to that.  It is the path of discovering, understanding and then releasing useless behaviors and allowing the body, mind and emotions to function naturally and in harmony with each other and with the community of life.

The key is to let go.  If your attention is now mainly caught up in your thoughts and emotions, let your attention move into the body as water moves into a dry paper towel.  If you feel your attention ready to combat another person, first let it flow into that person and learn how that feels.  You may think that if you connect with another person in this way you are being too “new agey”.  People say, “We must be tough to live in this world.”

Remember that Tai-chi is also a martial art.  The full name is Tai-chi-Chuan (The Grand Ultimate Martial Art).  One of the most important parts of the skills of Tai-chi fighting is for your attention to remain connected to the “opponent” and to flow with him.  Flow away from his strikes and into his open areas.  If your attention disconnects from his body you are in trouble.

When your chi and your attention are connected to the situations and people around you and you remain relaxed, you are in a powerful position.  You know how to respond at each moment.  Spiritual doesn’t mean weak.

Chi is the biological communications system of all life.  When you become aware of that system you have acquired a new sense.  You can understand the mechanisms behind your behavior and the behavior of others.  At that point it is easy to let go of useless behavior patterns because you just get bored by them. 

The spiritual path of Tai-chi eliminates self destructive and ineffective behaviors as light eliminates darkness.  You don’t beat yourself up about your problems or force yourself to change.  You just see how silly the ineffective behaviors are and you can laugh at them.  There is a lot of laughter along this path.