Holding on is tension : letting go is relaxation. Inhale : exhale. Inspire : expire. Tension should always be ready to relax, and relaxation should always be ready to tense; ready to work, effectively. Consciousness is a tension which relaxes into sleep. Life is a tension which relaxes into death. Sleep is a letting go of consciousness. Death is a letting go of life.
One of the important principles of our taiji, the one my teacher admitted to being most troubled by, is Natural Way. What on earth does Natural mean, for a human being? Is it “natural” to live in a city, drive a car, shop in a supermarket, etc? Is it not natural to be tense, given that we are all traumatized to some extent? Arguments can always be constructed one way or the other. For the ancient Daoists we were most natural whilst still in the womb, before being sullied by consciousness, experience, language, etc. and it was their contention that that original natural state is still in us, as trace or memory if nothing more substantial. So a life devoted to Natural Way is one beckoned by this memory. Everything that has been plastered on top of our natural state is in one sense a resistance to that natural state, and resistance, in taiji terms, is hardness. So a more natural life is one in which on the one hand I am harking back to a time before I became unnatural, and on the other hand, one in which I am softening and releasing (advancing) into life.
Generosity needs to be kept in check, at least until we have the wisdom to distinguish need from want. It is problematic for two reasons: firstly, it feeds self-image, and secondly it releases us of the responsibility to use our energy more wisely. When I see a sweet person “taken advantage of” especially by a partner or family, I also see a person pleased to be considered good, and relieved to be too weak to amount to anything more than mere cipher. Our prime responsibility is not to others but to our destiny. Others are vital because that destiny cannot be achieved without them, but to sacrifice that destiny for their sake is tantamount to spiritual suicide.
In my experience, taiji draws good people. If I were to somehow calculate the goodness per capita in one of my classes I am sure that figure would be much higher than the same statistic for the general population. Such goodness is generally expressed as respect and consideration for others, that is, unless put under active demand, is generally passive. One of the functions of the partner work we do in class is to activate this goodness and let it flow as energy within the group, so that we all leave the class enriched by the goodness of each other. It is simply a matter of learning to be more active – more present as a generous energetic being – more spirited and more joyful. It happens naturally when we stop resisting.
Science fiction often portrays space-time travel as stepping through a portal – leaving one world and immediately entering another, strange and unexpected. The image is apt. For most of us the unfolding future is a smooth continuation of the past-present, or at least that is what we hope for. But for those with courage and heart, a quality of spirit called abandon forces a portal to appear, through which they rush, into a singular animated world full of astonishment and danger. Nothing, ultimately, is better for the soul.
Understanding – comprehension – is retrospective, a looking back at the past. We understand (or think we do) what has happened whereas we live what is happening. To proceed with understanding is to effectively opt for safety by repeating the past. This is why, within a taiji class, it is the relative beginners – those who understand least – who are most open and therefore most ready to learn and change.
The future, when entered whole-heartedly, that is naked, having shed the baggage of preconceptions, is by definition new and strange, and an honest, curious, engagement with it is always shocked – unbalanced – by such strangeness. Openness is always a risk that can leave one floored, or worse still, dead, but without which we simply write what we know onto the unsuspecting future.
When I read, whether it be text, situation or Other, I also, inadvertently and inevitably, write myself into that experience – interpret – force the event to reflect myself. This cannot be avoided. So what is recommended is enough humility to allow myself to be read and written upon in turn. This humility is what we call softness in taiji – the courage to encourage whatever I venture into to transform me.
The problem with taiji, and any other regular practice for that matter, is that unless we are very careful it just becomes more of the same – the practice entrenches us deeper in ourselves. This is because that part of ourselves that we are accustomed to calling mind is always self-serving, and the more we concentrate that mind, even upon something as other as the Other, the more embroiled we become in our own selfishness. The Other, and eventually even the Self, must be approached and engaged with the heart and not the mind. This requires us to de-concentrate (deconsecrate) the mind – draw a veil over it – and allow the reaching forwards of the heart to drive our practice, and indeed our life. If we manage this then we need nothing more. Everything – progress, destiny, love, meaning – stems from this simple attitude. And that is all it really is – right attitude; an attitude of mind that withdraws the mind and allows the heart to advance.
Vigilance, otherwise taiji quickly becomes the opposite of what it is meant to be. The inspiration and motivation for taiji should be "Forget self and become one with the Dao" and unless we constantly remind ourselves of this – refresh our memories at least daily – it tends instead toward narcissism – self-cultivation.
Taiji recommends unity of mind and body, but like all binary pairs, they first need to be fully distinguished, which means pulling them apart and getting to know each one, because most Western taiji students – bourgeoise, reasonably well-educated, eminently domesticated, that is, shitless – only know their bodies through their minds, and only know their minds through thinking and feeling. We want a body, and a mind for that matter – a body-mind – animated by spirit rather than thoughts or sensations. Spirit liberates whereas mind enslaves. Paradoxically, as always, we can only truly know such liberation by enslaving ourselves to a regime of disciplined work over decades if not a full life.
Taiji is about managing equilibrium, balance. This means searching out weaknesses and bringing them up to strength: always difficult, at least to begin with (weaknesses are usually that way because we're reluctant to face them) but eventually, if we persist, we find that the work is enjoyable, as ever.
The most important thing in relationships, and hence life, is timing – knowing when to make a change. This cannot be a matter for thinking – a luxury that commodifies even time – but for spirit. Spirit disrupts notions and concepts, especially those of linear, partitionable time. In the hands of spirit time is malleable – squeezable and stretchable – and everything becomes magically propitious.