Not long after I arrived in Israel a reputable therapist told me that I needed to become strong. When I asked what she meant by that her reply was "To know what you want, and to know how to get it." Surprised by such an ego-driven and short-sighted definition of strength, I remained skeptical. Recently, reading Nietzsche, I came across his definition of a "strong and durable will" : "a will that can make and keep promises." That's more like it.
Central equilibrium is a universal principle at work everywhere in everything. Simply put it states that any situation of relative stability or stillness is in fact a dynamic equilibrium of at least two, and generally many more, opposing forces or tendencies (vectors). In taiji we try to become aware of as many of these forces as we can, and relax the body and mind so that they can operate unimpeded. When I stand still gravity is pulling my body down, so something must be thrusting up to balance this force. When I relax thoroughly, this is from the ground, rising up the bones of my legs, and permeating the whole skeleton. Up through the bones, down through the flesh. The reactive force – the one balancing the main one – is finer, more subtle, and more true, because independent of any intention or intervention – unsullied by mind – unmediated. One of the (many) difficulties in taiji, and meditation generally, is how to find one's true centre without becoming self-centred. We recommend putting the Other first: that is, by directing our mind and attention towards the Other, a reactive tendency is set up in the opposite direction, straight into my true centre – or at least the centre which is true for me at this particular time in my development. Try and find the centre consciously – with mind – and we always miss the mark, because the mind, no matter how pure, is always swayed by habit, thought and feeling. The same mechanism with opening – the more I open unconditionally to otherness, the more something focuses and hones into my centre. This is the rationale behind any act of charity: the more I give, and the purer this giving (the more unconditional), the closer I become to my true essence.
Forget self and become one with the Tao. If we have a mantra in taiji then this is it. The Other, broadly defined as whatever is not me, and more specifically in taiji as the person I am about to engage, is, for us, the representative of the Tao. So what does it mean to become one with another person? When I am alone I am with myself, so in that first instant of confrontation with the Other this needs to change. This is a time of rupture as my attention shifts from my own thoughts and feelings to them – I attend to them – I put them first, if only momentarily, in the interests of conviviality – in the hope of a good connexion and a meaningful exchange. Once that connexion is established, which may take less than a second, my attention subtly shifts from them as other, to the togetherness and the energy it engenders. We are now one – I have become one with the Other.
In my experience the best quality students are martial artists. There is something about the discipline and hard work involved in training as a fighter that focuses the mind and spirit in exactly the right way, especially if they have practical experience of sparring or fighting rather than merely practising forms and push-hands. I have a good student who has over 20 years experience in aikido, and he calls aikido and taiji “intellectual martial arts” as opposed to “fighting martial arts.” One of the big problems with taiji is that it quickly becomes too arty. By this I mean that as a student opens up to energy and becomes more sensitive they develop an aesthetic approach to taiji – reveling in sensation and appearance – developing refined taste – all mere snobbery. This approach is selfish and repulsive – like watching someone masturbate. What we should develop is an ethical approach – one that puts the other person first, but again, it is very easy to mess this up too, which is why so much “sensitive” partner work looks like mutual masturbation. Martial artists, as long as they're not downright evil, develop a naturally dispassionate and unselfish feeling for the other person, an involuntary sense and presence – pre-sense – that simply acknowledges and connects without show or display.
One of the metaphysical assumptions our Western culture is founded on is that beneath the complexity of life there is a fundamental simplicity – at the root of the many is the One. On studying taiji we find this is not the case at all, in fact we find that beneath life's complexity there is an ever greater complexity. It is not our place to plough through Nature's mess and find the simple principles or axioms it's all based on – that is the mind and the ego struggling to find safety and maternal reassurance so that it can happily disconnect and attend to its own fantasies. We should instead open the heart and let it fill with that complexity. Simplicity is then the fact that I have only one heart, which fills as much as it can with as much as is there. The work is not a struggle to understand but a willingness to grow and thereby contain more and more, not more experience but more being, more life.
The are no rules in taiji. Instead we have principles. These are like little boxes containing secrets – they have an external and an internal aspect. The external, usually couched as an imperative: turn the waist, sink and relax, sacrum forward and down, is where we start – how we approach the principle. The work though, once it begins, will stretch and squeeze, twist and turn, vibrate each principle – pull it apart if necessary – to uncover that elusive internal aspect. The thing about the internal is that it is always different, in a similar way that I am different and that the day is different. The work is the play of these differences, and this is what makes it creative – the intersection of these multiple differences can only be new and unique – a singular experience – never to be seen again. When I repeat the practice (repetition is the whole point of practice) then I repeat the procedure, but the outcome is always different.
Imagine you are being hunted by someone or something wishing to kill you. Hiding is useless, your only hope is to stay on the move. In such a situation complete openness is paramount – you cannot afford to be locked in your own thoughts or feelings. Total fear keeps you vigilant and awake. Self-consciousness, anxiety, guilt, are all absent, as are compassion, love, kindness – these are all luxuries for those with the space and time to indulge them – they are ways of using or abusing that fundamental openness – that ground of being.
The head is a place of retreat – it's where I go when I would rather judge and calculate than connect. It is fundamentally a cowardly place. The heart, the bold heart, is our place of connexion and openness. When it is full and well I have no need for judgments, and am unable to tolerate the distance that judgments require. The world is there to be embraced unconditionally, that is, openly, and not to be subjected to calculation and opinion, which I only make because I lack the courage – the heart – to be truly open.
To be comfortably in my head it must be still, or at least stable. We use the eyes to lock the head relative to its environment, and tension in the neck, shoulders and jaw to keep it where it wants to be. Whilst it controls me in this way the body cannot function energetically – energy and spirit are locked up and can neither flow nor express.
Life, the way it has come to be lived in a culture that insists on privileging the external over the internal, matter over energy, selfishness over selflessness, is dominated by seeing – the eyes have it, so to speak – and this sense of sight has come to serve the external, matter, selfishness, etc. The eyes dominate our navigation of the day, as the hands dominate our physical interactions: eye/hand coordination. When this happens the other senses become marginalized – relegated to roles of mere supplementation. Taiji, being the art and science of balance and equilibrium, pays little attention to the over-developed sense of sight. The only instruction I remember receiving regarding the eyes was to hood them so that barely any information gets through, and later in my training to concentrate on the peripheral vision, an instruction that became “Seeing with the white of the eye.” Taiji talks instead of listening. Such listening is generally interpreted as a metaphor for feeling or touch – listening with the hands or listening with one's energy. But on a simple and direct level it means actual listening – with the ears. So we need to privilege the ears and the sense of hearing, over the eyes and the sense of sight. Practising in the dark; ensuring head and eyes don't move independently of the waist; averting the gaze; peering with the ears. Blindfold.
The Other possesses something in their character/experience/energy that is invaluable to me. This is the fundamental law of partner work. I will learn this quality only if I acknowledge this law and respect the Other. It is not necessary that I understand what it is I am learning, I don't even need to be aware, but I must be open and respectful; then I learn physically, through osmosis or resonance, rather than through the mind.
We want a mind overwhelmed or underwhelmed – a mind stunned. Overwhelmed by detail, by sensation, by exteriority, unable to filter sufficient to objectify reality and therefore unable to subjectify self. Underwhelmed in the sense of drawn into a suspended silence where the slightest movement in the mind crashes like breaking glass. A silence all the more real for being impossible to sustain.
I am then a tension – an intensity – an intense point of focus within a field of relaxation (energy). Such tension – more life than spirit – is the string of unconscious decisions I incessantly make to let go and/or hold on, decisions that mark the unfolding of time and allow the gradual making of a life.
Relaxation – far from a drift into drowsiness – should be an opening of the field within which I am centre. Relaxation stimulates me to become acutely aware of the infinite complexity of the event I am relaxing into. In fact, it is such relaxation – a relaxation marked more by its rising spirit than its flaccid muscles – that transforms this state of affairs into an event – into something special – something destined – something able to wake me (and therefore make me) more than ever before.
Communication is more resonance than information transfer. Everything vibrates, has energy, and everything resonates, with all it contains, all it touches, all it has touched, and all it will touch. The connexion, the relationship, comes first, existed first, before the entities that connect. Those entities just occupy a destined space. This is the sense in which we serve the connexion. Reality is just a fluid structure of arbitrary connexions indifferent to the connected; and meaning is only in the connexion.