The fundamental assumption in taiji – the axiom upon which it all hinges – is that the deep deep mind is accessed not through the shallow thinking mind, and certainly not through the ego, but through the body and the energy. The allies of the shallow mind are the senses, in particular the eyes, and language as a means of codification and communication. So, when we perform taiji we must ensure the eyes and the talking mind don't interfere with the body. We hood the eyes to near closing and sink deep inside ourselves, through the surface noise of chattering and feeling, to a place not of this world. Then, as we do our Form, we are like the proverbial drunkard who, oblivious to the world around him, still manages to find his way home.
Life is the struggle to understand. It requires the two enemies, fear and attachment, to have been largely conquered, because to use life to delve into life one must travel light; become a torch and burn through layer after layer. For that we need intensity and concentration; a life directed in only one direction.
A modest exercise for you. Stand with knees slightly bent and arms hanging naturally at the sides. Lift the arms up slowly before you with palms facing up, as though offering something to someone. Once the hands are shoulder level pause a few seconds and then let the hands slowly descend. Repeat, relaxing the arms and shoulders more and more with each round. Now continue but pay attention to changes in your mood. As the hands drop you will feel a tearful sadness, and your spirit will descend with them. As the hands rise so does a subtle feeling of joy. Now gradually reduce the movements (don't let the arms all the way down) until your arms are held out in front and hardly moving. Now you should feel both the sadness and the joy vibrating together inside you. This is central equilibrium: the rising joyful spirit balancing the down of gravity. The more gravity I can bear, the stronger becomes the spirit.
The true artist – martial or otherwise – brings a level of involvement and a level of intensity that would terrify the average person. It is an intensity born not of tension but of depth: an ability to sear through surfaces, especially the surface of time, and find resonances – intimations of eternity – to fill the empty space that their probity and sobriety have cleared. A respectful space in which even the most fleeting of glances finds a foothold and the encouragement to grow. In the same way the mind can dream things never experienced, so the body – the energy – can feel things – give reality to things – that don't exist as such. An empty space, full of virtual entities and occurrences that flee as soon as the mind hardens.
Connexion is a tension, loose and elastic enough to allow play, but strong enough to prevent separation. If too strong the connexion binds and stifles the relationship. This usually happens when one of the connected entities is much stronger than the other. Take, for example, the case of master and pupil. Initially there is no real connexion – the student accepts everything on faith, becoming effectively an extension of the master. As the student's energy improves he starts to interact with the master – a dynamic establishes between them which inspires both. Eventually, however, the student outgrows the relationship, feels it stifling other potential expressions of energy, and separates. The adage: "The value of unity is two" must be clearly understood and observed, which is what makes taiji – this Taoist art of balance and regulation – so tricky.
Joy is the feeling that arises when I am open and unrestrained enough to be present at the creative source. Open enough to allow that source to be, and unrestrained enough to allow expression. Open enough to feel the infinitely rich manifold of possibility, and free enough to go with – to celebrate – to dance with – what goes.
Taiji should be joyful, always. If not then laziness has allowed repression to block the natural creative flow that makes life lively – worth living – and has instead instituted, usually with admirable dedication and discipline, dry routine. This is why we must constantly dig away at our motivations, uncover them, discover them. What is it that, deep deep down, drives us to work?
Tension indicates a lie – clutching an untruth. The only reason to lie is lack of trust in the truth – fear that the truth is not enough. This is the level at which the physical and the psychological merge : where the release of a physical tension requires the mind to let go of a veil of deceit. Then the mind and the body settle a little more deeply into this pool of responsibility we call life. We need to locate and advocate that part of our soul that thirsts for truth, that hungers for the discomfort that only the unsettling truth can arouse.
There is a conviction in civilised society that if only I could find the right specialist my suffering would be over. We live as though our happiness were the responsibility of others. But suffering is really the result of a state of mind – victimhood – a passive response to circumstance. So I become happy not by altering my environment but by changing my mindset from that of a victim to that of a fighter. Happiness is when I burn through suffering with the heat of my passion. Peace of mind is always on the far side of suffering, so if I stop short I may avert the threatened pain but I will suffer with anxiety and regret instead, which, believe me, is far worse.
Someone asked me recently if I was Jewish (a question posed often here). I said: No, Christian with Taoist overtones. I am Christian not because I believe in Jesus Christ the Messiah (though I do love Jesus) but because I know I have been conditioned by that monster called Christianity. I'm just hoping that the Taoism manages one day to resonate all the way down to the fundamental.
Reality – what we take to be real – is a veneer fearfully maintained by our own energy and attention. We were drawn into this reality whilst children by the need to belong. Eventually we become part of the veneer and our fate is set: to spend a life trapped in an arbitrary reality of our own making. What prevents us from breaking free and delving beyond is lack of energy and the fear of being alone. Destiny is a breaking free, and those with a destiny will find a teaching that enables them to slowly accrue both the strength and the courage to achieve some sort of freedom. What they do with such freedom is up to them. If they relish the taste they will travel ever deeper until eventually they have so little in common with those still trapped that they effectively disappear.
Energy is movement. So the job at hand is to bring as much movement into my body and life as possible. This doesn't mean prancing around at every opportunity, but releasing joints and relaxing muscles so that everything is free to move and flow. Then, and only then, stillness is the finely poised balance of a multitude of movements.
Old age is a period of diminishing energy and encroaching decrepitude. How to make sense of this? The only way is through spirit. Pure spirit doesn't depend upon my energy level or the shape of my body. Spirit, assuming you have established a set of principles that work on it, can continue to purify and refine through old-age. In fact, as my other powers diminish, spirit comes more to the fore: failing health will, assuming you have largely conquered self-pity, assist spiritual work.
Natural way best way. This is perhaps our most important and fundamental principle. It has at its core the assumption that under all the shit we have accumulated we are not only worthwhile but better than that shit could ever be. In other words, the work we are doing is not constructive but destructive – we are not building structures, not even energetic ones, but dismantling those structures already installed. The work, by eroding hardness, reveals a natural softness; by assuaging anxiety reveals a natural trust; and by shaking my arrogance exposes a natural humility. The structures that need to be worked on are everywhere and at every level, and many are so ingrained and so dear to us that we would rather die than let them go. And so die we must.
When one of my legs has more than half my weight then it is effectively a passive support, and the other leg becomes active – responsible for moving my body. The active leg/foot either presses the ground and straightens to move more weight into the supporting leg, or it bends and pulls the ground to bring the weight out of the passive leg and into itself. As soon as it claims more than half of my weight it too becomes predominantly the passive support and the other leg takes on the active role. So, in taiji terms, the empty leg is active and the full leg is passive. This is a general principle: Full = passive; empty = active.
When we enter the world of spirit our perception of time changes drastically. Most of us live plodding lives where time is linear and we are trapped at this point called the present with the past extending back and the future extending forward. Past events exist in our memory and in books as history, and the future is anybody's guess because it hasn't happened yet (though of course it will, in due course). However, when one's spirit activates there is a sense of “all at once,” of all time coming alive at this present moment, and that linear conception of time is exposed as the lazy rational imposition it is. Spirit conjures up one's death – calls it to be present – and that presence puts pay to a future, and squeezes maximum intensity into the present moment, it being, possibly, one's last. This intensity retrieves or taps into past experience, which exists as energy, and therefore now as much as then. This is why when your spirit is up you find yourself with skills and knowledge you never acquired. In the realm of spirit all energy is borrowed. This sounds very attractive, and it is a wonder we don't all chose to live with spirit. The cost (there's always a cost) – the price we must pay – is an ever present death. Death cannot be deferred – put off to some distant future date, to be faced when the time comes – because in the realm of spirit there is no time as such – it is all now – now or never. So if I chose to live with spirit I must also chose to live with death – I must be prepared to die, even expect to die, sooner rather than later. It is a price that civilized man is not prepared to pay, hence his general depression, apathy and weak energy.
Taiji, if you let it, will grapple habits of mind. The difficulty is that these habits, especially the deeper ones, have been with us for so long – are so ingrained – that they are not perceived as habits at all, but as permanent and intransigent aspects of character. One such habit is our critical mind: the part of us that moans and complains; not so much the internal monologue (that is its most obvious manifestation) but that subtle refusal to give the moment our total attention. When we are critical we hold something back for ourselves, the criticism being an excuse – a fearful excuse – not to abandon ourselves to whatever it is we are doing. Within the taiji we tackle this holding back by ensuring that each posture is fully completed with our attention, body and mind all directed forward: front foot, hips, shoulders and head all facing in the one direction. The hips are especially difficult to square up – the back leg must push the ground firmly so that its hip comes forwards (something that is not possible when the step is too long). Then the mind clears and becomes, naturally, uncomplicated and straight-ahead.
There is something fundamentally wrong with our mode of being. Although we don't realise it, we learn when young to bring a level of hardness into our body and mind in order to create a bound stable unity from which we then observe, discriminate, calculate, judge, etc. Without this hardness the first fact of our being is not a discrete individuality but a constant relaxing of each one into two or more connected parts. Instead of being a separate solid thing/being I become the space between those infinite parts – I become connexion. From such a soft place there is no observation let alone judgement, no language even, there is only connexion – a vast web or fluid of such, barely perceptible, which can only be joined or refused. This is why my teacher was not different from others by degree, he was fundamentally different because he was in the world as a soft being – one that can only connect. As a species we must have made this turn to hardness (this technological turn) when it was no longer necessary to be connected – probably when we invented agriculture, lost our hunter-gatherer life style, and suddenly realised that one could get the better of connected innocence by disconnecting and being clever. The struggle for us, as always, is to give up hardness sufficient to feel and then embrace connexion. It is a leaving behind of pretty much all we hold dear. How long it takes is a matter of faith. If your heart is developed enough to really believe, that is, if you are able to proceed wholeheartedly without knowing and without needing to know, then your progress will be sure and swift. If not then progress will be fitful and slow at best, which is only a problem if you lack the courage to really persevere.
We all know that to improve your game you chose opponents better than yourself – chose losing over winning. It's what Cheng Man-ching called investing in loss. Hence if you're really interested in strength and power you'll eschew petty victories, which do nothing but inflate the ego and keep the world oppressed.
Presence is not only a “being here now” – a presence in place – but a presence within the activity. So, for example, when performing the taiji form I am not simply present in the space (room or park), but present within the flow of the form, as though surfing a wave. The form then feels it has an existence independent of me – I just chose to ride it. Hence that feeling that there is always a form impatiently waiting for me to give it expression.
Loosen the body and mind, and tighten up the act. This is more important than it sounds. The act is the discipline – the structure one observes regardless, be it the taiji form, or, for example, a strict diet, designed to purify the body, and bring a mindfulness to one's consumption of food. Within such a structure (and, we would contend, only within such a structure) I can be free, remarkably free – the structure offers the support required for freedom, the way a child can be free (as no adult can) when it knows it has the support of a loving and stable family.
It may sound terribly cliché and old-fashioned, but the only way to really succeed at taiji (and probably anything for that matter) is to fall in love with it so that it is with you all the time and not just when you practise or go to class. Passion is out of fashion at the moment – everyone wants to be cool, with that post-modern ironic edge that gives the impression of a bleeding surface extending then curling up to embrace, but is really a gaping fearful distance. My passion needs to be so total that I lose everything, especially my cool. This inevitably means making an almost total fool of myself most of the time. Or at least not giving a damn whether I do.
Science fiction abounds with nightmare stories about the computer so large and rich in information that it takes on a life of its own, wrests power from the humans that operate it, and proceeds to wreak havoc on the world. The ego is effectively such a computer. The hero of the story is always a lone individual with enough spirit to operate outside of the system. He manages, against all odds, to disable the computer, usually by gaining access to its core central processor, and thereby restores an idyllic natural order. Such a hero is our own spirit, infused with just enough faith and courage to get the job done.