The student must study, otherwise they are not a student. They attend class to receive instruction on how and what to study. The studying itself – the practice – takes place in private. So, establish a routine – a habit – of practice. My teacher recommended twice a day: morning and evening. Eventually this is the very least one can do. The practice honours the teaching, the teacher and your own singular place in the lineage. It reminds – returns you to taiji mind. It is essential that one develop the means to tighten the coils of impeccability to counter and balance the dissipations of daily life.
Most of us are victims to what we think and what we feel: thoughts and feelings run riot and rule if not ruin our lives. It is possible to break free of this vicious circle by taking the religious turn – to become sensitive not only to the world coming into ourselves but to ourselves affecting the world, or, as the religious put it: acting purely to please God. Then we start to operate on the level of grace – we are in the world by the grace of God so we live in such a way that we return grace – an economy of grace – a life with gratitude as its driving force.
It is always best to let the doing of taiji – the passion of taiji – correct itself rather than imposing some mental image upon that doing, which will generally dampen the spirit and turn the practice into a didactic exercise. Even when your teacher gives you a specific correction: take it to heart rather than mind, and let it sneak up on you and take you by surprise.
I remember, about 20 years ago, a student, in their mediocrity, explaining to my teacher that they hadn't practised during the week because they didn't want to practise it wrong. My teacher's reply was: Never let high standards prevent you from practising. This instruction deservedly became a catchphrase, and I still use it all the time in my own work, especially, since not practising is no longer an option, in the rephrasing: Never let high standards get you down; or even: Never let let high ideals turn you into a victim.
The major adjustment in our posture – Cheng Man-ching's great insight – is the Master's hand on the sacrum gently encouraging it down and forward. What this does, effectively, is suggest to the tail that it relax, unfurl, and take root. Over time – decades – the tail, so encouraged, becomes our tap root – our major source of energy from the earth. The legs, when they are used properly, are then two secondary supporting roots, not just supporting the spine from below but providing the impetus of the sacrum down and forward. For this the knees must work forward and out, away from the centre of the body, so that the top of the legs pinch the pelvis and squeeze energy upwards, like squeezing a tube of toothpaste. Dancers understand this because without it their spirit will not project.
As every part of my body should be scrutinized for chronic tension, so every part of my being – my life. This means, ultimately, my beliefs – those hidden axioms that compel me to repeat mistakes, without which life would definitely be more painful and dangerous but also more lively and exciting – more worth living.
It is obviously important for me to be aware of this room, or any other box I find myself in, but I would be a fool to rely upon it. Not because it is in any way unreliable, but because when I rely upon something, part of my energy is with that thing in the wrong way – in a way that weakens me. The sadness that goes with any real spiritual work is simply the realisation that ultimately you are alone, and it is you your energy should coil around, not anything external to you. Eventually, once those coils have really tightened, this sadness becomes the warrior's joy.
A ruthless compassion that assists the other engage meaningfully with their suffering and learn the lessons it has to teach. In no way does this involve explanation – you are not comforting them with your wisdom or language (always deceiving) – you are helping them to be strong and rise to the challenge.
Relaxed shoulders rely upon a strong spine and core, especially the lower back and belly. Mentally it requires a mastery of central equilibrium – the simultaneous inward and outward flows of energy. To let go of the arms (which is effectively what relaxing the shoulders does) and flow outward requires me to also flow into my core – to gather myself into a discrete, well-centred and ruthless bundle of potential and patience – power. This will only happen when I give up my often unconscious reliance upon social and cultural support systems (ideas – which includes the ego), and when I have finally forgiven my past – that pettiest but also most tyrannical of petty tyrants – for giving me the problems I find myself with (when I have put my demons to rest); that is, when I understand and accept what I truly am – warts and all. Clearly a very long term project, hence the taiji apothegm: Measure your progress in decades.
The arms join the body at the shoulder, obviously. This is the highest point of the arm, and means that gravity is always extending the arm down its length towards the hand. Tense shoulders represent our fearful attempt to hold onto our arms and keep control of our hands. If we really relax the shoulders then we have to use the turning waist to direct the hands, turns which either throw the hands out from the body, or fold them in from the elbow. Taiji, to start with anyway, is simply the study and practice of directing relaxed arms with the waist; an operation that requires a root otherwise the waist has no power.
"It appears that life evolved from animal forms whose soft parts were inside, covered by a hard external casing, into other forms, such as ours, in which everything hard is interiorized as bone, cartilage, skeleton, while the soft is expressed as flesh, mucous membranes and skin. Those who love to fight are unevolved leftovers from a very ancient past, from the dark time when we were armoured. The newcomers amongst us become gentle, wrinkle-bearing: we bear imprints. We are clothed in soft, warm wax, we are tarnished mirrors, a warped, scratched, blotched, diverse surface in which the universe is reflected a little."
The taiji my teacher taught, and that I hope I teach too, has little to do with acquiring expertise, with becoming measurably good at something. Instead he taught a taiji that, if practised, would improve the energy of the student sufficient for them to step outside of the box they find themselves trapped inside. This then becomes an endless process – as you step out of one box, once you've grown accustomed to the new terrain, you realise you're inside another, albeit larger (though more exclusive – lonelier) box. The difficulty, eventually, once you've got used to having no conventional culture with which to measure your progress, is to see the next box – their boundaries become ever more elusive. It boils down to a conviction – in your heart of hearts – that reality is not the world of convention, culture and language, but the world of spirit.
Taiji tends to be presented and taught as an axiomatic discipline – built from principles – a geometry – a well-defined, well-principled, well-ordered world. And it will stay this way until the student fills it – animates it – with energy and spirit. Then it will exceed its boundaries and seep, or even burst, into the unknown – the world free of (before) principle. Ultimately our only real principle is change – somehow combating boredom – becoming something other than what we are. This is why, despite what you have and what you are, you must be willing to cast it off and start anew. All ground, ultimately, is made of sand, ground down by the work of the feet upon it.
Remember when you fell in love? You walk through the day in a daze or a dream – so enveloped and immersed in the energy of the loved one that you lose all sense of self. As though you are in their body, experiencing the world as they do, and it is wonderful – so much richer and more beautiful than your own reality. This slowly, or quickly, fades of course as our own ego struggles, then succeeds, to exert its authority, and the love either changes into some pathetic contract – or dwindles altogether and we go our separate ways. My teacher was always adamant that success in taiji depends upon the student falling in love with it. When you fall in love that love exceeds all boundaries – it is total – uncontainable. It should be the same with taiji – it should burst out of its constraints: the class, the practice sessions, and flood every aspect of your life and existence. Because success at taiji doesn't just require an expertise in the Form and the pushing hands, it requires you to become softer, and for this your energy must change, not only your habits and values. It's a little like tuning into a different station (or motion) so that a new frequency can resound through your being, reconditioning and realigning it.
Compassion requires distance – the ability to draw far enough away to see things as they really are (meditation/inaction). Passion, on the other hand, requires a closeness that enables me to embrace (consume) the Other and draw them into my heart (passionate action). Central equilibrium is a precarious balance – a tension – of these two tendencies. Not a space where they contradict and cancel each other out, but an inclusive, higher dimensional space where they represent two sides of the same coin, two hands on the same body.
Every technique, and ultimately every action, should be energetic. By this we don't mean that it uses energy – everything does that – but that it generates, or transforms (transduces), energy. The trick that makes the technique or action energetic is called the secret. When the teacher shows you a technique then, assuming he knows it, he also shows you the secret – it is there, plain to see, in his demonstration. Now, of course, it is only plain to see if you know what it is – if you are able to recognize it. Practice is the process that enables you to retrospect – to look back with new eyes, eyes conditioned by practice. Practice is the process whereby something that is not energetic becomes something that is. With practice things change, transform, into something very different.
A selfish life is one with self at centre. An unselfish life is one with something other than self at centre. The problem here is that it is always possible, and often all too easy, for the ego to claim the other and turn it into a version or extension of itself. And, in a sense, the work is simply the long drawn-out process of learning to respect and honour the Other as other, rather than struggling to locate common ground and ignoring what we don't want to see. To experience the Other in their totality. To love thine enemy. Love is nothing more than being ready to listen and to hear.
When a baby is born the first fact of life is that it receives – the mother gives to her babe, not because she wants a return, but because if she didn't then it would perish – it is a matter of life and death – and the more unconditional she can be with her giving – her love – then the more the baby will thrive.
"Because our culture tends to turn everything into language we lose sight of the actual being of things."
We single-mindedly work to turn the body into an alternating machine so that the mind too can alternate – change. Not in the sense of becoming indecisive but of shrugging off whatever cast or mood begins to settle, even a good mood. The biggest fear of the warrior is to be caught unawares, off guard, unready, so he must develop a mind that is not only ready to change but expects to change at every instant. In taiji such change is represented and triggered by a turn of the waist – turning to face something new.
Consider a monkey swinging through the trees. It is eminently single-weighted, albeit with its arms rather than legs. It grips a branch with one hand and swings the other arm forward, extending the fingers to reach the next branch, which it grasps as it releases the other, etc. As it picks up speed there becomes a moment in each cycle when it has no contact with tree – it releases the gripped hand early in order to fly and reach that little bit further with the extending arm. Obviously the monkey needs a little tension in the gripping arm and hand otherwise it would fail, however such tension is only local to that arm – too much and the whole body would tense up and the monkey's reach and performance would suffer. The monkey flows through the trees – it uses spirit and joy (what better word?) to create a path, which its beautifully capable body follows. It is exactly the same in taiji. The supporting leg grips the ground so that the other side of the body can reach out and extend. Too much tension in the grip or the support and the other side cannot extend freely. So in taiji we use tension all the time, but only in one side of the body, and only to release the other side. A passing tension. The same if I flex my arm: the bicep tenses to perform the action but the tricep must relax otherwise no energy will flow.
The warrior spends all his time gathering energy – winding it in and coiling it up – guarding it vigilantly. For the warrior energy and time are the same, so wasting time is wasting energy – the only sin he knows. The warrior is the ultimate individual – to the point of autism – attached to nothing other than his lord – his cause; suspicious of everything and everyone; always ready to let the energy in him explode into action; always ready – eager – to die.
Grace is always silent – without language. Yet we struggle endlessly to give it words, shape, to catch hold of it, make use of it, make it visible, explicit, as though such attempts prove something, put a stamp of authenticity on experience. Such desperation is just our lonely infantile ego craving recognition and approbation. Eventually, with age, we settle down and allow life to be just that – a life, simple, naked, unadorned with anything other than grace.
Taiji is playing ball – passing energy – attention – from one side to the other. One foot to the other, one hand to the other, one person to the other. When you see two people playing with a ball – throwing it back and forth – then you realise the absurdity of double-weightedness (the ball effectively suspending itself between).
Practice is the struggle to let go of tension so that my energy can find it's natural level. This level is defined by my physical structure and nothing else. It requires me to feel my width – the width of the shoulders and hips – and allow these to fall away from the centre – the spine. It is as though my arms and legs no longer belong to me. They can then start to obey the dictates of energy rather than mind.
All techniques contain secrets – energy patterns or configurations. The reason they are called secrets is because they are not to be spoken (taught) but discovered through practice by the student. The teachers job is to keep a weather eye on the student's efforts so they can be told when they have discovered the secrets because it isn't always obvious.
When I was a little kid someone gave me a book of puzzles. On each page of the book was a photograph of an ordinary everyday object, but each photo was a real closeup of just a small part of that object. The aim of the game was to guess the object. At the back of the book were small photos of each object in its entirety. I remember some of the pictures were impossible to guess – there is no way one could reconstruct the whole object from such a restricted limited view. Our opinions, especially about ourselves, are much the same as these limited pictures – they focus on just one, often minor, detail at the expense of the bigger picture, and when, for whatever reason, the bigger picture is exposed, one's opinions need to shift enormously – indeed often reverse.
The trouble with self-image is that there is always part of me that cannot – that refuses to be clothed by it, and this is precisely the part that needs to be rehabilitated into the totality of the self. This is why a person with strong self-image is always admiring himself – always outside looking on.
The problem I have with bourgeois liberals is that despite their magnanimous protestations of support for reasonable (non-revolutionary – democratic) reform, such support is always conditional upon their own wealth and comfort being uncompromised. That is, they will use democracy when it suits them but they won't internalize the principles of democracy and let these guide their lives and hearts. If they did then they wouldn't be able to live the advantaged privileged lives they do, and they certainly wouldn't want that for their children. To be properly energetic – spirited – in the way we recommend requires me to be ready and willing to give up everything in an instant – to be ready to die here and now.
"The skin is a variety of contingency: in it, through it, with it, the world and my body touch each other, the feeling and the felt, it defines their common edge. Contingency means common tangency: in it the world and the body intersect and caress each other. I do not wish to call the place in which I live a medium, I prefer to say that things mingle with each other and that I am no exception to that. I mix with the world which mixes with me. Skin intervenes between several things in the world and makes them mingle."
My energy, especially my spirit, is, or should be, engaged in a reality that I cannot possibly think. So a life too constrained by the limits of thought (imagination) – too controlled by the mind – leaves me depressed because my energy is neither happy nor fulfilled. I must spend at least some of my time nurturing and developing my energy, and learn to give it free rein so that it can be largely responsible for directing my life. Energy always depends upon connexion – it flows across connexions – joints – junctures – and it thrives in what we call a gift economy – an economy of giving. Money is no substitute or payment for energy. If I receive a gift of energy from someone, or from the Dao, then I am duty bound to use that energy well and to eventually repay it with energy – with honour. This is why my teacher always stressed that the fees he charged simply allowed the students through the door. Once inside they would receive damn good energy – from him and from the school – which their progress relied upon good honourable use of. In other words practice. When I practice I develop a little energy which I return to the teacher and the school on my next visit. It is my gift – my sacrifice – to myself but also to the teaching and the Dao.
Unset the jaw. Tension there interferes with the craniosacral pump, translating to the sacrum/coccyx and all the body's fascia. A set (tense) jaw means the mind is also set, on something – is desperately holding on, to something – some fantasy or anxiety; a mind made up. This is where the inner smile – a feeling of the face and heart widening – helps.
Use your intelligence to dismantle the structures you inadvertently and inevitably play into – especially power structures – those that steal your energy and make you a (wage) slave. Then build your own, based on a different economy – one of return and reciprocation – karmic structures – heart structures – the only good ones.
Keep the structures tight and light, otherwise they will leak: the form, your private practice, class attendance, daily meditation, partner work (the principle reason for attending class), and most importantly – respect. Each, in time, becomes a container for energy, and, like all containers, must be strong enough to hold what's inside, and true so they don't leak.
"Humour means joyful, unsentimental pathos that arises from the paradox inherent in the nature of things."
A system that does not admit contradiction, as necessity as well as possibility, lacks a sense of humour. Any living system is full of contradiction – an energy that lubricates and separates, keeping combustible substances apart – preventing yin and yang from merging into an inert grey uniformity. As taiji students, this energy is vital. It is responsible for maintaining fluidity and that willingness to change – the yielding mind we strive so hard to acquire. If there is a oneness (rather than a unity) then this it – a single convoluted connective sheet that always slips between the two – a sense of humour.
"Gymnastics [lit: to train naked] does not require that one get naked to exercise freely. Quite to the contrary, it freely exercises in order to rediscover nakedness. It is a practice for going back in time. It undifferentiates the body, it seeks to put it into the state of a bare hand. It turns the body into a hand, a subject, a pure faculty. It turns the body into a faculty. It turns it into a capacity. It turns it into a possibility. Gymnastics bleaches the body. There it is, in the abstract."
What you get from your teacher – above and beyond the bullshit – the techniques and principles – depends upon the quality of your relationship with her – the quality of your mind and energy (heart) when you are in their presence – a presence your practice conjures. It is a matter of how much of yourself you are prepared to sacrifice – how much attention – how much of your life are you prepared to give to the work. This doesn't mean you need to practice all the time, or even at all, it just means that you hold a living image of the teaching in your heart forever. This is only possible, of course, if the teaching itself is alive – if it has a heart. If it does then it will inspire you to love it, and the deeper you get into it (this is where practice is vital) the more of yourself you will find slipping away. In a sense it is all about memory – memory and energy being almost the same – remembering a pure past – a past that either never happened or is yet to happen – a time and space of happenstance – the realisation that this complex of reality can only be grasped and plunged into – never understood (stood outside of) or controlled. The smaller and more insignificant I make myself – through the work – the greater the chance of being subsumed – consumed – by the teacher, the teaching, and by life itself.
The first stage in taiji is developing a root – an energetic connexion with the ground. This involves, along with sinking and relaxing, learning to release and extend the tail down the supporting leg and through the heel into the earth. This is not just a matter of relaxation and alignment, but an act of spirit, and if it wasn't then working on it would be largely a waste of time. The fundamental law of energy is that it can only move from stillness – from equilibrium – so what goes up and out must also go down and in (or through). And the same with spirit – what enables the spirit to rise through the body and flash in the eyes is largely the tail extending down and back. So we must learn to awaken and develop an otherwise vestigial part of the body – the tail or coccyx. This process slowly starts to awaken other vestigial structures – such as the little fingers and little toes – and eventually energy structures that have remained dormant for a very long time – maybe from before we evolved into homo sapiens.