Don't impose your mind on the taiji, and try not to interpose the mind between the teaching and your taiji. The taiji should be an honest expression of the state of your body and energy rather than a demonstration of how cleverly your mind can create a passable copy. The mind should simply sit back and enjoy the ride.
We use the eyes, obviously to see, but also, largely, to place ourselves, to construct ourselves, and to press into that self. The ears, on the other hand, when used without the eyes, with eyes closed, draw us out of ourselves, into the world of sound, which is constant and complex, carried by the air, which becomes thick with noise, like a soup of energy, which we bathe in, and wade through, with our movements.
Consider two contrasting events.
- I look in the mirror and think "Wow! Aren't I wonderful!"
- I see an old lady hobbling down the street and think "Poor soul!"
The first event is obviously a case of selfish narcissism, whereas the second is one of compassion, albeit weak. In taiji terms, however, these two events amount to the same thing – a disturbance in the energy, caused largely by thinking, or, as the Chinese would put it, the qi rising (the exclamation mark). Our struggle is to find a way of registering the world – of being in it and intimate with it – without compromising our balance – without our qi rising. This is our goal – a ruthless engagement; and yielding is our method.
What I understood of a simple instruction as Sink & Relax thirty years ago is a far cry from what I understand now, which, hopefully, will be very different from what I understand in thirty years time. The principles of taiji are not so much instructions as devices designed to help me become a person better able to understand them.
"Our reasoning is negative as a whole, it cannot and does not know how to say yes except with a double no, conjecture and refutation, hypothesis and critique, it is given over as a whole to the work of the negative, and I understand finally why death, so often, is its result, its outcome or consequence and why hatred is, so frequently, its driving force. And why rationalism comes under the heading of the sacred, why rationalists are priests, busily ruling out, cleaning up the filth, expelling people, purifying bodies or ideas."
My singleness and singularity – this singular city – is my spine, or, more precisely, my sacrum from which the spine rears. Like a sovereign it is flanked by two advisors – a left hand and a right, or, rather, a left leg and a right leg. When I require a stable stillness – an immobility – I encourage the two legs to reach some agreement between themselves. When I require movement I favor one leg over the other and see where it takes me – always into the other, surprisingly. So favor passes from one side to the other, endlessly. The success of my singularity depends upon my ability to maintain poise and composure whilst delegating responsibility for my place and stability to these two sides.
A student asked me about diet and eating so I jotted down the following principles of diet recommended by my teacher:
- Vegan and sugar-free
- As much raw food as possible
- Eat bland food (not too tasty)
- Always eat in moderation
- No stimulants (caffeine) or depressants (alcohol)
- Drink water, glacial if you can get it
- Fast one whole day once a week
- Always prepare and cook your own food
- Eat in silence
- Never eat between meals.
- Take small morsels – never a mouthful
- Chew the food thoroughly before swallowing
- Say grace before and after each meal
- Be mindful – always.
The only choice of any importance is whether to live a choiceless life or not. If you do then your actions and your presence will have the biting immediacy of spirit – a significance and meaning that is nothing if not dignified. If you chose choice then the responses in your life – your own and those of the world to you – will be flabby and arbitrary, and you'll have to resort to force – willfulness and petulant foot-stamping – when you don't get your own way.
Authenticity: acting on feelings rather than thoughts. The first stage is uncovering true feelings, which means yielding to inauthenticity, to impulsiveness, to shallow conditioned responses, and delving inside – into the internal – to find the source of my energy. Then I have to know how to act, incisively and without hesitation. This is attacking. Both phases involve and depend upon spirit, without which it is all just a pretty idea.
In the articulated path from left sole to right palm, the weak link is the leap from hip to sacrum across the pelvis. This is the place we tend to close off, largely because we are conditioned from childhood to have a negative attitude toward both the functions and the organs of procreation and excretion. This area then becomes a secret repository for all our hangups, repressions and insecurities. Relaxing in taiji, once superficial tensions and anxieties have been dealt with, is largely working to open up the pelvic area – allowing it to expand to its full width with the weight of the torso. Once this area is sorted the shoulders and neck will magically release. On an emotional and psychological level it's a matter of learning to love yourself for who you are rather than who you'd rather be.
I broke from my teacher in 2007 not because I disagreed in any way with him, but because I knew I needed space to better hear the teaching. There were things I needed to learn that he could not teach me, there were parts of myself I needed to face that his presence would always shield me from. To find the earth and the heart one must leave the hearth.
Bad (negative) tension is a tightness inside a thing – a fearful holding on – a fear of letting go – of releasing. Good (positive) tension is always between things – a play between complementary opposites – the bind of relationship that threatens to break or release and thereby transforms. The energy that holds together the relaxing – the creative – machine.
"[Destiny] is a feeling you have that you know something about yourself nobody else does – the picture you have in your mind of what you're about will come true. It's a kind of a thing you kinda have to keep to yourself cos it's a fragile feeling and if you put it out there somebody'd kill it, so it's best to keep that all inside…"
In taiji we work hard to develop a root – a strong and stable connexion with the ground – not in order to be formidable or indomitable, but in order to have the simple confidence to admit the destabilizing and eroding presence of the void, the unknowable, the unconscious – of death – into our being. And these are our two concerns in taiji: Earth and Spirit, or Gravity and Grace, the only things we all, unquestionably, have in common. The work is to strip myself bare of anything uncommon so that everything I/we have is shared.
It matters little how intelligent or talented I am, how rich my daddy is, what race or class I was born into. If I consider, even for a moment, that any of these are a substitute for hard grafting work then they amount to a curse, and I would be far better off without them. What matters is how much dignity I command and how deep I am prepared to go.
Unconditionality, in its totality, evokes death, not just as possibility or a preparedness, but as presence. It is a feeling we perhaps only experience with our children – we love them so much that we would, without question or hesitation, die for them. This experience then tempers the spirit, sobers the mind, and enriches the life, simply by preparing us for – forcing us to face, if only obliquely – death. The aim of our work – of yielding – is to bring the touch of unconditionality to everything, especially to listening. Listening from the void, which I am willing to swallow me up, rather than from a particular standpoint that the Other, in all likelihood, does not share. Yielding as total acceptance. Not allowing myself the time to chose.
To focus in on the dantien at the same time as abandoning that dantien to gravity. This seeming impossibility only becomes natural when the spirit is up, for example when fighting or running or dancing. The skill is in making the dantien the centre of gravity of the body, and then having the strength and togetherness to function as a point.
Psychotherapy, as far as I can tell, amounts to an attempt to integrate the subject into a system of bourgeois values. And, for me, this is the problem with democracy now, it has far more to do with inviting the Other into my club than it has with any real, that is deep, listening. Our first responsibility, as intelligent mature adults, is to question the values – the axioms – of our inherited culture: that monster that insists on blotting out precisely what's interesting and dangerous about each and every one of us.
Central equilibrium is a balance of two tendencies: a becoming negligible, if not nothing, and a becoming useful, if not something. The first is the relaxation phase – the out breath – and the second is the tension phase – the in breath. To start with we work with alternating series of these – we breathe with them – but eventually they are both there all the time.
The essence of taiji, of yielding, of central equilibrium, is balance, though not the scalar balance of one weight against another – that is only ever a simplistic beginning – but the balance that results from being willing and able to hear and contain both sides of an argument, even when those sides contradict each other.
Only when I have completely released my self to gravity – promised my body to the Earth – will my head become soft enough, and my heart be empty enough, to free my spirit. This is humbleness. Such freedom is a minor afterthought. What really matters is integrity – the total commitment to a life of service – to becoming process – to being no thing. Nothing.
The difference between a victim and a warrior is one of suffering. The victim suffers because his crippling fear renders him inherently passive, whereas the warrior uses his impeccable spirit to blast suffering and passivity out of his life. This doesn't mean that the warrior is free from pain or fear, far from it, these are always welcomed, in fact, actively sought out, as temperers of spirit, without which he would become an obnoxiously selfish monster.
What is it that makes this work so impossibly difficult? I suspect it's the fact that our very humanity is invested in our break from the Earth and our aspirations to Heaven – to immortality – to getting somewhere forever stable and peaceful. What taiji reveals to us is that as soon as we break from the Earth we break from everything real and are thereby forced to retreat into self – into fantasy and ego – into ideas and ideals. Our idea of Heaven is then as a place where this self can comfortably endure, rather than a place where there is no room for self.
Every now and then one encounters someone to whom one takes an instant dislike. This should intrigue, because, it'll become clear, if pursued, that that person threatens, at a deep level, one's sense of self. It is those parts of ourselves we despise that need to be developed. Despising disguises a repressed admiration – an attempt to avoid what needs to be done, what needs to be faced, and what needs to be developed.
We value spirit so highly because it enables life to endure beyond the point of the ego being demolished. It is the only viable substitute for meaning – for reason – for illusion. Spirit is the only thing that needs no reason – it is itself a miracle – beyond reason. It stops the life of the enlightened – the disillusioned – falling into terrible depression.
We relax in taiji so that natural tensions can take over from our own selfish ones. When I relax the first thing I feel is a sinking – the Earth pulling me down, then an expansion – the world drawing me out. If I want to sustain this relaxation then I must learn a natural internal tension – a draw into my core/belly – a ruthless vigilance of sorts, without which my moments of relaxation will inevitably alternate with reversions to old habits – the experience of most of us.
To love is to support, regardless, no questions asked: unconditionally. And we know from taiji that I can only be an effective support if I am supported in turn: the weight of the Other can only be borne if I first trust the Earth to bear me. Everything always comes back to the Earth. And so, it becomes clear: Destiny and Earth are the same – my destiny is to come down to Earth, to leave my fantasies and return to Earth, in death and in life.
Happiness has little to do with feeling good or getting my own way. If it were then I'd always be at the mercy of my moods and my manipulative abilities. Happiness is rather the outcome of having travelled deep enough inside to know that life is unfolding exactly as it should, or, as Christians would put it: of knowing that God loves me, or, as we say in taiji: deep happiness is a destiny being lived, because destiny is, ultimately, the only thing strong enough to offer absolute support.
To breach the skin of knowledge that surrounds the Internal – the Unknowable – I need Spirit to make a rupture and I need Trust to venture through that rupture. The more I trust, the deeper I go. Once I settle a new skin forms and my newly acquired experience and knowledge become barriers to what lies beneath. Again I need Spirit and Trust to break through. All this presumes a desire to enter the Internal. Those of us with the desire are fed by Grace – whispers from the depths that forever beckon – and Truth – a spark of spirit that leaps into me each time I manage to enter the Internal, and which always contradicts what I think I know. Faith is simply fidelity to my (always fleeting) experience of Truth.
A passenger plane travels close to 500mph, yet when I am on board I experience relative stillness because I relate to the capsule of the plane's interior rather than to the earth. This stillness is comforting – it allows my mind to forget the dangers of flying and worry about something else instead.
We find that the mind is always encapsulating itself – locking itself in a room to avoid the distractions of the real world. Inside this room I can create a whole well-behaved world built on childish concepts such as eternity and God and logic, and then convince myself that this world is, in fact, more real than the world external to my mind – the world of which I am a part.
I forget the plane's motion when that motion is uniform – constant. As soon as the plane changes course I experience a pull and my mind is brought back to the fact that I am moving. If the changes in course start to follow a pattern then I will learn the pattern and reject it from my mind so that I can get on with my thinking. This is the way we use intelligence – to see and recognize patterns so that we can, we convince ourselves, understand, whereas really there is little understanding – little humility – involved, just a voracious desire to consume – to ingest and shit – at the expense of all the small but beautiful differences – details – that get washed away in the neurotic process of searching for meaning.
Spiritual understanding, on the other hand, is all about allowing an appreciation of reality's vastness belittle the self. I reduce myself by glorying in reality rather than increasing myself by "understanding" reality.
The Form is an evocation and celebration of energy – movement, flux. It requires my own personal energy to be settled and rooted so that what I experience is flow and not my own stirrings. Emotions and feelings are abandoned, though the body is full of sensation, because they make no sense – they are not real – they ultimately cut me off from my own becoming – they hold me back. Spirit, on the other hand, always thrusts me forward – into the fray.
Fascism is any force that attempts to bundle me with the rest. It's attraction lies in no longer having to either think for myself or listen to the Other – I simply obey whoever ties the bundle. The image of the body as a bundle of sticks is useful though, with the waist as ligature: the band that ties them all together.