We don't realize this because we no longer remember a condition prior to it, but when the mind thinks or calculates it doubts the heart. This doubt casts a pall – a heaviness – over the heart, effectively ruling it out as a usefully functioning leader of action, requiring the mind to make decisions instead. This is disastrous because the mind, eminently capable of working things out in its own time – on its own – is hopeless at working in real time – its timing is always off because it neither listens like the heart nor transforms like the heart. The head uses time whereas the heart makes time.
The mind is naturally lazy and resents both the body and physical work. So, the first stage of taiji: relaxation, pacification, passivization, should be appreciated for what it is: only the first stage. The second stage is very much the opposite: getting into movement and intensity – tension, but a passing tension: energy. For this the work rate needs to be upped, not necessarily the hours but certainly the intensity, the passion, the speed. The Form is no longer a slow, flat, drift through space and time, but a breathing, heaving body, working faster (or slower) than the mind can manage (control). Movement for its own sake – energetic and energized. This is the martial aspect of taiji – fighting the enemy – your own mind; a fight from which spirit naturally rises. The sheer joy of physical work.
The natural condition of the heart is light, open and joyful, with a generous receptivity (a natural and effortless yielding). The Other – otherness – is natural (and necessary) stimulation to a healthy heart. The head, on the other hand, is always perplexed by otherness because, by definition, it cannot know it. Approaching otherness (anything real) with the head (mind) will inevitably crush the heart and rob it of its natural condition. This is the fundamental problem for all of us, the solution of which can only ever be the command decision to switch from head to heart.
When a root has been established the Earth becomes a source of energy that thrusts up through the body, battling the thinking mind's attempts to control from on high by depressing both the posture and the heart. In time, this fountain of energy from the root washes the spine, eradicating the ego-mind's physical foundation – a point on the spine opposite the solar plexus – and forcing the spine to effectively lengthen to include the lumbar region – a source of deep silent confidence. So, the individual has a choice: either worry from the solar plexus and develop a blocked hardened (and therefore safe) heart, or relax from the sacrum with an open (and therefore often unbearably vulnerable) heart.
The point is never a catch phrase or punch line, not a thought held onto or followed, but simply the projection onto the ground of the axis of revolution. Like a spinning top or gyroscope that appears to be still or traces a seemingly random, though very rich, line: the intensity of its rotation focuses, funnels, the mind to its point of contact, as mass is flung outwards.
The majority oppresses with force (force is oppression), with mass, advantage in numbers. The minority then has no recourse other than to yield – to slip between the planes of oppression and somehow turn the weight of the majority against itself. This is a natural state of affairs, and is why force favors the strong and spirit favors the weak. So, if you are interested in spirit better become weak, not in your self, but comparatively.
It is not, and has never been, a matter of knowing, or of awareness, or even of consciousness. The internal things we work with cannot be known, and the more we try to know them, which means set them within external frameworks of reference and representation, the more we ruin them. This is why, it is, and has always been, a matter of faith.
Only through an encounter with the Other, with otherness, with pure externality, can the Internal open up and be perceived. This is because my being is necessarily external – hard, enduring, structured – and, for the internal element it contains, and which contains it, to be released, this being, and the structures it is composed of, compose it, must be disturbed if not ruptured, temporarily, or not.
Learning something new, especially something as strange as taijiquan, obviously requires an external reference or standard: the teacher's taiji and the teacher's spirit. Once the learning is complete though, the real work, that of erasing external referents, internalizing the taiji, and coming to your own energy and power – spirit – becomes imperative.
Rational thought, being necessarily linear and objective, cannot come to grips with process, with the in-between of things, because process is wonderfully ungraspable. Try and you'll ruin it. Process can either be stood separate from and observed, in which case I'll be left behind pretty quickly, or joined and enjoyed, in which case all objectivity and linearity need to be abandoned. What takes their place though, viz spirit, is well worth it.
The reason we fill our minds with ceaseless chatter and our lives with endless activity is because the void is terrifying and must, we believe, be filled at all costs. Taiji, being a moving meditation, suggests that instead we move mindfully from one leg to the other, from one single-weighted stance to another, always passing through double-weightedness, never settling into it, and simply be comforted and quietened by the movement, like a baby being rocked to sleep. When the body moves correctly – single-weightedly, that is: energetically – the mind cannot think about other things because it is fully involved and committed to the movement. Then the energy cleans and conditions my being, preparing it for the beckoning unknown – the days' encounters.
Tension in the hips, shoulders and jaw blocks internal movement, allowing us to privilege the external. This is effectively enslaving ourselves to a world we can only realise through the senses - the world science concerns itself with. The world of feeling, on the other hand, the world of the artist, requires the internal to be mobile and motile, always ready to move and be moved, not so that I can wallow in sentiment, but so that I am motivated to act prior to thought without being careless. This is heart.
Sink and relax is a simple admonition to let gravity in, to feel its constant infolding, its endless operation, its process. The effect of this, as well as a deep strength that builds from the ground up, is a complete disaffection with fantasy. Fantasy is an indulgence that creates reality without the need for connexion, without the need for heart, and the major breakthrough for the student of spirit is the understanding, which must come from their own work, that everything perceived or thought is fantasy, and that the real resides in the heart. This breakthrough marks the opening of the heart, an initiation into a world of feeling, which requires years of preparation, detaching from the illusion of sensation and the selfishness of sensitivity, which most of us take for feeling. It is a breakthrough that many spiritual seekers neglect and miss in their greedy search for full consciousness. The upper dantien, the one in the head, cannot open without the heart. It's higher light is meaningless without the deep dark stirrings of heart and the rooted practicality of belly.
Roundness is containment, and in taiji everything is contained and everything is container: body, mind, form, practice (time). Containment is neutralization, and hence yielding. So, practice contains and neutralizes laziness in a way that laziness cannot contain practice. By containing activity, spirit is reabsorbed into the core. This is discipline, which becomes power, without which there is no progress.
The freedom we desire, more than anything, is freedom from anxiety. This is true for every human being. Most of us go about achieving such freedom by designing a life for ourselves that is relatively stress free, that is, we endeavor to avoid anxiety and it's occasion. This could be called the material approach to the problem of suffering. The spiritual approach, on the other hand, realizes that avoidance is inherently wrong: anything avoided now will catch up with me later, at a time when my mind and energy are less able to cope with it. But equally wrong is a passive attitude to anxiety: dealing with anxiety by not caring less, by detaching from occasion. Instead we need a transformative attitude: one which engages heartfully with the occasion, and believes, wholeheartedly, in the power of heart to melt through constrictions and disconnexions. This is supremely active – always forwards – and also extremely difficult to sustain. But, alas, this is the work, ever and forever at hand.
The arms are loose ropes, hanging from sunk shoulders, thrown up and out by vigorous turning, a turning that gathers power into the root so that the empty leg can extend, reaching out for new territory, which is immediately and voraciously claimed. This is how we move through life: borrowing footholds and gathering power.
Neither resist (go against) nor assist (go for), but turn. This is yielding. The turning creates a vortex which draws the world's energy in (centripetal) as it throws my energy out (centrifugal). This exchange – this turn – means that both parties are transformed, and that a relationship has been created, established, deepened, without which it cannot be called yielding.
The Internal is that which cannot be externalized, explicated, explained, isolated, represented... It accompanies everything: a whisper, a trace, a touch (of humour), and is intensely alive, quickly retreating into the shadows when approached coarsely, yet venturing out with a delightful grace when it has the space and inclination. We value softness and lightness, and do all in our power to develop them, because they encourage the Internal. It doesn't matter what you practise: taiji, yoga, meditation, painting, healing, unless the practice is inspired and enlivened by the Internal it doesn't amount to much.
Ideally, Platonically, perfectly, I am all heart, a fount of loving energy, endlessly transforming the world around me. A sacred heart. Sin is any act that takes me away from this, any thought even. In fact thinking, especially reflective thought, is itself a sin because it diverts and contorts heart energy for its own selfish ends, it cannot help but, that's what thinking is – self-serving, a survival mechanism. So when I think, when I shift from heart to head, that beautiful heart energy that should be radiating out, instead twists and wraps around myself, drawing in to the head where it feeds the mind. We all break out of this pathological loop regularly, daily, whenever experience forces us to forget our own self-interest for a moment. But we then slip back into the mind, forget our heart's involvement, and mentally process the experience: organize it into a form that can be stored and profited from. We do this – compound our sin, make it respectable, admirable even – largely because we believe there is no choice, or because the alternative – remaining in and with the heart – is deemed impossible. Spiritual work is any practice that endeavors to get back to heart where we belong – a journey home for the proverbial prodigal son.
My teacher was always adamant that practice is not primarily the place for working out technical problems, but simply an arena of and for work – the passing of time doing taiji. So my struggle is always to not evaluate in the process of working, otherwise I am never in the process but outside it, judging. The practice of taiji is an exercise in justice without judgment – in doing what needs to be done without having decided or known what needs to be done. Again, this paradox arises from judgment requiring the imperiousness of stillness and justice being a refusal to refuse flux and change.
When I stand still, the most stable stance – the one that best supports and maintains that stillness – is a double-weighted one. But when I move: walk, run, dance, etc. it is those instants of single-weightedness that generate and renew the movement. Always in motion, search out tension – the need to freeze in order to observe, use and profit by the world. The clash between you and world, between inside and outside, is not primarily perceptive or sensory but motile: the world moves you, and you move the world.
Interesting that, according to my dictionary, which admittedly isn't the best, the first recorded use of the word relax to mean "become less tense" dates from 1935 – nervous tension must be a modern phenomenon. And also interesting that implicit in the word relax is the belief that the relaxed state has been experienced before – it is a state the word requests you return to.
Generally we seek stability in order to push certain forces – especially gravity – into the background, so that we can indulge in excess – live a life that exceeds subsistence – the absolutely necessary – and starts to contribute to culture, if only minimally. In taji, on the other hand, we seek a special kind of stability – central equilibrium – which foregrounds gravity as cleanser and creator – an in-system event-trigger – of all we are and all we can, could and should be.
The warrior's verity or certitude, the only thing he knows for sure, is that by embracing death, by entering the fray convinced that he is already dead, he increases his chances of both success and survival. The spirit is only truly free when it faces and embraces death. A final irony that works its way into every encounter.
As I practice taiji I endeavor to become so embroiled in its twists and turns that the Form is pushed into the background where it belongs, and spirit comes to the fore – into the fire. The temptation, of course, is to concentrate on formal and technical trivialities – the disease of the inveterately intermediate student. The function of practice is to go beyond technical problems, not to indulge them.
Things have value only if they take me out of myself. This value is, of course, invested by me in my impeccable engagement with reality. An engagement that insists upon reaching beyond the mind and into heart, beyond language and into true feeling, beyond ideas and ideals and into things in and for themselves.
The secret, if there is one, is simply confidence, the confidence to act. Without this I do not live in real time – I'm always too late – and there is no feedback, neither positive nor negative, and so no guidance to my progress, no wisdom in my life. As teachers we must be so careful not to say No to our students all the time. Not to batter them with our knowledge and expertise – our ego. Instead we must be constantly (re)inventing ways to stimulate and encourage their talent and spirit so that they develop the confidence to find out for themselves, the confidence to embark upon the proverbial voyage of discovery. This is the greatest gift to bestow.