The body and, especially, the energy can think for themselves. The last thing they need is a neurotic mind messing things up.
From a Taiji standpoint our basic choice in life is either use the legs to break the energetic connexion to Earth or use the legs to strengthen that connexion. (And, paradoxically, a strong connexion is only achieved by relaxing (weakening) the legs as much as is possible without collapsing.) This choice determines everything else in life, and ultimately the quality of death.
Yang style Taiji, so my teacher told me, is largely about unifying belly and heart into one powerful energetic organ, which is then controlled by the mind of intent, by spirit, for the purpose of getting an angle – an advantage – on the situation particularly, and on life in general. I no longer have time for such nonsense.
The mind can only wander if I bring tension into the body. This tension is perceived by the world as lack of trust, and so, on some level, the world holds back some of its support and energy. Most of us get unconsciously resentful at this point, and take this stand-off of a relationship as permanent and irrevocable. But anything can change with work: our place in the world as well as the world's place in us.
Often I feel the work is more about aesthetics than ethics. The indescribable beauty of creation – the miraculous bubbling forth of pure novelty from the fathomless depths – the way each Form is unimaginably different from all the others. This is the beauty of life, and our ethical duty is to appreciate it and be happy – to observe the process and say Good. And be damn thankful.
When you put your hand on another creature and relax into the miracle of touch then you begin to realise that language is little to do with communication and more to do with reducing reality to its quantifiable externals. The work is about abandoning the world of discourse – the logos – and entering pure feeling and energy.
"It's more about when you come back from being out somewhere: in a minicab or a night bus, or with someone, or walking home across London late at night, dreamlike, and you've still got the music kind of echoing in you, in your bloodstream, but with real life trying to get in the way. I want it to be like a little sanctuary. It's like that 24-hour stand selling tea on a rainy night, glowing in the dark. It's pretty simple."
Very early on in life we learn to repress feeling (energy) in order to live like everyone else. Our work – our meditation – is about relaxing sufficient for those feelings to rekindle and resurface into consciousness. When this starts to happen it can be exciting or irritating or scary, depending upon one's basic character. The teacher's job is to encourage – to let the student know that what they are feeling is a sign of progress. Eventually the student learns to accept these strange twists and turns, and simply get on with it regardless. This can appear to be another form of cutting off from feeling but it is not – it is just that the student has finally found a purpose and a centre other than self.
"There are four quadrants of your consciousness. Upper left is what you know and what people know about you. Upper right is what you know about yourself but nobody knows. Lower left is what people know about you that you don’t know. And lower right is what you don’t know and nobody knows. And that’s where art comes from."
Ego and spirit are opposites to the point of mutual exclusivity. So, when the ego is free to the point of rampant, as it is in most of us bourgeoisie, then the spirit is dissipated: a fact that's obvious when you look into the eyes of the average person and see dull fear and depression masked by the sheen of selfishness or the twinkling gloat of puerile excitement. But when the ego is hemmed in, with discipline and duty, with vigilance and devotion, then the eyes shine with concentrated spirit and depth of soul.
Prayer is defined as the raising of heart and mind to God in the absence of thoughts (the proviso added by Evagrius, the early Desert Father, according to my teacher's father, who was something of an expert). So, if there are no thoughts, and therefore no words, then it's simply a matter of posture – of extension and intention – alignment of both body and mind. This, of course, is pure Taiji, assuming you're not too obsessed by form and function.
We spend our formative years internalizing a multitude of experiences: positive and negative, which become lenses or filters through which all subsequent experiences are viewed. This is more a process of 'becoming through experience' than 'learning from experience.' The work is an excruciatingly slow process of removing these deep personal prejudices in order to be empty enough to be fully open and present. This is the only way to encounter the new, not by traveling to ever exotic places but by ditching old and established habits, by quietening the knowing mind and being energetically engaged.
"To wander for hours searching for the unknown requires faith. One must trust that unmarked time spent photographing will result in the world revealing itself, and that your translation of the world will be meaningful. That’s a tough mindset to maintain, because sometimes photos happen and sometimes they don’t."
Motivation must come from the heart – the sheer and simple love of the work and its traditions – and not from ego (superego) – fear, guilt, duty, ambition, habit. About this my teacher was most adamant, and as you progress you'll feel its importance more and more. It's all about the joyful spontaneous act that springs simply from the desire to be done rather from any profit motive. Things that have meaning, for Heaven's sake, only in themselves, and for the grace they generate.
A market economy flattens and depresses the world by assuming that everything can be reduced to a price. A gift economy elevates and lightens reality because it knows that every thing has an essence which is unique, irreducible, non-habitual and priceless. If you wish to live in the present – in and for the gift – then you must feel and honour the magic in even the tiniest of things. Then you'll find yourself always being showered by the lightness of grace.
Forgiveness, the self-help books tell us, is letting go of the past, and is key to moving forward in life. But it is not enough to forgive: you too must be forgiven. It is not only your past that you feature in, you are also present in the pasts of all those you've known and encountered, and if they, for whatever reason, are holding grievances against you then their forgiveness must be sought. And if they are dead and gone then so much the worse for you because now you'll need to pay in some other way. But don't worry about it. When the time comes in your spiritual progress that such delicacies are seriously holding you back then what needs to be done will become clear and unavoidable.
Reality is the vast, all-encompassing web of energetic connectedness. Love and fear are two extreme responses to this. Love surrenders to reality through release, and fear pulls away from it – disconnects – in order to exist in an alternative reality, a world, which we call self or ego. A spiritual life is one devoted to achieving and exploring ever deeper levels of release and surrender, of love. A secular life is devoted to increasing the self – building an empire – with wealth, status and progeny.
When the body ails, from illness or injury, then the mediocre student desperately seeks a remedy: some medicine or therapy that will remove the pain and discomfort, and restore the appearance of health. The good student however, after the initial shock and disappointment, allows the ailment to teach them to let go of the bad habits that brought it about, and adopt a few good ones instead. This means that by the time they have recovered, they are generally in better shape than they were before the ailment struck. This is an example of yielding: of turning bad fortune into good, turning a foe into a friend.
A temple near Osaka had a wonderful view over the sea. Rikyu had two hedges planted which totally hid the landscape, and near them he had a small stone pond built. Only when a visitor bent over the pond to take water in the hollow of his hands would his gaze meet the oblique gap between the two edges, and then the vista of the boundless sea would open up before him. Rikyu’s idea was probably this: bending down over the pond and seeing his own image shrunk in that narrow stretch of water, the man would consider his own smallness; then, as soon as he raised his face to drink from his hand, he would be dazzled by the immensity of the sea and would become aware that he was part of an infinite universe. But these are things that are ruined if you try to explain them too much. To the person who asked him about why he had built the hedge, Rikyu would simply quote the lines of the poet Sogi:
Here, just some water,
There amidst the trees
Here, just some water,
There amidst the trees