Once you have successfully tackled and subdued the over active mind (reduced its weight and influence) then the buoyancy of thymos (natural self as opposed to ego: unnatural self) depends largely on the support of the waist whose muscles, especially those either side of the lumber spine, need to be strong. But it is not a usual muscular strength, which is one able to contract intermittently to deliver force, but one able to supply a steady stream of upward energy to balance the inexorable descent of gravity. When we walk and run the legs naturally pump such energy up the body, which is why these activities are often used to bring up the spirit. But when sitting we get no help from the legs so the heart tends to slump and the mind tends to get nervous and start chattering to itself ten to the dozen. When this happens it is far better to either get up and walk around or lie down flat to let the back rest.
Don't be surprised if, at some point, you find, intuitively, that you need to do the opposite of what your teacher told you. It's not that they were wrong, necessarily, it's just that you probably overdid the instruction – used force. Misinterpretation is inevitable, and this is why every instruction you've ever taken on board must be regularly reassessed – re-understood, re-appreciated – in the fresh light of progress.
Don't be so foolish – so ignorant – as to equate knowledge with information. Some things can only be known if you've spent decades developing your energy – preparing yourself. Such things, on occasion, may be put into words by a teacher but never to convey the knowledge, only to inspire a student to work so that he may eventually find out for himself.
True yielding contains not a smidgen of struggle. It happens suddenly but without speed. It takes you by surprise. Always appropriate yet always unexpected. Mysterious, miraculous. It feels as though your intention and spirit have been swallowed up and, in that instant, you've been transported to a different dimension and transformed into a different person. Regardless of whether you are the yielder or the one yielded to.
If the meaning of life is to become a better person – closer to God – softer, wiser, more compassionate, more loving, more understanding, then this is not achieved by practising softness and compassion in your own time but by living under such stress that you are forced, in real time, to exercise every ounce of spirit and energy you can muster to show your real worth. See life as an opportunity for revelation, otherwise no one really knows who you are – you least of all.
Find firm ground and build your house. This for many is life – empire. But we Taoists know that unless there is also a contrary drift – a slippage back to ocean – life lacks balance, perspective and meaning. Never forget soul. It's as old as the hills, breathes with gills, and is most at home in nature.
Behavior, actions, decisions are largely governed by conformity: by a fearful need to keep an external value system intact. They keep the law; out of habit, duty, conscience, or for want of imagination, authenticity, individuality – spirit. Spirit is the devil in the detail – in the now – that breaks the law, which is why any system, of governance, values, or whatever, will always struggle to at least contain and subdue it if not eradicate it altogether.
To abide in the present, fully, the past must be remembered, recollected, recaptured, reawakened, otherwise there is no fullness, no wholeness, no peace. The enemy, if there is one, is resistance, repression, forgetfulness – whatever makes time chronological, linear. The present is not a tight infinitesimal point on an infinite line, but the presence of a past brought alive through awareness and respect, and the acceptance of a future without me. Things continue, life goes on, but I don't.
If when standing at the sink, or in line at the post office, or awaiting the bus, you have the presence of mind to bend the legs very slightly by breaking at the knees and especially the hips, and remember gravity streaming down through the body, then you are practising – you are meditating. If instead you lock out the legs so that the idle mind can comfortably absent itself and think about something else – daydream – then you are wasting valuable time.
"Nine years to learn to yield, then one year to learn to attack." This maxim was drilled into me from day one: the notion that attack without prior yielding is aggressive and vulgar; that yielding is our primary concern and should be our principal study. Yet one of the reasons the concept of yielding is so difficult to grasp – so nebulous – for beginners is because there are no longer any direct attacks to yield to because we have forgotten how to be fully present – how to be attackable. We have lost touch with our power – our thymos – and instead cower like whimpering children behind a mask of conformity. So, for me, the real problem facing all of us is learning to be present, which first means becoming presentable – donning suitable apparel – a gleaming breast plate of courage and good will – an open heart. Then yielding will take care of itself because life will have the opportunity to teach us the lessons we need to learn.
If the art, first and foremost, doesn't improve my character then I'm wasting my time. And who should feel and benefit from this improvement? Not me, necessarily, but others. I work, primarily, for others: for those I love, for those I work with, and for those I encounter. Otherwise I'm just like everyone else: bringing down the world with mediocrity, self-indulgence and self-pity.
Tension is a wall – an opaque barrier – built around things we'd rather not face. Painful things, difficult things: things that contradict the prevailing model of reality. The path to relaxation inevitably exposes these traumas; hence the pains and difficulties we encounter along the way – signs of progress – which the good student bravely faces until they (trauma/student) fade away, though never without a good struggle.
The critical mind is easy to discern. It is felt as a tightening and narrowing of the forehead. But also a slackening and weakening of the mind's core – a loss of centre – and a congealing of mind around the object of criticism. We aim in our work for the opposite – a dense well-gathered centre in the middle of the brain, and a relaxed expanding brow, face and smile. This will be very difficult at first. It will feel like you're going crazy – losing your mind. Which of course you are – losing the false mind in order to find true mind. You'll know when you've got it right because when the mind is properly centred then so are the belly and heart – everything slots nicely into place.
Stand on only one leg for a minute. Not too difficult, especially if your sense of balance has been developed with Taiji. Now stand on only one leg for a whole minute with eyes closed tight. A little more difficult? This is because we use the eyes to latch onto stationary objects in our environment in order to assist balance. Which is not really balance at all but a locking or a freezing – a hardening into solidity – which is not Taiji either because it goes against the basic principles of softness and equilibrium. Now, sit quiet and still with the eyes closed for as long as it takes to achieve internal peace. Then slowly open the eyes without leaping out of them to grasp what you see – let the world come to you – into your sanctum – your pool of compassion. What you may feel, as these sights enter your heart, is a movement of spirit in the opposite direction – from your soul to whatever your eyes touch. This is the spiritual dimension of vision – an exchange of grace.
Corruption is infectious. Take, for example, modern athletics: if one person in the field is taking steroids then they all have to otherwise they can't compete. This is why our work is so painstaking, if not painful, and lonely – it really is an uphill and largely thankless struggle. Not for everyone, obviously; for those who, deep in their heart, know they have no choice.
We must, as a matter of urgency, ditch our outdated metaphysics that lazily privileges extension over intention, solid over fluid, space over time, force over energy, similarity over difference, single over multiple, stillness over movement, silence over noise. This was, in fact, the major project of the Modernists a hundred years ago. It requires, above all else, the admission of spirit and an understanding of energy. And, probably, a new language.