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In a note to friends last summer (06), I mentioned that "In some ways I feel in better shape now than I've been before, in my whole life." "Thanks, mostly," I added, "to tai chi."
A note came back: "Need to know more about Tai Chi. Sounds like you really benefit from it."
"Benefit," I do. And since it fits so well with the convergence of science and religion, at least for me, I thought I would share my response.
Dear D & M: It's been a while since you asked me to tell you a bit about tai chi, and I didn't forget I said I would. It's late February; today seems to be the day. I have an extra hour or two this morning: although it's usually a day for the tai chi class, my tai chi teacher has taken off to Thailand, "to look at temples," he said. So the time, combined with the dreary weather (heavily overcast, here, with lots of slush; maybe colder and frozen where you are?), seems right. The problem, alas, is that the more I learn about tai chi-- both from practice and theory-- the less I'm able to talk about it coherently.
Although tai chi is usually grouped with other related Asian martial arts, it is more accurately understood from its own perspectives as an anti-marital art. One especially nice way I've heard it described is "a dance of self-defense."
It's Taoist in origin, of course, which means that it goes back to pre-patriarchal Neolithic times. So, at least in its basic perspectives, it is many thousands of years old. Over the centuries it evolved, like everything else, into multiple schools; they seem more to be expressions of the personalities of the founders of those schools than something more basic. As far as I'm able to tell, the fundamentals are the same no matter what school or founder they come from.
Tao is the Great Mother, the overflowing abyss, the "no-thing from which comes every thing. So it's utterly kenotic. And gentle. Its action is best described as no-action. And it's dynamic, never static. The familiar yin-yang image tends to be misleading if we think of it as representing balance. It's really more an image of what Jung called enantiadromia: things always moving into their opposites. And that's what tai chi is about.
Taoism is also non-dualist. There's no "human vs natural world" split, no "body vs mind" split, and of course no "world vs source" split. The Taoist ideal for humans is simply to be one with all that. The cosmic chi (energy, breath, spiritus, pneuma, ruah, prana, vayu) is no less in us than everything else, and tai essentially means something like working with, cooperating with, being in tune with: going with the flow.
And the chi of the universe is always relational. It focuses on each person in relation to the whole of reality and to everything in it, but it no less focuses on each of us, as individuals, in relation to the various aspects of our own makeup (bones, muscles, nerves, feelings, whatever).
And that's where the praxis comes in. In practice tai chi is really nothing more than slow, smooth movements, done with the best, most full attention we can give them. The assumption is that the cosmic chi fills everything including our mind-body self and, with practice, we can let it flow freely. We take responsibility for the chi within us, intentionally becoming a conscious expression of the Tao. And our assisting the Tao to flow freely is what allows us to fully be who and what we are.
Is it really that simple? Yes, I think it is. The various schools seem to differ primarily in what sequences the routine moves can take. The sequence of moves is called a "form." It's simply a pattern for making sure you get in all the essential movements. I've been doing tai chi for more than five years now, and I can do the elementary "19 form" fairly easily. It's called "19" because it has approximately nineteen essential steps to it. It takes about five minutes.
There are also some warm-up exercises. Although the term "warm-up" makes it sound like any other high power work-out activity, it's not. The warm-up includes mild stretching and bending, but even there the emphasis is on not forcing anything. "Just bend as much as gravity lets you." Last year in Philadelphia I saw a old woman doing tai chi with great ease and flow; she said she was 92 years old.
The various movements that are part of the warm-up are called "silk reeling." The idea is that you move like a silk worm spinning the thread: if it's too loose it gets tangled, too tight and it breaks. The main point is smooth flow.
So there's nothing ascetic or macho to tai chi. "Relaxed attention" is the ideal. It's very much like zazen where you focus on only one thing (like breathing), but here you focus on the movements themselves, doing them smoothly, being "in the flow" with them. "Be as relaxed as an old sweater hanging on the back of a chair." This is one of the reasons why tai chi, unlike most exercises and martial arts that are attractive to jocks and other high energy persons, is especially good for older people. There is none of the strain and effort involved in yoga, and nothing like the aggressive actions of karate.
And there also is no fantasy or image-oriented aspect to it, in the way there is to Tibetan or tantric praxis, or in Wicca, with things like "calling down the moon." The one exception I know has to do with the image of the body-center called the tantien (which is pronounced "dan-tien").
The tantien is pictured as a sphere or ball in the abdomen a few inches below the navel; it's where the cosmic energies come together as they move into and flow out from the body. I've learned from my interest in biogenetic structuralism that in some sense it's a real "place" within the body, a "functional structure"-- but we're just not conscious of it; it's very much like the chakras of Hindu tradition or acupuncture points in Chinese medicine. In neurology, they would say its functions are "not entrained to the conscious network." I.e., the tantien is not really any different from digestive processes or heart beat, for example, which work without our consciously control of them. So, when we want to work with the tantien, we have to "image" it.
In the five-plus years I've been doing tai chi, one of the things I've found that makes it so good for me is that every time I do it, it's like a new beginning. I keep getting better and better at it. It's literally a bodily experience of Gregory Nazienzus' "going from glory to glory." And that's why there's really no way to describe it. It's a profoundly cosmic and wholistic experience that just can't be reduced to rational and verbal concepts.
So that's the basic things I can tell you.
With regard to Taoism, there's an excellent translation of the Tao Te Ching available, by an Ellen M. Chen (Paragon House, 1989). She's a graduate of the National Taiwan University and was a scholar at Fordham University in Thomas Berry's time; she mentions him with thanks for his inspiration and encouragement. So the book has an authentically Chinese character as well as a context which isn't alien to Teilhardian and contemporary ecological perspectives. Her detailed commentary is a delight.
There's no book I can recommend for tai chi practice. Innumerable books, tapes and DVDs exist, but I know of none that's good for helping someone new at it to get started. Tai chi really is a "oral tradition"-type of thing. I am extremely lucky to have the tai chi teacher I do.
Ellen M. Chen's translation and commentary of the Tao Te Ching emphasizes peace and social justice as the normal social consequences of following the Tao, and those same perspectives show up in tai chi applications. The basic self-defense ideal is to avoid conflict: to never attack; and, if forced into conflict, to deflect the attackers energies (unbalanced, by definition) rather than meeting them head-on. And no weapons are involved, of course. (Although there is a school that uses swords for practicing balance.)
The ease with which an accomplished practitioner can side-step even the most direct assaults is simply amazing, and understanding the martial arts applications turns out to be quite helpful in understanding some of tai chi's essential movements. But even though it produces useful practical results in terms of self-defense, it is the practice that's an end in itself. And that end-result is simply "balance." Again, though, I need to say that I mean not something static but dynamic. "Dynamic balance" is the best way to say it.
The emphasis on dynamic balance is expressed in everyday tai chi praxis by the fact that it begins with doing nothing: you start simply by standing, relaxed and attentive, with arms out as if holding a beach ball to your chest, allowing the cosmic chi to flow into and through and out of you. You are the incarnation of the "no-thing from which comes everything." The stance is called "wu ji" and referred to as "meditation."
Only after a period of "meditating" do you begin to move, and once you do, you (ideally) don't stop until whatever "form" you're doing is completed. You become a microcosm of the evolutionary cosmos. "As above, so below." So tai chi offers us an essential experience found in any pre-industrial culture's cosmology, but which is utterly missing from our own western religious and cultural traditions: the experience of being a participatory contributor to the cosmic process.
For me, all this converges so wonderfully with the contemporary New Cosmology and the Jewish sophianic perspectives that my life-long interest in science and religion finds a physiological and psychological fulfillment that previously I'd never dreamed possible. I'd better stop; I'm starting to sound like a fanatic!
Thursday, March 8, 2007