Here’s part 3 of my 8-week course on mindful movements with Tai Chi. Last week we looked at the lower body, this week it’s the turn of the upper body and I throw in a bit of zen wisdom at the end for good measure. Enjoy!
Standing Chi Kung exercise, or Zhan Zhuang, as it’s known in Chinese is one of the most powerful exercises for developing your inner power.
There’s a brilliant series of videos on YouTube on the subject of Zhan Zhuang taught by Master Lam Kam Chuen. They’re presented in a very ‘easy to follow’ manner, and they’re a great way to get started with standing exercises.
Here’s the first episode:
One question people often have is “what should I be doing in these postures?” Well, “it’s complicated” is probably the best answer. It depends what you’re working on.
But if you have to start somewhere then I think the following words written by Eckhart Tolle from The Power of Now, (and apologies in advance to anybody who gets offended by even the merest whiff of anything New Age) where he talks about connecting to the inner body, are a good start:
“CONNECTING WITH THE INNER BODY
Please try it now. You may find it helpful to close your eyes for this practice. Later on, when “being in the body” has become natural and easy, this will no longer be necessary. Direct your attention into the body. Feel it from within. Is it alive? Is there life in your hands, arms, legs, and feet — in your abdomen, your chest? Can you feel the subtle energy field that pervades the entire body and gives vibrant life to every organ and every cell? Can you feel it simultaneously in all parts of the body as a single field of energy? Keep focusing on the feeling of your inner body for a few moments. Do not start to think about it. Feel it. The more attention you give it, the clearer and stronger this feeling will become.
It will feel as if every cell is becoming more alive, and if you have a strong visual sense, you may get an image of your body becoming luminous. Although such an image can help you temporarily, pay more attention to the feeling than to any image that may arise. An image, no matter how beautiful or powerful, is already defined in form, so there is less so there is less scope for penetrating more deeply.
The feeling of your inner body is formless, limitless, and unfathomable. You can always go into it more deeply. If you cannot feel very much at this stage, pay attention to whatever you can feel. Perhaps there is just a slight tingling in your hands or feet. That’s good enough for the moment. Just focus on the feeling. Your body is coming alive. Later, we will practice some more. Please open your eyes now, but keep some attention in the inner energy field of the body even as you look around the room. The inner body lies at the threshold between your form identity and your essence identity, your true nature. Never lose touch with it.”
The connections between Tai Chi and Taoism are at once obvious (the Tai Chi symbol is used extensively in Taoism) and also sketchy at best (there is no historical lineage connection).
You see a lot of Taoist priests (or at least Chinese people wearing Taoist priest robes) on Wudang mountain, which has traditionally been associated with Taoism, teaching people Tai Chi, Xing Yi and Bagua (the internal arts) in the lineage of Chang San Feng, the mythical Taoist who is traditionally associated with the origins of Tai Chi Chuan, but whose historical existence seems difficult to prove.
However, how long these modern days Taoists have been there teaching people martial arts I’m not sure. The fact that their ‘ancient’ martial arts look remarkably similar to the modern “wu shu” versions created in Beijing makes them seem highly suspect to me…
But while a direct connection between Taoism and Tai Chi may be difficult to prove, they clearly employ the similar ideas. Take for instance the idea of Wu Wei – the ever elusive “doing without doing” of Taoism.
If you take a look at the Tai Chi Classics you see that while they don’t mention the phrase “Wu Wei” itself the strategy of the art described fits it like a glove. Take the following quotes from the Treatise on Tai Chi Chuan:
It is not excessive or deficient;
it follows a bending, adheres to an extension.
When the opponent is hard and I am soft,
it is called tsou [yielding].
When I follow the opponent and he becomes backed up,
it is called nian [sticking].
If the opponent’s movement is quick,
then quickly respond;
if his movement is slow,
then follow slowly.
It seems Taoism is having something of a resurgence, as this article reveals, as a philosophy for dealing with the anxiety-inducing modern world. Even the rock star intellectual de jour, Jordan Peterson, is getting in on the act.
From Alan Watts back in the ’60s to Jordan Peterson in the modern age, the Western intellectual has had a recurring fascination with Taoist thought. Particularly with the concepts of Wu Wei and the Tao Te Ching. In fact, the book that first got me interested in Tai Chi years ago was The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff.
I think all this interest in Taoism again is generally a good thing. Let’s see where it leads.
“Hagakure is the essential book of the Samurai. Written by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, who was a Samurai in the early 1700s, it is a book that combines the teachings of both Zen and Confucianism. These philosophies are centered on loyalty, devotion, purity and selflessness, and Yamamoto places a strong emphasis on the notion of living in the present moment with a strong and clear mind.”
Not being too familiar with Japanese writings I hadn’t come across this book before, but it was brought to my attention by a quote I stumbled across that I really liked:
“There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.”
The book seems to be full of pithy, simple, wisdom like that.
I’m not familiar with which translation is the best – probably one you can buy on Amazon since that’s usually the way things work – but there’s certainly a free version of the book you can read here.
Writing for Jetli.com is taking up more of my free time, so I haven’t posted too much original content here, but I guess I’m waiting for the muse to find me before I do.
In the meantime, here’s my latest article for Jetli.com
There are so many technical aspects to Taijiquan, that it’s easy to forget to simply breathe and enjoy the practice, keeping that awareness of the breath as you go.
“If you are depressed you are living in the past.
If you are anxious you are living in the future.
And if you are at peace you are living in the present.”
– Lao Tzu.
I’ll admit to being a big fan of Charlotte Joko Beck’s 1993 book Nothing Special. Her first book is good too, but the second really hits the spot for me. It’s about Zen living, but is very light on the ‘Zen’ and very heavy on the ‘living’. What I like is her approach to practice, because I think it relates to Tai Chi practice.
There are so many similarities between the two. Aside from the fact that they’re both meditative in nature, if you want to get anywhere in Tai Chi you need to practice pretty much every day, even when you don’t feel like it, in much the same was as you have to sit and meditate every day to get anywhere in Zen, even when you don’t feel like it. Not that there is anywhere to get in Zen, since you are already right here. In fact, from a Zen point of view it would be better to say that you have to meditate every day just to get back to where you are already, and nowhere else.
Some of my favourite quotes from her work (which I’m not getting just right, but hey, they are close enough):
“When nothing is special, then everything can be.”
“On the withered tree the flower blooms.”
“Stop thinking, stop dreaming and there is nothing that you cannot know”.
Anyway, I’d recommend Nothing Special, the book, and watching the following YouTube documentary about her work.
Charlotte Joko Beck – Ordinary Living-documentary: