Any student of movement struggles to make their skills automatic, so they don’t have to “think their way” through their activity. While long hours of practice are essential to develop skill, another factor is necessary for high levels of achievement and that is what this post is about.
We each have a “vantage point” – a place where we feel we exist. Usually this vantage point is in the head because that is where our eyes, ears, nose and mouth are located. We see and hear from the vantage point of the head.
In Zen training there is a saying that the five senses are like five thieves that rob us of the ability to use other senses. In pre-modern cultures other senses are recognized, so that Tai-chi speaks of sensing “chi” and other cultures speak in similar ways.
In Tai-chi training we are taught to “center our attention” in the center of our bodies, like a spider lying at the center of its web. From this vantage point we can perceive in a different way because the strength of the senses on the head are no longer predominant.
The difficulty is that we are so programmed to believe that we have no other senses that we resist even the idea that we do. Yet we learn from practicing Tai-chi that we have a proprioceptive sense – the sense of momentum flowing through our bodies and how the parts of our body line up with each other. As we practice the push hands exercise (a two person interaction), we learn that we can sense the state of balance within our partner and even how his body prepares to carry out an intention to push even though our eyes are closed.
And so it becomes easier to accept that we also have a “sense of chi”, that is, the intelligent communication among all the cells and organs of the body that keeps everything running effectively. We find that our “head-oriented” vantage point battles against the “body-oriented” awareness.
This is because the head-oriented awareness works in one dimension. It is aware of one thing at a time. The body-oriented awareness is aware of everything that is going on at the same time. It is three dimensional.
In order to achieve great skill the student must develop a harmony between these two types of awareness. You can think of it like a map of a mall. The map shows where all the stores are located and also shows where you are in that map. You need to know both in order to get to your store.
We have become a society of “where we are” awareness but have lost our awareness of the “map”. Our schools don’t teach labor history, womens’ history, art history, the history of the human mind (cultural anthropology), financial history, etc., and so we don’t know where we came from. The history of religion and its interaction with science would be too controversial to teach in schools.
We certainly don’t learn how we humans have become so stiff, so sick, so angry, so stressed, so anxious, etc. But when we practice Tai-chi we have to delve into these issues and recognize the patterns of behavior and tension that have been programmed into us. We have to recognize how they have power over us and by doing so, we learn who “we” really are.
We have to learn how the dreams we had as children have become co-opted by the agendas of those who control our society. The path to achieving great things is to let go of the ropes that bind us to the their agendas and allow your dreams to empower your life.
This doesn’t necessarily mean quitting your job. It means understanding your own behavior. Which behaviors are a reaction to your fears and which emanate from your creativity and your joy?
This is true even when practicing your Tai-chi form. Are you pushing yourself through it to feel you have accomplished something or is the form organically emerging from inside of you and expressing itself? In the latter case, the thinking mind has to sit back as the audience and allow the play to take place without interference.
In many cases it is NOT the lack of skill that holds you back from a beautifully performed form but the unwillingness of the vantage point of the thinking mind to yield its one dimensional control.
The reason I mentioned the importance of understanding our many histories is that all of them contributed to the behavior patterns that we think of as being who we are. In order to achieve an “escape velocity” to become independent of those patterns, I have to believe that there is a “me” that is more creative, more connected to feeling and connected to the world around me in a more powerful way our present society allows.
That awareness is what is achieved through the sense of chi. The world experienced through that sense is described by many pre-modern cultures in many different ways. If you have the experience then you can hear each of those ways and understand that they are describing the same thing – the world as perceived without the coercion of the prejudice of your society’s training.
It is the “you” who is part of that world who does the form, or plays music, or lives one’s life. And the form or the music or the way one lives one’s life is the path to experiencing that world. Each of these art forms is also the way of showing others that there is another way of being. So when you see someone performing a Tai-chi form you should ask, “Is he just going through the movements or is this an expression of something greater?”
Tai-chi practice is more than martial arts, more than a performance art, and more than stress reduction. It is a path to liberating the full potential of your health and creativity. It allows you to become aware of the intelligent “dance of biology” within your body and how you are connected to the rest of the “dance of life” around you. We no longer “exist” just in our heads – in our minds. We exist in the full continuum of life.