Wisdom and Power: A Philosophical Approach to T'ai Chi

Chapter 1:
WHAT IS T'AI CHI?

The discovery of T'ai Chi is a remarkable adventure. And, since it is an adventure we will be sharing together (you and I - the reader and the author), perhaps a few words at the outset to get acquainted with one another would not be a bad investment. At the risk of losing whatever advantages the stiff formality of third person writing has to offer, I'm going to continue to speak of "you" and "me" as if we both really existed - which, of course, we do.

As to who we are, there is at least one simple answer to that: we are both seekers on the path. That is, we are both seeking to grow and expand our conscious awareness of reality, to gain a greater measure of freedom and control over our own lives and destinies, to win a sense of peace and harmony with our surroundings. To at least some extent, we seek the qualities of "sageliness" or "enlightenment" for ourselves - if that were not the case, you would not be reading this book; and I certainly would not have written it. So we have a fundamental level of agreement at the outset, and we will use this agreement as the cornerstone of our adventure together: we want to discover what is the nature of reality, and how T'ai Chi can help us become masters of reality and of our own lives. We will return to this cornerstone again and again as we go through the book, examining every facet of this much talked-about and little-understood art, T'ai Chi.

First, a definition is in order. If you are the reader who purchased this book to learn how to beat up his friends and neighbors in three easy lessons (don't laugh - such a reader exists), you will by now be thoroughly mystified.

"I thought T'ai Chi was a sneaky Chinese way of fighting," you will say, "not some way to learn about reality, whatever that may mean." And you will certainly be justified in your confusion, for the abundance of Kung-Fu movies, magazines, tournaments and television shows has done little to publicize that martial arts is anything but a deadly game in which the participants leap fifty-foot vertical cliffs to rip out each other's hearts!

To be sure, T'ai Chi does have a fighting aspect - as a self-defense art it is second to none, and a T'ai Chi master is indeed capable of performing physical feats that seem almost superhuman. However, to imagine that it is just a way of fighting is to misunderstand it completely.

The literal translation of T'ai Chi is simply "Supreme Ultimate," by which is meant the mysterious basic principle of existence. This principle is represented by the familiar T'ai Chi diagram on the cover of this book. It considers all of life to be a perfectly balanced, orderly and harmonious "unfolding" of complementary "opposite" tendencies, termed Yin and Yang. Yin is everything that has female, receptive, passive, dark and material qualities, while Yang is all that has male, creative, active, light and spiritual qualities. Neither is "good" or "bad" in itself - rather they are complementary; neither could exist without the other. They are pictured not as separate entities, but as parts of an integrated whole in constant change and motion, Yin flowing into Yang and vice-versa, each carrying within itself a little of the other.

The movements of Yin and Yang describe an orderly pattern of unfoldment in the Universe; a definite, comprehensible "Law of Change" which applies to everything that exists. This is the principle of T'ai Chi.

The system of health and self-defense that is based on this "Supreme Ultimate" principle is called T'ai Chi Ch'uan (Supreme Ultimate Boxing). It uses the ideas of balance and harmony in a unique way: rather than opposing hostile energy, the T'ai Chi Ch'uan fighter accepts his opponent's attack and harmonizes with it. This allows him to keep his balance and, with a minimum of physical force, to let the attacker defeat himself! This "internal" approach to fighting is extremely powerful, and does not require great strength or athletic prowess to practice successfully.

Since the attacker's own aggression is turned back on himself, the stronger his attack, the easier it is to defeat him! In this book, I will explain the fighting techniques of T'ai Chi Ch'uan in detail, and tell you exactly how to go about developing these abilities.

However, even though we will use the fighting aspect of T'ai Chi as a basic frame of reference to approach the larger subject, the real "meat" of this handbook is the practical application of T'ai Chi to all facets of life: how to become powerful and wise.

Accordingly, I will use the term T'ai Chi from here on to mean both the Supreme Ultimate principle of existence and the way of life that follows this principle.

The T'ai Chi way of life has a great deal in common with Yoga, Alchemy and other paths of "spiritual development." In fact, the graceful T'ai Chi movements were invented by Taoist alchemists as a way of stimulating vibrant health and long life, learning to collect and control the body's mysterious intrinsic "life force" (Ch'i), expanding the consciousness and of completely transmuting the human nervous system to resonate in harmony with the primal forces of the Universe.

T'ai Chi aims at attaining a serene, transcendental BALANCE that is unshakeable because it is firmly tuned in to the great cosmic Law of Change.

Let's take a moment to look more closely at this idea of balance. We all know what is meant by the balance that a tightrope walker has. But there is also a balanced budget, a balanced personality and a balanced meal; each of which refer to different things. Yet the main idea is the same in all these instances, and pertains to staying in the center or avoiding the extremes - whether the extremes in any particular case are credits and debits, introversion and extroversion, or meat and potatoes!

Any thing or situation that has extremes must always have a point of balance, and the art of T'ai Chi is to find that point of balance and to occupy it. For example, if winning a fight is one extreme and losing a fight is the other extreme, then the point of balance is not fighting at all.

Or consider a more complex example, also related to fighting. If I am in a fight which is unavoidable, and my assailant launches a powerful punch against me, he has created an imbalance. Rather than receiving his punch at great injury to myself, or trying to block it (and neutralize his imbalance with my own imbalance), I should empty my body, giving him no firm target to attack, and gently redirect the force of his punch back to him, thus restoring the lost balance.

Of course, when I say "gently redirect the force of his punch back to him," I have said quite a mouthful, and it does take a lot of training to do this fluidly. But, oddly, the training involves more unlearning than it does learning, because any imbalance will always and automatically return to its source unless it is interfered with. The "trick" to the incredible power of T'ai Chi as a fighting art is to learn to follow your opponent's hostile energy without opposing or interfering with it, remaining calmly centered while your assailant goes about the business of defeating himself!

The martial training of T'ai Chi concerns itself with developing the ability to maintain such a moving balance in the midst of violent conflict. In much the same way, the larger art of T'ai Chi as a way of life aims at developing the mind's ability to remain calmly balanced in the midst of all the changing and often confusing demands of life.

Since the principles of "balance-in-change" are exactly the same for mental and spiritual activity as they are for physical activity, it's easy to see how the physical training of T'ai Chi relates to spiritual development: if you can harmonize with a physical punch so that it leaves you unharmed, you can do the same thing with an emotional disappointment, an intellectual argument or any problem you encounter in life. Even more, just as T'ai Chi Ch'uan enables you to remain above physical conflict - dealing with it without getting drawn into it yourself - so the balanced, expanded consciousness of T'ai Chi allows you to transcend the conflicts and difficulties of daily life, remaining serene, unruffled and confident no matter what circumstances you encounter.

This is a very attractive state of consciousness to aim for. It is similar to the "samadhi" or "enlightenment" of other spiritual paths in that its possessor moves beyond conflict, beyond the illusion of separation, and becomes at one with everything in the Universe. But the unique feature of T'ai Chi is that it does not require withdrawal from the world or "absorption in pure thought." The T'ai Chi master is at one with all of life as it is lived, day to day, moment to moment. He is beyond conflict, not by hiding out in a cave or meditating on a mountaintop, but by understanding how to "lead by following" - by being able to so completely accept and follow anything and everything that nothing can knock him down! Non-resistance is his rule: what you do not resist cannot harm or unbalance you. He achieve his ends without contention.

I want to discuss this extraordinary state of consciousness at greater length, but perhaps we should first agree on the meaning of the word "consciousness." Without getting bogged down in too much philosophical hair-splitting (some philosophers, for example, even question that there is such a thing as consciousness, since it can't be weighed or measured - although just how they manage to be conscious of their own doubts is not specified), let us agree here to call consciousness the faculty of awareness. In other words, the "part" of you that is aware of what you are reading now is your consciousness. And, since you are now aware of more of these words that I have written than you were at the top of the page, reading this book is expanding your consciousness!

Of course, in the same manner, listening to a political speech, eating a hamburger or looking at the pictures in a girlie magazine all expand your consciousness, and this type of steadily growing awareness is something that all normal human beings experience all their lives.

But there is another dimension of consciousness expansion that has to do with categories of awareness, and this is where BALANCE begins to be important. For example, the man who watches one football game after another is expanding his awareness of football continually; but if this same man suddenly goes to see the Royal Ballet one weekend instead of the Steelers, he has expanded his categories of awareness - he sees more of the reality of the entire world, and is to that extent more conscious of the way things really are (since reality is infinitely diverse) than he would be if he confined his awareness to just one small corner of the world.

Now, I don't mean to imply that ballet is a more valuable experience than football, any more than to say that ice cream is better than tunafish. But our awareness would certainly be far more limited if we ate only one kind of food all our lives and never sampled other fares. Similarly, by confining our thoughts and activities to a very narrow circle, we limit our consciousness and become narrow-minded people. Narrowness is one symptom of an unbalanced consciousness. It means that our experiences and preferences lock us into one way of looking at things, when there are actually many ways of looking at everything. It means that we become dogmatic and closed-minded, when reality actually demands flexibility and open-mindedness. A balanced consciousness "keeps its feet." One which leans too hard in any direction sooner or later falls down.

Narrow-mindedness is responsible for much of the strife and unhappiness in the world, since we naturally tend to resent and be afraid of what we do not understand and are not interested in. Fear breeds hate, resentment breeds unhealthy competition, and hateful competition builds bigger and better ulcers and bombs.

But the irony is that the people who build the bombs (you know, "them") are not bad people. There is no such thing as a bad person. Within the range of each person's awareness, he automatically does what he thinks is good and right. If he is a man of greatly expanded consciousness, his efforts to achieve the good will be on behalf of the entire family of humanity, as have been the efforts of the great saints and sages. If his consciousness is severely limited (to himself), he will "look out for number one" alone, even to the extent of cheating, harming and killing his fellow man, because he sees himself as separate and isolated, and "the good" as good for his personal welfare. Most people's consciousness lies somewhere between these two extremes, but unfortunately it is often closer to the ego- centered view that to the world-embracing one. We identify with our own bodies, our own families, our own religions, our own nations; we are united only in being against the "others." It is "us" and "them."

As a result, we walk around in a state of chronic tension and insecurity, fear and aggression. Our jobs are dog-eat-dog, our home lives chaotic, our political environment a paranoid nightmare of crisis after crisis. It is man against man, nation against nation, and we helplessly witness the ultimate absurdity of building bigger and better missiles to drop the bigger and better bombs that kill the children to make the world a safe place for children to grow up in. Mankind has reached the very grim state of having the physical capability of destroying all life on Earth; and all humanity shudders because everyone knows that we might do it.

Mongering fear is far from my intent, so I will leave the bomb scares and doomsday warnings alone to move on to more positive considerations. It will be a point well-taken, however, if you will realize that the source of all war and aggression, and the cause of man's inhumanity to man, is our narrow and limited consciousness and nothing else.

Balancing and expanding your consciousness is the single most important step any individual can take toward bringing peace and harmony into our strife-filled world. The very same technology that runs the war machines could also - at this very point in time - provide a high standard of living and leisure for every human being on the planet,* if we could but all embrace the family of man in loving cooperation. This is not an impossible dream: changing the world begins with changing yourself. (See Buckminster Fuller, J. Peter Vajk in the bibliography)

But to return to our original subject, I may have given you the impression that the expansion of consciousness in T'ai Chi consists simply in broadening the range and categories of our experience. This is ont the case. In the first place, the range of experience possible to man is so great that, as valuable as it is, no one could accumulate more than a tiny freaction of it in even the busiest lifetime. In the second place, this type of experience of the external world, which we gain through our sense organs and our rational minds, is only a very small part of the total reality. There is imagination, for example, and dreams - both unlimited sources of experience. And there are yet other kinds of awareness of ourselves and our relationship with the Universe which the discipline of T'ai Chi will open up; transcendental awareness of a non-verbal, non-rational nature in which the distinction between the observer and the observed dissolves into the unity of pure consciousness, and understanding is gained not through sensing or analyzing, but through being.

The first step in the reach toward this type of consciousness is no farther away than here and now. Reality continually presents us with an incredibly rich tapestry of experience, all the time, in all categories and on every level of existence. But our nervous systems are not tuned to receive most of this experience. Our untrained senses only perceive a tiny fraction of what is really going on all the time, and our minds are so stiff and inflexible that they reject most of what our senses do receive. Our attitudes and educations have taught us to filter our direct awareness through our brains, to screen it with a veil of words and concepts so that only the most miniscule fraction of reality reaches our objective awareness; and then only in a form twisted to fit into our predetermined expectations and preconceived value structure.

The breeze blowing through the trees sings songs of eternity. Beneath our feet is a mighty universe of insect armies, worm habitats, great forests of grass and weeds. Stirring battles for survival, mating dances of exquisite grace and beauty, the ceaseless life-hum of species already ancient before the first man walked the Earth goes on unnoticed in our backyards.

All around us the secrets of life stand naked and unashamed, awaiting our loving union. Outside my window, I can see a bud rose on a thorny stem: can any scientist tell me what a rose is? Or perhaps I should ask what a rose is becoming, for it is not the same thing from one moment to the next. A rose is a process, a growingness of incredible complexity and beauty, a stream of matter flowing through a structure designed by genetic intelligence, the whole of which is far beyond the grasp of any human botanist. How easily is this unknown miracle masked by the word "rose"! And do I see a rose the same way you see it? No - we create our own realities, noticing what is important to us, discarding the rest as insignificant.

What I am suggesting here is not that there is anything extraordinary about roses; but to the contrary, the very ordinariness of most of what we encounter enables us to put it into neat little conceptual boxes, all nicely labeled, and dismiss the contents of these boxes from our reality.

But nothing that is, is dismissed from the ONE reality, and the gap between the real world and our shallow picture of it continues to widen. This narrow, self-created version of the world is the origin of the illusion of separation; dispelling the illusion requires a transformation of the nervous system.

The experience labeled "cosmic consciousness" and so sought after by sages and mystics for ages untold is in fact nothing more than this simple state of being aware of things as they are; with the disquieting qualifier that things as they are are not at all as they seem to us through the eyes of separation. This mysterious faculty which transforms the dullest setting into a garden of paradise, mud into gold, and allows us to gather the pearls of priceless wisdom that fall from the mouths of fools, is nothing arcane or extraordinary. It is in fact the ordinary world, for the ordinary world and all things in it, at all times, is miraculous and sublime, if we but have the eyes to see it.

The problem, then is not in frantically seeking out new experiences, but in retraining ourselves to be open to the infinite experience that always confronts us; and the key to this openness is - you guessed it - balance!

In T'ai Chi we are concerned with nothing less than achieving a fully balanced, totally open and undivided consciousness. Without direct experience, it is difficult to fully appreciate what this means; but a blind man also has difficulty comprehending the meaning of "sight" - it is that dramatic a difference!

You must ask yourself what it is that keeps you from being open to all things. Go ahead, do this right now.

If you asked yourself that question seriously, you will discover that your answer, in whatever form you phrase it, boils down to taking sides. Your mind has not evolved beyond the mechanism that makes you split everything into opposing "sides," and then identify with one side while rejecting the other.

If I am on the side of Capitalism, I can't be open to Communism. If I am a Christian, I can't experience Jewishness. If I practice Kung-Fu, then Karate is an inferior system. To a poet, the scientist is insensitive, while to the scientist, the poet is impractical. If you are my nigger, I am your honkey.

On a more subtle level, we all have a conception of what "kind" of person we are, built up of a muddle of ideas, definitions, images and identifications. If I consider myself an intelligent person, I have closed myself off from all kinds of activities I consider stupid or worthless. If you believe yourself a man of action, you cannot sit down and daydream. If we are "clean" or "neat" we stay away from dirt, ad infinitum. This endless series of self-definitions closes us off from more and more of the world until we finally come to see ourselves as isolated points of being, trapped inside silly bags of skin, each of us forever separated from the rest of the world; a gray prisoner in a joyless void.

Of course it is is perfectly true that at any given moment we must have a particular point of view or "frame of reference" through which to act. To do anything, you have to know "where you're coming from," and the ability to choose frames of reference is a powerful tool of the mind of man, giving us a flexibility of consciousness quite beyond that of other living creatures. But if we wish to attend to the possibility of genuine peace and enlightenment, it is vital do distinguish "where you are coming from" from "what you are." The former is a freely moving point, which can alter with the flow of changing circumstances. The latter is absolute and unchangeable. It is not possible to "become" one with the Infinite - you already are that. But it is possible to train your nervous system to let go of inflexible definitions and identifications, to experience in the here and now the true unity you have always possessed.

The whole point about inflexibly "taking sides" is that it is inherently unbalanced. If we look at all pairs of opposites as being merely the polar extremes of an underlying unity, this becomes readily apparent. Thus, right and left have no meaning in themselves, but each is just one extreme of a single continuum which extends infinitely in both directions.

If I lean too far to the left, I fall down. But if I lean too far to the right, I fall down also. Only by standing in the center, between left and right, can I keep my feet. This is know as balance. But balance is not just physical equilibrium. It applies equally to everything we think, say, do or experience. If the judge is prejudiced against the defendant at the outset of a criminal trial, he cannot see both sides of the issue clearly. The "scales of justice" are unbalanced, and the accused cannot get a fair trial.

To the extent that I am unbalanced in any direction, I have lost my ability to experience the other direction, and my consciousness becomes narrowed. The more I am out of balance, the more I set myself apart from the total reality, defining and categorizing myself. I create an image of myself which then takes great effort to maintain, and I am constantly encountering resistance from the "other" side (whatever makes it difficult to maintain my image of myself). But being balanced, I encounter no resistance from any direction, and remain open to all things, shifting my center of gravity and point of view easily to accommodate the "what is."

In the T'ai Chi understanding of man, mind, body and spirit are not separate things, but are simply different perceptions of the same thing. The body of man is the whole man; the mind of man is the whole man; the spirit of man is the whole man. In normal awareness, we break man up and say that each man "has" a body, "has" a mind, etc. But then the question is, who is it that does the "having"?

The old sages perceived this to be an error of superficial appearances, and this is why they approached the deepest problems of consciousness, philosophy and personal mastery from what seems to be a physical orientation: because the physical level is the level of our direct interface with the rest of the world. I have devoted a lot of words to talking about balance and openness and acceptance; in actual T'ai Chi training you learn to put these principles into practice with your body. Through physical techniques and movement, the meaning of dynamic balance and centeredness is learned and directly experienced. When this occurs, you become aware of the presence and movement of your own vital life-force (Ch'i), and develop the ability to collect it and direct its flow. As you acquire the practical ability to direct your Ch'i in harmony with ever-changing (and often violent) confrontation with physical opposition, this ability permeates your entire being and can then manifest in all aspects of life.

Though it will sound strange to you that it is possible to completely transform yourself, to learn to integrate every aspect of body/mind/spirit into a state of natural harmony with everything in the Universe simply by practicing what appears to be a physical exercise, that is in fact the case; and it is the foundation which has carried this wisdom of the Supreme Ultimate safely across the millennia to us today - it works.

The essence of the teachings of T'ai Chi we will find to be an arsenal of ideas and techniques for attaining and maintaining a serene, harmonious "balance-in-change" in the various spheres of life: mental, physical, emotional and spiritual. The training exercises center around physical combat and energy-flow, and they are designed to accomplish several objectives more or less simultaneously:

  1. To relax your body and make you aware of the subtle, intrinsic life-force (Ch'i) flowing through you.

  2. To train you to consciously direct this force at will.

  3. To change your nervous system and the way you habitually use this energy, so that the life-force moving through your own body perfectly mirrors the great pattern of change and energy-flow in the Universe at large.

  4. To teach you how to use this internal balance and control as a fighting tool - to harmonize with your attacker's energy by following it without resistance, allowing the attack to flow effortlessly past you and return to its source. And finally,

  5. To gradually transfer the physical mastery of these principles to a complete, direct comprehension of the Law of Change in all aspects of life, and the ability to apply it in everything you do, so that you yourself become a perfect expression of the Supreme Ultimate - the attainment of wisdom and power.

In the process of working toward these objectives, you will discover many positive changes in your life-experience. You will become much calmer and more serene. Stresses and tensions that used to make you "fly off the handle" will be taken in stride. You will find yourself appreciating everything and everyone around you in a way you have never done before, and this appreciation will be returned. Your self-esteem will rise, your intelligence will sharpen, your sense of humor will blossom. You will begin to have a clear, confident, relaxed sense of purpose, of "belonging" in the world. The elements of fear and conflict will begin to drop out of your experience, your physical vitality and health will glow, your dread of the unknown will be replaced by a sense of challenge and adventure.

And these are just the superficial manifestations of the real changes that will occur within you as a result of your progress in T'ai Chi. The direct experience of infinite reality that this way of life opens up to you is quite beyond words - so I will not beat my head against the wall trying to "eff the ineffable" - but this experience is real; more real than anything that can be said verbally. You will discover this for yourself.

One word of guidance to getting the most out of this book is to try to keep an open mind, for you will certainly encounter some ideas which will stretch your credulity. Here, as in anything else, the best policy is to find out for yourself whether what is said is of value. If you simply agree (or disagree) with what I have to say, you will have given me your responsibility for experiencing, and the book will be an entertainment, nothing more. If it is to be a useful tool in helping you to expand your consciousness, your health and your happiness, you must test everything for yourself. In this way you will acquire a practical and direct certainty that is far removed from a mere comprehension or "belief." This certainty and ability will be the solid foundation of your balanced center and the springboard for a new and serenely vital experience of life.

Thus armed, let us plunge headlong into the study of T'ai Chi by looking at its beginnings.

"The Nameless is the Beginning Of Heaven and Earth."
- Lao Tzu


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