Check out “A Wee Bit of Alchemy with Rick Barrett” on my YouTube channel, or better yet, attend the live Zoom session Tuesdays at 8pm EST. It’s an interactive call, so you get to engage in the discussion and clarify things as we go along. I appreciate the feedback and different perspectives. It keeps the conversation real. We explore the energies and principles with exercises and meditations to bring a felt-sense to the things being discussed. Contact me for the link. It also appears in our newsletter and on the FaceBook page.
Here’s the most recent one:
I would like to share some thoughts on this week’s class. We began a discussion on “taijiquan as a spiritual” path by referring to a passage from Chapter 2 of the “Yang Family Forty Chapters” as translated by Douglas Wile in his scholarly Lost T’ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty.
A different translation of the “Forty Chapters” appears in Dr. Yang Jwing Ming’s Tai Chi Secrets of the Yang Style. Both are excellent. Comparing them reveals the breadth of interpretation that spans any Chinese to English translation. It also serves as a warning against dogmatism. There is no “one, true” rendering that explains it all. These words can only hint at the practice that inspires them, and even then are subject to the finite understanding of the translator. Whatever we learn from these writings must still be submitted to our own empirical investigation.
The “Forty Chapters” are very dense and spiced with esoteric references that make studying them daunting. Everyone should take a stab at it, while recognizing that full understanding will be elusive. They were called “secret transmissions,” and full understanding depends on insights from someone who has done the work already. Some ideas are encoded. Each time I go back, I learn a little more and take it a little deeper.
The passage we are discussing in this blog resonates profoundly with stuff I am writing about for my new book. It is encouraging to know that the great masters of old ran into some of the same problems that we encounter now, and they emphasized some of the same remedies I have found useful.
Here’s Wile’s translation of the passage:
We must first understand the meaning of the words conscious movement. After grasping conscious movement, we can begin to interpret energy, and finally, from interpreting energy, proceed to spiritual illumination. However, at the beginning of practice, we must gain an understanding of conscious movement, which, although it is part of our natural endowment, is very difficult to grasp.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right?
- First, understand the meaning of conscious movement (Zhi Jue Yun Dong) (Note: Yang Jwing Ming translates this as conscious feeling in movements.)
- Begin to interpret energy.
- Proceed to spiritual illumination.
- Even though conscious movement is “part of our natural endowment” it is very difficult to grasp.
We are told from the start how essential “conscious movement/feeling” is to not just martial prowess but also to “spiritual illumination.” And not only is it essential, but “it is very difficult to grasp.”
Conscious movement is a learned ability. Even though we have been feeling/moving our whole lives (part of our natural endowment), most of that is happening at a pre-conscious level, i.e., not directed by the conscious mind. Writing in Frontiers of Neuroscience, Kevin D’Ostilio and Gaëtan Garraux conclude, “Are we in command of our motor acts? The popular belief holds that our conscious decisions are the direct causes of our actions. However, overwhelming evidence from neurosciences demonstrates that our actions are instead largely driven by brain processes that unfold outside of our consciousness.”
This was intuited by the early masters of taijiquan, but not explicitly written until the late nineteenth century. Modern science has confirmed that perhaps as much as 95% of our actions are not consciously generated, but does not yet concede that one can learn to “move consciously.” I believe we have to think about the problem a little differently to make that happen.
Conscious feeling/movement brings conscious attention to make preconscious movement volitional. It requires using different functions in the brain/nervous system than what we are used to. When we bring conscious awareness to pre-conscious activity, we enter a superconscious state, leading to “spiritual illumination.” (See “SuperConscious! Seeing With Three Eyes”) Familiarity with this level of insubstantiality leads to heightened states of awareness. We awaken to Wholeness and open the Three Eyes: Eye of Flesh, Eye of Mind, and Eye of Spirit. Body-Mind-Spirit integration begins by bringing awareness to sensation and movement.
“Interpreting energy,” (Dong Jin, or Understanding Jin, as Yang Jwing Ming interprets it) is a skill that is developed as awareness expands to include increasingly insubstantial qualities, from body awareness to qi. This becomes easier as we get more comfortable with superconsciousness. We “interpret” energy when we learn to distinguish among its many forms and qualities.
For example, humans can’t see infrared energy, but can detect it as heat. Most of us are familiar with various forms of static electricity. We notice its effects on things and infer that something is causing the hairs on your arm to stand at attention. Similarly, bioenergy can be observed by its effects. With practice, we can learn to feel the difference between metal qi and wood qi. Or yin qi and yang qi. We start by noticing its subtle effects on the body, then gradually attune to the energy itself. It’s all basically one energy, but can have many different manifestations.
This approach honors physicality as an integral factor in spiritual awakening. In contrast, many spiritual traditions seek higher states of awareness by negating or trivializing the body. Some see the physical form as “illusion” or at least an impediment. Asceticism puts this body-negation into practice. It has been seen in many religious traditions including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, as well as some contemporary movements. A friend told me that his training for the Catholic priesthood while a young teenager included daily self-flagellation to “mortify the flesh.” Siddhartha was an extreme ascetic in his pursuit of wisdom prior to his awakening to the Middle Way. “I would make my bed in a charnel ground with the bones of the dead for a pillow. And cowherd boys came up and spat on me, urinated on me, threw dirt at me, poked sticks in my ears.” And, “I took food once a day, once every two days…once every seven days, and so on to once every fortnight.” (from Siddhartha’s Brain, by James Kingsland)
The taijiquan approach takes a different tack. It doesn’t deny the body. It takes the route through the body. It recognizes the importance of including sensation into the Wholeness that is the Self. It is through conscious sensing that spiritual awakening occurs. This body awareness is the foundation for energy awareness, “interpreting qi.”
Conscious feeling/movement is “very difficult to grasp.” When “stuck in our heads,” the body is largely ignored, except when it’s in pain. Awakening the feeling-sense requires rewiring the brain and the nervous system. It requires shifting awareness from thinking-mode to a more integrated way of being.
My early training in taijiquan was similar to most students: you learned the choreography until you could do it from memory, then over time you learned how and why it worked. That was the traditional approach, and it assumed that one had decades to devote to this gradual unfolding of knowledge. It is an “outside-in” approach. By contrast, I take an inside-out path. I encourage conscious movement and energy awareness right from the start. Most of my students come to me later in life and are looking to get to the fun part sooner. You learn by feeling the movements, not memorizing them. And by feeling them, you learn them more deeply.
Qi-awareness requires enough energy to be noticeable. When the body is aligned incorrectly and movement is automatic, there is little qi-awareness. The qi that is available in the body is dispersed. There has to be a sufficient concentration of qi for it to show up on the radar. When we become aware of the substantiality of the body, it becomes possible to sense the insubstantial energy that animates it. When we plug into the Three Pillars, the gates open to a bigger energy flow and it becomes more substantial, easier to identify as its own thing.
The rational mind will wrestle with this for a long time, since energy awareness is even more insubstantial than body-awareness. That’s okay…and expected. The mind trusts what it knows for sure, and it takes gongfu to make the jump. It needs to know that there is a stable platform to land on. The process is a lot of fun, and rewarding on so many levels.
Join us for “A Wee Bit of Alchemy with Rick Barrett” Tuesdays at 8pm EST, or on my YouTube channel. A donation of $10.00 is suggested.