“Push. No push.”
“Punch. No punch.”
In my many years studying with him, Grandmaster William C. C. Chen would often exhort us to let go of excessive effort with paradoxical words like that. Taijiquan is filled with paradox, which can be confusing to those looking for a simple, clear map of what to do. We wanted to understand this very strange martial art that insisted that the way to effective power was by relaxing muscular tension, yet “everyone knows” that muscular contraction is what enables the body to move and to move stuff.
“It’s the qi, not muscular force!” Yet we had no idea how to access this mysterious qi. Taijiquan emphasizes cultivating the qi for health and martial ability, and then we come across, “One’s mind should be on the spirit, not on the qi. When it is on the qi, there are blockages. When there is qi, there is no strength.” Which is it, qi or no qi?
At the time I figured all this stuff was above my pay grade, and it was. I was seeing enough improvement in my health and well-being to keep me going, even if I didn’t fully understand WHY it worked. Along the way I saw, heard about, and experienced so many anomalous behaviors (I mention some in my books.) that my mind became more curious.
It was my long struggle to fit all these strange new experiences into my existing paradigm that prompted me to write Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate. I knew there were others like me that needed to examine the benefits as well as the limitations of Western scientific thinking. To understand the paradoxical nature of taijiquan (and much of Chinese philosophy), one has to think differently. Korzybski called it “non-aristotelian thinking, “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Intrinsic to Daoist thought is the idea of “mutual arising.”
Being and non-being give rise to each other,
The difficult and the easy complement each other,
The long and short shape each other,
The high and the low lean on each other,
Voices and instruments harmonize with one another,
Front and rear follow upon each other.
Dao De Jing (Trans. Ellen M. Chen)
Daoist philosophy is one cornerstone of Chinese culture and thinking, and it has an influence on the way taijiquan is thought about and taught. Wei wu wei is a fundamental daoist idea. It literally means, “Do. Not do.” I interpret that as, “Doing based in non-doing.” Too often people only hear the “wu wei” part (not-do) and assume it means “Go with the flow,” and encourages passivity. No, it is once again that interplay of polarities, the “both/and,” that is the essence of daoist thinking. “Not-do” doesn’t cancel out the “do.” “Doing” includes the “non-doing.” You first take a beat of inaction to allow for the most effective “doing.”
Master Chen’s teacher, Cheng Man-ch’ing, wrote “Mobilization first, then movement. The mind moves the qi, and the qi moves the body.” The “mind” that does this is not the thinking, analytical mind. It is the Big Mind, what I have been calling”superconsciousness”: body-mind-spirit integration. “Seeing with Three Eyes.” In the superconscious state, knowing is not dependent on, or limited to representational thought. It accesses much more of the nervous system, including the brain, than can be done intellectually. (I have written extensively about this for the past few years. For a short introduction, see Superconscious! Seeing With Three Eyes.)
“Mobilization first, then movement.” Sounds easy, but there are boobytraps built into the human that make it challenging. It actually goes against the way that you have been operating since you were born. And even when you choose to believe this new way of thinking, your body may not be as easy to convince. It prefers the devil it knows.
It’s Not Natural!
The main reason it’s difficult to do, and to even grasp for many people is that Nature did not prepare you for this. You are actually bucking millions of years of evolution in order to do taiji properly. Humans have survived this long by prioritizing action in response to challenges from the environment. Those who struck the first blow got to pass on their genes. It’s in your DNA. The body has serious reservations about all this “overcome through softness” stuff.
We think, “What do I do?” and even before we think, we begin activating motor neurons to contract muscles. It’s a primitive stress response, and it happens at a PRE-conscious level of awareness. That part is natural. Like the cat and the cucumber.
While some cats greet this long green intruder with indifference or curiosity, most seem to have a much more dramatic response. The reaction is immediate. Nature has programmed them to move first, ask questions later. Same with humans. Some calmly respond to challenges with relaxed efficiency, but most tighten their muscles and shift into the sympathetic nervous system to prepare for action.
Master Cheng tells how his teacher, Yang Cheng-fu, would tell his students over and over to “Relax.” It’s an injunction repeated by taiji teachers everywhere. No student walking into his first taiji class has any idea of what relaxation really means. “But I am relaxed!” No, not really. But stay around a while and you might get the idea.
The problem we encounter is that the thought, “RELAX!” is a product of the conscious mind and the impulse to tighten up is PREconscious, like the cat’s reaction to the cuke. And that business is handled in another part of the nervous system, only rising to the awareness of the conscious mind well after the initial response. That means that five seconds after you tell you shoulder to relax, it starts to tighten again. Nature.
For example, one such primitive stress response is the Tendon Guard Reflex. You’ve probably never noticed it, yet it has been active your whole life. It tells toddlers to stop moving because they are about to lose their balance, and it’s carried forward into adulthood. It’s a response initiated by the brainstem and causes the calf muscles to contract. This sends a chain reaction up the legs, butt, back, and neck, to the top of the head. Releasing the TGR can relax chronically tight back, neck, shoulder, and TMJ muscles. It can go unnoticed by those dealing with a lot stress and remain activated even while sleeping. Such people experience chronic muscular tension and may be so acclimated to it that they know no other way.
That is “natural.” Taijiquan is not. Taiji seeks to improve on the programming we inherited through our DNA by interjecting mindfulness before action. “Mobilization first, then movement.” When this is done often, and successfully, the nervous system adapts to this change and evolves to something you don’t run into in nature. It’s something new. But it doesn’t happen by thinking about it or waiting for it. It requires gongfu–“effort over time.” Only by living your practice can the body make the shift.
You have to rewire your nervous system.
Forty years of gongfu have taught me a lot about what works and what doesn’t. It also has revealed to me that the ceiling on human ability is a lot higher than I ever imagined. My path is to share the valuable stuff and maybe shave a few decades of unnecessary meandering about for those who are interested.
I have been writing for the past few years about superconsciousness and whole-brain coherence. We access this expanded awareness (and the nervous system development that accompanies and supports it) by opening the Three Eyes: Eye of Flesh, Eye of Mind, and Eye of Spirit. I first wrote about the Three Eyes in Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate, and that theme continues to guide my research today. What I consider wisdom does not come from transcen/ding body and mind, but by integrating body, mind, and spirit. And that begins with a deep dive into the most primitive of senses: the Sense of Touch.
Tactile sensation is the only one of the five senses that is non-local. You see with your eyes, hear with your ears, taste with your mouth. But you FEEL with your whole body. You are getting information from your nerve endings from all over your body, inside and out, millions of bits of information per second. Most of this information never reaches your conscious mind, since your conscious mind can only handle a couple dozen bits of information per second. It is PREconscious.
Not many of us are all that aware of the feeling of the 3rd lumbar or the gall bladder unless there is pain involved. There is a threshold of sensation. There has to be enough neurons firing before the conscious mind pays any heed. If it doesn’t reach that threshold, no worries. Nature has provided an elegant system to handle most of our business without any need for conscious control. We don’t consciously beat our hearts or secrete digestive juices in the stomach most of the time, although we can learn to shape these things if we so desire.
The threshold of sensation can be reached passively, like when we notice a pebble in our boot or that the room has gotten too warm for comfort. In our taiji practice we want to bring conscious awareness to some of the preconscious information that is presented by all those sense receptors. When we do, we open the Eye of Flesh and awaken parts of the brain that have lain dormant maybe our whole lives.
New abilities emerge. Perhaps what Professor Cheng calls the “Heaven” stage of taijiquan development.
When we open the Eye of Flesh, we bring conscious awareness to preconscious activities. When I was young, the idea that one could control one’s heart rate was the stuff of fantasy. Not so much now. The heart beats quite nicely on its own, but anyone can quickly learn to slow or speed up the pulse by using biofeedback or HeartMath’s EmWave. Further research informs us that savants in many spiritual traditions have been controlling “unconscious” physical functions for centuries. It seemed impossible because we considered it so. Not now.
We open the Eye of Flesh by bringing conscious awareness to the information provided by our sensory neural network, the afferent nervous system. We interject a moment of mindfulness to the FEELING before we DO. We “Mobilize, then move.” For Professor Cheng, that meant heightened awareness of qi in the body. But before you can feel something as subtle as energy fluctuations in the body, you need to be aware of subtle physical changes in the body.
Before you can tune into the qi in your hands, you need to be able to FEEL the tingling, pulsing, heat, and/or fullness that accompanies the increased blood flow that follows the qi. You can’t become aware of EARTH QI until you feel the way your feet feel glued to the floor when properly rooted. And that means opening the Eye of Flesh.
A frequent complaint I hear from students and seminar attendees is, “I’m stuck in my head. I need to be more connected to my body.” This is the curse of the It-trance (see Finding You in a World of It), where the conscious mind obsessively objectifies everything and turns it into a story. And that includes our selves and our bodies. The tiny part of our nervous system that controls analytical and representational thought convinces itself that it is not only the most important part of who we are, but it IS who we are. It takes Descartes’ famous dictum, “I think therefore I am,” quite seriously and thinks of brilliant ways to confirm its own importance.
Despite its grandiose delusions, consciousness is but a tiny pen light in the vast cave of awareness. Most of your awareness, the vast preponderance of it, happens at a preconscious level, BODY awareness. Only by opening and engaging the Eye of Flesh do we have a chance at returning to Wholeness.
When we learn to feel without immediately converting the sensation into a narrative, we open the Eye of Flesh. Can you feel something without describing the experience to yourself? “That feels warm/soft/wet/gooey/etc.” It takes some practice to learn how to separate the storytelling function of the brain from the sensing part, a practice that expands your ability every time you do it. I plan to continue the rest of my life. It’s one of the most rewarding exercises I have ever done.
When we “Feel first, then do,” we integrate the Eye of Flesh with the Eye of Mind which opens the Eye of Spirit. Superconsciousness. Body-Mind-Spirit integration.
That’s where the fun begins.
If you haven’t done it yet, check out the video at the top of this page. It shows a simple exercise to get started with learning to consciously feel.
I’d love to hear your thoughts.