Tasting the Fruits of Practice
by Carl Rabke
In tai chi practice, we learn how to taste a relaxation that leads to increased awareness and sensitivity, rather than a foggy stupor. We taste awareness and alertness that
is open and free of tension or effort.
When tension comes under the warm light of presence, it most often begins to melt without needing to apply any corrective measure. Simply noticing how we create tension, we begin to self-regulate toward relaxation.
It is through grace, through precision, through letting go that the thousand pounds deflected.
In his book “The Way of Qi Gong” Ken Cohen recalls an interview with the 105-year-old tai chi master Wu Tu-Nan. Asked if tai chi practice was the reason for his health and longevity, the master replies, “Not directly. Tai chi chuan helps to cultivate a relaxed spirit. Having a relaxed spirit is the secret of longevity.” If you’ve ever visited a New York or San Francisco park early in the morning and seen people practicing this art, you’ve witnessed the “relaxed spirit” to which Wu Tu-Nan points. Though tai chi training begins with refining the way we move, in essence what we learn through the discipline of practice is a new way of being. We do our practice with qi gong and tai chi forms in the studios, parks and the the space we have cleared at home, but the applications and fruits of the practice show up in our everyday lives. Paying bills, waiting in traffic, dealing with challenging people and situations—that is where the juicy practice of tai chi begins. We learn to live with a relaxed spirit.
Tai chi has a rich tradition of principles that are more or less common throughout the great variety of forms currently practiced. Often they are repeated thousands and thousands of times over the years. Slowly, slowly the principles begin to sink in, experienced on deeper and deeper levels.
In my own beginning practice of tai chi, I have come to appreciate both how these principles can apply to everything we do, and how different these principles are from how most of us live our lives. As long as we are embodied, our lives involve movement—the way we breathe, the way we walk, the way we get in and out of cars, the way we experience emotions, the way our face moves when we speak. When we begin to explore and refine the way we move, we explore and refine the way we do everything.
“Relax Relax Relax”—the three most important Tai Chi instructions from master Yang Chen Fu
The word “relax” which is the common translation for the Chinese word “song” reveals the limitations of our language to point to the experience of tai chi. Ken Cohen further explains “song” as having the qualities of awareness and tranquility, effortlessness, sensitivity, warmth and rootedness—all that packaged in the translation “relax.”
Probably one of the most beneficial aspects of a practice like tai chi is learning to unfold the rich potential of relaxation. In our culture relaxation is associated with a lack of vitality and aliveness, a collapsing and dimming of the light of presence. We relax with a few beers after work, we disappear into a magazine or novel, or we just lie down and crash on the couch. Conversely, attention and presence can feel a bit stressful. We feel we need to “pay” attention, we unknowingly tense our jaw and shoulders in traffic, we are so concentrated on our important email that we forget our breath, our bodies, our children, our environment.
In tai chi practice, we learn how to taste a relaxation that leads to increased awareness and sensitivity, rather than a foggy stupor. We taste awareness and alertness that is open and free of tension or effort. An often-used image is that we relax like a flower is relaxed. Not one that is dried and crumply, or one that is wilted and droopy—but like the first tulips and daffodils that pop up through the cold spring ground. Alive, vibrant, filled with life force, yet totally relaxed.
Try an experiment as you read this. Just notice the position of your body in space. Maybe you are at a computer, sitting in a coffee shop. What happens with just noticing the orientation of your body? Are there any areas in which you notice you are holding tension? Check in with your belly, your shoulders, your jaw, your tongue, your eyes. When tension comes under the warm light of presence, it most often begins to melt without needing to apply any corrective measure. Simply noticing how we create tension, we begin to self-regulate toward relaxation. As tension begins to soften, could you imagine becoming more alert and awake—more aware of sensations in your body, more open to perceive what is happening around you? This is moving toward “song.”
Much of what we learn in tai chi is just how much we are working all the time. Even when we are standing as relaxed as we can be, the back holds tension, the diaphragm cannot move freely, the jaw is clenched. We realize how much tension has become like a white noise to our system, barely noticeable, yet continuously draining our reservoirs of energy. Tai chi practice invites us to realize the irony of how difficult it can be to relax, how much practice it takes to move with less effort and more pleasure.
Sink and root
Another principle repeated over and over in tai chi training is “sink and root.” Sink and root can have many levels of meaning. On a physical level, sinking is also an expression of song or relaxation. Our bodies are made mostly of water, and we know that water will always find its way into cooperation with gravity. Despite our fluid bodies, however, we can often generate tension that pulls against gravity—we hold in our belly, hunch our shoulders, clench our jaw. Sinking is a way to just let go of any unnecessary effort we are exerting. We allow our weight to sink down through our legs, through our feet, and into the ground. Tai chi is an internal martial art, so we also “sink” our attention down and into our bodies, rather than up and out, engaging in activities, thoughts, list of things to do.
As we sink and root, we show up with our full embodied aliveness—whether practicing a form or sitting at a laptop. A computer programmer friend who is also a tai chi teacher described a colleague who was convinced that his body was just an elaborate device for carrying around his brain! This image is all too common in our culture. Think of an overturned hourglass representing all of our attention gently sinking from the head (where we tend to experience ourselves residing most of the time) down through the center of our bodies, collecting and pooling in the lower belly, the area called the dan tien. Dan tien is translated as “field of nectar.” Take a moment — could you sink down and visit a vast field of nectar in the center of your low belly?
The root aspect of this instruction is interesting. We don’t sink and root into something solid or predictable. Rather, our “root” is in dynamic responsiveness. We sink, essentially, into the ever-changing nature of what is, and our capacity to respond to whatever arises. When practicing push hands (a two-person form of tai chi) with a skilled practitioner, there is this odd experience: When you go to push them, it is like pushing against smoke; no matter where you push, they are not there. Their “root” is entirely responsive to your pushing. When, however, they want to push you, it is like the force of the ocean coming back at you.
Imagine if instead of a foundation coming from a steady job, a 401k, good health and predictable relationships, it could be discovered in the ability to sink and root wholly and completely into curiosity, into a willingness to show up and engage whatever arises.
When we move in tai chi, we always step with an “empty step.” In this way of moving, there is no momentum. This could also be described as a quality of reversibility in movement; we could change direction. For most of us, walking is a kind of active falling. We don’t feel like we are falling over because our leg usually comes under us to catch us with each step, but if there is a misplaced skateboard or a pothole in our path, we soon notice the momentum that was there! If we are hurrying down a hall and someone suddenly steps in front of us, what usually happens? We barrel them over or stumble trying to avoid the crash. In empty stepping, our root is strong enough in our support leg that the leg with which we are stepping can either land, or not—depending on the situation. We are able to avoid the person who steps in front of us or if we step on a child’s toy, we feel the lack of stability under our foot and either move the toy out of our path or step aside.
Here is another experiment: Using your fingers, close off your ears to block out any external sounds. Walk around the room normally. Notice the sound that you hear. Then, try the same thing practicing an empty step, as though you were walking on a pond that wasn’t completely frozen, so you had to feel with your foot before placing your weight. Is there any difference in what you hear? That BONG! BONG! BONG! of the normal step is a shock that resonates through the joints and bones and tissues with every step you take. Can you hear anything with the empty step?
Of course, this is not to say that there is no wisdom in running, jumping, skipping and occasionally stomping. But learning how to step without weight can teach us about how we move in our lives. Often we have so much momentum in certain directions that we go on autopilot. We begin to lose spontaneity, we can’t respond to what is because our time and attention are mortgaged. Our day planners are booked out three weeks in advance, so if a flight is cancelled, or if we catch a cold, or are lured in by the sweet smell of a blossoming tree—we don’t know how to respond. When we empty step as we come across unexpected circumstances that don’t fit our ideas of how things should be, we don’t freak out. We are always able to change course in response to the conditions which arise.
Use the mind
and not strength
This instruction is sometimes described as using intention rather than will and effort. We don’t use force. The “grit your teeth and bear it,” “no pain no gain” mentality doesn’t apply to tai chi. Our strength is limited, it takes effort, but clear intention is limitless in its effectiveness. Often when things get difficult, we try harder. We can’t get the key to turn in the lock, and we try to crank it, maybe breaking the key. The dresser drawer is stuck and we are late for work; we pull ever more furiously. Feldenkrais trainer Mark Reese has a wonderful line about this: “If you try even harder, you could make that impossible!” Often, our own effort is the most difficult obstacle we encounter.
Another complementary instruction from tai chi push-hands is “Four ounces of pressure can repel a thousand pounds.” How can four ounces repel a thousand pounds? Not through effort, not through mustering up a pep-rally saying “I’m really going to do it this time!” It’s through grace, through precision, through letting go that the thousand pounds is deflected. As in judo, or aikido, the tai chi player uses the force of what is coming at her to deflect it. I once had a tai chi student from a military background who was working in a business setting. One of his co-workers stormed into his office and started berating him for something that had unfolded. At first, the student was ready to send an even greater force back at the guy, but just before he launched his assault, he remembered the tai chi instructions. Instead he began to “roll back” as one of the tai chi postures describes. The student was calm and accountable, he noticed his breath and didn’t yell back, and said the tension and aggression of the situation was completely diffused and things easily resolved. He knew (from much experience) what the result would have been had he relied on his strength. In these situations we discover the martial applications of tai chi.
The less we rely on strength and will, and the more we begin to discover how to do less, the easier and lighter life becomes. Instead of “very serious disciplined practitioners,” people who practice tai chi are called “players.” We learn how to play, how to dance with what comes up for us without taking ourselves or our situation too
seriously. It is said that you can tell the level of someone’s practice by the fullness of his laughter. Surely many of Wu Tu- Nan’s 105 years were infused with much laughter, or at least the delightful smile of relaxed spirit. u
Carl Rabke is a massage therapist, tai chi instructor and longtime contributor to Catalyst.