We all have to start from somewhere and we have to learn and evolve with practice in order to reach a certain level of proficiency. Would you want to be instantly proficient at something? Would there be true satisfaction in this? When I learn any skill or craft I find that the early work - the rough, the clumsy, the ugly - provides a useful reference to compare my current ability to. For example, in Tai Chi, if I did not know how a certain piece of form could be performed inefficiently, then I wouldn’t know whether the move was efficient or not. I would have no base to compare my growth to, and practice would stagnate and become one long repetition of the same thing again and again, mistakes included. This repetition is against the nature of the world around us, which is constantly in flux; changing, growing, decaying and shifting. Even something that seems solid and firm is moving, if not visibly, then on a molecular level at least.
Practice should always be moving on many levels. For instance, in terms of the physical form, in our system, we are not concerned with numbering the moves and making sure that we reach a certain amount. There is one ‘move’ and that is the point from the start of the form to the end, whether that be long or short form*. The motion of the whole body never stops to create the separate ‘moves’. In our system - and in Tai Chi especially - one aims to maintain constant motion throughout, which can be achieved by application of spiral motion (one of the key characteristics of our system**) and testing against core principles***. On a higher level of practice, this constant motion is a continuous contraction and expansion of the synchronised body, breath and intention, something that takes a number of years of earnest practice to achieve. Such concepts are difficult to put into words, as it is impossible to capture the essence of something experiential and of the fleeting present in something so fixed. What I speak of can be read about and conceptualised, though, if not experienced or put into a practice that is concrete, the words are worthless. This returns us to the original subject of always moving. These words are, in a way, dead. When such experiential concepts are written down they no longer have the life they had in actual practice. They have stopped moving. Bassui, a 14th Century Rinzai Master, used to add at the end of his letters to his disciples that it was unwise for him to write in such detail, or he would request his disciples to destroy the letters after reading. This shows, perhaps, that what he wrote of could only be perceived in that present moment on the first reading and any rereading would simply lead to over-analysis and confusion. Also it could be seen that what he wrote of was something so simple, refined and incommunicable in words that intellectual rather than experiential analysis would only take the reader further from the truth.
The Present and Growth
I have already written on the subject of the frustrations met by beginners in Tai Chi, especially when finding the body does not perform movements perfectly or as a student wishes. Even when you think you are performing something ‘correct’, it is often your ego or the habitual tendencies of the body telling you that it’s right. That is why you need a good teacher or instructor to guide you in your practice. A good mirror always helps too, though this can be deceiving to most as it only shows the external form, not what is going on beneath in terms of principles. In the here-and-now, the imperfection of movement is the practice. Once you ‘see’ the imperfection, whether that be your own discovery or something pointed out to you by your teacher or instructor, then you have the opportunity to move on. At first this may seem disappointing and frustrating, but then comes the refinement - testing different positions for a foot or a hand, moving a shoulder in the opposite direction to the one you had previously been practicing. You ask yourself questions on how it feels, sensing that something isn’t right in what you’re doing, which, again, can be frustrating, but you continue to scratch that itch until it is alleviated as best in can be. And then you find something else to work on. This process is constantly moving in the present moment and can be seen as a form of growth. If you think that you’ve ‘got it’ or you are finished, you’ve given in to stagnation and no longer have room to grow and evolve in the present. Again, this is a reflection of constant motion, this time in the process of practice.
The Past, Future and Disappointment
As I mentioned at the start of this blog, it is good to know your past as a point of reference to look back on and see where you have been and the pitfalls to be avoided. One major fault with this though, is that many people see the past as having been better than the present and it becomes negative, detrimental and a more than comfortable place to dwell in. This can come about, for instance, when a practitioner has a fleeting glimpse of a certain clarity of mind or some improvement in their physiological state. Some may attach to these moments and experiences, wanting to return to them or remain there. This is an impossibility as those points in time have passed and no longer exist. A similar problem can be seen in terms of the future. In my last blog I wrote about the usefulness of having goals to aim for. I mentioned that always wishing to achieve the next benefit will lead to disappointment. There will always be more to gain once you attain what you think you are looking for. Always focusing on the gain in the future will create a cycle of desire that disconnects you from the appreciation of that which you have here and now, even if it isn’t what you expect or want it to be.
So we can see that telling yourself stories and dreaming of how it could be or how it was can lead to disappointment in practice. It is not as if these stories and thoughts can simply be erased though, as they float about whether we like it or not. One remedy to this lies in practice itself. Commit your focus to the task at hand: the body, the breath, the particular piece of form that you’re working on. Use the physical to ground yourself in the present. You may find those stories and thoughts loosen their grip easier than you imagined. This is one means towards reaching another benefit that comes from practice: A settled mind. Past and future have their uses, as mentioned earlier, but if you can reflect upon them from a standpoint in the present, you may find a certain degree of ease arise as you practice and walk the path. I am not saying the present is concrete either. It too is impossible to hold onto, never resting. Settle into this constantly moving instability and you may find you can ride it like a current.
* Long and short form: In our system we split the form in two. Long and short form. Generally short form is learnt first and practiced for some time, before continuing with the more complicated long form. Complicated is not always better. I would rather practice short form to refine the basics than practice long form, which has its place in throwing up some new challenges, but does not necessarily refine the core of the system more so than short form.
** Key characteristics of our system: Spiral motion is one of the key characteristics of our system, all of which have their affect upon the constant motion spoken about in this article. These characteristics are too extensive subjects to go into detail here and, like many of the concepts spoken about in these articles, are better experienced through proper tuition and practice.
*** Principles: Though practice may seem complex, the core of the art is simple and we aspire to reach that simplicity. In order to do so, Nei-Jia is founded on principles that can be used as sounding board for our practice. A later article will cover this subject.
Edd started practicing Tai Chi in 2005 and has been practicing Chinese Internal Martial Arts since. For many years, he has been fascinated by the way the human body moves and functions and the connection between body and mind.
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