A Dynamic Balance

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I once joined a motivational boot camp, and one of the exercises we had to go through was crossing a swinging log. It looked like a deceptively simple task. When I stepped up on the log, I just couldn’t inch towards the other end of the log. My Taiji training then was to focus on my rooting, and it was exactly this supposedly balance that was the reason for my inability to move forward.

The life coach pointed out to me that I had focused too much on my rooting, so much so that I have difficulty even to take a step forward.

Taking this event out of the context of the original exercise, and look at it from the Taiji perspective, I had just learnt an important lesson. Mastering the rooting concept alone is not enough. I can be very stable with my stances, but focusing too much on this stability will probably result in my inability to move freely. Likewise, the reverse could be true. If I put too much focus on being able to move freely, I would probably lose my rooting.

Understanding the concept of balance is not about being physically able to achieve rootedness. It is about understanding the relationship between two opposite states, for example, rootedness and agility, high and low, fast and slow, etc. If we focus too much on one end, and neglects the other, we would lose our balance.

My great grand teacher once said, to be able to sink down, we must first learn to lift up. At the end of the Taiji journey, every part of us can be supple and tough, rooted and agile. When I first heard of this, I wonder how we can have two opposite states co-exist at the same time. Now I understand.

How Big is Your World

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I remember sharing with a friend my beliefs in relativity. That was during my youthful days when I was still a teenager seeking for a direction to grow up in. I read some literature on Chinese philosophies, and I was charmed by the simplicity and elegance. It told me that everything is relative, and the meaning of any event must be made relative to the context, and not just in the event itself.

When I shared this with my friend, who happened to grow up in an environment where right and wrong is written in a book, he disagreed with me. He reminded me that the very statement “everything is relative” is in itself an “absolute”. Thus my new-found philosophy was flawed, right from the start.

At that time, I could not find an answer to that. It was a “circular reference”. Life went on after that, and the memory of this incident came to my mind every now and then. Deep inside I know the philosophy is right, yet somehow there is always this shadow of doubt seeded by my friend’s comment.

Many years have passed since. One day, when I was practicing my Taiji routine, the memory of that incident resurfaced. Somehow, through these years of thinking about it, I had another perspective to this incident. Both my friend and I could both be correct in our points of view! It depends of how big our worlds are. Like the frog sitting at the bottom of the well, looking at the sky through the opening of the well, and thinking that is how big the world is, then it is easy to go absolute. If the frog were to jump out of the well and venture into the world outside, it probably would change its mind about seeing things in absolute right and wrong.

Thus when we come across other Taiji practitioners from other schools, and we discover that they have a different approach to Taiji, let us keep an open mind and refrain from passing judgment on the differences. Remember, how we behave reflects on how big our worlds are.

Find it and Lose it

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A friend of mine is a full-time meditation practitioner. She was sharing with me on some of the ideas which I find interesting. To be selfless, you must first find your self, and then let go of it. If you cannot find your self, then you are lost to start with.

My Taiji teacher’s teacher’s teacher (that makes him my great-grand teacher) also mentioned in one of his literature that to be supple, you must also find out what is “hard”. We have to experience the two opposite ends, and then strive to find a balance between the two. If we only focus on softness, we risk losing balance. Likewise, if we only focus on hardness, we will have a lop-sided Taiji experience.

My Taiji teacher’s teacher (now that makes him my grand teacher) shared with us his Taiji experience. He said he started with nothing, and then he found something, and finally it transcends to nothingness.

Putting all these into perspective, I look for the different sensations of the various parts of my body when I practice the Taiji routine. If I find that my shoulders are stiff and hard when I am doing a particular posture, I will give myself a pat on my back for being aware of the sensation. Then I will seek ways to soften and relax my shoulders. If I could not achieve relaxation during that practice, I will simply tell myself that I am half-way there; I have found it, and now I will only need to lose it!

Detachment during Practice

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A simplistic description of meditation is spending time with oneself. During this time when I spend time with myself, I would be observing my mental and physical activities, and at the same time, withholding judgment. It is almost as if I am detached from my “self”, and observing my “self” as a third person.

Taiji has been described as moving meditation. Thus, do we also maintain a certain detachment when we are practicing our routine?

Personally, I find that by detaching myself and withholding judgment, I tend to enjoy my routine practice more. I begin to be able to relax more, both mentally and physically. I become more mindful of my body movement and my thoughts. I become more aware of my surrounding environment.

Detachment during practice does not mean I practice my Taiji routine absent-mindedly. In fact, throughout the whole practice, I would actually be observing every movement as if I am an audience watching a dance performance. It gives me a different perspective, allowing me to see a different picture.

The Real Motivation

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I have a good friend who crashed out of a relationship recently. She was understandably upset for a period of time. However when she finally stepped out of her unhappy self, she made a wonderful self-discovery. She realized that she was more in love with the concept of love itself, rather than loving her boyfriend. She wanted to feel loved, more than to love.

I felt happy for her after the whole episode, because she has made an important discovery about herself. As soon as she realized this, she snapped out of her misery. Suddenly her whole physiology changed, and together with the change in her outlook towards life, she became a different person.

Can you remember what the compelling reason was when you took the first step on the Taiji journey? Did you pick up Taiji because you wanted to improve your ailing health? Were you fascinated by how effortless the practitioner displaced his opponent during push-hands sessions? Or did you want to know more about Taiji simply because you want to know more?

I think we all have our own reasons when we first decided to learn Taiji. If you can hardly remember the reason, I think it will be interesting to take some time to recall this motivation, and to decide if it is still relevant. You will be surprised how powerful your “why” is when it comes to understanding your motivation.

Taiji Routine and Taiji

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Long time ago, there was an illiterate Buddhist monk who was highly regarded by his peers. One day, a Buddhist nun asked him to explain to her a particular mantra, and because the monk was an illiterate, he asked her to read to him the particular paragraph. The nun was puzzled as to whether he could understand and explain to her the mantra when he could not even read. The monk pointed to the moon, and told her that while the finger could point to the moon, the finger was not the moon. To see the moon, you do not necessarily need to use the finger.

一天,无尽藏尼拿着一本《涅经》来找六祖惠能。

    “我有一个地方不明白,您给我讲一讲吧。”

     “我不认识字,你给我念一遍,我或许可以给你解释一下。”六祖慧能对她说道

     “您不识字,怎么能给我解释呢?”无尽藏尼很疑惑。

      六祖惠能微微一笑“文字就好比是手指,手指可以指出月亮的所在。但是手指不是月亮,看月亮也不一定通过手指。”

I hope I did a passable job in translating this.

When we are practicing our Taiji routine, we have to bear in mind that the forms and postures themselves are not Taiji. They merely offer us an exercise to practice and an avenue to understand the Taiji wisdoms. Just like being able to sing your national anthem doesn’t necessarily make you a patriot.

Thus we should treat the routines as tools, rather than truths. We use the routine to hone our skills and deepen our understanding. As a practitioner, we begin to realize why the way we perform the Taiji routine changes every now and then, as our understanding deepens with each phase of our Taiji journey.

The routine itself is not Taiji; it is fueled by the principles of Taiji.

Opposite actions

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I have a friend who is a yoga practitioner. She shared with me that for every movement of the body, there are at least two muscle groups involved in the action. One muscle group to move, say the hand, in a particular direction, and another muscle group to move the hand back to the original position.

If we were to over-train a particular muscle group, the chance of injuring ourselves increases, resulting in overstraining the weaker muscle group. We have to achieve balance in the two muscle groups to improve ourselves.

Bearing this in mind, practicing Taiji routine now will be more interesting. We have to figure out which is the opposite muscle group for every action. It is only when we are aware of the muscle group that we can start paying attention to its movement. Whenever we feel a particular part of our body tensing up, instead of simply telling ourselves to relax, we are now aware that perhaps the problem lies with the opposite muscle group.

The Cultural Differences

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Taiji is an ancient wisdom passed down to us, the modern day people, through our teachers. We have heard from our Taiji teachers that there is no short-cut in the Taiji journey. Every movement, every intention and every action are based on the same Taiji principles. These principles are deceivingly simple to understand, but deviously difficult to follow.

In the past, and even now, we are told to practice, practice and practice. When we have put in enough effort, these Taiji principles will begin to show themselves in our movements, our intention and our actions.

I am sure everyone has heard of “kungfu” (功夫). Most of us would tend to think kungfu is spoken in the same breathe as martial arts, where in fact what kungfu really means is hard work and effort. When we say somebody has very good kungfu, what we are actually saying is that this person’s hard work in, say, his martial art practice, is showing in his movements. It is the result of the hard work and effort that we are appreciating, not the martial art itself.

Another virtue that is closely related to hard work is delayed gratification. We will reap the reward from our hard work one day, and that day will come when we have put in enough hard work. Our mind and body simply need time and a lot of practice to be able to fully understand the Taiji wisdom.

If we can embrace these two virtues and incorporate them into our Taiji practice, we will benefit from doing the simple things correctly. We would begin to realize how we shift our center of gravity when we move from one posture to another. We would begin to be mindful of how the movement of one part of our body affects the other. We would now be aware of how our mind can become more focused, and then how easily we can lose that focus as our mind wanders about……

We begin to understand ourselves. This is the start of the Taiji journey.

4 Types of Practitioners

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I once heard a friend sharing his views about his religion. He mentioned there are 4 types of believers. The first category is that of a nominal believer, the second category is that of a blind follower, the third category is a good follower, and, finally, the fourth category is that of a mature believer.

So what is the difference among the four types of believers?

Well, the nominal believer, as the name suggests, is only a believer in name. In fact, he doesn’t believe! He could be claiming he is a follower of a certain faith, but his values and ways could actually be against what his religion preaches.

The blind believer is close follower to what the religion preaches. However he does not understand the reason behind each rule and regulation. He simply follows blindly. Such a believer does not really know what he believes in.

The good believer is one who understands why he is doing what he is doing. He knows he should not indulge in bad habits because they are harmful to himself and others around him. He leads a good lifestyle governed by his beliefs.

The mature believer is an extension to a good believer, except that he knows when to do it, how to do it. He becomes master of his own destiny.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? To become master of your own destiny.

Years later, after the above conversation with this “mature” believer, I heard that he became a bankrupt after years of gambling habits. So he who knows what to do and when to do it became a casualty of his own destiny. So does it mean that his theory about the four types of believers is flawed?

I would think that his theory, on its own, is actually quite profound. The problem lies with the “believer”. From a nominal believer, we would move on to become a blind believer. Thereafter, after years of maintaining a good lifestyle, we begin to understand the reasons behind the rules and regulations, and at the same time, cross referencing against our years of good lifestyle, we strengthen our beliefs and reinforce our faith. It is only after we truly understand that we attain wisdom. Moving on from there, with this wisdom, we begin to take control of our own destinies.

I think what happened most of the time is that we think we are mature believers, where the actual fact is that we are only believers in name.

I was guilty of falling into this common trap during my Taiji journey. I thought I have already “transcended” beyond the mundane routines. All these false impressions I had about my abilities were crushed, gestalt-style, when I pushed hands with the seemingly weak old men in the park. One touch of the hands and my lack of basic trainings and foundations were found out immediately.

There is no substitution for hard work and experiential wisdom. Wisdom takes time to mature. There is no accelerated learning that can propel us overnight from a beginner to a Taiji master.

Intrinsic Lessons

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I once heard about a comment made by a school headmaster about education. He mentioned that education is not about teaching students mathematics, science, and other academic subjects. It is more than just algebra, calculus, physics and chemistry. Education is also about infusing the virtues of perseverance, determination, patience, hard work, honesty, etc, into the student’s value system.

When we practice Chinese calligraphy, we do not only learn how to write the characters properly, we also learn how to maintain our concentration level and to keep a peaceful mind. Moving a step further, it allows us to understand that through good practice, we can achieve perfection.

Do our kids have the chance to learn and appreciate what education is about? With the emphasis on accelerated learning, are we imparting wisdom to our next generation, or are we merely transferring knowledge?

When we make the journey down the Taiji path, do we even give ourselves a chance of a proper education? Do we practice the intrinsic lessons about hard work, patience, consistency, etc? Do we feel good about ourselves after each practice by reinforcing the values of determination, honesty, perseverance?

Or are we rushing through the process and miss out a huge chunk of the experience?