I am writing this article based on my own limited experiences so far (2012) which have been enriched though the study and practice of Taijiquan and Qigong, including some standing and seated meditation, some reading and reflection, but mainly through Taijiquan.
Zen is often talked about within the context of Buddhism, but you don't have to be a Buddhist, or even religious to experience Zen. You can find it in something as simple as brushing your teeth or mowing the lawn. It's about a state of mind, or perhaps I should say a state of 'no-mind' - looking beyond the ordinary and seeing the extraordinary hidden in each moment and looking inwards to realise your own true nature.
Most of us have experienced it for a few seconds at some point in our lives - turning a corner to be confronted with a most spectacular view - the glowing red sun setting over the ocean, an amazing piece of architecture, a beautiful flower or a new baby's hand curling around your finger. Time seems to hang for a few seconds and you are totally absorbed, acutely aware, yet very still, awestruck. For a few glorious seconds there is no background chatter inside your head, apart from maybe a "WOW"!
These "Wow" moments are a Zen experience. The mind, trying to assimilate what the eyes are perceiving, has stopped its incessant chatter and we are simply being, in the present moment. In this state our brainwave patterns change, our blood chemistry changes and the stress hormones are shut down. This is where we thrive, where we heal, where our sanity returns and we connect to the essence of our being.
Now think: What if you could extend those "Wow" moments so they became the rule rather than the exception? Aha! Now we're talking....
A moment of Zen - meeting this amazing preying mantis during my 2009 training trip to China
What is Zen?
Zen is a state of being. Zen can be described as an inner awakening. It's like a light coming on inside, or a veil being lifted. Everything has a richer, deeper quality than we previously realised and we become free from desires as our attachment to these things disappears and we simply appreciate them in the moment, giving no further thought to them once they are passed. Zen is liberating. Customs and trivialities which previous bound us to man-made rules and patterns of behaviour dissipate and you see the reality behind the facade.
Each moment seems to last so much longer, as if life were happening in slow motion, or rather the present moment has somehow expanded in time. We notice more of what's going on, we seem to have more time to react (great for martial artists) and longer to savour the quality and richness of each experience. Yet things also seem simpler and clearer.
Zen is reached by purposefully quietening the mind, letting go of preconceptions and being concerned only with present moment events. We turn our thoughts inward, towards ourselves - in Taiji practice we turn our thoughts to the form and how our body and energy moves - more about this below.
This requires 'sustained effort over time on our part' - the Chinese have a word for this - you probably know it already -GONG (KUNG) FU.
Gong Fu & Zen
To practice gong fu in the context of Zen, there are a few things that require our attention:
We repeatedly have to bring our wandering mind back to the present moment -attempting to lightly focus the mind on the meditation or form, and let go of the 'red dust' (affairs of the world / our daily life) which occupy our minds 99% of the day.
We have to learn to take control back from the monkey mind. This playful monkey wants to scamper & dart from one thing to another, before we have even had time to fully take in what's before us. 'Oh look at this, no, look at that!'
For example: Before we have finished eating our breakfast we may have made a phone call, watched the news, had an argument, compiled a to do list for the day or checked our emails. Monkey, monkey, monkey!
However, a Zen master would say: "When Eating Just Eat". That is: Give your full attention to the one task at hand. Be mindful of the moment. Savour each mouthful of your breakfast, each sensation, notice things about your Coco-Pops / All Bran which you haven't noticed before. Your digestive system will thank you for it too. This is meditating whilst eating. Meditating just means giving what is happening your fullest attention without analysing, labelling or dissecting - just observe, notice and engage your senses to the max.
When eating, just EAT!
At first this present-moment awareness is difficult, it's not fun to learn. We think we'll never get it, we may become frustrated or even wonder exactly what it is that we are trying to find, this peace that eludes us.
But with persistence (Gong Fu) we realise a little way down the line that less effort and eventually no-effort is needed to find & remain in this super-aware state. We are finally still. Of course it helps if you have tools to help you in the job of 'becoming still' and two of these are Tai Chi & Qigong.
We learn to be in the moment, for the moment, enjoying the moment.
Zen & The Ego
As well as present moment awareness, which I have already talked about and will no doubt touch on again, we also have to strip away everything which is trivial and unimportant and spend time getting 'real'.
To do this we have to tackle the Ego, which is mainly interested in self-gain and superficiality. 'Defeating the Ego' initially involves realising (awakening to the fact) that our true nature is something way beyond and above the Ego. The Ego demands, wants, craves and stamps its feet when it doesn't get, but our true nature is just to BE, not to DESIRE or to constantly DO. When we can realise this, the need for trends, money, fame, respect, labels etc simply falls away and we awaken to the fact that all the things we used to conform to for the sake of being popular, accepted, or even loved, are quite pointless diversions from the most important task, discovering our true nature and dwelling in a state of harmony with the universe in which we live.
When this happens there is a shift in consciousness away from the trivial things we used to hold dear and real changes occur in how we perceive and react to.... well, just about everything.
You can read about how a shift in consciousness has affected me at the bottom of this page, but for now let's keep on track with the Zen / Taiji title of this article.
How can you begin to find Zen?
Well, in a way you've already begun, by reading this far your attention has probably been 'in the moment ' for the last 5 minutes. With regards how to continue, there are many paths which all share the same view, but may take us via different routes. One of us may prefer to go by bus, another by train and a third may walk etc. As mentioned before Zen (Chan) Buddhism, like that practised at the Shaolin Temple is one such route, but is not by any means the ONLY route.
If we focus on the goal (future desire), we miss most of the journey (present reward)
'Taiji is one of many others paths which lead us to experience Zen'
Actually, i'll reverse that statement and say, in my experience, this Zen-awareness is a vital component of our Tai Chi practice. Sadly this important element of internal (mind) training is frequently omitted in the West and students may learn only an outer 'shell' of what should be a deeply enriching Art.
Consequently, new students may give up after a year or so, hearing nothing about the depth of experience possible in the practice of Taiji. They may have been misinformed that Tai Chi is purely a strengthening exercise system or health promoting practice, not realising that without also training the MIND (one of the Three Treasures of Tai Chi) they have barely touched the surface.
A famous Taiji Saying goes: Lian quan bu lian gong, dao lao yi chang kong:
This means if you practice the FORM (external movement) but do not practice GONG (sustained directed, focused effort with the mind in present moment mode), even if you practice you whole life, your Art will be empty! (p243 Taijiquan - Tha Art of Nurturing, The Science of Power - Yang, Yang, Ph.D
'Taiji, Tai He': Practising Taiji REQUIRES peacefulness & harmony.
Practising Taiji also LEADS TO peacefulness and harmony
Of course, beginners cannot grasp everything at once and for this reason, and also because Taijiquan is so extremely deep, there exists a centuries old tried and tested system to learning.
My Teacher Shifu Wang, Hai Jun often says: 'At first the student learns with the eyes- they watch the teacher and try to copy his movements'. We use the ears too - listening to the teacher's advice. Some of it sticks, some of it doesn't - so there is much repetition, which breeds familiarity. It takes some time so, unfortunately, those seeing instant gratification will fall by the wayside.
'Next students learn with the mind' continues Master Wang: The mind begins to understand the complex requirements of each movement but the body cannot yet quite replicate them, so using the knowledge of the mind to train the body, you practice. Then you practice some more and after this you do some more practice. And all the time relax.
Gradually, by using the mind to apply the knowledge you have acquired, the body is physically strengthened and the joints are loosened sufficiently to apply the requirements of the movements. Then you train some more so the movements become natural and fluid. At this stage it can be said that you understand with the body as well as the mind.
Now you reach a stage where the body, the mind and the eyes have worked together to produce the external form to an acceptable level. Until now, your mind has become very absorbed in each movement as you have focused on getting the movements as exact as possible. So you have been training the mind as well as the body and your mind focus will be noticeably clearer and easier to direct.
But now things change a bit - your Taiji progress seems to slow down and because there is less happening than before in the way of progress. The mind may start to jump ahead or you may get frustrated, looking for the next new revelation. Although we may not recognise it and most of us definitely won't want to accept it, the improvements we have been making in our form to date have actually been feeding the Ego. We may be preoccupied with reaching a certain level, or a grading or having a label to measure our progress.
We know we have been improving, achieving a better posture, performing the movements more to our teacher's satisfaction, even getting the odd - 'That's quite good'. The Ego loves this as it is goal / achievement motivated.
But now that we've got the form to a fairly reasonable standard and the frequent improvements we were making are getting fewer and further between, a sort of stagnation can set in. The Ego doesn't like this and wants to move on, so it suggests things like 'You've plateaued out', 'You're not going to go any further with this', ' This is boring', You must be doing something wrong'.
Don't listen. The fact that we have corrected a lot of what was wrong with our external form, means we are getting closer to experiencing the Zen moment. Familiarity and accuracy with the form (muscle memory) allows the mind to be freed up and act partly as an observer (60%) whilst the remainder of our focus (40%) is lightly used to feel what is happening within the body and start to tune into directing the movement of the internal energy via our intention.
Taiji (Yin /Yang in movement) arises from Wuji - the great Void - or stillness, which has the potential to create.
The observer (60%) just watches. It stays present, doesn't commentate and doesn't judge. As Eckhart Tolle says, and I love this: "The observer watches the mind like a cat watches the mouse hole" So the mind (or the consciousness beyond the mind, watches itself!)
Try it now: First try to just watch something very simple - stare at a plain wall, just observe, don't think of anything at all, try not to think or commentate. How long did you manage? 5 seconds, 10 maybe?
Now try it again, but this time imagine yourself to be a cat and on the wall there is a mouse hole. You watch, waiting for the mouse to appear (which it doesn't). ENGAGE the mind in the ACT of observing, instead of JUST simply observing. Chances are you managed a lot longer with the mind engaged in observing. Now instead of watching the wall, try to watch yourself (and what happens in your mind) watching the wall - with the same cat like focus. This is the same observer status that you need to apply when watching your form.
With the 'working' 40% of the mind, we need to first look in a relaxed way for moments where we experience sensations of energy moving in the body, then we can play with this energy via our Taiji practice, making minute adjustments, to see how this affects these sensations of energy flow. 'How does the energy move if I drop my elbow here or relax my right kua there' does extending my little finger make a difference to the feeling inside here - wow! yes it does!!
By becoming absorbed in this subtle process, we find ourselves right there, looking both inward and outward, absorbed in the moment, reading and responding by listening in to what's happening inside of us. Gradually the moments where we 'tap into the energy' will lengthen and the moments where it disappears will diminish. Eventually it all connects and the 40% can be reduced to 30%, 20% until we just observe and only the lightest thought is needed to direct the energy to make movement arise.
Here's where i'm going with this: An important concept in Taijiquan is that 'Where the mind is, the energy will follow'. This takes time however, hundreds of hours of repeated practice, trial and error and complete present moment mindfulness. It is also what will lead you to Taiji Zen.
Present Moment Awareness & Tai Chi: Yi moves the Qi:
Many people think they are in the moment with their Taiji practice, but their eyes say differently. Where your eyes are, your awareness is, where your awareness (Yi) is, your Qi will follow.
If your awareness is 30cm ahead of your hand movement your Qi will not be in your hand. Even 30cm / 2 seconds ahead is not present moment awareness. Learning this is a skill. Noticing lack of present moment awareness is when you start to learn the skill. When it happens you will know. Most people think they are present, but they are not.
I give the 40% / 60% example above because my teacher, Shifu Wang, Hai Jun says that when performing my own personal practice only 40% of my mind should be focused on the actual movement, the other 60% should simply be present - not judging or labelling but simply observing from a relaxed 'back seat' perspective. This may apply more to me than to you at the present moment in my Taiji journey, so don't take 60/40 as 'gospel' for everyone or for where you are in your practice now.
It is at times when I have managed to achieve this mind separation - usually when starting the form after a period of silk reeling followed by standing meditation for 10 minutes, or else on about the 3rd or 4th repetition of the form, that this timeless, vast expanse of stillness-in-movement awareness kicks in. Unexpected, BANG! It just comes, like a switch flicking on and I want to stay in the moment as long as possible.
And there is the reward of Taijiquan - Taiji zen as I call it.
In my experience, the awareness of time within periods of Zen is about 3-4 times slower than real-time. Things still move at the same speed, but my perception of that moment is expanded. Everything is heightened and of richer quality and yet nothing exists but within that moment.
A little bit more about training in Taijiquan.
In my continuing training and practice of Taijiquan I apply the following and I frequently encourage my students to do the same:
When learning Taijiquan our minds often make it harder than it is. The hardest part of Taijiquan is physically motivating yourself to get to a class, or getting off your ass to train.
Once you're there, it's generally enjoyable and if it's not, either your teacher isn't connecting with you or you're not listening / applying what you've heard to your practice. Or perhaps you're unwell, in which case you should have probably stayed at home, on your ass ;-P
Breathing in Taiji & Zen
There is another important aspect of Taijiquan, which i've not previously mentioned in this article - the BREATH. The Breath is part of another Treasure of Taijiquan - 'Qi'. The other two are Jing & Shen. There's lots of information on the internet & in books written by masters & experts and teachers far more experienced than I, so i'll just give you a brief synopsis of the Three treasures as I understand them.
Jing manifests on the physical plane it can be referred to as the body, its components & its external movements. Jing is to do with sustaining life & reproduction. Jing cannot be replaced, we only have a limited amount which we are born with. When our Jing runs out - well, so do we!
Qi the energy which powers and nourishes the life of body - like the steam in a steam engine. It is derived partly from Jing, partly from the food we eat and partly from the air we breathe (and other factors besides). So the breath is part of the 'Qi' treasure. Qi cannot be destroyed, only changed from one form to another however, if our Qi is depleted or of poor quality we use up more Jing than we need to and this lessens life expectancy.
Shen translates as Spirit. It is consciousness and awareness. Shen is who we really are. Our intelligence, morality and creativity are all influenced by the quality / state of our Shen, which can be refined via the practice of Taiji, Qigong, Meditation, Daoist practices and several other ways.
It is only when we completely integrate Body, Breath & Mind, or Jing Qi & Shen that will we truly experience Taijizen.
The reason I haven't touched on the breath before now is that working with the breath actually requires very little effort or skill. All you need to do is completely surrender the breath to the body, ie remove the thinking from the breathing. Relax the diaphragm and allow the body to breathe all on its own. You already know how to do this. You do it for about 7-8 hours a day when you sleep.
Sleep: Natural breathing occurs when the mind switches it's attention AWAY from the action.
It's a bit of a paradox, because the more you think about a natural breath the less you can breathe naturally. In my limited martial arts training I have come across different breathing processes - Daoist Breathing, Reverse Breathing, Buddhist Breathing, Condensing Breathing, Cosmic Breathing etc and all have value, probably more than I presently realise, but when practising my Taiji form and throughout the times that I have experienced what I call Taijizen, I have thought nothing about the breath, except to let it be. Like flowing water it has found its own natural way. My movements become the breath rather than the movement leading the breath, or the breath leading the movement.
So, it goes like this: First I relax and still my mind, then my natural breathing arises from the stillness. I use my present moment mindful intention to activate the Qi and the Taiji movements (speed and flow of the form) follows my naturally occurring breath without effort, just as sitting in an armchair requires no effort, I feel very comfortable. Everything feels connected, whole.
Natural breathing is hard to establish in a class context, because when practising as a group the speed will suit the teacher's breath but probably not your own. All the more reason to PLAY the form at home and just relax into it as much as possible.
So I will leave you with that thought:
Relax, Practice the movements. Practice present moment awareness.
Enjoy Taijiquan. Find TaijiZen.
My experience of how the practice of Taijiquan has led to a shift in consciousness - and the effects of this change on my everyday life
In my case the start of a shift in awareness manifested partly as a retail u-turn. I used to love to spend spend spend and I would buy buy buy just because I had money money money, regardless of whether I NEEDED those items or not. Actually that thought (need) never crossed my mind. I bought things just because they were quirky or cool and because I had the disposable income to do so. When it came to Christmas I would go completely overboard.
My first reality check (dare I use the word 'awakening'?) came when, following a redundancy from my well-paid job of 10 years, I went to China for six months residential martial arts training at school located in the hills of Shandong Province.
Life was simple there. Sometimes there was water in the stream, to bathe and drink and sometimes there wasn't, so I learnt not to be wasteful. I didn't eat what I 'fancied' just for the taste or the comfort. Instead I ate what was available, in season, for sustenance. I understood hunger and the difference between eating just enough and eating too much, 'Enough' is not how we perceive it in the West.
UK Enough vs Chinese Enough
Nothing in China was wasted, everything was reused or mended and given a second lease of life. My rubbish was picked through for anything useful, which at first I found annoying - an invasion of my privacy, but soon I stopped throwing away anything useful and eventually I saw endless possibilities for all sorts things and I became highly resourceful. This became the norm and it felt right.
But I didn't realise the change happening in me, except that I felt more centred. I just knew I didn't want to leave. During this time I was practising Shaolin, Taiji & Qigong for about 6-8 hours a day, every day bar Saturdays & Sundays, when I only did an hour or two of semi-optional practice. When you train hard you are only occupied with the present moment. There is no time to let the mind wander and in fact can be detrimental to your well being if you do! It felt good to return to my room thoroughly exhausted and to be genuinely grateful for a solid 8 hours sleep, or to appreciate the calming blankness of the plain white walls of my room. Even aching limbs and twitching muscles served as friends to keep my mind in the present moment.
I became more inquisitive and aware of the other life we share the planet with - in particular the bugs & small creatures which previously I may have squished if they posed a 'threat' to me - hornets, snakes, mice, scorpions etc. Perhaps it was due to missing my cats but I struck up a relationship with a shield beetle who lived in my room. I called (her?) Matilda. I suspect Matilda may have been several Matildas, but it didn't matter - She was always there waiting for me upon my return from training and we'd have a conversation about the day thus far, albeit somewhat one-sided... I realised that the life of a beetle, to that beetle, meant every bit as much as my life meant to me. I imagined my fear and the grief of my loved ones if an oversized foot came down from the sky one day and spread my insides all over the ground. It occurred to me that even cockroaches might have a wife & kids at home - has it been proven otherwise? I didn't think so. So my mind started to look outside the box more and more.
Pic: Matilda. Look at her beauty! - Look beyond the external 'label' (bug/creepy crawly!) and notice the intricacies of her being. Take time to watch an insect at work today. Are they so different from us?
In my Taiji & Qigong practice I noticed quite long periods where I would be totally absorbed in the flow of the form, definite 'wow' moments. They weren't always there and I couldn't create them at will, they just arose, when I was fully present. I also started to feel energy inside me - tingling or buzzing sensations rather like static electricity. Or sometimes it felt like i could feel the blood flowing in my veins.
Sometimes Qigong practice would be held by the lake, or under the apricot trees. It was easy to practice there - surrounded by nature. Easy to get in the zone and empty the mind of distractions, absorbed in nature. When I started my practice I dreaded Qigong class - sometimes up to an hour of standing in 30 degree heat and often in full sun. It was torturous! But after a while I found that I WANTED to stand and if Shifu decided we would do something different, I felt disappointed. I enjoyed going deeper into myself, even if it was only for brief moments before my mind was off being a monkey again.
In November, 5 months into my stay, Winter came suddenly as did the snow. With no form of heating and temperatures hovering around -5 to -15, training got a whole lot tougher. I had promised to be home for Christmas - after extending my planned 3 month stay to six, so in December I booked my flight back to UK.
Getting back to UK ten days before Christmas 2009 was an awful culture shock. Seriously, it was terrible. I cried - a lot. I found myself torn between what I SHOULD do (according to expectations of my family) and what I felt was the right thing to do - cancel (the commercial) Christmas. I realised then how much I had changed - my values, my principles, my priorities. I felt like a prisoner, having been released from captivity, only to be returned there again.
So, feeling I should comply with the expectations of others, I forced myself to go Christmas shopping. I begrudged paying £2.50 for the car park - you could feed a Chinese family for a day on that, I thought.
I made my way to Debenhams, keeping my head down to avoid the sickening opulence, although I couldn't help notice the fake leopard skin, pink trimmed, jewel encrusted, designer label chihuahua coat and matching hat and the PVC & metal studded alternative 'for him'. OMG! - Has the world gone completely mad? People just like you and I are starving all around the world and yet we are encouraged to spend ridiculous amounts of money on equally ridiculous designer dog coats!
But, joining the blind masses, albeit with my eyes wide open and seeing clearly, which made my actions far worse, I continued on my mission. I selected a few overpriced plastic nonsenses for my grandchildren and queued up. As the lady in front of me used her green plastic card to pay for her green plastic purchase which the till lady put in a green plastic carrier bag I truly realised the awfulness of it all. I quietly returned the items in my basket to the shelves and returned home empty handed to write my apology letter, but with a sense of relief that I had, if somewhat belatedly, adhered to my new principles. The inner conflict subsided. Peace returned.
I haven't bought a Christmas present since, nor a card, nor a tree. This is what I mean about being real, getting in touch with things that are of true importance rather than feel good trivialities. Kicking back against expectations and customs or at least stopping for a moment and questioning your own actions - looking inward.
The same extends to birthdays - what ridiculous celebrations of the Ego they are, but who can really see this or even wants to contemplate this? Birthdays make us feel good. We look forward to them for weeks or even months! MY special day, make a fuss of ME, treat ME, buy for ME - it's all about ME! And buying expensive gifts for others makes us feel warm and tingly and 'good' , but there are far more worthwhile ways of showing affection than buying plastic - or silver - or gold. Every day is a beautiful day - my teacher in China used to say this to us at the start of every morning training session 'Ri Ri Hen Hao Ri'.
But my journey is far from over. If anything I feel like it is just starting. I am also a traveller like you, along the road of Zen, catching brief glimpses of the view here and there, when I remind myself to pause long enough to take in the scenery, but this of course involves getting off my high horse and allowing him to graze for a while too ... Something i'm still working on :)
'Yi Lu Ping An'
I wish you a peaceful journey.