Greetings McQuagger (and everyone else):
I have been thinking about your original post and had some new thoughts. These may have no bearing on your particular situation, but I thought you or others might find some specifics helpful, or at least entertaining. I have tried to make my thoughts concrete and describe a framework that should be useful for whatever postures or exercises your book provides.
I have not addressed the issue of “relaxation,” about which I feel quite passionate; but hope to do so in a later post in response to something someone posted about Taijiquan being bad for the knees. Suffice it to say that, in my opinion, all Taijiquan practitioners do not mean the same thing when they speak about “relaxation.” I have encountered at least three different views of relaxation, and the two most commonly and clearly described in the available literature in the U.S. is, in my opinion, absolutely disastrous for an understanding of what Yang Zhen Duo (and other traditional Yang teachers) teach.
As I understand the other aspect of the problem you have posed, it involves the difficulty of keeping the mind involved with the movements and focused on Taijiquan. I think just about everyone reaches a point in their practice where a certain level of comfort is reached with gross physical movements, and we have difficulty keeping our mind occupied. This is a critical point in anyone’s development, because different paths open up, which are not equally beneficial. One path that I think is particularly troublesome is to see the movements only as something to do more and more smoothly or with more and more ease and relaxation, etc., like dancing, for instance. Another problematic path is to see Taijiquan as an ever-increasing collection of details that only matter to “high-level” practitioners.
The movements require particular mental frameworks that demand constant attention. In this way, I think Taijiquan is like chess. Good chess players do not simply calculate moves and memorize useful tricks and board positions. They have very specific, but non-obvious ways of viewing the board and the relationship between the pieces. These ways can be taught. They are really basic to proper chess and not really the stuff of experts. While the ability to concentrate can vary during a game, it is hard to conceive of playing serious chess absent-mindedly. Likewise, one’s concentration can vary during Taijiquan, but the mental framework should be too immediate to allow your mind to truly wander. Without the mental framework, it becomes hard to keep the mind occupied and the practice becomes empty of inner content. Although one can dance quite beautifully while mentally on automatic pilot, my opinion is that the nature of serious Taijiquan does not allow this any more than one can absent-mindedly walk a tightrope.
A personal milestone in my practice was when I began to interpret many principles of Taijiquan in terms of feedback loops. Viewing principles in this way means that one is continuously orienting oneself between polar opposities, rather than trying directly to discover, generate, copy, or simulate anything. This, in fact, is one interpretation of what the term “taiji/t’ai chi” refers to, i.e., a state where two polar opposites continuously harmonize without separating. For me, this makes trying to conform to principles during form movements quite immediate and intimate. It does not matter where I am mentally or physically, only where I am going from moment to moment. It also does not matter where I have been, because I must in any case reassess my “direction” from moment to moment. I am walking a mental tightrope.
To give you an example of what I mean, stand on one leg with your knee straight or even locked. If your balance or strength is insufficient, simply put the ball of your other foot as lightly as possible on the ground.
Notice what the muscles controlling your ankle are doing. (If you have nerve problems, this exercise will not work, however.) Without your mind giving specific commands to your muscles or “qi,” they are continuously cooperating to maintain your balance. The various muscles pull at each other with varying strengths and lengths. While your mind can indeed wander, the nature of what you are doing provides instant feedback as long as your intent is to remain standing up straight. When you put both feet firmly on the ground, this intent is no longer sufficient to be automatically aware of what your ankle muscles are doing, because many other physical shortcuts are available to you. I mention this to point out that all “intent” is not created equal and how one focuses the mind is actually quite important to how you relate to your body.
I would not recommend the above exercise as a “Taiji” exercise, since it involves focusing on the movement of only a single joint. In my opinion, Taiji movements are best thought of as whole-body or, better yet, all-joint movements. I would also not recommend the above exercise because the focus of the mind is really not correct from a Taiji perspective.
To change the above experiment to conform to more “Taiji” lines, I would propose focusing the mind in one of the ways the “First Essential” is described. While standing on one leg as described above, focus the mind on standing as if the crown of the head is being suspended from a point in the ceiling. Feel as if the vertebrae are pearls on a string. Do not feel as if your neck and spine are like a balanced stick or a stack of blocks, because this cultivates feelings of dead stiffness, whether or not your muscles are tight or loose.
Whether you are still or moving, the crown of your head is continuously orienting (again, not “oriented,” but “orienting”) upward toward the point in the ceiling. While the top of your head is emptying upward, your tailbone is being pulled downward by your gentle muscular action, gravity, or a combination of both. Your spine feels as if it is lengthening. Every vertebra has a natural relationship to every other (i.e., like the pears on the string), but none of them has to have a fixed absolute position. Whether your spine is wobbling like a spinning top, undulating like a cobra, or swaying like a rope, the top of your head is constantly orienting and causing corresponding effects all the way down your spine. A side effect of all this is that your balance should be much better than in the first exercise I described above. This is despite the fact that your mental focus is not even in your foot. Also, the more actively you engage all of your spinal muscles, the stiller your posture will be. (“Movement within stillness.”)
Do not think of making your head or spine “erect,” or you will use improper local strength. You will incorrectly privilege the muscles of the neck over those of the rest of the vertebrae. Another mistake is to view someone who can do this well and try to directly copy their stillness. This usually produces stiffness. The idea is to copy their “movement” or what they are trying to do with their muscles. This produces the stillness. This is what I understand to be the mind leading the body or the “yi” leading the “qi.”
Basically, all you are doing is pulling up what can be pulled up, pulling down what can be pulled down, and harmonizing the two. One can analyze this in detail, but the secret is not in the detail, but in the correct visualization of the simple polarity. I think this can be felt in various ways, but here is one proposal.
As you feel you are pulling up on your skull, you should feel that you are pulling down on your shoulders. This feeds into one of the other Ten Essentials (“Sink the shoulders and drop the elbows.”). The two opposing pulls should leave the vertebrae in your neck feeling very open. As the middle of your back is pulled upwards, you should feel your tailbone pulling downward. This should leave your lumbar vertebrae (i.e., your Chinese waist) feeling loose and open (another of the Ten Essentials). As you lift your pelvis to keep it level and push down with your knees, your hip sockets (i.e., “kua’s”), should feel open.
What I am describing are activities to perform or feelings to experience, and not postures to be held. Practice is for deepening and clarifying the feelings, rather than for perfecting set responses.
One issue that often plagues practitioners is how much muscular effort to exert. In my opinion, this is ultimately an incorrect focus. If one maintains the proper mental focus, whatever muscular effort is used will be fine and instinctively matched to the particular application. This is what I understand Yang Zhen Duo to be referring to when he talks about “ziwo jingan,” which I think Louis translated elsewhere on this site (under the description of the Palm Methods under Taiji Information) as something like “self-arising sensation of strength.” If one has clarity, merely opposing the upward pushing of the head with the pull of gravity may be enough. If one is trying to lift someone or something off the floor, more muscular effort is required. If, however, one tries to calibrate the amount of muscle to use, whatever value one arrives at will be stiff and wrong. This is just like the first exercise I described above. Focusing on how to calibrate the strength used by the ankle is unnecessary and counterproductive.
If you focus on “pearl string” feeling while doing your Taiji movements, you should feel as if any movement of your limbs requires corresponding compensations in your spine. Your focus should be absolutely continuous (like walking a tightrope) and not intermittent. Every step should represent a mental challenge to your visualization of the “suspended string of pearls.” Every time you lift an arm, you should feel a need to balance the energy exerted with continuous subtle spinal movements. Every individual joint movement should feel “constrained” because your whole body must be involved (i.e., “moving with one ‘qi’”)(“not one feather can alight”). Collectively, however, your movements are unconstrained and nimble. All of this, I would maintain, comes from simply focusing your mind on mediating “upward energy” with “downward energy” within the constraints of your anatomy, rather than standing like a lump. All the details I have inartfully described above are unimportant in themselves, but fall out of the simplicity.
The last thing I will say is that I believe that the “intent” I have described is something visible in good practitioners, but subtle. Even their small movements look purposeful and linked with other movements. They show few or no gaps in their intent. Any gaps in intent are visible, but do not necessarily correspond with pauses in outward movement. Someone’s head can be moving or still, but lack a sense that it is orienting and drawing upward. If one does not know what to look for, however, one may mistake stiffness for stillness, movement for orientation, robotic coordination for integration of movement, and pauses for gaps in internal intent. Trying to copy the external movements without a feel for what the practitioner is doing internally is nearly impossible.
I hope this is helpful. I welcome any differing thoughts, questions, or clarification.
Happy and fruitful practice,