On another thread, I tried to express how rich the Ten Essentials can be in guiding our practice. I want to use this post to give an example and apologize in advance for its length.
I say that the energy to the crown of the head should be like the energy of a seedling sprouting through the ground.
This does indeed accurately describe one of the meanings of 顶, which is the third of the four words/characters in the first of the Ten Essentials. One of my dictionaries actually gives the following example sentence to illustrate the meaning:
嫩芽把土顶起来。(The sprouts have pushed up the earth.)
From what I understand, we look at the Ten Essentials as describing the principal things that we need for our Tai Chi, particular in terms of body shape, energy, and spirit. In other words, they are ten “needful” things.
I think that “xuling dingjin” (The spacing of this phrase is meant for visual convenience and does not necessarily divide the syllables correctly into individual words.) is meant first as one of the body-shape principles, dealing with how to hold the head. Curiously, the Chinese does not directly address head position, but rather seems to speak in terms of spirit and energy. I think this is because the Ten “Needful” things are interrelated. Body shape and spirit both determine energy. Energy requires body shape and spirit.
I understand the Ten “Needful” things in terms of layers. Each of them has a simple, surface meaning, but as our practice evolves we understand deeper meanings and more connections to other principles. Even as our understanding deepens, however, we must still continually return to the simpler meanings. What meaning is most important depends on what happens to be important at that moment in our practice.
I understand the layers of “xuling dingjin” as something like the following:
Keep your head up.
Keep your head up, but do not hold your neck in a stiff way.
Hold your head as if suspended from above.
Hold your head as if suspended from above as a corollary to sinking your shoulders.
Hold your head as if suspended from above so that a feeling of vitality/vigor/vim (jingshen 精神) can rise up the spine to the crown of the head.
Bring up the feeling of vitality to raise the spirit as a corollary to sinking the Qi to the Dantian.
Position the head with intent on openness/perceptiveness, alertness, and bringing the Jin all the way up to the crown of the head.
The last “layer” represents what I currently understand the fullest meaning of xuling dingjin to be: “Open and alert, crown the energy.”
The Chinese phrase is four characters that represent four words or four morphemes. The internal grammar of the phrase is not clear. In English terms, each of the characters could be understood as a verb, adjective, or noun independent of or governing one or more of the words that follow. Literary Chinese of this sort does not have to use punctuation, conjunctions, or articles, so the translator is free to supply these according to context and experience. Literary Chinese of this sort also tends to rely heavily on literary and philosophical precedent, since literate Chinese used to learn and memorize a common core of literature as part of the expected moral and educational foundation all people craving upward professional mobility would have.
The first character, “xu” (虛／虚), is the character we normally translate as “empty” or “insubstantial,” when we talk of “empty and full” or “insubstantial and substantial.” In this case, I think it is used to suggest the refinement of the Qi to be used.
I believe that the general view of cosmology that used to be held by educated Chinese was that all matter and energy was made of Qi. “Cloudy” or “opaque” Qi formed matter, and clear or insubstantial Qi formed “spirit.” Humans differed from animals or rocks because they had an abundance of Qi that was “clear” enough to “penetrate” objects, resonate with them, and then perceive their essence and understand them. This view of perception is from subject to object and could be called an aspect of a “pure” or “unclouded” awareness. It is the opposite of how we view physical awareness today, which is that awareness physically proceeds from object to subject. We do not view our perception as actually extending into things, but rather view the objects as making impressions on our minds. In either case, the idea of being “xu” seems to be that we can correctly understand the nature of things to which we extend our minds. I think our modern sensibilities could call this “openness” or “perceptiveness.”
The second character, “ling” (灵/靈), has many seemingly confusing translations, such as “agile, nimble, clever, sharp (e.g., of hearing), effective, spirit.” I think the common core refers to the unseen force that makes something animated, spirited, and/or efficacious.
I think that in “xuling dingjin,” the use of “ling” refers to the fact that the spirit should show a sharpness and alertness to what is going on. The head will thus show an aspect of animated, live movement, rather than movement that is stiff or represents mere repetition of learned patterns. The eyes should show a connection between the spirit and the energy that is being manifested, without glaring or leading the head to jut forward.
The spirit is the general that remains calm at the center of battle. He or she knows every aspect of what the soldiers are doing at the vanguard of the fight and also what ambushes may be developing at the rear, but does not him or herself go physically to fight, unless things are desperate. The spirit should similarly remain calm, perceptive, and alert. If you experience some external deficiency, such as a subtle loss of balance, this will show in your eyes as you draw on your internal, your “spirit,” to compensate. The goal is to move with both external and internal fully sufficient and having abundant resources.
The third character, “ding” (顶／頂), can be a noun referring to the crown of the head or the top of something (such as a mountain). It can also be a verb referring to pushing something from below or behind, usually with the top of something. It can also refer to bracing against something, like the wind.
Because of the requirement to bring up the feeling of vitality, I take “ding” to mean “to bring up to the crown of the head.” This action should actually affect your mood, or the feeling you have within your body.
The last character, “jin” (劲／勁), particularly with this pronunciation, is typically a noun, meaning “strength,” “vigor,” or “energy.” Particularly when pronounced as “jing,” it can also be an adjective/verb, meaning “strong,” “powerful,” or “robust.”
We think of internal “jin,” or “neijin” (内劲／内勁) as having an external and an internal part. The external part is rooted in the feet, developed in the legs, controlled by the waist/lower back, and expressed in the hands and fingers. The internal part comes from the Dantian and is led by the mind/spirit to the point of attack. Some even say that “jin” is a combination of Qi and spirit (shen 神).
In “xuling dingjin,” I think the use of “jin” reflects a view that “jin” is strong when it is a union of Qi that has sunk to the Dantian and spirit that is calm, alert, and perceptive. A calm mind allows the Qi to sink for later use, like still water at the bottom of a bucket or water concentrated in a water balloon. An excited or scattered mind lets the Qi rise, like water sloshing around in a bucket and spilling and spraying in all directions. Only when the water is still, can you eject it in a unified fashion or as one “piece.”
In my experience, our Tai Chi does not stress rooting in terms of directing force into the ground, but talks mostly in terms of simply feeling the weight in the bubbling well/spring. We also emphasize more “sinking the Qi.” An image I often have, for instance when doing standing meditation, is of feeling as if my body is a heavy balloon or Pilates ball centered on my Dantian. If I let the Qi sink and settle, I will feel the weight of the balloon or ball primarily on the bubbling well/spring and flattening out my whole foot. If I am not sinking the Qi correctly, I either feel no balloon or ball, or else feel as if it is propped up somehow without contact with the ground.
As I have stated in the past, I also think our Tai Chi does not stress “relaxation” as the absence of muscular activity or exertion. I think that this is particularly important when considering the neck muscles. I was at a recent seminar where we were practicing various types of Fajin. One of the mistakes many of us were making was to leave the neck so loose that our heads bobbled in a potentially dangerous way. The Qi that is stuck to the upper back should not continue up into the head, but rather go into the arms (assuming a hand, fist or elbow technique). If you think too much of relaxation or delicateness, I think it is easy to allow the head to shake and lose focus on the target.
This view of “xuling dingjin” has particular implications for how to move the head and eyes as the various postures develop from beginning to end. The head and eyes should reflect every second of the movement, without necessarily exactly tracking the movement of the contact point. Many times the gaze should actually go far, rather than focus in close, since it will reflect a comprehensive awareness, rather than a limited one.
For instance, in a posture like Brush Knee and Twist Step Left, the eyes and head could track the left arm doing Roll Back from left to right and then the right arm rising to lift the opponent’s leg and seating on the far right. Then the head and eyes could track the left arm moving to grab and control from right to left, and then track through the Tiger’s mouth of the right hand as it strikes out to its target. Again, it should reflect the general calmly launching the soldiers into the breach, rather than then the actual solders rushing forward with their war cries.
But it is not only the eyes. Many times we take “blind” steps to the rear or position ourselves where we could use an elbow, shoulder, or back strike to the rear. We also have 360 degree spins. Even in these cases, the head and even back should show 360-degree awareness and precise knowledge of where the steps are going and how they control the positioning of the body. Coming out of the spins, the head and eyes should not merely find a new orientation, but rather re-establish an orientation that has continuously remained clear in the mind.
According to my understanding, the eyes cover 270 degrees and the ears cover the remaining 90. Master Yang once described this idea by breaking down the implications of the Chinese word for “intelligent,” “congming” (聪明). The first character or syllable can be understood as meaning “sharp of hearing,” and the second can be understood as meaning “clear of sight.” Someone who shows sharpness and clarity can be thought of as intelligent. This is the quality we want to show in our head and eye movement. We want to show sharpness and clarity with respect to the overall intent and movement of the body.
I hope this is helpful.