Greetings Psalchemist (and all),
This is a difficult topic, but one I think is essential for anyone wishing to study Taijiquan at intermediate and advanced levels. I even have my doubts about whether one can ignore this issue at beginning levels, but that is probably more a matter of teaching style than of theory.
By the way, I would be curious if any of the teachers or would-be teachers could comment on when they think it is appropriate to stress this side of Taijiquan with students. I think I understand Dorshugla’s viewpoint, but would be interested in others’ opinions. Should you discuss things like “mind intent” on the second day of instruction? Halfway through teaching the form? After teaching the gross movements of the whole form? Do you just provide “one leg of the table” on the first few days of instruction, and let the students provide the other “three legs” when they are ready? If you do not stress the importance of intention and give direct and clear guidance, do you risk that students will underestimate its importance or will misunderstand your meaning through confusion with other prevalent notions?
Psalchemist, I more or less agree with what Andres said quite cogently. I also agree with Louis’ brief post. The only thing I might quibble with in Andres’ explanation is that his wording seems to imply that the postures can teach you how to use intent all by themselves. I would prefer stating that the postures give you a theater in which you can learn to practice using intent and to see how intent works. I happen to believe it is possible to do postures quite esthetically, reasonably accurately, and even martially, while failing to mobilize your “internal” resources correctly. In other words, I believe that you must consciously choose to exercise your intent and that the postures will not do this for you.
I can only guess at the meaning of James Fu’s words about “making the movements final”; and so cannot help with this part of your initial post. I can, however, give some help about some of the Chinese words behind this issue and about my own personal practice and interpretations.
Chinese, like many languages, has many words whose meanings overlap with what the term “mind” covers. Of the Chinese words, I have seen in my meager readings of the classics, the word that comes closest to the English word is the term “xin” (pronounced like the English word “shin” and usually glossed as “heart”). This term refers to the “seat” and “origin” of one’s thoughts, as well as to most of the meanings covered by the word “heart.” Despite what you might think, this word does not seem to get much play in the classics, perhaps because too much talk of “thinking” implies not being in the “Dao” of the moment.
The words most referenced in the classics are probably “Yi” and “Shen.” Neither really should be translated with the word “mind,” but they nevertheless are the words that govern the process of using the mind to lead the body to do the movements. We have touched on “shen” several times within the last six months on this forum, and so I will not comment about I here. We have also talked about “yi” from time to time, but I think I have a few new thoughts I can share.
First, let me re-state some things we have touched on before, since they bear on discussions of this type. In understanding and applying the terminology of Taijiquan, there are three things to bear in mind. First, there are very few words that have a 100% correspondence to any words in another language. This applies not only to complex and subtle terms, but also to words as “simple” as body parts. If we are not thinking about Taijiquan terminology in the way a native Mandarin speaker would, we run two risks. We will project things from our native language onto the Taiji words that do not exist in the Chinese, and we will exclude things that a native speaker would necessarily associate with the Chinese word.
A second difficulty is that ordinary Chinese words may have acquired additional nuances for Taijiquan or even specialized meanings that do not apply to ordinary usage. Sometimes there is a mixture of both; i.e. sometimes the word is used in its ordinary sense by practitioners and sometimes in a specialized sense.
A third difficulty is that some terminology has acquired different meanings in various martial arts or even in various styles or sub-styles of Taijiquan. To navigate this difficulty, you must seek out authentic practitioners of whatever tradition you are trying to investigate in order to understand precisely what is being talked about.
In the case of “yi,” I think the first and the third difficulties are present. In other words, there is no simple equivalent of this word in English, and different teachers of Taijiquan seem to stress different aspects of this concept. These differences lead to significant differences in practice.
“Yi” is generally pronounced like the “ee” sound in the word “feet.” A frequent translation used for it in Taiji circles is “mind intent.” It refers to the meaning, idea, or purpose that one projects onto something. For instance, when you say: “What is the meaning of this?,” you are talking about territory covered by “yi.” When you say that you did something “with the best of intentions” or “with evil intent,” this is again “yi.” Although “yi” is an element of one’s “intention” to do something, this really goes a little beyond what “yi” covers. “Yi” has more to do with “meaning” and “conception” than with “deliberation,” “resolution,” “decision making,” or “planning.”
Most of the common compound words in Chinese that can translate “idea,” “concept,” or “meaning” include “yi” (e.g., “zhuyi” (“idea”), “yijian” (“opinion,” “view”), “yinian” (“notion”), “yisi” (“meaning”), “yiyi” (“significance,” “meaning”). “Yiwai” means “outside “what one might or could conceive.’” “Yi zai yan wai” means “having a ‘meaning’ going beyond what can be expressed in words.” The mere fact that you “intend” to do something can also include “yi,” but this can be expressed in ways that do not have to use this word.
There are some practitioners that say that one should not have “intent” in certain situations, for example in Pushing Hands or while trying to “listen” to the opponent’s energy (“Ting Jin”). My personal belief is that this does not apply to the methods the Yangs teach, but I could be wrong about this. I also wonder whether this teaching is an artifact of meanings that the word “intent” has in English and that are much less prominent or even absent in the Chinese word “yi.”
“Intent” in English can have a strong future orientation, implying that one becomes attached to a future course of action or a future reality that may never be realized. (Like “dasuan”?) In my opinion, such actions are not good Taijiquan, even outside of “listening to energy” or Push Hands.
Although I believe that the word “yi” does not preclude a future orientation, I think that it is more oriented toward the present. In other words, I think it concerns more what one is doing “in the moment.” In my personal practice, I try to apply “yi” at all times without exception.
Another idea I would like to distinguish from my concept of “yi” is the idea that using “yi” involves “adding” mental activity to physical activity. For me, using “yi” does not have this feel at all. In other words, it does not involve merely bringing focus or imagination to my performance of the postures. I do not “add” something to my physical practice. My practice is about using “yi,” not about reproducing limb movements from memory and then focusing on body parts. What I am physically practicing is indivisible from what I am mentally practicing. Without using “yi” or by using it differently, I would be engaged in a completely different exercise.
I also want to make clear that I am not talking about something related to ability. I am not claiming to be “so good” at postures that I can imbue them with spirit or mental energy. I am talking about something that just about anyone can do immediately, as long as the process is understood or properly explained. One on one and in person, I think such an explanation can be done in about 60 seconds to ten minutes, if someone has a reasonable foundation in the form.
Let me try to explain more specifically why I find “yi” important to my personal practice and why it goes beyond my normal mental activity in controlling the movement of my limbs. Imagine trying to juggle three tennis balls. Imagine taking a videotape of your movements. Now imagine watching the tape and trying to copy the same movements precisely, but without using any tennis balls. Would you really be engaged in the same activity? Would you be developing the same skills, even though your arms would be involved in similar motions? Notice that I say “imagine trying to juggle,” rather than “imagine juggling.” Whether one succeeds or not in the juggling is not really relevant, since I am talking about a method, process, or attitude to the activity. In other words, the level of skill is not what is at issue.
Here is another example. Imagine trying to balance a basketball or soccer ball on your finger. Now take away the ball and “practice” the same movements with your finger. Is this at all the same activity? Are you relating to your finger, hand, or arm in the same way?
For me, doing form is like trying to juggle balls or trying to balance a basketball on my finger. It is a live activity that rote memorization or muscle memory has little or nothing to do with. It requires my full mental attention to retain its essential character. Without consciously using “yi,” my postures are completely empty, and doing form has little meaning and little value for me.
I find that “yi” is important for knowing how to “fangsong” (“loosen up”/”relax”). It is often said that Taijiquan involves concentration on tendons and sinews, whereas hard martial arts involve concentration on muscle and bone. Below is how I conceive of this at the moment. I probably have certain aspects of the basic anatomy wrong, but I think my general idea is correct.
Each joint is controlled by opposing muscle groups that work through tendons and sinews. During each moment of the form, you should be engaging one and only one of these two sets of muscles. Normally, if you do this outside of correct form practice, you will end up moving the joint to its limit and locking it. You can even run the risk of hyper-extending it. I believe that you avoid this in form by using different pairs of muscle groups to provide the necessary opposition. In other words, you do not make use of opposition within a joint, but rather use opposition between different joints and between sets of joints (e.g. deng vs. cheng). In this way, you have the feeling of constantly extending the joints, but still have control over how much extension is actually realized. You are constantly experiencing a dynamic yin-yang equilibrium that is Taiji (not Wuji or some yin with some yang). There is no sensation of every freezing, stopping, or locking a joint. You merely move from equilibrium to equilibrium at whatever pace you want.
The physical problem that this type of movement presents is that there are an infinite number of yin-yang equilibriums. To choose the correct one for the given moment, you must use “yi” to guide your muscle movement and preserve the necessary sensation in the tendons and sinews. With the correct “yi,” the equilibrium you choose will be self-reinforcing. You do not have to put your mind on the components of the equilibrium since this is naturally determined by your “yi.” Similarly, when you draw a bow, you do not have to give much thought to where you pull on the bowstring or when to stop pulling on it. The various forces simply move to equalize and match your “yi.” Your pulling elbow feels it has to line up correctly. You do not have to worry about locking the fingers holding the string.
Another example is a parachute. It deploys in a certain pattern, not because it has rigid structures, but because the energy of gravity and air pressure make it assume a particular shape. The focus of the energy that controls everything else is at the point where the lines come together at the bottom. Similarly, every posture has a focus of energy, a “jin point,” that defines how all the rest of the limbs deploy.
If your “yi” is on the correct energy pattern, your limbs will seem to deploy themselves. The shape of the posture will feel self-reinforcing. The structure of the energy will feel well defined, even though you do not put your mind on defining any particular position of the limbs in three-dimensional space. If you withdraw your “yi” or even put it directly on your limbs, this process becomes impossible. It becomes like practicing juggling or balancing motions without a ball. The externals may be there, but there is nothing inside.
To take a concrete example, if someone is trying to do the Push Posture, it is very easy to project the “habits” of daily life into one’s Taijiquan and to ignore what is actually happening in the present moment. One incorrectly puts one’s mind wholly on the position of the palm in order to reproduce the push one uses to open a door. This use of “yi” gives no meaning to the rest of the joints in the body. It is a completely local movement that has little or none of the qualities necessary for good Taijiquan. Hardly any of the Ten Essentials are involved. Instead, one should give meaning (i.e., “yi”) to each and every joint and to the “energy network” they form as a whole. This cannot be done without training your “yi” and acquiring a “conscious understanding of movement.”
To further illustrate my meaning, let me give one last practical example, from the form. In reality, this concept of “yi” exists at all times within the form and should be visible in each joint, but I am trying to give examples that might be more obvious so that you can see for yourself if there is anything to what I say.
Between the beginning of the posture Strike the Tiger (Left) and the beginning of the last spin in the Second Paragraph, there are six transitions between open palms and fists. In my opinion, at least five of these are accomplished with a very specific and visible relationship to the energy being manifested by the trunk of the body. (I leave out the sixth only because I am not knowledgeable enough to have a firm opinion of the facts.) Each of these five are also done with a different “segment” of energy. For instance, in Double Peaks/Winds to the Ears (Shuang feng guan er), I believe the fists are formed by the energy used between touching the floor with the right heel and flattening the foot.
If your “yi” does not account for all these uses of energy, I think it is very easy to form or relax fists in ways that do not really relate to the body’s movement, and the Qi will not thread correctly. If someone has a background in hard styles, I think it is also easy to see the shape of the hands only in terms of the final culmination of the posture and not care about the energy relationships in between and in the transitions. For such people, “yi” does not go beyond thinking of punching “with great intensity” and with “good mental focus.”
Some people teach that fists should only be formed at the very last minute, to provide the maximum options. I do not believe, however, that this is the “yi” that the Yangs teach. For instance, in Strike the Tiger and Step Back to Ride the Tiger, the fists are indeed formed or released at the last second. However, I believe this is because the practitioner is expected to show two meanings during a single performance of the postures. In Strike the Tiger, these meanings are plucks (cai/ts’ai) and punches. In Step Back to Ride the Tiger, the meanings are a punch and an overhead block. Again the emphasis is not so much on drilling an external application, but understanding how to use your “yi” correctly to produce a given result.
This is all I have time for at the moment. Any comments welcome.