The body of a Taijiquan practitioner is observable, their mind is not. Take form training, as an individual does the routine they can be seen going through precise positional and attitudinal changes. At least at a superficial level, the direction and limits of the movements of the hands and feet, the direction of the torso, stepping actions etc are not too difficult to follow. Later, as the level of skill becomes more refined these become more subtle and a trained eye is needed to catch all the details. Traditional teaching involves a process of modelling where, with minimal words, a student learns the proper form by imitating the movements of their master or a senior student within the school. An outsider observing the interaction could easily conclude that the whole process was little more than a mimetic dance.
This, however, would be to ignore the inner mental processes that are taking place. The mind is less easy to observe and more difficult to control often seeming to wander randomly. The Confucian sage Mencius said: “It comes in and goes out at no definite time and without anyone’s knowing its direction.” The traditional Taijiquan or other East Asian martial arts master is not only interested in the correctness of the form but also in the mental attitude behind it. He is aware of the disparity between a rote performer and an active participant, even though both may seem to follow instructions correctly.
Perceptive eyes can pick up signals revealing a student is still far off from actualising Taijiquan’s internal harmonies and bringing together the mental, energetic and physical aspects. That is the fusing of the xin (heart or emotional mind) and yi (intention or logical mind) with the sensations of expansiveness, weightedness and centredness and the external physical shape of the body.
Realising this integration requires a mode of thought characterised by simplicity, intuition and naturalness. At the same time its results must be practical and concrete. In his book The Inherited Chen Family Taiji Boxing Art published in 1932 Chen Ziming said state: “To be able to actually do something, mind and spirit have to be gathered together within. When the feet stand heavily, the hands move reverently, the head is upright, and the eyes are solemn, these indicate that everywhere in the body, the mind is involved. Inability to function means the mind is getting distracted by external things.”
Taijiquan has its own methods for developing the mind including:
• Putting into practice the concept of movement coming from stillness – taking time to reach a place of physical stillness and mental calm or “enter stillness” before beginning training. Paradoxically while this is an important, maybe the most important aspect of training, no force or focused intent is used. Philosophically this is referred to as wuji or the place without extremes. Once the first movement begins, you must take care to settle and rebalance at the end of each posture. This is in line with the idea that the end of one movement represents the beginning of the next.
• Each posture finishes with a clear focal point. Chen Xin spoke of the “spiritual power” that is manifested through parts of the body such as the hands, eyes and heart: “… when practicing boxing, your eyes should not express any angry emotions but simply follow the movements of the leading hand. In Lan Zha Yi (Lazily Tying Coat), the eyes follow the right hand, concentrating on the middle finger… the spirit of the whole body should concentrate on the final position of this movement… performing Dan Bian (Single Whip), maintain visual focus on the left hand which moves slowly left and upward from the lower right side in a large semi-circle at the front of the body. At the end of the movement, focus on the middle finger of the left hand… In Pie Shen Chui (Turn Body and Punch), focus the eyes on the toe of the left foot, while in Zhou Di Kan Quan (Fist Beneath Elbow) the focus is on the fist located under the elbow.”
• At the same time the mind is never allowed to rest on one place to the exclusion of everything else. There is a constant fine dynamic tension between the various aspects of the body. At a gross level requirements like: looking forward while listening behind; lifting the head lightly while sinking into the ground; loosening the root while stretching out to the extremity etc. At a fine level honing an ever-greater sensitivity to the point where “a fly cannot land without you being aware of it.”
Beyond an individual’s efforts in the training hall, mental training cannot be separated from daily life. Thought patterns have to be refined until they are habitually clear, balanced, focused and not over-reactive. A common Chinese parable about a farmer trying to force the process of growing a plant is often applied to the subtleness needed to cultivate the mental processes: “If we exert too much artificial effort to help a plant grow, it will soon wither. In the same way there is a natural course for the development of the heart (xin). One should neither forget nor assist in one’s daily effort to preserve it.” The training and discipline of the mind and body are inextricably linked and neither can be neglected. While the body requires a long and gradual process of shaping and strengthening, the mind too has to be slowly tempered.