Photo: Full Moon in Blowing Rock, by Ivy Glennon
During the June, 2016 Taiji Camp in Blowing Rock, Yang, Laoshi presented a twist on a familiar concept. Discussing the old adage of the master pointing to the moon and the followers mistaking his finger for the moon, Laoshi proposed that, perhaps, sometimes the master is pointing to something beyond the moon. I am intrigued with this idea and have been thinking further on how it applies to Taiji/Qigong in general and our unique practice in particular.
Not long after I began this practice I started to notice benefits beyond the practice itself. Many of us have found Taiji/Qigong to be a great low-impact exercise, with further benefits of increased balance, a reduction in symptoms associated with arthritis or other autoimmune disorders, fewer colds, increased energy levels, and overall well-being. These are well-documented, primarily by Dr. Yang and others, with new studies happening all the time. I am grateful for these results and the associated published trials and studies. I personally think that the medical community, Taiji community, and everyone concerned with engaged living owes Dr. Yang and others doing this work much gratitude. However, I wonder if these now-obvious results and side effects of practice are the proverbial moon. If so, what is it that is beyond?
The basic formulaic expression of utilizing intention in Taiji is 'Yi-Qi-Li', which roughly translates as 'intention-energy-body'. A better way of saying that is, intention leads, energy follows intention, and body follows energy. Energy follows thought, body follows energy. The old-school pattern of positive thinking has it that if you want a result, you see it, believe it, and make it happen. I have many times used a popular tale of Arnold Palmer's success on the golf course to illustrate this. When asked how he sunk a hole in one, his reply was something like the following (paraphrase): “I put my ball on the tee and look down the course at the flag (the hole). I then visualize hitting the ball and I see it's course, arcing through the air and landing in the hole. Then I follow through on that vision”. I don't know if Mr. Palmer really said that or if it is an urban legend. However, it serves to illustrate my point on intention.
Now, we can work with the proverbial moon here and see how using this example can work with form and push hands. In Dr. Yang's words, “When you do the form, imagine you are a Taiji Master”. Visualize doing the form perfectly. Then rather than trying hard and working up a sweat, follow through on that vision with relaxation and a smile. Or, when you are practicing a push hands technique, see the trajectory of your push and adjust so that your energy follows that intention. Further, to bring yourself to the point of daily practice, rather than making it a chore that takes away from your other activities, see yourself in your mind as a disciplined practitioner and follow through with that vision. Before long, it will no longer be a vision but reality.
Getting beyond the moon is something else altogether, and will be different for each of us. For me that concept is found in all the ways I practice when I'm not officially practicing. Success in business, school, or most any life activity follows the Yi-Qi-Li formula quite well. If I see myself as a Taiji Master, my form is likely to be much better than if I start out worrying about whether I will do it right. Accordingly, if I see myself as successful, or masterful, in other areas of my life, I stand a much greater chance of that happening. The opportunities for daily practice are manifold.
One of the best ways to practice Taiji/Qigong principles is as a countermeasure to stress. While the probability of being mugged by a gang of ninjas on the way to work is actually very low, the possibility of an inopportune traffic jam, an irate customer or co-worker, a potential verbal conflict with a family member, or any other number of potentially stressful events is much more likely. And as far as our bodies, our minds, and our autonomic nervous systems are concerned, stress is stress, whether it's caused by sword-wielding highwaymen or a boss with poor leadership skills. The key in either event is in Laoshi's advise on push hands, “Don't enter the fight”.
In push hands, the practice of not entering the fight is found by redirecting our partner's energy or changing the plane of the attack. Those same principles apply in non-physical encounters as well. Often times we can avoid an argument simply by not engaging in it. Walking away or remaining silent and peaceful are legitimate and viable options. Yet, other times it's not that simple. Sometimes we are faced with an angry or aggressive client, co-worker, or family member and we cannot always walk away. However, we still don't have to go head-to-head with the anger or aggression. We can change the plane of the attack by verbally diffusing the situation, asking questions, brainstorming with the aggrieved in an attempt to cooperatively solve his/her issue. Often, those who we perceive as the 'attacker', perceive themselves at the attacked. We may find that what is needed to diffuse a tense situation is a sympathetic ear and creative solutions.
There are times when verbally diffusing a situation isn't an option because the 'attacker' is not another person but an event or a situation, such as a broken computer or a traffic jam. But Taiji principles still apply. As anyone who has ever pushed with Yang, Laoshi can testify, it is practically impossible because he doesn't give you anything to push. It's not that he leaves or collapses, he just moves so that one never has anything upon which to push. In terms of the non-physical such as stress, we often find the principles are more often mental than physical, but the process is the same. In bad traffic it helps to accept the reality of the situation: the traffic is what it is and will not change whether you get stressed out or not. It also helps to not have unrealistic expectations: if more than one person is driving on any given public road, the very real possibility of a traffic jam exists. To always expect a clear trip on a road prone to traffic jams is futile. And to expect to be angry once said jam happens is a sure guarantee for a stressful outcome. Further, don't take the other drivers' road rage as personal: it's not. They are like everyone else, seeking their own happiness. Realize the Taiji (Yin-Yang) principles: everything is relative and will eventually reverse. And if you are stuck in traffic anyway, you can use the time to nurture yourself by actively relaxing your body, monitoring your breath, and considering all of Yang, Laoshi's mental principles, especially gratitude: it could be much, much worse.
Dr. Yang considers his functional meditations as a process of moving from Taiji to Wuji. Considering the mental principles in a contemplative manner can lead to a sense of inner stillness, or Wuji. Conceptually, Wuji represents the stillness that underlies everything, that exists prior to thought, prior to movement, prior to Taiji. After a certain time with this practice, one may find that not only does contemplation lead to inner stillness, but so does intentional activity; that engaging in dynamic Qigong or Taiji form results in a calm inner peace. Further, one may find that sense of stillness as a constant in life, whether it's while we are practicing, or when we are involved in our daily lives.
The essence of Wuji is experienced subjectively and is really beyond words. We can discuss it and write about it, but words are only symbols that represent something else. In this case, that something is real enough for each of us, but is subjective and ambiguous enough that words end up being like the master's finger. They do point to something, but they are not that to which they point. Ultimately that is what form does as well, whether it's the form of Taijiquan, or the formal process of Wuji meditation. Forms, words, and fingers are pointers. They are not the thing to which they refer. That being the case, all the master can do is point. If you want to know that to which he is pointing, you have to find it yourself.