T’ai Chi: A Contemplative Art
Like all contemplative arts, T’ai Chi requires disciplined, resolute practice at quieting the associative mind. By associative mind we mean mental nausea, monkey mind, the ego, or any other name for that part of consciousness that monopolizes our waking attention where there’s an endless stream of thoughts, sensations, and feelings giving rise to more thoughts, sensations, and feelings. One of my favorite metaphors for cultivating mindfulness is the Ox Herding Pictures.
To get a direct experience of associative mind try this. Set a timer for 60 seconds. Sit quietly for the entire period visualizing a beautiful mountain lake. For sixty seconds the only thing that you must not do is allow your focus to wander from the lake. Pay no attention whatsoever to any sensation, feeling, memory, or idea. When any of these things arise simply let them go without letting your focus shift from this exercise until the timer sounds. Each time your mind wanders make no judgements, simply rededicate your center of attention to the lake. “It’s OK to have your thoughts. Let them come and go. Just don’t invite them to stay for tea.” ~Suzuki Roshi~
Catching Sight of the Tracks — After a very short time you’ll begin to see how one thought leads to another and another and so on. And they’re all mixed up together. Ideas lead to sensations that spark fantasies that rouse beliefs that awaken feelings that stir judgements… This is the nature of the associative mind – each notion sparks another. Reasonable or not, logical or irrational, no matter how inane, inconceivable, noble or hideous the content is completely irrelevant. It’s a television screen that never goes blank. This quality of mind has a single imperative — more.
The associative mind has a proper function as an aid to dealing with daily life. It recognizes similarities between things, filters important from insignificant matters, reminds us, warns us, alerts us and performs a myriad of essential chores. It’s so useful, in fact, that we come to think of it as our ‘self’ and one of the messages it slips in almost unnoticed is that it’s indispensable; that we can not and do not exist without it. That’s where the trouble begins because instead of living with all of our instincts and awareness awake and engaged we fixate on and are mesmerized by the flickering images of this intimate voice and come to trust and rely on everything it comes up with.
This is a core concept of all eastern philosophy and every meditation discipline begins with a discussion of it – it’s nature, how it works, it’s manifestations and most importantly how to get beyond this state of mind. Quieting the associative mind is the first step of all forms of meditation and the method is always to give it a job to do — a focal point, an intention to follow. Like many physical forms of meditation such as Sufi dancing, yoga, and other martial arts, T’ai Chi cultivates awareness of one’s own body and how your body interacts with another as both the method and the vehicle.
Mindfulness, too, is a matter of degree and an often misunderstood concept. Initially right-brained people struggle with simply clearing their minds of theories, diagnosis, modalities and the need to ‘do’ something. Left-brained people labor to maintain focus, not fantasize and stay grounded. Everyone’s self-doubts about whether or not their “getting it”, anxieties over explaining what they’re doing, fears of not feeling something, and frustrations driven by having to slow down come to the fore. Recognizing these as simply notions form the associative mind and not being driven to act them out can be quite challenging. Early on too, many mistake complete immersion, being in “the zone” and blissful moments for mindfulness and while these are all interesting spaces they are just the beginning of awareness and clarity in everyday life. To get to the next level practitioners get back to basics and give the mind the job of working on following the forms to explore the Principles of Natural and Interactive Movement.
Catching Sight of the Ox — In the next level of mindfulness one begins to notice the routines in our thoughts, emotions, strategies and activities and is able to recognize and dissolve patterns before getting stuck in them again. In this realm, for example, you begin to see how a certain sensation in the pit of your stomach is always accompanied by memories of failures and discouraging thoughts or how tension in the jaw, neck and shoulders accompanies and is proportional to anger and frustration. Here you begin to see how certain beliefs, attitudes and values about yourself and the world frame your options and compel your behavior. Once you begin to understand you begin to have choice. Then the character becomes strong and resilient — just like sorting out thousands of knotted threads is the first step to making a strong rope. This process is not a one-time flash and then you’re free. It takes time, dedication and great skillfulness to learn to continually observe, fully own, and not be driven by these intimate companions. As the chaos is resolved self-confidence grows and it becomes easier and easier to put the mind to work. Then the deeper meanings of the Principles of Natural and Interactive Movement begin to emerge.
Catch Bull at Four — Still ordinary mind, as it’s known in many Buddhist teachings, is not just about self-awareness. Real mindfulness is an easy presence in the moment arising out of the intention to stay present without holding a specific focus such as the breath, monitoring our personal mental condition or spacing out blissfully. In these vivid moments our normal sense of self becomes more porous and our fixed boundaries begin to dissolve. Challenges still arise. Thoughts, emotions, beliefs and habits continue to course through our awareness; but instead of getting hooked into them we simply notice their passing. This is the space where our attention is fully engaged in the work at hand.
One of the horse trainers whose work we admire says that you must “work with the horse that shows up” meaning that you have to give up your expectations and ideas and sync up with where the horse is in the present moment. This is also a wonderful metaphor for how to work with your awareness; your approach must be adjusted from moment to moment.
Riding the Ox Home — Working this way requires a high tolerance for ambiguity and groundlessness and so is not as comfortable or familiar as the Western mind prefers. Structure reduces stress for most people so that’s where the T’ai Chi forms come in; they are places to begin, familiar territory, somewhere to ground yourself. Where certainty ends so you are no longer sure what to do allow curiosity to lead you by exploring how to supple your body by applying the five principles ever more perfectly.