Descent from Mind to Body: A Journey into Bodily Intelligence through Tai Chi

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Early morning tai chi practice at Whidbey Institute, Washington.

“The physical practice sometimes called Tai Chi…is a delightful method of allowing my body to learn to move with a natural fluidity that blesses my whole being….What delights me about this practice is the way it integrates the physical universe (Tai Chi) with the Mysterious (Wu Chi). I can feel the interplay of the two, dancing within me, as I move my body in gentle and flexible ease.

-William Martin, Day 20 of Tao Te Ching course with Spirituality and Practice

Introduction

When I think how my approach to education has evolved over the years, I often recall a 5-week NEH[1] summer course studying Himalayan cultures that I took in Worcester, Massachusetts in 2004. (In retrospect I should have just gone to Bhutan instead!)  My particular interest was in creating a curriculum for a new “Who is Buddha” course I was to offer the following year at HKIS. I applied myself earnestly to the program, creating a blog summarizing the curriculum I planned to teach, assiduously highlighting readings and taking careful notes, and writing a long glossary of terms with definitions that would familiarize myself with a flood of new Sanskrit and Pali terms. My strategy to understanding Buddhism – undoubtedly for the end goal of spiritual growth – was academic mastery. Not once did I consider meditating, creating a mandala, or circumambulating a temple.

Personally, I was also applying a lot of pressure on myself. I needed to justify the long period of time I was spending away from my family during the summer holiday – without helping my wife and two kids move from one school flat to another. I returned to Hong Kong exhausted by the intense effort I gave. I subsequently taught Buddhism using the academic tools I had prepared but with little transformative effect upon my students. Somehow it never dawned on me in the middle of my stress that perhaps I had missed something in my understanding of Buddhism.

Wisdom Schools with Cynthia

Some years later I began attending Cynthia Bourgeault’s Wisdom Schools, week-long retreats that I attended in New Zealand and Scotland. While Cynthia’s teachings are intellectually acute, her whole approach is built around integrating the body, mind, and heart.[2] The structure of the Wisdom Schools reflects this body-mind-heart emphasis, arranging the day into an hour of manual labor, three 1.5 teaching sessions, and 2 hours of meditation; her overall goal is to deepen our spiritual practice that goes far beyond any kind of intellectual understanding. Reflecting on her pedagogical style has been a curriculum-altering decision for me, setting my teaching practice in a distinctly different direction than the academic strategy I had employed when preparing to teach about Buddhism.

Yet a big question in this body-mind-heart framework remained: what does it really mean to engage the intelligence of the body? What is bodily intelligence?

Main Hall and Caf

The cafeteria (left) where outstanding food was served to us all week and the largest hall (right) at Whidbey.

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T’he Sanctuary was our tai chi classroom for the week.

A Week of Tai Chi Training

Then this summer I chose to do a week-long beginnersanctuary-sign.jpeg course in tai chi[3] at Whidbey Island off the coast of Seattle. Rather than the thrilling teaching of my dear teacher for 4.5 hours a day, my week of tai chi was dedicated almost exclusively to the body center. We had two one-hour sessions a day of simply practicing over and over again the physical positioning of our one tai chi routine, trying to imitate each movement in precise detail. A third hour was focused on a specific principle of tai chi practice: how to place an “empty” step, sensing the “dan tien,”[4] or finding the foot’s physical center of gravity. The only teaching provided, then, was implicit to the physical practice of performing and correcting our tai chi moves.

Inside Sanctuary

Inside the Sanctuary where we did our training twice a day

So what did my immersion in the world of tai chi – and my most intense investigation of the body center in my lifetime –  teach me? Let me pause to allow the week-long body training to communicate with the mind center. This, then, is what surfaces:

  1. A Life of Flow: From the very first moment of day 1, I was struck by the grace, rhythm, and flow of our collective bodily movement. One moment we were standing around making small talk, and in the next we, the uninitiated, were elegance in motion. Although this sense quickly evaporated as soon as we gave over our attention to learning the moves, beginning each class with rounds[5] evoked, if only briefly, the experience of moving through all of life like a gently swaying branch of bamboo. This atmosphere of flow pervaded every aspect of the week – from walking to eating to conversing. Every movement could be reconsidered from the perspective of balance, flexibility, and efficiency of effort.
  2. Body-in-Form as Teacher: Sitting on the deck of a fresh-water lake after class, I asked a doctor and long-time practitioner if the body is the real teacher in tai chi. Like my ever-positive teachers, she gently corrected, “It’s the integration of the body with form.” Ahh, yes, something clicked for me and another newbie sitting nearby. It’s not just the body, but rather the application of a millennia-long, philosophy-based discipline to one’s physicality that trains the body-mind-heart self. Tai chi, I inferred from the retreat atmosphere, is a human-generated regimen intuited in dialogue with a sentient cosmos, the marriage of matter and spirit brought to bear on the individual in time.
  3. Embody Metaphors: One powerful, if often implicit, pedagogical tool was the use of metaphors in teaching the movements. A brief recounting of some of our teachers’ directives illustrates how beauty and harmony were integrated into the physical process of learning the movements:
  • “Rest your left hand on a column of air.”
  • “Hold your sea of chi.”
  • “Stand tall into white stork.”
  • “Hold your position with beauteous hands.”
  • “Imagine the rising yang in your in-breath and the descending yin on the outbreath.”
  • “After your right and left hands gently touch at the wrists, you are in position to embrace the Tao.”

These metaphor-laden instructions spoke to the whole of me. To incarnate such         images, it seemed, required a reconstitution of the self on the cellular level. I came to understand that tai chi teaches a person to live life as metaphors in motion.

Portal

The sculpture called “The Portal” outside Thomas Berry Hall at Whidbey Institute.

  1. Act from the Center: We were frequently Image result for dan tienreminded to act out of the dan tien, the body’s energy center, which for the experienced practitioner has a tangible physical force of heat or moving energy. As writer Philip Shepherd explains, pre-modern civilizations typically lived from this body center, which kept the self grounded in the here and now, navigating the interface between self and environment. However, Western civilization gradually moved its sense of self to the mind, privileging abstract thought above body-based entrainment. Tai chi, then, teaches practitioners how to recover this ancient centering of the self in the dan tien.
  2. Sense Subtle Energy: During one practice session, we were asked to rest our hand – like a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder – on the shoulder of a partner, and then mentally redistribute that energy to the foot. Both of us seemed to feel a subtle change. At other times, we were asked to create energy between our cupped hands, and then apply the generated energy to a part of the body in need of support. Throughout the week, then, entry into bodily intelligence meant tangibly exploring the body’s subtle energies.

From the first moment I began doing tai chi, I felt as if I were tapping into some previously unrecognized energetic order. This seems to be the collective power of attending precisely to the physical, mental and emotional aspects of this practice. Reflecting on this implicit pedagogy, I was able to sense the power of engaging the body’s intelligence with assistance from the mind center, a reversal of my previous way of learning.

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Our B1 (beginning) group of students and teachers.

A Body-Based Confession

Here’s a practical example – a true confession – of something that I learned from being in the body center for a week. As I have aged into my 50’s, I have lost some weight over the years in contrast to my peers who mostly “broaden” with time.  I have oftentimes mindlessly chalked this up to my careful diet (due to health problems), a sign of discipline, although in actuality it mostly has to do with my genetic make-up.

What dawned on me during the week was that such subtle self-talk was missing a much grander possibility. While I semi-consciously waste time superficially comparing myself to other body types, I intuited through the week that those who had practiced tai chi for decades focused their attention instead on participating harmoniously in their space-time reality. I caught myself in small self comparison, while a better way to walk my body through space was role-modeled for me: as a Larger Self participating in its cosmic milieu. This provides me with the opportunity to be present in the world in a new way.

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Conclusion

My journey from heady determination to prepare for my Buddhism class in 2004 through the Wisdom Schools and now to tai chi charts my descent from the mind to the body that I now understand is a fundamental dynamic of the Wisdom Tradition.  My initial foray into tai chi suggests that body work is the essential foundation of living a life in harmony with self and world.

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[1] National Endowment for the Humanities

[2] Referencing Eckhart Tolle, Cynthia frequently tells her students, “There is no enlightenment apart from the body.” As for the mind, she teaches that it is the slowest of the three centers. Cynthia summarizes the Wisdom Tradition’s view of our cognitive faculties by saying that overemphasis of this center is the biggest impediment to spiritual growth. She explains, “In terms of the spiritual journey, trying to find faith with the intellectual center is something like trying to play a violin with a saw: it’s simply the wrong tool for the job. This is one reason why all religious traditions have universally insisted that religious life cannot be done with the mind alone; that is the biggest single impediment to spiritual becoming.” The ultimate goal, according to the Wisdom Tradition, is to enliven the heart, which is a personal antennae placed within each person for spiritual attunement. Jesus elaborates on this, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

[3] Sponsored by the Tai Chi Foundation (www.taichichuan.org)

[4] Body’s mid-point found in the space beyond the pinky four fingers below the navel,

[5] A round is a wordless practice of the tai chi routine that begins and ends each session.

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About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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