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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The 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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“Tai Chi” by William Martin

The freedom of enlightenment is impossible to describe.
We can only notice how it appears in action.

We pay complete attention
to whatever we are doing,
as if we were crossing a river
on ice-covered stones.
We are alert to everything that happens,
like a bird watching in all directions.
We have a quiet dignity and reserve,
like a guest who does not seek attention.
Our judgments and opinions have melted away,
like ice in the summer heat.
There is a beautiful simplicity about us,
like a gem before it is shaped and polished.
We welcome whatever comes,
like a valley welcomes the river.

— from The Tao Te Ching, Chapter 15,
in A Path and a Practice, by William Martin

The Path – Commentary by William Martin

This passage describes the movement that can be called the “Tai-chi” — the manifestation of the formless Mystery in a flowing form. It is a natural and unforced quality of being. I find a helpful expression of “Tai-chi” in the meditative movement practice that shares the term — Tai Chi. The physical practice sometimes called Tai Chi, or more recently spelled “Taiji,” is a delightful method of allowing my body to learn to move with a natural fluidity that blesses my whole being.

Actually Taiji is a subset of the broader practice called Qigong — or “energy work.” Qigong is a diverse set of thousands of movements, meditations, and visualizations, based on Taoist principles and designed to facilitate mental and physical vitality and health. 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.

I won’t recommend any particular Qigong to you. Information is widely available, I will, however, recommend some sort of Yoga, Qigong, dance, or any sort of intuitive, gentle, natural movement that helps bring these two forces together in your life.

The Practice

• In addition to your quiet time today, put on some gentle music and move freely to it. No real steps, not exercise, not hard work, just gently swaying and breathing.

• Consider adding some movement practice to your life, if it isn’t already part of your routine. Again, I’m not talking about exercise. I’m recommending something simple and gentle that brings a sense of the Mystery and the Manifest into union.

• In the Practice Circle, write about what movement practices you have.

The eight active ingredients of Tai Chi

Excerpted from an article by Peter M. Wayne, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Director of Research, Osher Center for Integrative Medicine

https://www.taichifoundation.org/blog-posts/eight-active-ingredients-tai-chi-excerpted-article-peter-m-wayne-feb-2019

For the entire article, see: https://blog.content.health.harvard.edu/blog/special-reports/an-introduction-to-tai-chi/

1. Awareness. This ingredient is essential in order to fully develop all the others. It begins as self-awareness. Paying attention to your breathing and the sensations in your body as you practice the slow, graceful movements of tai chi helps you become more focused. It counteracts what Asian meditative traditions call “monkey mind,” the distracted thinking that focuses on external, past, or future events and commonly dwells on negative thoughts and what-ifs. This mental chatter often intrudes when you’re trying to do seated meditation. But in tai chi, as you concentrate on shifting your weight, moving your hands and arms, or turning your body, your mind is less likely to wander to tonight’s dinner or an argument with your partner, and you are more likely to be present in the moment. Cultivating this skill during the practice of tai chi helps you to be more focused throughout your day, even when you’re not doing tai chi. And there are other advantages as well. A heightened body awareness may contribute to better balance. And having a clearer mind may help you to more calmly navigate challenges such as a high-pressure work deadline or an emotional teenager.

2. Intention. Through visualization, imagery, and other cognitive tools used in tai chi, you alter your intentions, beliefs, and expectations. This has real-world effects. For example, instructions in tai chi such as “stand rooted like a tree” can simultaneously affect your muscle tension, postural alignment, and mental state, resulting in enhanced balance. Research on stroke patients has demonstrated that motor imagery — for instance, visualizing movements in paralyzed arms without actually moving — can help some people recover motor function. Similar mental training has also been used in athletes and musicians to improve their performance. This power of imagination and belief is behind the placebo effect as well. All of these examples are evidence that the power of suggestion can have a physical impact — or, as tai chi masters say, “Imagination becomes reality.” In an exercise like “Washing yourself with healing energy from nature,” when you picture yourself bathing every cell in your body with healing energy, it just may help you to feel better and be healthier.

3. Structural integration. Tai chi looks at the body as an interconnected system, not as a collection of individual parts. As a result, when practicing tai chi, you won’t do one exercise for your biceps and another for your glutes. Instead, tai chi integrates the upper body with the lower body, the right side with the left side, and the extremities with the core. Alignment and posture are part of this structural integration, and tai chi trains you to find alignments that are safe and unstrained, allowing you to perform graceful movements. You move more efficiently — not just during your tai chi practice, but throughout your day. The result is less stress and load on your joints and better balance. Similarly, improved posture has benefits that extend well beyond your tai chi class. When you walk or sit with your shoulders rounded and your torso hunched over, it is hard to take deep breaths. But when you straighten your back, roll your shoulders back and down, and open your chest, you breathe more deeply and efficiently. Not only does this integration improve your ability to move without pain, but it also affects your mental health. In two different studies, people who sat or walked more upright during the experiments had a more positive outlook afterward than those who slouched while sitting or walking.

4. Active relaxation. When you hear the word relaxation, you may think of chilling out by the pool or flopping on the couch in front of the TV. In tai chi, relaxation is an active concept, not a passive one; it has to be, since you’re doing tai chi while standing. Muscles that are actively relaxed have a greater range of motion and can move more efficiently. What’s more, tai chi promotes “intelligent strength,” using all parts of the body efficiently and in a connected way so no part is overloaded. The circular, flowing motions of tai chi are also meditative, helping to shift your mind and body into a deeper level of relaxation (see “Meditation in motion”). Tai chi is a balance of moderate effort with active relaxation — like yin and yang.

Basic tai chi breathing

Natural, freer breathing is one of the eight active ingredients of tai chi. There are a variety of techniques to achieve this, but this report focuses on belly breathing. Also called natural, abdominal, diaphragmatic, or tantien breathing, this form of breathing is often used in clinical trials.

If you’ve ever watched a sleeping baby, you’ve observed belly breathing. As babies inhale, their bellies effortlessly expand like a balloon being inflated, with their chests expanding to a lesser degree. Then, as they exhale, their bellies relax along with their entire bodies. It is deep, slow, and rhythmic, and appears natural and effortless. In contrast, most adults take shallow, rapid breaths, using only their chests.

Belly breathing requires deeper breaths. The diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle that sits atop the stomach and liver, is the primary muscle of healthy breathing. When you inhale, the diaphragm moves downward, increasing the space in the chest cavity. This action reduces pressure on the lungs and creates a vacuum that draws air in all the way to the bottom of the lungs. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and returns to its domed shape, compressing the lungs and squeezing air out.

Before you attempt belly breathing, simply observe your breath. Don’t change anything; just be aware of each inhalation and exhalation. Feel the sensations of breathing in your nose, throat, chest, and throughout your body. Pay attention to where your breath is going. Is it flowing freely? Are there places where it is getting stuck or areas where it doesn’t go? Does trying with a little less effort ease or enhance the flow of breath in and out?

When you are ready to try belly breathing, it’s best to sit or lie down and practice it on its own at first, without trying to combine it with tai chi exercises. Get into a comfortable position, relaxing your whole body. Now, imagine you have a balloon in your belly. As you inhale, it gently inflates, expanding your belly. As you exhale, it deflates, relaxing your belly. To encourage belly breathing, bring your hands in front of your abdomen and mimic the action: let your hands expand as you inhale and then contract as you exhale. Repeat this inhale-exhale cycle nine to 36 times. (In tai chi, multiples of three are regarded as “round” numbers.) As your breaths deepen, imagine the balloon expanding into the upper regions of your torso and all the way down to your toes. With each inhalation, imagine that you are taking in healing, nourishing energy and sending it throughout your body. Relax deeply with each exhalation. Remember not to force the volume of the breath — less can be more. You don’t have to follow any particular rhythm. Do what is comfortable for you, resting in between if needed or stopping if you get lightheaded.

Once you feel comfortable with belly breathing, give it a try as you perform the tai chi exercises in this report. Do the best you can. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can also practice belly breathing anytime, anywhere for a tai chi break that will relax and balance your body and mind.

5. Strengthening and flexibility. There are myriad studies supporting the benefits of exercise, but many people also suffer injuries, especially when they try to push themselves too far, too fast. Tai chi provides a gradual approach to building strength, increasing flexibility, and even improving cardio fitness. It’s about moderation and minimizing the risk of injury. Instead of hoisting heavy weights, you’ll build strength through slow movements, slightly flexed stances, shifting your weight from leg to leg, and swinging and lifting your arms. Slow, continuous, relaxed movements that you repeat provide dynamic stretching to increase your range of motion and flexibility. And despite its deceptively mellow look, tai chi is a low- to moderate-intensity aerobic activity, depending upon your fitness level and how you practice it. (Deconditioned individuals will get more of a cardio workout than someone who exercises regularly.) In addition, moving more quickly from one position to the next, sinking deeper into postures, and doing tai chi for longer periods of time can increase intensity up to the level of a moderate walk, according to studies. Because tai chi appears to affect your cardiovascular system in more ways than just aerobic training, even healthy individuals may be able to improve their heart health (see “A stronger heart”).

6. Natural, freer breathing. You can survive days without eating, maybe even a few without drinking, but mere minutes without breathing. Tai chi corrects the slumped, rounded posture that you often resort to after too many hours at the computer, behind the steering wheel, or in front of the TV. As soon as you stand or sit taller and open up your posture, breathing becomes easier, and you’re able to take in more air (see “Basic tai chi breathing”). The deeper you breathe, the more oxygen your body takes in, improving performance. Your breath also has a direct physiological effect on your nervous system. Deep, slow, and rhythmic breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a more balanced, relaxed state. Your heart rate slows, and hormones that promote feelings of calm and social bonding increase. The opposite happens with fast, superficial patterns of breathing. Deep breathing also, in the parlance of Eastern philosophy, helps to “massage” your internal organs. Researchers in Japan placed pressure sensors into participants’ colons. The sensors, which behaved like little floating buoys, detected pressure waves that corresponded to all types of breaths, both normal and deep. Other research has shown that these breathing-induced pressure changes and rhythms can increase blood flow to organs and may help to alleviate musculoskeletal pain, including back pain. The effects are greater with deeper breaths.

7. Social support. Most people practice tai chi in a class setting, which affords them the opportunity to interact with the instructor and with others in the class, creating a community. This sense of belonging can be a strong motivator to stick with your practice. Plus, the social support you receive from this type of group has been shown in research to have beneficial effects on your health. People who have strong ties to others tend to be healthier and happier, and when they do become sick, they tend to recover more quickly. Even if you practice on your own, think of yourself as part of the larger community of tai chi practitioners.

8. Embodied spirituality. Tai chi, with its influence from Taoism, creates a framework for integrating body, mind, and spirit for a more holistic life. When you practice tai chi, you are doing more than just physical exercise. Your psychological well-being, your social interactions, and your larger beliefs about nature are all affected. You become more aware, more sensitive, more balanced. And the experiences you have while doing tai chi begin to spill into your everyday life. For example, after a tai chi session, you may eat more slowly and mindfully. You may drive less aggressively. You may respond to a stressful interaction with a screaming child or a rude salesperson more calmly. Tai chi’s philosophy can affect your behavior in a good way. You learn to “go with the flow,” a tenet of Taoism. This adaptability or resilience enables you to better manage stress and bounce back from adversity or trauma. It’s like an emotional form of self-defense.

 

 

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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