Through the Looking Glass of Gongfu
One of the special qualities of Taijiquan gongfu, is the ‘through the looking glass’ aspect of the practice. Regardless of the ever-ongoing debate about the meaning of ‘internal’ in internal arts, there is a very obvious and easy to grasp internal aspect to this practice. In Taijiquan practice, of absolute paramount importance is to develop a deep knowing of one’s own body. This in itself is a very internal practice.
Taijiquan, focuses intently on the union between practical physical martial arts, qigong practices and meditation practices. This is not an easy union in any sense and takes much introspection, regarding physical action, such as movement and breath, but also mental activity, who’s quality and clarity directly determines the accuracy and depth of practice.
Although many teachings and teachers of Taijiquan suggest seeking ‘quiet within’ as do many meditation practices, the often accurate and also not incorrect practice involves a frenzy of internal activity within. Truthfully, Taijiquan (the original martial versions) students should seek quiet within action without, and conversely, activity (noise) within quiet without. This of course fits the Yin-Yang dynamic in a natural way.
The common beginner misunderstanding in Buddhist meditation is to mistake the teaching to break attachments to thoughts and emotions during meditation, as that of resisting, or ‘stopping’ such thoughts and emotions that ‘arise’ out of the void of consciousness and silence. The true or ‘middle’ way is to understand that actions that arise out of silence are not to be ‘stopped’ or resisted, but noted, allowed and set free (as in non-attached). The ‘grasping’ onto thoughts is just as troublesome as the grasping OFF of them; both following intently and resisting intently are forms of attachment. The old adage is to let go of natural action and reduce attachment without adding anxiety (struggle).
Chen Taijiquan has deep roots in Buddhist practices (as well as Daoist methods) and given the demands of the practice, the practical methodology is similar at least by default. Those who think they can be truly internally silent while practicing, most likely do not practice Chen Taijiquan, or don’t move much at all. As I have often said during attempts at teaching the quan, Taijiquan does not attain relaxation by ‘relaxing’, it attains relaxation by the constant attempt to relax under duress.
As my first teacher used to say, “if you want to relax you can lie down and go to sleep”. Taijiquan is, in fact a very rigorous routine involving stretching, heavy muscular weight bearing, difficult postures, and other types of very challenging mental and breath actions. In martial arts, the ability to relax without challenge is quite useless. It is the ability to relax under pressure that is of value, and precisely what the original practice of Taijiquan trains, although in the agrarian Chinese 1600’s this particular idea was likely not analyzed in exactly this way.
With so much challenging activity being managed, physically and mentally, there WILL be the mental noise of vigilance and management for a long time for beginner to advanced students alike. There will, however, also be glimpses of a great vast silence in the moments when a kind of cosmic rhythm of managed flow has been achieved. Of course, as the Buddhist method would recommend, the moment one seeks to grasp that glimpse, it disappears; disturbed by ripples in the stillness of the activity of desire or ambition. If one’s skill is very high, those moments may last a long time, but I dare not say endlessly. Even for those of high skill, the ability to rest in those long moments, may co-exist with the chatter of mental management in the background, with no distraction.
So, there is this ongoing flurry of mental activity, that directly influences the type and quality of practice on the outside. A source of great satisfaction for some practitioners will also be the ability through that deep and active introspection, to make minute changes internally to their practice and outward expression that very strongly change and influence the strength, effectiveness, and/or method of use of their gongfu. To the untrained eye (and by this I mean anyone but a fairly advanced practitioner) the changes may be quite noticeable in that they change their FEELING about what they are watching, without having any idea what practical changes are occurring regarding usage.
On the inside, day by day, the advanced practitioner is making internally subtle changes, that translate to externally (practically) very significant changes. The experienced eye will know and see right away how the change in external flavor relates to usage, but the untrained watcher only sees ‘art’.
Practicing this type of gongfu (which requires long years of private, introspective work) is not for everyone. For those well suited, the knowing, adjusting, and internally building is the private satisfaction.