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Mon, April 1, 2013
The Tao of Tai Chi and Meditation
Taoism is a philosophy that asks that we consider our place as part of the natural world and learn to live in harmony with it, that we accept what is in front of us at any given time without asking it to be other than it is. It teaches that learning to live accordingly offers a life of less effort and resistance and with greater freedom and joy.

The seminal text of Taoist philosophy is the Tao Te Ching (Way of Virtue), a set of aphorisms and poems descriptive of the natural forces of the universe and how one lives in accord with them. For 2500 years Taoism and the Tao Te Ching have been a fundamental influence in Chinese thought and culture.

The catalysts for development, and primary means of cultivating Taoist thought as a life practice, are qigong (energy work), a discipline unto itself; and tai chi and meditation, each a type of qigong. Representing the importance of these practices and their significance in Chinese culture, qigong is an arm of the ancient Traditional Chinese Medicine system, along with acupuncture and herbal medicine.

Living in accord with the Way (a common reference to following the Tao) is regarded as our inherent—if largely subjugated to the material and ego driven lives we lead—natural existence, and so, Taoist exercise is the process of removing veils more than it is exacting change. Western poet T. S. Eliot elucidates this universal spiritual concept in Four Quartets:

“And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

So, how does one nurture Taoist essence with tai chi and meditation? With the understanding that our essence is the Tao; what we do to approach our essence is to be still. Not, necessarily, in the physical sense, but mentally/emotionally, via practice in the quiet of sitting meditation or the meditative movements of qigong and tai chi.

With the practice of tai chi we attend to the principles that govern the qualities of movement: relaxation; slow, circular and continuous motion; posture, and breath.  Attention is the hub upon which the wheel spins. As is the case with anything we do with regularity, eventually we can do it without thinking about it. It’s a scary thought, but imagine driving your car. We wish we wouldn’t—or at least we wish others wouldn’t!—but we can do it without thinking about it.

In tai chi practice, when we know our “form” well enough, when the basic muscle memory is developed, our minds will wander and the practice may become rote…unless we attend to it. And that is a defining aspect of the practice: to be present in body and mind. We nurture that presence by continually returning our awareness to the principles, the mindful anchor of tai chi practice.

In the practice of meditation we address thoughts themselves in a more direct way than in other forms of qigong. First, we choose a method or object to anchor our attention—observing the breath, reciting a word or mantra, monitoring the body, gazing at an object; and each time we notice our attention has strayed, with perseverance and patience we return to our chosen anchor.  Wanderings are common and persistent in meditation so it is important that we understand the Taoist principle of non-resistance, of gently guiding and allowing awareness to unfold.

Meditation in this context is an activity of observation as much as it is an exercise of concentration. We are not suppressing our thoughts; we are not wrestling “the 800 lb. gorilla,” but coming to know it. We take notice of our thoughts, yet always and unceremoniously return to the object of meditation. Gradually, we come to see our wanderings in a brighter light, and in that clearer seeing we learn to let go of our habitual ways of being.

It’s the paradox of wu wei, a central concept of Taoism, which means the action of non-action, of letting fall away that which we now see as unhealthy. This paradox is at the center of our journey, the razor’s edge of the path.

In Taoism, Eva Wong’s comprehensive book on its history and practices, she writes of the process, “The practitioner initially watches and attends to the rise and fall of thoughts, emotions, and sensations. As he/she becomes mindful of these phenomena, he/she will realize that their existence and the problems they generate are caused by the activity of the mind.” We chronically spin our life concerns out of proportion simply by thinking about them too much. The teachings of the Tao recognize that and advise us to attend to our practice (just do it!) and allow life to unfold accordingly.

An article on the Tao and its practices would be incomplete without talking about yin and yang, the principle of complementary opposites—light and dark, hard and soft, masculine and feminine, tranquility and chaos, stillness and action, yield and advance, living and dying. Nature itself is dormant only in appearance and in preparation for the next outward appearing spate of growth. All life breathes.

So it is with nature, thus it is with our practice. We experience plateaus in our practice, periods of time when it appears nothing is happening; growth and learning seem to have halted. Active growth, yang, must be fed with periods of rest and renewal, yin. That is the Way of Taoism.

As expressions of the Tao, the practices of tai chi and meditation direct our attention toward stillness with activity that keeps us present and relaxed with a keen awareness of our mental/emotional/physical state of being.  The result is an effective process of coming to know ourselves in an ever expanding and intimate way.

It would be in error to think we have to look to the Tao Te Ching, Chinese culture or qigong to find the Tao. It is universal. And it’s as pragmatic as it is mystical. In shedding our habitual ways, life becomes simpler; and making decisions and solving problems becomes easier as the lens we look through clears. This is the common experience of those fortunate few who have sudden awakenings to a greater ease of being, and of the mass of us who slog through our awakenings one moment, one day, one year at a time. The Tao is in the writings of mystical poets throughout time and place, and it is as common and “near as the breath” if only we can be still long enough to recognize it.

“Attending fully and becoming supple, can you be as a newborn babe?” ~ Tao Te Ching

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