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Tai Chi Essential #6: Mind Over Matter

22 Feb 2015

Brick Hand
Our latest essential carries into all parts of your life: the idea that you must use your mind to direct your actions. To some this is a philosophical notion; to many it remains an obvious truism though without obvious application to life; but to those of us devoted to the study of tai chi chuan it is a governing principle. As such it is one of the easiest to echo, but one of the most difficult to acquire. Full acquisition means you are stepping into the arena of advanced attainment.

Yang Cheng-fu put it this way:

Use the Mind and not Strength

He explains that all tai chi power as issuing from a relaxed state. Instead of issuing from brute muscular force power issues through the power of chi flowing through the meridians, or pathways, that traverse the body.

As a junior student I struggled with this. When I started training with George Ling Hu, my primary teacher, I was lifting weights at the gym to bolster my strength and muscle tone. No matter what I did, I could not divert my mind from the idea of using physical strength. My muscles felt powerful and seemed the only obvious source of power. I couldn't let go.

At his suggestion I quit weight training in order to turn my mind away from my musculature. See how complicated this essential can be: even if you are using your mind, chances are you are sending your thoughts in fruitless directions. To get essential #6 correct you must not only use your mind, you must focus it correctly. To understand this better let's turn to the first object of this lesson, punching.

Say you take a swing at someone, with the intention of punching them. What part of your own body do you turn your attention to? Almost certainly you focus on your fist or arm. When you focus on your fist, what are you punching with? Your fist. Is that the most powerful way to punch? Even if you are six foot six with a Hulked-out body, that is not the most powerful way you can punch. As Wang Yen-nien (another of my teachers and a junior kung fu brother of Cheng Man-ching) once put it, "your hand is not a hand. Your whole body is a hand."

Thus you must use your mind to punch with your whole body. Cheng-fu and his famous student Cheng both emphasized this point. Cheng Man-ching once said that he failed to understand this point until one night when he had a dream that his shoulders were broken, and could only move his arms and hands by moving his body. Stories like his are illustrative but rarely help anyone else achieve their goal.

Let's return to a physical discussion of the punch. When you turn your mind to your fist, you tense it up along with your entire arm structure, including at least part of the shoulder. You are immobilizing yourself! You reduce the kinetic energy as well as the ability of chi to flow through your meridians. You turn your arm into a handle that your opponent can use to manhandle you. Can you find a way to punch without turning your mind to the fist?

To begin with, focus on the waist instead. Focus on swiveling side to side with the waist. Focus on the bagua in your tan tien. Use your mind to rotate it vertically, thus facilitating the easy movement of your shoulder. In the beginning even this is not enough, so try a trick that George Hu used with me: punch with a brick.

Not a building brick. A yoga brick is best because of the size and light weight. Hold it in your hand with your fingers clutching only as much as needed to hold it, no more; this is why a light weight is important. Try punching through the leading edge of the brick, leaving your fingers, palms, wrists, arms and shoulders loose. Move from the waist, sending your chi up through the shoulder and into the arm, spiraling around a line that goes through the arm, through the palm, and out. In no time at all you will realize the futility of trying to punch with that brick as you did with your fist. Once you realize that, practice the punches from your tai chi form, at first using the slowest motion you can muster, until you can learn to remove all tension from the hand-arm structure. It won't happen overnight but once you get it, you got it.

This principle does not apply merely to the hand or arm, so will examine it more after I introduce the seventh essential. Coming up: moving your body as one piece.

You may also like this related article: Essential #5 - Drop the Shoulders (203)
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