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Tai Chi Essential #10: Stillness

13 May 2015
Thirteen Treatises Lately much attention and some criticism has been given to the importance of mindfulness. Mindfulness focuses on the idea that we at our best entertaining only one subject, one thought, for a period of time without flickering between many others. It is the polar opposite of multitasking. Mindfulness is based in stillness, a much-misunderstood concept. People may speak of it without being still themselves but more often these days, they are simply not aware of stillness. Thus when I wrote recently about the usefulness of avoiding music during tai chi practice, one old friend objected because he saw tai chi as a "to each his own" practice. It is not. Let's investigate stillness, our tenth essential of tai chi practice. Yang Cheng-fu put it like this:

Seek Stillness in Movement

"Tai chi uses stillness to counter movement," Cheng-fu elaborates. This is difficult to understand for one who insists on constant movement. "Even when we are moving we remain still," he continues. The movement is external, but the stillness is internal. Until you reach a high enough level in your tai chi practice, intrusive noise such as that presented by music can only disrupt the stillness. For this reason it is to be avoided until the student is a master.

What is movement? A vibration. What is stillness? A lack of vibration. To experience both together requires a pureness of movement that causes no disruption in its environment - like diving into a pond and leaving no ripple. A laser beam reminds us of the purity of stillness: its power comes from radiating at a single, pure frequency. Ordinary light involves an uncountable number of frequencies, all mixed together.

Another famous work of tai chi is The Song of Thirteen Postures, whose author is unknown. It addresses stillness in a similar fashion:

Find the movement in the stillness, even stillness in movement. Even when you respond to the opponents movement, show the marvel of the technics and fill him with wonder.

In Cheng Man-ching's book Cheng-Tzu's Treatises on T'ai Chi Ch'uan, Cheng elaborates on this:

If you are not still, you cannot perceive your opponent's changes. Let him change, but you can still control him with stillness. That is what 'fill him with wonder' means.

In stillness we can respond best to change because we have no movement to cause resistance; we can simply go with the flow without having to make adjustments. This is similar to the need not to be equally weighted on both feet.

In stillness we can observe the world around us in objective serenity, untouched by the stress of a life of hustle and bustle. If you do indeed live such a life, stillness becomes even more important as it becomes more difficult to attain.

In your earliest practice you are fortunate to acquire any kind of stillness at all. Simply sitting still is a chore that many cannot get beyond. For the longest time your internal energy will be in constant movement. Indeed, many types of Daoist neijia (internal cultivation) are based on orbiting our qi through various pathways in our body, pathways closely associated with accupuncture meridians. This is valuable training but it is not stillness If you practice neijia arts, approach stillness by bringing all your qi into your lower (navel) dan tien. Leave it there to rest. If it helps, imagine as you sit, with eyes are closed, that you are looking into the cauldron where you are storing and preserving your essence. Is it moving? Is it bubbling with hot, uncontrolled energy? Turn your mind to relax it, smooth it, and still it.

There is so much more to say about stillness. Entire books have been dedicated to the subject. In my coming columns I will spend more time discussing essential elements of "What is Tai Chi?", including some that are debatable, not essential. In such debates there is no right or wrong, there is only what works and what does not work. I will also spend more time discussing some of the very best books on tai chi that any serious student should read and study, along with non-tai chi references on stillness.


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