Non-Intention and Being in the Moment
There are two T’ai-Chi (Taiji) principles that can be very perplexing, namely, non-intention and being in the moment. Being in the moment implies that in any action, the mind is totally involved in that action, with no excursions into the past or future. Non-intention implies that, while doing an action, there is no thought of the goal of that action and no desire to accomplish that goal. Note that these two principles are similar.
Questions arise such as how can one accomplish anything without a goal, a desire to accomplish that goal, or without looking into the past or future? In a self-defense situation, it is of course necessary to have the intention to win out, act with the right timing and skill resulting from one’s training, be aware of future possibilities, and weigh those possibilities against what has happened before.
These apparent contradictions are resolved by viewing the mind as divided into two parts—the conscious and subconscious. The conscious mind is capable of focusing on only one thing at a time. Even when you think that you are multi-tasking, your conscious mind is actually alternating between two or more tasks rather than encompassing all of them simultaneously. By contrast, the subconscious mind routinely deals with myriad things simultaneously. When you do a physical activity such as walking or driving a car, many parts of your body can perform complex actions without your awareness. I know from my own experience that I do not even have to be conscious of what I am doing while playing a piece on my harpsichord that I have played many times before.
When you do such things as walk, drive a car, ride a bicycle, or eat, your subconscious mind is sending complex nerve impulses to the muscles involved, receiving nerve impulses from the muscles, processing those nerve impulses, and sending revised nerve impulses to the muscles. Thus there is a complex, continually changing dialogue between the nervous system and the muscles. You need not even be consciously aware of these complex actions and probably aren’t. Your subconscious mind stores your “reference library” of events in the past, your reactions to them, and whether or not such actions were fruitful.
Seeing action as guided mainly by the subconscious mind is the key to understanding non-intention and being in the moment. That is, with correct training and repeated practice, we need not have conscious intention or be conscious of the past or future—the subconscious mind takes care of that. Once the conscious mind attempts to deal with, for example, what comes next, it is usurping the subconscious mind’s role, and it is incapable of fulfilling that role in a timely fashion because that role involves too many actions and references to the past and future. So non-intention and being in the moment can be interpreted to mean that the conscious mind is appropriately involved, that is, involved in overseeing events as they unfold. As soon as the conscious mind moves into the future, the present passes by, and the mind then in the past, where it is useless and sabotages success.
Similarly, when intention pervades the emotional system and conscious awareness in a physical confrontation, an opponent can easily pick up that intention and use it to advantage.
Because the subconscious mind only starts to take over tasks that have been repeated many times, one of the reasons that elderly people are so forgetful may be that they have done the same tasks so many times that conscious thought has become unnecessary. That is precisely the trap; whenever we fail to use a faculty, that faculty tends to atrophy—and that includes the conscious mind. A symptom of such atrophy is the frequent uttering of statements as, “I know that I put my keys down somewhere, but I have no idea where.” Or, “I have no recollection of having turned off the stove—we have to go back.”
Practicing T’ai Chi (Taiji) and Ch’i Kung (Qigong) provides an excellent opportunity to cultivate mindfulness. In fact, being in the moment is one of the basic principles of both of these arts. Ideally, during T’ai Chi practice, both the conscious and subconscious minds are each appropriately involved. Of course, at the beginning of one’s training, the conscious mind is disproportionately involved, but after one learns the movements and practices them repeatedly, it is possible for the subconscious mind to do everything, with the conscious mind “out to lunch.” That is the point when it is easy to be on “automatic pilot,” and recognizing that pitfall is of utmost importance.
My view is that once T’ai-Chi or Ch’i-Kung movements have been practiced to the point of their becoming automatic, ideal practice should involve maintaining a conscious awareness of such things as alignment, release of unnecessary tension, continuity, flow of ch’i, breathing, circularity, gravity, momentum, ebb and flow of the movements, stepping, and coordination of the movement of the extremities and pelvis (body unification). The criterion is that the conscious mind must be involved in what is happening at that moment—not taking excursions into the past or future or shifting the awareness to something unrelated. In my T’ai-Chi and Ch’i-Kung practice, when I become aware that my mind has drifted away from what is going on, I endeavor to gently guide it back. I then try to follow that same model in my daily life.
Being in the moment is different from concentration, which is fixating the mind on a preconceived idea or thought. Being in the moment means that the conscious mind can naturally shift, as appropriate, to whatever is pertinent to the present conditions.
Report on Study Suggesting That T’ai Chi Boosts Brain Functioning.”