Mind-Body Unification in T’ai Chi

©Copyright 2012 by Robert Chuckrow

Body-mind unification is a state wherein the mind ensures that, at every moment, every part of the body has the appropriate shape, connectedness, and degree of tension. The T’ai-Chi classics say, “When one part moves, all parts move.” The implication is that all parts of the body must be subtly interconnected. As we move in accordance with the T’ai-Chi principles, the shape and degree of tension continually change as do the conditions of gravity, external resistance, and other external conditions. At the same time, we must be as relaxed as possible. Thus, the mind must be continually involved in maintaining this connected state.

Simplistically, the mind can be thought to consist of both the conscious and subconscious components. Basically, the conscious mind oversees and guides but cannot deal with more than a few tasks at one time. The subconscious mind, on the other hand, is capable of attending to the myriad details of each action without the need for much conscious awareness. The goal is to program as many of the principles of correct movement and bodily interaction as possible into the subconscious mind, which has the ability to deal with the required complexity of action. Ideally, the conscious and subconscious minds act together in harmony, each doing its appropriate part. What constitutes “appropriate” varies from person to person, situation to situation, and moment to moment. Of course, beginners at T’ai Chi need to utilize their conscious minds to a great extent, but after the movements and principles are encompassed, the subconscious mind manages much of what is going on, thereby allowing the conscious mind more freedom.

Body-mind unification encompasses a number of T’ai Chi principles such as being in the moment, sung (relaxation), non-action, non-attachment, non-intention, optimal alignment (shape), and balancing yin and yang. These principles, which shall be discussed in turn, are mutually consistent, and their meanings overlap and interweave.

Being in the Moment. At each moment, the mind must be engaged and connected to both the internal and external conditions. Any discontinuity in movement, shape, tension, or connectedness implies a gap in the state of unification and means that the mind is not in the moment. In physiological terms, the nervous system, which connects the brain and spinal cord to every part of the body, must continuingly be in a highly activated state of receiving neural information from every part of the body, processing that information, and sending fresh neural information back to every part of the body.

If we are not in the moment, that means that we are inattentive, in the past, or in the future. In each of these three cases, the present moment is not processed and passes us by, so in each case, we end up in the past. In a physical confrontation, being in the past means losing. In today’s world, physical confrontations with other people are rare but do occur. More likely, when it comes to accidents involving automobiles and other mechanical devices, cultivating being in the moment can save your life. Read more about being in the moment.

Sung. Sung is a state often described as relaxation, but it is more complex than that. Sung does involve relaxation, but it also implies utilizing the minimum tension to balance yin and yang and attain whatever shape provides maximum potential strength.

One way to achieve a state of sung is to stand upright and recreate the relaxed state that occurs after arising from a hot bath. Instead of standing slumped over (all yin) subtly attempt to extend the top of the head upward. Thus the yin of giving into gravity is counterbalanced by the yang of proper alignment and subtle extension. It should be noted that sinking the weight does not necessarily mean lowering the external body—it means releasing the inner body.

From my practice of other arts such as Ninjutsu, I have learned that there are other valuable states in addition to sung. However, these other states are much easier to attain than sung, so it makes sense to practice sung the most so it will be easily accessible when needed.

Non-Attachment. The teachings of Buddha center around the idea that our attachments prevent us from seeing things as they are. The attachments are mainly (a) emotions that supercede their role and (b) unquestioned ideas and concepts learned through our schooling and from others. Just as sinking the weight does not mean lowering the external body, letting go of attachments does not necessarily mean relinquishing all material possessions or becoming emotionless. It does, however, mean letting go of unnecessary emotions, attachments, and preconceptions.

Sung and non-attachment have a lot in common because, in order to attain a state of sung, one must not only release physical fixations of tension but also the mental fixations, emotions, and subconscious memories of past traumas that manifest in these bodily tensions. We tend to be attached to unnecessary tension, and letting go of that tension is very difficult. Too much tension is a main defect often seen in T’ai-Chi practitioners.

Non-Action. Non-action does not mean doing nothing—it means doing what’s appropriate, most efficiently, by using the minimum movement and strength.

A good way of illustrating non-action is to imagine that your car has a problem starting and that you bring it to two alternative mechanics A and B. Mechanic A knows that there are several possible causes of the problem and replaces all the related parts. He tells you that you need a new battery, alternator, starter motor, and ignition switch. Aside from keeping the car a long time and providing you with a large bill, mechanic A never learns the real cause of the problem. On the other hand, mechanic B is in the habit of trouble-shooting, and he quickly knows which part is the cause—a loose connection. The cost is minimal, and mechanic B continues to increase his ability to fix cars efficiently. Both mechanics solve the problem, but only mechanic B does so through non-action.

Non-Intention. Non-intention does not mean never intending to do anything—it means the following: In actions ranging from leisurely interactions with people, to dealing with a life-threatening situation, our intention to succeed often prevents that success. My teaching physics in college and high school for over four decades has provided me with many examples of how students wanting to do well ended up with the opposite effect. Often, students eager to excel in physics did not heed my advice, which was to be attentive in class, do the homework, ask questions, and simply enjoy the learning process. I would tell students that a good grade would then be the natural by-product. Instead of heeding my advice, many students spent much of their energy worrying when preparing for tests (being in the future) and feeling bad about their grades on tests they had taken (being in the past). Thus, much creative energy was squandered that could have been used for learning the material more efficiently, resulting in higher grades.

Shape (Alignment). Any lack of correct alignment results in weakness or even damage to the body. When knee alignment is chronically off, wear and tear occurs, resulting in arthritis, a torn meniscus, and other syndromes. Habitual knee misalignment increases the chances for a sudden injury such as a sprain. Moreover, when force is exerted on an external object or person, the physical reaction to that force causes a buckling of the misaligned joints, which limits the amount of force that can be exerted. So incorrect alignment is not only damaging but also limits strength. Too many T’ai-Chi practitioners manifest incorrect alignment of the knees, allowing a knee to cave inward when all the weight is on that leg. Read about optimal alignment of knees, ankles, and feet.

Non-optimal alignment of the arms and trunk of the body is less damaging than that of the legs, which bear large forces from the weight of the body, compounded by leverage. Nevertheless, alignment of all parts is essential for the flow of ch’i and for stability and strength. Possibly the best way to attain the optimal shape of arms when doing T’ai-Chi movement is to experiment, in as relaxed a manner as possible, with changes in expansion of the outer surfaces of each arm. The alignment that maximizes the amount of ch’i is probably the one that maximizes strength.

Balancing Yin and Yang. The name, T’ai-Chi, is used for the yin-yang symbol. Therefore, the principle of balancing yin and yang is a major element of T’ai-Chi movement. Yin and yang come into play in stepping and in the state, shape, and alignment of the body. In stepping, the separation between yin and yang must be adhered to in the rooted and active legs, respectively. That is, when stepping, the rooted leg must give in to gravity completely (yin) except for a slight feeling of upward extension (dot of yang in the yin). The stepping leg must evolve, without discontinuity, into a state of yang as that leg becomes airborne. Thus, during stepping (and of course other actions involving the torso and limbs), sung (downward, earthy, supportive) is the yin counterpart of Peng (upward, outward, expansive). Read about peng, jin, and li. At the same time, the principle of non-action requires that the stepping leg act with the minimum strength. Knees and ankles should be relaxed and move in the most natural manner. The stepping foot must blend with the ground without discontinuity. Read more about Yin and Yang

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