The Mind Is the Controller

“Good Tai Chi is rooted in the feet, develops in the legs, is directed by the waist, and is expressed through the fingers. … Tai Chi hinges entirely upon the player’s consciousness (yi) rather than upon his external muscular force (li). … all parts of the body must be threaded together, not allow the slightest severance.”

— Tai Chi Ch’uan Classics, “The Body as One Unit”

The principles of Tai Chi, handed down through the Classics, are the ABCs for visitors of the Kwoon, a fine Facebook forum that communes in real life – like its recent 5th anniversary party and Push Hands demonstration at Hontoon Island State Park near DeLand, Fla.. David Carr, the proprietor at the Kwoon, is a stickler for the Classics, and is apt to start the chats each day with some quote he’s pulled from a classic publication.

Thus, as I prepare a journey across the country to seek the New Dharma Bums, I figured a good place to start would be Hontoon Island, where the free spirits of Florida’s Tai Chi teaching combine threw a birthday bash. Carr works hard as an ambassador for the Tai Chi practice, connecting players all over the world, but especially in Florida.

Bob and Reggie

Details, details: Reggie Kincer, right, discusses the form for “pulling silk” (not “reeling silk”) with Bob Messinger at the Kwoon birthday party in Florida. (Photo by Michael Byrne)

Bob Messinger brought his contingent from the Tampa area, and other teachers and students came from Orlando and Daytona Beach. I traveled from the Washington, D.C., area, and Bruno Repetto came all the way from Nebraska. The always-ebullient Karen Font-Garcia, brought her Reiki vision from Great Britain, where she is Royal Navy through and through. These days she is splitting her time between England and Florida, where her lectures are in demand.

The Push Hands play in both David’s and Bob’s camps focused on letting go of the muscular power and letting the mind move the mass. Again and again I was schooled in how internal strength is a different animal from the traditional muscular model. Stop flexing and let the mind command the strength you need to move the opponent.

In Tai Chi exercises, the waist is considered the director, since it sets the direction of the action of the legs and arms and fingers. But it is the mind, the yi, that controls it all. It is not the muscles that flex this power; it is the mind.

I will invoke the wry lesson of an old Dharma Bum, the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, in emphasizing the importance of the mind, the yi, in commanding the Tai Chi exercise. His reading of his poem, “My Kitchen in New York …,” is accompanied by a video of him performing the first section of the Yang-style Tai Chi form. “The kitchen is the only space in my apartment big enough to do Tai Chi,” he says as he ponders the millions of little distractions that surround him:

Clearly, the author’s mind is not on the moving meditation he has undertaken – it is on the poem and the distractions of his daily life, even the big questions of the day. “I wonder if they’ll blow up an H-bomb?” he asks in summation. “Probably not.” This is a classic example of how NOT to do Tai Chi, a prescription for an “empty form.” This fact did not sway Ginsberg and his inner search for the poetic form, but if you want to harness the internal power of Tai Chi, let your mind be the guide.

To gather the mindfulness necessary to “sink the qi” and animate the internal power, most practitioners begin with a set of Qigong exercises. At my school, the Tai Chi Ch’uan Study Center, we would start with standing Qigong, gentle breathing that might follow the “microcosmic orbit,” an energy flow that approximates a womb-like serenity and bathes the internal organs with healing breath.

On Hontoon Island, Bob Messinger showed me another Qigong exercise that combines the breathing with movements around the energy ball (“Am I holding the world right?” Ginsberg asks as he moves the energy ball to the front of him). Regardless of the movements, the most important part of Qigong is the breathing, the calming of the body and the focusing of the mind.

Messinger and Carr also gave me quick lessons in “ting jing” the ability to “listen” or sense the root of your opponent in Push Hands. Once again, this is done with the mind, even if it is your arm that is the instrument you use to “listen.”

“Do you feel my feet?” Carr asked and, indeed, the mental push into his arm gave me the sensation of his root. At that moment, I could move him from his spot. It takes the slightest bit of force – “use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds,” the Classics say. Neutralize, stick, attach. Follow so that you cannot be attacked. Here is the “Song of the Pushing-Hands Practice,” from the Tai Chi Classics:

In Ward-off, Rollback, Press and Push,

You must find the real technique –

If he goes up, you follow;

If he goes down, you follow –

Then he cannot attack.

Let him attack you with great force,

And use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds,

Neutralizing him until he becomes powerless,

And then use withdraw-attack.

Also adhere and lift, support from below,

Stick horizontally, and attach from the rear –

Without letting go and with no resistance.

I have much to learn, and I invite you to come along on this journey, as we seek the wisdom of the New Dharma Bums. You can help me get on the road here.

The Journey Begins

It was the mid-1950s when Jack Kerouac hit the road and produced some early new journalism – reflections on a movement of Beats, Poets and Prophets who followed a trail to the West Coast, sometimes through Mexico, in search of higher knowledge, higher purpose, or just higher. He was in the middle of the action, of course.

My favorite tale from the Kerouac library is The Dharma Bums, in which Kerouac rides the freights up from Mexico to San Francisco, carrying a torch for Buddhism and Zen artists, especially poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg. Eventually, he takes his meditation north to Desolation Peak in Washington, a fire lookout post near the Canadian border.


Literary lions of the Beat Generation in infancy, at Columbia University in 1944, from left: Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

Sixty years later, I have in mind a New Dharma Bums that borrows from Kerouac’s story and style but updates the characters and expands the search for “dharma,” an expression used in many Asian religions and philosophies that relates to the universal search for the “cosmic order.” I know many who are on this path, teachers and “grasshoppers” alike, trying to sync their inner being with the cosmic order. “Dharma” is something we all have in common.

The new dharma is tied to good health, vitality and inner strength, relaxation and central equilibrium — all key to the practice of Tai Chi. While Tai Chi is rooted in the martial arts of the Taoist tradition, it is also an application for healing, and part of the search for cosmic truth. I have identified a new breed of Tai Chi practitioners as the new Dharma Bums, hardly the hobo class but many dreamers and doers. They are teachers, at their best.

My teachers taught me to build internal energy and find balance through the Tai Chi form, and to strengthen my inner core through Qigong, or Chi Kung, energy work. For the past 28 years, I’ve practiced daily Tai Chi exercises, seeking to build internal power and improve balance, both physically and mentally, based on the Yang style introduced to the United States by Master Cheng Man-Ch’ing.

The Journey

Kerouac made his way hopping freight trains and hitchhiking, but that’s a bum’s life hard to square today with modern transportation – and communications. Social media allows you to share video and literary traditions in Tai Chi, as well as to make friends among the community of practitioners across our nation and the world.

I’ve met many new Dharma Dudes on the Internet – I wouldn’t consider them Bums, just dedicated people very passionate about their art, but I think the shoe still fits. I’ve joined group chats across six or seven social network groups, all resembling each other. There is sharing and some disputes among friends and compatriots, with avenues open for further exploration.

But you can learn only so much in a virtual community – especially with Tai Chi, and the secondary stage, T’ui Shu, or “push hands.” To understand and feel the internal power of Tai Chi, you must work with a partner, which I’ve learned in theory but haven’t had much opportunity to practice. Sifu Mark Rasmus provided me with some practical applications a few years back.

Michael peace 1

The New Dharma Bums: On the Road with Michael Byrne

I am preparing to set off on a journey to touch hands with friends and teachers, and to explore the metaphysical as well as the physical dimensions of this ancient Chinese art that has drawn many Western practitioners. I am pointing toward certain destinations on the West Coast, but I haven’t set a firm itinerary. In this case, I am the “bum,” with a hand out looking to hitch a ride.

I expect a Kickstarter campaign to provide direction for me, and funds that will allow me to raise awareness of Taoist and Tai Chi resources and experiences. This will be a New Journalism project for me, and I envision a gonzo-style book at the end that closes the circle on the Dharma Dudes. Publishers are welcome to contribute on spec, or contract. I have details.

The Journal

Kerouac kept a stream-of-consciousness journal on his Crown typewriter, feeding it rolls of paper, which he periodically ended and sent off to agents and publishers as his latest novel. Most did not sell until years later, when he had established himself with On The Road.

Today we can all self-publish, and I have been doing that for years with my own personal blog, when not working for paying clients. I’ve covered many topics, and the Tai Chi blogs have had the widest distribution. Every day I get “hits” on these blogs from seekers all across the globe, from China and South Asia to the United States and both Eastern and Western Europe.

Since my 2013 lessons with Mark Rasmus, I’ve expanded my experience with Chi Kung, learning to get in touch with my organs through Dragon and Tiger exercises, and Taoist breathing, from Master Bruce Frantzis and his Energy Arts associates Aaron Green and Paul Pallante. Richard Clear came in from Tennessee to conduct a workshop on chi healing. I’ve driven to Asheville, North Carolina, to touch hands and spirits with Lester Holmes and Bob Messinger, two Facebook friends.

This is a journey that is just beginning, with uncertain destinations. First up was a trip to Florida for a birthday bash for The Kwoon, Sifu David Carr’s fine Facebook forum for Tai Chi and other martial arts. We had two camps at Hontoon Island State Park in the St. Johns River near Deland, Fla., May 14-15, and enjoyed a virtual orgy of T’ui Shou and Taoist camaraderie.


Sifu David Carr, left, observing the Push Hands fun and games at an anniversary gathering celebrating the Kwoon forum on Facebook.

The Score

I’ll be reporting on the Florida lessons soon. I’m going to stay on this story until I’ve got a good bead on it, so that you, the reader and participant, can digest it. Readers have too little opportunity to participate in stories in today’s media, dominated by talking heads talking down on the masses. This report, the New Dharma Bums, on the road with America’s Tai Chi masters and students, is asking for help to find the Way.

We will make space for ads on the blog, and distribute pieces to local media outlets. I expect to breed other reports with the blogs, including in local markets, promoting Tai Chi and other Taoist Chi Kung exercises. In the end, I want to portray a vibrant movement that is international in scope but alive in communities across the United States.

I am setting a modest goal of $5,000 to finance a trip that will yield regular blogs and other communications. Ad space will be available to larger contributors. In-kind contributions also will be welcomed, through other channels.

And so the Journey begins.