“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 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.