Mind or No-Mind? – On “Xin” in Taijiquan

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Something I find fascinating is that there are certain types of words that are used very differently in different languages. One of the most evident groups of terms or type of words belong to the spiritual and mental world. If you compare similar words in different languages, you will find that words like soul, spirit and words for consciousness   and mind are used differently and not always in a way that is directly translatable.

The Chinese character “Xin”, 心, is one of those words that is used in a very cultural specific context and needs explanation to be understood. But first before we dwell deeper into this subject, I must excuse myself that I again use another romanisation than what you usually find here.  In the olde Wade-Giles system, the Pinyin “Xin” is spelled “Hsin”. But the more modern way, “xin”, is nowadays much more prevalent in literate and texts.

Literally the character “xin” or means heart. The standardised version seen today is a simplification of a much older character that was originally a picture of a human heart. The problem for us when we try to understand what the word xin actually means in a Chinese language context, is that it is mostly translated to English as “mind”.

For Western thinking, this is weird as we associate the mind with thought and logic. The heart has no mind, right? There’s no process of thinking in the heart. We associate the heart with feelings and emotions, but mostly only in a symbolic manner.

Sometimes though, the Chinese “Xin” is translated to “heart-mind”, meaning the emotional mind. My own teacher in Chinese Philosophy, who kindly gave this very lazy student a very high degree for some strange reason, explained this relationship as that the brain and heart are very much connected in Chinese thought. He meant that the heart and emotion is actually what all thoughts reflects.

I believe that at least some of what he tried to explain is that the thinking is constantly judging and validate itself through emotions. Without emotion, there is no conflict and no reason for thought. Only if there is some kind of self-reflection, doubt or insecurity there is a continuation of thought process. If not, the mind is still and doesn’t need to think.

And here lies a key. “Emptying your mind”, relaxing the mind and becoming calm is very much an emotional process. If you cannot control your emotions, making your “heart” still, you won’t be able to collect your thoughts. So again, as explained above, you can from this see better that the thoughts are very much driven from an emotional process.

But how then is the word “mind” actually used? I mean, it is said that you must use mind in your Taijiquan practice. (“to use xin” is something different from “to use Yi” as in “to use Yi instead of Li“.)  So what does this mean? I will tell you this: it’s much more simple than you might want to believe. It’s not about thinking, and it’s not about developing any mind-power or “thinking-energy” as a Qigong teacher explained the processes in what he did. Just as all of these strange mystical sounding words as qi, yin-yang and everything else that is usually mystified, “xin” is also something used daily, a common word in the Chinese language.

My wife who works with chemistry recently said that why she is better to find out what is wrong with an instrument or why she usually find when something is wrong before many of her colleagues, is because she use “xin” in her work. What she meant was really the same as the English expression to use the heart, that she puts her heart in her work. She is focused on her tasks, does things with awareness and cares about everything she does. This is to “use xin”.

What it is meant to “use xin” in taijiquan is the same. It means that you cannot mechanically do the form or any exercise just because you should do it. You must put in a lot of heart in your practice, you need to be aware and pay attention on what you do, “take care” of what you do.  You need to be mindful, take your practice very seriously and examine yourself carefully, and reflect on how well you carry and embody the Taiji principles in every inch of your movement, in your stillness and in your breath. Otherwise, if you don’t put a lot of heart in what you do, it will all become superficial practice and not even good Taijiquan.

Your Taijiquan should always be done this way. To “use Xin” is thus something commonsensical and practical, though there is also a much more philosophical way of describing the “heart-mind”. In Taijiquan, it is also said you need to calm your heart, gather your thoughts together and let your emotions be still. “No-mind”, wu xin (or mushin in Japanese) is the state of tranquility, the place to where you need to take yourself and your consciousness. When you have no own active thoughts and your heart is still, the mind is like a clean glass or a cleaned mirror. Your thoughts and emotions are what stops the light to shine through. or to reflect clearly, without hinderance. When you have a clear mind, you will be able to understand the world and everything around you more clearly.

In Chinese tradition, the heart is also regarded as the place for shen or “spirit” (I won’t go deeper into this word and character in this post). Only if you can clear your mind and calm your emotions, thus make “the glass” or your mind clean and clear, your shen, or spirit can rise to the head. The light of your spirit will then shine through your eyes, forming “yan shen” or eye spirit.

I’ve always thought that it’s something peculiar with calmness. Looking into the eyes of a very calm Taiji practitioner can actually be a bit scary. There is a strength in the eyes of a calm mind that cannot really be described. But I believe that the Chinese language does a good effort with the idea of “yan shen”. It’s really the calmness of the heart and strength of the calm mind that reflects through the eyes.

Is Taijiquan a Type of Qigong?

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Ok, let’s speak a little about Qigong. I started this blog five years ago and I have hardly mentioned Qigong, isn’t it silly? You would believe that that Taiji and Qigong are very much related, so it would be appropriate to write about Qigong as well, right? Well, don’t be so sure about this…

For this eminent post, I am going to use Taiji and Taijiquan instead of T’ai Chi Ch’uan. I usually use Tai Chi, because I like this romanisation better and for other reasons. But I don’t like mixing different ways to “spell” Chinese characters with our alphabet, so let’s use the more modern Pinyin instead. Which right here, in this post, is most  appropriate as Qigong is a modern term.

How so? Modern? Isn’t Qigong a very old form of practice? No, no and no. I see this misconception everywhere. Everyone writes that Qigong is thousand or several thousand years old. This and any kind of similar statement is just wrong.

Qigong means to “practice qi”, to stimulate qi, or to build up skillsets based on “Qi-practice”.  In reality this is a 20th century term that was used as a general name for many different types of exercises. In general, what was meant was either many different kinds of folk practice and gymnastics with hundreds and hundreds local variations, or otherwise, so called medical Qigong was meant. Medical Qigong was also a new and a most general kind of term, meaning physical therapy used in Chinese Traditional Medical hospitals when Chinese medicine was allowed again and practiced publicly.

So isn’t Qigong old, really? Some exercises you can see people practice in the parks are old, but Qigong in general is not, and certainly not as individual systems. The term Qigong as understood today is based on a very modern thinking and a modern theory. The theory itself comes from TCM, or from Traditional Chinese Medicine. For Qigong systems, or what today that is usually defined as Qigong, the main idea is to stimulate the Qi in the body in the meridians and Acu points through physical movement. But the thing is that this idea didn’t exist in older forms of physical exercises. Even if the idea of Qi existed in traditional Neidan practice, stimulation of Qi was not the main goal. So the types of exercises modern Qigong practitioners call older forms of qigong, or the origin of Qigong, had vastly different goals.

The idea of circulating Qi through the body was developed in traditional Neidan, but this circulation of Qi was only regarded as one cog of many, or one process in a very complex system of processes. The main goal of these sometimes highly religious exercises, mostly developed through mixed ideas from Daoism and Buddhism, was often both moral and spiritual development, and sometimes either to reach the Dao and/or to attain immortality. No appreciation of Qi in traditional Neidan practice had any kind of link to the system of meridians in Chinese medicin, or to the theory of the type of exercises developed as physical therapy in Chinese medical hospitals.

This is very important to understand when we speak about Taijiquan together with Qigong, because every text from the main literature, from the so called Tai Chi classics, to late 19th century and the early 20th century, all pre-dates the term Qigong. The name of Qigong is nowhere to be seen in these texts, and their thoughts are not based on modern Qigong or the same theory as TCM. Instead, the thoughts and ideas in all of those classical books on Taijiquan are based on earlier thought, mostly derived from Daoist Neidan and Neo-Confucianism.

So no, Taijiquan is not Qigong. All of the ideas and exercises of Taijiquan are all very different from what is meant with the name Qigong. Even though Taijiquan is often turned into light-weight forms and some kind of Qigong-similar exercise by disregarding foundational principles, practical use of postures, and all of the philosophy, as well as all of the martial function, Taijiquan in its traditional meaning is not Qigong. But still, everything you possibly could want to achieve through Qigong practice is found in the older, traditional forms of Taijiquan. Traditional Taijiquan is something vastly bigger and more complex than any type of Qigong. And if speaking from personal experience only, much more rewarding.

On Weight Lifting & Strength Training and T’ai Chi Ch’uan

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There is an ongoing debate in the Tai Chi world if strength training and weight lifting is bad or detrimental to Tai Chi practice or not. In fact, this discussion has been prevalent since as long as I can remember. So how is it? Is it really so? Where is the truth in this and from where does this idea originate?

This is my effort to a more nuanced discussion as I try to give establish a background to this debate as well as look at this issue from different points of views. 

I remember the first time I was in China. This was more than twenty years ago when I studied Chinese in the University and I had already studied Tai Chi for over ten years. I stayed together with some friends in a high school and studied Chinese there, it was a class for foreigners. We had Tai Chi on the schedule as well. The teacher taught the 24 form, but he also showed some of us, the young people, some hard gong practice, some drills he thought would do us good. In the group there was also a couple of older women (ok, not very old, they should have been about in their early fifties). They tried out the exercises, but the teacher said them to not do it. The issue, as he explained, is that in Chinese tradition you can develop your muscle strength up till 45 years of age. After that, you should not do it anymore, but instead do other kind of exercises. Instead of strengthening the muscles you should stretch them.

So from this particular point of view, not to do strength exercises has more to do with age than anything else. You should spend your youth by building strength, than later preserve your strength and vigor, but not with muscle building practice.  This view though says nothing about strength training being detrimental to Tai Chi practice.

This idea originates from old traditional thought. In Chinese tradition, when we are born, we are all “Original Essence”. But this essence is slowly replaced by the essence from what we eat, drink, and from the air we breath. And when we grow old, we have very little essence left. And then we die. Tai Chi Chuan is at least partly developed from old Neidan (Internal Alchemy) and today it shares the same philosophy and old view that this type of practice can help the body to store the original essence thus reward us with health and a prolonged life. Waigong, or external practice is regarded as the anti-thesis of Neigong and Neidan practice. From this position, while Tai Chi balances the Yin and Yang in the body, strength practice is all Yang and accelerates the loss of the Original Essence.

This is the philosophical view, which can also be said to have a trace of superstition and religious belief. But it’s also important to realise that a good amount of the reason for the strong belief in the health aspects of Tai Chi Chuan and other similar and older exercises, has to do with experience. If I was going to reflect over my own experience, I can tell you that all of my Tai Chi teachers are all old. Chinese or not, they all look very strong, young and healthy for their own age (except for maybe one who smoked too much, a common problem in China). The important thing here is that for many decades and as they grow old, they never did any other exercise than Tai Chi Chuan, other IMA practice and qigong. The only thing that kept them strong was internal practice, so they solely relied on this type of practice.

This can be hard to understand from a Western mind-set and experience. But in China, for many hundreds of years, hard exercise and sweating has been associated  with lower class labor. And in fact, much of what you see now called internal practice, was designed and developed, not only in Daoist temples, but also in the high society in China for middle and upper class people that thought that it was a low class thing to work out hard and sweat.

So by this, you should realise that Chinese internal practice is a Chinese cultural phenomena, with quite a complex history. But again, the most important thing here is experience. As many people have only done internal practice for at least most of their adult years, the belief has certainly not only to do with superstition. There is a good amount of personal experience, and the traditions of internal practice have been developed through the experience of many people who lived in the last one thousand years.

But still, even if the history and culture provides with a good background, it still doesn’t really answer the question about if strength training or weight lifting is detrimental to Tai Chi or not. In my now opinion, there is a problem with weight lifting, or excessive weight lifting, but does not always or automatically create problems.

In fact, there were a few old school Tai Chi practitioners who were very strong, well built and were not shy to show off their muscles. They usually worked as guards or bodyguards, thus they needed good body strength. One of those, Gu Ruzhang, was an Iron Palm expert and knew hard boxing.

Gu Ruzhang Tai Chi and Brick breaking

Gu Ruzhang studied many styles, but regarded the internal boxing arts as the highest.

He was a firm believer in the Internal Martial arts, he was disciple of Sun Lutang and also wrote a very well known Tai Chi book. It might be surprised to know that he also spoke about that Tai Chi Jin, or the strength developed in Tai Chi Chuan should be based on deep relaxation without the use of any kind of necessary muscle tension:

We constantly observe external stylists trying so hard in all their jumping and shouting. Such training only ingrains a habit of excessive effort. The art of Taiji Boxing does the opposite. To emphasize anger makes one stiff, and to emphasize effort makes one clumsy. How could we talk of nimbleness in such cases? When practicing the solo set, it should be completely natural and not have the least bit of strenuous effort.

From: The Tai Chi Manual of Gu Ruzhang

So, how come people says that there is a problem with developing external strength? The issue as I personally see it is about that you aim to develop a certain body use this art. Tai Chi Chuan uses a connected whole body power, not movement from isolated muscle groups. Tai Chi Jin, the type of strength used in Tai Chi, requires the practitioner to relax and use as little muscle tension as necessary. It takes time for everyone to learn how to not use excessive muscle tension. Practicing a lot of weight lifting does not add anything to your ability to relax. It does not teach you to transfer mass in a coordinated whole body movement. And also, strength training does not teach you to not “hold unnecessary tension” (except if you are already very weak).

Form my own experience when I was young, and from what many other with similar experience has said is that, a lot of strength training can make you more tense and hurt your sensitivity. After a few years of Tai Chi practice, I tried different hard styles. I did some external Shaolin and Sanda type of practice, which was the toughest training I had ever done. I did a lot of sparring and later I also practiced Thai Boxing for a year. I never abandoned my Tai Chi Chuan, I kept on just as much as before, but I saw the value of learning about fighting from outside the Tai Chi walls. The Thai Boxing was the last of the hard styles I tried, not only I found the training immensely boring compared to my Tai Chi Chuan, but hard styles just didn’t work for what I wanted to accomplish. I got more tense, it become more difficult to relax and I found that the different types of practice were not a good match. Here you can read more about my thoughts about combining arts and cross training: Can Tai Chi be Combined With Other Styles.

But on the other hand, and for martial arts especially, building mass can be a good thing. If you have a developed “functional muscle mass”, just as traditional boxers develop their backs and shoulders, you don’t need to really use any strength to deliver a strong punch. The movement itself together with acceleration and the weight of the shoulder area is enough. In IMA, you don’t need to develop any particular strength, but body mass might enhance the strength developed if you use it intelligently.

When you get old, maybe your internal practice might be enough to keep you strong, who knows? If not, some basic weight lifting might be important to keep you in shape and to stay healthy. Now, take this lightly as I am not an expert in any field of weight lifting or similar, but if you do strength practice or weight lifting, my own humble advice is:

1) Do not train so that your body gets stiff or harm your ability to relax.
2) Focus on building mass where you need it, or an overall mass, but don’t focus on building muscles in an isolated manner as in body building to shape muscles individually.

And if you are weak, building up strength will actually help your body to relax better. So nothing wrong with any type of strength practice if you are weak. But excessive training and weight lifting that creates stiffness might be a problem in all ages. And if you want to develop your Tai Chi Chuan, or your proficiency in other internal arts, try to get what you can from this practice first. And try to be aware about if strength practice affects your ability to relax and/or sensitivity,

Why Long Forms in Chinese Martial Arts and in Tai Chi Chuan?

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Long forms in Chinese Martial Arts is an interesting topic. In my own (maybe not so) humble opinion, forms are overrated. But also very underrated. Like everything else in this world, they are usually taught and practiced for wrong reasons. In Taijiquan, most of a practitioners time goes to practice a form. Why has it become so?

Chinese forms are called Daolu (套路), a “road set” or “walking a road”, sometimes just called Dao (套), a “set”. They consists of movements strung together in sequences. Some schools have many different forms, other arts have only one.

Some Chinese styles have developed what could be seen as an extreme amount of forms, both barehanded and weapons, as Choy Li Fut and Hung Gar. In Choy Li Fut, I  have absolutely no clue how they can have other time for practice than remembering all forms. Hung Gar is a bit better. Originally, this art was jus one form, the Iron Thread (or Iron Wire form), and later more and more forms was added to shape a ladder of progress, starting from purely external training, to put more and more emphasis on internal aspects.

In earlier times, there were probably no set form in Tai Ci Chuan, but only stances, single movements and short drills that the practitioner would put together himself, string together, to a personal form. This is probably the reason for the old name of Tai Chi, “Mianquan”. It’s often translated to “cotton fist/boxing”, but actually, another meaning of mian is “continuous”, like if you try to pull cotton apart, it will stick together. So this means movements put together without visible seams. You can read more about this way of practice here in Chen Weiming’s book “TAIJI BOXING ACCORDING TO SHI DIAOMEI”.

The main reason, and the most important aspect is to have a long form as a pedagogical tool, is like having a coat hanger, a rack or a locker to keep your clothes in. It’s a way to organise knowledge in a way so you will remember all sorts of techniques and different methods. You’ll keep everything you know there, organised and easy to look through. In your form, or forms, you should be able to find everything you learn in your art. It’s like a dense catalogue, or a list, of all your punches, kicks, throws, take-downs, qinna, etc.

A Tai Chi form is usually put together so you can learn step by step one category of methods after another. If you look at all traditional Taiji forms, they start of rather stationary. In the beginning of the form, you don’t walk very much, it’s quite stationary.

So when you learn the first movements in the form, you will usually be introduced to basic balance breaking methods, as well as ways to parry and block. In the end of the first part pf the traditional Yang form, you will be introduced to more strikes and punches. The second part of the form starts of with throwing and anti-grappling methods, and then kicks. In the third part, even more footwork and more kicks are introduced, as well as more advanced types of qinna/joint locking techniques etc.

The long traditional Yang Tai Chi forms, regardless school or lineage, are all constructed the same way. Basic methods are taught first and the footwork is simple. And later in the form, you can find more advanced techniques as well as more advanced footwork.

The message is very clear. First learn to maintain your own balance and structure. When you have found your own balance and know how to maintain it, you can start to move around more and do more. Basics first, advanced methods later.

For the practice itself, the structure of the form will help you to warm up the system before doing any kicks or sometimes jumps. With a traditional long form, you won’t need any additional warm up. Though it’s good to do some standing wuji meditation before starting to practice the Tai Chi form.

Personally, I don’t believe in shorter forms other than a supplementary practice. The actual length of a long form is important. Even though there are repetitions, you need a certain amount of changes and variations to learn how to really change between movements.

It might seem that the length is of less importance for Tai Chi as health practice only, but I believe that the length is crucial here as well. You need some time to really warm up the system. 20 minutes of practice is for repetition only, to keep up want you know. But to develop in your practice, you need more than that. When you practice Tai Chi, you should build up a certain heat within the body. This is first about an internal warm up of the body that cannot be achieved with external additional war, up. You should feel warm, the breath should gain freedom and your whole body should feel liveliness.

There’s a process here that takes time for the body to reach its full potential. And it’s when you have reached this stage your real practice start. After a good 40 minutes of Tai Chi form practice or so, your body should feel just as good and comfortable as if you’ve had a session of traditional massage. If you just rush through a shorter version, as the 24 variant. just for the sake of doing it, you just won’t get the same deep impact from your Tai Chi practice.

And then there are different types of forms even in Tai Chi. Some Chen schools have four or five different bare-handed forms. Yang style lineages only have up to ten different forms, slow, fast, small frame etc. And then there are the weapon forms. But still, one long form is mostly regarded as the core of the system.

But in my own opinion, people put too much emphasis on forms practice, not only in Tai Chi Chuan, but in Chinese Martial Arts in general. People should spend more time finding partners to do partner exercises and schools should focus more on this as well. The problem is that people regard forms as something magic. “Do forms and you will learn to fight eventually, without even practicing fighting.” This is the main problem with Chinese Martial Arts. In my own humble opinion of course.

Here, if you want to watch, is a video with some more thoughts regarding forms in Chinese Martial Arts. I highly recommend to take a look at the channel as well, where you can watch many different interviews and demonstrations of different styles, with internal arts as its main focus:

Tai Chi Shoulders – Relax the Shoulders but Don’t Force them Down

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woman-lifting

Yang Cheng Fu’s Ten Essentials as recorded in a ghost written book is something most serious Tai chi practitioner have heard about and try to follow, and the book itself is regarded as a classic. Number five is about the shoulders. Here exemplary translated by Lee Fife so I don’t need to do much job:

Yang Chen Fu Ten essentials (PDF)

五。沉肩坠肘
5: Sink Shoulder, Drop Elbow

沉肩者,
肩松开下垂也。
Sink ​(chen) the shoulder means
the shoulder loosens, opens, and hangs down

若不能松垂,
两肩端起,
则气亦随之而上,
全身皆不得力矣。
Without the skill of ​song and hanging, both shoulders will rise

and subsequently the ​qi will also go up.
(when this happens) the whole body cannot achieve power.

坠肘者,
肘往下松垂之意,
Drop ​(zhui) the elbow means
the elbow goes down with the ​yi of ​song and hanging (c​ hui).

肘若悬起,
则肩不能沉,
放人不远,
近于外家之断劲矣。
If the elbow is suspended and rising,
then the shoulder is not able to sink
and your discharge (​fang) will not send someone far.
(Your discharge) is then almost the same as the broken ​jin of the external arts.”

 

Another translation from “The Tai Chi Life” reads:

Sinking the shoulders is to let the shoulders be song and drop downwards. If not, both shoulders will rise causing qi to rise in them. No strength can be exerted from the body if this happens. Weighting down the elbow is to direct the elbows downward and be song. If the elbows rise up, the shoulders will have great difficulty in sinking, thus affecting the strength of your internal power, and you will not be able to throw your opponent away.  This is similar to what is known as ‘stifling the power’ in external martial arts.”

Usually this “commandment” is understood as “sink the shoulders” and keep them sunk.  This is what Tai Chi teachers usually say: “Keep the shoulders and elbows down“. But in fact, this a bit problematic, though most people don’t understand why.

The Character for sink is “沉 “, Chén, one of the 1000 most common characters in the Chinese language. It’s the same character as in “Qi chen” or “the Qi sinks,” and in modern Chinese you can find it in words as  冥想, chénsī, meaning meditation and 沉重, chénzhòng meaning heavy.  The character consists of two parts, the character for cow, “niu,” which originally is a picture of a cows head, together with the character for a flowing river. The character Chen comes from ancient times when people sacrificed animals by drowning them in rivers. These rituals are mentioned in books as the Zhou Li, a classic about old customs and etiquette.   

From these descriptions, you should understand that “chen” here in this context of sinking the shoulders is not about actively sinking something, but about letting the shoulders sink down by themselves. To let the shoulders sink, you use “song” – release, loosen up or to relax. Chen the shoulders, or letting the shoulders sink, is not about pressing the shoulders down or keep them down by force.

Just as you shouldn’t keep your shoulders unnecessarily high or stiff, it is just as important to not press the shoulders down, or force them to maintain a “sunk” position. Instead they should hang down naturally, be loose and have mobility. Otherwise, you will have problem.

I got inspiration to write more about shoulders from my last post about the scapula in Tai Chi Chuan. Shoulder and scapula is not the same. The arms can be moved from the scapula, but not from the shoulders. 

The thing is that many Tai Chi practitioners have very loose and soft backs, from the lower back to the upper back. But the neck and jaws can still have tension. And this is a common thing. What exactly inspired me to write more about shoulders was a passage in the quote from Mr He Jinghan:

“In fact the shoulders have two locations. Close up to the neck there is the area which takes the load when we are carrying something heavy – or stretch to take out our wallet.”

Now, many Tai Chi practitioners are afraid to move the shoulders or to lift them, so they constantly force them down, in a more or less locked position. If you do like this, forcing the shoulders down, or keeping them in a stiff position, you will have a constant load on that area, the area between the shoulder joint, up to the neck where the jaws are attached, just as you were lifting or holding a heavy object. So if you press the shoulders down or lock them in a downward position, you might think that you relax the shoulders, but instead you will create another tension in your body, tension that can give you problems with stiff muscles, jaws and give you a headache.

So when you move through your form, don’t be afraid to have a natural mobility in the shoulders. In daily life, try to relax you body, but don’t be afraid to lift your shoulders. Your neck posture, jaw position, shoulders, chest – all of these parts constantly shift their positions in daily life, as you move, look around, shift posture. They need to be able to adjust to each other naturally without you trying to force your body into this or that position. If you force your body, you will end up tensing your breath, tensing your jaws, feel uncomfortable in your body. Instead, let it all be and learn to let your shoulders and all of the rest of the body to relax in the way it wants to relax.