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 心 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.