TAIJI - MILESTONES IN THE MIST – by Joe Harte
[Written at the request of Master Huang’s Singapore Taiji Society on their 50th Anniversary]
Taiji has a beauty and depth that links us back through time to ancient wisdoms, on its myriad of inter-woven paths each traveller is challenged to rediscover that truth for themselves.
Taiji is well recognised as one of the most subtle and refined of martial arts, and as such it’s usually only those with some reasonable experience of it that are perhaps best placed to appreciate its riches. Beyond the learning of the outer sequence of Forms, Set Patterns and the like, it can be difficult for newer people to know if progress is really being made.
It’s tempting to approach the art as something new to be acquired, or something to add to an increasing repertoire of skills. Often the perception of progress is attached to this outer accumulation rather than any sense of inner evolution so that it can seem, even if an effort is being made, that nothing much is happening for quite some time.
Of course change takes place very gradually and those delicate shifts can be largely obscured from our view. Often it’s others who recognise our changes long before it becomes apparent to ourselves.
I began Taiji in the early 90’s with Dan Russell in Carlisle in the far northwest of England.
Having reached a reasonable ability in my Kung Fu (or so I thought at the time) I had found it easy enough to adapt to other styles and systems as I had done on numerous occasions in the past. I mistakenly assumed Taiji would be the same!
It was a few years later in 1995 that Patrick Kelly first visited our school.
Patrick had spent some 20 years as an inner school student of the late Master Huang Sheng Shyan and was now sharing Master Huang’s methods with those who showed an interest in the teachings in Europe.
On that first visit we began putting in place the 5 Loosening Exercises, re-learning the Short Form, and adding the basic fixed pattern pushing hands that are at the core of Master Huang’s methods.
I remember clearly being thrown powerfully as Patrick patiently explained the process by which the rising wave of elastic power travelled through his body - How could that be? It felt very strange! Like being picked off your feet by the powerful and gentle ocean swell as you stand in the water.
I was watching for the quick twist of the hips or a sudden thrust, but none were evident. It seems my previous experience had left me inadequately equipped to perceive the subtlety that he so effortlessly displayed. So for a half dozen times or more my body was propelled up and quickly backwards finally coming to rest some meters away. I shook my head in wonder and headed back across the floor only to be picked up by the next wave and effortlessly thrown again – Patrick seemed to be enjoying himself!
Had I been able to ‘listen’ deeply at that moment rather than just ‘watch’ then I may have had a better chance to understand the inner process by which I was being thrown. Slowly a dawning realisation settled in me that the outer movements were barely a beginning in the Taiji journey
– A ripple on the surface of something profound and unfathomably deep.
Outer Form – Inner Practise
I found it immensely frustrating. For quite some time no matter how I tried, as soon as I moved my awareness bubbled straight back up seemingly forever locked to the gross outer movements of the body itself - an amorphous fusion of intention, awareness, forces and movement.
How to separate it all out into clearly distinguishable components is still very much a ‘work in progress’, but is at least somewhat clearer now with a few further years of training behind me. Only long practise of attempting to close down the superficial mind will break through to allow the possibility to awaken a deeper state. But back then even though I heard the words I had no idea how this could possibly work.
It seems each layer of Taiji is of an increasingly subtle nature, and as we dig deeper attempting to uncover those layers the challenge that we really set ourselves is to initiate a process of inner change that reaches deep within us. To explore the art we have to begin to explore and change ourselves.
Having made the initial effort to learn the outer shape of the Form beginners sometimes mistakenly think that that’s it, job done. In reality of course this is merely a beginning step.
In my own classes it’s not uncommon for people to leave at around this stage becoming bored with the necessary repetition and not yet able or prepared to make the sustained effort to break through to find something deeper than outer movement itself. It’s a difficult moment for people, and because of the subtlety it’s usually not yet clear to them that some changes are beginning to take place so that people struggle to understand their own progress.
Of course Taiji does not suit everyone, some find the harder martial arts more immediately exciting, or yoga and meditation may suit them better. This being part of the natural intelligence of disciplines that filter out those not suited to the training. To carry on requires an extra effort, and it’s usually only those that are motivated from something resonating deep within who can persevere to break through.
What follows are a few examples from my own experiences that helped me understand that changes were taking place. I hope it might just help to encourage someone who has reached that plateau to keep it going. There is a way in, but like anything else in life you have to be prepared to make the effort to look for it.
As Patrick points out “There are no secrets in Taiji - just things much deeper than people can see”.
Life can be tough both emotionally and physically, and often we learn to deal with those forces that impinge upon us by armouring ourselves against them. The wall of resistance that we build can be very deeply rooted and difficult to undo its negative effects. It can manifest as the daily ‘mask’ that we wear, the posture we hold, the way we use our voice, the way we act, all of those and more. Dispassionately observing our own reactions when with others is a useful way of seeing what work we need to do.
There is no doubt that releasing residual muscular tensions and corresponding emotional states (or visa versa) is a lifetime’s work that can only really begin once some awareness of that state has begun to surface.
After about a year of Taiji I couldn’t understand why I was becoming so tense! I asked my teacher Dan about it – this being before we began our journey with Patrick Kelly. He laughed and pointed out that the growing sense of tension I felt was the result of a deepening awareness, I was simply experiencing my current state of being!
The news came as a bit of a shock, I had never really thought of myself as tense, but at least now armed with this information the opportunity existed to do something about it. I made an effort over the next few years attempting to relax using hypnosis, meditation as well as Taiji of course. But on first contact with Patrick a few years later he told me “your arms are too stiff, relax!”
It reminds me of the quote from Master Huang about people being like baked potatoes and needing a long time of ‘cooking’ to soften right through to the centre.
The forces that support the body are actually quite large, just by standing still I exert a downward force of (74Kg x 9.81M/s/s) = 725 Newton’s. It’s a big number, so somewhat helpful that the nature of floors is to withstand those forces. If the floor on which I stand exerts an equal and opposite reaction to my downward force there must be some compression and some considerable pressure at sole of my foot. These forces increase dramatically in dynamic situations as in when walking or when combined with the forces of a partner – So how is it we are hardly aware of them?
Like a fish in water that doesn’t know it’s wet we are all swimming in gravity.
An interesting observation came when training in a newly carpeted room. After the loosening exercises the man next to me pointed out the pressure indents that our feet had made. Interestingly having trained for quite some years more than this beginner there was a marked difference in the depth of compression in the new carpet, mine being noticeably deeper than my much heavier friend.
I had been aware of foot pressure for quite some time but this moment helped me to confirm what I was beginning to feel in my own body. That the resulting dynamic forces generated in a body that has begun to loosen and separate are far greater than those in a body that is still locked together as one.
Lines of Connection
Having found foot pressure logic dictates that it doesn’t stop there of course, and the forces rise naturally through the body following the lines of connection through bones, joints, tendons, ligaments, stretching muscle and interconnecting tissues.
The careful and sensitive addition of a partners force to ones body is a great method for bringing awareness of these lines of connection into oneself. In the beginning we are all somewhat immune to the sensations of our own body-mass combined with gravity, of course at a deeper level our body mind knows it well, but when we only look with our superficial mind it feels almost nothing. By adding sensitively applied forces beyond that which we normally experience when working solo it definitely helps us to tune our awareness.
Touch – Connect – Merge – Follow.
Some years ago I attended the class of a Taiji teacher in Manchester’s Chinatown with whom a friend had trained. I was welcomed and during the class the teacher showed his particular version of single hand push. As we began, intending no disrespect, as soon as we touched I connected immediately down to his foot, he stopped and looked me squarely in the eyes smiled broadly and walked off leaving me to train with one of his students.
I don’t know if some particular etiquette prevails in these circumstances I rarely visit other Taiji classes, but it was obvious that he was clearly aware of the connections that had been made.
New people to our classes are often amazed and baffled by the ability to touch into their feet – as I was before finding it for myself. Of course there are varying degrees of subtlety to be found, and these days even with a somewhat increased awareness I am unable to detect the connections that my teacher uses on me until the situation is far too late for me – and there I go again rocketing off across the room!
Moments of Clarity
Patrick often reminds us that the best way to progress is to concentrate on one particular aspect for some time. That effort and concentration eventually brings results - where attempting to vaguely work on everything all at once leads nowhere, as we all too readily slip back into a soporific watching state – pleasant but of no real use.
The effort to close down the superficial mind and use a clear line of intention, whilst at the same time deliberately holding back the impending movements of the body will eventually begin to separate out the movement of the mind from the movement of body, and leave us free to listen more deeply to the responses that naturally arise in the spaces in between.
“The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao”.
Difficult to speak of - It happens on rare occasions that random glimmers of depths we are not yet ready for appear for a moment and then quickly fade unable to be recaptured. Just like a dream that seemed so clear and yet can hardly be remembered a short time later.
Alongside those are also moments of clarity much closer to our current level that more readily shine through like guiding beacons in the mist.
With genuine effort our practise slowly deepens. Each effort being like the weaving of silken threads that slowly fuse together building layers that will eventually sustain a new level of lucid experience. Over time this can be incorporated and becomes our semi natural practise leaving us free to move on to the next step.
Underlying a growing clarity in my own practise is also a deepening sense that the mists have spread further ahead to unknown horizons, and yet more questions arise.
Occasionally in the swirling mists I glimpse the footprints of my teacher Patrick Kelly and those of a man I will never meet, a man from a different culture half way round the world whose influence in my life has been hugely positive, my teacher’s teacher Grand Master Huang Sheng Shyan.
May 2009 - Joe Harte is based in the UK - A student of Patrick Kelly.