By Sifu Ron Perfetti
Relax; Mind and Body
Certainly relaxation is one of cardinal Tai Chi principles. In addition to the obvious intention of lessening muscular tension and strain, there is an equally important application of this quality to the emotional/mental level. This is to lessen struggle and exertion as a means to accomplish one's goals and in one's relationship to life in general. Relaxation is not only a goal in terms of a health benefit, it is also a means by which we discover that traditionally emphasized quality of "effortless strength". The development of this very specific expression of relaxation that is productive, dynamic, and strength-generating is what I refer to as "functional relaxation".
Most students begin their exploration of relaxation on the physical level; relaxing the shoulders, relaxing the back. And while this is probably an essential stage in the process, the deep and pervasive tensions are those that reside on the mental/emotional levels. A master is that individual who has cultivated the ability for their mind to be comfortable within the experience of this moment, regardless of the content of this moment. This implies an extraordinary blend of strength and ease, and is the truest expression of the term "centered"
Emphasize Improving Concentration
In my classes, I tend to de-emphasize the idea of "physical exercise" as being too exerting an approach for good practice, but I give much emphasis to the "mental exercise" aspect of the study. I firmly believe that one's practice and its related benefits are reflective of one's level of concentration. On every level of Tai Chi practice, the ability to keep the attention of the mind connected to the body experience establishes the foundation for all learning and improvement - be it in health, martial art skills, or general life experience. One of the basic principles of the art is classically stated "Mind precedes all". This is a very clear indicator that although Tai Chi uses the body extensively as a learning tool, and generates excellent benefits for the body, the primary objective of the art is to develop mental skills and qualities.
Although we are given much form and structure to use in our Tai Chi practice, we must always understand that form is a means to an end. In Taoism, and in Tai Chi as a physical expression of Taoist philosophy, the goal is to liberate the mind and body so that they are free to respond spontaneously to the needs of the moment, moment by moment. Therefore we must recognize that form, even the best of forms, is like a shell that needs to be filled; filled with feeling, filled with energy, filled with awareness. In order to accomplish this, one must accept the responsibility of being creative with one's practice, which is very different than just going through the motions.
I believe that inherent in Tai Chi practice is the realization that each practitioner must develop their own Tai Chi as a very personal and intimate experience. Certainly we should respect and take advantage of our teachers, but at the same time, be wary of becoming "Tai Chi clones" who imitate the teacher to the exclusion of our own personal development. In Zen practice this process of development is referred to as "Beginner's Mind": That quality of mental freshness that is truly the Master's accomplishment. It is this mental freshness which allows each round of form to be as new and as interesting as the very first time.
Be Consistent with the Practice
When Professor Cheng Man-Ching was asked to identify the important traits of a good Tai Chi student, he said "natural ability, correct teaching, and perserverence". A moment later, he revised this by saying that really only perserverence was needed, because through perserverence the other traits would come in due course. Especially for a beginner, the cultivation of consistency is the most important quality. With consistency, any goal can be attained; without consistency, nothing is possible. In energetic terms, consistency is a part of the earth Chi experience. From the earth we derive strength, stability, and what the Classics refer to as substantiality. I once asked a teacher if I should practice on a day when I didn't feel like it. His response was, "The question shouldn't arise. You don't ask yourself whether you feel like it or not. You just practice." Like most aspects of Tai Chi, direct and to the point.
Sometimes students will say to me "I didn't practice because I was afraid of doing it wrong, I don't want to develop bad habits". My response is "You already have the bad habits, any practice is to the good". In the beginning it doesn't so much matter what you practice as much as the fact that you practice. My primary teacher Grandmaster William C.C. Chen says; "Don't tell me how many years you've studied, tell me how many minutes you've practiced". Viewed this way, what we are really doing in our practice is accumulating minutes of practice, during which we feel, relax, experiment, and learn about ourselves and how we respond to different situations. Consistency of practice leads to consistency of attention.
Enjoy your Pratice
We understand in our practice that the greater the level of involvement - body, emotions, mind, & spirit - the greater the benefit, the greater the learning experience. This is the quality of being "centered". Therefore, every student is challenged to explore the means by which they achieve the most complete level of involvement. Is it through discipline and will? Is it through the desire for results and benefits? While these, and probably numerous others, might be utilized, I believe that enjoyment is one of the most powerful motivators available to us.
By enjoyment I don't mean to imply a feel-good approach to our study. Anyone who has developed any depth of practice knows that in Tai Chi there is a very broad range of sensations to be experienced, not all of them pleasant. Professor Cheng Man-Ching taught that the first great learner's hurdle was "fear of pain" and that this fear needs to be acknowledged and relaxed through. However, one can develop an attitude towards experience that allows even those unpleasant sensations into the overall appreciation of life-learning and deepening. When I think of enjoyment of practice I include feelings of the challenge of the study, a sense of getting mentally/emotionally stronger, and a general feeling of enthusiasm concerning life as the great Tai Chi experience.
One of the most basic Tai Chi/Taoist precepts is that of "Path of least resistance". This implies the elimination of resistances and contradictions which arise even in respect to our most desired goals. In Tai Chi we are told "to generate a 1000 pounds of force with 4 ounces of pressure". This adage implies the ability to minimize expenditure and maximize results. I feel that the more we allow ourselves to enjoy the broadest range of experience, the greater the results of our actions and the more accelerated our learning process becomes.
Adopt a Long Term Perspective
It's important to understand that traditionally Tai Chi isn't viewed in terms of months, or even years, but rather in decades of practice. Coming from a culture that is predisposed to immediate gratification and quick results, this might seem more than a bit disconcerting, bordering on being strange. But the ability to assume this long term perspective has numerous benefits.
First, it alleviates pressure. In Tai Chi one becomes very aware of one's tensions, imbalances, and weaknesses. It's unrealistic to think that these old habits are going to be remedied quickly, so we rightfully allow ourselves a longer amount of time to achieve our goals. I recommend to my students that they adopt the attitude of being life-long Tai Chi students as quickly as possible. We set the intention to accomplish a little bit of the total objective today, knowing that you have tomorrow, and the day after, and so on to continue the process. No rush, no pressure; just an emphasis on steady progress with the feeling of having a long time to work with.
This particular approach also implies a certain level of maturity. One of the most commonly understood expressions of the mature individual is the ability to delay gratification; to do something today that will yield a result some time in the future. In China, it was not unusual for a person to do something whose result would be intended for their unborn grandchildren. The Classical Tai Chi texts ("Classics") describe Tai Chi as a mature person's practice, understanding that maturity has nothing to do with chronological age. The definition of a mature person is "someone who does what they know is good for themselves". In Tai Chi, over the course of years and decades, we simply seek to do what we know is good for ourselves.
Accept the Challenge
Over my years of study and teaching I have seen how Tai Chi attracts a very broad spectrum of people, from young to old, of all possible sizes, shapes, and inclinations. But there does seems to be one consistent thread that runs through all those who stay with the practice and develop depth; a willingness to be challenged, and an enjoyment of the intensity that arises in respect to that challenge.
I emphasize to my students that Tai Chi is not so much an exercise as it is a training. One of the aspects of this training is the understanding that we only continue to grow and improve when we place ourselves in challenging situations. It is this type of experience that requires that we go beyond our norm, develop new resources and perspectives. The ability to accomplish this with grace and elegance is the mark of a proficient Tai Chi practitioner.
Initially the beginner student is challenged with learning not only new routines of movements but also with the idea of actually moving differently. Another level of challenge occurs when one begins Push Hands practice, for then one is required to extend one's Tai Chi feeling to include a partner. The eventual Tai Chi challenge is to live one's life consistently from the perspective of Tai Chi principles. I often relate to my students that a number of my teachers no longer practice, in the sense of doing form or other Tai Chi exercises. This is an indication that they have successfully integrated Tai Chi so well into their lives that every movement, every experience is Tai Chi practice for them. These men have successfully met the Tai Chi challenge.