By Sifu Ron Perfetti
Relax; Mind and Body
Certainly relaxation is one of the cardinal T'ai 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 and mental levels. The goal is to reduce struggle and exertion as ways to accomplish one's goals; indeed, 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 the quality of "effortless strength". When the development of this very specific expression of relaxation becomes productive, dynamic, and strength-generating, it is what we refer to as "functional relaxation".
Most students begin their exploration of relaxation on the physical level; for example - relaxing the shoulders, relaxing the back, and relaxing the breathing. While this is an essential stage in the process, the deep and pervasive tensions are those that reside in the mental and emotional levels. A master is that individual who has cultivated the ability for his 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 our classes, we tend to de-emphasize the idea of "physical exercise", because it often can result in excess exertion for good practice. Instead, we give much emphasis to the "mental exercise" aspect of the study. We firmly believe that one's practice and its related benefits are reflective of one's level of concentration. On every level of T'ai Chi practice, the ability to keep the attention of the mind connected to the experience of the body establishes the foundation for all learning and improvement - be it in health, martial arts 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 T'ai 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 T'ai Chi practice, we must always understand that form is really only a means to an end. In Taoism, and in T'ai 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. 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.
We believe that inherent in T'ai Chi practice is the realization that each practitioner must develop his own T'ai 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 "T'ai Chi clones" who imitate the teacher to the exclusion of 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 the 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 T'ai 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. We once asked a teacher if we should practice on a day when we 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 T'ai Chi, this response is 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". Our 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. Our 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 Practice
By enjoyment we don't mean to imply a feel-good approach to our study. Anyone who has developedant depth of practice knows that in T'ai Chi there is a very broad rangr of sensations to be experienced, not all of them are 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 worked through. However, one can develop an attitude towards experience that allows even those unpleasant sensations to be a part of the overall appreciation of life-learning and deepening. When we think of enjoyment of practice, we include the challenge of the study; the sense of getting mentally and emotionally stronger; and a general feeling of enthusiasm for life as a great T'ai Chi experience.
We understand in our practice that the greater the level of involvement - in 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 he can 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, we believe that enjoyment is one of the most powerful motivators available to us.
One of the most basic T'ai 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 T'ai 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. We 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 is important to understand that traditionally T'ai Chi is not 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, even bordering on being strange. But the ability to assume this long term perspective has numerous benefits.
First, it alleviates pressure. In T'ai 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. We recommend to our students that they adopt the attitude of being life-long T'ai 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 the result of which was intended for the benefit of their unborn grandchildren. The Classical T'ai Chi texts ("Classics") describe T'ai 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 T'ai Chi, over the course of years and decades, we simply seek to do what we know is good for ourselves.
Accept the Challenge
Over our years of study and teaching, we have seen how T'ai 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 dept a willingness to be challenged, and to enjoy the intensity that arises in respect to that challenge.
We emphasize to our students that T'ai 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, to develop new resources and perspectives. The ability to accomplish this with grace and elegance is the mark of a proficient T'ai Chi practitioner.
Initially the beginning student is challenged to learn not only new routines of movements; but also new ways of moving. Another level of challenge occurs when one begins Push Hands practice, for then one is required to extend one's T'ai Chi practice to include a partner, an opponent. The eventual T'ai Chi challenge is to live one's life consistently from the perspective of T'ai Chi principles. We often relate to our students that a number of our teachers no longer practice, in the sense of doing form or other T'ai Chi exercises. This is an indication that they have successfully integrated T'ai Chi so well into their lives that every movement, every experience is T'ai Chi practice for them. These martial artists have successfully met the T'ai Chi challenge.