Tai chi is an art which cultivates a profound understanding of the relationship between mind, body, and spirit. Central to this understanding is the study of how tai chi can educate us about the intimate relationships between thought, emotion, and the physical state of the body.
Emotions are affected by our thoughts and by our physical well-being. Our emotional patterns, whether acute or chronic, also affect our physical state, health, thought patterns and mental strategies.
This interdependence of thought, emotion and physique are central to beginner and advanced tai chi practice. This is true whether your practice is for health, or for practical self defence.
Every thought that we think, no matter how subtle or fleeting, has an effect on our emotional state, whether acute or chronic. And every emotion affects our posture, movement, thought processes and chemical balance, and mental health.
If you think of something that makes you proud, your chest will swell. If think of something fearful, the area around your kidneys and adrenals will contract. Pensiveness and worry will impede the spleen, pancreas and stomach. Bitter thoughts will clench the heart area. Sorrow will weaken the lungs.
And just as these thoughts can create a physical response, habitually holding certain postures can create an emotional pattern that promotes certain types of thinking. If your middle back is tight, it can encourage fearful thinking. Tension or disfunction in the liver area can produce thoughts of anger. A tight chest can create an attitude of bitterness and a victim mentality. Indigestion can make you worry more. Lung problems can cause sorrow.
Thoughts are inevitable, as anyone who has meditated will testify. Clearing the mind is like clearing the leaves from a river in the autumn. Clear one and more will appear. So it stands to reason that thoughts, emotions and posture are constantly in flux. Our tendencies are what we can learn to regulate. If we tend toward a particular type of posture, emotion, or thought process, then that will become our default state. If our default tendency is toward negative thinking, or a particular emotion, then we will be easily unbalanced by external influences. It will be the same if those influences include an assailant or the ordinary stresses of life.
Through regular tai chi practice, we can condition our tendency toward balance, power, and harmony. We might not be perfectly balanced all the time. But when the inevitable external disruptions occur, we will recover naturally and instantly, like a punching-bag-doll. (Those of you who are of my generation may remember the inflatable four-foot-tall punching bag dummies that would pop back up when you knocked them down. Mine had a picture of Popeye on it.)
When we practice tai chi, we don’t try to eliminate thoughts, or even to control the mind. The mind simply cannot be controlled. The more to try to rein it in the more it rebels.
Tai Chi also does not try to control the emotions. Emotions are as inevitable as thought, tides, and breathing. They cannot be controlled, only regulated and responded to.
Tai chi does not try to control posture and alignment. As we must move and change, breath and digest, rise and sit, posture cannot be controlled. We can only regulate the changes and respond to the forces of change.
What tai chi does is teach us the different ways to understand and balance mind body and emotion. We learn to harmonise mind, body and emotion by first recognising that the three are intimately interdependent.
We then learn to find the centre of balance for all three bodies: mental, emotional, and physical. This is a point of awareness where the three are one and the same. With time and practice, we gradually refine our awareness of that centre, and get better at seeking that perfect point of balance.
We will be constantly pulled off balance by life, time, tides, stress, and the occasional attacker. But as we hone our awareness of the centre, tai chi will gradually make us more stable, and more able to recover from the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.
And as we get better and better at seeking that balance, we will become less vulnerable to the external influences. We become stronger, more agile, and more flexible in mind, body, and emotion. Eventually we become unassailable.
The highest goal is a state of “no enemy.” In this state others are not only unable to defeat us. They are not even able to attack us in the first place. We are “one with the Universe” and the attacker defeats themselves.
This highest level of achievement starts with the recognition that our greatest flaw is in the fact that we are usually fighting ourselves. It is achieved with the understanding that we are capable of being a greater influence on ourselves than external circumstances are.