It is extremely difficult to bridge the gap between actually doing the tai chi form and improving your meditative-mindful state. On one hand, doing the form feels good and we definitely feel better afterwards. But how do we answer the questions from students, classmates, and ourselves such as:
What should I be thinking about when I do the form?
Does your mind race?
Are you concentrating on something?
I will admit to you dear reader that I have historically been at a loss for providing a concise response that was satisfying. But I found a really solid answer. I was reading on Mindfulness and forgot I was reading on Mindfulness because I read this:
To cultivate the healing power of mindfulness requires much more than mechanically following a recipe or a set of instructions. No real process of learning is like that. It is only when the mind is open and receptive that learning and seeing and change can occur. In practicing mindfulness you will have to bring your whole being to the process. You can’t just assume a meditative posture and hope that something will magically just happen, nor can you play a CD and think that the CD is going to “do something” for you. (p. 19*).
Doesn’t that sound like Tai Chi?
The leading researcher on Mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, speaks of major pillars of mindfulness that can be addressed simultaneously or individually to lead to a greater mental state. Through Wiseman‘s work we know that physical movement can produce desired emotional states. I will use this essay to interpret 5 of Zinn’s Pillars of Mindfulness in terms of doing the tai chi form. Let’s watch Jon Kabat-Zinn in these short explanations and then apply them to tai chi.
How did the Mindfulness Movement start?
The idea of Mindfulness has gained so much traction in the last several years, even garnering an exclusive issue of Time Magazine. We couldn’t be more excited that conscious thought is now a buzzword. Yet, if we are left to believe that simply “being present” during daily activities leads to a calm mind, we risk moving backwards as a society. We don’t want people to become frustrated and dismiss consciousness as hogwash (again).
How did the Mindfulness Movement start? In the 1970s, Dr. John Kabat-Zinn applied principles of mindful meditation to patients in a medical setting. He developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program which helped alleviate chronic pain and previously debilitating medical conditions, both physical and mental. His work studied the benefits of advanced meditation and worked to replicate the results in new comers.
He was indeed successful. However, most people championing the benefits of Mindfulness shrug off the main point. Zinn’s participants were successful by following a very strict, medically-tested protocol in a supportive community. They documented improvements in health markers and well-being after several weeks of consistent study so it is not enough to say “be present while you chew your carrots.”
Kabat-Zinn’s work is nothing short of avant garde and brilliant considering that it took place almost half a century ago at a time when western medicine was not receptive to alternative approaches. He brought eastern thinking into the western medical community and demonstrated results that could be replicated. If you are truly interested in understanding Mindfulness, then reading his Full Catastrophe Living is a must. At the very least, watch his videos where he speaks on the 5 pillars of mindfulness (non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving). Your progress will be less watered-down with this basic understanding.
Mindfulness and Tai Chi
Mindfulness is: “the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” We spend a great deal of our waking hours judging and creating opinions on all of our actions and things that happen around us. We are often most severe with ourselves when we are learning something new or are trying to improve ourselves. Our job is not to try to turn this off but to witness it taking place. To see ourselves as separate from the judging process so that we can enjoy, experience, and see things how they really are. Read: do not judge your form while you are doing it. Enjoy the process and know that this is (currently) your best attempt.
Do you want to complete the tai chi form more than you want to perform it? The byproduct of rushing is that we are never mentally happy or present with what is actually going on. Patience; the belief that things unfold in their own way, allows us to enjoy the millions of minutes of the process and not only the single second of completion.
3. Beginner’s Mind
Beginner’s mind returns the excitement to our repetitive daily activities. Each time we return to do the form we are better than the last time simply due to our experience. How many of us concentrate on the few moves we can’t remember versus the many we do well? A beginner is open to endless possibilities and isn’t looking at the “task” of doing the form through a clouded, negative lens.
“Can we come to trust the natural wisdom of the body?” Do we take our breathing and heartbeat for granted until something bad happens? Tai Chi gives us the chance to listen to the breath, think about what we are looking at, etc. Bringing awareness to all of the body processes that naturally occur without our intervention increases our trust and can increase our confidence in situations that might not be 100% in our control (a.k.a. every situation).
Tai Chi is a rare opportunity where we can just let things be as they are. Tai Chi is a tremendous discipline to show us that we can be present AND be completing something, rather than ignoring our present moment and racing to some future goal. Kabat-Zinn shares that present-mindedness is tremendously healing and restorative.
“The attitude with which you undertake the practice of paying attention and being in the present is crucial. It is the soil in which you will be cultivating your ability to calm your mind and to relax your body, to concentrate and to see more clearly. If the attitudinal soil is depleted, that is, if your energy and commitment to practice are low, it will be hard to develop calmness and relaxation with any consistency. If the soil is really polluted, that is, if you are trying to force yourself to feel relaxed and demand of yourself that “something happen,” nothing will grow at all and you will quickly conclude that “meditation doesn’t work.”
*Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness Jon Kabat-Zinn – Pub. by Dell Pub., a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Pub. Group – 1991