Idle Thoughts on Correspondences Between Taiji and Meditation

Eric Abrahamsen, modified 4 Months ago at 2/3/22 2:20 PM
Created 4 Months ago at 2/3/22 2:20 PM

Idle Thoughts on Correspondences Between Taiji and Meditation

Posts: 24 Join Date: 6/9/21 Recent Posts
I’ve been practicing Chen style taiji for more than five years and
meditating seriously for about three, and I wanted to write a bit about
correspondences that I’ve noticed between the two practices. I have no
particular argument that I’m trying to make here, no theory to advance,
and I’m not going to try to convince anyone of anything. But my brain is
a hyperactive pattern-matching analogy-building machine, and the
similarities are too… similar to ignore. And I can’t think of anyone but
the people on this board who’d be likely to care!

On the face of it, obviously, meditation and taiji have very little in
common. One practice provides ultimate insights into the nature of self
and reality, the other allows you to punch people really, really hard.
It’s in the day-to-day work of the two disciplines, and the way that
they gradually transform the self, that they start to look the same.

First: simple concentration practice, in meditation, vs taiji’s
zhanzhuang, not coincidentally referred to as “standing meditation” in
English. Described using terms that could apply equally to both: this
practice involves the isolation of a certain central faculty, which is
engaged and held over long periods of time, in a static way, with the
goal of allowing all the other parts of the self to gradually relax
around that core of effort, to become aligned and come together in a
relationship of harmony. In meditation that faculty is attention; in
taiji it is the muscles of the thighs and core. In the early stages of
both practices, when this “faculty” is weak, the work is effortful,
frustrating, and a bit tedious. Later, when we have developed some base
strength, it becomes beautifully relaxing, and we’re able to stay in
this posture of balance and neutrality for long periods of time. With
the central faculty engaged, all the other “parts” of us (thoughts and
emotions in meditation, other parts of the body in taiji) are gradually
encouraged to let go of the unnecessary work they were doing, to
assemble themselves into a whole, and to find the ideal Goldilocks
balance of presence and engagement without over-exertion. It is
impossible to work directly on all these “other parts”; all we can do is
hold the center and encourage the rest of it to let go on its own;
success in the practice rests entirely on putting in the hours. And in
both cases this “center”, the location of the effort, is something we’re
inclined to think of at first as a real place, a solid core: the
consciousness in the case of meditation, and the lower dantian in the
case of taiji (a region below and behind the navel). But in fact, in
both cases, this supposed core or kernel would be better thought of as
an empty space, a hub or a transport through which other forces pass;
within which our constituent parts communicate and negotiate and find
balance.

Second: walking meditation or other sensory-based insight practice, vs
taiji’s “silk reeling” exercises. A silk reeling exercise is where you
extract a single circular movement out of a form, then “loop” it so that
you cycle through that movement over and over. In both cases my
understanding is that we are feeding ourselves a limited, repetitive
stream of information (sensations from the feet, or a single whole-body
movement) as a controlled experiment that affords us greater
understanding. The cycles are brief, and similar enough that we can
easily connect and compare one to the next, yet different enough that we
have endless chances to do it a little differently; see a little deeper;
try a different approach; gradually learn. It’s a sort of an
intermediate stage between the static “neutral pose” of the first
practice, and the reality-facing nature of the third.

Third: taiji’s actual formwork, compared to meditation practice’s work
on sila, psychology, and integration. Here we take the core principles
we’ve learned in isolated practice, and apply them to something like
real life. There’s not much to say about this, and the farther I get
from the connection between the consciousness and the dantian, the more
tenuous and facile the whole analogy becomes. But for completeness’
sake, there’s this.

In terms of the structure of the self, then, my only real insight here
(lower-case i) is the connection between consciousness and the dantian.
And the nature of the practice itself: static posture held over time;
deep examination of an intentionally-limited stream of experience;
gradual coherence and harmony of all one’s constituent parts. My history
of progress in taiji has also very much followed a broad-strokes version
of the stages of insight: a three-part cycle of breakthrough, followed
by backlash, followed by a “new normal”, and then breakthrough again.
But perhaps this is less meaningful, as I suspect any practice that
involves substantially transforming the material makeup of our selves
will follow a similar cycle; I think that’s just how we’re made.

As I said, I have no actual argument or theory here, beyond these
observations. I’m aware that describing meditative practice in this way
seems to de-emphasize insight practice, making it look like a
supplementary exercise – I don’t have any argument to make there, and I
think it’s just an artifact of looking at things from this particular
angle (my taiji teacher has more than once said that silk reeling is
possibly the most important part of the practice).

I mostly just find these correspondences to be occasionally helpful in
orienting me in one practice or another. I think that the analogies we
use, and our mental visualizations, are more important to our practice
than simply giving us a mental shorthand, or a way of conceptualizing
what we’re doing. They have a concrete effect on the practice, and I
have found that helpful.
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Chris M, modified 4 Months ago at 2/3/22 2:28 PM
Created 4 Months ago at 2/3/22 2:28 PM

RE: Idle Thoughts on Correspondences Between Taiji and Meditation

Posts: 4418 Join Date: 1/26/13 Recent Posts
Just to make sure I get what you're saying: What you are typing as "Taiji" is what others might call Tai Chi?
Eric Abrahamsen, modified 4 Months ago at 2/3/22 2:41 PM
Created 4 Months ago at 2/3/22 2:41 PM

RE: Idle Thoughts on Correspondences Between Taiji and Meditation

Posts: 24 Join Date: 6/9/21 Recent Posts
Chris M
Just to make sure I get what you're saying: What you are typing as "Taiji" is what others might call Tai Chi?

Yes! Sorry. Taiji and Tai Chi are the same word, just rendered via different romanization systems. As it's the same word, it's pronounced the same, and it sounds more like "taiji" than it does like "tai chi". I speak Mandarin Chinese and have a hard time writing/saying Tai Chi.
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Chris M, modified 4 Months ago at 2/3/22 3:15 PM
Created 4 Months ago at 2/3/22 3:15 PM

RE: Idle Thoughts on Correspondences Between Taiji and Meditation

Posts: 4418 Join Date: 1/26/13 Recent Posts
Thanks - I was just making sure.
Marley M, modified 22 Days ago at 6/7/22 1:38 AM
Created 22 Days ago at 6/7/22 1:38 AM

RE: Idle Thoughts on Correspondences Between Taiji and Meditation

Post: 1 Join Date: 6/7/22 Recent Posts
Nice post! Here's my perspective, from someone who's practiced a decade of meditation on and off, always had a real affinity for walking meditation and continuous mindfulness practices, and has been doing Yang style taiji the last 2+ years (and 18 months or so of wu style a few years back).<br /><br />On one hand, meditation has made the ability to pay moment to moment full-body attention to the bodily detail of a taiji form vastly more possible than I used to be able to do. There's a clear connection on just the ability to both direct attention and surrender to an activity -- but not surrender too much, because there's that constant refinement.<br /><br />On the other side of things, taiji, and for me especially form practice, has absolutely unblocked things in my meditation practice, given me a much deeper sense of that dantien/hara center of gravity we used to focus on in zen centers across many changes, given me the ability to be mindful of the postures of the body in ways I could not before, and most of all: given me a way to practice single pointed focus in the middle of activity, without losing a wider field of awareness of what else is happening. My attention really had trouble reconciling an open field and a narrow focus before, and now...it doesn't. And the many postures and motions and weight shifts and internal subtleties are what has done that.<br /><br />making the posture of sitting itself less painful (looser hips, etc) has just been icing on the cake.<br /><br />i hear you on zhan zhuang. It does almost use the letting go around an empty core the same as concentration practice--and that has helped me too, extremely slowly.&nbsp;<br /><br />i feel very lucky to have these two things supporting one another---it got my practice back into balance after a couple years really off the rails&nbsp;
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Linda ”Polly Ester” Ö, modified 21 Days ago at 6/7/22 9:20 AM
Created 21 Days ago at 6/7/22 9:20 AM

RE: Idle Thoughts on Correspondences Between Taiji and Meditation

Posts: 6430 Join Date: 12/8/18 Recent Posts
I have a similar dynamic with yoga asanas and meditation. While yoga doesn't involve punching people or being punched, I imagine that there are lots of similarities. My meditation practice is dependent on my yoga practice, and my meditation practice is what makes me stick with the yoga (because apparently just wellbeing wasn't motivating enough). I could write lengthy about the interplay, but you already did it so nicely, both of you. Instead I'll just say that I'm happy to see that you benefit so much from combining those two practices. Sounds awesome! May you continue to benefit from it, and in doing so, may that in turn benefit others. 

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