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Is Tai Chi a meditation tradition?

Or is it that one part of tai chi is not a meditation tradition, but one part of tai chi is a meditation tradition?


figura-1(3)There are a lot of misconceptions in general about this both in the West and even in China.  This is possible because many see the movements of tai chi and think, “Tai chi looks so meditative and graceful, it must be a moving form of meditation.”

The internal art that existed long before tai chi ever came about is called bagua.    Bagua literally means “eight trigrams” and is intimately linked to the I Ching, Book of Changes. Bagua was originally a meditation tradition as it was taught in Taoist monasteries, predating tai chi by a few thousand years. Tai chi also originated from the Taoist tradition, as referenced in the Tai Chi Classics. However, even though tai chi comes from Taoism it would be false to say that it was primarily a meditation tradition.

First, let’s define ‘meditation’. There is a big difference between something being ‘meditation’ and something being ‘meditative.’ There is a difference between doing meditation for stress relief or to attract what you want in life versus practicing meditation for advancing spirituality or attaining enlightenment.

What many call ‘meditation’ in the West is often more about stress relief than spirituality. Casual meditation helps people release their stress and, if practiced enough, helps the practitioner develop inner peace.   But make no mistake that meditation for the sake of spirituality, or even enlightenment, is of another order altogether. It requires a significant amount of time, dedication and inner courage. This is a very big distinction. What I personally call meditation is only the latter and I recognize that there are all kinds of ‘meditative’ practices that improve people’s lives.

The overwhelming majority of tai chi in China, as in roughly ninety-nine percent, was never considered meditation within its parent system, Taoism. There was a small group who focused on using tai chi within the Taoist meditation tradition, but that’s an extremely small minority.

Tai chi done as meditation has a range of possible goals much like sitting meditation from simply relieving life’s stresses, to clearing out all of the nonsense that’s inside if you, to deeper goals like finding out what is unchanging inside of you and eventually joining with the universe or the Tao. But this is not the common or traditional way to learn tai chi.

With Tai Chi meditation, not only are you reaping the mental benefits of de-stressing your inner core, you are also getting exercise through movement of your body.  Just like Yoga, Tai Chi Meditation practices control movements.  This control comes from careful use of the muscles in your legs torso, arms and almost every part of your body.  This leads physical sancity as well as inner peace.

The practice of Tai Chi Meditation has also become known as Movement Meditation.   In this form one does not have to sit still and ruminate; instead your chi moves through your body to reach out and eliminate the stress you feel (and is done through constant movement of the body).  While it may be slow, but constant, you are constantly shifting your weight from one side to the other.  By doing this slowly, and in a large circular motion moving the extensions of your body with your thoughts being focused entirely on the movement of the body.  These movements are in perfect control and alignment with one another.

When you have gathered a great deal of stress and are having a hard time letting it go, one of  the best known ways to relieve the stress is meditation.     While I realize that there are those that think that sitting and meditating on their problem will only add stress, not decrease it, they are incorrect.  By contemplation and reflection on the things that are causing the stress helps in a large way to eliminate it.   If you’re the type can’t sit still and deliberate on the causes of your stress, Tai Chi Meditation will help get you where you need to be.

Tai Chi Meditation has been in practice for hundreds of years.   Its historical roots are up for debate today, however, it is an ancient Chinese practice that works.   Its purpose is to channel your concentration into the movements of your body and align those thoughts with the focus of your mind.  In this way, you are releasing your stressors from your body.   You are sending your chi or life force to all parts of your body through physical movement which leaves no room for stress.   It is eliminated by the practice of Tai Chi Meditation.

Originally tai chi was not done primarily as a health exercise as it is now often promoted (and for good reasons).  An interesting way of looking at tai chi is this: it is an incredible system of martial arts that contains, as a side effect of its martial aspects, a movement form that just happens to make the practitioner very healthy, the nervous system very strong and can cultivate incredible mental abilities in the practitioner. The other two internal arts of bagua and hsing-i also make practitioners strong but in other ways. So although tai chi makes people healthy, but it’s classically the ninety-nine percent of people that learned and practiced it primarily as a martial art.

The other positive side effect of learning tai chi was its meditative nature but again this is not necessarily meditation as defined previously as a practice that goes for enlightenment.  Through tai chi practice the mind becomes still, which is a basic principle of meditation.    But tai chi chuan‘s purpose was about making the mind still not for the goals of meditation, but for the goals of obtaining worldly and martial power.

Drawing directly from the history of the internal arts, we find that tai chi was practiced primarily as a martial art. Each move has a specific martial component and different forms were developed around martial tactics.   The wide stances within the Chen style were developed for moving in battle while wearing heavy armor.

In the advanced stages of a tai chi practice, everything is taught from the perspective of the Tai Chi Classics, which come from the principles of Taoist meditation. This keeps the practitioner’s mind focused on the many phrases contained within the Classics.   But these phrases and applications of using the mind were always in the service of improving martial capacity, being able to have an incredibly well-developed mind and spirit that could fight well and get an edge to be successful in the world. In the days before guns, being a better martial artist was not a hobby but rather in many cases a matter of life and death.

When we change our point of reference to tai chi as meditation the primary goal is not about fighting better. You might gain some martial ability as a side effect but it is not the purpose. Most people who are very good at meditating can usually also be successful in the world if they simply choose to have their attention, instead of turning inward, turn outward, which is what virtually everybody does to begin with.

As you move into the deeper realms of meditation, something else arises. A person could be a tai chi martial art master, do his or her tai chi push hands very well and excel at fighting. They can probably also think really well and be very successful in some external activity. But this person may still be plagued by all of their inner demons. If they have actually had to hurt others or kill in a fight, they may not be able to handle the emotional, psychic and karmic load that comes with that (much like many of our returning veterans). And   if their inner demons are relatively calm after engaging in a real battle, they still don’t have the clarity to know who they are, and they don’t have the clarity to start reaching out to understand what the universe is.

In contrast, a person who does tai chi as meditation may not even particularly care about his or her martial abilities. They are more concerned with getting rid of the emotional, mental, psychic and karmic demons that they have inside of themselves. So the movements of tai chi will be done in a way that supports this purpose.

A person who does tai chi for meditation does so for the same reason that people sit in caves, or the Buddha sat and meditated, or Taoist immortals sat and meditated–to aim for what some call “enlightenment” or spiritual freedom. To them, the moving form of tai chi becomes a container for the meditation.    In most traditional tai chi, although it is “meditative”, its moving form is a container primarily for the martial arts, to learn how to fight better. In modern times, it seems as though a large number of people use tai chi as a container primarily for health.

Some of the same techniques that meditators practice to attain spiritual clarity will also make the person very psychically powerful. However, that is not the goal. For martial arts, if you want to be successful in the world, if you want to beat people in the world, being psychically powerful is an incredible edge. But being psychically powerful is not going to get rid of your inner demons. In fact, it may make them worse. It may just give your demons the power to really get nasty and create bad karma.   And that would defeat the purpose of tai chi and meditation.



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