In Part I of this article we discussed two simple methods to bring the physical principles of taiji (tai chi) and qigong practice to daily life. Here we complete our short list by suggesting two additional mental/spiritual, or mind/body/spirit integrative practices. If you’ve no interest in explication of the mental/spiritual practices suggested below you can jump to the end for a quick summary of all four reminders.
Awareness was number one in our list of the top 12 words to describe taiji, and we explained why in a follow-up article. Even when trying to limit Part I of this article to bringing physical principles of taiji practice to daily life we could not do so without also mentioning the heightened awareness and presence in the moment that is necessary to do so. In the second article linked above we wrote: “Awareness is both the path and goal. Everything hinges on awareness.”
Awareness is both the path and goal. Everything hinges on awareness.
And so awareness practice is of course central to bringing our taiji practice to daily life.
Someone recently forwarded an article to me by Richard Rohr titled “Action and Contemplation Part I: Silence, the Great Teacher.”
Two lines from that article especially caught my eye:
“The opposite of contemplation is not action, it is reaction. We must wait for pure action, which proceeds from deep silence.”
Spot on. This is exactly the “application” of contemplation, or meditation, in daily life: becoming more aware of our thoughts and emotions, and maintaining inner silence, so we may choose to act as we wish, instead of reacting to every situation. Without this awareness we allow people or events to control us—we don’t use our minds, our minds use us. Keeping our mental balance in all situations, so that we may act as we wish, and not react without control or awareness, is the foundational application of our meditation practice.
There is an argument amongst philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, theologians, and physicists—do we have free will or are, ultimately, all things preordained? Here is a great little video summarizing physicists’ perspective on freewill, and a well-written multidisciplinary summary in Scientific American.
I cannot say definitively whether we determine or can predict our future actions, but experience has led me to believe one thing: by increasing awareness of our thoughts and emotions, and by increasing our philosophical understanding of the reality underlying human behavior, we can control how we feel about events, and therefore how we act. (Understanding the philosophical reality of human experience—those principles which are always true—and directly addressing the source of our troubled “monkey mind,” as opposed to “letting it go” or “sweeping it under the rug,” is the foundation of Dr. Yang’s WaQi meditation program.) This is free will: we can, with practice and understanding, choose how we feel about daily events. Ultimately we can choose to think and act in a way that leads to our own contentment and tranquility, or we can be upset and unhappy, allowing other people or events to dictate our emotions and behavior. This understanding of free will is, again, what Richard Rohr meant when he said “the opposite of contemplation is not action, it is reaction.” How we feel and act is our choice, but only if we develop awareness and understanding through our contemplation practice.
And so awareness is both the purpose of, and prerequisite for, contemplation. It is also the essential ingredient for understanding the philosophical reality of human experience and acting according to our will—with joy and tranquility. The foundational exercise for practical application of our meditation training is therefore this: simply to be aware of your thoughts and emotions, not to react, but to act according to your will.
That’s all you need to do. I say “all” a bit tongue in cheek, because although it is as simple as can be, it is not always easy and requires practice. In our article on meditation “The Foundation of the Foundation of the Foundation of Taiji” we suggested a simple contemplation for sitting meditation: to think “I am observing me. When “me” thinks, “I” is aware.” In any daily life event repeat “I am observing me” and be aware of your emotions and motivation.
Just as the simple reminder to relax your shoulders immediately brings back all of the physical principles instilled in taiji training, if you can remind yourself to be aware of your thoughts and emotions during daily life the remainder of your meditation/spiritual training will kick in automatically—commensurate of course with the depth and quality of your daily meditation practice.
. . . if you can remind yourself to be aware of your thoughts and emotions during daily life the remainder of your meditation/spiritual training will kick in automatically—commensurate of course with the depth and quality of your daily meditation practice.
In our article “Awareness” I included the poem “The Guest House” by the great Sufi poet Rumi. If you have not read that poem I highly recommend it. Rumi advises us to “welcome and entertain” all human emotions as visitors sent to teach us, and to:
“meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.”
This brilliant line, I would contend, conveys the essence of spiritual practice in daily life. First and foremost, be aware of your thoughts and emotions. Meet them at the door laughing, and welcome them. If you can learn to laugh at yourself, you will never be wanting for amusement. 🙂 There is no need to kick or judge oneself, as all emotions are to be appreciated as part and parcel of being human. Just be aware, and the rest of your daily meditation training will kick in.
I have found that this practice of awareness of one’s thoughts and emotions is not only enlightening, it is fun and truly makes life more joyous. Eventually, and again commensurate with the confidence, tranquility, and strength gained from the combined physical, mental, and spiritual modalities of taiji training, you will begin to play with and enjoy any life event, positive or negative. You will eventually “welcome and entertain” almost any interaction with others, and enjoy playing with the energy of any situation. This is playing push-hands with life, the practice of not losing our mental/emotional balance. As Chris Hoeflinger, a student here in Champaign said one day in class: “everything is a push.” All of life is an opportunity to practice. And the measure of your spiritual practice is one simple thing: happiness.
You will eventually “welcome and entertain” almost any interaction with others, and enjoy playing with the energy of any situation. This is playing push-hands with life, the practice of not losing our balance. And the measure of your spiritual practice is one simple thing: happiness.
To reach this level, though, I would again note that it is quite helpful to have an increased philosophical understanding of the characteristics of duality underlying all experience (and all of taiji practice, I may add): interdependence, relativity, reversal/change, and non-absoluteness. This is the foundation of all philosophy, both Eastern and Western, as explained in our inaugural blog post “Yin and Yang—Fundamental Reality in East and West.” Understanding this is the logical basis for why/how spiritual/philosophical principles such as non-judgement and non-attachment allow us to act in accord with nature, to merrily (with joy) and verily (sincerely) row our boats gently down the stream.
If all of that is nothing new to you, here is a challenge for taking the practice a bit further. Be adventurous in your life. Whenever possible, place yourself in new and uncertain situations. Do something you are not good at. Take a public speaking task if you are uncomfortable with that. Purposely break your daily habits and go somewhere or do something new and different. And be aware of your thoughts and emotions then. Play with that new situation, welcoming your emotions and meeting them at the door laughing. Can you remain as balanced as during your normal, routine, comfortable life?
It’s one thing to be comfortable with situations that you are good at, and quite another to put yourself in new or uncomfortable positions to continue learning and improving. As the jazz great Miles Davis said: “You know why I quit playing ballads? Cause I love playing ballads.”
We edited an article for Dr. Yang’s newsletter first published in 2012 titled “The Relation between Wuji, Taiji, and Qigong.” Interestingly, the term qigong is relatively new, first used around the mid-20th century, and for that article it was necessary to define qigong beyond the common literal translation of “energy work.” Qigong is more completely understood as “mind/body/spirit integration”—any mind/body/spirit integrative practice is qigong. Yoga is qigong (but don’t tell your yoga friends that); walking can be qigong if done right—you get the idea. Qigong is a big picture concept, but of course the foundational qigong exercises are sitting, standing, and lying-down meditation.
I define qigong as “mind/body/spirit integrative practice” in our first introductory class, and everybody nods their head. Then I like to ask “so what does that mean?” To answer I give the simplest example I can think of—a smile. When you smile your heart/spirit is reflected in your facial muscles. And to smile, you must be relaxed—there is no such thing as a tense mind and relaxed body. You cannot fake a smile, or if you try it will be obvious and your discomfort and attempt to deceive will be easily perceived by those around you.
Smiling is the simplest qigong exercise you can do. And as with all qigong, relaxing the body will help relax the spirit, and visa versa. There is a reason why the image of smiling, or the advice to feel gratitude and actually smile, is used in many meditation techniques.
Smiling is also, arguably, the most effective self-defense action you can take: a genuine smile will avoid or de-escalate many, if not most, confrontations. Consciously or subconsciously, people do perceive and are affected by your spirit and emotions. Not as well as dogs, but they do. (A fake smile, on the other hand, will not help and may increase the danger.) We wrote extensively on the importance of mental attitude and aptitude in self-defence in a previous blog.
And so the simplest way to practice qigong any time during daily life is to smile. Feel gratitude or simply smile at your own thoughts if alone. Or smile at others as you meet them—especially if in a potentially confrontational situation. You will have more peace, joy, and vitality in your life with this one simple reminder, and you will learn about yourself. If you cannot smile a genuine smile, ask yourself why not?
Dr. Yang often quotes a famous Chinese saying:
xiào yī xiào, shí nián shào 笑一笑,十年少
chóu yī chóu，bái le tóu。 笑一笑，十年少﹔愁一愁，白了頭。
“Smile one smile and you are ten years younger.
Add one worry (or anger), and you gain white hair.“
Qigong néng qū bìng, yuán yóu zài sōng jìng.
“Relaxation and tranquility/quietness are the reasons why qigong can heal.”
Bringing practice to daily life is the goal—harmony with all around us, nurturing, moderation, balance, tranquility and awareness in everything we do. A push in push-hands is a metaphor for every energy in life. Everything is a push—positive energy can unbalance as well as negative.
Here in summary is our short list of four simple ways to bring taiji practice to daily life. The first two are physical, the third the fundamental application of meditation to daily life, and the fourth is the simplest qigong. As stated in Part I of this article this list was intended to be simple (though not always easy). It can be applied at any time regardless of where you are or what you may be doing, reflects the foundational principles of taiji and qigong, and is easily remembered.
Four Simple Ways to Bring Taiji Practice to Daily Life
- Relax the shoulders
- Be silent, make no sound as you move (i.e. control your energy)
- Be aware of your thoughts and emotions—don’t react, but act according to your will.
You don’t have to remember every principle of movement, or every meditation. The gongfu you have built in your daily practice will automatically come back with these four simple reminders, commensurate with the quality and quantity of your training. And the measure of your training is one simple thing: happiness. You will have more fun and peace as you play with life.
As I tell the students in our local group, don’t believe everything I say. All I really have to share is my own experience. Try it and see if it works for you.