In recent blogs I have written a great deal about the physical mechanisms of taiji (tai chi) movement, internal power, and understanding martial application. Here I thought it worthwhile to return to the foundation (sitting meditation) of the foundation (qigong) of taiji practice—the essential practice where tranquility and, as Grandmaster Feng Zhiqiang taught, the gong of ling (mental and physical acuity) is realized—with a little practical “how to” advice.
Everyone knows the famous saying “taiji comes from wuji” (wuji sheng taiji). Wuji—the mother of taiji—is practiced and realized in sitting meditation. Indeed, sitting meditation is literally called “wuji practice.”
In our second blog post we looked at meditation from a big-picture perspective—understanding entering quiescence (wuji, the absence of judgement and complementary opposites) as the ultimate destination of any meditation technique. We all, of course, need a technique to enter wuji. But what is the foundation of sitting practice—the essential ingredient of meditation, regardless of technique, that will help lead us to tranquility?
In a word, awareness. Awareness is the essential ingredient for any spiritual path. (Indeed, Anthony de Mello equated awareness and spirituality.) Awareness does not belong to any particular culture, teaching, or tradition; it is a potential in all human beings. Whatever can be worked out in one path can be worked out in another. Awareness is the thread common to all.
But awareness of what? First and essentially, of your thoughts and emotions and how they affect your happiness, tranquility, actions, and relations with others. After that, awareness of the reality underlying all human experience, and therefore your choice(s) for accepting or dealing with that reality. If you are unaware, your thoughts and emotions, and the actions of others, will control you. If you are aware you can choose how you think and respond. You can choose the path that will lead to happiness and tranquility, or the opposite. You may not always get to choose what happens, but you can always choose your reaction to it. Good and bad things will happen, but all human experiences are a gift. You will feel pain, but you need not suffer. You can row against the current, angrily, or you can row gently downstream, following the Dao, sincerely and happily. That is free will.
Awareness was #1 in our our list of top 12 words to describe taiji, and we explained why in the follow-up post: “Awareness is both the path and the goal. Everything hinges on awareness . . . Meditation is pure awareness training—learning to become aware of one’s thoughts and emotions, and how our thoughts and reactions to the world determine our happiness . . . It is a gradual awakening to who we are . . .”
Awareness of our thoughts and emotions (and, though it should be self-evident, I would add complete honesty with ourselves about those) is essential for realizing deeper levels in meditation. Every person’s mind will wander to some degree during meditation, even that of the most advanced meditators. But without awareness the mind/ intellect/ego will constantly pull you away from quiescence without, well, being aware that you have fallen back into the habit of thinking, planning, rationalizing, and worrying. And so you sit thinking, instead of bathing in quiescence. So how can we increase our awareness in sitting?
Regardless of your chosen meditation technique, at any time during your meditation you can tell yourself that
I am observing me . . . when “me” thinks, “I” is aware . . .
Don’t try to include this phrase in a composition for English class, but the wording is intentional. 🙂 Being aware of your thoughts is the first essential step in letting them go, like clouds passing by. Then you may immediately return to your technique, or, optimally and if you can, go beyond technique and bathe in quiescence. And repeat. Return, and return again, to your meditation at any time with the reminder “I am observing me . . . whenever me thinks, I notices.” (For deeper, more troubling or more serious issues, another step is understanding the reality underlying the situation and how our choices affect our tranquility and happiness—as Pema Chodron said “nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know”—but this is a subject for a future post.)
This simple reminder will help you to become aware when your mind wanders and therefore to allow the space between thoughts to gradually grow. If you are feeling confident with it, you can also say to yourself:
“I” is standing sentry—even before “me” thinks, I is aware . . .
Remember to stay relaxed, though, and to not allow this reminder to make you mentally tense.
Finally, the goal of all practice is to take our lessons to daily life—to be practicing all of the time. “I am observing me” is a simple remembrance to bring your practice to daily life. Then you may, to paraphrase Rumi: “welcome all thoughts or emotions, and meet them at the door laughing.”
Here is a snippet of guided meditation that I have found that helps students to become aware of and quiet their thoughts. Any or all parts can be inserted at any time into any meditation technique or contemplation, and I often repeat them in sitting, standing, and lying-down meditations in class.
I’ll first present the words only, and then briefly expound on each line:
A Simple Guided Meditation
* I am observing me . . . whenever “me” thinks, “I” notices . . .
Stillness . . . quiescence . . .
AWARENESS . . . without judgement . . . no good, no bad, no right, no wrong, no attraction, no aversion . . . just . . . awareness
“I” is standing sentry . . . even before “me” thinks, “I” is aware . . .
Expecting, NOTHING . . . doing, NOTHING . . . just, AWARENESS. . . just pure BEING . . .
Being . . . is . . . blessing . . . enough.
End with a heartfelt expression of contentment and gratitude . . . of thankfulness for any or every person and event in your life. . . of gratitude for being.
And here is a little explanation of each line:
I am observing me . . . whenever “me” thinks, “I” notices . . . [ practice of awareness of one’s own thoughts and emotions, essential for efficient practice. But what is the “I,” and what is the “me?” You tell me. 🙂 ]
Stillness . . . quiet . . . [ a reminder of the destination ]
AWARENESS . . . without judgement . . . no good, no bad, no right, no wrong, no attraction, no aversion . . . just awareness . . . [ there is no yin or yang in wuji—no good, no bad, no right, no wrong, no attraction, no aversion, etc. Yin/yang are relative and non-absolute and are created by our intentions and judgements, and understanding (or lack thereof). Reversal is another characteristic of yin/yang—the extreme of one is the birth of its opposite. Who knows what is good and what is bad? Absence of yin/yang duality is wuji! Understanding duality as a fundamental reality of human experience was the subject of our first blog post. ]
“I” is standing sentry . . . even before “me” thinks, “I” is aware . . . [ a heightened state of awareness—remember not to allow the mind to become tense as awareness heightens. Have no judgement, including (perhaps especially) of your performance or experience in meditating. There is no wrong thought or feeling, there is only a lack of awareness of that thought or feeling. Remember that the purpose of meditation is not to control your thoughts; it is to stop letting them control you. Awareness is the foundation. ]
Remember that the purpose of meditation is not to control your thoughts; it is to stop letting them control you. Awareness is the foundation.
Expecting, nothing . . . doing, nothing . . . just awareness. . . just pure BEING . . . [ If you are “doing” something, or “expecting” something to happen, you are at best still practicing technique, and are not experiencing wuji. When you are ready, go beyond technique, do nothing and bathe in quiescence, but always with awareness. You are not just relaxing or calming down—you are becoming dispassionately aware, experiencing the joy of simply being, without judgement. ]
You are not just relaxing or calming down—you are becoming dispassionately aware, experiencing the joy of simply being, without judgement.
Being is blessing enough. . . [ As the saying goes, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience. Being is blessing enough to do the job we are all here to do—to learn, understand, experience all of the gifts of human emotion (good and bad), and to mature in our spirituality. ]
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.
End with a heartfelt expression of contentment and gratitude . . . of thankfulness for every person and event in your life. . . [ Life is simple—the good times make life a joy, and the hard times and tribulations make us stronger and wiser. It’s all good, and both joy and pain are essential to growth. Expression of gratitude is a tremendously warm, peaceful and vitalizing way to end a meditation. ]
Life is simple—the good times make life a joy, and the hard times and tribulations make us stronger and wiser. It’s all good.
Again, these simple reminders can be inserted at any time into most any meditation technique. To help students begin to experience quiescence, and then to deepen that experience, we have a series of 20 contemplations that we teach to beginning students, based upon Dr. Yang’s meditation program emphasizing awareness of the reality underlying all human experience. All of the contemplations, though, start with simple physical relaxation (there is no such thing as a tense body and a calm mind) and, may, at any point, include some or all of the foundational guided meditation above.
Always remember that technique is just a tool, it is a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at the finger, don’t confuse the technique for the goal. The purpose of meditation is definitely not to advance to different levels of a predetermined technique, or to “move qi” in various orbits. Unattached awareness of body sensations is a oft-used meditation technique across many cultures, but “moving qi” is pure ego attempting to dictate to nature. Nature knows what to do without consulting you—your qi knows where to go. The only thing you can do to help it is to get out of its way (i.e. relax). Worrying about where your qi is going is nothing but a distraction and will never lead to wuji.
Wuji is the destination, and however you get there is the best way. Whenever you can, forget your technique and enter wuji. As James Stewart, one of the longtime students and teachers at our local school here once observed in class: “after you enter wuji, wuji becomes the teacher. ”
After you enter wuji, wuji becomes the teacher