- A TAI CHI ESSAY -
MIND INTENT - THE UNSEEN AND SEEN
Many years ago while learning tai chi, I watched my teachers closely as they slowly swam through their forms. There was always something there - something unseen and seen. What I could not see was what they were doing internally, what they were shaping with their minds. But what I could see was the effect, the by-product of their mental activity, reflected in their physical appearance. It was as though they were painters... I could not see the paint but I could see what happened to the canvas.
What I recognized in their forms, I noticed first in their hands. It was the “beautiful palm” of Yang Style tai chi. Their hands were soft, naturally curved, as if gently cupping water. The fingers were never rigid, bony, or tensed. Something made each finger full, inflated, energized. Each hand was like a small baseball catcher’s mitt of soft leather and dense padding. The hands moved as though passing through a medium of thick liquid. This quality extended into the forearms, soft and plump like a baby’s arm.
I couldn’t see the actions of their minds but I could feel that they were feeling something, moving inside.
Yang Cheng Fu (1883-1936)
It has been said that Yang Cheng Fu had huge, heavy hands, even for a man his size, from many years of dedicated tai chi practice. And yet he demonstrated phenomenal sensitivity and a deceptively light touch.
While learning tai chi I never heard the term, Lao Liu Lu (Old Six Routines.) But mind intent tai chi, the function of Lao Liu Lu, is in essence, what I was taught, directly and indirectly. I had read the Tai Chi Classics quote:
“The mind leads,
the chi follows the mind,
the blood follows the chi.”
It made sense and was taught to me directly... to imagine a ball of energy in each hand or a beach ball between the arms in “Embracing the Moon.” Directly, I was being told to put my mind into the forms. Indirectly, the instruction was reinforced every time I watched my teacher’s forms. I could sense the influence of their mind intent when they used it in each movement. I began to feel what they were feeling.
T. T. Liang said it best in the title of his book, Imagination Becomes Reality. You put your mind (imagination) into the hands and eventually other areas of the body - back, hips, shoulders, elbows, etc. You use imagination and it changes your reality. Soon you begin to feel things. There are sensations you cannot see and side effects that you can. The hands are soft and full, the capillaries expand and fill with blood. The hands develop that look that my teacher’s hands had. With improved focus, the hands grow warm, eventually hot, and the finger tips sweat.
In recent years I have read, THE MIND INSIDE TAI CHI, by Henry Zhuang. In it the author does an excellent job of explaining Lao Liu Lu, the art of putting yi, mind intent, into tai chi forms.
At length he presents the nature, conditions, and effects of this approach. He explains that without mind intent, tai chi is merely a nice aerobic exercise. He tells of how Yang Jian-hou (1839-1917) passed on knowledge of the technique privately to his sons. He then follows the trail of masters who eventually felt it was time to reveal this secret for the benefit of practitioners and the future of tai chi.
Now my comprehension is improved. At last I’ve come full circle to understand what my teachers were relaying without so many words. I’ve also come to believe that there is a related phenomenon with the conveyance of any physical discipline. When intensely learning the art, the student begins to look like the master, even with their different physical characteristics and nuances. I saw it with my teachers, I saw it in other students, and I was even accused of it on occasion.
What I have learned is to empty the body of tension, fill it with mind intent, and the chi and blood will infuse the structure. This ancient approach to tai chi is the ingredient that raises the art above the realm of physical movement and into the frontier of energetic development.
If you're not doing it already, the experience can be transformative for you and your tai chi.