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?
These are pretty common questions. I think there are a lot of misconceptions in general about this both in the West and even in China. I think this has arisen 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.”
This may or may not be so. Let’s look back historically.
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.
The Difference Between Meditation and “Meditative”
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 peoples 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. This meditation tradition was what I learned from my teacher while in China.
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.
How was the other ninety-nine percent of tai chi practiced in China? Well, once again, you have to make two very clear distinctions, that of tai chi for health vs tai chi for martial arts.
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, again classically the ninety-nine percent of people 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.
The Root of Tai Chi as a Powerful Martial Art
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. For example, 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.
By learning tai chi as a martial art, many people also find that they can remember the entire form better. This is especially the case when we look at long forms that have over one hundred moves. By learning each martial application as you go along, most find it both more interesting and the moves seed into the body easier because they have a direct application.
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 even 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.
Why Practice Tai Chi as a Meditation?
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. Whereas, 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.
How to Practice Tai Chi as Meditation?
If you want to practice tai chi as meditation, how do you start? How would you go about this agenda consciously? Not as a hobby of the week, but as something you dedicate yourself to with discipline and passion.
Obviously, the first step to practice tai chi as a meditation for a beginner is to learn the basic tai chi form, because that’s the overall container. It’s the same for someone wanting to learn tai chi for its martial aspects. You must learn the physical form first. Try drinking wine with a glass that’s got holes in it. You can’t do it. Similarly, you need to learn the entire form correctly and you need to know all of the precise alignments, so that you don’t have a leaky container. Keep in mind, once the container is there, you can pour any kind of wine into it that you choose.
Next you will have to gain a certain amount of energetic awareness that tai chi is capable of giving you. Again, this is going to be the same path regardless of whether you are learning tai chi with the eventual aim of using it as a martial art or as a moving meditation practice. Energetic awareness starts to build chi, and at this point, you are revamping and educating your nervous system. You are becoming more aware of the subtle nature of energy fields in your body, and through partner practices like tai chi push hands, of the subtle energy fields in your practice partners as well. You are increasing your inner chi storage and also increasing the speed with which that chi can move around your body. You learn all the subtle energetic techniques, or neigong, that get put inside the container of tai chi.
Once you do this you are in the game. You are no longer a bystander. The question now becomes what are you going to do with the chi that you have been generating in your practice, or what is it going to do to you? If you can recognize that meditation is the royal path that all masters and sages throughout time have taken, then go forward knowing that you have a divine opportunity that can change the nature of your soul or Being.
When a person generates a “threshold amount” of chi, they can now start to see what stops them from being enlightened and what stops them from being awake. They can then use the form and practice tai chi as meditation (rather than having a form that is ‘meditative’).
Let’s recap. The first step is for a practitioner to have a solid container. It goes without saying that you want to build the best container possible because it is the foundation for everything that comes later. There are no cutting corners. The next step is to get the chi moving inside. Then you can continue to develop more chi and specifically apply the chi that is developed through meditation methods to unbind the blockages within.
There are lots of specific meditation techniques to release and clear what binds you. These methods usually need to be taught by a master because even if you get the method, it’s really the mind that’s behind the techniques that needs to be transferred. Without working with a skilled teacher, the martial art mind will generally, in the overwhelming majority of people, take them toward worldly power or at least guide them into thinking they have gained worldly or spiritual power when this may not be the case.