To celebrate a personal milestone of 5 years studying Tai Chi Chuan with Master Ding Academy, this article reflects on my understanding of Tai Chi as an intermediate student, in the light of my academic research in Consciousness Studies and my practical experience as an international musician and opera-director.
Many oriental martial arts value zhan zhuang – Standing like a Tree – as a fundamental practice. In Tai Chi Chuan, Standing Practice trains mind-body balance in stillness; the Form trains balance in movement; Push Hands trains balance in interactions. As an Internal Martial Art, Tai Chi encourages an inner focus, teaching us to find strength in softness. Sometimes called Standing Meditation, zhan zhuang not only aligns our posture, but also prepares the mind for study and for action.
There is a similar linkage of physical and mental conditioning when warming-up for sports or preparing to go on-stage for a concert or theatrical performance, in Mindfulness training, Alexander Technique and many other disciplines. Zhan zhuang and other preparation-rituals create a particular state of mind that optimises highly-skilled physical actions. Psychologists call this state of mind Flow; artists call it Inspiration; elite sportsmen and athletes call it the Zone; it can be analysed as an Alternative State of Consciousness; it could also be called Self-Hypnosis.
Therapeutic hypnotism is a ‘resource state’ similar to the REM-stage of dream-sleep. Modern medical science respects these states as normal and vital for health. As we sink into dreamy relaxation, the Unconscious mind can re-process learning, re-align our spiritual balance and re-integrate conscious awareness. As a student, I may not yet fully understand what it means to ‘stick the qi to the spine’, but if I relax whilst focussing on this phrase, I can enter a special state in which my Unconscious (which understands ‘better than I do’) can work on re-educating the body. Rather than forcing things to happen, we can create suitable conditions (relaxation and focus) and observe what happens. Even if the process remains hard to grasp, over months and years of practice the conscious mind gradually becomes aware of tangible results.
Academics love to reduce broad phenomena to narrow categories, so theorists distinguish between different experiences of the altered consciousness familiar to us all as day-dreaming. Flow is characterised by a fine balance between the challenge you are facing and your level of skill. Too easy, and you are bored; too difficult, and you are discouraged. In Flow, you are utterly focussed on the task at hand, yet at ease with yourself. When you are in the Zone, it seems that your body knows what to do ‘instinctively’, as the movements you trained slowly and gently are released in a flash of smooth, powerful action. You might experience Dissociation, the sensation that you are not ‘doing’ anything, you are just observing your body’s actions with calm attention, as if in a dream or hypnotic trance. As you let go of ego, you feel more connected to the universe: Tai Chi artists use Sticking Hands to link with their partners; doctors care for their patients with ‘unconditional regard’; hypnotists and performers create Rapport with their listeners.
These experiences are central to many elite-level skilled activities. Hypnosis research shows that reducing conscious control whilst maintaining calm and concentration allows the Unconscious to guide the body at extraordinary levels of performance. Whether you are landing an airliner on the Hudson river, playing a harp concerto, or competing in a fencing championship, focused calmness links your Unconscious to the surrounding energy field so that your body does it ‘better than you could do it yourself’. The mind-body connection can be re-aligned to powerful effect: a hypno-therapist colleague of mine assists during surgical operations by inducing a special, pain-preventing state of mind for patients who are allergic to conventional anaesthetics.
Words have power
By subtle choice of language, a poet or an expert in neuro-linguistic programming can sway your emotions; a politician can alter public opinion; an advert can influence your choices; a sports coach or opera-director can raise you to the next level of performance; a teacher can shift your conscious understanding and enhance your physical abilities. A mere hint, spoken or recalled, can transform (trance-form?) Standing Practice into a Guided Meditation. In Tai Chi, we encourage Dissociation with such instructions as “Allow the hands to rise”. This is a hypnotic suggestion that your hands ‘have a mind of their own’, encouraging you to observe more, do less. Paradoxes and Nominalisations (unfamiliar words) facilitate the inner focus of trance, as the mind searches within itself for meaning. Tai Chi is full of paradoxical sayings and evocative words – ‘invest in loss’; ‘use the mind, not force’; qi; kwa and dan-tien; peng, liu, ji and an – whose meaning we explore over years of study.
The choice of terms is personal, and highly significant for practitioners. If a teacher or hypnotist’s vocabulary jars, the listener will resist, and rapport is broken. Hypno-therapists are taught to ‘accept and utilise’ a client’s resistance. If the first choice of imagery and terminology doesn’t work, it’s time to try another approach. Tai Chi practitioners will recognise the principle: don’t fight force with force, yield and re-direct your opponent’s energy! Students and teachers should be aware of the power of names, making flexible choices of language to ‘go with the Flow’ of what works for each individual. Some like to talk of the ‘magic’ of Tai Chi; others explain it as Mechanics or applied Psychology; some visualise qi as similar to the Star Wars Force; others analyse body-energy through the concepts of Chinese Medicine. Since the true Tao cannot be spoken, ‘correct’ nomenclature doesn’t matter. Language is only a path towards an internalised mind-body understanding.
In another way, choice of terminology is vital, because your Unconscious can respond to the most subtle distinctions. In hypno-anaesthesia, some patients receive the suggestion that they will feel no pain; others are told that they might feel pain, but it will not bother them. Neurological scans show that these contrasting instructions produce different interactions between brain and nervous system. Words can change your mind.
Going with the Flow
The state of Flow is often associated with time- distortion, when we are so absorbed in our study that we don’t realise how much time has passed. But in the Zone, time is distorted the other way, so that our perception is speeded up, and we can successfully manage complex techniques within the briefest instant of time.
Elite performers of all kinds use Flow for optimal learning, working slowly over a long time, and the Zone for optimal performance, producing instantaneous results just when it matters most. This is paralleled by the slow study of Tai Chi Forms and the split-second timing of combat applications. The Feldenkrais Method similarly improves proprioception and body flexibility by slow, gentle movements. The calm acceptance and subtle suggestions typical of a Feldenkrais session could be appropriate to zhan zhuang: “That’s good….”; “Don’t do anything, just notice.” Engineer/healer Moshe Feldenkrais was also a judo black belt and one of the first to bring judo to the West.
The Trager Approach uses repetitive, relaxed movements and a special state of consciousness called Hook-Up to teach and heal. The imagery of a ‘sky-hook’ is sometimes used in Standing Practice to intensify the suggestion that the ‘head is suspended from above’. This is not just good posture, it is also a recognised route into trance, meditation or what we might choose to call a ‘Tai Chi state of mind’. If sometimes it’s difficult to be relaxed, we can just pretend to relax, and imagine that we begin to feel relaxation: ‘fake it till you make it’. Regular practice of zhan zhuang will re-calibrate our ability to relax, as ting-listening reveals tensions we never knew we had, which are gradually dissolved into song-release.
Like Pavlov’s dogs, our minds and bodies can be conditioned by training so that we respond ‘automatically’. Tai Chi Forms guide our body-movements into highly specific pathways, whilst Standing Practice focuses our concentration inwards, calming the mind. Those Russian dogs learnt to associate a bell with dinner-time, and the meditation timer on your phone can ring a Chinese bell to induce inner peace!
To enter Flow, the Zone, or hypnotic trance, i.e. a Tai Chi state of mind, you just relax and focus – song and ting. We learn this from Standing Practice, and try to maintain it in the Forms, Push Hands and applications training. As a musician, I must relax and focus whilst I’m playing, always listening attentively to my own instrument and to the other performers. I tell my students, “It’s 80% listening, 20% playing”. As Tai Chi students, we can try to be more aware of our own body and that of our partner/opponent by ‘doing’ less, and ‘listening’ more. In life, we can adopt a Tai Chi state of mind, becoming calmer ourselves and more open to others. Lift the Spirit and sink the qi; relax and focus, song and ting. That’s good…
Knowledge is a treasure, but practice is the key
Flow and The Zone
Opera director and internationally recognised academic Prof Dr Andrew Lawrence-King is the world’s leading exponent of historical harps. He investigates Historical Rhythm, Baroque Gesture and Music & Consciousness. He studies Tai Chi with Master Ding Academy and 17th-century rapier with the Helsinki Swordschool. He is a qualified hypnotist.