Some do Tai Chi for health and others for martial proficiency. Another reason for practicing the movements is to cultivate open awareness. This is an essential goal in everything we do. Without mindfulness we are just sleep walking – going through the motions. We are on automatic – barely awake – more dead than alive.
Although awareness is indefinable, like the Tao or God, we can say what it is not – via negativa. It is the balance point between Oblivion and Distraction – the dreaded middle, which is so difficult to achieve or maintain. Oblivion has to do with being spaced out – neither here nor there. The attention drifts from point to point without any focus. Distraction is when the attention is drawn to anything other than what one is doing. The main difference between the two is that Oblivion is unfocussed, while Distraction is focused upon the wrong thing. Oblivion is daydreaming, while Distraction frequently has some emotional content that is driving it.
Ideally in our sessions we attempt to focus on the movements. However frequently we bring unresolved emotional baggage into class. Sometimes we can replace these negative feelings with awareness of the movements, especially if we are learning something new. However if we already ‘know’ the movements it is easy to allow our attention to go on automatic, in which case it either picks up the internal dialogue or the mind wanders. Distraction - ‘I can’t believe that he did that.’ - ‘It is so unfair that she did this.’ Or Oblivion – ‘Where should I go for lunch?’ – ‘I really need to pay my bills.’
It is natural for thoughts and ideas to emerge from the Zone – nothing wrong with that – I get some of my deepest insights while practicing Tai Chi. However to cultivate Awareness it is important not to drift with the thoughts or to get lost in their emotional content – whether depressed, angry, sad, happy, or ecstatic. It is easy to say: ‘Don’t get lost or distracted by thoughts and ideas at the expense of the movements. Pay attention to what you are doing at all times.’ But it is very hard to do. So let’s not rest in this hypocrisy, but instead suggest some methods for achieving the One.
One technique is to use the poison as the cure. Become aware of these unbidden thoughts, which pull us away from Awareness. It is OK, or at least preferable, to weave the distraction into the moment, to avoid getting caught up in the emotional content of the ideas. If it is a beautiful day – the birds are singing, the leaves are changing color, and there is a musty smell of dead leaves in the air – go with the exultation of the experience but don’t forget the movements associated with the Body. Perhaps bring your mind back to your breathing, your dan tien (the spiritual energy center just below your belly button), the bottom of your feet, your elbow position, or how your fingers are moving. Focus your eyes, allowing them to direct the action, or put your mind itself in charge. Or if you are advanced enough, which I am not, you can keep all of these diverse elements in your attention simultaneously.
These are techniques to distract Distraction and rescue one from Oblivion. However they are not the One. They take you to the Door, not through it. Master Ni’s 12th stage is wu-wei (non-action in the midst of action). This transcends the 11th stage, which is awareness of everything – still immersed in the subject/object dichotomy. In the 12th stage the practitioner is one with the movements. This is the nameless Vortex. Hopefully escaping from Oblivion and Distraction will take you there.