Changing Body through Soft Attention
or Fire & Water applied to Earth

Continuing our discussion of Taoist Alchemy’s 5-phases as they apply to Tai Chi:

Water’s Conservation of energy -> Health, vitality and longevity

In the last transmission we spoke about the importance of moving from Fire to Water as soon as possible in our practice. Why? It has to do with the conservation of energy. FIRE is effort and is consumed, while WATER is effortless and everlasting. In general Fire is linear, which exhausts itself, while Water is circular, which is perpetual – as witnessed by the planets circling our sun. Hence in terms of health, longevity or immortality Water is the desired state.

Substituting Water for Fire for Efficiency of Motion

Since Water fills all the cracks effortlessly it also has to do with efficiency of motion. By employing circles and spirals in our movements we are able conserve energy. In contrast jerky, linear motion wastes energy. Because we have an abundance of energy in our youth, we can move inefficiently and still have plenty of energy to spare. As we get older we become increasingly aware of the limits to our resources. In general we become weaker, less flexible, and slower. To compensate we must move more efficiently in order to accomplish our goals. The young martial artist fights his way out of the trap employing his strength, speed and flexibility. The older martial artist employs his wisdom and subtlety to avoid the trap altogether.

The following table contains a few of the Water for Fire substitutions that enable us to move more efficiently and conserve energy.


Water for Fire Substituions For Efficiency of Motion & Conservation of Energy
Circular for linear motion Relaxation for tension
Soft for Hard Continuous motion for Interrupt
Constant speed for jerky motions Hollow for substantial
Body for Muscles Integrated for Isolated
Light for Heavy Natural Flow for Effort



Path to Water through Fire

It is somewhat easy to think these thoughts and even easier to believe that we are employing the concepts in our Form. Substituting Water for Fire is a great idea, like peace on Earth. But how do we get there?

Ironically the path to Water is through Fire. This complicates things tremendously, as the polluting element must be employed to cross the River and then discarded. Why introduce Fire as a tool if Water is going to replace it? Why not just proceed directly to Water and avoid the fractal complications? In general there are 3 reasons – incomplete understanding, refinements, and polluted Water. Fire must be employed to rectify and refine the Body memory. It also must be used to purify Water. As Water is effortless it is useless as a tool for self-purification.

For instance after learning the sequence [Water] the beginner must use effort [Fire] to rectify misunderstandings and refine the form, if s(he) is to maximize the benefits of practice and avoid injury. ‘Relax shoulders’ – ‘allow the energy to come from the back heel’ – ‘use your waist rather than the arms’ down’ are just a small sampling of corrections that require Fire’s effort to change. Or Water’s flow can inadvertently turn circles into ovals, thereby missing key spots and eroding power. At this point Fire is necessary to purify the polluted Water. More later.

Fire applied to Earth – Effort best applied to Body, not Mind

The problem with Fire induced changes is that the effort is not sustainable, as it is consumed and burns out. As Mind is constantly changing Fire’s effort should ideally be employed to change Body Memory [Earth}, which is much more stable. That way constant maintenance is unnecessary. For instance Body never forgets how to ride a bike, swim or drive a car after learning.

In contrast employing an idea – such as ‘eliminate discontinuities’ – to change is only possible intermittently. Because the conscious effort is exhausting, it can’t be maintained permanently. Changing Body Memory is the most efficient use of effort because it is relatively permanent once established. Plus it takes much less effort to maintain Body memory than it does to remember mental directives.

This could be a reason that Master Ni focused most of our class time on repetitions to establish permanent ways of moving our Body – patterns that are ignited effortlessly with the proper cues. Indeed students that returned after leaving for a time were able to easily merge with the rest of the class – if they had practiced enough previously and were able to leave their Mind out of the equation. No thoughts at this point, they only get in the way of Body’s memory. As the effort of Fire is top-down the energy is not self-sustaining. Conversely because the energy of Water is bottom-up it is inexhaustible and self-sustaining.

This is why understanding without practice is somewhat useless. Understanding must be continually refreshed, while the Body Memory established by practice is nearly permanent. Although the ability to play an instrument, participate in sports, or perform a martial arts form erodes with time, it is only necessary to refresh the required Body memory, not recreate it, to rejuvenate one's ability. In contrast talking is an inefficient use of energy, except to elucidate practice. This is another reason Master Ni spent so little time explaining and so much time practicing.

Double Fire vs. Watery Fire – Master Ni: “Not out is in.”

As both discriminatory awareness and effort, Fire can be employed in two ways to change Body. The first requires exertion, as such is deemed Double Fire. The second employs only awareness, as such is deemed Watery Fire. In general it is the more effective of the two. When employing the first method there is a tendency to overreact, while the second method leads to ‘just right’.

As a simple example, Master Ni regularly suggested, “Chin in,” – “Hip tuck in,” and “Shoulders down.” His conscientious students, including myself, tended to employ the Double Fire method of conscious exertion to move our chins in, the hips under, and our shoulders down. Because of the exertion our chin, hips, and shoulders were locked into unnatural positions that we maintained because we wanted to be good students. These contorted positions put an unnecessary strain upon our body structure. Similarly Master Ni suggested that we breathe with our movements. Attempting to employ this directive I almost passed out from hyperventilation. Further his suggestion that we look at our hands led some students to lose their balance due to their intense visual focus upon their fingers.

These perceived fallacies then led to extended discussions as to how much our chin, hips, or shoulders should be contracted, ways of breathing to avoid hyper-ventilation and techniques for looking at the hands without losing balance. While these discussions were somewhat interesting and intellectually stimulating, in general they led to no long-term solutions, as Fire generated solutions aren’t sustainable, as they aren’t natural.

In contrast just employing attention without exertion (Watery Fire) the Body corrects itself naturally and permanently. As we focus Fire’s discriminatory awareness upon the chin, shoulders, or hips, Body gradually and naturally finds the right spot. As we become aware of our breathing it naturally regulates itself – moving in and out with the movements. As we become increasingly aware of our hands, our body naturally balances to compensate.

Due to the inherent unbalanced nature of words Master Ni sometimes employed subtle inverted negations to prevent overreaction. “Not out is in.” – “Not up is down.” – “Don’t look at the hands. Just gaze.” However demonstration was his favorite method. Besides avoiding the overreactions inherent to the world of words, this technique also increased our power of perception.

In summary to avoid the problem of trying too hard (Double Fire) just focus discriminatory awareness on the problem and it will easily, but slowly, melt away naturally and permanently (Watery Fire). [i]

[i] The Inner Game of Music and Tennis also suggested this technique when learning music or sports.

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