In our ongoing discussion of China’s 5-phase theory we first explored EARTH as it applies to establishing boundaries. Then we examined FIRE and WATER as methods of purification. (As technical terms in Taoist Alchemy each of the 5-phases will be capitalized.) This exploration will focus upon why WATER was Master Ni’s ultimate target.
In general FIRE is effort and consumes itself, while WATER is effortless and everlasting. As such we want to move to WATER as soon as possible after learning the movements. WATER is the essence of wu-wei, non-action in the midst of action – #12 in Master Ni’s 12 Stages of Tai Chi.
Although WATER is the goal, we can only reach there through FIRE. FIRE is the effort needed to establish, rectify, or refine Body Memory. Because of its stability Body Memory is associated with EARTH, another of the five phases of Chinese alchemy. Once Body Memory is firmly established no more effort is needed, and effortless WATER replaces FIRE. This general process applies to practice of any kind, whether it is directed towards Music, Sports, the Martial Arts, Dance, Yoga, memorization of a speech, Tai Chi or even spiritual practices. As such the mechanism of substituting WATER for FIRE is fundamental to the Mastery of any Process.
Let’s sink a little deeper into this innate process. Although the ultimate goal is to substitute the effortless flow of WATER for the intense exertion of FIRE, there are many stages in-between. In fact while WATER is the target, the goal is unattainable on a permanent level for any but the Immortals.
Why is that? Establishing Body Memory is an ongoing process, rather than a destination that is attained. After learning the movements FIRE must still be regularly applied for three reasons. 1) The initial transmission is always incomplete due to the inability of the student to comprehend perfectly. Because the initial transmission is never perfect it must be rectified. 2) Even if the initial transmission is pretty good, Body Memory erodes. As such it must be constantly propped up and renewed. Effort is needed to reverse entropy. 3) Then an endless number of refinements can be introduced based upon the growing maturity and sophistication of the student – subtleties which were too complicated to be introduced initially. In short the application of FIRE or effort is needed in three instances: 1) Incomplete transmission, 2) Erosion, and 3) Refinement. As effort or force is required to change direction or momentum FIRE is an essential phase in the process of purification or rectification.
As is evident the application of FIRE to rectify details is an endless process. As such it is easy to get lost in the FIRE phase, continually obsessing with minutiae, never even reaching WATER in the constant quest for perfection. This results in a consummate technician who never becomes an Artist or a perpetual Seeker who never experiences enlightenment. This applies equally to Art, Music, and Tai Chi.
Thus while it is necessary to regularly employ FIRE in the purification process, it is equally important to regularly practice WATER, the undifferentiated Flow. (As we shall see, the continuous application of either FIRE or WATER is detrimental or counter-productive to the achievement of Mastery.)
Practicing WATER is to relax focus or shift it onto the bigger picture. This means temporarily forgetting the details, the minutiae of the Form, to focus upon the more fundamental principles that lead ultimately to WATER. These include lightness, continuous movement, constant speed, and relaxation – #1, #3, #5, and #8, in Master Ni’s 12 Phases of Tai Chi. The application of these WATER principles is difficult when the initial learning occurs as it is necessary to apply FIRE when learning new moves. However once one has a handle on the movements, one should immediately attempt to apply these advanced principles, as they lead to WATER.
This was the essence of Master Ni’s teaching technique. His target was WATER and this was what he taught – wordlessly, of course – as words are always FIRE, by definition. He never got lost in applications, form details, or verbality. Constantly focused upon WATER, much of his transmission was communicated non-verbally – through example, gesture, or deliberate emphasis. In the rare times when he used words he suggested that we relax more, move continuously, and be lighter. He also focused upon EARTH, proper body structure – chin in, hips tuck in, shoulders down, and spine straight. For correct body structure is essential to open the channels, which enables the Chi to flow. This ignites the vitality of WATER - his target.
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