"... the uncarved block..."
Hunyuan Tai Chi master Zhang Xuexin is shown practicing the
Zhan Zhuang "Standing Post" meditation pose called "All Becomes One," with hands folded lightly over the dantian, the main energy center located two fingers below the navel in the center of the body. During standing meditation, the body relaxes, the inner eye remains focused on the dantian, and the mind is allowed to expand until it encompasses the whole body and beyond. Thoughts and emotions are not suppressed, but merely watched, like clouds passing in the sky.
In the Caigentan, the "Vegetable Root Discourses," Hong Zicheng wrote:
the real stillness.
there is stillness
can the spiritual rhythm appear
heaven and earth.
Whether we practice Tai Chi for health, self-defense, self-transformation, as a performance art, or all of the above, the ultimate goal is to experience this "spiritual rhythm... which pervades heaven and earth" directly in our bodies. Once this rhythm appears, binding heaven and earth, emptiness and form, stillness and motion into a single whole, Tai Chi becomes effortless, Qigong becomes effective, and push-hands becomes relaxed and elegant. This direct personal experience of true integrity can then be applied to other areas of life, particularly those that require change or involve challenge or conflict.
The key to experiencing this universal spiritual rhythm is a form of meditation called Zhan Zhuang, or "standing post." Zhan Zhuang means to stand like a tree firmly rooted in the ground, aware of every breeze, every movement of sun and cloud, every internal thought and emotion, but completely relaxed, quiet in heart, mind, and body, at one with being:
Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free.
Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing.
This is the ultimate.
— Chuang Tsu
It's the most basic and simple of all Tai Chi practices, but it's also the most advanced and profound.
In Chinese, the word "song" means "relax."
Relax, soft, circular and lively,
Neither excess nor deficiency,
The key lies in the center,
Limitless wonder, none can express.
In a practical sense, what Zhan Zhuang does is transform the body and mind by gradually quieting the stress of life until a profound inner stillness is revealed, a stillness and peace which has always been there, but has been covered over. Out of this stillness movement arises naturally and comfortably, without being stiff or forced. Mind, body, energy, and spirit relax and become one. That's what allows Tai Chi to become Tai Chi.
This relationship between stillness and motion is a profound one in Chinese Taoist philosophy. Tai Chi of course is more than the martial art we practice: it's the universal principle of motion, of change and action, symbolized by the famous Tai Chi symbol — the taijitu — with its interlocking black and white waves representing yin and yang. But the yin and yang of Tai Chi are based on an even deeper principle called Wu Chi, symbolized by a simple empty circle, and representing ultimate stillness. Wu Chi, or Wuji, underlies the entire universe, and gives rise to all motion and change everywhere, and every manifestation of yin and yang: this is why it's said "Wu Chi is the mother of Tai Chi." And this universal, ultimate stillness is exactly the same stillness we find individually, deep within, through Zhan Zhuang meditation.
The wuji symbol, or wujitu,
also known as the enso in Japanese Zen paintings.
The true meaning of the symbol is not in the circle itself,
but in the space within.
Or, as Rumi says:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.
* * *
So to truly practice Tai Chi, we must first embody Wuji by
practicing Zhan Zhuang. In the old days, Zhan Zhuang was an important part of Tai Chi training and practice. Grandmaster Feng, the founder of our school of Tai Chi, practiced Zhan Zhuang two hours every morning for nine years while
training with his teacher, Hu Yaozhen. Very few of us have that kind of time anymore, but
we should at least be familiar with Zhan Zhuang if we intend to progress in Tai Chi. We should explore it a few minutes every day, and incorporate it into
our Tai Chi practice. There are two ways to do this:
First, we can practice Zhan Zhuang formally by setting aside
dedicated time during the day or during Tai Chi practice for standing or sitting
Formal practice is a great thing to do, and it's a necessary step in the quest to find and cultivate Wuji. But we can also
practice Zhan Zhuang informally by incorporating it into everything we do, even
if we're moving. In fact, this is the true inner secret of Tai Chi: even in
motion, we maintain Wuji. Inner stillness is not something we practice one
minute and then leave behind as soon as we start to practice a form, or engage in push-hands. For Tai Chi to be Tai Chi, inner stillness must be carried forward from formal Zhan Zhuang
practice into every movement of every form. That's why the first
movement of all Tai Chi forms is called 'Wuji Starting Posture' (wuji qishi):
every form starts with Wuji, with a moment of Zhan Zhuang, just as every form ends
with Wuji. Between beginning and end, we carry Wuji silently within, like an unbroken thread. In that sense, Tai Chi is indeed 'moving meditation'.
So this second way of "informal" practice is actually the
goal: consider Ts'ai-ken T'an's poem again: "The stillness in stillness is
not the real stillness. Only when there is stillness in movement can the
spiritual rhythm appear which pervades heaven and earth." Real stillness
is not the stillness we feel when we're unmoving, it's the stillness we hold
inside as we move and act. That stillness in motion is what brings the
spiritual rhythm of heaven and earth alive in our personal practice, and makes
our Tai Chi effortless, our Qigong effective, and our push-hands elegant and strong.
Blessing in the Chaos
To all that is chaotic
let there come silence.
Let there be
of the clamoring,
of the voices that
have laid their claim
that have made their
home in you,
that go with you
even to the
but will not
let you rest,
will not let you
hear your life
or feel the grace
that fashioned you.
Let what distracts you
Let what divides you
Let there come an end
to what diminishes
and let depart
all that keeps you
in its cage.
Let there be
into the quiet
that lies beneath
where you find
you did not think
and see what shimmers
within the storm.
― Jan Richardson