Tai Chi Chuan as an Inner Art
What constitutes an inner art and what do we mean by an inner art? All great art has the ability to affect people and is therefore inner directed. It comes from a personal place. The more personal the the art, the more others relate to it and feel its essence, for the inner directed personal expression is really in harmony with the mass collective unconscious. When we don't invest of ourselves the result is pretty, and sometimes not so pretty pictures, buildings or sculptures, Muzak, all without much substance or soul.
An artist must go inside and surrender himself / herself to his or her work. Art is an inner experience; it comes from within, from the essence of one's being, from one's core, from one's center, from one's source.
Just as an audience viewing a painting can never experience what the artist feels while creating an artwork, only the Tai Chi Chuan player can know the experience of playing Tai Chi Chuan. Of course a finished art work has the power to move one just as watching Tai Chi Chuan gives a sense, a feeling of power, beauty and serenity. Tai Chi Chuan is unemotional and not performed or created, like dance, for an audience. The path, the action is the goal. We are not interested in an audiences reaction or in creating a special mood, effect or feeling to hold, thrill or impress as most dance does. We are not trying to involve anyone in any way. Some forms of Art-Dance are usually emotional and seek response, Tai Chi Chuan does not.
Dance sometimes tells a story or plays with abstract movement and may be performed to music or be ritualistic. Now you may have seen Tai Chi Chuan performed with music playing, however, the music is for the audience, to keep them occupied. The Tai Chi Chuan player is moving at a slow even tempo with fast movements at various intervals returning to the even tempo; the player is never moving to the music. It is not needed as the player's mind is focused on the movement, on the even tempo and counterpoint of yin and yang qualities, and the changing relationships between various parts of the body. The mind experiences and directs each movement in detail, experiencing muscles as they relate to each other, elongate and release. In Tai Chi Chuan all movement begins with mind. Unlike dance, all movement is in keeping with natural body alignment.
The slow even tempo directed by the mind, focused on and feeling each increment of movement, restructures, rewires, changes habits, relationships of fluidity and functioning between body and brain.
By inner directed or intrinsic (versus outer directed or extrinsic) we mean using our mind to create movement. We use only the amount of muscle required to perform a movement, no more no less. Nothing is extraneous. Our mind directs each movement and is focused on the totality of the body while aware of our surroundings.
All movement comes from our core, from our center of gravity, the tan tien, located approximately one and one third inches below the navel and about one third in from front to back. We have awareness of our separate body parts i.e. legs, arms, torso, and of the world around us. We learn to shift to our innate center of gravity, to find our natural balance. When we move from our center our arms and legs follow. Movement is even tempo like pulling silk from a cocoon. An uneven or jerky movement would break the silk, would short circuit the flow of energy, would be a loss of power. We are alert, our minds are sharp and focused. A main directive is to relax, relax, and relax, allowing energy and blood to circulate freely. However, relaxation does not mean limp; we maintain enough energy to support our movement.
Tai Chi chuan adheres to relaxing the body, becoming light above the waist and sinking or letting go into the earth below, the feet growing roots, the body flexible like a willow. We learn to relax, soft as steel wrapped in cotton. Water, soft and flowing wears down rock. We learn to be substantial and insubstantial at the same time - to stay grounded, centered while getting out of the way. Mentally we do not engage, physically we disappear, turn aside. Our energy no longer attracts the negative.
Tai Chi chuan philosophically follows the Tao. Never use force against force - yield. We go forward by first moving back. We sink to raise up.
Movement follows the natural laws of physics. All movement is circular and in spirals. Sink, relax into the earth to gain strength. The joints open and close like gears. We play Tai Chi Chuan for body, mind and spirit. We desire to improve and maintain our health, train our mind, and raise our spirit. We become more aware of our inner as well as outer environment. We play Tai Chi Chuan so we may live in eternal spring.
How does one describe the feeling of playing Tai Chi Chuan? The mind is observant; the body is totally relaxed and alert like a cat ready to pounce, a hawk about to seize its prey, a snake before it strikes. The eyes are are peripherally soft focused. The breath naturally sinks to the tan tien while the body expands 360 degrees like a balloon, the breath gently radiating outwards. The arms are relaxed and moving freely, following the body. The feet sink into the earth as though they have roots. The torso is hung from above allowing the spine to stretch. All joints are relaxed and open. The whole is a feeling of total expansion. The air is palpable. We feel like we’re swimming in water except we’re swimming in air.
Tai Chi means supreme ultimate, Chuan, fisted or exercise. When playing we are developing, designing, creating our selves, our bodies, our psyches, our spirit. The more we are in touch with our bodies the more our spirit is able to soar. Tai Chi Chuan is a process; there is no goal. The artwork is the Tai Chi Chuan player - a work in progress - complete at any given point in time.
Barry Fishman is an architect, painter and poet. He has played Tai Chi Chuan for twenty three years. He currently teaches in New York City and is available for classes and private lessons.
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