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Lesson 1: Prepared for Anything

Transcript (click here)

This is the most important lesson that you will ever learn in martial arts. 

So, I have spent a great deal of time writing and rewriting this lesson plan, in order to make certain that I teach it correctly. 

  • Stand naturally. 
  • Relax.
  • Clear the mind. 

There you go.

Any questions?

This posture is referred to, alternately as Wuji, or preparation. 

Wuji is the what, and preparation is the why. 

Tai chi is a martial art. So, one can assume that it is preparing for a fight. But a martial art is about more than just fighting . So, we can presume that it is preparing for anything that might happen. 

Let’s call it, “Expect nothing. Be prepared for anything.”

I like to call it, “Start by winning,” which is the normally preferred strategy. 

I could spend hours, days, or weeks examining every detail of this posture. I could try to teach you how to make yourself do this exercise correctly. But that, I have found, is a bit of a trap. I would end up stressing you out. There is no need to go all Confucian drill sergeant on a student. After all, it is a natural art, not a Confucian one (thank the great continuum), and I’m a Canadian and we don’t have drill sergeants. There have been times when I have considered getting in my student’s face and yell, “What part of RELAX don’t you understand, you overly-punctilious chest breather?” But that would not be helpful.

There are many so-called rules about standing naturally. But I find that they are really just notes about what students discover themselves if they do this for a while. There are also things about your posture that a teacher will point out to you, usually when you are just about to discover them for yourself. 

As you get better at relaxing, you will learn to resolve acute and chronic tensions and misalignments of the body and mind. 

Acute tension is the sort of thing that you can fix immediately. 

It the neck tense? Relax it. 

Are the shoulders tense? Relax them

Is the ribcage tense? Relax it.

The the alignment of the back and hips restrict the movement of the waist and restrict your breathing? Level the pelvis, and engage the thighs. 

Is there torque in the knees, hips or feet? Turn the feet parallel and harmonize with gravity. 

Is the mind full of random thoughts or fixated on a particular thing? Let those thoughts go. 

Chronic tension may take several minutes to resolve, or weeks, or months. They might be caused by injuries, habits, or defects. Fixing them can involve surgery, and/or physical and mental exercises that repair muscular and skeletal misalignments, and liberate you from long-established thought patterns and emotional conditioning.      

The teacher’s job is not to conduct the reshaping of you body and mind. It is guide you in your own liberation. 

The teacher notices that you are about to have an epiphany, and they don’t want you to miss it. They might say, “Ah! You have noticed the tension in your neck. Some people get that from Sudoku. Is that tension just in your neck, or does it affect you back, hips, feet, and emotional state? What happens when you do this? What exercises do you think will fix that? I do this exercise and it seems to help me.”

 I find that the best teachers, historically, are those who don’t teach the style, or the art. They teach the student. That means following the students’ progress, instead of dragging them along by the nose. A teacher acts as an experienced tour guide or interpreter, until the students learns to interpret things themelves.   

This means giving each student a lot more responsibility by applying a lot less pressure.

I could say, “Head up. Chin down. Relax the neck. Level the jaw. Relax the scalp. Relax the eyes. Sink the shoulders. Let the ribs hang from the spine like a shirt hanging from a coat rack. Level the pelvis. Relax the waist. Relax the psoas more than the iliacus. Centre your proprioception on the inferior mesenteric ganglion. Feet parallel. Engage the arches. Reduce the torque in the ankles, knees, and hips. Emphasize centripetal engagement. Feel the breath expand the belly in all directions. Breathe with the whole body, in 6 stages, then 12 stages, then 83 stages, then 108 stages. Feel the interaction and combining of yin and yang. Complete the 14-vessel circulation.  Feel the balance of essence, strength, energy, spirit. Become the void. Shatter the void. Sever the distinction between before and after. Eliminate attachment to past, present, future. Differentiate between full and empty. Harmonize the afferent and the efferent.  

…and clear your mind. 

…Get ready to fight.”

At this point the student might be somewhat whelmed, perhaps overly so. Perhaps they will say, “This is too much for me,” or “Sorry. What was the first thing? Head on top?” 

It is said that Tai chi is very easy to do, and very difficult to correct. In fact, it can be very easy to correct if the teacher respects the student and the student has faith in themself. 

In fact, you might achieve enlightenment on the first day. But that is entirely up to you. 

People talk a lot, these days, about mindfulness. But that is not what we are looking for here. Having a full mind is dangerous in any stressful situation, not only in combat. We want an empty mind. 

Some say that we want a still mind. But absolute stillness needs and absolute frame of reference. That means that you can’t abide in a single place. As the Zen monk said to Euclid, “I don’t see the point.”  

Often, we teach beginners to calm the mind by focusing on a single thing, like the breath, or a sound. But this is a stage to prepare the mind for not thinking about anything. Focusing on a single point does not, in itself, clear the mind. But it does teach you to become aware of the movement of the mind relative to an arbitrary frame of reference. I focus on my breath so that I can become aware of how my mind wanders. Each time I notice myself thinking about something other than my breath, I acknowledge my digression and return to the breath. In the beginning, my mind might wander for days through forests full of monkeys before I remember to come back to my breath. Over time, I will only wander a few steps. Then only a hair. As my awareness of my thoughts becomes more subtle, then even my breath will start to seem too chaotic to be considered a single thing. Eventually, I may see my MIND as the frame of reference, not as a single point but as an undifferentiated non thing. A single point, will be a dimension unto itself  and one dimension more than is encompassed by my frame of reference. Ignore that sentence if you like. 

There must come a stage when I am ready to engage the universe and anything that might happen to me, without any kind of attachment to anything within myself or my environment.

The famous 16th century Zen master, know as Mister Pickle, reminded Samurai not to focus the mind. If you focus on your sword, or the enemy sword, the position, the speed, or the rhythm, then you will be cut down. Placing your mind within yourself, that is for beginners.

Your mind can be abducted by your opponent’s strength, or weakness, or sword. It can be taken by your own sword, or rhythm. Your mind can stop in any of these places and you will be and empty shell, to be cut down. 

Emptiness means to be non-dimensional. In physics, a single point is considered to have zero dimensions. But it is as if zero is too big a quantity for our purposes. We want a number that is not as big as zero, but not a negative number. I know, humans have only recently come to terms with zero being a number, and now I’m laying this on you. But if mathematics can handle the square root of negative one, then martial artists can handle this.  

What I am trying to say is that you can even get attached to nothing. So, trying to focus on nothing will not clear your mind.  

“Focusing my mind on only one thing does not clear my mind any more than believing in only one God makes me an Atheist, or any more than being monogamous would make me celibate.”  

If you clear your mind of all thoughts, then your mind is clear. But if you clear your mind of all thoughts except for one, then your mind is full of that one thing. Your are obsessing. This is a bad move for a martial artist. 

If I focus on my breathing, I might find myself regulating, or even controlling my breathing. I will end up breathing in a particular way. The goal in that practice is to become aware of all the different ways that your breathing can change in order to adapt to different situations.  If I need to run, dodge, block, intercept, or punch, my breathing may need to change. If I am attached to a particular way of breathing, what will happen to my mind when my world gets turned upside down?  

If I simply allow myself to be aware of everything that is happening, without being distracted or obsessed by a single aspect, then perhaps I will be able to see the whole picture, and learn to adapt instantaneously to the changes that happen to my thoughts, emotions, posture, and environment.  And perhaps I will be able to respond appropriately to the knife or sword being swung at my head. Perhaps I will be able to bear the whips and scorns of time, the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contempt, the pangs of unrequited love, (everyone could use a good requite now and then) the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes, when I myself might my own quietus make, by simply standing naturally, relaxing, and clearing my mind.