Here in the rush and roar of the Holidays, I came unexpectedly on an old friend, stillness. I was out on a lunchtime walk. The mall across the street was overflowing with shoppers, restaurants had queues of people waiting to be seated, the streets were lined with holiday trimmings and filled with traffic impatient to be moving on.
And there it was, peeking out at the edges of everything, and inside my overstimulated and somewhat distracted senses—stillness.
When I first began studying the Chinese martial art taijiquan, one of the simplest and most profound qigong practices that was included in our training was zhan zhuang (“Standing Like a Tree” or “Universal Post”). In this exercise, you stand unmoving, your arms in a circle parallel to the ground, your palms facing in toward your heart.
At first, just standing still is a challenge. It’s not something we ordinarily do for more than a few seconds. Doing so for several minutes can set the mind racing, muscles aching, and emotions raging. Not exactly the essence of tranquility.
But gradually, a transformation begins to take place. My teacher described this as, “letting your muscles rest on your bones.” But that was only the beginning, because releasing tension out of the muscles has a ripple effect. It also quiets the mind and calms the heart while it eases physical effort. Waves of stillness, a seeming paradox, wash over you.
In fact, these waves of stillness are fundamental to activities as far ranging as deep meditation and competitive sports. The dance of stillness and motion informs and transforms all of life, and is one of the principle lessons of zhan zhuang, and of taijiquan and qigong more broadly.
This dance is illustrated in one of the most famous symbols of ancient China:
Commonly known as the yin-yang symbol, its name is actually taiji, “Supreme Ultimate.” It represents the state when all elements—of a person, a relationship, an event, a time—are in perfect balance. But perfect balance is an impermanent condition, so the ability to regain balance is as important as the ability to maintain it.
Taijiquan, or “Supreme Ultimate Fist” means “action in tune with the Supreme Ultimate.” It’s the practice of using mindful, intentional action to restore and sustain harmonious equilibrium—not through force of will or effort, but through wu wei, or “actionless action.” In wu wei, the goal is to choose the least amount of activity possible that fully produces the desired effect.
It’s very similar to the wilderness ethic of Leave No Trace, where the goal is to fully engage with the natural environment, but in a way that leaves nothing damaged, disturbed, or diminished when we leave.
In taijquan, this minimalist, wu wei action is seen as an extension of deep stillness. This is illustrated by another ancient symbol:
Its name is wuji, and it represents the spirit from which everything—the Ten Thousand Things—emerge. It’s also the circle of deep stillness that enfolds and permeates every one of those ten thousand things, and is the source of the taiji state of balance.
In its unwavering presence, wuji is teacher, protector, and healer. It calls the Ten Thousand Things back to center when they become fragmented and discordant. It’s the secret place within that’s at the heart of meditation and other mindfulness practice. It’s also “the zone” that elite athletes enter when the game slows down, the roar of the crowd goes silent, and the play becomes a flow.
When stillness caught me by surprise on my walk, I was somewhat agitated by something that had happened in the office that morning. I was trying to walk it out, and doing kind of a hurried job of it.
Wuji called me back. I slowed down and began another simple taiji practice known as “empty stepping” (an alternate translation for wu wei).
Rather than falling forward into each step, the foot is placed lightly along the “root line” that runs from the center of the heel through the first two toes. Along that root line, at the back edge of the ball of the foot is an acupuncture point known as yong chuan, or “Bubbling Spring.” With each stroke of our foot on the earth, we can splash in the bubbling spring of regenerating qi life force.
Wu wei becomes a walking meditation.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Master, has said, “People say that walking on water is a miracle. But to me, walking peacefully on the earth is the real miracle.”
In his book Timeshifting, Dr. Stephen Rechtschaffen says, “It’s when we slow down that we show up.”
As I walked empty stepping down the crowded street surrounded by stillness I felt myself returning to myself.
When I got back to the office, I was ready to be there.