The simplest, most profound lesson in taijiquan—as a martial art, a healing art, and a meditation art—is to be present. It goes about teaching that lesson through a series of slow, fluid movements whose shapes and sequence are prescribed by tradition and memorized by repetition.
And therein lies a paradox. Because repetition and its cousin, habit, have an anesthetizing effect. The subtlest, most challenging adversary in taiji isn’t the unknown, it’s the knowledge of what comes next.
Without focus, that knowledge creates the effect of continuously traveling down hill: It has its own momentum, and the more certain the knowledge, the steeper the incline of the hill. Without mindful effort, we become mere passengers, following semi-consciously toward whatever goal is in our sights.
Watching a taiji class practice their forms, it is immediately apparent when the students are fully present and when they’ve slipped into the downhill momentum of their knowledge of what comes next. In the first instance, their skin radiates vibrancy and the air is charged with both energy and stillness. In the second, their skin tone is flat and the air feels either vacant or heavy (or both).
The same is true in our daily living. Our routines, rituals, and relationships are deeply internalized. We know them. And so very often we surrender to the momentum of that knowledge, coasting down hill without a lot of thought or real presence. It’s as if we’re sleepwalking through large swaths of our life.
It’s not that surprising that the Chinese sage, Lao Tsu, wrote in the Tao Te Ching:
Banish wisdom, discard knowledge,
And the people will be benefitted a hundredfold.
It seems a harsh and cynical sentiment. But Lao Tsu saw that with knowledge, we are often either distracted by all the shiny objects around us, or lulled into a complacent stupor by our knowledge of what comes next. He wanted people to be and more, to be present. That’s why he also wrote,
In the pursuit of learning, every day something is acquired.
In the the pursuit of Tao, every day something is dropped.
It’s why the taiji movements are distilled to the simplest forms of action. The goal is to reduce activity and its noise to the merest intimations of motion and sound so that the player can actually hear, touch, taste, smell, and see the moment arriving, unfolding, and departing. When that happens and the player avoids coasting down hill, the knowledge of what comes next is replaced by the discovery of what is.
It can be startling and transformative.
We can do the same thing with ordinary activities. As an experiment, try something familiar and relatively simple, such as brushing your teeth or washing the dishes. Rather than coasting through the activity without thought (or distracted by multiple unrelated thoughts), try to bring all other activities and thoughts to a standstill for the duration of the activity and focus only and wholly on that one thing, from beginning to end. Use all five senses to observe the moment.
When you’ve done that, try spending one minute with someone who is deeply familiar to you, and allow all other activities and thoughts to become still so that you can devote your five senses entirely to your interaction with that person for that one minute. Pay special attention to listening with all five senses.
We miss a lot when coasting down hill. It turns out, our knowledge of what comes next is only a glimmer of what’s waiting all around us.