Intention and Meditation


Part of the training involved in Xing Yi ( one of the three Internal Martial Arts along with Tai Chi and Ba Gua) is a standing practice known as “San Ti” where you stand still and imagine your opponents as blades of grass that you will scythe through without pity or ruth. Leaving aside this violent ethos, shorn from battlefield spear tactics ( the Xing Yi spearman attacks even in retreat), the practice is similar to the standing that I undertook to open up my back years ago.

The second word in Xing Yi means Intention.

Intent is something is very interesting in the Internal Arts.

Effectively, you are doing a form of proto-meditation when you do this practice.  But what is meditation? In this context, it is a short concentrated period of awareness.

Samadhi is, depending on who you ask, either a state of non-duality ( the Hindu view) or else a state of  “calm abiding” (or zhiné, the Tibetan Buddhist term). I am more familiar with the Buddhist view, in which the state of zhiné is one where the observer does not merge with the object of attention, but is able, in this state, to practise one-pointed concentration in order to become more aware of the flow of thoughts and the distraction that ensues if you follow thoughts. In other words, becoming aware of the normal undifferentiated state of blurred incoherence, fragmented attention and solipsistic internal monologue punctuated with visualised scenes of potential social humiliation ( otherwise known as “worrying”) that characterises just about everybody; this can be given some sharper edges, a border that can be recognised by the conscious mind whenever one “gaps” ( fall into distraction)

I am more interested in this state in my daily life now, because the state of contemplation ( samadhi in Sanskrit) which is the next stage of deep meditation, as the sensation of “merging with everything”, is still beyond my selfish, dualistic nature, although there have been moments in my life when trailers for this experience have screened themselves in front of my mind’s eye. This state of calm abiding ( zhiné ) is also the most explicable state that can be reached by persons doing Tai Chi or Xing Yi standing ( and sometimes by Ba Gua circle walkers) although I have to state, once again for the court stenographer, that Tai Chi traditionally is not, has not, never has been a meditation ( although the Chang San Feng people might disagree) and those who claim it is so are confidently grasping the mist that is Chinese History, which, Imperial archives aside, is a cloud of poetic unknowing, full of coloured lights and dragons chasing tigers chasing men, a Mirror that speaks whatever you want it to.

Just because Tai Chi is taught nowadays on Wudang Mountain doesn’t mean it was taught there before the Revolution. It wasn’t even called Tai Chi in the nineteenth century; it was called Long Boxing.

However, true to the fluid nature of the essence of Change, and the philosophy of the I Jing, there is no reason why, in these days of the Kaliyuga, that Tai Chi cannot be taught and practised as a meditation . The movements of Tai Chi can be done as a meditation, but not yet for the Beginner. True meditation in the Buddhist lineages is work on your mind without being distracted by the body; the meditation that I teach is actually a real effort to really feel the body which has lost the capacity to feel itself for multiple reasons I go into elsewhere.

The novice has priorities ( in my class at least, dear reader); there is an effort involved in feeling where you are, knowing your presented condition with respect to the Ideal Posture, being able to feel and know what the Ideal Posture is and then softly hardwire the Ideality in to your fascia and bones via repetition and conscious correcting so that the movements can be effected and demonstrated without too much thinking. But automaticity is not the scope or goal. If the motions are performed with headphones on, it ceases to be tai chi, and becomes mere “exercise”. Concentration, awareness and focus are the tasks to persevere with. The application of effort, of intent, marks it out. The Yi can be divided into two; in one seemingly paradoxical attempt, you are trying to keep a structure stable through the continuous contraction of weakened muscles that have allowed your posture ( neck and back) to weaken; at the same time, you are trying to feel the clenched and permanently tightened muscles in the other parts of your body and drop the held tension. This internal dual awareness is very difficult initially but gradually reveals itself.

Adding to the complexity, the other Yi, or Intention, is that of Moving Without Being Distracted. Here, the slow loris nature of Tai Chi comes into its own. The nature of human sight is a pinpoint of clarity surrounded by an vague indistinctness. The chameleon’s eye is a perfect exemplar. Even as it swivels, the pupil is surrounded by a scaly hood. So it is with human sight. We see and, depending on whether we are using the Left or the Right Brain, we have two different experiences- “ Experience is forever in motion, ramifying and unpredictable. In order for us to know anything at all, that thing must have enduring properties. If all things flow, and one can never step into the same river twice- Heraclitus’s phrase is, I believe, a brilliant evocation of the core reality of the right hemisphere’s world- one will always be taken unawares by experience, since nothing being ever repeated, nothing can ever be known. We have to find a way of fixing it as it flies, stepping back from the immediacy of experience, stepping outside the flow. Hence the brain has to attend to the world in two completely different ways, and in so doing to bring two different worlds into being. In the one, we experience the live, complex, embodied, world of individual,always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected. In the other we  “experience” our experience in a special way; a ‘re-presented’ version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes, on which predictions can be based. This kind of attention isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. But it also enables us for the first time to know, and consequently to make things…these are not different ways of thinking about the world: they are different ways of being in the world. And their difference is not symmetrical, but fundamentally asymmetrical” McGilchrist, pps.30-31.

Thus, the practitioner who wishes to use tai chi as a meditation must become aware of the difference between the two hemispheres, and judge whether he is predominantly conditioned by one or the other, and whether he can switch easily or else is a prisoner of either. The switch can be done by allowing the peripheral vision to expand, by adopting various measures such as deep belly breathing, and becoming aware of how one sees.

We need the Right Brain to operate more. It is the Left Brain that makes people panicked, rigid and stressed. Our entire society is the left brain made concrete. When it works well with our right brain, it is very powerful; when it takes over, it is a robotic mindset gone amok: our streets are a grid, our systems are hierarchical, rigid and inflexible; we are prisoners of conditioning, bias and low empathy; we are destroying the environment we live in for a fake currency based on  “endless growth” and so on.

Artists will tell you that they see the world differently. Actually seeing is a faculty that demands work. Ask anyone to describe their route home and they might remember some blatant features but the specific is a blank. We do not see, we “re-present” familiar routes. This is why holidays are memorable: the “route” is very different, and we feel “alive”. There is no reason why this ability cannot be nurtured by people seemingly “bored” by the crushing tedium of quotidan reality, which is only crushing tedium because they do not see the world, they see a lifeless re-presentation of it in their mind.

So, to practise Tai Chi as a meditation requires tripartite intentional awareness in a moving field,  as well as some ability to soften, open up and expand consciousness into a seeing realm without judging or comparing or getting distracted down another rabbit hole of association.

This entry was posted in Tai Chi. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Alan Lennon
    | Permalink

    Wow Jan, thats really good. Really makes you think about things and the tedious life that we lead.

    Keep me in your email address book as i endeavor to return as always.

    • Thanks Alan, hope you can make it back soon