“We see, at least consciously, only what we are attending to in a focused way ( with the conscious left hemisphere). Since what we select to attend to is guided by our expectations of what it is we are going to see, there is a circularity involved which means we experience more and more only what we already know. Our incapacity to see the most apparently obvious features of the world around us, if they do not fit the template we are currently working with, is so entrenched that it is hard to know how we can ever come to experience anything truly new”
McGilchrist, “The Master and his Emissary”, p.163
I teach tai chi and qi gong for people to learn to relax the stress-compressed tension that turtles their backs and petrifies their joints, but, more importantly, for long-term stress relief, I try to make students become conscious of the source of their physical rigidity, to recognize the invisible screen that their conscious mind flicks between from lucid apprehension of the world “as it is” ( this can be easily stimulated by bursting a balloon near someone. In that state of shock you are “thoughtless” and present) to the “1000-yard stare” mask that hides the internal theatre that is staging either a recreation of a past traumatic event or a dramatic clip of a future encounter or social situation that has as its result a state of social or personal humiliation for the worrier, because this is what worry is; fear of that Not-Yet-But-Could-Be, which always has a negative outcome. This feeding of relentless misery to their mind’s eye and thus their exhausted adrenals has them prepped for yet another “life-threatening”argument with a colleague, boss or spouse, or experiencing the shame and ridicule of neighbours or family of not paying a bill, or being late for a meeting, or even wearing the wrong dress, whilst exterior vision, idly in neutral at the same time, has them fidgeting in traffic, gazing blankly ahead with the radio a-jestering to keep them jolly and tilt them away from the despair or boredom that blackly pools on their periphery.
I exhort them to feel the dim glass-dark cocoon that is their body and valiantly reclaim it from this myopic demon; the rapid edit-cuts from inside to out, bound by the sclerosis of conditioned vision, the CGI of the mind filling in expected co-ordinates, ensuring daily boredom by snuffing out the capacity to really see something beyond the programmed expectation of Quotidiana. The fact that bricks and offices don’t rustle, change colour, harbour animals and birds, release pollen, waft pleasant odours, drop fruit, hide prey, and generally behave as sentient beings has led to a massive shriveling of city-dwellers’ ability to scan a landscape like a San bushman or an Amazonian native. I ask them to consider, via a dual sensation model, how to let the environment seep into them while they let their own interior bubble up. So you soak up things that you see and strain to “see” that which you normally don’t, while simultaneously feeling for the positioning of your body such that you don’t fall back into dysfunctional autopilot ( which also depends upon knowing where and what The Neutral Point is). Ultimately, this initial phase of tai chi is about remoulding the fascia, but it is predicated upon the capacity to “take stock” of one’s given physical present, and to become aware of one’s locked-in neurobiological status; that is to say, the proportion of time that is spent “being present” as opposed to being in a “mode” of reflexive autonomy. The goal of the Tibetan meditation practices that I have familiarity with is to access a state of constant, unswerving awareness, even when engaged in mental and physical tasks. The trope of the cushioned meditator in the lotus position is hackneyed, but is understandable. Certainly, the initial stages for a meditation practice must be tried in a quiet place, in a posture that prevents you from being sleepy. But later, the stability of the mind allows one to switch into this state anywhere, doing anything.
The physical routine of the tai chi Form allows the practitioner space and time within which to practice and develop this discipline of mental presence and physical sensitivity. It is unique and marks tai chi out from mere ‘exercise’ which has become a debased, almost hated activity among those who are not drawn to it naturally, and which is often executed with loud distracting music and a total absence of presence.
Inside and outside merge into a continuum, a conscious field of awareness that tracks the changing body and gazes at the mind’s pyrotechnics, the thousand and one popping lightbulbs that bedazzle the attention. The goal is to becalm the monkey mind, seek the sharp clarity of the instant moment and smudge it across your day’s visual feed, becoming a more detached observer of the million-pixel circus that is modern city life, a binnacle of balance in emotional squalls and tempests. But of the underlying fabric of your emotional and energetic “stuff”, another essay must need delve into that blue green Sargasso sea.