Can Taijiquan (Tai Chi) be thought of as a form of meditation? In order to understand Taijiquan as meditation we need to define our terms. As I am writing this for an internal arts community I assume my readers know a good definition of Taijiquan. If not the characters in Chinese (太 極 拳) translate to, Great Ultimate Fist which describes the martial or boxing art often called Tai Chi. With this description it is only necessary to have a working definition of meditation for this article. This obtained, we can see how Taijiquan fits that definition.
The definition of meditation that I use is the following: Meditation is the process of conscious, controlled focus of the mind. This may take place when the thinking processes, both in pictures and in words, have been stopped.
In our examination of Taijiquan as meditation, it is necessary to introduce and define one additional term. That term is Satipatthana (Pali) is often translated as “foundation of mindfulness,” which gives the impression that it refers to an object of meditation. In this instance I call it (progressive attrition) exercise. The purpose of a Satipatthana exercise is to quiet the mind, – to get it to stop outputs. One way to do this is to keep the mind busy with inputs until it develops the habit of becoming quiet (refraining from all thought) during the exercise. When this has been achieved, the mind is ready to begin to meditate.
To me, meditation breaks down into two varieties: which to use terminology which will be readily understood by internal martial artists, may be termed Yin and Yang meditation. Yin meditation is the clearing of mind of all thought, both in pictures and in words, and holding that mind in a focused and alert state. Yang meditation is the concentrated focus of the mind on something. The “something” can have almost infinite variety. Common subjects of this type of meditation are: mantras, chakras, colors, shapes, prayers, and affirmations. Having defined what mediation is in this instance, I think it is important to also define what meditation is not. Contrary to persistent and popular misconception, meditation is not a trance state, a sleep state or a state of nothingness. Successful mediators are always alert, relaxed, and in control of their minds.
Correlating this concept with out practice of Taijiquan, several points become apparent:
1. The serious student of Taijiquan is practicing a Satipatthana, whether that student is aware of it or not. Consider, when you are trying to feel things like your weight distribution, you Qi and the many other things to feel, you suspend thinking, so you can feel.
2. For Taijiquan practitioners, there are many things you can add to your practice of this amazing Satipatthana called Taijiquan. To continue, there are all kinds of body movement that you can concentrate on in addition to the things listed above: (the straightness of the spine, how the weight fills up one foot and then the other eg.) as well as the energy (Qi and the Dantian / center point e.g.). Also there is the thickness and texture of the air we move through as we practice. These are just a few, but the point it that we can always add something if we feel that we have the things we are feeling, monitoring, under mental control.
3. When a reasonable ability at the skill of Taijiquan as Satipatthana has been attained, there will be two results.
a. The mind will get into the habit of monitoring all the things mentioned and more with an increasingly smaller part of its attention.
b. During the process of attaining that ability the mind will have developed the habit of becoming quiet during the practice of Taijiquan.
4, The ability to be doing a yin meditation during the practice of Taijiquan will result.
I find Taijiquan to be an extremely valuable tool in the practice of meditation, and of meditation in the practice of Taijiquan, because in one form, one exercise, one discipline you have a potent yin meditation and a complex Satipatthana. The shift from Satipatthana to meditation is completely internal, with no shift in outward physical activity. The shift happens progressively as you develop mastery of your mind. While I am focusing on the process here, and introducing the concept of Satipatthana, I am not alone in thinking of the benefits of meditation for Taijiquan.
I asked my first teacher, Professor Cheng, Man-Ch’ing (Zheng Man-Qing), if he meditated. His answer was that he practiced Taijiquan. Then I pressed him on it and asked if he did seated meditation, he answered that he did not.
He said that Taijiquan was all the meditation he needed. I never heard him speak of meditation again, as I had my answers and no one else asked. However, he would occasionally tell us, in correction class and in general talks, to keep our minds empty of thoughts during our practice of Taijiquan. To keep one’s mind empty, as you till recall, is by definition, yin meditation.
In conclusion, let me say that I am not saying that every one who practices Taijiquan is doing a yin meditation, but I am saying that if they do it, it will help their practice.