“The space between heaven and earth is like a bellows.
The shape changes but not the form;
The more it moves, the more it yields.
Hold fast to the center.”
Laozi, Daodejing Chapter 5
Almost 30 years ago good friend, Master Jou, Tsung- Hwa was performing his Taijiquan in the woods of the famous Tai Chi Farm just before sunset. It was a perfect day, a cool breeze moving through the trees, warm sun filtering through the leaves dappling the ground with a green glow, a river running across the rocks of a small waterfall produced a tranquil sound, and all in all what you might call a perfect day. As he completed the form he noticed me standing there. “Welcome John he said, you know doing Taiji like this is very spiritual!”
For some time I puzzled over what he meant exactly about how one could say that performing Taiji could be something spiritual. It is a relaxing exercise and martial art but, spiritual? It took me some time and a few long conversations with Master Jou before I understood what he meant. The problems of communication often arise when we use words and assign our own preconceived meanings to them.
Getting To The Root Of the Situation
One of my hobbies in the pursuit of understanding the Chinese internal martial arts, healing and philosophy has been researching the origins of Chinese characters used to describe principles or concepts. I believe if we can understand the original meaning of the characters used by early founders and practitioners and dissect these characters into their base radicals (components) to discover the root of those particular characters we may come closer to understanding what the founders intended to convey.
In the English language there can be confusion and misunderstanding when a single word is given many or alternate meanings. Take the Chinese term Gong Fu (Kung Fu) which in the west and even in China today has become synonymous with the martial arts. This is not the real meaning of the word. The characters for this word Gong Fu 工夫 actually mean time; workmanship; skill; art; work; labor; effort. While these things do certainly apply to martial arts, the word does not mean martial arts. It simply means something that takes a long time to master. This could be painting, poetry or plumbing and my point is that over time the original meaning of a word can change to take on ideas the words originator never intended.
This word spirit in English can also be used to mean many things, here are just a few of the definitions; ghost, soul, force within a person that gives the body life, energy, and power, an inner quality or nature or the inner power of a person, temper or disposition of mind or outlook especially when vigorous or animated, a special attitude or frame of mind, alcoholic beverage and so the list goes on and on. To know what the speaker or author means by the words he is using we have to look at it in the context of the sentence in which it is used and even then the meaning may not be that clear as was the case with Master Jou saying that his Taijiquan practice felt “very spiritual”. Most people in the west would have simply thought he meant his practice engendered some form of religiosity and they would have been incorrect.
In English the word spirit comes from ancient Middle English origins. It can be traced back to the varieties of the English spoken after the Norman Conquest (1066) until the late 15th century. From Middle English there are a number of definitions. The first from Old Frenchspirituel, from Latin spiritualis, from spiritus ‘breath, spirit’, from spirare ‘breathe’. To me as a student of Asian arts this is fascinating in that the definitions of breath, in Chinese is Qi 氣 the exact translation of the character is breath or vapor, and in Middle English spirit the animating energy of life also meant breath or breathe. I am not saying there is any connection; just that it is a fascinating coincidence. There are numerous words in Chinese for spirit. With Chinese characters there can be less confusion because different characters can represent many ideas for the word spirit.
Some examples are:
Linghun 靈魂 soul; spirit
Guihun 鬼魂 ghost; spirit; apparition
Shen 神 deity; spirit; mind; expression
Yingqi 英氣 heroic spirit
Qingtai 情態 spirit; mood
There are many more examples. Many poorly educated translators would simply use the English word spirit when translating any of these five terms from the Chinese. So you see how confusion can arise when one is not really sure of the succinct definition of the word.
So What Does Feeling Spiritual Mean In This Context?
In this particular instance of Master Jou saying his practice felt spiritual we could say he felt connected to a feeling outside the normal ordinary daily experience. Such a feeling can be interpreted as extraordinary, outside our understanding. Such sensations could be defined as having a spiritual experience. Perhaps a better term would be having a transcendental experience as when we encounter sensations or feelings beyond our normal frame of reference in which the event seems perhaps ethereal. At such time one may have a slight or profound feeling as if relating to a non-physical realm or experiencing something with a hitherto new never realized mood or attitude. In Chinese this can be called Qingtai or a spiritual mood brought about by a sudden awakening of the mind that allow us to transcend our normal way of thinking and seeing.
In the practice of Asian disciplines such as Yoga, Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Meditation this transcendental sensation may arise from a combination of very natural causes. In fact this transcendental state can arise when performing an activity where you are feeling happiest, as in some physical act or mental state where you feel free, without boundaries. When conditions are correct the focused mindful practice of any of these disciplines may give one a sense of transcending the ordinary. This is called by some a spiritual experience. I believe that is what Master Jou was referring to when he said, “It is very spiritual.”