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Tai Chi Essential #8: Unify Inner and Outer

25 Mar 2015
Tai chi is said to cultivate the spirit, shen, because it can move freely through the body when we learn to move as a single light, supple piece. In this regard spirit is sometimes confused with chi, which is called energy by some and breath by others, but which is neither. In any event we can satisfy our desire to be light and supple only by learning to relax, turning our mind inward, and moving as one piece. In Essential #7 we looked at this in regard to unifying the upper and lower parts of the body, which is difficult to understand. Essential #8 is perhaps the most esoteric, so even more study is required:

Unity of the Internal and External

Yang Cheng-fu made some very important comments on this, about opening and closing, but before I get into them I want to address a more fundamental issue that even many teachers miss: The question so many students ask their teachers, for which they never receive a decent explanation, is "What do we mean by internal?" A teacher who cannot answer this question is still a student and certainly not a master.

The internal arts that contribute to tai chi, nei jia, are based largely in old Taoist ideas that project a kind of cosmology into our body's internal structure. The origins of astrology go back to these beliefs and practices. Within this cosmology are the three treasures-chi, jing, and shen- that work through the three "palaces". Also known as dan tiens , there is the upper (in the head), the middle (in the heart), and the lower (in the abdomen). When teachers refer to "the dan tien" they mean the lower one. So internal arts are devoted to the cultivation of these three treasures, particularly by orbiting and transforming our chi in a variety of practices. In time chi and jing can be transformed into shen, which transforms us into higher spiritual beings, at least in theory. In practice decades of dedicated effort are required. Much of this work involves moving our chi through a variety of orbits, particularly the smaller or "microcosmic" orbit, and the larger or "macrocosmic" orbit, often called the grand circulation. In time the student learns that exercising the grand circulation contributes directly to our ability to issue power from the ground, through the feet, through the waist, through the shoulders, through the arms.

Thus we have unity of the internal and the external when our internal activity drives our external movements. If my body is circling or spiraling, it is because first I am circling and spiraling internally. When you see Chinese acrobats or kung fu monks spinning through the air, what you see is an external manifestation of their internal activity, which is what makes them so different from the acrobats of other cultures.

Now you know what internal means. In our practice of tai chi, our external movements should be manifestations of internal activity; otherwise they are inferior.

In his notes Yang Cheng-fu discusses the idea of being open or closed. That is a very tough subject to address through writing, but as usual we find easy understanding in a physical demonstration. Later this year I hope to introduce video clips to accompany these columns, but for now pen and ink, speaking euphemistically, will have to do.

Descriptions of open and closed hardly do the subject justice, but it comes down to this: if you are one piece, unified, upper and lower, inner and outer, then you are open. Otherwise you are closed, broken.

But let's get one thing straight. To external martial artists like my karate and kung fu brothers "open" means you have left yourself vulnerable to an attack. When I speak of open in this context I mean your body is full of chi, expanded like a balloon but not so full as to be tense, available for anything. Closed means broken, not available to respond as needed. Open means sealed, invincible.

That's a short description of a complicated topic; it leaves much to be desired. Before I go further, though, I want to hear from my readers. Our next essential will be much more down to earth - Continuity, the subject of chapter four in my book, Tai Chi In Your Life.

You may also like this related article: Tai Chi Essential #7: Unify Your Body (209) You may also like this related article: Tai Chi Essential #7: Unify Your Body (209)
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