Spirit in Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong

SpiritSpirit is a quality that is often referred to in the work of taijiquan and qigong and it is also one of the qualities that is considered when evaluating a tai chi performance in competition. That being said it is, to many, a concept that is difficult to explain or put words to. At 2009’s Tai Chi Caledonia I invited a few of our instructors to give their views on the matter. They were Marianne Plouvier, (France), Sam Masich, (Canada), Faye Li Yip, (UK) & Judith van Drooge, (Netherlands).

RonnieRonnie: Perhaps a good place to start is with each of you saying a few words about what Spirit means to you.

Judith: First, what comes to mind for me is the expression that is often used, “That’s the Spirit.” When do we say this? It’s mostly when people are full of something, maybe very happy or joyful, full of light. In tai chi it also has this sense of being aware and connected to something.

Marianne: I’ve thought about this subject and listened to you talking for the past five minutes or so and nothing comes to mind for me, absolutely nothing. I’m not really sure what it is that you’re referring to.

Ronnie: Is it a term that is used in your country (France), your culture in the teaching of tai chi or qigong?qigong Marianne

Marianne: No, not really, but It could be about spirit of the mind, spirit of the body, or Spirituality.

Ronnie: There are many things it could be, but what is it for you?

Marianne: Qi.

Sam: Three things come to mind in terms of spirit with regards to tai chi. One is the standard qigong formula which we see in all qigong and tai chi practices – the idea of Jing or essential raw energy which produces Qi or vital energy which animates something and this Qi nourishes the Shen. This is usually translated as spirit – so that’s the jing-qi-shen formula; Jing produces Qi and Qi produces Shen or spirit. Another thing that comes to mind is a treatise by Yang Cheng-Fu, (which he narrated and someone else wrote down) where he said, “It’s important to focus on the Shen (Spirit), not on the Qi. What I think is interesting about this whole subject is that I think tai chi connects to very ancient practises, and that the idea of Shen is actually spirits. So these are the three things that come to my mind when I’m considering the idea of Shen or Spirit.

FayeFaye: I think that Shen (Spirit) is a really important aspect in training and ultimately it’s what we all want to achieve. That’s why in competition we really want to see if this aspect is present.  When it’s there it’s something that really strikes you, it’s seen in the posture, in the focus, in the concentration and reveals a clarity of everything in a wholeness and completeness.  It really strikes you, in an instant, you can’t take your eyes of it and it happens in all high quality sportsmanship, it’s just really beautiful.  They all have Shen, it’s in every sport and it’s the highest state of training is to get to that spirit, that pure spirit of completeness where everything is just spot-on. That is Shen (Spirit).

We go through various stages to get there. We get the body shape first, where we’re copying and trying to replicate the movements. We call it Xiao Shen which means adjusting the body. The next stage is Xiao Qi, adjusting the breathing and the next stage is Xiao Xin, the heart and mind, then finally we lead to Shen. So you go through your training from the body stage where you simply work to make sure the hands are in the right place, the feet are in the right place, working on the physical level. After that we gradually go deeper, to reach inside to make a deeper connection to the body which will allow the Qi to gather in the centre. When the Qi settles in then you will also have the mind settled, focussed and clear. Then you finally reach a point when everything just comes together and that is Shen (Spirit). It can happen with anything, it could be in calligraphy where you can have that connective-ness and that wholeness of being.  That is Shen.

samSam: What struck me is that when Marianne was grasping for the words to discuss it, she didn’t have any problem expressing it during her demonstration, it was very apparent when she was doing her form and she was absolutely there, in the moment, everything was focussed. It wasn’t just about going through the motions she was totally centred and aligned. I was quite captivated by her form and I think it’s very much like Faye just said, it’s like she’s in the zone.

Question from the floor: Do you think it’s something that is intrinsically there or is it something that tai chi helps to bring out of you?

Judith: I think it’s something that everybody has but with training it can help to bring it out.  Sometimes you lose it but there are times when you’ll feel, “Oh yes, that’s it.” You’re right there and you know it’s exactly the right thing to do.  That’s when everything is aligned, your body, mind and spirit.

Faye: You can’t have Shen without the correct body movement. There is a certain quality of posture that needs to be there as a base to allow that energy to flow. You can still have your own individuality of your Shen but there has to be a particular correctness in the posture. So when you say we all have it, in a way you’re right but it needs to have things in a correct way to allow it to manifest.

Sam: This subject could be a very long discussion indeed. We could ask the questions, “Is it something we can develop?” Is it something we possess?” “Is it something we’re possessed by?”  With most ancient rituals, and China has a deep culture of rituals, and it wasn’t really dominated by the big three; Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism but for most of their daily lives, for many, many years it was spirits, mediums, trans-channelling, exorcism etc. It was about dealing with the spirits that possessed you.  Why did we get sick, the bad spirits possessed you. Why did the crops fail, the bad spirits were there.  There’s another aspect to this which has to do with giving one’s self over to being occupied by a spirit. Now personally I don’t believe in any of this stuff, but this experience is a very necessary and primal one for human beings.  The fact of giving one’s self over to being occupied is important. I think this is what we really see when someone has Shen, or is really in the moment. In that space they have really opened themselves up to whatever it is that is at the very centre of that art.  This is very, very core to tai chi practice. Things like ‘sticking’ involve (Chinese) characters that have to do with divination.  There is a certain amount of giving over that we need to do, we need to allow things to happen.  That requires, as Faye says, real control of your body, your mind, focus, attention, awareness etc.

Ronnie: So do you subscribe to the notion that there is a shamanic component to this work?

Sam: That’s what I’m saying. Most of Chinese history, for average people, it’s not really dominated by Buddhism priests or Taoist priests or Confucian ethics that was really for the upper society for the most part.  For most of history people’s lives were influenced by these very basic shamanic elements, and by that I mean 4-5,000 years. So tai chi is actually born in this soil and I think it’s a very deep part of the art which is largely unspoken about.

Question from the floor: Faye mentioned and Sam elucidated on the idea of the requirement for good basic structure having to be in place before Shen could happen, do you think it’s possible to have very good technical form without really being aware of the proper application of what they’re doing?

Sam: If you limit the level of what we call very good.

Judith: Without proper attention you can’t really do the form. You have to be really aware of what you’re going to do and why.

Ronnie: I also have another point of view. Everything that has been said in terms of skill requirement I fully understand, respect and agree with but I also believe we are dealing with something else.

In my capacity as a professional tai chi teacher I’m working, day by day, with a whole variety of people. Now many of these people, for whatever ever reason are not necessarily greatly skilled in what they’re doing, nor will they ever be. They come for other reasons.  That being said I firmly believe that what we’re working with differs greatly from many other forms of movement or exercise that people do. It has a physical component but it is not the main aspect of what we’re doing, they’re not really doing strongly physical exercises. Now over these many years of teaching I’ve come to ask myself, what is it we’re actually doing, when we’re doing this work. In many cases people of limited physical ability are doing the work, to the best of their ability, and they’re feeling better at the end of it. What changes are taking place? At the end of every session there is a very tangible change in how people feel, they feel better. I’ve come to the conclusion that the bottom line is, that we’re raising the spirit.

By way of illustration let me tell you about one woman; she was in her late 70’s and was coming to the class for something like 6 – 8 weeks.  She was a very quiet woman, stayed at the back of the class and never spoke much. One week as she was leaving she asked if she could have a few words with me. She told me that for many years she was a very active woman, always working about the house, always active in her neighbourhood, but a couple of years ago she had some changes in her life and since then didn’t have the will to do much of anything. Since coming to the class she planted flowers in her garden for the first time in three years. Now to me that shows us that something in the work has had an effect on her spirit. Something changed in this woman by doing this work – spiritually I think. So it’s not about skill, though I also totally agree and understand about the aspect of spirit there.

I take a lot of photographs at tai chi events and at a competition I took a number of photographs of people performing their routines.  Afterwards I post the images on a website (Flickr) where anybody can view them. There was one particular image which received a number of positive comments, many people liked it. The image was simple; it was a picture of the head of a woman looking straight forward to her hands, whilst performing her form. In the image you could clearly see that she was totally connected to what she was doing, in the zone, as Sam previously said. Her spirit was most certainly evident and she won a number of gold medals for her various performances. So here we have different aspects of what we can call spirit.

Statement from the floor: We talked about spirit or Shen as something that can be acquired, I’d like to suggest that it something that can only be gained when we let go of things. You talked about from Qi to Jing to Shen but we haven’t talked about going on to Wu and to emptiness, towards the Tao, and to me, in some way spirit becomes impersonal whereas Shen in some ways is within the framework of what we can see as our reach whereas with spirit I feel in we have to surrender not only the personal Shen but also the characteristics of what we consider to be important for the evolution of me or the self. In a sense the ultimate spirit is that which we find when we give up everything we associate with being me. I think that’s also very much part of the system.

Sam: That’s exactly what I was talking about., that abandoning of self that allows one to be occupied by that other way of being that isn’t the personal ego.

From the floor: I think though, that in a sense that when you’re talking about that you’re also talking about it in a context of demons and spirits (which I rather regard as having a small ‘s’) whereas the spirit that I’m trying to talk about goes beyond all concept of spirits and demons and, indeed, even Shen.  It’s the ultimate Taoist immortal it’s the being that’s beyond the purely personal and has become one with everything that is.  I think that’s bigger, in a sense, that what we’re talking about.

judithJudith: There’s even the place in between and about getting there and that’s also what we’re referring to, what we need to do to be in that place.  Every human being on the planet has to find their own way and it’s also about finding this way.

From the floor: Maybe what we can say is that tai chi is only one of many vehicles for the manifestation of the spirit. We can find in many sports, all branches of culture that there is something special there. For tai chi to be special in that regard I think is a fallacy, it’s only one of many ways.

Sam: As I’ve said before, I’m an atheist. I also don’t think it’s important which goblin or ghost, which spirit we refer to. To me they are all the same thing and we just apply different cultural expressions to what happens in the process of opening.  Something happens and it seems to happen universally in all cultures, like this gentleman said and it’s not unique to tai chi. There is something about opening to it, and I think like Ronnie said too, we’re just opening it a little, maybe to get out a couple of nights a week, people are doing something a little more positive than going down to the pub regularly. Just the fact that we’re opening things up is important. I think in tai chi we all recognise that there’s something more going on than just moving our thighs and moving our arms. There’s something more with this and I think that’s what people yearn for, opening up to……….  – I don’t think there needs to be a specific. It’s that process that’s important.

From the floor: Do you think there’s a danger, chasing this spirit, this ultimate, amazing….. whatever it is. There’s seems to be an awful lot of people who have gone slightly wacky from chasing something. What I really like about tai chi is just really being in that moment and enjoying it and to me that’s spirit to me.

Judith: You could go crazy on it if you have the attitude that it’s something you really must have, that’s already causing stress and potentially stopping the real natural flow of things. This can also engender fear or something else.

Ronnie: I think we also develop this capacity to connect to the ground, which literally grounds us.

From the floor: So are you saying that if you have that grounding we can do anything.

Ronnie: No, I’m just saying that we are grounded.

Sam: There is this expression in Chinese (Zou Huo Ru Mo) which means to walk into fire and enter evil.

Faye: It means to lose control of yourself as if taken over by spirits or entities.

Sam: It’s something that Qigong masters warn their students about, to be cautious and not to let things go away from reality.

Faye: Yes, when we’re working with this concept of Shen it’s important to keep  it in context and stay grounded.

From the floor: The I Ching is based on this connection with the spirit dimension isn’t it?

Sam: This word that is concerned with the idea of ‘sticking’ in push hands is the same Chinese character that’s in divining in the I Ching. What you’re doing when you’re doing push hands is hands-on divination, hands-on sensing. The stated purpose in the Tai Chi Classics is that the purpose of practising tai chi is to acquire Shen Ming – spiritual illumination and then it sets about describing how to do this, by making proper connection, by pushing hands. So it’s a spiritual practice in the form of a martial art. The I Ching is right in the spirit of this.

From the floor: Do you think that courage has a role to play in this. You talk about allowing yourself to be open to something, perhaps it’s  new and challenging and this requires a sense of being ‘spirited’  or courageous.

Faye: There can be this sense of being really illuminated or inspired in this capacity and it does require real courage to do that.

Ronnie: I think that (in this discussion) we’ve got to the point of accepting that this quality is important to us and I’m curious to know how you feel about how we might play a part in facilitating it in our students. Aside from the panel we have many teachers here and I’m wondering if it’s something you think about in your work.

From the floor: I’m thinking about the Classics where it refers to allowing the spirit to rise to the top of the head and, as a students, and sometimes a teacher I think there is an element where somebody may make an adjustment to you, or you make an adjustment to somebody and you see their eyes light up. It’s kind of like you’ve fiddled about with your car and suddenly you have it all connected.

Sam: I had a student who came to class, quite depressed (he was having a few substance abuse problems) and every so often he’d drop off the map, go on a bender and then he’d come back, do some tai chi and I remember so clearly one time he was pushing hands with one of the other students, and just kind of pulling himself out of this state,  and he looked at his push hands partner and said, “Oh….. you’re cheering me up….” It was just like his energy, his Qi was starting to come up, to bring him to a place where he was starting to re-ignite after this full-on bender.

From the floor: Does that also have something to do with a shared feeling? I’ve noticed there’s a much different feeling to doing your tai chi alone to doing it with a group of people.  It’s like being here at Caledonia. Many of us feel a certain spirit of being at this meeting and perhaps that was the kind of thing that he was feeling too.

Sam: In the Yang Style writings tai chi is described as a form of asexual cultivation and in relating it to the Tantric dual-cultivation practices that have to do with sexuality, we are creating a non-sexual dual cultivation with push hands where two people come together  and start mingling and melting with these energies. In a way it’s dealing with similar matter, but in a non-sexual way. We’re giving over to this inter-play or exchange of energies and in tai chi this is considered to be part of the practice of cultivating spirit. That’s why I feel that push hands is an extremely important part of the art of tai chi.

Judith: It’s like a direct mirror to what’s inside the body.

From the floor: When I started tai chi I started to see like a light around the whole body, and I still see it, particularly in Qigong. I don’t know if that has anything to do with Shen or what.

Judith: From your own practice perhaps you’ve become more open to seeing such things.

From the same person: Yes I can always see it but more so when doing tai chi and Qigong.

Faye: It’s sensitivity and you’ve become more sensitive to the energy which reflects as light to you.

From the floor: Is there a danger that if you’re giving your class a spiritual dimension to their teachings that it’s something that they’re not really there for…… they’re there to do tai chi.

Ronnie: Sorry… let’s just slow down for a minute. Let’s really think about what’s going on.  What you’re saying is, “Is there a danger that we try to introduce this concept of a spiritual quality to our work, to introduce something that people are not there for…..  What do you actually think they’re there for?

Same person: That’s what I’ve said….

Ronnie: No, it’s not. You’ve said they’re there to do tai chi but what do you really think they’re there for?

Same person: They’re there to do tai chi.

Ronnie: No. I can be here to drink water (taking class in hand) but it doesn’t say why I’m drinking water, why I have a need to drink water. What is it that makes me go to this discipline that’s called tai chi?

Same person: I suppose that on a very deep level that may be the case but……

Ronnie: Sorry but now we have something different going on. In the beginning you said, and correct me if I’ve got it wrong, what I picked up from you was, “We have no business bringing in a spiritual dimension to the work of teaching tai chi because they’re just here to do tai chi.” But what is it that they’re actually here for?  What is it that makes somebody make the decision to do something called tai chi? We all have differing ideas or notions about what it is that we think it is and I really do believe that many of the students are doing it to find themselves – whatever that is, and part of that is a spiritual dimension. I’m not saying that teachers take on the role of being spiritual leaders but I firmly believe that there’s something we’re doing that allows them to access a certain area of their life that is their essence. Tai Chi is the tool. To immediately have this dismissive energy that we’re not doing a spiritual discipline and it’s just a physical exercise….. I believe there is a spiritual component to this work. I don’t believe we’re spiritual teachers but I’m really in conflict with your damnation of this side of it.

Sam: I think also what you’re asking is that if you come on too strong or too heavy with it can it put people off or if people don’t realise that they’re signing up for that are they going to feel  uncomfortable. Maybe they’ve come from a more technically based approach and they’ll find it strange. I think traditional practice has an answer for that: get your legs right, get your stance right, learn your waist from your hip, get the postures correct, line up the body…. So instead of hammering it home conceptually, which doesn’t tend to be the way of tai chi, it’s more about, “Can you feel the ground.” “Do you know where your spine is?”

Faye: That’s coming back to stage one where I referred to getting the body right. You can’t develop Shen without doing that.

Ronnie: Yes. All of these things you are saying are exactly true but it is my feeling that people who are coming to this thing that we call tai chi are not immediately thinking that they’re going to walk in that door and somebody’s going to say, “Well you need to stand like this, get your feet like this, your hands like this….” They don’t think on that level. It’s something we have to do and it does all the things that you say but it’s not what brings people in the door.

Sam: Yes, you’re right. They have to be ignited on another level and then drawn into the practicalities of it.

Ronnie: That’s exactly what I’m saying.

Sam: It’s a great topic really.

Faye: I think they’ve come into tai chi to get different things out of it. They all have different ideas and different needs.

Ronnie: The majority of people who come to tai chi come because they think it’s an easy exercise and that it’s going to relax them. That’s what brings most people in the door.

Faye: Yes, they think it’s a low-impact exercise that they will be able to do and there are many people who come with a certain sense of soul-searching. They want to calm their mind, to de-stress, get a sense of where they are at and sort out their personal or emotional needs.

From the floor: I don’t think the two things are in conflict because no matter why someone comes to class, the thing that will nourish their spirit will relate to atmosphere in which it’s being taught. If you create an atmosphere which gives them good teaching, gives them the right positioning in a way that is respectful and encouraging then they will get that part regardless of what they’re doing. I wouldn’t look to get spiritual guidance from my tai chi teacher but my spirit might be nourished if they responded to me in a way which is helpful to my process.

Sam: I think that also in things that have to do with martial arts, people who are really practising this can see that ultimately everything in me can fall into alignment with myself, with gravity, connect with my partner, actually have a listening relationship with them and kick their ass! (Laughs). There’s power in that, there’s power in this letting go and making a connection. I think there is this element of the worldly, the intangible, the desire for the experiencing of opening up to something that gives a connection to some kind of power or force that really makes it attractive.

Ronnie: Okay, we have a limited time here and that time is done. I’d really like to thank everybody for their participation.

Contact Information:

Tai Chi Caledonia

Judith van Drooge

Sam Masich

Marianne Plouvier

Faye Yip

Author: Ronnie Robinson

Images: Ronnie Robinson