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Tai Chi and Taoism

Somebody recently found my blog by searching for the answer to the question, "How does tai chi utilize Taoist philosophy and teachings?" It's a good question, and one that deserves at least an attempt at an answer. (Whoever you were, I hope you find your way back here at some point!)

I should preface this post by saying that I have not done a great deal of intellectual study of Taoism. I took a University course in it once, with a professor from China. It was a wonderful experience, but in retrospect one of the worst possible ways to learn about Taoism. For many years, I resisted reading about Taoism actively because I felt I was learning so much about it by practicing tai chi. The understandings I'm sharing in this post are based much more on my experiences as a tai chi practitioner (studying, for what it's worth, under a Taoist monk) as they are on anything I might have read.

The short (and smartass) answer to the question, "How does tai chi utilize Taoist philosophy and teachings?" is to say that tai chi is a Taoist teaching.  But I don't think this answers the spirit of the question.

The long answer:

Taoism is a complex and multifaceted philosophy or - more properly - spiritual path that encompasses an amazing number of different practices. (Herbalism, physical exercises, meditation, sexual practices - the list goes on and on.) Some of these involve increasing longevity. Some of these involve achieving union or harmony with the universe. You could argue that in Taoism, long life and union with the Tao are sort of the same goal.

You might be thinking, "but what is the Tao?"  The idea here is that there is an innate original source ("Tao") that underlies all of reality as we understand it. All beings - from gods to rocks - are an effect of this original source. All follow patterns and paths that can work in harmony with this original Tao.

Working in harmony with the Tao is a great thing to do. Working against it invites strife, upset, indigestion, global catastrophes - the list goes on and on.

The natural world is innately aligned with Tao. This is why the masters copied animals when they devised many of their meditation and exercise techniques. A tree grows in harmony with its environment, and even in harmony with the pressures placed upon it. It doesn't struggle and complain and wish it was somewhere else, or a different type of tree. It naturally conforms to its role.


As human beings, we have a unique form of consciousness that allows us to really mess up adhering to what is most natural. And yet, that same unique form of consciousness can, if we allow it to, transcend the perception of everyday reality and merge with the Tao. Here are a few examples of things that can interfere with your ability to do what's natural and to perceive Tao:

Physical Issues

  • urban living
  • pollution
  • junk food
  • staying indoors, climate-controlled environments
  • artificial electromagnetic charges (from anything that plugs in or uses batteries)
  • exposure to chemicals 
  • prolonged periods of inactivity; sitting for hours at a time
  • habitual physical tension
  • addictions
  • illness
  • injury
This is not to say that you should avoid all of these things at all costs. Chances are you are not in a position to avoid any of these things at all times in your life; if you're lucky, you can avoid one or two.

Mental / Emotional Issues

  • stress (from all of the above and more)
  • intense analytical thought
  • mental and emotional habits your parents taught you
  • mental and emotional habits your culture has taught you
  • exposure to commercialism / consumer culture
  • exposure to repetitive / bland / destructive ideas 
  • compulsions
  • emotional overreactions
  • exposure to emotional triggers
  • an intense focus on the material / commonly acknowledged "reality"
  • a habit of pessimism
  • mental / emotional illness
Again, it's almost impossible for any of us to escape most of the items on this second list at all times. Like the many heads of the hydra, these tend to crop up at the precise moment when you think you've defeated them all. 

The fact is, we live in difficult times. Never have there been so many shiny traps for consciousness, reaching out to us at every turn. But the thing is, we also live in amazing times. I believe that never have there been so many brilliant teachers and techniques available to us to break through those traps. Even if you can't quit your day job and you like urban living and you had a crappy childhood or bad experiences or all too human emotional issues, tools like tai chi are available to help you scrub away the negative effects of all this modern living. And among the plethora of spiritual and physical practices available today, tai chi is, I think, a uniquely powerful way of allowing us to effectively achieve the breakthroughs we might be craving.

But back to these two lists. 

All of the items on these lists work, in different ways, to keep you in a superficial perceptual mode that does not allow you to open to the wide, generous and expansive reality of the Tao. Let's take a couple of examples from the first list. You get up in the morning in your house. You stumble around, jar yourself awake with a hot shower or maybe a cup of coffee. You get into your car before you're ready to greet the day, and the next thing you know, you're at your work desk, a computer monitor two feet away from your face, and a phone cradled on your shoulder. By the time you get home, you're feeling both tired and wired. Tired wins out, and you spend the evening on the couch in front of the television, where you face an endless round of commercials telling you what you should desire.

Your shoulder hurts, your upper back is hunched, your neck is tight, and your soul is crying in a corner. 

Because it is a physical practice, tai chi can help release the tensions that you build up during the day. The stretching and increased range of motion you achieve through tai chi helps undo some of purely physical aspect of those tensions. More than that, tai chi helps to correct your energy. Throughout the day, you draw chi or vital life energy up into your head and neck, especially if your work is sedentary or based on analytical / mental tasks. Because you work your legs in tai chi, you draw those energies back down into the rest of your body, where they belong, and you reconnect with the energies of the earth. Through tai chi, you can feel like you are fully merged with your physical body, instead of floating slightly above it like you might feel you are at the end of a hard day of work.

Returning your physical equilibrium is a part of returning to a more natural state of being. In this more relaxed, more connected state, you are more in touch with Tao.

If you have any chronic illness or pain from injuries, over time, tai chi can help release them. 

Similarly, think about what happened the last time you were really upset about something or someone. Your mind probably would not stop thinking about it. On a physical level, you probably felt terrible: maybe you had bad digestion, or tightness in your chest. Perhaps your breathing felt laboured. Maybe you got a headache. We are always disconnected from what's natural when we are in this frenzied state.

In a background way, most of us carry emotional tensions that we don't even recognize. Worry, concern, anger, frustration, and despair are all examples of emotional habits that can sit with us, like devils on our shoulders, for years. These old friends worm themselves into our lives so completely that we think of low level emotional upset as totally normal. This type of emotional habit is insidious, since it is very difficult to let go, and if we do manage to loosen its stranglehold, we can feel that we are losing ourselves.

And yet, these emotional habits keep us from recognizing the true nature of reality. We see through a filter - and chances are it isn't rose-coloured. 

When you perform tai chi, you aren't just moving your body: you are also engaging your mind. By focusing your thoughts on the here and now as you step, push from the feet, and move the whole body all together, you give space to yourself to simply be. As you move the body, the mind learns the habit of calming down. What was flying through your thoughts and disturbing your emotions when you start a tai chi workout is often a non-issue by the time you're done. The more you practice, the more you are creating new mental and emotional habits. You learn that you don't have to feel upset all the time - not even in a background way. You learn that you can change the terms on which you meet the world. There are no rules except the ones you've created, or adopted from others.

In this way, you leave room for the expansiveness you need in order to meet the Tao. 

And what does it feel like, to touch the creative force behind the entire universe?

Allow me to get down off my flying dragon long enough to tell you.

(Just kidding.)

Obviously no one who is here on earth has truly achieved this goal 100% - or else they would have transcended this earthly plane. But I can say that I think most people meet the Tao in tiny increments, and doing tai chi can take you a very long way down the path. I can say that in meditation and in tai chi, I regularly feel surrounded by a warm, benevolent, and occasionally downright mischievous force that invites me to relax, be sharp and alert in my mind and body, and always, always softer than I am. To meet the Tao in even a limited way is to feel better, not in a sedated, shut down way, but in a way that is open, generous, compassionate, strong, and aware. Tai chi allows you to move closer to being loose like a jungle cat; powerful like an ocean wave; as constant as the movements of the planets; steadfast as an oak. 

Filters off, and tensions released, we can start to gain insight into the true nature of reality. That is how tai chi helps you get closer to the Tao. That is how tai chi is part of Taoist practice and philosophy.

2 comments:

Laurie Peel said...

Awesome post Melissa - insightful, entertaining and inspiring. If this doesn't get people interested in learning and practicing Tai Chi I don't know what will.

Dr. Melissa Smith said...

Thanks dude! See you in a couple of hours.