Stillness and Wu Wei


Initially I thought that I would talk about how our ‘beginners’ understanding of stillness would be based on experiences prior to Tai Chi. With this in mind I decided that if I gave you an image of ‘a rabbit in the headlights’ or a child being shouted at to ‘sit still and stop fidgeting’ at the dinner table, you might say, “Yes this is stillness – in fact I often talk of keeping still or holding still”. Unfortunately this state of stillness stops the free flow of energy as discussed in previous articles. Now if you look closer at the images perhaps you will see the trembling muscles, the wide-eyed look of shock. This stillness is induced by the fight/flight/freeze response and is accompanied by large amounts of adrenalin being dumped into the blood stream. In short it stops Tai Chi working, therefore this is not what is meant by stillness and thinking of it as this should be avoided.

To explain to a beginner the intellectual understanding of stillness we want we can use the famous Buddhist allegory: they ask you to imagine a glass of water with sand in. When the mind is agitated it is like the glass is being shaken – and as you can see…you can’t see anything. However when the mind is still it is like the glass being at rest and having time to settle. In this state you can address your life without the distortion of your mind’s unruly rational and emotional, conscious and unconscious machinations. This way of looking at stillness would appear to be a good start and for those who begin Tai Chi in a turbulent state it can be a powerful anchor. It can help in directing yourself to stillness until the time when it becomes a more usual state. On the downside, it is only a simplified model of stillness. If you contemplate the image of a glass of water with sediment at the bottom there is, in fact, little to separate it from an image of stagnancy. Stagnancy is a break in the flow of energy (chi). Breaks in energy stop Tai Chi working, therefore this is not the sum total of what is meant by stillness either.

One way in which we pass from an intellectual idea of stillness to an experientially based understanding is by meditations like standing Chi Kung, where we hold static positions for long periods of time. However in actuality we must not ‘hold static’ as this is like the stagnant arrangement of sand at the bottom of the cup or the tense kid who has been shouted at to stay still – either way energy becomes stuck. Instead we must treat stillness as if movement and movement as if stillness. In essence in any given situation we must let our body be at rest and allow it to do what it does naturally without any interference. This natural movement consists of at least the following:

1. Breathing

2. Movement of the blood (the various pulses around the body)

3. Movement of the cerebro-spinal fluid – this has a rhythmic pulse and is the basis for Craniosacral Therapy

4. Movement of Chi around the body

5. Co-operation with gravity

Excessive muscular activity or holding of the body will interfere with all of the above points. If you are finding it hard to understand exactly how you should move and how you should stand still, we have the perfect examples in our babies and toddlers. Most will show you what this sense of stillness is – all you have to do is watch, observe and feel the way they move – then copy the essence of what they are doing. In a very real sense part of Tai Chi is a return to the unobstructed internal movements of our young. It is only as we get older that we block our energy and become increasingly externalised.

I recommend the following exercises for improving your quality of stillness:

Exercise 1

Whilst holding a posture, imagine your blood running unimpeded around your shoulders and right down to the tips of your fingers. Allow this flow of blood to take away any tensions in the neck, shoulders and arms so that your arms feel heavier and heavier and more and more filled with blood. Then feel the heaviness spreading lower and lower until you have relaxed all the way down to your feet. By this time you should feel a sense of heaviness and swelling in your feet that might lead you to think that, should you look down, you will find they have been replaced by the feet of a Hobbit.

Exercise 2 – substantial/insubstantial empty/full

Unfortunately the effects of the first exercise will only last for a short period. Tension will creep back into the body without you even realising. You can use this exercise to prolong the effects. All you have to do is get the right feeling from exercise 1 and then very slowly shift your weight from one leg to the other. As you are doing this visualise the pouring of water from one cup into another and imagine that this is what is happening to the blood in your body – you are pouring it from the leg you are vacating to the leg you are moving the weight onto. Be sure to clearly differentiate substantial and insubstantial. In other words – don’t be lazy make sure you shift the weight fully across.

Exercise 3

This last exercise builds on the second one. Once you are used to shifting your weight from side-to-side slowly and completely, change your visualisation of pouring water. This time imagine that you have a continuous flow of heavy warm water streaming through you from above whilst you continue to slowly shift from side to side. It should feel as if you are under a heavy waterfall. In this exercise you are not pouring from side to side. Rather as you shift the weight both sides should have a continual sense of heaviness.

These exercises work because they have a strong emphasis on flow. After you have done them for a while I hope you will have a much deeper understanding of what stillness is all about in Tai Chi and how you might be able to have stillness in motion and motion when you are apparently still. If you combine the feelings and understandings gained from these exercises with those from the Yi and Hun article that was published in the TCAH magazine, you will feel much more powerful, still, centred, relaxed – but strong. You may even get a strong sense that your energy is expanding in time with your pulse and blood flow. With this stillness and with Yi and Hun you have the opportunity to experience what the Tai Chi classics mean when they talk about having the attitude of a cat about to pounce or an eagle poised to strike.

Wu Wei

Wu Wei is an important tenet of Taoism which literally means ‘without action’. A lot of people I speak to interpret this as not resisting the natural flow of events with the idea that by not ‘doing’ you can ‘do’. But there is a terrible helplessness in this approach – it lacks the soft, invisible power that we associate with high levels of Tai Chi or self-attainment. In essence what they are describing has an excess of Yin with little Yang, whereas Wu Wei (and therefore Tai Chi) is about understanding the balance between the two and artfully manipulating the two forces to achieve control. Taoist literature talks about Wu Wei allowing you to govern people and events with no apparent effort – things just seem to go right for you. It is often talked about in the context of how to rule a nation.

Stillness in motion’ as Wu Wei

I find the idea of viewing ‘stillness in motion’ as Wu Wei very interesting because it would seem to me that if we can understand and consistently demonstrate stillness we are actually most of the way to being in Wu Wei. As we have seen, stillness is about being centred and allowing what is natural to happen whilst maintaining the ability to move as you wish. Is that really much different from Wu Wei?

It is the stillness that allows your Yi and Hun to perform the miraculous feats that we see Tai Chi Masters perform (e.g. throwing people a large distance with no apparent effort). Through stillness we begin to understand Yin and Yang and more importantly the interchange between the two. This is because the state of stillness allows you to step back and observe even within yourself – you can see the changes of Yin and Yang, rather than being caught up in them. However be warned – if you try to control Yin and Yang with conscious thought it won’t produce consistent results – the energy is not flowing, your thoughts are interrupting it. Instead we must just do and trust that our training will naturally take care of Yin and Yang to overcome the opponent. With stillness in motion we can shake the glass of water and sand and still see clearly. No matter what we face in life we can work our way through and maintain our harmony. Is this not Wu Wei?

This is why I am such a fan of Tai Chi. It really is a physical representation of Taoist philosophy. As such it is an excellent tool for gaining the deep understandings in mind and body that truly transform you and difficult, if not impossible, to get with just an intellectual understanding.



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