Turning attention inward—and outward—in tai chi practice

Taiji is a meditative practice. We often think that means turning the attention inward. True. It could be a focus on breathing, or silencing the mind of thoughts. You can do that in taiji, but as a moving meditation you also have a task of focusing on the outside of the self. Or more accurately, focusing the self on what is happening outside; for example, to ground one’s self. This is a process of finding a surer footing; to sink in gravity, yet float on water. To move in various directions, shapes and patterns with greater ease and balance.

It’s also a process of sensing your surroundings and how your body is situated in space. You could say that grounding yourself is more than feeling the soles of your feet on the Earth and sensing movement through them. It’s also sensing movement in the near environment. The far environment, too—the sky, the distant view. Your yin and yang can expand and fill in the space while also condensing and rooting in earth and sky.

That’s the focus. So how do you do it? Certainly by feeling with the body. Also by listening to the body with the mind—with inherent powers of observation and honing one’s awareness in on the inner and outer workings of the whole being. How is a move done? What makes the move occur in the first place? Bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, muscles, even organs. How does the body change directions? How much force is generated or is any generated at all? What’s moving, what is not? Tension is released in degrees, so what does that feel like? Can you describe it? Give it language?

Parts of us are asleep. Both the mind and body are asleep. Inertia is at work. Tai chi helps to wake them up. But what do you wake up first? How do you wake? To wake the body, move in ways different from your usual way. Wake the mind by looking at the world in different ways, from different angles and with different perspectives. Moving and seeing differently creates new opportunities for discovery and understanding. The whole of doing tai chi is a question of how to move in general, and how to move each part of the body, specifically.