Awareness, Intention, Intelligence: the role of the Mind in Taoist martial arts

In the past, I’ve talked about four phases of internal development: structure, relaxation/softness, coordination, and intention. While there is a sequential aspect to developing each of these skills, they are more like threads in a cord, each one woven in with the others, strengthening each other, and developing along side each other. While the more physical skills of structure, softness, and coordination are essential, one aspect is more crucial (you could call it the key ingredient): the role of the Mind.When I described the four phases, I talked about “intention,” but that’s only half of the story. All things in Taoist martial arts follow the Taiji principle: harmonization of opposites. Structure harmonizes with softness; coordination is the harmonizing of opposing forces and vectors of motion, and the role of the mind is the harmonization of intention and awareness. Put simply, if intention is the mind’s output, then awareness is its input. The two work in a constant cycle with each other. Through internal sensitivity, the mind gathers an enormous amount of data about your body-state, assessing your energetic pathways and your ability to transfer energy through them. This constant influx of information guides your intention as it leads your internal energy through your body to manifest as fluid, whole-body movement, or cansijin (silk-reeling power).

There is a saying in the Tai Chi Classics (a collection of writing from ancient Taoist martial arts masters). The saying goes: The yi (intention) moves the qi (energy) and the qi moves the body. While it does take some time to reach the point at which your body is completely relaxed and you feel that your mind moves your body rather than your muscles, this is not something you need to wait to magically appear after decades of practice: you can start working on this skill from day one. It begins with awareness. Most people spend most of their lives focusing their awareness externally. They focus on their careers, their homes, and their image; and spend very little time looking inward. They drive their bodies around like used cars with very little concern for the wear and tear they put on themselves. The result is a gap in the connection between their minds and their bodies, and the accumulation of repeated stress injuries attributed to “getting older.” By taking a few minutes each day to stand quietly and focus your attention inward, you can begin to deepen your sensitivity in your body. With patience and guidance, this increase in sensitivity will lead to improvements in alignment and a softer, more relaxed body-state. In short, you let go of tension and replace it with awareness and your body starts to fix itself.

As you become more sensitive, your Attention, becomes Intention, and you’ll begin to feel your internal energy. Though you may still be working on getting rid of some areas of weak alignment and habitual tension, if you are focused on moving your body with your mind and not your muscles from the beginning, the transformation from external movement to internal movement will be well underway. What’s more, you can begin to feel this in your first class. When taking this approach, the other aspects of development: structure, softness, and coordination, will develop almost automatically. When practicing taijiquan (or any other internal martial art) with as much Mind as possible, in each and every moment, the result is the development of body-intelligence. Intelligence is the manifestation of highly developed awareness and intention, and a body that is structured and soft enough to carry out the mind’s intent. When awareness and intention work together in tight enough cycles that you no longer can identify them as separate, and harmonious actions and responses manifest from you spontaneously in accordance with the circumstances of the moment, that is intelligence – the role of the Mind in Taoist martial arts.

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