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Tai Chi Chuan As Meditation
William C. Phillips

In order to understand Tai Chi Chuan as meditation, it is first necessary to have a working definition of meditation. This obtained, we can see how Tai Chi Chuan fits that definition and exactly what it is about Tai Chi Chuan that is meditation.

The definition of meditation that I use is the following: Meditation is the process of conscious, controlled focus of the mind which may take place when the thinking processes, both in pictures and in words, have been stopped.

In our examination of Tai Chi Chuan as meditation, it is necessary to introduce and define one additional term: satipatthana (progressive attrition) exercise. The purpose of a satipatthana exercise is to quiet the mind-- to get it to stop output-- but keep it busy with inputs until it develops a habit of becoming quiet ( refraining from all thought ) during the exercise. When this has been achieved, the mind is ready to begin to meditate.

Meditation breaks down into two varieties, which, to use terminology which will be readily understood by Tai Chi Chuan practitioners, may be termed yin and yang meditation.

Yin meditation is the clearing of the mind of all thought, both pictures and words, and the holding of that mind in a focused and alert state.

Yang meditation is the concentrated focusing of the mind on something. The "something" can have almost infinite variety. Common subjects of this type of meditation are: mantras, chakras, colors, shapes, prayers, and affirmations.

Having defined what meditation is, I think it is important to reaffirm what meditation is not. Contrary to persistent and popular misconception, meditation is not a trance state, a sleep state, nor a state of nothingness. Meditators, if successful, are always alert, relaxed, and in control of their minds.

Correlating these concepts with our practice of Tai Chi Chuan, several points become apparent:

1. The serious student of Tai Chi Chuan is practicing a satipatthana, whether that student is aware of it or not.

2. Tai-chi Chuan, as a satipatthana, can be an extremely complete discipline. In addition to body movement, the student may also be aware of the tan tien, the breath, the straightness of the spine, the texture of air that one is moving through, the flow of the chi throughout the body and the root, to name a few of the more obvious subjects of attention.

3. When a reasonable ability at the skill involved in Tai Chi Chuan as satipatthana has been attained, there will be two results:

a. The mind will monitor all the things mentioned with a small part of its attention.

b. During the process of attaining that ability, the mind will have developed the habit of becoming quiet during the practice of Tai Chi Chuan.

4. The ability to do yin meditation during the practice of Tai Chi Chuan will result.

I find Tai Chi Chuan to be an extremely valuable tool in the practice of meditation because within one form, one exercise, one discipline, you have both a potent yin meditation and a complex satipatthana. The shift from. satipatthana to meditation is completely internal, with no shift in outward physical activity. Because of this the process can flow progressively from one to the other as mastery develops.

Up to this point, I have explained how and why Tai Chi Chuan is a valuable meditative practice. However, the consideration of Tai Chi Chuan as meditation is by no means unique to me.

In the early 1970's my Tai Chi Chuan master, Cheng Man-Ch'ing, was asked if he meditated. His answer was that he did Tai Chi Chuan. When pressed if he did seated meditation, he answered that he did not. He stated that Tai Chi Chuan was all the meditation that he ever needed. While I never again heard Professor Cheng mention meditation as such, he would occasionally tell us to keep our minds empty of thought during our practice of Tai Chi Chuan. To keep one's mind empty, you will recall, is by definition, yin meditation.

By way of conclusion, let me say that I am fully cognizant of the fact that many people practice Tai Chi Chuan form exclusively for health or as a prelude to Push Hands or self defense. As many of the people do not make any particular effort to keep their minds empty during their practice of Tai Chi Chuan, for them Tai Chi Chuan is probably not meditation.

I am not, therefore, trying to say that Tai Chi Chuan must be, or even should be, a meditation for everyone. I have merely tried to show how and why Tai Chi Chuan is meditation, and as such, can be of value in one's mental and spiritual as well as one's physical discipline.

Originally published in Tai Chi, December 1982, Vol. 6, No. 6

Also published in:

  • A.S.I.A. Journal (The Journal of the American Society of Internal Arts), Fall 2003
  • Qi - The Journal of Traditional Eastern Health and Fitness, Spring 1991, Vol. 1, No. 1
  • The Tai Chi Journal (a Rochester Tai Chi Chuan Center publication), Spring 1987, Vol. 1, No. 4

    William C. Phillips began his study of the martial arts in 1965. He currently holds a 7th degree black belt in Karate, and a 5th degree black belt in Ju Jitsu. He began his studies of Tai Chi in l967, studying with Prof. Cheng Man-Ch'ing from '70-'75. He became the most junior student ever to become a teacher in Cheng Man Ch'ing's New York school, the Shr Jung. Sifu Phillips became interested in the field of holistic health in the early 1970's, when a lifelong allergy problem was alleviated with Chinese herbal medicine. Since then, he has studied widely in that field as well. Sifu Phillips is available for seminars, lectures and demonstrations. He has produced two very successful Tai Chi DVDs, and is currently working on a book on Tai Chi form and a third DVD.For more information...

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