Tai Chi – Developing Attention

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The wandering mind

When we first learn Tai Chi slow form we are focussed on remembering and performing all the new movements that we have been taught, also learning new ways in which to move. While this learning process involves a lot of thinking it also can be a blessing as in it anchors our attention to what we are doing. While this is not the pure type of attention that I will be talking about, it is still an anchor that stops us wandering off mentally into the past and the future.

However this anchor does not last long; as we become more comfortable and familiar with the movements of the form habit starts to appear and then a new hindrance to our practice sneaks in through the back door. This hindrance is what I will call the wandering mind; it is the scattering of our attention towards thoughts of the future and memories of the past. At this stage we start to realise how little control we actually have over our mind, a task as simple as following the movements of the form is harder then what we first thought.

Before going further I would like to clarify what I mean by the word mind, our mind in this context is not that which thinks and learns through intellectual knowledge, but that which knows. Normally we think of our mind as being something that can be improved and strengthened through reading books, studying courses or working out puzzles. We then take this type of learning as knowledge, my knowledge. The truth of it is that this type of knowledge is that of the writer, not of the reader. We can bring up facts and knowledge that we have learned from books or have heard about but in reality we are just regurgitating what someone else has said.

The only true way to gain real knowledge is through our own experience, and this is the context that mind is being used here. Real knowledge has the ability to change the way we perceive and relate to the world, it comes about from studying our forms, from watching them internally, by always asking what and why? This knowledge brings us in line with nature, with its flow, we begin to be able to answer the question of why and what regarding life, leading to our life having a more even flow, more happiness.

Internal Practice

This is an internal practice, we use our mind to observe our own experience and we use it to watch the changes in our own practice so that we can come to understand at a deep level the play of change between ying and yang. We also use our mind to direct the chi during our practice, where our mind sits the chi goes, if we can't control our mind then our energy gets dispersed and wasted in thoughts, sights etc. So we need to be able to hold our mind still, to place it on an object and keep it there. Here lies the problem because when we try to do this we quickly come to understand that our attention goes where it wants, we are not in control.

In ancient India our mind (attention) was compared to a monkey in a tree jumping from branch to branch, you get the picture? Our attention in normal life is constantly jumping from one thing to another, it never sits still. Our lives are like this, one moment we are thinking of one thing, then worrying about something else. In our thoughts we are always jumping between past and future, planning this, avoiding that, wanting this, pushing away that and so on. But how much time do we truly spend paying attention to what we are doing in this moment? Very little, most of what we do on a daily basis we do on auto pilot, out of pure habit, no attention needed.

Have you ever been driving a car down the road, then come out of a daydream only to realise that you have gone through two sets of traffic lights and can’t even remember doing it. Scary isn’t it, but we do it all the time in everything that we do, it’s a wonder there aren’t more accidents. If you can't remember doing this then you are either especially developed in present moment attention, or still in the daydream.

Training the mind not to wander

Fortunately the Tai Chi forms contain the tools we need to retrain our mind and to develop our skills in present moment attention. To understand how to use the tools we also need to understand how to train ourselves to be more attentive to the present moment and also how to lesson the amount of time we spend thinking about the past and the future.

In ancient India they had a technique for training wild elephants, as you can imagine a wild elephant is very powerful, its pulling force is strong and no matter how hard you try if it wants to go somewhere it will. The way the elephants were tamed is this; firstly they would take a very strong post and drive it deeply into the ground. Then they would tie a long rope to the stake and harness the elephant with it. The elephant then runs around pulling on the rope but because of the ropes length it would still have some freedom move.

Over time they would shorten the rope, until the elephant was forced to stand next to the post. By now the elephant became comfortable with its slowly decreasing range of movement and it knows that it can not pull the post up or break the rope so it becomes content to stand next to the post. The last stage of training they would then untie the rope from the post. The trainer could then drop the rope on the ground anywhere and the elephant would think that it was still tied to the post so would stand by it, the trainer could then leave the elephant where ever they wanted and it would stand next to rope.

In this metaphor our mind is the wild elephant, it is wild because it is untamed, in its untamed state it wanders where it wants, does what it wants, is dangerous and does us more harm than good. Once trained it is a great asset that will make our lives better as we can now put its enormous strength and energy to good for us.

The post represents the object of our attention during practice that is the place that we apply our attention to use as an anchor for the mind, to stop it from wandering between thoughts of the past and future. The anchors that we use during practice of our forms are initially, following the movement of our hands with our eyes, then we can start to feel the sensations generally involved in the movement of our whole body like lightness, heaviness, tingling, hot, cold, hardness etc.

Next we move on to the breathing, feeling the expansion and contraction of the breath inside us as we are breathing in and out. Breathing in we breathe into the lower Dan Tien, (three finger widths below our belly button) breathing out we breathe out through the hands and feet. Breathing in we draw our abdomen in feeling the contraction of our whole body, breathing out we expand our abdomen out feeling the expansion through our whole body. Allow your mind to move with the breath and feel the circle of change between expansion and contraction.

Reapplying our attention – retraining the mind

Our attention to the object is the rope, once we understand what we need to observe as our object we then need to learn to reapply our attention to it. Our mind is like the untrained wild elephant, it wants to run here and there, it does not want to stay where we tell it to, but it can be trained, once we understand this then we can start to tame the wild beast.

With all this talk of wild beast it may bring up images of using whips and chains, but its just the opposite, we need to be gentle, kind and patient, like training a puppy to sit. When we first try a simple task like following the movements of our hands with our eyes we quickly discover that it isn’t as easy as it seems, quite quickly we get the urge to look around, or find ourselves lost in thought and then also lost in our form.

This is because it is our habitual pattern to think, we find the world of thought captivating, enchanting and endlessly interesting. It is this interest in thinking that draws us back to it again and again, have you ever noticed what is the same in every thought you have? Its you, all your thoughts are about you, relate to you, you are the star of the script, and therefore to you it is endlessly interesting.

Being lost in thought is a barrier to the deepening of our practice, when we are lost in thought our attention is no longer where it should be, on the form, it is being consumed in the past and the future. To harness the minds energy we need to apply it to one object and hold it there, this has the same feeling as a magnifying glass, when you hold it far away from where it is focussing you can see many objects but the light is dispersed, it won’t produce any heat. But when you bring it close all the light passing through it can be brought to one point, the energy is unified so that it has the power to burn. Harnessed to one point it is powerful, dispersed weak, our mind is no different.

Training the Puppy

The quality of effort for training our attention is like that used for training a puppy to sit. The puppy’s nature is to run around and get into everything that it can, if left to its own resources it will often get into trouble. When following our hand movements with our eyes, the feelings in our body or our breath we need to do it with gentleness. Our attention will wander off, this is natural, but once we noticed that it has wandered don’t berate yourself saying, "I am no good at this, I can't do it." That is a waste of time; just gently bring your attention back to what you were observing in the form, again and again, without commentary, without judgement.

Just like when training a puppy to sit, you say sit and the puppy stands; you show it how to sit then it stands up again. You don’t get upset because you know this is the puppy’s nature, you just gently help it to sit and say sit again. If it does well you congratulate it and encourage it to do it again. Eventually the puppy will learn to sit on command, the same as once trained your mind will be able to sit on one object. But you need to be patient, to gently reapply your attention again and again, how long your attention wandered off is irrelevant, what is important is that you noticed that it wandered and brought it back, this is how you train the mind to stay.

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This article was written by Stephen Procter, instructor from Tai Chi Health for Life, Australian College of Tai Chi & Qi Gong and Meditation Instructor from Meditation in the Shire, Kirrawee NSW, Australia. If you wish to post this article on another website or in a publication please respect the author and reference / link back to this website, thank you

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