We all have a “monkey mind” that is constantly active bringing us a flood of ideas, thoughts, memories, judgements and perceptions. How do we manage this mental flood?
How we deal with this mental flood depends on how we were taught to handle life. What awareness was I taught, if any? I was taught that worrying was one way of “doing” or responding to the unknowns of life. This way of responding became natural, like a habit. I had no idea that it was unproductive until I started reaching points of exhaustion from over thinking, over worrying, over doing. I put in a lot of effort instead of cultivating the nature of wu wei or effortless effort.
It wasn’t until I started learning tai chi and qigong that I even started to become aware of how active my mind really is and how much tension I hold in my body. Doing the slow flowing movements of tai chi and qigong, along with deep breathing, is one way to calm my monkey mind and release tension in my body. The continuous flow from one movement to another feels like the calming flow of nature’s rhythmic patterns. I‘ve seen nature’s rhythmic patterns in the gentle ebb and flow of waves, in floating clouds above, in autumn’s fallen leaves as the wind carries them along, etc. I started to feel this flow from my tai chi movements. Over the years of practicing tai chi and qigong I started to relax a bit.
Also over the years I met spiritual teachers who spoke about quieting the mind. They made me realize that quieting the mind is not about having no mental floods, but rather observing the mental floods without doing, controlling or eliminating them. Let them flow. Let things come and go. One teacher’s wisdom was to look upon life as a relaxation. My most recent teacher went further teaching to find the empty space between thoughts. Relax and float. We can experience this letting go whether we are “sitting on a cushion” or walking in the world. I experience it when doing my tai chi and qigong. I wish to experience it more while sitting on a cushion and walking in the world.
Living in the flow of tai chi encompasses aspects such as slowing down, listening, mindfulness, relaxation and wu wei. These aspects can enhance our sense of well-being. The slow gentle movements can help to calm an overly active “monkey” mind. By slowing the mental stream of chatter we can better focus on what is happening body wise with each inhalation and exhalation. The slowing down of our stream of thoughts and our rate of breathing calms our nervous system. Calming our nervous system helps emotionally to be less reactive, less fearful and less controlling. We can consciously choose to respond in a more peaceful manner towards ourselves, others, and circumstances. We can choose to “let go” as needed. We can choose to be patient and intuitively listen to what is needed in each moment. This intuitive listening will conserve our energy because we no longer have to overdo or over think. According to Taoist belief when we live in this way we are practicing wu wei or effortless effort. When we practice wu wei we are waiting for the right action at the right time. We use our energy and time wisely instead of depleting ourselves.
During the midst of the pandemic I purchased a DVD on qigong for cancer. I expected it to be easy since the DVD stated it was for beginners and I had already had more than 30 years of qigong and tai chi practice. It has taken me two full years to finally be able to grasp the new movements well enough to include it into my self-care routine.
I realized that most likely many of my students also experience a sense of being overwhelmed when learning new movements and a new way of breathing. For me the DVD was like staring at a 1,000 piece puzzle and trying to put the pieces together in the midst of my very hectic life. How did I overcome my urge to give up on the DVD?
First, I felt this curiosity to explore other qigong movements. How did the new movements differ from the movements I already knew? What were the similarities? What would be the benefits from each specific movement? Being a curious person I wanted to know. It was definitely time-consuming and mind boggling, but I made a personal commitment to keep at it. Before I bought the DVD I had no idea how long it would take and how much note taking I would have to do, along with repeating the movements over and over again. A student said to me, "We live in a time of instant gratification with technology so handy. Tai chi is just the opposite." I realized that she was right. Tai chi and qigong is a process. Learning these new movements was a two year process.
Secondly, I focused on just a couple of movements at a time. Trying to learn all 15 movements was very confusing. Daily repetition helped to build body memory for those few movements. I started to relax into the movements because my mind didn't have to work so hard to remember when to flip my palms, inhale and exhale, etc.. I could finally enjoy the movements.
Whatever self-care approach peeks your curiosity, I hope that you will be gentle on yourself because you are approaching new grounds. Keep things simple and persevere until you feel its benefits in your life. It's well worth the commitment.
Breath work is an essential part of tai chi and qigong practice. We learn to breathe slowly and deeply with each movement. Breathing in this way helps us to relax and to oxygenate our cells. When our cells are fully oxygenated we can better ward off virus, bacteria and other types of organisms.
I am often asked, "What is the difference between tai chi and qigong?" To keep things clear and simple, I like to think of qigong as the bigger realm of practice which encompasses tai chi. To me, tai chi is a qigong practice. Why?
I am filled with wonder, gratitude and awe for the journeys we travel and for the teachers we meet along the way.