Welcome to The Palace Guard, the tai chi chuan and martial arts blog for intelligent martial practitioners. As the blog develops, I hope to feature other writers with a fresh take on the martial arts and related subjects. For now, I hope you enjoy my posts: feel free to leave comments, or email me at the address available on the profile.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

The Big Qi Debate: what is Qi? does it exist?

In considering Chi ( it's a more elegant spelling than Qi in my opinion...) we have to consider a number of factors. We have to consider the roles of Chinese medicine, of Taoism, modern "alternative therapies", martial arts mythos and the religious attitudes of both Chinese and Western people. So I don't expect to cover it all in one brief and flippant post.
Chi is rarely written about in any kind of specific context. Usually, it is taken as read that the reader "believes in" (and this is far from a satisfactory phrase to use but let's let it stand for the time being...) chi, and the writer usually plunges straight into directions and imperatives: what one should do with ones's chi, whether to sink it or circulate it or what have you. This of course angers a certain section of the readers, who don't "believe in" the notion of chi: for them, it is rather like being given a manual on how to ride the Pegasus. These people are further alienated when members of the tai chi community imply that good tai chi can't be achieved without knowledge of meridians and chi flow, which are the bread-and-butter of the chi-using community. So we end up with a deeply divisive argument which seems never to proceed because one side is blessed with  faith in chi, and the other isn't, and never the twain shall meet. Parallels with the atheist/Believer face-off are appropriate, albeit with a smaller audience.
Both sides suffer from the same affliction in my opinion. They both believe that chi is something special and extra to what I can only call our "normal" world of perception and sensation. Furthermore, both sides are usually ill-informed about  various mechanisms and oddities of religion or spirituality that could shed some light on their dilemma.
First, lets look at the chi-lovers. I shall be generalising, and therefore inevitably offending. For this, I apologise.
The chi-lovers generally are of the opinion that they have discovered something wonderful, something indeed that Western man, in his ignorance, is sorely lacking in. Often, people "find" chi as a result of illness and then overcoming that illness whether by means of chi gung, acupuncture or tai chi itself. This tends to lend a slightly emotional, evangelical air to their relationship with chi, which we will not dwell on for the time being.For them for a variety of reasons, chi is seen as a life-transforming agent, something alien to Western knowledge, and often, something to be believed in. This, strangely, is an attitude they share with their opposite numbers on the other side of the divide. The reason for this belief seems to me because of the West's general post-Christian hangover. The Christian faith, in its drive for accessibility and intellectual respectability, has long since confined it's adherents contribution to that of belief, that's to say  intellectual assent to the existence of things which cannot be proved, namely the existence of God. We have very little experience with forms of spirituality that demand anything other than belief apart from the scientific method, and that's sure not going to help here, for reasons which we will explore later. An introduction to chi is often presented as a revelatory experience by unscrupulous teachers, so it isn't surprising that people get religious about it. As a result of their fervour, the chi lovers present chi as something extra, something that can onlty be found in "special" or "Oriental" exercises, something which can't be manipulated by those who aren't "masters" but which results in fantastic martial and therapeutic abilities. It is at this point that the chi-haters come in to the picture...tune in at the same time for the next thrilling episode.

Friday, 7 January 2011

The Middle Way: Buddha definitely did tai chi...honest.

For a wee paragraph or two, I shall be putting my Buddhist hat on. Apologies to those who couldn't give a monkey's about Buddhism...

It occurred to me that tai chi is the art of following, and of balance. By following, I suppose I mean giving up our superficial intent to harmonise with that of another.
In Buddhism, it seems to me that quite often one must balance, and keep the right tension: for example, between self-regard and regard for others, or between letting our desires have their space, but not letting them run amok. Tai chi I would say is not a method of spiritual cultivation in itself. But it can help at key points in life, at the point where philosophies or systems of cultivation require you to trust yourself, and proceed by feel, by instinct. The Buddha himself said that practice was like keeping the strings of a lute: not too tight, not too slack. Tai chi, through the embodiment of this principle, allows it to be recreated amd imagined in a wide variety of situations, not just martial or physical encounters.
The art of following is perhaps more subtle yet. I posited to the Monkey Army the other night that our movement and its development could be said to describe a circle. We start like ragdolls: whatever the opponent does, we have no choice but to follow, and we lurch and fall from one extreme to the other, from one side to the next.  Then we learn a bit of structure, and perhaps gain a little strength, and we resist, and maybe we start to win a bit here and there. This is the middle stage. Then, however, we relax our ideas about winning. We see that there really is no such thing. So we just follow. If they want to take us there, then there we go. But when we arrive, we still have our balance, and not only that, we are in a better position than them. So they move us again and again we follow, and they end up tying themselves in knots. Following is perhaps an underestimated skill: we are more often taught to be leaders. But as we know from the world's religions, perhaps we could do with better followers, people who have the confidence to give up their own ground but maintain enough poise to turn bad moves into good ones.
The Monkey Army seemed to like this idea.