My own teacher of Classical Tai Chi would probably shrug his shoulders at my revelations here; no big deal, because he knows this already. But at the heart of it, I guess I will always talk as a "westerner" and seemingly be amazed by things, (as his wife Eva has said to me in so many words, we should rue the day when we stop learning) no matter how much Tai Chi I learn.
The Wu Style but more comprehensively Classical Tai Chi talks about "ting jin" and the sensitivity that enables it. Undoubtedly at its finest it picks up even the most subtle sensations of an opponent's movement. Then, I feel there is our ''ting jin", our sensitivity when it comes to our own bodies and our minds. Some would call this self-awareness, self-sensing, somatics, etc. It has become quite well accepted that calming the mind through Meditation can have good effects on one’s body. What has not been well documented, much less accepted is the flip side on how calming the body can have good effects on the mind.
In his book “Uncovering the Treasure”, p. 31, Stephen Hwa makes the case that mind and body have a relationship which proceeds from the initial difficulty of learning and total engagement of body-mind. One is struggling to learn in the beginner’s stage, one has to think about everything they do, one has to memorize the movements. The training then makes a progression toward disengagement of body and mind. One has memorized the movements, one no longer has to think of what comes next or how to do things . So this clearly differs from what the meditative traditions state when they say body and mind are inseparable and stay as “one” during Meditation itself. In one sense Tai Chi is similar to meditation with a starting point of “oneness” of body-mind but in Tai Chi the end result is what might be called disengagement of body-mind.
The result of this disengagement is that the mind, no longer having the difficult tasks to do, can simply monitor sensations of stretching and energy circulation in the body itself. This is where the term “sensation” is joined with the idea of enjoyment; but the idea of sensitivity to sensations along with feedback from sensations is an overall prevailing theme. In Uncovering the Treasure, Dr. Hwa talks about the word "sensation" about 20 times, it is indeed quite important. More than any other style of Tai Chi I studied, Classical Tai Chi teaches one to pick up on these sensations, the subtle signals of the whole body throughout the body, systematically and perseveringly.
In reflecting on this however, it occurs to me there is not only the enjoyment of the sensations of internal energy, there is also dissatisfaction with other sensations in the body. I talk to students about this on occasion both in my studio and Internet Forums. Student's say during the playing of the form and then even afterward they notice areas of their body that are tight, achy, etc. One would call these the negative sensations.
Certainly mind and body are disengaged at advanced levels and one is playing the Tai Chi subconsciously, yet the mind is “still minding the store” by monitoring both enjoyment or satisfaction and dissatisfaction. As some exampIes: I never used to give that much attention to my back, now I know of more areas where it is tight;I notice a plethora of areas in the body where things feel tight, tense, itchy, painful, etc. Then the sensations seem to go beyond the tactile to sight, hearing, smell, etc. Even when I am through practicing, almost as though the mind is still working on a subconscious level, I even have things like increased awareness of hunger, I feel hungrier, sounds seem clearer, lights seem brighter, etc.
There is no doubt in my mind there is a greater diversity of signals on the negative things as well as the positive things; but are the "negatives" really negative, aren't they all just sensations after all? . Haven't we just interrupted the flow of internal energy where mind and body were disengaged; now we find ourselves naming things? I enjoy the sensations of internal energy, immensely. I still sit on the couch, even after 8 years and I do what is called quarter body movement, I do this seemingly without thinking; my wife nudges me, "stop that, it is embarassing".
In understanding what happens when one begins to master the Tai chi however, the one disengages and becomes two; body disengages from mind. When body and mind are thusly disengaged of course we are doing Tai Chi; but what do we "hear" in regard to sensations? We hear of sensations some of which we assign as negative, one is dissatisfied; then there is what we assign as positive or satisfied. Is it not all "sensation" ; whether negative or positive, is there ever only one side to the coin?
When I started Tai Chi in the 70's, we all were kind of trapped in Western hemisphere thinking. Nowdays, parts of Tai Chi which used to be difficult to explain have become easier to explain but which of course many do not believe; mind and body are one, but in Tai Chi they disengage. Nowdays, Buddhist monks come to the West and scientists study them, so the differentiation between East and West is slowly disappearing. In the 70's Rene Descarte's "turf deal" with the church (Cartesian Dualism) was dominating our understanding (we have a mind linked to a soul, which is also independent of our body). That illusion has faded with our study of the meditative “mind controls body” disciplines but what about “body controls mind” disciplines such as Tai Chi.
I taught Tai Chi to Therapists at the Veterans Hospital in Buffalo in the 70's. At that time we were getting the first wave of returning vets from Vietnam; some of those armed service personnel had very serious trauma. They could not begin to relax; some lived in terror and they did not feel safe. What my Tai Chi students only partially realized at the time but what we now seem to know is those vets had sensations of combat imprinted in their bodies too. Scientists tell us now that mind and memory are imprinted on the whole body; their trauma is stored in their whole bodies.
I tend to think our minds note every bit of information that is stored in our bodies, that we are big memory banks. It is truly great to revel in the enjoyment of the "sensations" of internal energy as Master Hwa says. In some ways however, this is a mixed blessing because as I say, we seemingly also get more to complain about with increased sensitivity to all sensations. Take heart that it is a gradual process however, I have experienced it thusly but certainly more intensely with Classical Tai Chi with its emphasis on Internal Discipline.
Why are sensations so intense with Classical Tai Chi? I have done several other styles of Tai Chi and in none of them did I find such intensity. I think this is largely attributable to what is referred to as “one yin, one yang”. As passed on from Wu Chien Chuan to Young Wabu it was the most important instruction he gave: “Every movement in Tai Chi Form has to have 2 complementary sides of the body, a moving part yang and a stationary part yin. When the yin-yang junction is outside the body,the movement is external, when it is inside the body, it is an internal movement”. The profundity of this statement never ceases to amaze me, for the more I can keep still , the deeper I can make that stillness, the movement itself becomes deeper, more intense. This is referred to as "one yin, one yang". With one yin one yang we attain greater and greater levels of intense sensation internally. We refer to intense sensation in the core of the body; the long neglected torso where the internal organs are stored. To reiterate, that is greatly dependent on how much stillness I can achieve which is then coupled with movement This is in sharp contrast to the commonly held notion that we get greater sensation simply from increased movement or being totally Yang.