Have you ever tried to meditate? You sit down, close your eyes, and try to drop into a deep state of focus and relaxation….but you start thinking about a million different things, from what you have to do later today, to a fight you just had, to that itch on your leg that gets louder and louder….Given the way we are constantly bombarded by images and electronic messages, it’s not really surprising that you can’t quiet your “monkey mind” by trying to sit and forget it.
The good news is, there’s a way to build your capacity to go deeply into meditation, by doing some preliminary training that will quiet your mind without a fight. Think of a baseball player who is too weak to lift a bat. Is he ever going to hit a home run? Of course not. So he gets into the weight room to build up some muscle. At first he gets strong enough to lift the bat, then maybe swing it, then eventually he’s strong enough to swing and run. At this point, he’s got a baseline where he can actually start to work on his baseball technique. Lifting weights and playing his sport aren’t the same thing, but one can support the other.
Think of meditation the same way. If you actually want to improve your meditation technique, your “meditation muscles” have to be strong enough to get you in the game. And what’s the equivalent of hitting the weights for people who can’t sit still long enough to meditate? Tai chi, of course!
Tai Chi is Not Meditation, But It Builds Meditation Muscle
Many people confuse tai chi with a meditation practice, because of its slow, meditative movements. Tai Chi is not necessarily meditation. Yes, it’s true that in some lineages meditation techniques have been grafted on to the tai chi form. This works because the energy work in tai chi originally comes from Taoist energy mechanics, which naturally evolve toward meditation. However, tai chi as it typically practiced is concerned with the health of the physical body and the energy that runs it, and possibly with the energy of the emotions and the mind to a degree.
I know this seems like a fine distinction and you’re probably wondering why you should care about it. “Tai Chi makes me feel good, relaxed and comfortable inside my own body.” Personally, I think that’s great. The distinction between developing the energy of your body (tai chi) and developing the energy of your mind and spirit (meditation) is useful as you practice. Think of the baseball player again. If he thinks that endless hours in the weight room are going to make him into an all-star hitter, is he ever going to get there? He’s chasing the wrong thing. Because you have limited practice time, you should care about practice goals.
And for the person who can’t sit still, but wants to meditate, keeping this distinction in mind will speed up their progress (because we know tai chi and meditation are all about results!). See, if you do tai chi to smooth out the energy of your body, you inevitably start working on your mind.
You develop four major qualities that will come in handy when you turn to meditation directly:
- The ability to expand your awareness
- The ability to soften your mind and let things flow into your awareness
- The ability to direct your intent
- The ability to stay with something as it shifts and changes
When you can’t quite sit still enough to meditate, either your body isn’t relaxed enough or you’re lacking in one of these four qualities. The beautiful thing about learning tai chi to help your meditation practice is that “it meets you half-way”. You’re developing these qualities initially in a moving practice, which is more forgiving than a stillness practice, so even if the energy of your body isn’t that smooth yet, you can start down the path.
For More Experienced Meditators
For more experienced meditators, tai chi is also incredibly valuable. Many people who do prolonged sitting practice don’t have a way to keep the energy of their bodies running smoothly. As opposed to doing any other form of exercise to keep the body healthy, tai chi is a two-for-one.Â You’re circulating the energy of the body while you practice, but you’re also developing the four attributes above, which will strengthen your meditation practice as well.