A Balancing Act by Susan Goekler
At this time of year, I often take time for reflection and to look at the balance in my life. Being in the field of education, it is the time to think about a new semester and what that will bring. For me, the transitions are more than usual this year. My husband Mac and I have moved our household goods from the home in Ohio where we had lived longer than any other places during our adult lives, so we could again live together. In addition, our 17-year old granddaughter joined our household here and my father has been having health problems.
All transitions involve change and change upsets balance. As an analogy, if you have an addition problem with an equal sign, that means that the numbers on each side of the equal sign are balanced. However, if you change one number, then it is no longer in balance and to rebalance, you must make more adjustments. Transitions require a rebalancing – of priorities, of activities, and of relationships.
Over twenty years ago, when I was in the midst of another transition, I literally lost my balance. To walk, I had to hold on to the wall, I walked at a tilt, and my mind was not clear. Although I eventually got a medical diagnosis, the only treatment was time. A therapist showed me how to do several simple exercises to get my right and left sides working together and get rebalanced. They helped. During that time I was part of a Spiritual Exploration group most of whose members came from the Unitarian Universalist church. We explored a variety of meditative practices; through that, I discovered that practices involving movement worked best for me. My first introduction to Tai chi was during a worship service at the UU Church where I lived at the time. Knowing my need to work on balance, my predilection for movement, and that I would be moving to a new job in a new city, I decided that I was ready to start serious study of a single meditation practice and tai chi was that practice. When I moved to another city, I found a teacher and began my study of Tai chi. One article I read noted that it took five to ten years of study and practice to really get the benefits from Tai chi, so I made a commitment to try it for 5 years before deciding whether it was “right” for me.
One of the first effects I noticed from Tai chi was an improvement in my physical balance. As I progressed, however, I learned that the physical balance is just the tip of the iceberg. Tai chi exercise or Tai chi chuan is only one element of tai chi, which means “the Grand ultimate.” It also involves achieving balance between mind and body and with others. The philosophical base draws on the principles of Yin and Yang – the balance between the destructive and the constructive. Yin and Yang philosophy does not ascribe values to the destructive and constructive, but accepts both as part of life. What is destructive for one might be constructive for another. For change to occur something is lost (destructive) and something created (constructive). Just as the falling of the leaves in the fall provides nourishment that supports new growth in the spring, so does loss in one’s life open possibilities for the new. I do not know what new ventures will await me in this new phase of life, but I do know that they probably would not have been available to me had these transitions not occurred.
When I first started practicing Tai chi, I thought that eventually I would get good enough at the movements that I could “zone out” and go on automatic and that would be when I would start to meditate. What I discovered instead was that the meditation comes not from emptiness, but from concentration. There are so many elements to doing the movements correctly, that they require my total concentration – even after 20 plus years. When my mind wanders, I lose my balance. When I am focused, however, I can feel the energy flow within me in a balanced way, my moves are graceful and fluid, and I am relaxed yet alert. By forcing me to focus on practice, my mind clears of other thoughts. Following practice, I have a new perspective, a fresh start on my thoughts.
A little Background on tai chi — From The Essence of T’ai Chi by Waysun Liao
“Thousands of years ago, Chinese Taoists formulated the theory that there is an eternal power that moves the universe. They called that ultimate power ch’i. According to the legendary theory of Yin and Yang, ch’i exercises its powers ceaselessly, moving in a balanced manner between the positive (constructive) and the negative (destructive) powers.
“Because the Yin and Yang powers are always conflicting yet balancing each other, our universe is constantly and indefinitely changing. Everything, even unfilled space, derives its existence from the balanced interaction of these two contracting forces.
“The human being is powered by the same source of energy ch’i. The process of human life is based on the interaction of Yin and Yang forces. Our life increases and changes , it follows a natural cycle and eventually dies. Ancient Chinese explain this cycle as the growth and fading of ch’i. It is ch’i that determines human mental and physical conditions.”
As with Yin and Yang, much of tai chi sounds contradictory. You are moving, but relaxed. Rooted, yet moving.
Rather than my telling you about the experience, I would like to give you a chance to experience a little of what tai chi is about. A similar experience was how I first knew it was the practice I wanted to study. These few exercises will help you understand some of the core principles that address balance and have helped me regain equanimity when confronted by change.
The first action is non-action (wu wei) – or relaxation. Mental relaxation is more important than physical relaxation because mental tension results in physical stiffness. It requires that you give yourself to these exercises and have trust in the process. Part of mental relaxation is emptying; as the opening lines to the 9th chapter of the Tao de ching say: Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Thus you must empty it in order to refill it. Focus on being present here, now and relax and trust the process.”
According to Waysun Liao: “It is the development of ch’i in the human body, along with the theory of the contrasting powers of Yin and Yang that makes the art of T’ai chi such a unique mental and physical discipline… In t’ai chi practice, meditation is the only way to become aware of one’s ch’i.”
Please join me in a guided t’ai chi meditation.
Get into a comfortable position and Relax the entire body as if in sleep. Try to eliminate tension everywhere.
Calm your mind and concentrate on your body. Listen to your breath, sense your pulse, feel the body’s natural rhythm.
Bring up your spirit by pushing up a point on the top of your head, called the crown point. Imagine an invisible string pulling your crown point from above. Gradually breathe more deeply, so you are breathing into your abdomen.
Return your attention to this place.
Please stand if you are willing and able, but you can also participate while sitting, if that is better for you.
In addition to relaxation and emptying, another principle of tai chi is Rooting – Place both feet solidly on the floor, shoulder width apart. Feel your connection with the floor and its solid foundation. Imagine roots growing from your feet that hold you in place. When I get rooted to this place of worship, I sometimes sense how grounding this faith community is for me and also sense the presence of others who have worshiped here.
Sit or stand with your trunk erect. Imagine that you are a marionette with a string at the center of your head, holding your head and spine erect. Relax your shoulders and arms; let them fall loosely. If you are standing, bend your knees slightly into a semi-sitting position – you should be able to see the toe of your shoes below our knees. Keep the trunk erect.
Stay where you are as we do an exercise that focuses on the breath. Place the tip of your tongue behind your teeth on the roof of your mouth. Open your mouth slightly, but breathe through your nose. Breath work is called tai chi gung or Qi gung. Place one hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest. As you slowly breathe in and out try to move the abdomen hand and not the chest hand. When the chest moves more, that indicates tension; it requires holding in the abdomen. PAUSE.
Once you can do this, add a hand movement. Bring your hands in so they are almost touching below the abdomen, palms up – keeping the fingers and wrists relaxed. As you inhale, raise the arms to shoulder level. Pause and turn the wrists palm down. Lower our hands as you exhale. The hands help move the ch’i or life force energy. Repeat.
Now that you know how to breathe, we will do the second move in the tai chi form. You have already done the first move – taking the stance, when you placed your feet firmly on the floor shoulder width apart, and bent the knees if you were standing. Stay in that position and as you inhale, slowly raise your arms to shoulder height, keeping the wrists and hands loose. Pause. As you exhale, bend the elbows and lower the arms. Repeat. Again, you see the Yin and Yang or opposites – controlled movement while relaxed.
Next we will do an exercise specific to balance. While in the stance, step forward with your left foot, keeping our right knee slightly bent. Slowly shift your weight from one foot to the other, while keeping the trunk erect. Exhale as you move forward, inhale as you move backward. If you are sitting, lean forward slightly as you exhale and move backward as you inhale. PAUSE.
Now to work on coordination, we will add arm movements. Continue to shift your weight forward and backward as you breathe. Place both hands in front of you, make fists, and place the left fist on top of the right fist as if you are holding a pole. As you rock backward, pull your hands back as if you were polling a gondola. As you rock forward, lift the arms and bring them back to the front. Repeat this several times, breathing, shifting the weight, and coordinating the arms and legs as you stay focused and relaxed. PAUSE.
To shift the weight forward and back without losing balance, it is important to keep the trunk erect, not lean. Tai chi teaches that the center of gravity, called the tan tien, is about 2 inches below the navel and a couple of inches internal. Keeping that area over a foot and keeping the trunk erect allows you to stay balanced. If you lean and that spot is not over your foot, you will fall. Try continuing to shift the weight, but completely lift the non weight-bearing foot off the ground.
Stop. Now we are going to add one more dimension and that is doing this with a partner. Turn to face another person. Place your right feet together, touching on the outside. With your right palm toward your face, touch the back of your partner’s right hand. As one person rocks backward, the other will rock forward. You will be breathing opposite of one another – exhaling as you rock forward and inhaling as you move backward. Without speaking, try to get in touch with your partner and anticipate his or her moves. You are now balancing yourself and creating a balance in a relationship with another.
Stay relaxed, rooted, and breathing. Stay connected and balanced. If you lose focus on all the elements involved, you will probably have trouble. BUT if you can empty the mind of extraneous thought and focus on the task at hand, you should feel coordinated.
You may stop and take a seat. Thank you for participating.
Mind/body connection is a core element of tai chi philosophy. Several thousand years ago, some in China were searching for the highest form of life of the human mind and body. They conceived the mind to be an unlimited dimension, but the scope of human activity as moderate.
Tai chi encourages the fulfillment of the individual person, yet also emphasizes that the goal should be achieved through moderation and natural ways of living. I believe that one principle is missing from the UUA Principles, namely care for one’s self physically and mentally. I have found over the years that people who have stopped taking care of their physical needs are often floundering emotionally and spiritually. In Eastern philosophies, the mind, body, and spirit are connected. Chinese medicine is based on the assumption that illness is due to an imbalance in a person’s life – physical, emotional, spiritual, or relational. Meridian balancing and acupuncture are two tools. Along with tai chi, that the traditional Chinese practitioners use for healing and to regain that balance and allow the free flow of the body’s life force of ch’i.
Whether you ever study tai chi or not, keeping these principles of relaxation, rootedness, breathing, coordinated movement, and connection to others can help with your physical balance and with clearing the mind so you can be open to new possibilities. If you do nothing to balance and rebalance your mind and body, it is likely that your life will stagnate and your health will suffer. When the mind and body are in harmony, you have achieved a balancing act, but one that will need rebalancing every time a change occurs.
Tai chi is not the only method for finding balance, but it is one that has worked for me. It has helped me let go and be open. As part of the practice, I have memorized certain Tao do ching passages. The first I chose to learn was one that I will share to close:
The master perceives the universe as it is, do not control it, do not manipulate it, let the path unwind its way. Yet be steadfast and maintain the center for the world revolves continuously but the center is stillness and at rest.
As I transition, I must work on letting the path unwind its way. If you do the same, the unexpected might come into your life.