I always like it when I can connect the ancient wisdom of tai chi with the modern science of neurobiology. That connection was brought home to me again recently when I read a book called “Aware,” written by Dan Siegel, MD.
I’ve been a fan of Dan Siegel since I first started studying psychology – which is way before I first started practicing tai chi. Though he originally trained and practiced as a clinical child psychiatrist, I first came across him when he started to explore the world of neuro-biology—at that time quite new. His great strength is that he works across multiple disciplines in a way that very few people can do.
He is also a prolific writer. I don’t know how he finds time to churn out so many books; I don’t even find time to read them all! However, there are two of his books that I’d recommend to everyone. One is Mindsight, in which he explains how to “see” what’s going on in your (or another’s) mind. The other is Aware, in which he explains the science behind mindfulness meditation.
Early in Aware he explains why both physical health and mental wellbeing can be improved by expanding awareness through meditation. What is striking to me is that the specific (and “scientifically proven”) benefits he lists for awareness are very similar to the ones we might list for tai chi.
More interestingly, he then goes on to explain that these benefits are produced by three specific elements in meditative practice, which he calls the three pillars of meditation. They are:
1. Focused Attention
2. Open Awareness
3. Kind Intention (i.e., compassion towards self and others)
It’s easy to see how the first two pillars are explicitly part of our tai chi practice. We focus attention in our dantian as we do our rounds. At the same time, we expand our awareness to observe everything that is happening, both internally and externally.
But what about the third pillar? It is definitely part of our teaching, but often a little less explicitly. We might say: “Do your tai chi in a pleasant mood.” Or, in the local school where I teach, Kevin (our senior teacher) will remind people that, “There is no wrong. Whatever you can do right now is okay.”
My personal takeaway from reading Siegel’s book is to make “kind intention” (i.e., compassion for self and others) a more explicit part of my teaching. I often remind the class of the importance of calming their self-critical voices—and in general of cultivating a non-judgmental attitude.
And I remind myself that, although I am teaching tai chi, I am not there primarily to correct or improve people’s tai chi form. I am there primarily to help them focus their attention, to help them to expand their awareness, and to create for them an environment of kind intention.
I was quite inspired by this thought. I wonder if it resonates for you?
Mike has been practicing tai chi since 2007 and teaching as an apprentice since 2012 in St Albans in the UK. After a long career as a business consultant, he now works as an executive coach, helping senior managers with their personal challenges in leadership.
Photo by Brett Jordan