Have you ever thought of Tai Chi as a spiritual discipline?

As I sat in the park this morning, reading the newspaper as I sometimes do, a small group of elderly and not so elderly Asian women began practicing their art nearby, their rhythmic movements guided by clipped tonal instructions on a scratchy old tape, Chinese music in the background. I thought it provided an interesting counterpoint to the songs of magpies in the crisp morning air, so quintessentially Aussie, and as I watched them go through their slow dance I was struck by the tranquility it expressed.

When I first dived into the New Age movement, back in the late 80s, most of my friends considered the link between Tai Chi and spirituality to be immediately obvious. It was exotic and eastern. New Agers were the only white people doing it. QED. But it seems that, as with the mainstreaming of so many things, fewer people stop to consider its spiritual dimensions today. As with yoga, because people are no longer alarmed, they’re no longer alert.

Yet the links are there for those with the eyes to see. The very name itself evokes Taoist spirituality. As one writer puts it:

Tai Chi Chuan means “Supreme Ultimate Boxing.” The Supreme Ultimate here refers to the Tao, or more specifically, the framework within which the dualities of Yin and Yang manifest themselves in the field of time. The allusion to the Tai Chi in this context suggests that the art contains within itself (in its movements, shapes and patterns of breathing) all that is necessary for these dynamic forces to interact and be reconciled.

It needs to be noted that eastern religions do not often respect the sacred-secular and mind-body dichotomies that plague religion, as most people know it, in the west. There is no intrinsic incompatibility between martial arts and meditation practice. But if that’s not enough to convince, please consider the reports that the art was reputedly developed by a monk:

Later in the fifteenth century A.D. the purported founder of Tai Chi Chuan, the monk Chang San-feng, was honoured by the Emperor Ying- tsung with the title of chen-jen, or ‘spiritual man who has attained the Tao and is no longer ruled by what he sees, hears or feels.’ This indicates that already at this time there was a close association between the philosophy of Taoism and the practice of Tai Chi.

What is my point? I’m not sure. On the one hand I am merely struck by the paradoxes in the practice, of its development as a fighting discipline out of a spiritual philosophy, only for it now, in some contexts, to now be undertaken as nothing more than a fitness routine. On the other, I wonder about the unpaid bills of the church this points towards, about our need to move beyond spirit-matter dualities. Who knows? I’m still pondering it. But I wonder if you’ll ponder with me.

10 thoughts on “Moving Meditations

  1. Tai Chi was part of my make-up in my youth and to be honest, something I missed later. I strongly agree that some sort of spirituality of phyisical action (and physical discipline) is missing from Christianity. Interestingly, when I talk to Christians from an older generation (pre-war types), they will connect their spirituality to work and labour, in ways I have never heard from an evangelical puplit.
    FWIW, I have been pondering a spirituality of golf for a while now (don’t laugh). No firm thoughts, but there is something there I suspect.

    Like

  2. Not laughing. I’ve always had a deep respect for the Ways of Zen which, if you’re not familiar, include archery, calligraphy and tea making. I just loved the calligraphy school scenes in the movie “Hero” for instance. As someone who’s always been interested in integrating the secular with the sacred, and has come to see Jesus as the master of all life, the absence of a well developed spirituality of physical action in contemporary Christianity is a glaring unpaid bill.
    Brother Lawrence is someone who deserves consideration from the Christian tradition, with his spirituality of dish washing developed through his days as a kitchen hand. We need to listen to God’s voice in all areas of life, including play.
    I am prompted to consider that good apologetics pays attention to questions, not only of truth, but also goodness and beauty. Can we see goodness in exercise? Can we see beauty in a well crafted golf shot? Does not all goodness and beauty ultimately flow from our Creator? Well why not in this? Keep working on it Fernando, I’d be interested to see how your practice developes.

    Like

  3. Yes, I treat Tai Ji Quan as my daily life in which you feel relaxed through your body. Then gradually your whole nerve system and spiritual thoughts are integrated and relaxed.
    Tai_Ji_Xin
    tai-chi-for-health.blogspot.com/
    tai-chi-sword.blogspot.com/
    tai-chi-24-forms.blogspot.com/

    Like

  4. hmm I’ll probably blog on this or it will be a long comment, but first of all I practice Tai Chi- my teacher is a Hong Kong Chinese Catholic, he recognises the spiritual element and sees it as a spiritual discipline, also that it need not be incompatible with Chrisitianity as it can encompass other philosophies… i.e. if Chi- life energy/ life force is spiritual does that bring in a different dimension to the practice of Tai-Chi. I use the movements as prayer bringing in a whole new physical dimension to my prayer life…

    Like

  5. Sally
    I’d be interested to see you blog on this. Although I meditate regularly and am familiar with many forms of meditation, I have never practiced Tai Chi personally or researched it in depth. So I’d welcome you, as a practitioner, to flesh my preliminary musings out a little more robustly.
    My initial thoughts are, as with all forms of meditation and alternative spirituality, I would be inclined to take a critically contextual approach, looking for points of commonality and distinctiveness, for aspects we can freely adopt, aspects we need to modify, and aspects we’d need to drop, to practice it as Christians.
    As I alluded to in the last comment, physical exercise is good, spiritual discipline is good, and I think we can freely embrace those aspect of Tai Chi.
    The words ‘chi’, ‘qi’, ‘ki’ and ‘pranja’ that we find coming up again and again in eastern spiritualities are very similar to the greek word ‘pneuma’ in that they both mean ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ simultaneously. Where Christianity offers an alternative perspective though is that we see Spirit as personal and initiative taking in a way which is not shared by more pantheistic spiritualities. I am sure I’m not telling you anything particularly new here. But I suppose what I would invite you to articulate is how you engage with and perceive the Spirit, as a Christian, in your own practice. I am particularly interested in how you describe it bringing new dimensions to your prayer life.
    Another thing that’s worth exploring is the evangelistic opportunities here. How can Tai Chi function as an “alter to the Unknown God”?

    Like

  6. Matt, I was a martial arts practitioner for many years. “Chi” ‘development’ played a significant part in that journey particularly beyond black belt level. I am unable to deny it’s existance.
    I also practiced Tai Chi, and am increasingly thinking of doing it again, primarily as a way of developing a deep and contemplative stillness though movement – a still centre.
    Still thinking, but less and less see it as being in ‘conflict’ with my Christian convictions.

    Like

  7. Paul, I don’t see it as such a black and white issue that we can say, yes it’s in conflict, or no it isn’t.
    If my experiences with alternative spiritualities have taught me anything, its that its usually a case of both/and.
    This is where I think we need to hold the continuities and dicontinuities between pantheist and monotheist understandings of breath/spirit in tension, minimising neither, as we strive towards a deeper exegesis of the culture and scripture.
    This in itself can become a rich source for meditation practice, a missional koan if you will. How do we find the synthesis beyond thesis and antithesis?
    In exploring such issues I think we need to be conscious, not only of where we sit on the path, but also where othere do.
    You are well grounded in the faith, and so I acknowledge engagement in such practices is unlikely to shake your own faith to the core or anything so dramatic. But I must ask, what about people who are decidedly shaky in the faith? Are we able to put ourselves in their shoes and ask, how can these alternate understandings of Spirit potentially destabilize their journey with Jesus? It happens.
    Or to take it further, what about those who are fully convicted pantheists, whom we may come across in practicing pursuits such as these. Can we see that as a missional opportunity to share the deeper mysteries of the Spirit? Are we ready to answer their deep questions? I don’t think we can get that deep unless we stick with the tensions.

    Like

  8. “…what about people who are decidedly shaky in the faith? Are we able to put ourselves in their shoes and ask, how can these alternate understandings of Spirit potentially destabilize their journey with Jesus? It happens…” Matt, I agree wholeheartedly on the point you make (above) and the need for deeper cultural and scriptural exegesis.
    I wonder what the interest in Tai Chi is saying back to us about Christianity..our undervaluing of the body and movement in our formation? What might it be saying back to contemporary contemplative practice? To a contemporary form and practice of Protestant Christianity that reinforces the western cultural obsession with “speed,” “productivty” and “busyness”?
    Is there a relationship between “ruach” (‘breath’),breathing, Spirit, and “chi”? I don’t know, but it sure is an interesting avenue of reflection.

    Like

  9. Paul
    I do see a relationship between chi and ruach and, more to the point, so do many explorers of alternative spiritualities.
    See for yourself. Here is just one example from http://members.tripod.com/internalart/main.htm:
    “The Sanskrit term for chi is Prana, Ki in Japanese, Pneuma in Greek, and Ruach in Hebrew. The Polynesian called it Mana, while they called it Barraka by the Islam.”
    The words are roughly equivalent – semantically distinct, but phenomenologically equivalent. Speaking the lingo of alternate spiritualities requires us to be able to shift between them all. So, whatever you say for chi, you must also be able to say for ruach. Whatever you say for ruach, you must also be able to say for chi.
    But this is just where the real challenges emerge. How so? Because chi is ruach viewed through a pantheistic worldview filter. Ruach is chi viewed through a monotheistic worldview filter. Once you start using the words interchangeably as post-moderns do you are forced to ask, are pantheistic and monotheistic worldview filters equally clear or equally opaque? Those who affirm the perennial philosophy would answer yes. But can a Christian who affirms the pre-eminence of Christ? Here we run smack bang into the teaching of special revelation. I don’t see how we can avoid affirming that some worldview filters are more reflective of deep realities than others if we affirm Jesus as Messiah. Jesus offers us glimpses of ruach, chi, prana, that we find nowhere else. Chi is an alter to the unknown God, very true, but as with Paul in Acts 17 we need to move beyond mere recognition of that fact.
    Now this (and I want to reinforce this) is not to dismiss the teachings of other worldview altogether. I see there is much to learn from them. Contemporary Christian undervaluing of the body is one area where pantheistic teachers offer us a very useful corrective. But this just leads into why I criticize fellow contemplatives for uncritical borrowing from Christian monastic traditions. Why? Because the monastic traditions we have access to are heavily grounded in the ascetic spirit/body dualism of Neoplatonism. They arose through engagement with the pagans and pantheists of a past era, not the pagans and pantheists of our era, who are more in tune with earthy Homer than heady Plato. Aping the contemplatives of the past is an insufficient response to the upsurge in interest in spirituality. Movements like Tai Chi and Yoga tell us that if we have ears to hear.
    So in summary, I do see studying Tai Chi as of value for Christians, but I don’t think it should make either Christians or Tai Chi practitioners comfortable. I think it should make us all exercise in more ways than one.

    Like

  10. I am so glad you mention a possibility of a relationship between Chi and ruach Matt- this is something that to my mind plays an important part in Tai-Chi.
    Iam not entirely comfortable in the classes and like you see this as a positive thing- also I because people know I work for the Methodist Church occassionaly make others feel uncomfortable.
    I attended a spirituality and healing workshop based on Qi-Gong a while ago, something about Chakara points being the colours of the rainbow struck a chord… I’ve been looking into this area- once again will blog on it when I find the time to unravel my head a little (too much study going on!!!)

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s