Posted by: Mike Ferruggia | January 12, 2011

Infused Contemplation in Tai Chi Chuan Kung Fu

In Catholic tradition, there are various types(I”m avoiding using the word levels here so as not to put one above the other)of prayer. When we are young and in catholic formation, we learn prayers by rote such as the Our Father, as taught by Christ himself in the gospels(I am somewhat embarrassed today when I don’t know certain prayers that are being recited at mass such as the angelus or the prayer before confession). This foundation is essential. It teaches us to pray. It is like learning notes and chords for a musician, or learning techniques of painting for an artist.

There is also a tradition of meditation in the church, in which one focuses on something, a gospel passage, a moment in Christ’s life, a holy image, and we CONSCIOUSLY meditate, we wrangle with the meaning of the phrase or object, we focus on it. Then there is a tradition of contemplation, in which the active conscious meditation of something begins to slip into a somewhat semi conscious or subconscious state, in which we begin to delve into the wellspring, into what Jung would call the collective unconscious. This tradition goes back to the deset fathers, has been practiced throughout the ages by monks and nuns, and experienced a renewal through the work of Thomas Merton, and the Fathers of St. Joseph Abbey, particularly Frs. William Menninger, Basil Pennington, and Abbot Thomas Keating in what came to be known as Centering Prayer.

The concept of Infused Contemplation comes to us from the Catholic Mystics of the 16th century, Sts. Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Infused Contemplation, mystical in its experience, is a form of contemplation that cannot be made to happen. It comes as a gift for the contemplative, and is an experience of union with Christ and God the Father through him. The person who receives the gift of Infused Contemplation mat react in different ways, from being totally severed from the reality of this world, transfixed in a “gaze,” unable to move or extricate oneself from this state until it ends on its own, or sometimes it brings the person into “ecstasy.”

The great danger, and there are many dangers in meditation and contemplation, for example exposing oneself to negative influences if not properly focused, is that knowing you can’t force it and make it happen, people still want the experience and try to either force it or fake it. This is, of course, pointless, useless, and maybe even detrimental to one’s spiritual progress.

The Contemplative Practice of Tai Chi Chuan Kung Fu has many similarities. In the beginning we learn the “words of prayer,” or the notes of music, that is, the 108 moves of tai chi(the 108 moves are like an encyclopedia of moves that encompass all one needs to know). We learn and practice and memorize the form the way we would learn and memorize the Our Father. And, as in learning to pray prayers, learning to move in the 108 moves of tai chi, we can get many benefits.

Many practitiioners, as they are learning the form, begin to encorporate a sort of meditation prtactice, which gets stronger the more one learns, and increases after learning the form, as we practice everyday, we learn or discover something new, as if tai chi chuan were an infinite source of learning. We meditate on our postures, on how our body moves, on the mind body connection, on the development of chi, on the martial implications and uses of the moves we are learning. This meditation, while traversing the conscious and semi conscious realms, is mostly mental and awake; we work to develop a full consciousness of what we are doing, a mindfulness of every nuance and minute movement in what we are doing. A good teacher can correct your postures from now til eternity as it can always be perfected a little bit more.

In tai chi, we learn about going from jing, the natural essence, transforming the jing(Things like air, food, saliva) into chi, or energy, and at the highest level, transforming chi into shen or spirit. This stage is most like infused contemplation, it is the ultimater creative spontaneity of the universe, it is the spontaneity and creativity of the practice of tai chi chuan kung fu.

Unfortunately, I would venture to say that many tai chi practitioners never venture beyond the first or second level of contemplation because they never experience tai chi in its spontaneity or creativity. It is the 108 moves and that’s it. Anyone who ventures outside of it tends to be criticised for not holding to tradition. I will also say that there is a great danger here also as some become overzealous in their pracctice, and after a few months believe they can begin creating their own tai chi forms as if they have stumbled upon something new. (Remember, great masters throughout the ages have amended and changed and created their own tai chi forms, beginning with the development of tai chi itself). Not to say that I myself experienced in the early stages of my learning what appeared to be spontaneous and creative moves that had similarities to moves I had not learned yet in the forms(this is a topic for another post, except I will say that if one is honest, diligent, and humble, one will certainly be “given” forms, moves that are intuitive, spontaneous, creative, and legitimate).

What opportunities does one have in the contemplative practice of tai chi chuan kung fu to place oneself in a space to experience the infused contemplation experience? There are opportunities in push hands prtactice, where one begins to prasctice rote techniques, experience the “circle” of tai chi, and experience the presence of another individual. If one practices enough, they players can begin to play with executing movements in a spontaneous manner. Indeed, the whole idea of tai chi at the end is to become no mind, or wu wei, and to let it happen, just as the contemplatives let their infused contemplation expeience just happen. You cannot force it. We are constantly reminded by good teachers that we cannot force the chi to circulate throughout the body, it happens on its own.

Sparring and ac tually fighting are two other areas where the opportunity arises for our tai chi to move to this higher realm. If we remain stuck in our conscious, logical mental process, tai chi will prove useless. But as we learn to let go, to let it happen, to rely on the years of dedicated practice and learning, a person may in fact enter into a state of infused contemplation and appear to be doing the supernatural, or experiencing the supernatural.

There are opportunities for this to happen in solo practice as well, although I find this to be an interesting distinction in that the highest moments of “union” in tai chi would come in “battle.” (perhaps this is where we most make sense of the taoist concept of the great tai chi symbol of yin and yang revolving around each other, not that there cannot be a harmonious interplay of yin/yang in solo practice)But, in seated meditation, in silence, in standing post, we will begin to get glimpses of this “gift” I am talking about. There have been times, when I am practicing often and diligently and mindfully, that I have attempted to explain to someone this sense of “knowing” or knowledge or wisdom or understanding or revelation or enlightenment that I have gotten during practice, and the only way I can express it is by falling into a tai chi posture–“Here is truth, here is the answer to the universal questions, don’t you see?”

I would be very interested to know if any of you who practice tai chi or yoga have experienced the same things.

There is a longing both among catholic contemplatives to be in this moment of constant union with God, and with the tai chi player to be in the presence of anf flowing with this thing we call tao. And, personally, as I have continued trying to keep these two traditions of mine together, I cannot help but picture the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, existing in there divine perichoresis, performing tai chi like masters!

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