Relaxation and the Root of Suffering

One of the basic principles of Tai Ji Chuan is relaxation.  When I had the great honor of meeting Grandmaster Feng Zhi Qiang, the Sifu of my Sifu Gene Chen, in Beijing a number of years ago, he watched me do a part of our Chen style Tai Ji set and told me “for now, work on relaxation”.  This seemed the most basic of instruction.  And then he patted me on the back, giving me a direct transmission of relaxation: he moved calmly, almost leisurely, and the weight of his hand was soft like an embrace but heavy like lead.  It is not uncommon in East Asian philosophy and Chinese Medicine that the most basic principles are also often the most profound.

Relaxation is easier said than done.  What is relaxation?  Why are we often not relaxed?  Or in modern vernacular, why are we “stressed” so much of the time?

Tai Ji 太極 (also spelled T’ai Chi in Wade Giles system) translates to “Great Extreme” or “Supreme Ultimate”.  This refers to the process of moving between the poles of Yin and Yang.  In Taiji practice, and applying Taiji principles to daily life, we want to be able to move between the poles of Yin and Yang with ease.

In Buddhist philosophy the origin of suffering is identified as ignorance and the three poisons as ignorance, desire (or attachment) and aversion (or hatred).  The famous Tibetan Buddhist painting of the Wheel of Life depicts this inner cosmology graphically, as a sort of map of cause and effects.  In the center are images of the pig, representing ignorance, and the rooster and snake, representing desire and aversion.

“The middle of the wheel depicts the basic problem. In the very center is a pig, symbolizing ignorance that drives the entire process. The pig stands for the root ignorance, which isn’t just an inability to apprehend the truth but an active misapprehension of the status of oneself and all other objects—one’s own mind or body, other people, and so forth. It is the conception or assumption that phenomena exist in a far more concrete way than they actually do. Based on this misapprehension of the status of persons and things, we are drawn into afflictive desire and hatred, symbolized by a rooster and a snake respectively.”  (Jeffrey Hopkins’ Introduction to The Meaning of Life; Buddhist Perspectives on Cause and Effect by Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama)

This desire and aversion create an environment where it becomes challenging to move between the extremes of Yin and Yang with ease.  Instead we move toward one, hoping for more, and simultaneously recoil from another.  By attempting to distance or separate ourselves from this less desirable part of our experience, we inadvertently empower the shadow, giving it stronger influence over ourselves and our lives than it would otherwise have. Both clinging / desire and aversion pull us out of the present moment, and instead we find ourselves dwelling in the ignorance and illusions created by our mind propelling us into past and future potential scenarios that do not exist.

So how can we truly relax when we are pulled and pushed by our own cravings and fears?

In tai ji we speak of the lower Dān Tián 丹田 as the main energy center, located in the lower abdomen, with its center about three fingers’ width below the belly button.  Often in Tai Ji we talk about relaxing and sinking our Qì 氣 into our lower Dan Tian.  Sometimes we talk of another Dan Tian in the center of the chest or sternum (coinciding with acupuncture point Ren 17, Shān Zhōng, “Chest Center”, the Influential Point of Qi).  Sifu sometimes talked of how we must relax our middle Dān Tián to sink the Qi from our chests / hearts down into our lower Dan Tian.

One time, in private conversation in Golden Gate Park, Sifu Gene Chen spoke to me of a third Dan Tian, and he pointed to acupuncture point Yìn Táng 印堂 between the eyebrows.  It is first necessary to relax our minds to allow the qi to sink into our middle then lower Dan Tians, Sifu instructed.  In this way our own Qi nourishes our bodies instead of becoming stuck mentally or in our Upper Jiao / Chest / Heart Center.

How do we relax the mind?

To shift the experiential paradigm from one of frequent “fight or flight” state to a calmer, more grounded, less reactive one, it is more important to have a regular practice, ideally daily, for a short amount of time than to have a long irregular or infrequent practice.  Practicing moving and sitting meditation are both excellent disciplines to cultivate a more relaxed state of being.  Even just 20 minutes a day of simple abdominal breathing can help re-pattern our Qi and subsequently has the potential to improve our health and well-being.  Observing our impulses towards desire and aversion may help us to loosen the grip we have on our own projected sense of the world, relaxing instead into the present moment and moving with greater ease between extremes.

Small steps: each breath returning to the place of gratitude inside of ourselves.  Breathing in re-awakening to the sensations of the present moment, breathing out letting go of all else.


May all beings be happy.
May they live in safety and joy.
All living beings,
Whether weak or strong,
Tall, stout, average, or short,
Seen or unseen, near or distant,
Born or to be born,
May they all be happy.

– From the Metta Sutta, Sutta Nipata I.8

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