When I first tried standing meditations and training postures in class, I thought they were simply tests of endurance, like some martial arts badge of honor like in the movies: get to the famed 20 minutes, 100 hours, etc. The longer, the better. However, over the years and most recently what we were taught during a recent workshop intensive taught by my teacher, Tony Wong, I am seeing the place of the Wuji, Zhan Zhuang and Santi postures hold in the entirety of taiji practice.
When I think of my teacher's concept of finding your own "natural equilibrium," I think of this quote from Lao Tzu: "Do you have the patience to wait until the mud settles?" When mud settles, water becomes clear. Now, I know my waters are not clear. What stands between me and masterful execution of the form are obstructions in my body - where I'm tense or where qi gets stuck or jammed. All the moments in my form where I know someone can take me out and knock me off center. But with each tense muscle I can relax or point of blocked qi I can clear, I am getting closer and closer to my own natural equilibrium.
If brute strength was the sole purpose, the instruction would sound a lot different and full of aggression and force. But of course, that's not it. What do we hear instead? Breathe. Let go. Settle down. Relax. Not the words of a drill sergeant, and yet at the same time, these exercises do help us in combat. "This is what you practice if you want to be good in push hands," Tony said. The Zhan Zhuang and Santi take it even further with more active and martial arm and leg positioning: embrace or ward off, intention and storage.
I loved getting the chance to take my time with the eight energies and stepping drills too. To me, they are a matter of trust, muscle and timing. I don't trust my left kua to hold me up! So I rush (and wobble) to the next step because it doesn't have the capacity to actually perform the move. But in doing so, I miss out on the chance to truly train the kua. In "taiji speak," this means I am not allowing for complete fullness or emptiness. Oops. The fact of the matter is that my kua needs further strength training to be strong enough to support my bodyweight with ease - so then my mind won't get scared and compensate by shifting weight to the other kua prematurely before I've given myself a chance to experience what fullness/emptiness even feels like. Such is the game. If taiji were easy, it would be no fun. ;)
The training helped me better understand centered postures that are ready for oncoming threats - but only when the mud settles and we have made a felt connection to that natural equilibrium and to particular intention and purpose. No matter how brief or momentary that connection may be, we've at least dipped our toe in to know what it feels like, and over time, and move toward total body and mind integration in stillness and movement.
It never ceases to amaze me how centuries upon centuries of Chinese thought and practice have resulted in an art that is so elegant and embodied - a bodily state in which all our resources are available and no longer disconnected. What were they doing back then to achieve this?! I wonder (and worry) about future generations when our "patience to wait for the mud to settle" is being eroded away in the modern world of instant gratification... But I also know that young folks are getting "pickier" - in a good way - and learning to appreciate mastery and detailed work. And that gives me fuel to keep practicing so that these lessons will be around long enough for the next generation!