In today’s highly stressed out world we live increasingly in our heads. We over think and analyse everything to the nth degree forgetting how we actually feel. Work/rest balance is not high on our priorities.
We focus on achieving our goals with such effort that we often push beyond our maximum capacity, ignoring the messages from our body asking us to let up a little.
The Western dis-ease one could say, is to not just put 100% into a task but 150% effort no matter the cost to one’s health or well being. We get hooked into this adrenaline fueled stress cycle that spirals precariously close to ill health and exhaustion.
I’ve lost track of the number of people who tell me that their sleep is frequently interrupted because their mind is constantly on the go. No surprise really if day in day out we allow our mind to work overtime with no let up. It is no wonder why after a while we just feel exhausted and drained and in need of a good holiday.
After sometime we feel almost desperate to get away from ‘the job’ and get some proper ‘me time’ to recharge the batteries, relax the body and have fun. Ironically once we get to the long awaited holiday it takes a week or two to get to a point where we can settle and actually appreciate the moment, as we so often arrive completely wound up and stressed out. By the end of the break we’re just beginning to relax and enjoy, but by then it’s time to go home and get back on the treadmill.
I remember a few holidays where I have been so relaxed and happy that I would have done anything to remain there!
Generally this is the pattern. There is a strain and struggle behind work which eventually leaves us feeling exhausted and drained. Then we make special time for rest and relaxation. We separate work time from relaxation/fun time. We go from one extreme to another. Neither really satisfying our deep inner longing for peace and balance.
What if there was a way of living between these two extremes?
What if we didn’t have to separate how we work from how we relax and have fun?
What if we just experienced life in continuous relaxed ease and flow no matter what we do?
Is this really possible?
Many of you may have seen the Yin/Yang symbol. It is such a simple design that sums up beautifully the art of effortless living. In Taoism this is called Wu Wei.
The Yin/Yang symbol is the melting together of two opposing yet interdependent energies creating the flow of movement withing the circle. The idea behind this symbol is to show that within the unity of the circle there is a duality and polarity, contrast.
If we are to find real balance without losing the centering feeling of the circle then these opposing forces or energies must move together in harmony.
It is a joining together in continuous flow, arriving at point of togetherness. Balance. Oneness.
This is a very empowering way of being.
Work shouldn’t be such a struggle and there needn’t be such a strain behind the need to relax when we’re on holiday.
Work, play and relaxation don’t need to be separated. We can combine them.
So how can we combine these together in everyday life and feel energised and happy in every moment?
How can we bring the body & mind together to exist in harmony with one another and end once and for all living in that perpetual stress cycle?
Like any good relationship one of the most valuable skills is the ability to listen. When we stop talking and start listening deeply we become much more receptive to the other. In the same way when we start to listen to what is actually going on inside the body, real communication is then possible.
When we start to listen to the body an honest conversation can begin. We can now relate and communicate with ourselves and from this position, balance can be restored. Body & Mind unite.
The wonderful discovery you’ll have at some point is that it is a two way conversation. For many people it is the mind which dominants. It is the mind at the expense of how we feel, that likes to think it is in control. Even though this is just an illusion! At some point in the future, this inevitably leads to exhaustion and fatigue. In the West we are lead to believe that putting 100% into a task is just not enough. We grow up thinking that we must put 150% effort into our work and that failure is bad. This sets up a mentality that is doomed from the beginning.
For many people this means straining beyond their capacity leading to burnout, fatigue and depression.
When we make the shift and start to listen inwardly, the body will start to educate you!
We have an innate intelligence, energy, a primal movement that exists beneath our mind/ego filled lives that is squashed into insignificance by our busy stress filled minds.
Because we live in our heads our existence is dominated by our thoughts, with little or no connection to the body experience.
We often become so numb to any felt-experience of the body that it’s only when the pressure gets so high that pain is the signal that finally gets our attention.
Tai Chi allows us to connect with the body. Through the discipline of the movements of Tai Chi we can begin to relate with the body, to experience the body, to experience our own life force.
When we start to learn Tai Chi we might be quite clumsy and often lose our balance. This is OK and perfectly normal.
However it does reflect an imbalance and wobbling about means we have lost our center.
As I mentioned at the beginning a lot of people live from one extreme to another, working flat out and then going on holiday to recover. This separation of extremes fueled by the putting 150% into everything attitude is not sustainable. This pull from one extreme to another leads to imbalance in our lives. We never feel Centered.
Imagine stretching an elastic band until it is taut and instead of releasing it, carry on stretching it. Eventually it will snap. The body and mind are no different!
In Tai Chi this approach to life is reflected in our movement. We struggle from one position to another, constantly losing balance. We strain beyond our physical capacity and topple over. Immediately the ‘inner critic’ pops up & we start to worry about getting it right or wrong, we react and increasingly get caught up with the head stuff. The body tightens up making everything worse.
The answer to this age old problem is …..?
To find & understand your center.
If we are to move continuously in all directions, up/down, forwards/backwards, turning left/right in a continuous AND in relaxed flow then we must understand our center.
When we understand center then we can move in all directions without going to to an extreme, losing balance either mentally or physically. We move in harmony. Not too much nor too little. Just what is appropriate for the task in hand.
I want to repeat that last sentence…..
“Just what is appropriate for the task in hand.”
The movements and postures in Tai Chi can vary enormously from the quite simple to the very challenging. In each moment we assess what is the right amount of effort to use. Not to much not too little. We have a very useful principle called the 70% rule which encourages us to only go to our 70% rather than our maximum and that allows you to develop and grow without over straining. This is much more sustainable.
So coming back…
If we know where our center or balance point is, then we can feel when over strain takes over and we become decentered.
Remember that if we have been in this stressed out, straining, putting 150% in, going beyond our max state of mind for a while, then that will be our default way of being. This is a state of excess. Our head is full.
In order to change this, and to find our center…
We have to first of all become empty. How can we understand balance and centeredness when we are in a very full state, straining and being pulled off balance?
I remember one of my Tai Chi teachers observing that in the West we are bombarded by so much information, with such intensity & as a result of living under that constant stimulation we get stuck in our heads. We live in our heads. We become top heavy. Our heads are full and body empty.
Through our Tai Chi training we can learn to discover our centre and then explore how to move continously, changing from one position to another, remaining perfectly balanced relaxed and in flow. The mind remaining undisturbed like a tranquil lake.
In order to experience what centeredness is then we need to empty the head (mind) and fill the body with our awareness conscious. More specifically we need to fill our literal center of gravity – the lower belly or lower dan tian Our energetic center.
There are many tai chi practices to experiment with this idea. As with all Taoist exercises we want to encourage a felt experience not just relying on visualising it. However at the beginning you might use your imagination as you might not have a great sense of your body.
Here’s a really simple exercise that will help you to find that feeling of emptying.
- Stand comfortably with your feet hip width apart & body upright.
- Start to observe your breath. Notice when you breathe in and when you breathe out.
- After a while begin to notice the body. Become aware of how your body feels with each breath.
- Notice any difference in sensation between each in and out breath.
- As you breathe out start to let go of any tension or strain that you become aware of in your body or your mind. Allow it to just melt away. Allow your body to soften and release.
After a few minutes of this exercise you will feel more relaxed and your mind will begin to settle. We start the process of emptying the head and filling the belly/energy center/dan tian with your awareness. With practice this will encourage a sense of being more relaxed, centered and grounded. This needs to be practised regularly and explored in order for it to have an impact on your daily life.
As with most things we practise over time this awareness & new way of being, gradually filters deeper into our being and replaces the old default patterns of struggle and strain. We don’t just intellectually understand the process but more importantly we embody it.
It is fun to notice the tell tale signs that your practice is paying off!
You’ll start to notice when you’re falling back into the struggle and strain mode and becoming unbalanced….
You’ll think ah haaa! I’ve seen it!
And you’ll let go, relax and return to center.
You’ll see yourself going beyond your capacity and becoming so tense, reactive and unhappy.
You’ll think ah haaa! I’ve seen it!
And you’ll let go, relax and return to center.
And so it continues. Each time you notice yourself returning to your old habit of straining you will pause and adjust. Giving what ever is appropriate for the task in hand.
This way of living is joyful. It is sustainable and will allow your body and mind to flow effortlessly.
If this has helped you then I would be so grateful if you could share this with someone who you think might benefit.
And if you would like to know more or share your ideas then please do get in touch. Post a comment in the box below. It is always great to hear the experiences of others.
To living in effortless flow!