The unawareness of being present – techniques for becoming aware of gaps and increasing presence in Tai Chi, qigong and meditation

The unawareness of being present

In this article we´re going to take a look at the concept of being present, and how it works in qigong and the Internal Martial Arts. We´ll look at the misunderstandings around it, how it is supposed to be part of the basics, and most of all: how you can train it yourself.

We´ve all been there. Let´s say you´re doing Tai Chi. You stand there, you´ve done all the preliminary work before doing the form, and then you start posture 1, Commencement. And it´s soft, it´s nice, it´s beautiful, it´s even connected – and then you wake up at the last Brush Knee of the first part of the form. What on Earth happened in between? You don´t remember any of it, which is quite okay, because most Tai Chi practitioners do forms like this for years, sometimes decades. You just had a huge gap, a space of time when you were not in, when you weren´t Accepting Callers, a space of time when you were out playing with the fairies, off training space cadets.

One way to solve this, is through the basic training of Tai Chi and qigong, which focuses on how to let the training make you more aware, awake and alive...instead of just another body doing Robocop Tai Chi.

In this article we will take look at being present. We will look at the techniques that are part of basic training, how you layer them, how you can use them in everyday life, and how they vary in usage between the health-practices, Internal Martial Arts, and meditation.

To paraphrase TV´s Doctor House: ”Everybody gaps.”

So many paths to seeing reality

Human beings are not particularly awake in their life. All spiritual traditions focus on releasing our awareness and making it more alive. This can be in the small, simple steps of a person just being alive in the life that they have, or it can be all the way, for those few who want to do in-depth spiritual training where you take the concept of being present to its limits – essentially becoming a research scientist into awareness and consciousness and how they manifest in you and the universe.

Different traditions place varying levels of importance on both awareness and enlightenment. Some are subtle enough to understand the many different depths of relaxed awareness, while others increase awareness while still being fairly tense. Both the techniques and the mindsets vary.

Here we´ll mostly focus on awareness in qigong, Tai Chi, and the Internal Martial Arts (IMA), with only a brief glimpse on how it´s used in spiritual training.

 There is an old buddhist saying that if you can be fully present during the time it takes an ant to walk from the bridge of your nose to the tip, you´re enlightened.

 Everybody gaps. The only question is if you reading this text want to become more present, awake and alive. It´s your life.

Gaps - MTV – technostress – quick, quick

To talk about being present, it might be good if we first talk about what happens when you´re not. When you gap.

Gaps can cover a decade of people´s lives – or two minutes, five seconds, a micro-second. Gaps can move through many different layers of energy in you, as well as in your ability to link to your physical body itself. Gaps can be partial, they can be filled with internal fog, or they can be so complete that you even don´t remember you went away. Trauma and traumatic events can lock you in the past to the extent that you live in a constant gap years or even decades later.

All these are various versions of the one simple thing: how much relaxed awareness you have here, and now.

The amount of gaps you have also depend on what culture you live in and what job you have. Our current industrial first world is probably the most gapped out culture in human history, mainly due to TV and the Internet. The speed of movies, television and ads have increased exponentially over the 19th and 20th centuries, even what used to be fast as late as in the 1980´s – ”MTV concentration” – is now almost painfully slow. Current kids and teenagers easily follow images that move several times a second. But many of them also have a difficult time in retaining in-depth, long time focus on things, and often need the buzz of new and rapid change to feel good. Human minds specialize. Our nervous system is plastic, but once adapted it likes to stay that way.

Many of the arts that we are interested in – qigong, Tai Chi, IMA and meditation – grew in cultures that were very yin and very slow in comparison to the industrial first world. We can use their training to safewire us now, but it´s also useful to remember we have very different minds than what they had. This creates a whole different situation for us when it comes to gaps. Your training should always be adapted for three things: your system, the time you live in and the culture you live in. And your teacher should always have the skill to adapt this for you.

The building-blocks of nourishing presence

Different arts and different purposes will guide your view on awareness.

The first question should always be what purpose you have with your training. This is at the core of making it useful for you. It will determine everything about how you practice as well as the effect you get from it.

But a beginner shouldn´t focus on becoming more present. You are still learning the toolbox, and before you know the difference between a hammer and a screwdriver you really shouldn´t be allowed to redo the kitchen, no matter what some husbands might think.

But over the first five years and onwards, you should be learning the building-blocks that will increase your awareness both in your training and in your everyday life. Here´s an overview of four of the basic parts of this: 

  • The first step is simply to be aware that relaxed and increased awareness is something that Tai Chi and qigong should include. If a student is never told about this, they will not really look for it. This first step is a basic repatterning that releases tension in your body and mind while building the foundation for a more relaxed awareness. Awareness is like bodybuilding: you need to slowly increase your ability over the years.

  • Then you go from focusing only on relaxation to also slowly integrating the alignments of body and energy-system into single movements, qigongs and forms. Some of these alignments will increase your awareness if they´re on and decrease it if they´re off. This field is also part of the physical aspect of daoist meditation.

  • The third covers all the techniques for how you link your mind to your body. These can be taught specifically to release tension from your mind and awareness. You also learn to use them as a tool to increase awareness in single movements and the more advanced version, which is forms. Later, this training moves into partner-practices, even further deepening the work.

  • The fourth is the whole spectrum of speed-training in Tai Chi and qigong. There are techniques for this, like dimmers, where you learn to feel for which speed will release your awareness yet still let you stay aware of what you´re doing. The old misunderstanding of ”the slower, the better” in Tai Chi will usually let tension set very deeply in your forms and in your mind. ”The slower, the better” is one facet of training, but it should be used only when the ground is well prepared. Before that, it can even set feedback-loops that might create layers of pressurized tension in the practitioner´s mind, body, and energy.

One of the old daoist sayings is that if you can have relaxed, unbroken awareness following a leaf all the way to the ground as it falls off a tree, you´re enlightened.

The problem of form

The focus on forms today is often not really a help when it comes to nourishing awareness. Many westerners simply move the stress-patterns from their everyday life into their Tai Chi or qigong, and let that edge transfer into ”learning the movements” with the same hunger that we are programmed to long for new cell-phones.

This writer personally only teaches the Grasp Sparrow´s Tail-sequence for a very, very long time. This is done to let the student´s nervous-system release and settle there. Then, over time, more and more information and techniques are added into those movements. Learning more form-movements comes only a good while down the line, following the older teaching-style of classical Tai Chi that focuses on Single Movement Practice.

Good Tai Chi training will slowly nourish your awareness through the training. A beginner might, at the very best, be present for 30 seconds of form before gapping. An intermediate student should easily be able to do five minutes, a long-time practitioner ten or more, and a teacher or master should be able to do prolonged periods with neither effort nor strain.

From posture to posture 

The old saying in Tai Chi that ”from posture to posture, the power remains unbroken” is more helpful to start out with as ”from posture to posture the awareness remains unbroken.” Without that initial relaxed awareness, a practitioner will easily miss how to release tension from their body and mind. Skipping this step means you´re building a skyscraper starting at floor five. And, as everybody knows, one way of seeing how skilled a Tai Chi-teacher is, is to look at their transitions. This is were the hidden layers of tension, emotion or lack of basic training will shine like neon lights. But there is also the reversed: how you can use the transitions to release hidden tension and blocked awareness in your system.

Xingyi and Bagua has the same training. Xingyi creates this unbroken awareness in themselves and around themselves. Xingyi also adds the deeper aspect of nourishing presence through the Five Elements, as Bagua does through the trigrams and in its incredibly advanced version of 360 degree awareness inside and outside alike.

Awareness for health, IMA or meditation?

 It all depends on what you practice. If your main focus is for your own health, you want to slowly become more alive and aware in your training and in your everyday life. You only get the one life. Being more aware of what´s happening in it is a big, big gift.

But if your interest changes from the basic foundation of health-practices, then awareness becomes the edge of a very sharp knife.

In the Internal Martial Arts, awareness will mean whether you get hurt or not. Here, awareness lets you avoid dangerous situations before they arise, or to survive encounters when another person is projecting real threat and using violence against you or someone you´re protecting. In IMA, the training-spectrum for awareness is much bigger and much more advanced than in the health-practices. Part of it is how to create gaps in an opponent, and how to defend and enter in their gaps. This is part of all high quality IMA.

Spiritual training is the home ground for awareness. Here, awareness becomes a scientific field with great precision. If you move into this, you will still be using the techniques and the training from the health-side – and sometimes IMA too – but the focus will be much more in depth at how your system is stuck, where it´s stuck, and how you can release that tension and holding to let your awareness really blossom. Over the years this journey takes you through all levels of energy in you, and moves you toward a relaxed and genuine presence as a human being.

Everybody gaps

Yup. I do, you do, my teachers do (though a whole lot less). Everybody does. The only question is if you want to become more present and relaxed in your own life. That´s it. That´s really all you can do. Once you know awareness very well and in depth, then you might want to extend this to help others do the same, but you have to be very good at it by yourself first.

Through the practice of Tai Chi, qigong, meditation or IMA, you can acquire a toolbox that will help you nourish awareness. As you practice this material over the years and the decades, it will give you a very clear experience of how awareness moves through your physical body, through the many layers of energy in you and through the huge, huge depth of your mind.

Everybody gaps.”
Do you want to gap more, or less?

Daniel Skyle © 2009