Sensory Awareness and Taiji

Sensory Awareness is a field of health science that emphasizes that awareness of our sensory perceptions can contribute positively to our physical and mental health, as well as a positive outlook on life and a more caring attitude toward others and the society as a whole.  Sensory Awareness sharpens our senses to provide a more heightened connection of our senses to ourselves and everything else around us.  Sensory Awareness can also facilitate our body’s inherent healing ability.

Sensory Awareness is also known as mindfulness or part of the human potential movement.  The emergence of Sensory Awareness in the U.S. is usually credited to Charlotte Selver (1901-2003), originally a German music teacher who studied with Elsa Gindler of Berlin, and then emigrated to New York in 1938.  Beginning in the late 1950s to early 1960s, she started to teach what later became known as Sensory Awareness at the New School for Social Research in New York and the Esalen Institute in California.  She and  other leading intellectuals of that period (e.g., Erich Fromm, Alan Watts, Fritz and Laura Perls, Shunryu Suzuki, and many others) helped to establish and grow the human potential movement that is now often part of the portfolio of physical therapy and psychotherapy treatment options.

At the suggestion of a relative that Sensory Awareness could be beneficial to my Taiji practice, I participated at the “Sensory Awareness:  Meditation in Action” Workshop at the Garrison Institute in NY October 7-9, 2016. [1]  In this article I would like to share my thoughts on some of the relationships between Taiji and Sensory Awareness.

In the October workshop, one of the instructors told us that we should be constantly asking ourselves questions such as “how do I feel?” and “how do I feel with respect to the environment?”  Asking and answering these questions would heighten our senses and keep us more in touch with our perceptions, and lead us to take proper actions.

Let me elaborate with the following example.  When I get up in the morning, as soon as I get out of bed, I should ask “how do I feel?  If my answer is that I feel a chill in the air, then I would put on a sweater or sweatshirt and put on socks to keep me warm and from catching a cold.  Later when I go outside to pick up the newspaper on the driveway, I should ask “how do I feel with respect to the environment?”  If my answer is that the outside temperature is cold and there may be frost on the driveway, then I would walk slowly and carefully and pay special attention to the spots I am stepping on, to avoid slipping on an icy spot on the driveway.  Shortly after I come back into the house, I begin to hear a small hissing sound from the water kettle I am boiling water to make coffee.  So I turn off the stove (or the electric water kettle) to avoid possible water boiling over from the kettle and damaging the nearby counter top or floor.  By raising my awareness of my senses, I am more in tune with my environment, and I will take appropriate actions to keep me healthy and my house save from accidents.  The above examples may be trivial and my reactions may be automatic.  That is true, but it may be due to the fact that I have already previously encountered these examples many times.  So I don’t even have to ask myself these questions and then answer these questions.  But that is the point.  Even when I am facing new situations that I have not encountered before, my sensing and response should be second nature and automatic.  In other words, my sensory awareness should always be on, and it should already become part of me.

Now let me apply the above lessons to practicing Taiji.  When I am doing a Taiji form set, very often I have to move one foot forward (to be specific, let’s say the left foot).  If I step forward with the left foot and put it along the line right in front of my right foot, I should ask myself how do I feel?  My answer is I will be in an unstable position, because as soon as my center of gravity is outside of that line between my two feet, I will fall.  I should also ask myself how do I feel with respect to the environment?  In this case, the environment is my opponent from a martial arts perspective.  I know that my opponent will recognize that I am in an unstable position, and he will attack my instability.  Therefore, when I step forward, I should place my left foot forward  but about one shoulder-width to the left of my right foot.  Then I will be in a stable position, and I will not be vulnerable to an attack on my unstable position by my opponent.  This is the reason why one of the fundamental principles of Taiji is almost never place your two feet with one foot right in front of the other foot.

Let’s consider another Taiji example.  Suppose I am engaged in a “push hands” competition with my opponent.  If my hands and body (especially the hand that is in touch with my opponent’s hand) are tense, I ask myself how do I feel?  My answer is that I cannot easily sense my opponent’s intention or his next movement.  If I ask how does my opponent feel , my answer is that my opponent can easily detect my intention or my next movement.  If I don’t know my opponent and my opponent knows me, then I have already lost half the battle.   Therefore, I should relax my hands and body (especially the hand that is in touch with my opponent’s hand), then I can more easily detect my opponent’s intention or next movement, and my opponent cannot easily detect my intention or next movement.  This leads to the most fundamental principle of Taiji that the body and mind must be relax.  It is this relaxation that makes Taiji a good health exercise from the health perspective and a good martial art from the martial arts perspective.  For an experienced Taiji practitioner, proper placement and relaxation of various parts of the body become second nature and automatic, and do not require asking and answering various questions.

There are other relationships between Taiji and Sensory Awareness.  Breathing and awareness of breathing are very important in Sensory Awareness.  In Taiji, paying attention to and integrating breathing to Taiji movements are also very important from both the health perspective and the martial arts perspective.  In Sensory Awareness, meditation is an important method to increase  perception and facilitate the body’s internal healing.  Taiji is also known as “Moving Meditation.”  So meditation, which is an integral part of Qigong, is an exercise that all advanced Taiji practitioners should practice.  Meditation is an important method to increase internal strength and increase circulation of Qi (the internal life force in Qigong) and decrease the blockage of Qi, both are vital to good health according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

With respect to Sensory Awareness, the fundamental principle of asking and answering questions regarding your feelings about yourself and your environment is similar with respect to Taiji to asking and answering questions about proper placement and relaxation of various parts of the body.  In either case, for a beginner, this may require some conscious effort, but for an experienced practitioner, it should become second nature and automatic.

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[1] More information about Sensory Awareness can be found in the Sensory Awareness Foundation Newsletter:  www.sensoryawareness.org.

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