Last Updated on February 4, 2021 by Paul Farrell, MRP, JD, PhD
“For some, the flowing, slowly unfolding form of tai chi is more suitable for meditation than sitting in one place. Still others consider a moving meditation highly satisfying philosophically because they believe everything in the universe is constantly in motion and they can harmonize best with the universe through meditation that also moves … whatever a student’s reason for meditation, whether stemming from a desire for relief from the mental tension to a longing for some form of spiritual enlightenment, engaging in tai chi can have a number of mind quieting and mind expanding results.”
– Herman Kaus, Tai Chi Handbook: Exercise, Meditation & Self Defense
The martial arts such as Karate, Judo and Tai Kwan Do, rely on the more aggressive Yang energy that we also see reflected in the Bushido code of Japanese Samurai warriors. In contrast, Tai Chi meditation emerges from the wisdom of ancient China and its 2,500-year-old Taoist tradition and taps into the gentler Yin, receptive energy. TaoSports is a modern merger of this ancient tradition with today’s world of competitive athletics and physical fitness. Years ago I had an opportunity to study briefly under one of the best.
Chungliang Al Huang, one of the world’s great Chinese Tai Chi masters teamed up with American sports psychologist Jerry Lynch to describe this modern adaptation in two books: Thinking Body, Dancing Mind: TaoSports for Extraordinary Performance in Athletics, Business, and Life, and Working Out, Working Within: The Tao of Inner Fitness Through Sports & Exercise. At their core, however, both traditions – Zen and Taoism – have the same goals, discovery of your true self and harmonizing your energy with the forces nature.
Learning the Tao of Sports and Fitness from a Tai Chi Master
It was my good fortune to be at the Esalen Institute in the Big Sur when Al Huang stopped in for a weekend. Huang is the founder of the Lan Ling Institute in China and the Living Tao Foundation in America. What luck, to have the essence of Tai Chi and the Tao passed on from such a master. Later when I did read his works, everything made sense, all the pieces fell into place naturally.
That was the late eighties. I was exhausted from several years in a high-pressured consulting practice in Los Angeles and decided to take a three-month sabbatical as an Esalen work scholar, where I could heal and recoup my strength relaxing in their soothing hot springs tubs, hike inland through the mountains and work on their farm. I had been there many times for weekend seminars but this was a new opportunity for an extended stay.
The Greatest of all Tai Chi Meditation Temples
If you love the outdoors, the Esalen farm has got to be one of nature’s most perfect meditation halls, better than being in any of the world’s great temples and cathedrals. Monks know. It sure felt that way every day for me.
Situated on a bluff high above the water’s edge, you work the land with one eye looking out over the majestic Pacific Ocean out to the horizon, and behind you the redwood forests of the Coastal Sierra range climb high into the sky. The fresh smells of sea and earth touch the soul like incense.
The labors of the day were simple farm chores, doing whatever needed to be done to get food to the kitchen for three daily meals – picking corn, planting carrots, mixing fertilizer, driving their mini-tractor, setting up the irrigation system, or hauling garbage from the mess hall to the compost yard – and whatever they were was an endless meditation.
In the Esalen world your work and your whole life naturally becomes meditation, all day, every day. If Thoreau had ever visited Esalen he would have called it Walden Pond West, for in both places “heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
You are Always One with the Tao – Trust Yourself
The dining lodge is short walk south of the farm, with a similar expansive view high above the ocean. At the edge of the bluff, some six hundred feet above the ocean, there is a large observation deck. It was there that Al Huang gave us the greatest lesson of Tai Chi meditation: Your body already knows how to move all by itself, it is in your nature, you are at one with the Tao, trust your Chi and move with it.
We had been expecting the master to demonstrate the basic moves of the traditional Tai Chi forms that have guided its practitioners for thousands of years – grasp the bird’s tail, sweep the table, single whip, wave hands like clouds, listen to seashell, repulse the monkey, figure eight, fair lady weaves shuttles – but that was not master Al Huang’s message. He was in the ancient tradition of passing wisdom through example and experience, and going to the essence of the Tao.
The Soul of Tai Chi Meditation – Flowing in the Golden Light
He wanted to center us immediately within the heart and soul of Tai Chi. What is it? Tai Chi is not found in rituals, not in some externally prescribed set of body movements, with masses of people all moving in unison like line dancers at a Western hoe-down. The roots of Tai Chi meditation come from within. I can still see Al on the deck in the late fall sunlight, inviting each of us to tap into that inner life force and let the force move our bodies in tune with our world. That was pure meditation!
The body’s life force, vital energy, the Chi (Chi in China, Ki in Japan) is already within you. It flows naturally. Tap into it. Release it. And when inner Chi moves in harmony with the Tao – the energy everywhere in nature and in the universe – then you are one with everything!
Understanding the Tao, Chi and Tai Chi are actually very simple. Nothing metaphysical, or mysterious, or esoteric, or new age. Simple to grasp. Words and books are unnecessary, just a knowing smile. You just flow with it.
Of course if you’re serious about a regular practice, a good teacher like Al Huang can make it fun teaching you such details as “grasping the bird’s tail and repulsing the monkey.” But most of all a good teacher can help you take the TaoSports approach into your entire fitness and athletics program and on into the business world and your everyday life.
And being with others who are also practicing Tai Chi meditation lets you share your Chi energy in a synergistic social environment, while enjoying a meditation the Taoists call “Circulation of the Golden Light.”
Discovering the New “Tao of Inner Fitness”
In Working Out, Working Within, Huang and Lynch distinguish the prevailing attitude of modern sports from TaoSports in an effort to enhance our performance not just in athletics, but in our business and personal lives:
“Traditionally, athletics and fitness are battlegrounds for war against an opponent, a clock, scoring goals and other external concerns. The Tao of Inner Fitness, on the other hand, views sports as an arena for the battles within, where your obedience to athletics and fitness cannot be separated from the search for life’s verities.”
And although this is a Chinese Tai Chi master and an American sports psychologist speaking, their message is remarkably similar to what we hear from stress management clinicians and neuroscientists testing monks:
“Physical life gives our spiritual path a boost as we stare in the face our inner concerns of fear, fatigue, failure, patience, perseverance, courage, confidence, ego, self-doubt and a host of others that affect our growth as athletes and people. What we notice is the way that sport and exercise can transport us to a new level of awareness beyond the game itself, to a place where all our external successes and accomplishments are the mere reflections of the victories within against these demons. We not only have the opportunity to become better athletes, we can become better people as well.”
The Principles of the Tao are Living in Every Sport!
It is difficult to convey in a few paragraphs the essence of Tai Chi and TaoSports, as well as the Tao itself which has been so eloquently described in the 2,500 year old Taoist classic, the Tao Te Ching. And yet, this context is essential in order to truly understand Tai Chi. Here is a summary of the eight qualities of The Tao from Working Out, Working Within:
- Spontaneity: Tze Jan – Being your authentic, spontaneous self.
- Noninterference: Wu Wei – Live your life cooperating and flowing in harmony with nature and its seasons rather than fighting against it.
- Stillness in Motion/Movement in Stillness: Tai ji – Balanced and centered within, you expand your inner power by exercising externally.
- Polarity Balancing: Yin Yang – Tao sees and balances opposites in one concept, integrating the Yang-assertiveness with Yin-receptivity.
- Change and Transformation: I Pien – Accept and move in harmony with the cycles and seasons of nature, the rhythms of your own being.
- The Vital Force of Life: Yung Qi – Everything, everyone around you has Chi, meditate on it, tap into it, get into action and expand your power.
- Personal Power: Te – envelope your inner strength through actions, facing life’s challenges, positively, doing the right thing.
- Windflow Grace: Feng Liu – The Tao flows gracefully and naturally like the wind and the water. Flow with it, enjoy being one with it.
This exploration into Tai Chi meditation turned out to be a nostalgic journey back into my days as an Esalen work scholar where I entered the world of my Tai Chi master, Chungliang Al Huang, who showed us his way of life for a few brief moments in time on a warm sunny weekend at Esalen in the late fall overlooking the blue Pacific.
The Master Passes on His Power in Many Ways… Including Dreams!
He was just Al to us, a real nice guy. Only later did I realize how great teacher we had walking with us, someone who in simple words and movements, communicated 2,500 years of the Tao, wrapping it in Tai Chi meditation and his new world of Tao-Sports.
The night Al Huang left Esalen I had a vivid dream unlike none other in my life. We were together in China, in his world, long ago before the great revolution. We were trying to escape. I had lost my Marine Corps I.D. cards. Al was going to cut off his hands and give them to me, to help me escape. Deep mythic symbolism, said a therapist later.
This Tai Chi master wanted me to take his hands, his energy, his Chi, to help me go beyond my ‘China,’ go where there are no masters, to create my own identity, become my own teacher, and pass on this gift. That is the message of all great masters. Be the real you, go on a journey of self-discovery.
Al was passing on his power as he had done for so many others. And I got it. I was in a midlife crisis, in a transition near the end of a long journey through the rigid logical authoritarian world of the Wall Street and Corporate America, once again in uncharted territory, set free.
About the Author
Dr. Farrell is a Behavioral Economist. His books include The Millionaire Code; The Millionaire Meditation: Stress Management for Wall Street, Corporate America & Entrepreneurs; The Zen Millionaire; The Winning Portfolio; Expert Investing on The Net; Mutual Funds on The Net; and The Lazy Person’s Guide to Investing.
He also published 1,643 columns on DowJones-MarketWatch and for years was their #1 traffic-generating columnist. Before the Internet, he edited & published FNX: Future News Index, a financial newsletter for stock market traders. Earlier he was a Wall Street investment banker with Morgan Stanley, Executive Vice President of the Financial News Network; and Associate Editor of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.
He has a Doctorate in Psychology, Juris Doctor, Masters in Regional Planning and Bachelor of Architecture. He worked on the Esalen organic farm and served in the U.S. Marine Corps as Staff Sergeant in aviation computer technology.