By Seth Jones
Looking into the creek
The way the soul is with the senses and the intellect is like a creek. When desire weeds grow thick, intelligence can't flow, and soul creatures stay hidden. But sometimes the reasonable clarity runs so strong it sweeps the clogged stream open. No longer weeping and frustrated, your being grows as powerful as your wanting were before, more so. Laughing and satisfied, the masterful flow lets creations of the soul appear. You look down and its lucid dreaming. The gates made of light swing open. You see in. (The Soul of Rumi, translations by Coleman Barks)
The above poem by the great Sufi poet Rumi refers to our desires that attach us to this world as weeds clogging a stream. Then, a rush of "reasonable clarity" comes through and "sweeps the clogged stream open", allowing us to see inside and perceive our experience more clearly. T'ai-Chi Chuan sets out a path that allows for the personal discovery of this self-awareness through body movement and provides a vehicle of grace and compassion for understanding our experience more deeply.
These desire weeds that Rumi speaks of are those habits of thought and sentiment that keep us trying to see the experiences we wish for, rather than the experience we are having as it is. We develop an opinion or feeling about a person, an idea or experience and then root it into the stream of our mind. We go out into our lives and begin to seek that which confirms our opinions and feelings. We may do this by reading books, finding teachers or aligning ourselves with authority figures who will ultimately acknowledge those beliefs, feelings and opinions. Essentially, we seek data and information that substantiates our opinions and feelings and ignore that which contradicts or perhaps even indicates those opinions and feelings have no connection with our lived experience. We seek to confirm our biases. Much of this we cannot control, but the value of T'ai-Chi Chuan is that we can begin to see how we do this through the way we move.
T'ai-Chi Chuan teaches this discrimination through the movement of the body. In order for this to be effective, we must accept the possibility that what we think, believe and feel will also express itself in our bodily experience. Our thoughts, beliefs and feelings can often manifest themselves as tensions, pain or a free-floating anxiety, anger or fear. Tensions in our body often correlate with tensions in our thinking. By moving in a way that allows those tensions to release, or barring that, by becoming aware of where they are in our movement, we become aware of those tensions in our thinking. We are, ultimately, working with the filter of our perceptions as mediated by our senses, and we are using the movements of T'ai-Chi Chuan as the tuning fork by which we can discriminate those perceptions. In other words, we want to discern those feelings and opinions that are rooted in both our perceived experience internally and our perceptions of the world around us. Those that are not aligned thusly become the desire weeds that clog our stream of perception.
A martial art provides the perfect forum for this exploration since we are learning how to neutralize conflict, increase relationship and feel confident in our relationship with the ourselves and the world. This is what a martial art ideally does. T'ai-Chi Chuan is an internal martial art, so we seek to enter conflicts within our internal world first. Once we have dealt with any internal conflicts, we will ideally not create them outside in our daily world in order to resolve them. In other words, through our movement of the T'ai-Chi form, we are trying to listen for where our desire weeds grow thick, as tension in our movement, where we are in conflict with that flow of reasonable clarity. If or, more likely, when those desire weeds do rise up in our daily lives, we have the training to neutralize the escalation and seek relationship between the opposing sides, rather than creating violence and more conflict. Of course, conflict is not to be avoided either internally or externally, but to have a way of approaching conflict with grace and compassion is an art form of the highest order. T'ai-Chi Chuan offers an exceptionally graceful approach to conflict and life.
These desire weeds in Rumiís poem can grow very thick, until the stream we are in seems to be a world of weeds. Everything we perceive becomes a justification for our opinions and feelings about our experience. Any addictions or reinforcing behavior patterns will look deeper into these weeds for solace, creating an eddy in an endless, slow-moving stream.
Many attempts in our culture to see through these weeds may allow us to see over the weeds into another eddy. One example of an eddy that gets created in our culture is victim worship - this event happened to me and I will always be this way as a result of this event. Another example would be the constant, unrelenting internalization of the psychological process we have adopted to deal with the desire weeds. The danger in approaches that seek to internalize our healing process is that the world becomes the playground of our own processes played out for the healing we need. In other words, we merely mature our infantile view that the world revolves around us. We mistake these eddies of desire weeds for reasonable clarity, for freedom, and dive in, only to begin the cycle of clogging our stream over again. These approaches, and many others, will not lead us out of the eddies that occupy our lives. Instead, we will simply adopt another reinforcing belief system, a different eddy in a stagnant pond of weeds.
It is in situations such as this that we must seek to cultivate the "reasonable clarity" Rumi speaks of. What does Rumi mean by reasonable clarity? This means, primarily, to apply a skeptical mind to these desire weeds. We often confuse skepticism with cynicism or a kind of errant nihilism, but this is not the case. A skeptical mind is a mind that has not abandoned the refined development of reason that the human mind is capable. It means not accepting anything at face value and knowing that how we perceive the world and our experience is not a reliable guide to what is actually happening. Our vision is often clouded by the presence of the eddies and weeds that clog our stream. Reasonable clarity, as suggested in the poem, is something that is within us but also just beyond our awareness, or "soul". Rumi refers to its expression as "reasonable clarity." Soul demands cultivation and expression, and in this poem Rumi is suggesting that part of that expression of the soul is reflected in reasonable clarity.
"Reasonable clarity" means asking questions and questioning authoritative statements with regard to experience. Being skeptical does not negate either religious, spiritual pursuits or the value of personal experience, but it does increase to a great degree the levels at which we will accept claims made personally or accepted from external authorities. This requires work and "constant vigilance", the price of liberty, on the path to self-awareness and freedom. Part of that work is discerning what is an expression of "reasonable clarity" and what is a drive manifesting from my desire weeds.
What, you may ask, does this have to do with T'ai-Chi Chuan? By focusing on the movement of our body, we train the mind on the fine art of discernment. By noticing and working with the tensions in our body, we can begin to notice the tensions in our thinking. We increase our awareness of those states that trigger deeply ingrained reactions and adapt the mind to the bodily experience of those states so that the triggers no longer overwhelm us. In other words, we seek to notice where our movement is like a clogged stream and, once noticed, how we can make room for that flow of "reasonable clarity." Once we have made room for the reasonable clarity, "the masterful flow lets creations of the soul appear."
Difficulties in intimate relationships, addiction problems, body issues and work difficulties all are subject to this refinement of self-awareness and discernment, this "reasonable clarity". The cultivation of this rushing stream, which is generated through our increasing sensitivity and allowed to flow by exposing ourselves to a daily practice of T'ai-Chi Chuan. It is like a lens that opens our vision and also focuses our intentions.
"Reasonable clarity" is not a solution to all problems nor will it necessarily heal anything. It may or may not, but by seeing more deeply into our perceptions by having questioned the basic assumptions of our desire weeds, we can develop a better grasp of what is "really" happening in our external relationships and our internal experience. "The gates made of light swing open. You see in", as Rumi says. We can see through to what is really happening within and around us.
T'ai-Chi Chuan provides a pathway to deeper understanding of our relationship with our body and mind and therefore with the world around us. By exploring the movements of the T'ai-Chi Chuan form, we define the boundaries and the freedoms available to us in our experience as self-aware humans on a very complex planet. "Your being grows as powerful as your wantings were before, more so." Once we have awakened our experience, we become more open to what is needed by those around us, the planet we live on and the creatures with which we live. By practicing T'ai-Chi Chuan, we have the possibility of a grounded, examined life that does not fall prey to the weeds of desire that surround us and clog our stream. The reasonable clarity that is available with a little training goes a long way toward reclaiming our freedoms as individuals and sharing those freedoms with those around us, even in the presence of those weeds of desire.