Moving as One

Whenever one moves, the entire body must be light and lively, and must above all be connected throughout. 

Taijiquan Jing (attributed to Zhang San Fang, translated by Barbara Davis)

One of the most important elements of taijiquan is that the whole body must “move as one.” Hidden within this simple directive lies a paradox: the more we think about doing just that, the less likely it will happen.

Let me be clear about what I’m saying because it can save you a lot of grief. Good gongfu in anything requires enough familiarity with the actions of the practice (in this case, taijiquan) so that there’s very little thinking required while executing it.

Plenty of thinking goes on when we acquire new skills. That’s the time when we parse things up and develop an understanding of what they are and how to do them correctly. As we examine the pieces individually, we must lose sight of how they all fit together. Our rational minds are incapable of doing both.

If we practice enough, the new patterns then get ‘saved’ to the ‘hard drive’ of our nervous system. The current view is that nerves that are used a lot on the same way are bundled with myelin sheathing, which makes them easier to activate when we need them. (Sometimes this is incorrectly labeled ‘muscle memory’.)

When it comes time to act, however, the time for fragmentation is over. Now is the time for wholeness. The body/mind must act ‘as one.’ Training has given us a pretty good idea of what our individual parts are capable of. But now we must leave the mode of consciousness what brung us to the dance by relaxing the rational mind and entering a trans-rational state.

Consciousness can be seen as three levels:

1. Pre-rational (body)

2. Rational (mind)

3. Trans-rational (spirit)

Each level transcends and includes the level(s) below it. When we train, we practice using rationality (mental) to identify and organize body awareness (pre-rational), guided by the principles of taijiquan. But we can’t actually DO taijiquan in ordinary rational mode. Sure, we can execute the choreography, but it’s empty. We have to move to a unified state to pull it all together, and that means a shift to trans-rational consciousness. A trans-rational state can access both body and mind, but transcends both. The mind is clear and still.

That’s why taijiquan is sometimes called a ‘moving meditation.’ Since meditation is often equated with a withdrawal from the world, something can get overlooked: the trans-rational state that is characteristic of meditation is also the key ingredient in the internal power (jin) that makes taijiquan so effective. Without it, you don’t have authentic taijiquan. You’re “frying with an empty pan.”

How do you shift states? Practice. Practice. Practice. You already shift every day, but not always under your control. There are lots of ways to do it, but the most reliable, fast, and effective way is by accessing energetic coherence by pointing your index finger and reaching. (Check blog archives for discussion of EC. Better yet, read Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate)

You have to practice what you’ve learned in this highly coherent state until that becomes the norm. At first, it may like doing anything while high on controlled substances, but after some practice you’ll get the hang of it.Like learning to ride a dragon.


  1. Hi Rick,

    My teacher too says that there are 3 levels of Tai Chi…Physical, Mental and then spiritual. I think the Hindu and Daoist concept of sheaths (or bodies) is very apt (and make further distinctions) — The physical sheath, the energetic sheath, the mental sheath, the intellectual sheath and the blissful sheath (called Koshas in Yogic parlance). Per these traditions, the sheaths each have their patterns and blockages (and a blockage in one can affect the others) to be worked through and only by resolving each sheath (or a combination of these) can we progress further up the spiritual ladder.

    • Thanks, Dwai. Great point. Three levels just gets the conversation started. Three seems to be broadly accepted by most spiritual traditions, then subdivided into finer distinctions. Ken Wilber does a great investigation of this in his AQAL work.