For those who practise daily it will be useful to give some thought to refining the use made of time on the Way…
In concentrating, which is useful in the beginning to avoid distraction, what is established is a “tunnel-vision” sort of focus: nothing exists apart from the object of our concentration; yet even so this lasts for nothing more than two or three seconds at a time.
This “closing in” upon our action automatically reduces one’s other perceptions; as a result, a particular movement will become the focus of attention of all our perceptions, as well as of our determined thought, for the duration of our effort.
This works well enough, but in general concentration cannot sustain itself for long… and when it ceases everything else disappears along with it. The eruption of distractions can even go so far as to make us forget the original object of our concentration.
Important though it is, concentration is a “tension”, constituting a means of working “by force”. And this when no method that works by “constraints” can last for long, since its lack of naturalness makes it unsuited to life.
When we are learning a physical movement, without first having passed through the acquisition of “gong fu”, we need to employ concentration in order not to lose ourselves. We also need to repeat a gesture sufficiently often for it to “enter” us. For most people, a movement made with a certain degree of tension will be more easily felt, and this because tension gives rise to a stronger sensation.
In general, a movement which is unknown to us will create tensions within us and will require an effort that is not in realistic proportion to the real physical effort required: we use force in order to manage to copy the gesture, exerting resistance against the limitations of our stiffness and coordination. When the movement has been learned, we will normally use only the degree of force that is appropriate to the effort required.
If we were to retain the same physical tension every time we execute a movement that has been learned we would end up stiffening and injuring ourselves. If this does not happen it is because physical pain brings us back to our senses, fear of pain sufficing to remind us not to push things too hard.
For the mental, emotional, and intellectual aspects of the learning process we have recourse to a form of “tension” in order to acquire the gestures, and this tension is called concentration.
What is more, it is easy to stay “concentrated” throughout one’s practice, indeed throughout one’s life, even though one is doing oneself harm, since inner difficulties create a different sort of pain from that of physical suffering. This is a pain that we are quite capable of sustaining and accumulating because it is less physical and for that reason may appear to be less serious.
Concentration, useful as it is for entering into practice, can become a source of tension and stiffness in the Shen (the spirit) and can even be detrimental to good health (or it can at very least limit the benefits of a practice that is oriented towards health).
No practice that is focused on too many details at once, or that aims for perfection in the execution of gestures, can bring relaxation. In the learning stage, it is very important to progress gently but constantly. If what is sought is perfection, one’s practice will be conducted in the void, since perfection does not exist: it will never give rise to anything except a certain unhealthy rigidity.
On the other hand, if one is unable to focus, to feel or reproduce movement, one’s tendency may be to seek out compensatory mental satisfactions, watching videos or hunting for “advanced levels” in secret hidden arts… All the time forgetting the most important thing of all, distinguishing one’s left from one’s right.
The present text does not intend to encourage anyone to think that it’s enough merely to relax (to do nothing!) for everything to come of its own accord. Not at all. There should be no confusion possible, given my introductory remark: “For those who practise daily it will be useful to give some thought to refining the use made of time on the Way”.
“Attentiveness” is relaxed concentration.
In “attentiveness” is to be found the advantages of concentration, but with an openness far greater than to be found in “tunnel-vision”. Of course, at the outset it is this very openness that constitutes the problem, being the probable source of distraction.
In daily practice, the gesture that has been learned requires a modicum of effort. It requires concentration so that it be “understood”, and a certain measure of tension during its initial executions. Yet it should soon come to require diminishing effort, and for practice to be really profitable this economy of effort needs to be maintained.
One’s practice needs to be integrated into one’s daily life, yet what is habitual must remain attentive rather than concentrated. The build-up of tension is thus reduced as relaxation is gained.
It is easy to get used to tension, as tension permits one to feel more strongly. This is a form of laziness of the senses and it is easily developed. Think of the fondness for intense sensations, big emotions, bungie-jumping, body-building… All such ways of “feeling more alive” can become ways of preventing one from fully apprehending the simple perceptions of one’s daily life.
In our Taoist approach, relaxation during practice encourages a sort of silence in the mind and relaxation in the body, which in turn allow one a full enjoyment of life. The simplest perceptions come to amaze one, and constant attentiveness develops as one comes to be fully alive.
By contrast, training through concentration and in a certain overall rigidity does away with the benefits of physical practice and condemns one to flattering one’s ego in order to achieve some intellectual satisfaction at least. But it is a harmful and illusion-bound form of practice.
Being attentive to what one has learned, while accepting the need for a certain concentration upon which progress depends, one must aim for relaxation and simplicity: body and spirit should not remain in a state of tension under pain of heightened suffering; one should accept the structure letting-go offered by the Way, and go on practising.
If we are unable to find a harmonious form of practising, there is every chance that the problems which arise will derive from our failure of understanding than from the Way itself.