Intention and Attention: The Alchemical Formula in Taijiquan - Pt. 1

Since our birth as a species, mankind has actively pursued a peculiar form of conscious evolution … different from the animal, plant, and mineral kingdoms … in that we uniquely aspire to become Something Greater.

Intention & Attention: The Alchemy of the Human Brain in TaijiquanIntention & Attention: The Alchemy of the Human Brain in Taijiquan

Whether it be approaching the Divine, a Creator, Mother Nature, the Tao, or simply Greater Knowledge, Wealth, Fame, or Status … human beings are a group of unusually aspirant & ambitious creatures. It is our every intention to be Greater than we are … and one way or another our attention tends to settle on the path we feel will best accomplish this.

Significant evolutionary developments in human consciousness, and in our biology, have occurred as a result of these quests to become Something Greater. In fact, much of our evolutionary process has been singularly motivated by this questing … primarily driven by a mere two features of the human brain’s complex form of {self-}consciousness: our Intention and Attention. According to Professor of Biometry at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Hans Liljenström:

We explore our world in a perception-action cycle (Freeman, 2000)…

However, prior to perception is attention, and prior to action is intention. Some believe that attention and intention are at the core of our experience of existence (Popper et al., 1993)…

Attention could be extended, but also be focused to some specific part of our internal or external worlds…

We may also intentionally turn our attention to some area of interest. Intention can be viewed as a precursor to volition and will, as an “urge” or “desire” to act in a certain direction, to attain a certain goal…

Attention may provide information about the internal and external worlds, but intention guides our actions. We can attend to our intentions, but we can also intentionally guide our attention.

-Hans Liljenström
Intention and Attention in Consciousness Dynamics and Evolution
Journal of Cosmology, 2011, Vol. 14.

We become who we are, in life, and as a species, based on our Attention and Intention. The secrets to proper use of these two preeminent faculties have been treasured by nearly all forms of mystery religions & ritual practices (as diverse as Kabala, Western Alchemy, Gnosticism, Taoism, even modern Hypnosis & Cult Gurus).

The idea of self-transformation (or transmutation) through attention & intention … through awareness & belief … through Knowledge & Will … is one of the most common themes throughout religious culture. The goal of this self-transformation, to become “Something Greater,” is practically as ancient as mankind ourself.

Taijiquan: Self Directed Conscious Evolution
(Alchemical Transmutation of The Taiji Principle)

Yin Yang Symbol Represents the Taiji Principle The Taiji Symbol (Also Known as the Yin-Yang)The two interlocking black & white shapes represent the Taiji – the Ultimate Polarity- the original division of the Whole into Parts (or birth of the Two out of the One).

The Universal Interplay of Yin & Yang is symbolized by the dueling shapes, each containing within itself the essence of its opposite – represented by the two contrasting dots.

Before we can even begin to consider taijiquan as an alchemical form of self directed conscious evolution … it is important to take a step back to understand the family to which taijiquan belongs: namely, the “neijia” or internal martial arts. This is in contrast to the “waijia” or external martial arts, and implies a unique form of “internal” intentional awareness that guides the movements, techniques, and principles (as opposed to an awareness of technique & an intention to execute them).

A modern master of the internal martial arts, Patrick Kelly, further sheds some light on our attention & intention dichotomy (awareness & intention in his case) that significantly helps to clarify the old “Internal vs. External Martial Arts” discussion:

What is internal power as opposed to external power?

This can be understood in two ways. Firstly external power is simply the superficial mind contracting the muscles with some effort where the subtle processes that occur, between the thought of moving and the movement actually appearing, are strengthened and refined by repetition but remain on an unconscious level. Conversely internal power involves consciously strengthening and refining these intermediate mind and energy processes, while paying only minimal attention to the strengthening of the muscles themselves.

That is, external power involves using awareness and intention (generated by the desire to achieve) on the level of external body movement, while internal power involves using awareness and intention (generated by a deep and clear effort of will) on the level of the energy field and subtle body processes (which themselves produce the external movement).

-Patrick A. Kelly
Singapore 50th Anniversary Article

On the occasion of the 50th Anniversary, Huangs Taiji Singapore (28.11.2010)

As one develops internal power, using awareness & intention generated by a deep and clear effort of will, on the level of the energy field and subtle body processes … one is naturally evolving — intentionally. This is the alchemical aspect of taijiquan – and one manifestation of the taiji – Yin-Yang – principle in action. The result of this intentionally guided attention … focusing on the realization of the taiji principles … is a transmutation akin to all other forms of alchemy (turning base aspects to noble aspects — “lead” to “gold”).

The Meaning of Taijiquan

To understand the true meaning of taijiquan as an art is to recognize it as more than a mere means of combat & self protection … and more than a mere means of improving health & physical fitness. The key to understanding the deeper secrets of taijiquan are in understanding its manifestation of the taiji principles. In Chinese, taiji refers to the Ultimate Polarity mentioned above, and is a very deep & profound philosophical concept. From Wikipedia:

Chinese taiji 太極 is a compound of tai 太 “great; grand; supreme; extreme; very; too” (a superlative variant of da 大 “big; large; great; very”) and ji 極 “pole; roof ridge; highest/utmost point; extreme; earth’s pole; reach the end; attain; exhaust”. In analogy with the figurative meanings of English pole, Chinese ji 極 “ridgepole” can mean “geographical pole; direction” (e.g., siji 四極 “four corners of the earth; world’s end”), “magnetic pole” (Beiji 北極 “North Pole” or yinji 陰極 “negative pole; anode”), or “celestial pole” (baji 八極 [[[as in baji quan - 八極拳]]] “farthest points of the universe; remotest place”).

The Chinese quan (拳) of taijiquan refers, simply, to the “fist,” though it can perhaps better be translated as the “boxing method” or “style of kung fu” or something similar, as it is used to describe nearly all Chinese Martial Arts (like xingyi quan – 形意拳 – the “Form-Intention Fist” … or shaolin quan – 少林拳 – the “Shaolin Fist” – a generic term for martial arts practiced & taught by the Shaolin temple).

Thus, in the case of taijiquan, as with any Chinese Martial Art … it is the taiji (太極) that is of supreme importance … not the quan (拳). The taiji is a deep and profound philosophy. The quan is to remind us this is a martial art – a “way of the fist.” In a beautiful story about his teacher, the late Huang Xingxian, Patrick Kelly recounts:

Once, when sitting outside eating late at night in Kuala Lumpur, [Master Huang] looked up at the stars, then gesturing to the expanse of the night sky, he turned to me and said, “That is the big Taiji, inside us is the small Taiji”, then after a moment’s pause added quietly, “Now I teach Taiji, not Taijiquan.” The depth and sincerity of expression behind his words, I have never forgotten.

Throughout history, many (if not all) the greatest masters of internal martial arts were also great scholars & philosophers. Some of China’s greatest literary geniuses were also renowned generals & military leaders (not to mention hermit adepts who practiced gong fu “religiously”). Huang Xingxian, Patrick Kelly’s teacher mentioned in the story above, is a modern example of this same principle in action. Huang’s true love was not the “quan” – the martial aspect of the art … but the transcendent “taiji” – the deep & profound principle of the Great Polarity — the alchemical aspect of the art.

This aspect of taijiquan is one of the most fascinating and elusive, as it involves deep internal practices that are difficult to quantify, to learn, to transmit, and to truly “get”.

The use of attention & intention in the martial arts, especially in taijiquan – where we have a consistent focus on this taiji Yin-Yang principle – ultimately leads a diligent practitioner to an alchemical transmutation that improves one’s health, energy, disposition, and relationships. Correct practice of taiji principle leads one to greater balance & comfort – in all aspects of life – specifically grasped through accurate attention (awareness) & effective intention (will).

However, even these great benefits fall far short of the true goal of taijiquan as an alchemical practice…

(to be continued … )

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