Thursday, 31 July 2014

Tai Chi Benefits Body, Mind and Spirit

Auguste Rodin's "The Thinker"
When thinking about human beings, it is usually a mistake to compartmentalise too much. So for instance, if you were to think that exercise and movement benefits the body, that something like learning a new language benefits the mind, and that, say, meditation or prayer benefits the spirit (whatever that might be...see the blog "Mind, Body and What?"), think again: it’s not quite that simple.
In fact, whilst an expression like ‘mind, body and spirit’ might be useful in emphasising that the totality of a human being is meant, we should not imagine that there are three distinct and separate aspects of that being. This was perhaps the mistake made in the West from the sixteenth century onwards, leading to the “ghost in the machine” model of a human being as a mechanical entity (the body) mysteriously inhabited by a non- corporeal, “ghostly” mind or soul. (Rather reminiscent, for readers of a certain age, of the Beano cartoon ‘the numbskulls’.)
In fact, a moment’s reflection should be all we need to realise the interconnectedness of mind, body and spirit; a brisk walk (or even a cup of strong coffee) has an immediate effect on our mental state, our thought processes, our emotions, our spirits; the border between mind on the one hand and body on the other is blurred and porous.
So this means that exercise can, and perhaps should, be something we do not just to benefit our body, but also to benefit our mind, (and our spirit, every bit of us.) In fact exercise should be something that includes the mind; so that when we move we move “mindfully”. We should avoid compartmentalising ourselves so that when we exercise our mind is elsewhere, distracted, worrying perhaps, planning, cut off from our body; our mind should ideally be fully involved in our moving body. And likewise, when we do mental work, we should avoid losing touch with our body (easier than ever these days, perhaps, with the effect of technology; in extreme cases, a few people have actually died after playing computer games non-stop for 24 hours or more – presumably having become in the process so out of touch with their physical experience that they were unable to heed the warning signs of a developing cardiovascular crisis!). Our motto should perhaps be ‘move with the mind, think with the body.
Exercise, especially in this integrated way, has big gains for us in our totality. Our awareness can become crisper; our thinking clearer, our Qi – to use the Chinese expression – flows freely. Stuck emotions can be freed up.
For instance, I was struck recently by the fact that I was, as far as I recall, never taught how to think. Suppose we need to think clearly about an issue on our life, how do we do that? Maybe if we have done a philosophy degree or something like that we have learnt how to think, but the rest of us probably just bumble along without really knowing how to think clearly. No doubt this is a big question, but perhaps part of the answer is to do with exercise and movement (another part of it is to do with how we eat – in Chinese medicine there is an explicit connection between the digestive system and the thinking faculty.) D.H. Lawrence said that thought was “a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.” This makes it clear that thought is not a compartmentalised activity but an integrated one, and therefore something we do with our body as well as our mind –a fact perhaps illustrated by Rodin’s sculpture ‘the thinker’. If we want to think well, we need a well exercised body.
And what about that mysterious thing, the spirit? I take the word to mean something about how alive we are, how vital, how much we have got to meet the challenges and demands of life. Again exercise helps build spirit in this sense. A word perhaps should be put in here for discipline, which is closely associated with building spirit. An important part of any exercise programme is how it teaches us to discipline ourselves (or even to accept discipline from a teacher, as for example in a traditional martial arts context.) Do we still go for a run even though it is raining? Do we get up early to do our yoga practice before work, even when we are so warm and comfy in bed? Do we refuse to settle for going through the motions of a Tai Chi form, not letting our mind wander? If the answer to these questions is yes, we will gradually build a strong spirit to serve us well in life’s inevitable ups and downs.
Exercise, then, is something which should involve every part of us, and from which every part of us, mind, body and spirit, has much to benefit from.

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