Strength is wonderful. When we are strong, whether in body or mind, and preferably both, we feel great and can achieve many good things. Cultivating strength seems very worthwhile. It often results from dedication, application and discipline – from gong fu. A strong character is developed through life’s experiences and, if we are lucky, sound education. Daily, we see the actions of those who have used strength in order to become powerful and perhaps wonder if it is such a good quality after all. In taiji (tai chi), we emphasise balance as the way to become strong. Being powerful should be of no interest whatsoever. Here’s why this is essential, not just in taiji, but to leading a happy life.
Strength lies in the beauty of the play of yin and yang
Life is a continual play of opposites. Once we accept and understand this, we don’t need to cling onto what is good, nor fear the bad. When we cling, we become very yin. When we fight, we become very yang. Both are states of weakness and imbalance that are detrimental to health and wellbeing. They can also cause problems and unhappiness for those around us. No good points there, then. But all we need to do is let go. In taiji, we learn to relax in our movements so that the blood and qi can flow through the body unimpeded. Good upright posture but relaxed and open. Strength is in grace and poise, not power. The principle in life is the same. Balance yin with yang, and yang with yin. No forcing – just play.
Head points to Heaven, feet to Earth – don’t forget the feet
There is a very valuable principle in taiji of being rooted. When we begin learning the movements, the placing of the feet in the correct position is drummed into us. Only much later can we understand why this is so important. When we know how to relax the body, including the feet, and to open the joints, which takes a long while to develop, the experience of being rooted comes. It’s a wonderful feeling. There is enormous strength in being connected to the Earth in this way. It is very difficult for others to push or pull us off balance. In modern life we tend to focus in the head and forget the feet. The world is more than a little crazy because we have become very clever but in the process have lost our stability.
The Goldilocks effect
Muscles are better than porridge. Even if you are a porridge fan, you can’t eat porridge without muscles. Some people like to build up their muscle bulk to acquire an impressive physique. Oddly, you don’t see animals going to the gym or lifting weights, but you do see them stretching. Strength isn’t about having big muscles but having a body that is fit for purpose. Too little muscle, and we are weak; too much and we become tight and lose some of our flexibility. Like Goldilocks’s choice of porridge, there is a midpoint that is just right. In taiji, there are moves that involve standing on one leg. Most people wobble a bit at first. Gradually, through doing relaxed movements, strength builds up. A stiff leg isn’t strong, we discover. We learn, too, that a taut abdomen makes us weaker, paradoxical though that may seem. In life, too, there is a midpoint in everything. The Middle Way. Now, that’s strength.
For an exploration of finding the middle way in life, read my book The Art of Not Doing available here.