And How They Relate To Each Other
Generally, when it comes to T’ai-Chi, it's been my experience that the kind of injuries I incur tell me where the mistakes in my practice are. From there I know much better how to address them. This can be applied to any practice. I apply it mostly to T’ai-Chi, but I also apply it to things like playing guitar, writing, biking, performing, even doing the dishes. The injuries I’m talking about don’t have to be major, they can be as minor as a sore knee or muscle, but the type of injury can point the way to practice errors and how best to correct them.
Joint problems typically point to what I call "Bone Level" issues, usually bad alignment. So if I do a T’ai-Chi form, play music, go on a hike, write, or go dancing and the result is a sore knee or neck, I know I need to work on my posture and alignment, especially in those areas. I know I’m on the right track if I adjust my posture and the joint soreness noticeably eases up.
Muscle problems like tears, tendonitis, strains, etc. point to what I call "Muscle Level" issues, typically using too much or too little strength. If I engage in any of the activities listed above and it’s my muscles or tendons that are sore, I may still check my posture because that’s still important, but my main focus will be on how much strength or muscular force I’m using to get the job done. Even if I’m looking at posture, I’ll be looking at it as it directly effects muscle use. Sometimes I find a connection between my muscle pains or injuries and my posture, but for me it’s almost always that I’m using too much or too little force in a given movement, whether it be a T’ai-Chi punch or washing a plate.
Energy problems like hyper-activity, fatigue, indigestion, depression, etc. point to what I call "Energy Level" issues, typically underlying emotional imbalances or lack of attention to overall energetic awareness. If I find myself depressed in my practice, that is, I feel some depression and my thoughts are often moving towards this particular practice and I feel a connection there, I will not be focused so much on posture and muscle use because there are no strains in those areas. Instead, because I will be suspecting some kind of strain at the energy level, the neural network of the nervous system and the brain, the basic highways of information in the body, I will be focused on doing Energy Level work. Things like opening and suspending my joints, connecting my movements to my breathing, feeling into the totality of my bodily being, gently opening blocks or tight spaces in my body, looking for emotional difficulties or conflicts, and generally connecting into a larger more inclusive sense of my physical self. This would also apply to feeling extra tired after a practice session. Or feeling unnecessarily wound up. Or having a bout of indigestion, which, in a very direct way, involves the energetic process of turning food into energy. Even if I was correcting posture or doing some muscle level work, I would be doing it in the context of how I could improve nerve flow, breathing, and the free flow of my emotions and intent.
Spiritual problems like egomania, self obsession, lack of regard for others point to what I call "Spirit Level" issues, mostly failure to surrender into Life and get over myself. To me things are spiritual if they relate to my relationship with existence, with the whole of Nature. The deeper I look into Nature the more in awe I am of the vastness and beauty of it and the more grateful I am just to be alive and conscious. I feel a part of everything and identify more with the everything than the part. If I develop some abilities, skills or prowess in one of my practices and start to attach my sense of self to the status these abilities bring me or to some exaggerated sense of entitlement or specialness, if it’s all about “me” and “my powers”, especially when it includes a disregard for other people who are mainly seen as “obstacles” in my path, then I know I’ve lost touch with my connection to “the everything” and am about to lose more than that. As I see it, at this point there is nothing to “work” on. The “I” that would be working is the problem in this realm. I’ve found that the best I can do in situations like this is just direct my attention where possible to the bigger picture, always the bigger picture, even it’s just the ever so slightly bigger picture. I have to return to my relationship to the everything and any movement in that direction reduces my self-importance and brings me closer to a kind of spiritual balance between the part and the everything.
I think it’s important to reiterate that I’m talking about injuries here or changes in the body noticed while practicing. I’m not talking about diseases or chronic conditions. That would be another discussion. I’m saying that the kind of injury or negative change I notice in my life gives me vital information about the mistakes I’m making in my practices and how I might correct them.
So my recipe for a good and healthy practice whether it’s washing the dishes or learning martial arts is to start with Bone Level Work. Learn the basics and align your bones. You can always tweak this, but getting a basic underpinning here is crucial. Skip this level and you will likely hurt your joints.
Then proceed to Muscle Level Work. Learn how much strength to use in each movement, not too much or too little. Also smooth out the bumps in the road, relax and focus on flow. And again you can always keep working on this, but having an understanding of the appropriate use of strength is crucial. Skip this level and you will likely hurt your muscles.
Then on to Energy Level Work. Learn to tie it all together, connect to your intent and breath, move as one whole being, integrate the principles beyond thinking. Again, you can always work on this, but being able to connect your good bone alignment and your strong and appropriate muscle strength with your nervous system's network of intent is crucial. Skip this level and your energy will be misspent and either dissipate you or get stuck inside you.
The final piece of my little map is Spirit Level Work. Surrendering into the whole of Life so it's not just "your" intent, but Life's intent that moves you. In my experience this comes of its own accord if I attend to the other levels. You can't force surrender, you can only be open to it. You can always look into this mirror of self-importance versus Life-importance but skipping it will lead to an exaggerated sense of power and "Me" and "Mine". Go too far and become too "one" with everything and your life here on Earth will start to unravel. Then it's back to Bone Level.
These levels are artificial and don't actually exist. All is one after all. But using them as lenses to guide my own development has been helpful in breaking things down as well as preventing and understanding injuries. I go into more detail with each level, including training tips in my book "T'ai-Chi For Geniuses~A Practice Companion For The Genius In Everyone" but this, along with trusting your own "inner genius", is the essential message.