Monday, March 11, 2013


What is it?

The word “intent” gets thrown around a lot in Martial Arts circles and in daily life. I don't know if anyone knows the true nature of intent. I sure don't, but here are some of my thoughts on the subject. 

I believe the Chinese translation for "intent" is something like "idea mind". I see intent as a kind of idea flow, or sequence that starts with an impulse and runs to a conclusion. For example, if someone or something does something that really pisses me off, like facebook did one night when it deleted a long comment on this every subject that took 20 minutes for me to write. When that happens it might stir up a sudden almost murderous intent that flows from the moment of insult right up to the point where I burst into Zuckerberg's office with a chainsaw. Or maybe during pushing hands practice an opening appears and I have the impulse to exploit that opening and move in on my partner with a push. Or I might be practicing a T’ai-Chi form and the impulse arises to practice it with a certain theme in mind, like with a special emphasis on softness, or waist movement, or martial application.

When a mind idea like one of these happens, I have to decide whether or not to make it happen. And by “make it happen”, I mean connect that intent through my entire nervous system to my muscles and bones so they can, in some way, express that intent in the more overtly physical world. In the former case, of course, I will wisely let that mind idea play out in my head, but not in the outer world. In the latter cases, if I can process the moment fast enough I will probably give that idea some energy and go in for the push, or if one of those practice themes appeals to me, go ahead and practice that way.

T’ai-Chi is all about balance and the key to balance for me is to build the connection between my intent, or the ideas in my mind, and my muscles and bones. I want that connection as deep and effortless as I can get it, because in life things can happen very fast and the more fluid and solid that connection is, the more likely my muscles and bones can give my intent an accurate and timely expression. What connects my mind ideas to my muscles and bones is essentially what we in the West call the nervous system.

Balance is all about making corrections, and making corrections is all about receptivity and execution, or yin and yang. Nature seems to make its corrections unconsciously and effortlessly. But I am a human being and for better or worse, if I seek balance, I will have to make many of my own corrections, and make them consciously.

Lay a 2 X 4 between two buildings 10 stories high. A cat will just walk right over that thing with barely a thought because Nature is handling the corrections. Now if you or I have to walk that plank we will be making many of those corrections ourselves and so we will be making choices and processing information and almost certainly going across more slowly and with more trepidation.

And here is where that intent to muscles and bones connection is important. I can’t think of a better tool to help me make the corrections I need to make as I walk the various planks in my life, than a clear and clean connection between my intent, or mind ideas, and my bones and muscles. I think this connection is the key to whole-hearted and successful action. I’m not saying I have this clear and clean connection, but that is what I steer towards in life.   

For me, building this connection has to be done slowly. And I’m sure for a lot of other people as well, otherwise T’ai-Chi training as we know it would not exist. By going slowly I have time to study the connection between my intent and my muscles and bones, gradually making that connection smoother and more effortless, with more and more of a “dimmer switch” feeling rather and less and less of an “on-off” feeling. That way when things speed up, the chances will be better that I will make the necessary adjustments. It’s like carefully cleaning a racetrack before a race so I can run on it smoothly without thinking about debris.

In my own practice and teaching, I start with posture, alignment and structure, which is what I call “Bone Level Work”. Then I move to relaxation, smoothness and appropriate use of muscular force, which I call “Muscle Level Work”. Then I move into suspending the joints, connecting with the breath, feeling the inner body connections and unifying the body in action, which I call “Energy Level Work” or “Nervous System Work”. So we say in T’ai-Chi that intent leads energy and energy leads the muscles and bones.

What I really love is that when I feel this solid connection between my intent and my bones and muscles, I’m in a better position to surrender into what I might call the Tao, or what some might call Life’s intent, or God’s intent. This is when yes, there is intent directing my muscles and bones into some action or other, but there is no sense of it being my personal intent or even my muscles and bones. I am not really “there” in the usual sense. It can happen in a martial training game, while singing, on a walk in the woods, in a ping-pong game, on a bike, anywhere really and anytime. These are the moments when I am one with what I am doing. 

But this is tricky and much easier said than done. I have to “not be there” in these moments, and yet I can’t “not be there” with any force whatsoever because force always implies a forcer who is of course, “there”. 

So rather than try to bring these "not there" Spirit Level moments into being, I just practice and refine the other 3 levels as best I can and enjoy the benefits of having my bones and muscles more and more at the command of my intent. One of these benefits is that when one of these "not there" Spirit Level moments happens, I'm in a better position to go with it and whatever work I've done to connect my intent to my muscles and bones will result in Life's intent manifesting more accurately through me. 

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