Post and Beams
Getting to the heart of the matter:
“In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”
Very much like the above quote of Mr Einstein, the echo of my Sifu Colin Chau’s words reflected very much the same thing when I was bugging him about a particular technique. He simply said “John, you are thinking too much. Thought without action will lead you nowhere, go and practice what I’ve shown you and give me another three examples on top of what I’ve already shown you…”
“Hmm... but, but...” was my feeble response… as my teacher walked away leaving me to practice unquestioning for another month.
In his essay on roots and branches, Professor Cheng relays to us that: Principles are the root and applications are the branches, that principle precedes application and that having grasped the principles then the applications can be mastered.
From the aforementioned few words alone we can surmise that principles are important. Not only are they important, they are the root which grounds our Tai Chi Chuan. But the principles cannot be “grasped” without practice.
It is erroneous to assume that simply doing a movement or series of movements without the embedding of the governing principle/s will manifest a result (though of course we can stumble upon them after long practice or by sitting under an apple tree perhaps)? Much better, however, to apply our mind/intent – imagination, if you will – and consciously begin to plant the principles firmly into the mind and body through “in-principle” practice. In this way we are not wasting time. It is through in-principle practice that one’s Gung-Fu (skill) gradually begins developing or, as they say, laying the proverbial one sheet of rice paper per day.
Professor Cheng, in his essay on calligraphy, relays in part his own learning in the discipline of the brush. Having followed a certain style for over 40 years, conscientiously practicing one character (the word for steady) he still felt frustrated. Whereas his friend, he was to find out, had studied the character for one, which is a horizontal stroke, for three years and thereafter practiced a single vertical stroke until it was perfectly perpendicular for a further three years.
Professor Cheng laughed, having realised his own mistake and bad habit in having pursued the quality of steadiness for 40 years, yet still not achieved balance and verticality in his works. When talking about exploring roots and branches we ask: what are those in-principled practices that better lead us to the heart of our art?
If we look at Professor Cheng’s lesson of the vertical and horizontal in relation to calligraphy, or what Cheng refers to as the two-beams, we may begin to see these two-beams – that is, the vertical and the horizontal – as major factors in our Tai Chi Chuan practice.
As Professor Cheng informs us in relation to his calligraphy: vertical and horizontal are considered the posts and beams that support a great building. My idea of the two-beams in relation to Tai Chi Chuan body practice – or in-principle practice – is that the levelling of the hips is our horizontal (or beam). This then becomes the basis for ensuring that the lowest vertebrae are plumb erect along with our spine being upright as our vertical (or post) via suspended head-top. We could refer to the mindful practice of the two-beams as the tap root of our practice in Tai Chi Chuan.
What do I mean by the tap root? Simply that from the practice of the two-beams, the level hips and upright spine (our post and beam) all else arises, and this is where the melting-pot of theory and practice become grounded.
Without a clear understanding of the two-beams, central equilibrium, relaxing and sinking would not be fully manifested. Only through conscious daily practice in our fundamentals, our form and our sensing-hands practice can we actualise the principles and theories that the Tai Chi Chuan classics present to us.
If the principles as laid down in the classics appeal to us, how then do we practice them? How are they realised in our daily lives? What is the root of our practice? How is the promise of Tai Chi Chuan manifested? Surely, it can’t just be hit and miss?
Having good instruction, ensuring we are firstly aware of the principles and how best to apply them to our practice, it is then up to us through daily practice to consciously embed and realise the principles of our art to the best of our individual physical capabilities.
As social commentator Karl Marx informs us: “Practice without theory is blind; theory without practice is sterile.”
In summarising, I again quote Professor Cheng Man-Ching:
"If one desires to get to the heart of the matter, then how should one practice to achieve mastery? We say, grasp the main ideas, develop your power, be single-minded in your ambition, keep cutting and never give up, and have no regrets. Afterwards seek only forward progress and in this way one may become a great master. Can we call this only mastery?"
– John B. Hartley, 2014
John Hartley, Founder and Principal Instructor of Inner Health School of Taijiquan, Adelaide