Completely Mental?

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. One of my favourite quotes from the bard (from Hamlet) and there has never been a truer word spoken. If you think something it is good, then to you it is. Likewise, if you think something is bad then so it is. It’s all in the mind, as the idiom goes and the mind is a powerful thing, holding sway over our bodies, our perceptions of reality, our emotions, our desires, our successes and failures.

I’m reading a book, ‘Living Dangerously,’ at the moment, in which the author relates meeting six N.C.O.s in the Malayan jungle during World War 2 who had been cut off. To quote, “A month later they were all dead. Yet there was nothing wrong with them. They were just not able to believe that they could live in the jungle, on rice and tapioca like the Chinese, among a thousand known and imagined horrors. And so they died.”

The right mental approach will bring success; the wrong – failure, on possibly a massive scale. So how does this relate to Tai Chi Chuan? What is the correct mental approach for students of the art? I have been referring to the classics for elucidation and was rather taken with a section from the ‘Interpretation of the Practice of the Thirteen Tactics.’

The body and the Yi (intent) are entirely

concentrated of the Jingshen (vigour),

Not on the Qi,

If on the Qi,

Then there is stagnation.

Now, this stumped me for a while and left me metaphorically scratching my head. There’s the issue of translation – Dan’s book* (from which the translation is taken) is excellent in giving non-Chinese speakers an insight into the characters, but the translation of meaning and the cultural context is still alien to me and, therefore, I have limited confidence in proposing an interpretation. (But then again, aren’t all texts open to interpretation? Consider the number of supposedly learned, religious men who espouse completely alternative readings of the same holy book.)

So, what I took from these lines was that a certain mental attitude or focus was being suggested; it seemed to be saying that the body and intent must concentrate on the vigour – I considered the translation of ‘vigour’ to be something like ‘aggression’ but not going so far – rather than the Qi.

Ok, that’s all very well, we should concentrate on ‘vigour’ not ‘qi’ but what does Qi mean here? I don’t much like the term Qi. It’s a damned vague term in martial arts that seems to mean almost anything. In this instance, I consider that Qi is referring to ‘energy’ being transferred between the self and opponent (whether in pushing hands or applications) and is part of what is ‘listened’ for (in Tai Chi terms) by making and maintaining contact with the opponent.

If that is right, (if!) then we should not focus upon the Qi; our minds, our intent should be on ‘vigour.’ Later lines, the final lines of this classic, explain:

The Qi is like the wheel of a chariot;

The waist is the axle.

My explanation of the explanation: If we focus on the wheel, we’re a bit like a cat watching a washing machine on spin cycle – no intent, going nowhere and getting dizzy doing it. Instead, we should be driving the chariot where we want to go –over our opponent, to victory.


*Tai Chi Chuan: Decoding the Classics for the Modern Martial Artist by Dan Docherty (available at


Apparently, when Alex Ferguson managed Manchester United the word he used most often during half time talks was focus – so I was once told anyway. I don’t know if it’s entirely true, but it sounds likely. For any competitor, whether in football, weight lifting, athletics, chess or martial arts that mental strength, that ability to focus is vital.
As is a strong body. And how do we achieve a strong mind and strong body? Training. Hard hours of training. Or minutes, depending on your lifestyle and level.
Now, my own lifestyle is not always conducive to training as hard as I would like. Having three children and various duties that I have to complete means that I’m constantly short of time so I have to pick and choose the training methods that I think will yield the best results. This is what led me one afternoon to consider how long it had been since conditioning my fists. I remembered that I used to do handstands on my knuckles as a way of strengthening the bones and wondered if I still could. Not wanting to put too much pressure on my delicate digits, I dropped the timer right down to one minute and took my shoes off to do a handstand in the hall.
To give some context, my youngest child was in the house and entertaining himself playing in the dining room – next to where I was doing my handstand. Let’s call him Tertius as he’s my third and to give more context context he’s just turned three.
So I was holding the handstand, feeling the pressure on my knuckles, but fairly comfortable when Tertius notices me upside down. “What are you doing?” he asks.
“A handstand on my knuckles,” I answered tersely, maintaining my focus. He wandered over. My t-shirt had fallen down to show my tummy and he stood quite close and pulled the t-shirt down to reveal more of me. Then the little blighter started tweaking my nipples, laughing and crying out, “Knuckles!”
I learnt two things that day. One: my son does not know the difference between knuckles and nipples. Two: even a one minute handstand requires mental focus.