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