Thistles and Cotton Lint, Root

Posted in Uncategorized on September 4th, 2011 by Walls-Kaufman

By Dr. David Walls-Kaufman

My great grand teacher, Yang Cheng-fu, mentioned in his writings that root in a tai chi adept felt like a huge cotton bail. On the outside, it was welcomingly light and soft, but the deeper you pushed into it the more it became apparent that the bail was solid enough to prove immovable.

In the Cheng Man-ch’ing lineage (Cheng being Yang’s student), we hear from our teachers that when we direct our mind (I—pronounced ee) in a certain direction, the chi (chee) will go there. The phenomenon of chi is that simple. Some, depending on how long and how hard they have practiced the Chi Kung of Tai Chi, develop an inkling of what this means.

The description I have offered my students to clarify this question about the chi following the mind is this:

Particles of thought behave like thistles; chi behaves like cotton lint floating free in the “air” of the room inside our being. Now, imagine each “particle” of thought being like the thorns projecting from a dry head of thistle. This thistle head “moves” inside the room of your body wherever or however your consciousness directs it. Your intention (just thinking about it and relaxing) forms the thistle head, and as it moves with your thought, it inevitably catches the cotton lint of your chi is caught on its thorns.

This is a loose approximation of the phenomenon at best. The analogy fails because chi gathers at the behest of thought. It runs to join it, like a dog running when its master whistles.

Be that as it may, the longer you have practiced good Tai Chi methodologies, then the more you will have “grown” or “cultivated” particles of cotton lint floating free inside your being that get caught on the thistles.
Your relaxation and thought/intention in combination make the thistles emerge out of the nothingness of consciousness.

How much lint your thistles pick up is entirely a product of how much cotton lint you’ve got floating around in the air of the room of your being.

If you have a little Kung Fu, then there are very few strands of cotton for the thistle needles to snag. If you have tremendous Kung Fu, then the stirring of the thistle catches a load of cotton lint. The more cotton lint you’ve earned for your years of conscientious work, then the closer you get to Yang Cheng-fu’s analogy of the cotton bail—ever soft on the outside, but progressively heavier, thicker, denser, immovable the deeper the opponent pushes into it.

Without much cotton, your mind catches little lint and you martially function by activating your external frame of muscle.

The muscular shell of you.

Your body is like a shell, a hollow gourd.

When an “empty” person attacks, the feeling is sort of like being attacked by an empty can of coke. The empty can of coke comes rushing in at a toddle, pushing for the center, trying to dislodge you. As relaxation happens, there is a sinking-into-the-ground feeling very much like my teacher Ben Lo described of you being in an elevator coming to a stop. If the mass of my cotton lint surpasses the weight of my attacker’s tin can—then I have the ethereal “mass” to neutralize the pressure of their very corporeal attack; and turn it aside, or repulse it. The choice is at my discretion.

The ability to neutralize and repulse rests entirely on whether my internal stuff metaphysically “weighs” more than their muscular strength and mass.

This is the motile power that determines which one of us gets their hands (or body pressure) on the other’s center—which is the key piece in the trigger mechanism of the push.

If he or she is 6 feet tall and weighs 220lbs., I am more confident than if the person is 6’7” and weighs 400lbs. Can I neutralize? I don’t know. I have to see. With the first person, their speed and technique are less a concern to me than the speed and technique of the second person, because my ethereal “chi” weight and mass and their corporeal muscle and weight mass approximate.

But no matter that I am 5’11” and 174lbs. My technique matters little because the physics of neutralizing are the same. The difference is—do I have the internal mass to subtly overpower (turn aside) the pressure of the push?

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On Practice

Posted in Uncategorized on August 5th, 2011 by Walls-Kaufman

Hi David,

I have been practicing t’ai chi for a long time. When I began I gave it a lot of time every day, but in recent years much less time. As I grow older, I am more aware of the need for the benefit of a regular commitment. Also, through the practice with Julian Chu’s group, I have become aware of the reality of root and of chi in a way that was not apparent to me previously. It is clear that I have no root and no reliable experience of what it means to cultivate chi. I believe that you have both. So I appeal to you — can you explain anything? What will help me to develop these two aspects?

I see that you have a blog. I can easily imagine that other people would also be interested in what you have to say so please feel free to post this question, including my first name, if you wish, on the blog.

All the best,


Dear Maureen,

Thanks for the note: Okay, so, yes, Tai Chi takes a regular commitment. I think the best way to think about your Tai Chi commitment and practice is to think of it as your daily ritual of meditation, which medical research tells us is essential for optimum wellbeing. Also, research tells us that physical exercise is also essential—how convenient that with Tai Chi we can kill two birds with one stone! This makes Tai Chi the neatest thing on earth . . .

So, with Tai Chi taking care of the meditation and exercise component of the Holistic Lifestyle—how long should you do it each day to earn better wellbeing? Anything is better than nothing. You know as well as I do that it’s probably longer than you now do it, so get busier.

With this daily commitment, the longer you do it for (your kung fu, i.e. time) you are growing a green plant of energetic internal connection and power that integrates you within yourself physically in a way that nothing else on earth can duplicate, and that connects you to the ground physically also in a way that nothing else can duplicate. Together, these spiritual components are the power of internal martial arts.

You say you can’t feel them—they are growing in you whether you know it or not. Their growing can’t be helped; it’s the Tao. It’s the dividend the universe gives us proportionately for setting aside all else and paying attention so conscientiously that we don’t even move. If you dabble in this practice, then they grow so gradually that it’s hard to notice a difference in yourself week to week, month to month. So, if you want more wellbeing and connectivity, then practice more: Tai chi teaches us that the universe is a perfect Meritocracy on this score. (Actually, on any score, if we look at life through the lens of the Holistic Lifestyle.) You will never cheat yourself if you practice hard—on the other hand there is no free ride if you do not practice, i.e. strip away all the concerns of life down to nothing mentally so that your mind and being are absorbed only with your internal space and energy connecting through your core and your Tan T’ien to the magnificent majesty of everything. It seems meditation is an appreciation of the majesty of what is. It could not be simpler or less adorned.

It is to revere the creation that you are, of all that is—to take it all in at once, and not even move.

So, make Tai Chi shapes your daily meditation, and gradually but steadily your awareness of root and chi will bloom because you are growing more chi. It plays upon itself and grows more substantial. All of this can’t help but pour into your push hands, and you will feel changes and improvements. It has no top end. It has no glass ceiling.

In the beginning, as a beginner (and you will know who you are!), “being there” in that meditative space of chi and relaxation is too fine a point to maintain in the workaday world. Not that you shouldn’t try! But don’t spend years fooling yourself. You need to set aside serious time to be alone with your interiors and the effort and focus of being there. In time, with more chi, it plays naturally upon itself in your interior playground—and just by relaxing your shoulders or thinking of your insides, effortlessly you are authentically “on line” and streaming.

The end of all of this chi cultivation and push hands is that it makes your being a more stable column connecting heaven and earth, standing upright, that turns or absorbs un-troubled the influences of life. The more chi you have, the more genuinely spiritual you become; the more un-troubled you are. It’s all meant to be a wonderful, unique affirmation of the spiritual, and of the unmatched magnificence of the space we live in.

Again, it is so simple. I hope this helps you to practice more.

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