Distracted, Mindful, Mindless
A majority of people who study Tai Chi do so for meditative exercise. There are plenty of wonderful exercise programs, and plenty of wonderful meditation programs. Tai Chi combines the two and that is why we love it so.
There are three major states of mind function that are apparent to those of us practice. The first is called “distracted mind”. This is our normal mind that jumps around like a kid in a toy store. Thoughts lead to other thoughts, on and on. If we happen to land on an area of our special interest, maybe we’ll be so involved that our focus narrows until distractions vanish, only to return after a short break. Rare is the individual who can claim mastery over his or her mind. The distracted mind usually leads to unhappiness, tension, and fear.
In the late 1960’s, centering drugs (pot, acid) started to become popular. They helped people to discover there was an inner world that was even more interesting than the so called outer world. After the initial discovery, and drugs became outlawed, many searched around for natural ways to achieve the same deepened state. Their eyes turned East to societies who have long used natural techniques to increase awareness, for instance India, Japan, China. The hippies (of which I was one) took pilgrimages to these places, studied, and brought back techniques that had a large and important influence on those who were seeking more fulfillment to life.
The basic underlying philosophy and training is what is now called Mindfulness or Insight Training. This leads to a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique. One usually sits in a comfortable position, closes the eyes to minimize outside distractions, focuses on breath, then lets the mind scan the body. If anything stands out, any sensation, pressure, tension, or even pleasurable feeling, one makes note of it in the mind.
We use this technique in Tai Chi practice. Being mindful of doing one thing at one time, and assuming control of the movement of the mind so as to eliminate distractions. In martial arts, distraction leads to defeat. In normal living, distraction leads to accidents, among other things.
My teaching technique is to introduce a move, talk about what it is that I am doing, and how to do it with full awareness. We do one thing at one time, like looking at just the right foot when stepping, making sure that one part of the body is under control. Then we look at the left foot, each arm, the hips, the torso, the eyes, etc. Then it is all put together as a coordinated, pantomimed event.
It takes many years to arrive at a place where one knows what one should be doing at all times and has freed oneself from distractions. The body moves under the conscious direction of the mind. True Mindfulness.
The last stage is one I call Mindlessness. The movements happen and the mind is free to let go of thinking, of doing, and all there is is Tai Chi unfolding. The observer vanishes. There is no separation of action and doer.There is no “I” to think and evaluate and direct. This is true enlightenment. Few arrive at this place, and we should celebrate those who do. Yet we aren’t likely to know who they are, because they don’t talk about themselves – what they do or can do. No one can truly say, “I am enlightened”. The simplest person can be one who lives fully in the moment.
When talking about martial arts, mindlessness is reflexive action. It does not run through the brain, it moves in the central nervous system. It is like touching something very hot by mistake. Your hand autocratically jerks back. No time to send the signal to the brain (I think I should move my hand. I might hurt myself if I don’t. Oh heck, it does hurt, etc). This is called reflexive movement. It is clearly mindlessness in action. The ultimate state of human being. Think about it!
Coincidence: I wrote the above this week and was going to post it, when I received an email from Gregory Johnson, one of the first people I certified to teach, back in the 1970’s. He currently lives in Tucson. He included a poem, that stated my ideas even more clearly. Enjoy, and thanks to Gregory.


Don’t you wish they would stop,

all the thoughts swirling around in your head,

bees in a hive, dancers tapping their way across the stage.

I should rake the leaves in the carport, buy Christmas lights.

Was there really life on Mars? What will I cook for dinner?

I walk up the driveway, put out the garbage bins.

I should stop using plastic bags, visit my friend

whose husband just left her for the Swedish nanny.

I wish I hadn’t said Patrick’s painting looked “ominous.”

Maybe that’s why he hasn’t called.

Does the car need oil, again? There’s a hole in the ozone

the size of Texas, and everything seems to be speeding up.

Come, let’s stand by the window and look out

at the light on the field. Let’s watch how

the clouds cover the sun, and almost nothing

stirs in the grass.

—Danusha Laméris