If I were asked what I thought the key to learning Taijiquan was, I would have to say that it is the ability to break and change old habits, both physical and mental. Because habits are usually formed at a very young age and have gone unnoticed for so many years, most people are slaves to their habits. Bad habits are usually very difficult to identify and in most cases, nearly impossible to break. Like everything else, I feel that in order to be able to understand and deal with a certain issue, one needs to go deep into the mind and explore its roots and how it actually functions in the human psyche.
Let’s begin by asking what a habit is and how it functions in the mind? I think most people would agree that a habit is a specific action or thought which naturally comes up repeatedly in one’s life. How and why are habits formed and how do they become strong enough to go unnoticed by the conscious mind? Personally, I think the mind forms habits for the simple reason that a habit is a quick and energy efficient way of dealing with problems found in every day life. If the mind had to process, compute and solve every single situation that arose throughout the day, it would be very quickly overwhelmed and exhausted. Habits are therefore programmed responses to certain stimuli which help save the mind’s precious time and energy. Actually, I would go one step further and say that the mind itself is nothing more than a bundle of habits which helps us deal with issues presented to us in our daily lives. Even though certain habits can be very strongly established in most people, I believe that if they are properly recognized and understood, they can easily be changed and replaced with new and better ones.
How do habits form? Usually the mind divides and classifies every conscious thought or action into one of two categories, good or bad. The mind then continuously energizes these opinions until they become established beliefs which dictate what we do in our physical lives. Once a belief or action becomes strong enough that it is constantly repeated, it becomes programmed into the mind and becomes “habitual”. Basically, the more a specific action , belief or thought is energized through positive or negative thought, the stronger the habit becomes and the less conscious effort is needed to keep it alive. This would explain why our longest standing beliefs and habits seem to be the hardest ones to notice and break.
Because the mind naturally forms habits based on how much it energizes certain thoughts and beliefs, the human psyche functions entirely on habits. This is why I feel it is important to recognize and reform certain habitual beliefs and actions when studying Taijiquan.
The first step in changing one’s habits is in becoming aware of and recognizing the thought or action which needs to be changed. To become aware of something however does not mean to classify and judge the thought or action as either good or bad. This judgement would only energize and strengthen the habit and make it harder to break. To recognize and become aware of a habit simply means to recognize it for what it is; the quickest (not necessarily the most beneficial) way for the mind or body to deal with something. Once the specific habit has been identified, conscious steps should be taken to change it. At this point, a new action or thought may be introduced to replace the old one. This requires conscious effort as the new habit will only become established if there is sufficient energy and presence while performing the newly introduced action or thought. To perform the action absent-mindedly is relatively useless as presence is what allows energy to flow into whatever is being done. The more often the new action or thought is consciously repeated, the more energy it will accumulate and the faster it will be programmed into the mind.
Although any core belief or physical action dealing with Taijiquan practice could be used as an example, let us use the habit of following the principle that the elbows should always be pointed down. To begin, a practioner should become aware of and recognize every instance that this principle is not being adhered to. This would require the student to consciously go through the form repeatedly to see where and when the elbows point out or up. No changes should be attempted at this point as the focus of one’s attention should only be on recognizing the mistakes. Because everything the mind does is fundamentally a habit, this action of recognizing every mistake the elbows make should also become a well established habit. Conscious attention to every movement must be given until the habit of recognizing every mistake becomes second nature. Once the practitioner is able to complete the form while simply observing all the mistakes the elbows make, the intention of keeping the elbows down should be introduced and consciously drilled into the form. Eventually, the mind will have formed the habit of keeping the elbows down and the action will become natural or habitual. The longer one repeats these actions consciously, the stronger the habit will become. For example, if the student consciously positioned the elbows every time he did the form for an entire month, the habit would be much stronger than the student who consciously focused on this for merely a week. However, I believe that once the habit becomes natural and requires little conscious effort, the practitioner should move on to the next habit which needs to be changed. Because this habit was consciously and intentionally created, the energy behind it will ensure that it is maintained and in most cases, developed even further without the need for attention.
At first, I believe it is important to deal with one habit at a time. Trying to change too many things at once scatters the mind’s energy and focus. Even though this might seem quite tedious at first, this is actually a simple but very powerful process which can then be used continuously during physical and mental training. Once the mind has become accustomed to this process of consciously changing habits, the process itself becomes a habit and requires very little effort. Eventually, several habits can be changed at once with relative ease.
Training is, for most people, a mysterious game of chance where the final goals are set but no clear path or way to get there is visible. I feel that understanding habits and how the mind functions can not only transform a student’s training regiment, but also his outlook on life. When one becomes efficient at changing habits and realizes that anything conceivable is able to be programmed into the mind as a habit, the possibilities become endless and progress becomes limitless.
Indonesia Chen style Taijiquan Practical Method