Energy, the Emotions, and Tai Chi

In the 15 years I've been doing tai chi, I've changed my mind about how I see the world in many different ways, some subtle, some not so subtle. One of the most earth-crashingly huge changes in my point of view has concerned the traditional Eastern view of the emotions, how they factor into health and wellbeing, and the ways in which we interact with each other.

My starting point was the same as most people's in the West. Growing up, I viewed myself as an emotional island. My emotions were contained within my own mind. I might ride them up and down like a wave, but they were mine and mine alone. Whatever I felt, it was a product of my personality, the way that I perceived and experienced the world, and background causes, like the way I was raised, and my expectations. 

Occasionally I would think that I had some insight into the emotional states of others. If I asked someone, "Are you mad at me?" "You like him, don't you?" or "I can see that you're sad today," he or she could confirm or deny. More often than not, my perceptions would be denied. I would be told I was imagining things. (People don't generally like it when you perceive how they feel.) Over time, I learned not to trust my gut instincts about people. I blamed myself when I was told I had misperceived the situation.

Through my arts and humanities education, I learned the origins of these two philosophical positions. The idea that we are individual, separate, minds, irrevocably distinct from one another, and essentially cut off from each other by our individual fleshy containers comes from Rene Descartes. Yes, that Descartes: "I think, therefore I am." The Cartesian notion of the containerized individual stuck in his or her body, of immaterial mind lodged behind the walls of the flesh, is one of the most predominant influences in Western ideas of the self. 

Sigmund Freud is the other huge influence on how we think about ourselves. Freud's legacy includes the idea that once we're through childhood and our neuroses have been all finalized, our emotional reactions are largely the product of upbringing. When you look at another person and think you can perceive his or her emotions, according to Freud, you're doing what he called "projection" - ascribing your own thoughts, feelings and desires to the outside world.

Together, the Cartesian and Freudian ideas of how we work mentally and emotionally have led our culture into the collective understanding of ourselves as separate entities, forever closed off to each other, and experiencing separate inner worlds that are up to us to tend as we will.

I bought into this view until I really got into tai chi.

As I slowly came to appreciate the idea of chi or energy, I started to get a clue that what I'd previously imagined were the borders of my personal being were wrong. As I began to become more aware of my own energy bubble (aura, electromagnetic field - call it what you like), I began to clue in that we have subtle layers attached to us that we carry around at all times. Learning to expand and contract this bubble is a core part of learning tai chi. Simply practicing tai chi, even as a beginner, will open up your field substantially. The more you do tai chi, the more you feel this bubble all around you.

The more you can tune in to your own field, and the more centered you are in yourself, the more you become aware of the fact that others around you are affecting you. When you start out your day knowing that you're in a good mood and you feel good in your body, and that suddenly takes a swerve, that is your first clue that your emotional world has more impacting it than just your own internal thoughts and feelings.

At the time that I was really getting into tai chi, I was often leading classes at the university. I began to notice that I was dreading the days when I had to hand back papers. I would spend the entire class feeling nervous and jumpy. At the end, when I handed everything back, I couldn't wait to get out of there.

There was no reason for me to feel nervous. I wasn't being evaluated. But my students were jumping out of their skins to see their marks. This was one of my first lessons in picking up the emotions of others.

More lessons would follow. When I had to meet with a particularly angry student about the mark I'd given him on an assignment, I tried to observe objectively how the discussion made me feel. I noticed my stomach churning and a sensation of tension all over the surface of my skin. I wasn't upset about the meeting, but he was ranting about the low grade. Thanks to tai chi,  I also knew that the thing to do with all this emotion was  to drop inside and to allow the emotion to be sent back to him. I focused, relaxed, and allowed myself to sink down into the centre of the earth. The student immediately grew calm, stopped in his tracks as his temper tantrum no longer had a place to take hold.

Here's the thing: as tai chi artists, we learn to project chi in an emotionally neutral way. But we're not alone in this ability. People project chi all the time quite naturally. We fling it around like a bunch of angry apes. And we do it through strong, overwhelming emotions. Anger is among the most common. The next time someone is in your face about something, sit back and take notice of how it feels.

Or, if you don't have people in your life who like to get in your face (and good on you if you don't!), simply be aware of how you feel around different people. Do you feel tired and draggy after spending time with that one, slightly pesky friend? Do you feel energized by certain people? Is there someone in your life who always makes you feel like you're receiving a warm, friendly hug? When you walk into a room, does your stomach drop like you're in a fast moving elevator? Who is there? What do you think they are thinking about?

These are just some of the effects that others can have on us. We are not islands unto ourselves. We are part of a rich, interactive web of energies. One of the key ways we experience these energies is through emotions and feelings.

Tai chi can teach you how to participate in this web more effectively in a number of ways. First, you get to know your body and its habitual tensions really well. The more you learn to release those tensions, the more you learn to regulate your emotions. You don't go up and down as much as you used to, so if and when you're faced with a tricky situation or person, it is much more obvious.

Tai chi practice also develops your body's natural defense system. Your radar becomes more sensitive, and your resilience grows. You can feel the effects of the emotions of others without getting carried away by them. Once you're able to distinguish between the emotions that are yours and those that come from the outside, you have a rich source of information available to you at all times.

This is not to say that you don't have to work on yourself, and that everyone else is to blame for what you're feeling right now - not at all. Through overwork, stress, expectations, ego, joys, worries, everyday circumstances, and tensions that we carry with us at all times, we are a constantly circulating soup of emotions. Whatever you carry with you - and I guarantee you, it's more chaotic than you think - is always adding its own flavour to how you experience the world.

I'm sure you can think of a time when you experienced a strong emotion, whether it was joy, anger, grief, worry, fear, guilt, or what have you. Remember how everything you encountered that day was coloured by the emotion? You could probably barely think about anything else. While this is obviously true about the big emotions, those minor, background emotions you carry with you on a daily basis add their own tint to your experiences, too.

Any given interaction between two people is going to be a mixture of the perceptions, vulnerabilities, aggressions and intentions of each. It's only when you've learned to stay steady on your feet and just go with the flow of any situation that you can be sure you're getting accurate information from your surroundings.

Tai chi is a wonderful way to learn to hold your own emotional centre, no matter what is happening around you.  

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