The Essential Energies: Intention

My taiji class is at the point with our latest form that we’ve learned the basic choreography, and now we’re refining details and asking questions. This is the part where I usually get annoyed because some motions lack life and energy, and I can’t figure out what’s wrong. This time around is no exception.

One of the most annoying movements for me is called “Curved Bow Shoots the Tiger” in Sun style, and similar things in other family styles. This is the third time I’ve met this movement this year, with minor variations, and I still don’t feel like I get it. When I come to this bit, I feel like I’m just waving my arms around for no apparent reason. No sense of energy or flow. It’s aggravating.

One evening, after getting to spend a lot of time on the section of the form that includes Curved Bow Shoots the Tiger, I walked to my car after class, still thinking about this movement. I thought about the step, the shift of weight, the forward-stretching arms, and suddenly realized: I have no idea what this thing is for. I have no idea why I’m stepping this way or standing this way or moving this way. The basic shape of Curved Bow Shoots the Tiger doesn’t convey anything to me, inexperienced martial artist that I am. If I don’t know what it’s for, then of course I can’t feel any energy in it. I’m not directing any energy sensibly through it. I don’t have a point of focus. I can’t possibly know what’s right and wrong about it.

All through my study of taiji, I’ve been told that intention matters. When I finally realized my problem with Curved Bow Shoots the Tiger, that understanding clicked a level deeper. I’ve been trying to think of questions regarding the “what” of the movement, to help me perform the details of it better, in hopes that would solve the problem. What I really needed to ask first was about the “why” — why does this movement exist? What is it intended for? Asking that question has done so much more toward helping me understand this movement and find the energy that was missing. I needed to learn the “what,” the simple basics of how to move, but I also need the “why” in order to give that movement life, to fill it with purpose and energy.

Intention is the “why” behind an action. You need to have the “what,” the basic action itself, in order to make anything happen. But in order to focus the “what” in any kind of purposeful way, you also need a “why.” The “why” changes the “what” in important ways — sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, but always important.

Consider an example my coach has used. In a class of taiji students, there may be a wide range of goals and reasons for why people are studying taiji. One person may be training to compete, wanting to win medals at the highest possible levels of competition. Someone else may be trying to learn how to relax in the midst of a stressful work or family situation. Those different intentions should inform each student in how they approach their practice. The person who wants to learn how to relax may not be best served by training and thinking like the person who wants to compete. The competitor needs to have a serious focus on details; the stressed person may need to let go of details and just move. Two people can perform the same sequence of movements, without a ton of external differences, and yet what’s happening inside those movements and those people can be completely different, because of intention.

So I’m learning to ask “why” more often about my taiji practice, and I’m starting to also ask “why” about other things, especially any part of my life that seems to have a faltering or wandering energy, anything which doesn’t have a sense of purpose or isn’t moving forward toward success. I need to think about my intentions in addition to my actions, as a way to tune my actions and fill them with purpose, as a way to choose my actions wisely and not waste energy. I only have so much time and energy; if I don’t know why I’m using them, a lot of them disappears without much to show for it. That’s not what I want the sum total of my life to be, so I need to get intentional about understanding my intentions.

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