Who Are You?

tai chi solutionA foundational idea of western culture, a platform for all our perfections and trials, is the Psychological Self (PS). It is constructed of qualities supposedly as solid as building blocks. It is the motivating force behind much of our fiction and all of our worries. Many of us have been conditioned to see the PS (Psychological Self) as the key to our characters. We suffer and overthrow our traumas, appetites and secrets, all of which add up to what we think of as our core soul.

But there is an alternative story, sometimes presented as a knotty puzzle. Spiritual teachers in eastern culture propose problems or Koan for the student to chew on. Koans are puzzles because consciousness is a puzzle. Such questions as “What was your face before you were born?” are not presented to make sense, but to make experience. You must be able to re-think the problem again and again until something “authentic” pops out of your unprepared mouth.

The basis of consciousness in eastern thought, promotes the concept “Original Self” (OS). OS is like a river which, try as you might, you can never enter the same way twice. Through all the changes and challenges that life brings–even personal and positive evolution–you are constantly altering.

These beliefs are not necessarily in conflict. They are simply different. Some consider the OS (Original Self) a deeper level experience than the PS. Many attempts to sharpen the distinction between these two “states” leads to approaches such as

“To form a successful theory of consciousness, we much match first-person phenomenal content to third-person brain content. We must somehow reconcile the inner perspective of science. And there will always be many of us who intuitively think this can never be done…”*

A Tai Chi Solution

One approach to this reconciliation lies in practices such as we find in Tai Chi Chuan. My sometimes-fixation over details forces me to start this discussion with the fact that Tai Chi’s slow motion practice is found in many styles of Chinese martial arts. But for now, I’ll focus on Tai Chi.

This discipline keeps you conscious and focused while you flow through the formal practice. Movement becomes almost as relaxed as sleeping. Yet, simultaneously, some part of your brain maintains the ability to instantly issue force. Thus, refined alertness is like moving with a notched arrow ready to release with no hesitation.

To balance this intense, fluid state of mind you must observe and direct simultaneously. It is no exaggeration to say that in this method you must move your waist and legs to even wiggle your little finger. Nothing is left behind. During practice, you may move all four limbs at diverse rates. While engaged, you must also monitor your center of gravity in reference to your footwork which, in turn, is controlled by the waist.

As you execute these interrelated physical functions you must also maintain the “story” of each movement: this hand blocks while that hand strikes, and I turn my body slightly to cause an angular divergence from the opponent–that sort of thing. As far as martial intent, “lovers” as well as “fighters” will feel the boundaries of perception disappear into pure, abstract sensation. Not only is this not harmful but, incredibly, it begins to inform the rest of the your life.

This powerful method creates the desired effect with just a little sophisticated practice. Sometimes when a student realizes just how sophisticated–even on a positive note–the first glimmerings of panic appear.

In other similar games and practices we rarely get the in-depth feedback this method offers. The flow from one move to another in a routine, of anywhere from 7 minutes to 40, allows you opportunity to really scrutinize and constantly adjust your actions. The results will not be trivial. Like a large boat, no one untaught can just alter course rapidly. Slow practice supplies the answer. Added to this the act of listening, like trying to open a combination lock, will heighten the sense of immediacy.

This is just the beginning. If your view is comprehensive enough, slow practices validate the reality of you being just who you think you are, a living biography that has a past, a bouquet of experiences–good and bad–and a psyche divided into spheres of influence. Even if you believe in a behavioral approach, this method addresses something so fundamental it can only be called your “self.”


*The Ego Tunnel, The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self, Thomas Metzinger, Basic Books, New York, 2009, p. 63

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