I love questions. Especially those I can answer. Here's one that Todd Chambers asked me a few days ago via a comment on a post about giving up Buddhism and Zen.
I diligently practiced the Radha Soami Satsang Beas version of Surat Shabd Yoga (a.k.a. Sant Mat) for over thirty years, including a whole lot of daily meditation. And for about five years I've been studying Tai Chi fairly intensely, usually attending classes for five hours a week and doing the forms on my own at other times.
Now, comparing Tai Chi and Shabd Yoga might seem like an "apples and oranges" sort of thing, because they are so different.
But Todd asked which has been more rewarding for me, which doesn't require a point by point comparison. Plus, most people would say they are both "spiritual practices" -- though I really don't understand what spiritual means and wish we could do away with the notion of spirituality.
I've gained a lot from both Tai Chi and Shabd Yoga. However, here's why I consider Tai Chi and Taoism (Tai Chi is an expression of Taoism) to be much better suited for me now.
I love the naturalness of Tai Chi.
There is nothing, or at least very little, forced about it. You don't try to be anything other than what you are, doing what you can do. Performing a form (a set of movements) is called "playing."
My instructor, Warren, likes to tell a story about a bunch of senior (meaning, old) Chinese Tai Chi adepts who got together and said, "Let's each play a form." They did. And every playing looked way different from the others.
Each practitioner had his own style, his own way of melding Tai Chi with himself -- his personality, energy, physical body, attitude, and such. When they all had shown their stuff, laughter erupted with hearty expressions of "Everyone looked so good."
And so different.
In Shabd Yoga, or Sant Mat, the goal is sameness. Every disciple of a Shabd Yoga guru tries to emulate the master, aiming to merge his or her self with the oft-heard "will of the Satguru." The result is a straining to act just right. Shabd Yoga disciples are perpetually worried about doing something wrong.
In Radha Soami Satsang Beas this could be eating a speck of meat, sipping some wine, consuming pastries with egg in them, having sex outside of marriage, or not meditating for several hours a day.
In Tai Chi and Taoism, the variety I've been exposed to, there are no rigid rules. Laughter and a smile is the response to a seeming stumble, whether of the physical or psychological variety. I like that. It feels so right to not worry about being wrong.
We are human beings living in the physical world. That's where Tai Chi and Taoism start. And, in a sense, end.
Meaning, there isn't the other-worldly emphasis that dominates Shabd Yoga and Sant Mat -- which are aimed at releasing the soul from the confines of mind and body. In Tai Chi mind and body smoothly combine in flowing movement, as well as stillness.
The frequently-stated Tai Chi goal is to listen.
To yourself. To an opponent. To the cosmos. You aren't trying to dominate, control, force, overturn, fix. You listen, and from the listening comes appropriate action.
Which will be different for every time, for every person, for every situation. My instructor is fond of relating how a Tai Chi master was asked what the application, or martial purpose, was for a particular Tai Chi movement.
The master laughed and said, "Who can say? Whatever is happening determines what needs to be done." In other words, if you are attacked or find yourself in a confrontation, there are no rules except listen and respond appropriately.
This makes Tai Chi and Taoism wonderfully flexible and non-dogmatic.
So I've found that by no longer trying to be spiritual, I'm closer to being whatever the hell that word means, or doesn't mean.
Example: when I practiced Shabd Yoga/Sant Mat, I worked hard at being humble. Every serious disciple I know did also. If someone thanked you for your volunteer work, you were expected to say something like, "Oh, it is all the grace of the guru. I'm nothing, just a tool in His hands."
Then you'd feel ever so special for being so marvelously humble. After a while (several decades, because I can be a slow learner), it dawned on me that feeling special isn't an especially laudatory quality.
It certainly was at odds with the egolessness that Shabd Yoga held up as the goal of spiritual practice.
I came to realize that the Sant Mat dogma of initiates being especially chosen by God and the Guru to return to "heaven" (Sach Khand), while other poor souls (like my wife) were doomed to endless reincarnations on this crappy physical Earth, wasn't helping me on the humility or ego-loss front.
Now, I love not feeling special. I'm just a run of the mill Tai Chi student, and run of the mill human being, who is doing his best to live life halfway wisely, responsibly, and enjoyably.
I no longer feel that I'm part of a chosen group who are privy to knowing, or on their way to knowing, secrets of the cosmos that are hidden from others by a divine design. I used to talk a lot about being one with my fellow human beings and the universe at large.
Now, I don't talk much about that stuff. But I feel the oneness much more than in my Shabd Yoga days, because I've stopped setting myself apart as a member of a special group.
Hope this answers your question, Todd. Halfway, at least. That's good enough for me these days.
(Here's ten reasons for guys to like Tai Chi, using "guys" in the inclusive modern sense.)