I've been practicing Tai Chi for about eleven years. Before, I was into hard style martial arts -- traditional Japanese Shotokan karate at first, then a mixed style focused on Korean karate.
Soft-style martial arts like Tai Chi (a.k.a. internal styles) take considerably more time to learn and, perhaps, master.
External styles are centered on punching, kicking, blocking, and such. What you're supposed to learn is pretty much open to view. Sure, there's a mental side to karate, but by and large the emphasis in training is on what your body is doing, not your psyche.
With Tai Chi, there's much more of a balance between body and mind. Intention is key. Where the mind goes, the body will follow. This makes the internal martial arts styles much more subtle than the external styles.
After more than a decade, I'm still barely more than a Tai Chi beginner. During every class, I learn something new about myself and Tai Chi.
The hardest habit to break -- and this applies to just about everybody who learns Tai Chi, not just people like me who migrated to it from a hard style martial art -- stems from that word, hard. Usually the natural human inclination is to try hard, to work harder, to be a hard person to defeat.
In Tai Chi, though, you learn that being soft is more important than being hard. Also, that being slow is more important than being fast, and being small is more important than being large.
This may sound paradoxical.
For a long time it didn't make sense to me. But gradually, bit by bit, lesson by lesson, seeing how the Daoist principles of Tai Chi play out physically has helped me understand that the same principles apply in everyday life.
Including my mental life.
So the past few days I've been experimenting with a three word affirmation before I meditate every morning: softer, slower, smaller. It's easy to try too hard in meditation, just as it is in Tai Chi.
Doing less often is more productive than doing more. Relaxing and letting go often leads to a more pleasant outcome than striving to achieve a goal.
Again, for me this has been easiest to understand through physical movement, because outcomes are difficult to ignore -- whereas when we're in our mind, we can pretend we're something other than what is real. In Tai Chi, using too much force and power usually is counter-productive. Getting tight and rigid just gives another person a lever to use against you.
Don't get me wrong: there's a time and place for harder, faster, and larger. But when this is our only recipe for getting through life, our sole repertoire for dealing with problems, our capabilities will be limited.
One of the fascinating aspects of Tai Chi is the emphasis on yin and yang. The familiar symbol contains a lot of wisdom.
At an extreme lies an opposite. Which isn't so much opposed, as a complement. When white reaches a maximum, black begins to grow. When softness is expressed completely, hardness manifests. Thus Tai Chi is continually alternating between yin and yang, soft and hard, rest and motion, slow and fast.
This can be difficult to observe from the outside, since Tai Chi typically appears to be quite gentle and slow-moving. But internally, and also externally in the case of some more martially-oriented forms, the alternation of yin and yang is evident.
Everybody is different.
People often go to extremes in different ways. Some are habitually too passive, others too aggressive. Some are habitually too easy-going, others too hard-driving. For me, I've found it helpful to focus on the above-mentioned affirmation: softer, slower, smaller.
This helps balance me, since I tend toward the opposite direction. As my Tai Chi instructor is fond of saying, there's no right or wrong here. There's just what works, what feels right, what helps me sleep soundly.
Fighting fire with fire, or force with force, sometimes makes sense. Usually, though, it doesn't. Just as with flying across the world, a great circle can get you where you want to go more readily than a straight line.