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Monday, January 28, 2013

Applying the Empty Mind

by Adam Wallace
Qi Magazine - Issue 88
Fall 2008

The concept of ‘empty mind’ is realised through deep relaxation, attained spontaneously or through training (meditation). It means to be fully aware of the presentand surroundings and forget the self, which removes all hindrance to physical possibilities.

My first experience of this occurred before I had even heard of the concept, before beginning my journey into martial arts and Qigong. It actually occurred during my driving test over twenty years ago now. As a learner I never felt nervous or caused drama on the road but within one minute of being in the car with the invigilator I made a cardinal error. Following his instruction to make a right turn out of the test centre I put my foot down on the accelerator and turned the steering wheel too leisurely, resulting in the car mounting the kerb (on his side no less!). I did not dare to look at his face. In my mind I had already failed so the weight of worry and feeling of apprehension lifted away and the mind became a blank slate.

As he continued to issue his list of commands in a monotone I performed them perfectly, like an automaton.We returned to the test centreafter three-quarters of an hour (which felt like an eternity) and as we came to a complete stop the instructor closed his file and said, “Mr. Wallace……you have passed”. I responded, “You’re joking, right?”, nonplussed, believing him to possess some sadistic sense of humour. (I discovered later that instructors allow errors in the first five minutes due to ‘test nerves’.)

In 1998, I entered into a Pushing Hands competition for the Wenxian International Taijiquan competition. In the evening before the opening, I learned that my randomly picked opponent was the Chen family member who had been my training partner in my previous week’s stay in Chenjiagou (Chen Village). I felt deflated, knowing he was one of the top athletes under Master Chen Bing and Grandmaster Chen Xiaoxing. He was more skilled and losing to him in the firstr ound would mean my early exit from the tournament (or so I thought at the time as the rules had not been adequately translated).

This began to eat away at me, causing my Qi to literally disperse. At breakfast I had to force myself to eat and felt uneasy. After lunch I returned to my room with butterflies in my stomach, awaiting the moment of truth. Instead of resting in bed I began practising Zhan Zhuang (Standing Pole) and after half an hour I sat down to meditate. By the time I arrived at the stadium I felt transformed and invigorated. My mind was so calm (a contrast to the competitors that go to great lengths ‘psyching themselves up’), my Qi was stable (adrenaline under control) and fully restored, and I felt deeply centred. Gone were all the doubts and insecurities. At the end of a very close match I was declared the winner, all due to‘empty mind’.

Othertimes when empty mind practice has come in handy is when I train jumping. There is a wall in the park where I used to practice that reached my waist level. A few times, to challenge myself, I would jump onto it from a stationary position; difficult enough even with a running start. Each time I would stand facing the wall considering the height and pondering clearing the distance too much, I would prevent myself from doing it as if my feet were nailed or glued to the ground.

Whenever I would finally stop thinking and say to myself, “Just do it”, I always succeeded.When it comes to physical training and Qi it does not do to overintellectualise what is happening internally. It is more important to feel the experience rather than think or try to make sense of it. Some people find the idea of ‘No Mind’ hard to get around. It seems like a paradox. It is important for the skill taught to be absorbed by the body and not to remain only in the head. Consciousness of self is the greatest impediment to the execution of physical actions. 

Most accidents occur and chances are missed because of pensiveness and hesitation to act, or else in acting rashly or emotionally. In combat, when an opponent commits to launching an attack he creates an opening and becomes vulnerable for a split-second. This window of opportunity, the potential to counterattack, must be ‘felt’ instinctively. There is no time to think because by the time the eyes see it and the brain sends the message to the limbs to counterattack, the opportunity is lost. The opponent would have returned to a defensive position or retreated out of range (closing the ‘window’) or renewed his attack, presenting a whole new set of problems to solve and answer.

The mind, unchecked, creates irrational and unwarranted fears, self doubt and anxiety. In this situation it can literally become our own worst enemy. It creates barriers, physically (between us and our bodies and achieving our goals) and subtly (between us and other people and nature.) The ‘empty mind’ enables us to see things without prejudice, as they really are, and enables us to achieve far more physically than we might think possible.