Out of The Way – How Taoism Made Me a Better Mover
A life dedicated to movement knows no rest. New skills to learn, old skills to maintain, and both juggled against the persistence of time. I turned 34 this year, and I tell you there’s nothing so humbling as age. My body has so far kicked ass into my 30s, but this birthday brought with it some reflection – reflection in the form of aches, pains, and pondering just how long I can continue to exist in motion.
Oftentimes I turn to literature for answers. Books have always opened the door to a new level of understanding, and The Tao of Pooh (a book on Taoism conveyed through Winnie the Pooh) became an unexpected source of wisdom on movement. I started reading this book off the suggestion of a close friend, and within a few pages, realized exactly why this book found me.
The Uncarved Block (Pu)
One of the main principles of Taoism is The Uncarved Block (in Chinese, “pu”). It states that the inherent power of something is best kept in its simplest, untouched form. The more you add, the more you alter its essence.
You can look at The Uncarved Block as movement itself. Every move exists in its simplest form until you start adding onto it with thoughts and ideas. Take fear. We all have experienced its power. How it can change something so simple into the most impossible task. The paralyzing nature of fear causes us to be overwhelmed with thoughts of injury, panic, and losing control. All the while the move we are attempting has not changed, only our perception of it.
Analysis can also work against The Uncarved Block. By overextending our focus on all the components of a movement, we add on a tremendous layer of complexity. This literally causes us to make something more difficult than it needs to be. While analysis can be useful when studying flaws in execution, it is not practical while doing the movement. The mind can only actively focus on a few variables while the body is in motion.
Applying The Uncarved Block
- Embrace the beginner’s mindset. Try to include something new and unexplored into every practice session. This challenges your mind to continuously engage fresh patterns and see things in their simple and unaltered form.
- Take emotion out of it (at least the negative ones). Visualization can work both ways, and anticipation of the negative can certainly lead to that reality. Keeping a clear and unbiased mind gives you room to focus on what’s important: the movement.
- Focus on one or two variables at a time. If you’re working to improve a technique, split it into a few key components and address them separately. This allows the mind to sustain a stronger singular focus, and prevents paralysis by analysis.
The Act of Non-Action (Wu Wei)
Aren’t dichotomies fun? The Act of Non-Action (in Chinese, “wu wei”) simply stated means to let it happen. A common metaphor for this is to picture snow accumulating on a tree branch. As the snow piles up, the branch begins to droop and bend. Once there is enough weight, the branch will naturally let go of the snow. This appears to just happen without any effort.
Sounds simple enough right? Well it’s very tricky when applied to movement. When we move, we naturally put in effort, and sometimes we perceive that more effort leads to better movement. This is simply not true. If you observe all the best movers, you can see that they are masters of Wu Wei. They make the difficult look easy by using their energy at the right time. This leads to achieving the best outcome from exerting minimal effort.
Bruce Lee gives a very nifty take on Wu Wei in this video:
- Relax before every movement. Take a focused breath and let go of any tension you’re carrying. Remember, the move is there. Get out of the way and let it do itself.
- Do combinations. Linking movements is a great way to allow your body to flow by reducing the amount of time your mind can interfere in transition. The key is to ride the momentum of each movement into the next. No stopping. No extra effort.
- Timing. Knowing when the body should be relaxed and when it should tense in effort in one of the most challenging aspects of movement. Pay close attention to this balance of loose and tense, and experiment with the timing of your tension. I suggest studying some traditional martial artists to get a better idea.
Happy Moving 🙂