Martin Mellish has been studying and teaching Tai Chi for over thirty years. He is a certified hypnotherapist and Yoga teacher and has travelled extensively in China to practice Tai Chi, and to explore the sacred mountains and minority cultures of Western China and Tibet. He also holds a Master’s degree in Mathematics from Cambridge University, and has published articles with both ‘Qi’ Magazine and ‘Tai Chi’ Magazine.
Here, Martin answers some questions about his new book, A Tai Chi Imagery Workbook: Spirit, Intent, and Motion.
Tell us about your background – how did you come to be interested in imagery?
I was somewhat of a mathematical prodigy. My nominal research area was mathematical models of energy futures, but I spent most of my time ‘moonlighting’ in Artificial Intelligence research. Like most newcomers to AI, I soon found out that modeling our perceptual and motor skills is actually much harder than solving what we think of as ‘complex’ intellectual problems. For example, you can buy a computer program that can play world championship-level chess for less than $50, but there is still no robot that can walk down the street without bumping into people, or even distinguish a male from a female face.
So, paradoxically, it was my intellectual researches that showed me that we not only overestimate the power of our intellect, but also underestimate, by an enormous factor, the power of other, non-conceptual, aspects of our being. I don’t know if it was coincidence – it certainly wasn’t a conscious choice – but it was around this period that I resigned my University fellowship and headed out to the Rajneesh meditation ashram in India, not to return for five years, for most of which I was ‘researching’ those non-conceptual aspects of my being in an extremely intense and down-to-earth fashion.
During this period I began my study of Tai Chi, meditation, martial arts, and human relationships. All of these were pretty much new to me, and I was both extremely enthusiastic about, and spectacularly bad at, all of them. The fact that I was having to learn these skills late in life, starting from pretty far back, gave me, I think, a better ‘conscious’ understanding of what they are about than if they had come naturally to me. There are many good Tai Chi practitioners to whom Tai Chi came naturally, but I have never met a good teacher of, or writer about, Tai Chi who did not struggle enormously, and for a long time any without apparent success, as a beginner. I was no exception.
I was the Ashram’s front gate guard, and given the large size and extremely controversial nature of the Ashram, I had to use my martial arts skills almost every day. This allowed me to compare the strong and weak points of different martial arts in practical application. My beloved Karate turned out to be almost useless in practice, since it contained no methods for subduing someone without injuring them: what worked best tended to be a combination of Tai Chi and Aiki-juijutsu. I developed a feeling for what constitutes a safe application (for both parties) that has never left me. I think this feeling can only be developed by actually having to use those applications in the real world, out on the street, on a daily basis.
After 5 years the commune dissolved and I returned to the West. In India I had had the freedom to practice Tai Chi many hours a day, but a very restricted range of teachers and forms –I spent 5 years working entirely on the (very simple) 24 form, which I think was very helpful for my development since it forced me to go very deeply into the essence of every movement. In the West I had less time, but a greater variety of teachers. I started to teach Tai Chi myself, and that experience, together with the experience of studying with other teachers, showed me how effective imagery was – and, by contrast, how ineffective rational explanation was – at encouraging students to make positive changes.
Once I was ‘hooked’ on imagery and its power, I decided to train as a hypnotherapist, and practiced as one for a few years. Again, I was struck by how a simple image could have the power to enable a client to make a change, such as giving up an addiction, that they may have struggled with for many years on the rational level without success.
During this period I won several medals in national Tai Chi competitions – in fact, I did so well in the Canadian championships that the Canadians finally asked me not to come back! This not as big an achievement as it sounds, since the best practitioners do not compete – they judge. I also met my main teacher, Gao Fu, an elderly Chinese woman with an unrivalled understanding of the deep internals of Tai Chi. I learned Chinese in order to study with her (she spoke no English) and became her interpreter. She invited me to stay with her in Beijing one summer, where she introduced me to some of the best Tai Chi masters in the world as well as to her own famous teacher, Feng Zhi Qiang.
During that summer I had the interesting experience of learning subtle details of Tai Chi internals that I did not understand, in a language that for the most part I did not understand either. My learning sunk in on a level deeper than language, and showed me how unimportant ‘surface’ understanding is to the process of positive change. This was also the beginning of my long love affair with China, where I now live and teach.
How did the book come about, and where does the imagery come from?
This book owes its existence to Ki McGraw, of the Seattle Hatha Yoga Center. I was taking a Yoga certification course with her in Bali, she heard of my interest in Tai Chi, and lent me a copy of Eric Franklin’s Dynamic Alignment through Imagery. This book has its roots in the world of dance, which is another of my interests, but I found many of the images in it very useful in Tai Chi as well. I was thinking of writing an article pointing out the usefulness of the images in Tai Chi, but the more I worked on the article, the longer it became, and the more the images in Mr Franklin’s book were naturally replaced either by native images from the Tai Chi tradition, or by more contemporary images that I, or other teachers, had found useful. That article eventually turned into this book.
Perhaps a third of the imagery comes directly from the Tai Chi classics, a third has been either invented or substantially modified by me, and a third comes from other teachers, either of Tai Chi or of other movement forms. However, as I say in the book, ‘Everything in this book has its roots in the ancient tradition and lineage of Tai Chi. Everything in it is also directly applicable, right now, to modern life in the twenty-first century. Nothing in this book is here for historical, ceremonial, cultural, or artistic reasons: every image in this book is here because it works.”
What is ‘imagery’ in this context and how does it aid and improve the practice of Tai Chi?
Imagery is a method of encapsulating and transmitting non-verbal knowledge. It lets you know that a certain skill or learning with which you are already familiar can be usefully applied to an unfamiliar situation, similarly to the way in which computer developers ‘re-use’ code that is known to reliably perform a certain function. You can think of ‘imagery’ in this context as the software of the body – that which enables us to coordinate all our different muscles and bones without having to consciously ‘think’ about coordinating them, which is neither necessary nor possible.
Many beginners are surprised that they have difficulty learning something as apparently simple as the slow, gentle movements of Tai Chi. They frequently become depressed about their apparent lack of talent for the art, lose their initial enthusiasm, and give up. I’ve had every single student in a ten-member class come up to me, individually, and tell me they were thinking of quitting so as not to hold up the others!
The movements of Tai Chi are hard for the ‘rational’ mind to learn, since the rational mind doesn’t do ‘parallel processing’ well – don’t ask it to walk and chew gum at the same time! In Tai Chi you have to coordinate your feet, your legs, the carriage of your torso, the expression of your arms and fingers, and your breath, all at once. As hard and frustrating as this process can be if you try to ‘micro-manage’ the individual details, it can be just as simple and joyful if you coordinate your movement using an image – ‘Feel yourself throwing a frisbee’, or ‘Skate across a frozen pond’.
Why will bodyworkers and others concerned with balance and movement be interested in these ideas?
Bodyworkers, personal trainers, and physical therapists have sharp eyes and can see exactly what postural deficiencies or movement limitations their clients have. However, directly telling their clients what changes they need to make – “Don’t slouch! Keep your shoulders level!” is generally not a good way to bring about positive change. People tend to hold their posture rigid and over-controlled for a while, then return to their previous bad habit. We can’t be micro-managing our posture all the time – we need a simple and engaging idea that the body can orient itself around, that imagery provides. In fact most bodyworkers already have a fair repertoire of imagery – the advantage of Tai Chi imagery is that it is subtle, sophisticated, and fun, and comes from a long tradition and has thus stood the test of time.
An underlying guiding principle in this book seems to be ‘non-doing’ (wu wei). What does this mean and why is it important?
I teach Physics here in China, and my staff-room desk looks more like a toy store than anything else. I use so many toys for a very good reason – toys are designed to teach young children, in a very simple way, how and why the physical world around us works.
I start all my Physics classes by looking at something very simple and everyday – a bouncy ball, a length of string, a soap bubble, or a cup of tea. In the book I also use simple language and talk about everyday things –skateboards, exercise balls, cats, frozen orange juice, trampolines, bowls of fruit, and so on. I always try to keep the discussion as concrete as I can.
Esoteric Chinese terms such as wu wei (literally, ‘non-doing’) often hinder such discussion more than they help. Wu wei is not only an unfamiliar term to most people, but also a slippery one – even ‘experts’ (if there are any!) disagree on what it means, and for that reason I only use the term once, in the Introduction. But I think it’s at least possible that you are on to something, and that actually the whole book is about wu wei.
Language gets slippery when we talk about these kinds of issues, since it embodies the sometimes-biased perspective of the conceptual mind. For example, I could talk about letting go of conscious attempts to control one’s body and one’s world, and learning to trust one’s unconscious wisdom. This would be kind of a classic definition of wu wei. The trouble with this formulation is that it concedes, falsely, that the conceptual mind is the only part of your being that is ‘conscious’. An Olympic diver leaping off the high board, or a tightrope-walker balanced over an abyss, is not ‘unconscious’, but in a state of extremely heightened awareness. Trying to express that awareness in verbal or conceptual terms is not only unnecessary, but potentially a good way to get oneself killed.
Wu Wei, in my understanding, is trusting that you already have the wisdom to respond appropriately to the situation in front of you, and that you do not need either to micro-manage it or to think it out. It takes courage – in the beginning your conceptual mind will scream at you that it, and only it, can handle things. Sometimes it might even be right – your more instinctual mind has many resources, but it’s not infallible, and it learns partly by making mistakes. In developing wu wei you may sometimes need to take your lumps – ‘invest in loss’, as Chen Man Ching used to say.
In my experience of wu wei, it is actually not so much the doing, but the doer, whose apparent absence can be unnerving. I remember a period when I was working for Microsoft, and practicing opening the Jade Pillow (upper neck) which is a very good way to access ‘non-doing’. I was quite extraordinarily productive, and my work was of exceptional quality, but I was always scared to submit it because I never had the feeling that I had done it, and I had no idea whether it was any good. Similarly, after my best hypnotherapy sessions I would always feel like a fraud taking my client’s money, since I felt that either the client had done all the work, or that no-one had and the results had just arrived by Grace.
Does the usefulness of imagery depend on experience?
I think experience is less important than passionate interest. For example, Married Love, the famous 19th-century sex manual that transformed the lives of thousands of women, was written by a virgin. That said, I do believe that actual experience can add depth to the usefulness of an image, For example, I have always loved the classic Tai Chi image of imagining that you are riding a horse, but I used to experienced the image in a more or less static way – until I learned to actually ride a horse. There’s a certain dynamic fluidity to your ‘seat’ as you ride a horse that is very beneficial for any type of movement practice and that I learned the hard way, trotting and cantering along mountain trails.
Much of the classic imagery of Tai Chi refers to skills, such as riding a horse, or cracking a whip, that every medieval farmer would have had, but that are much less current now. Cracking a whip is an excellent way of thinking about the dynamics of a Tai Chi movement, but these days the actual experience of using an old-style whip is more or less confined to equestrians and certain, shall we say, minority interests. One of my motives in writing the book is to supplement such images with others that draw more directly on out daily life.
Copyright © Singing Dragon 2010.