Interview with Niall O’Hare,
conducted by Declan Treanor – April 2017.
This article is based on an open and frank Q&A between cousins. One explaining to the other what the ancient art of Taiji is and how it has had innumerable benefits on his life.
Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then let us begin.
“He who knows men is clever;
He who knows himself has insight.
He who conquers men has force;
He who conquers himself is truly strong.”
– Tao Te Ching.
How and why did you get involved in Taiji in the first place?
I believe I’ve always had an interest in pugilism and martial arts. In my teens I found myself in a few street altercations which brought with it subsequent internal enquiry, examination and a self-critique. If any success was achieved in adequately neutralising threats I would tend to be more focussed on possible methods of refinement. I tried at one time western boxing but felt it one dimensional and that there was within something of a deeper reservoir of potential being left untapped in this kind of training. A couple of years later one street circumstance in particular provided an insight into what that reservoir might contain. My mindset changed after that on both a subconscious and fairly conscious level.
After having left home of Ireland at 19 I travelled a bit. I encountered and became intrigued by various philosophies and certain esoteric teachings. There was a degree of clarity in these that I saw as outside of dogma, religion and mental conditioning, thus appealing to me. At this time I became attracted and introduced to teachings of the orient. It was Taoist teachings in particular which established a long lasting and strong effect in me. I can describe the process as,
“The dots seeming to connect”.
Soon after I began to explore my interest in the study of martial arts; the internal martial arts came to my attention and seemed to draw me under their wing. I introduced myself to a Taiji and Xingyi teacher in the area whose classes I attended for a short time – for about a month or so. Thereafter I followed a string of successive serendipitous events towards the west of Wales where I began a greater degree of training. In the new school the classes were under tutelage of a calm, collected and quite proficient Praying Mantis kung fu and Taijiquan instructor. He was serious in his practice and in his teaching. During the first months of work there I realised this was the way for me and is what my life would consist of from thereon in.
Has it brought benefits to your everyday life?
Yes. I would say that Taiji has brought innumerable benefits to my everyday life.
Let’s look at what makes up Taiji. Can you briefly explain taolu, qigong, tuishou, sanshou and neigong?
Yes. Taolu are two person sets or forms in which both taiji practitioners go through a series of set (pre-conceived) martial movements with the one initiating and the other neutralising.
Qigong is the practice of moving Qi (chi or Ki) around the meridians of the body. It usually comprises of various sets of movements or postures and breathing techniques for health and/ or martial purposes. Qigong is contained within Taiji.
Tuishou or ‘pushing hands’ is characteristically practiced in the internal martial arts. In Taijiquan pushing hands is used as an instructive tool for increasing sensitivity in the practitioner, and also as a method to maintain to the correct core principles whilst dealing with pressure from external forces. Tuishou are individual fixed pattern movements and rendered for martial purpose. Later tuishou may include applications and free pushing which are much closer to that of sparring.
Sanshou is something quite different and belongs to the category of external martial arts. It is a military based combative fighting system in China and what now could be described as sport boxing.
Neigong is the practice of internal yoga. It is the work practiced directly on the mind and the various energetic levels (fields) associated with the deep mind. This constitutes the beginning of the spiritual way within the art of Taiji.
Must one train each of the 5 equally or is there scope to just practice your favourite(s)?
Qigong is contained within Taiji and the Taiji forms. Tuishou and taolu are traditionally practiced within the Taijiquan system in a generally recommended ratio of ‘form’ to pushing hands of about 50:50. Sanshou as it is called is something not associated with the practice of internal martial arts. Neigong is the spiritual aspect of Taiji and the inclusion of its practice or not could be described as the definition between constituting an internal or an external art. In the school I have chosen it is traditionally practiced at the end of each session. Gradually with years of practice the internal work infiltrates and merges with the more external training of the forms and push-hands. This causes a deepening process of the mind and thus allows ones progression in the field to become more established on the internal (deeper) levels.
Apart from sanshou all of the above would be befitting of a true and (proper) dedicated daily practice of Taijiquan.
Does Taiji encourage meditation as part of exercise routines?
Meditation would be included in the Neigong aspect. I’ve heard Taiji described as meditation in movement and if you regard my previous answer as testament to this deepening of the mind in practice then this could be true. After each practice we, as taught by the genuine predecessors of our art sit down or stand and circulate the mind through the body and channels and then work directly on the areas of the mind itself as we go deeper. It is a way of balancing and refining the energies of both the mind and body worked upon previously during the training, thus deepening the body-mind connection.
Does it help you to live life more in the present?
Regarding the much exhorted ‘living in the present’ ethos I believe there is much confusion on this topic. As expounded by all true teachers of our recent ages meditation would be more aptly described as the practice of connecting back to the deeper levels of the mind in a very conscious manner towards its source. It is a science of self-inquiry rather than merely a relaxation technique. These varying degrees of levels we usually connect back to in our deep sleep and become powered up and recharged by each night. This is how every day after waking we feel energised, refreshed and rested; the mind has during sleep collapsed and returned to levels of deep sleep.
The idea of meditating to live more in the present then therefore is something to my mind of a misconception. Unfortunately it’s a misconception too prevalent in today’s modern ‘new age schools’. Through their instruction people are likely to ‘zone off’ or ‘space out’ in an attempt to achieve peace of mind. As a result by lack of genuine instruction or the superficial nature of the attempt this can possibly cause more harm than good.
If you mean by this term as being actively conscious of your thoughts, your desires and what your body is doing then this is an exemplar beginning practice in learning to know oneself.
However, I think generally this term is used at present to relate to in a blasé manner a usually superficial or at best passive state of awareness (one without intent) and again is relatively of any or at best little use.
‘Sensing’ into the body and its changing muscle states as trained in the field of Taiji will gradually lead to the sensing into the correlating changing states of the mind. From there a connection is already formed and established into the deeper levels beyond. Then through the deepening process ‘time’ as we know it takes on an entirely different meaning and category than merely the here and now.
Round 2 of questions based on answers of above:
Following on from your street altercations please describe what the subsequent internal enquiry, examination and self-critique was?
Replaying the situation in my head afterwards. Engaging in thoughts which might lead me to learn from the outcome.
– How I acted during times of difficulty or pressure.
– Why did I act that way.
– What ought to be done differently in order to attain a different outcome.
These are the thoughts that I asked of myself when engaging in self-appraisal. These times pondering led to deeper questions within myself. Gradually questions of self-appraisal gave way to questions of the self itself.
“Who am I?”
“A couple of years later one compromising street circumstance in particular provided an insight into what that reservoir contained. My mindset changed after that on both a subconscious and fairly conscious level.”
a) Could you please describe what happened if not too painful to do so?
Something more than the deep mind appeared. From that point on I felt a contentment knowing there was more within and was aware of the strong wish to work on myself.
b) How do you recognise such subconscious changes to the mindset – don’t they just happen?
Yes, I suppose they can. However they are usually triggered by something big or shocking in a person’s life so as to break through the clutter and conditioning of the everyday man’s mind. A ‘shock’ being administered would be generally necessary to ‘wake’ someone up to coerce them into a more conscious state of being. The idea of what is conscious and is subconscious is relative. Looking back I can say it’s easy to see the effects that this particular revelation had upon my life. During the time in question I may have only been slightly aware about the subtle changes happening under the surface, but time brought with it bigger internal changes and with them a greater succession of self-administered shocks.
These were due partly to an intuitive sense of self-enquiry, an intrigue in the deep mind being stimulated and the pull of the deep mind itself. I see the changes have led me to the path I’ve chosen today.
“I would say that Taiji has brought innumerable benefits to my everyday life.”
Could you outline the 3 biggest benefits in your opinion which it has brought or some fairly obvious ones?
The relief and removal of stress and unnecessary tension from the body.
Free flowing circulation of Qi in and around the meridians of the body, causing a vigorous increase in the health and rejuvenation of endocrine, nervous, muscular and skeletal system functioning.
Ability to sense into the body at will. Picking up the various states of internal organs, heartbeat, pain, warmth and fullness of the internal landscape. Also, worth mentioning is the growth of character in a student: A greater sense of integrity, responsibility for oneself and one’s actions, self-esteem as well as martial ability.
In your description of Taolu you mention neutralising the opponent. Is Taiji more concerned with teaching its practitioners the art of self-defence over aggression?
Yes, I believe so. Aggression for the most part is a primal reaction associated with the body. In training to make the body obedient to the mind Taijiquan offers an area of expertise, which when executed correctly will react to an external force by yielding, directing and neutralising it, before issuing it back again to its source of origin. The philosophy behind this is mentioned in the Tao Te Ching.
“Taijiquan pushing hands is used as an instructive tool for increasing sensitivity in the practitioner”
With the awareness of the body that comes from this does it also highlight to you where in the body your opponent’s weaknesses can be found?
This is correct. Knowing yourself you can know your opponent. It is said in the Taiji classics,
“My opponent doesn’t know me, but I alone know my opponent”.
Practicing sensing into the body and sensing into your partner/ opponent’s body and mind allows for one to be able to find the weak points in the other if required to do so.
Any tips for westerners about how to take time out of their day and practice the principles of Neigong to help access our deep minds?
A genuine method of cultivation like Raja yoga or Taiji is important to act as fuel for the practice of neigong. ‘Nei’ means internal, ‘gong’ means work. So neigong translates as inner work or internal cultivation. Good advice would be to seek out a genuine teaching of such an internal art with the old traditions of internal cultivation (neigong) intact. These practices go back through the ancient esoteric schools of the Greek Gnostics, Sufi Mystics, Egyptian Hermetic schools and further beyond through the Mesopotamian age to the time of the early Lord Zoroaster. All great teachings point to the same thing which is that sensing into the body is the correct first step. Taking time out of one’s day would be the beginning. Later, the neigong practice can and should be practiced throughout the day in everyday life.
“Gradually with years of practice the internal work infiltrates and merges with the more external training of the forms and push-hands”
When did you notice this internal work was becoming of benefit on the external work?
As the mind began to sink deeper during the form. At this point sensing, concentration and the strength of intention developed. This was a tell-tale sign of a maturing on the inner realms. The process of the deepening of the mind and the movements of the form/tuishou should always be linked. During practice of the Taiji forms the focus is more on the body and etheric centre (lower tantien a.k.a. the moving part of the mind). The neigong element of subsequent meditation allows further refinement to occur in the middle emotional and later upper intellectual centres (middle and upper tantiens).
Could you recommend a good video demonstrating the push hands principle?
I believe anything from master Huang Xingxian, the late great exponent from Fukien Province (later Malaysia), Master Ma Yueliang of Shanghai, or Patrick Kelly, Shanghai (9 clouds school) would be the most refined demonstrations of Taiji pushing hands I’ve seen recorded on video.
“It is a way of balancing and refining the energies of both the mind and body worked upon previously during the training, thus deepening the body-mind connection”
Any advice for people beginning from zero of how to work on this body-mind connection?
The best advice is to find and practice Taiji under a good teacher. One who comes from and is supported by a long line of established teachers and genuine training.
“’Time’ as we know it takes on an entirely different meaning and category than merely the here and now.”
a) What do you mean by this?
As one goes deeper into the mind towards its source it is understood that time slows down. There have been many instances of different people experiencing this slowing down of time in a situation of great danger or emergency. For example, a car crash or similar near-death experience. Those describing it have experienced it as happening in slow motion, the mind becoming clear yet perhaps many thought processes going through it in a very short space of time (life flashing before their eyes in an instant etc.)
b) Personally, I practice mindfulness and feel like it has helped me to become much more aware of the world around me and my senses. The other massive benefit is being aware when I have been distracted from the present moment and how to bring myself back to what I want to do right now. Is this similar to what you are describing with this statement?
Meditation is the concentration of the mind in generally varying degrees back towards its source. From what I gather ‘mindfulness’ as you describe is exactly the trap which most people fall into when embarking on meditation. To go beyond these trappings of the superficial mind (connected to normal brain functioning) one must go deeper as if going to sleep. This is described as,
“Going to sleep and wakening up on the deeper levels”.
Withdrawing the watching awareness back towards the initial deep body sensations is the first step in surpassing this hurdle, rather than allowing it to look out through the ordinary external senses. This is one of the main teachings of my teacher Patrick Kelly who warns about this watchful state as ‘a horizontal split which in itself cannot lead to anything deeper and if strengthened will lock a person in their head and block all further progress being really, if practiced to an extreme, the first step towards psychological imbalance.’
In the past I have often feared physical altercations on the football pitch and feel that I may have been more successful if I could have gone on the pitch not thinking about such fears. Does Taiji help you to become less physically intimidated by bullies or physically imposing people?
It depends. Taiji is a useful tool to help you know yourself. First your body and then the workings of the mind. It is possible to go within and learn what is the cause of these fears. It may be something from one’s childhood or even in the deep essence of past lives. Then with knowledge and the increased control over the body’s reactions one wouldn’t be so easily waylaid by physically imposing people or events. As the saying goes,
“There will always be someone bigger and stronger than you.”
Taiji teaches ways of acquiring technique far beyond the reliance on size and mass, instinct or aggression. It is in accordance with Taoist principles of the Tao Te Ching emphasising balance rather than extremes.
Considering you were playing a competitive sport in which mass, momentum and size among other things are the general governing physics determining the game I can’t say that Taiji would aid in becoming more competitive. However it would come to aid in a matter of self-defence at the first sign of trouble. It would also help in one’s harmonious development within and on their three centres to become a more balanced human being.
Round 3 of questions based on answers of above:
“An intrigue in the deep mind being stimulated and the pull of the deep mind itself. I see the changes have led me to the path I’ve chosen today”
How would you describe this path? You are well travelled – has it lead you to travel in search of answers?
The path of internal evolution. The journey happens within.
Also, does this awareness of the deep mind help when working in a high pressure kitchen?
It can, but I see it as the other way around. The kitchen like any profession is there to support my life as a means of making a living and an opportune way to travel when needed. Like any craft there is a value to learning it and a way to see and understand things in ways unknown to those unconversant. I suppose it is a high pressurised environment and for that it can be used as a tool for quieting the superficial mind and making the body obedient whilst maintaining one’s ‘centre’.
“Ability to sense into the body at will.”
Does this mean if you had an injury or even a chemical imbalance you can sense it yourself and potentially resolve it??
In the art of Taijiquan the skill aspect relates to the ability of deep sensing into the changing muscles states whilst simultaneously training a strong will or intention (‘I’ in Chinese – pronounced ‘eee’). This is spoken of in the Taiji classics but rarely seen in the methods of training today. Correct structural alignment is integral in allowing the forces to travel freely through the body and in developing the sublime Taiji Jin (elastic spring force/ issuing).
In order to be effective in the martial art the body should first become healthy. An upright aligned spine and relaxed posture encourages deep natural breathing in Taiji, allowing for the internal juxtaposition of organs to fall naturally and correctly into place. The lymphatic system benefits by way of the sympathetic smooth movements during the form, whilst the glandular system, namely endocrine (responsible for the secretion of hormones) approaches a far more harmonious state of stasis, resulting in many ailments to be eradicated from the body.
Through continuous progress the Taiji exponent is led to a better state in which to evaluate and deal with any emotional or physical imbalances inherent or which may manifest in future.
As the old Taoist adage goes, ‘Seek the problem at the source rather than merely treating the symptoms.’
“Taiji is a useful tool to help you know yourself. First your body and then the workings of the mind. It is possible to go within and learn what is the cause of these fears. It may be something from one’s childhood or even in the deep essence of past lives.”
a) This deep essence of past lives – could you explain this concept more please?
It is the tri-aspect (etheric, emotional, mental) part of the mind which is the sum of all your past lives.
b) Does this mean that you believe as human beings we are reincarnated several times?
c) Through Taiji have you become aware of this deep essence of past lives of your own?
Yes, to an extent, as a result of the internal work involved within Taiji.
“Changes to the mindset are usually triggered by something big or shocking in a person’s life so as to break through the clutter and conditioning of the everyday man’s mind. A ‘shock’ being administered would be generally necessary to ‘wake’ someone up to coerce them into a more conscious state of being.”
What about those of us that haven’t been ‘shocked’? Do we need to put ourselves in the way of a shock i.e. expose ourselves to intimidating situations like toastmasters if we are afraid of public speaking? Or did you mean something else that can only arise naturally like a car accident or being jumped by a bad bunch?
Once you’ve developed something of a centre, immersing yourself in particular circumstances difficult for you or at least not shying away from whatever life throws your way will help teach you something about your current state. Shocks are always out there. They are ready to teach, open to everyone: our environment, our situation is all relevant. What must change is the mind.
One should try to become susceptible to these shocks. Waken up, approach them and use them as pathways to change. Shocks can come in the form of a teacher, your guide within, the spirit or even from our planet, the holy mother earth. Our efforts prepare the way.
Any Raja yoga videos or practitioners you would recommend to help get us started?
Raja yoga is a story which begins in the heart and is a term given to the one true worldwide way. The great spiritual practice of connecting with the Divine. ‘Raja’ meaning Royal, ‘Yoga’ meaning yoke or to become obedient to. These practices are entrusted to the initiated and those worthy of the task of preserving the teaching in its purity. There would be little to find in way of purposeful instruction from a video. Alternatively, the internet is young and devoid of certain elements of knowledge. Practicing under a teacher is the only way. There are many dangers involved without heeding this advice.
As an introduction some suitable books of note;
The Greek Armenian teacher Mr George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, considered to be one of the great exponents of teaching for the modern era wrote several publications about his experiences and methods.
Omraam Michael Aivonov, the Bulgarian (later French) Christian mystic wrote a selection of intriguing and instructive guidebooks.
A series of small informative volumes on the topic of esotericism by Ms Alice A. Bailey.
Cheng Man-Ching the student of the famous Yang Cheng Fu (and teacher of Master Huang Xingxian) wrote quite candidly about the inherent values of T’ai Ch’i Ch’uan, as did Yang Cheng fu himself, albeit primarily with more focus on the martial aspects of the discipline.
Patrick A. Kelly’s ‘Spiritual Reality’ is a valuable and concise writing on the internal way.
‘Daughter of fire’ by Irina Tweedie, recalls her training under a Sufi Sheikh.
The various writings of the western Gnostic Sufi sage, Abdullah Neil Isa Dougan, of the Naqshbandi tradition who also perpetuated the methods of the ‘Fourth way’ in his teachings for modern western society.
This is plenty for a varied introduction.
Has there been a big industry built around the teaching and learning of Taiji? Are there job prospects from it?
The accumulation of money would be a foolish aim as the motivation for ones Taiji practice. Most so-called instructors in modern teaching circles today would’ve begun Taiji/internal martial arts with a somewhat genuine wish to develop themselves. Unfortunately, without undergoing a long and arduous training or even the correct training, discipline is all too easily swayed by self-interest, ego and innate desires. Thus, with small degrees of proficiency it seems the need and the feeling of entitlement to teach for benefits is inflated. Master Huang referred to these as being similar to half-baked potatoes. Thus, the art is turned into something as a means primarily of making an earning.
What I’ve learned from my teacher and his teachers before him is that any money earned should be used to sustain Taiji training, not the other way around.
Have you ever had that experience of time slowing down? If so what does it feel like?
On few occasions, in times of need. It is said to be a sign of correct training.
The deeper senses that have been searched for and trained in the Taiji forms appear and become available. Time slows down and one’s mind settles on the level of the forces involved and taking part in the circumstances unfolding.
Patrick Kelly looks at peace during a Taiji video I watched on youtube. Do you ever practice such routines in public? If so are you ever fearful of people mocking you if this is the case?
I remember training in a city playground with Patrick and his family most mornings in between classes whilst he was in Europe. He never had problems training at local public places and parks or city centres. In fact I would say that he preferred to train in such circumstances for the conditions they offered. Seeking quiet tranquil settings away from the hustle and bustle of daily life is not true Taiji practice. When one is stable on the inner levels external noise and distractions should be of no real disturbance and can be used as motivation for the mind to go deeper. As for mockery it is really a feeble vibration and quite easy to shrug off. I would not be fearful of mockery. It’s fuel for the practice and deepening of the mind.
To quote from the Tao Te Ching,
‘When a wise scholar hears the Tao, he practises it diligently. When a mediocre scholar hears the Tao, he wavers between belief and unbelief. When a worthless scholar hears the Tao, he laughs boisterously at it.’
Can Taiji help overcome addictive behaviour? I have just eaten an extraordinary amount of sugary products in one day and completely lost self-control. I know before doing this the shame afterwards will outweigh the immediate gratification of eating such things but do it anyway. Are there any Taiji beliefs on how to avoid such a greedy mind?
This greed would come from the body, which would be in the driving seat at these times of ineptitude. In other cases it may be ego-driven or even one or more of the various negative attitudes associated with the mind. The first step taught in Taiji training is to make our body obedient to our higher centres (Mind). There are other traditions such as the way of the fakir or Sufi training which might encompass fasting or denials of comfort from the body. These methods, although good teachers in distinguishing the differences between the body, the parts of the mind and the ego are also quite severe. The way propagated in Taiji follows closely to Taoist principles and would offer a more balanced approach, encouraging a responsible attitude towards tending to the appetites of the body.
In the words of my teacher there is nothing wrong with appetites. The body needs regulated sleep, food, sex and warmth to function optimally. It’s when the desires, ego, or over-attachment/identification with the body gets in the way which causes problems. In the most stable and deepest part of meditation we employ certain exercises to fight against these negativities and their associated imbalances. With perseverance, the correct method and acceptance of a long struggle along the way, one’s position will inevitably strengthen in time.
Taiji is the way of the householder; through holding the reigns, yet remaining relaxed, calm and in control one can tend to all through tending to the centre. Thus, opens the way to becoming a ‘man’ in the truest sense of the word, being of benefit to oneself, one’s society and humanity as a whole.