Dao series: Not too much, not too little – How much effort is enough effort?

In Temple style Tai Chi and Dao Gong practice, we often hear the phrase “Not too much, not too little” being used. The significance of this phrase is not very apparent in the beginning stages of the practice, but once it starts making sense, it opens up a whole world to us.
Physical Level
When I first began learning tai chi, my teacher would tell us “you’ll get sick of my repeating myself…ad nauseaum, not too much…not too little”. It started with physical postural things…don’t extend the knees beyond the toes, don’t shift your weight any further back, if you feel your heels, don’t lock your joints, keep your elbows and knees bent.
The objective was to avoid any thing that took away from the feeling of “roundedness”.
Inner Alignment and Feeling
After the physical aspect was more or less drilled in, then it became a matter of not practicing too much, not crashing our weight into the ground, not fighting gravity. “Use as much strength as is needed to make you feel like you’re floating in the air (or at least in water), without crashing into the earth”. This slowly developed into an inner guide/gauge, to assess whether and how much weight was I really feeling in my feet? Did it feel like I was holding up a truck, or did it feel lighter? With time and practice, the feeling of “lightness” or “softness” began to grow, and feeling of being suspended from the crown point, gently held up by gravity started to appear. This is an ongoing process of refinement.
Always hold on to the Opposites
Then we added the concept of always supporting the opposites, which would ensure we never over-extend in one direction. If you are going forward, you should also be aware of the back. If you are going backward, you should also be aware of the front. Similarly, up-down, left-right, in-out.  Slowly and meticulously practicing like this automatically prevents over-extension and balances us out, and helps aid in working on further refining the first two levels. 
In the internal martial arts, this is a critical initial concept, to ensure we don’t become double-weighted. 
Meditation is not exercise
The next big thing I realized is that meditation is not exercise. It is the art of being mindful and aware of what we are doing, all the time.
Think of someone chopping wood. When they first start chopping wood, they think that it is an extremely physical activity, and they tense their shoulders, forearms etc, swing the axe real hard and hit the wood real hard. That seems to be counter to what the correct technique is like. There is a certain economy of motion, a certain relaxed/practiced efficiency that is needed, to be good at chopping wood. Without just the right amount of physical and mental relaxation, the wood cutter would get tired and winded very quickly (if wood chopping doesn’t work, consider hammering nails as an analogy).
So, with meditation, it is not a process of mentally over-exerting ourselves. It is not about “thinking” so hard and so forcefully, that our head starts to hurt. I know when I started “meditating” on the Lower Dan Tien, initially I’d over-exert myself. I’d sometimes (inadvertently) have a slight frown/grimace as I closed my eyes and forced my mind to stay on the LDT. But with time, it became apparent that the harder I tried, the less productive my “meditation” would be. How much effort is really needed? As much effort is needed to rest our hand on a table top. That is the kind of effort needed to rest our mind on the dan tien.
Similarly for Neigong/Daogong meditations. We have practices where we are using our mind-intent/will power to go out to infinity (as far as the mind can reach) and then pulling back in. The idea is to expand our “field” of awareness to as far out and around us as we can. When I went to Master Jose, the first thing he told me is “Don’t force anything. Do as much as your mind can do, without feeling drained or tired”.  The harder we try, the more we block ourselves. The key is as much effort is needed to just rest our mind on the point of focus. Not too much, not too little.
The Dao has it’s own rhythm and flow. Too much effort on our part and we end up swimming against the tide. Too little effort and we don’t go anywhere (like standing on the bank of a river and dipping one toe in). How much effort is needed to just stay afloat in a river, when flowing with the current? That is how much effort we need, in order to stay in harmony with the Dao.
Being Present
From meditation we get to being present. What it means is simply being aware, without vacillating between the past and the future. The mind is still, clear and present. There is no time, only “NOW”. This is a state we can take with us eventually in our everyday life. This is where, effort starts to become no-effort. This is entry point for Wei wu wei.

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2 Replies to “Dao series: Not too much, not too little – How much effort is enough effort?”

  1. Dear Pradip da,

    It would be incorrect to call Tai chi and these daoist meditations (Dao gong) merely physical exercises. They are psycho-somatic exercises. They work at multiple levels at the same time.

    At the grossest level, they work on the physical body. However, they also work on the subtle or energy body. So anna maya and pranamaya koshas are cleansed and purified as a result. This is done via movement while focus on breath and breathing in a way that is long, continuous and cyclical. And works identical to pranayama and asana of Hatha yoga. Essentially this works on the three main centers (navel, heart and head) – called Dan tiens (or Elixir Fields).

    Because there is repetitive mechanical action involved, it also triggers sakshi bhava or witness consciousness, where the subtler koshas (manomaya, vijnanamaya) become apparent. With sufficient practice there is constant bliss experienced (anandamaya kosha).

    As the practice matures, it allows us to enter samadhi, both savikalpa and nirvikalpa and eventually sahaja samadhi where there is constant resting in pure awareness with silence and stillness of the mind.

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