Emotional content

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Please read the '
Emotional awareness' and 'Composure' pages first.


In tai chi, emotion is regarded as being a form of energy. Energy that fuels action.

Emotional frugality

Use money as metaphor... If you have 100 you can use it or you can save it. If you spend it all, the money is gone.
If you use it moderately, the money may last longer or you may still get to save some of it. Make sense?


In normal life we channel emotion into pretty much everything we encounter. This is how people operate. If your emotional energy manifests as anger then it has been channelled.
If your emotional energy manifests as joy then it has been channelled.


Think of money again. Once your 100 has been spent, your money is tied up in whatever you purchased. It is gone. To channel emotion into anger is commit the energy.
You cannot then employ the emotional energy elsewhere. You have spent up.

Raw energy

Emotion is raw energy: it is not focussed or used. Anger is a manifestation of emotion: a final, concrete expression. Joy is the same.


Our aim is to exercise greater control over how we use emotion. The first stage in tai chi is to stop channelling emotions haphazardly.


A tai chi person passes through 3 stages:

  1. Normal emotional use

  2. Neutral state

  3. Shen  

Every new starter is stage 1. By the 'skilled' grade the tai chi student should have reached stage 2.

There is no concept of an enemy or opponent in tai chi.
Likewise, the emotions associated with either - anger, hatred, friendship - also have no use and therefore play no role in this art.

(Scott Rodell)


Composure means emotional calm. You avoid the extremes. Students are not training themselves to become blank, emotionless zombies. They are learning to find the middle ground: no extremes.

Loose cannon

You need emotional balance and propriety when training combat with other people. Martial arts are dangerous. People need to trust you. They need to feel safe training with you.
If you are a 'loose cannon', no one will want to work with you.

Negative emotions

Anger and aggression are obvious examples of 'negative emotions'. These qualities are unsuitable for a safe training environment.
The danger with negative emotions is that they cause people to lose their sense of perspective. Judgement is impaired. The student acts foolishly.

Not so harmless

Some emotions seem harmless, but are actually quite destructive:

  1. Annoyance

  2. Boredom

  3. Disappointment

  4. Excitability

  5. Frustration

  6. Greed

  7. Impatience

  8. Irritability

  9. Jealousy

  10. Restlessness

If you think about these emotions, many are related in some way to anger. None of them have any place in a tai chi class.


Negative emotions often arise because a student lacks humility. They seek to be the centre of attention, or they become exasperated with their own lack of progress.
Instead of having patience and perspective, the person becomes annoyed. They look for someone to blame. This is not emotional balance.


Losing your emotional balance is dangerous. You may say or do things that you might later regret. Impulsive, rash action can result in adverse consequences.
You act in 'the heat of the moment'. Yet you may find yourself paying for that impulse for the rest of your life.

Taking responsibility

Meditation, Zen and learning a martial art all compel the individual to take responsibility for their own conduct. This is not so easy.
When interacting with other people we must be mindful of their feelings. We must be considerate. How you behave with your friends and associates may not be appropriate in a martial arts class.
It may be necessary to change.

Stage 3

Imbuing your tai chi with feeling is called 'shen'. This is not to be confused with anger or aggression. Shen is easy to understand - when you do the tai chi - mean it, feel it, be it. 
Do not simply 'go through the motions'. Tai chi should be performed with feeling.

The strategy of operating outside the sphere of emotional influence is part of the general strategy of unfathomability that The Art of War emphasises in characteristic Taoist style.

(Thomas Cleary)

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Page created 2 February 1999
Last updated 16 June 2023