Using the mind instead of force

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The mind

It is common for students to believe that the mind has a minor role to play in martial arts training. This is absurd.
Everything we see, interpret, choose and do in life is led by the mind: the mind is the boss, the conductor, the leader.

The body

Most people's arms are extremely tense and they don't even realise it. Why? Why are people's arms tense?
Your hand is the primary tool employed by the mind for the exploration of reality. You touch, you hold, you press, you pull, you manipulate most things using your hands.
Jacob Bronowski wrote "The hand is the cutting edge of the mind." There's your answer. A tense arm is the by-product of a mind that is not in any way relaxed and at ease.


The faster your mind can move, the faster your hand/body can move.

Weak mind

A weak mind is no good in the internal arts. Internal martial arts practice is not the same as being at work, hanging out with your mates or playing football.
There is a very real need to be here and now.


You must be quick-witted, alert, vibrant and nimble... not lazy, indolent and sluggish. The skilled martial artist is sharp and keen, enthusiastic and mobile.

Why did they make forms long in the old days, like the tai chi forms?

Because the longer you can keep your intent awake and mind-body unified and focus on your movements, the stronger your mind is, the better chance you have of winning a fight.

(Tim Cartmell)


Your mind perceives reality and then determines how, when or if to act. The clearer your perception, the more appropriate the course of action you take. Clarity does not emerge spontaneously.
Few people think clearly. Cultivating clarity takes time, contemplation, study, meditation and patience.


Awareness is about being conscious of what is happening right now. Noticing the immediate moment. This is harder to accomplish than you may imagine.
Feeling your body, being aware of your thoughts, emotions, what is taking place around you, sounds, sights, smells, sensations...

Space out?

Most people 'space out' for much of their lives. They are aided in this by TV, portable hi-fi devices, cellular phones, video games, computers, caffeine, alcohol and drugs.
It is no easy task to be truly present.

We are checking our smartphones on average 221 times a day. Recent research found that 80 percent of millennials look at their phones upon waking; this addiction is a strong one. As a result, our cognitive processing has become shallower and we have become so distracted that we play directly into the hands of the autopilot. Digital devices are the modern day equivalent of tranquillisers. They instil a trance-like state almost immediately as they are anchors for our subconscious to take over. 

(Chris Barez-Brown)


People speak of expressing fa jing, but which jing do they have in mind? Every action you take is directed by intention.
Tai chi form expresses a wide variety of chin na and shuai jiao applications, along with very specific jing. You cannot train them whilst chattering away in your own head.
Your mind must be on what you are doing. Do not have a fixed application in mind for each movement.
Instead, feel the flow, the principles and energy employed, and recognise how these can be used constructively and effectively.

Sustained attention

Our culture has saturated consciousness with redundant information. People are in an almost permanent state of distraction. Concentration is limited.
The mind is trained to become weak, limited and easily led (misled?).
Instead of possessing strong mental health, people are merely facile consumers; addicted to trivia, gossip, meaningless second-hand opinions and shopping.


Tai chi forms require the individual to stay focussed and present for a lengthy period of time. The form is re-training your mind.
It would be true to say that every exercise, form and drill in the syllabus also requires sustained attention.


Everything you do comes from the mind; observation, awareness, choices, decision, intention, movement, action.
Taoism trains the individual to find harmony by attuning to the events in which they are participating. Instead of forcing and struggling, you blend and flow.
The ability to adapt, change and improvise is crucial.

Mind, body, spirit

Are you familiar with the term: "mind, body, spirit?" Both mind and spirit require the individual to meditate, contemplate, study and understand. Only afterwards can you apply...
You need mental clarity and emotional awareness. You will not get this by simply doing the form.

Among people who practice tai chi, it is quite common to hear the statement, "that is entirely using the mind not force".
In practicing tai chi, the whole body is relaxed, and there is not an iota of stiff or clumsy strength in the muscles or joints to hinder the movement of the body.
People may ask, "how can you increase strength without exercising force?"

One should therefore use the mind instead of force, so that the
oxygen will follow in wake of the mind or consciousness and circulate all over the body.

Through persistent practice one will be able to have genuine internal force.
This is what tai chi expert call, "lithe in appearance, but powerful in essence".

A master of tai chi has arms which are as strong as steel rods wrapped in cotton, with immense power concealed therein.
Boxers of the outer school look powerful when they exert force, but when they cease to do so, the power no longer exists, so it is merely a kind of superficial force.

(Yang Cheng Fu)

2 concerns

We have two concerns regarding

  1. The cultivation of whole-body strength

  2. The appropriate use of strength

Both of these concerns are equally important. If you do not have strength, there is nothing to use. If you do not use it skilfully, your strength is worthless.
Skilfulness entails appropriateness and appropriateness stems from the ability accurately evaluate the situation.


Appropriateness is about the when and the how. Applying all your strength against a stable, rooted, prepared opponent is not smart. Force against force is not martial skill.


You must learn to be subtle. To be sensitive. To listen. To feel. To yield. To trick your opponent's nervous system.
The application of 13 methods depends upon your ability to apply your strength at the right moment. If you get it right, 4 ounces of pressure will be all you require.


Combat requires you to be cunning. Being brave is great but brave can also mean stupid and running headlong into danger is not smart at all.
Far better to keep a cool head and respond according to the requirements of the situation. A cunning person is cautious and wary. They do not make rash decisions or take unnecessary risks.
Being smart will keep you out of danger in the first place.

Applying mind

In order to use mind rather than force, you need to stop using tension. Having studied Taoism, physics and human biomechanics at length, it is pretty obvious why brute force is not recommended.
If you have neglected your study, then your mind and body will be slow to change...
Training countless
sensitivity drills in class will encourage you to stop relying on tension, but progress will be slow if your mind remains entrenched in old habits of body use.
Engaging your mind from the onset of training will speed things up considerably. Read The Tai Chi Classics, contemplate their teachings and then apply them in class.


Most beginners experience difficulty with the internal use of strength. They resist, look for shortcuts or simply continue to use brute force. The answer lies with the mind.
You will be hampered by force as long as you perceive it to be of value to you. Changing this belief will involve changing your mind.


Studying Taoist, Zen and martial arts literature will open your mind to new ideas, to possibilities you had not considered.
Authors such as Krishnamurti will significantly challenge long-held opinions and beliefs. Serious contemplation will lead to a more resilient, flexible mind.
A mind capable of spontaneously changing as the circumstances require. Change is not easy for most people; they cling to what was or to their narrow perception of what could be.

Start small

Even a small amount of reading every day will subtly change your consciousness. You will begin to have insights, make connections and recognise associations and themes.
The expansion of consciousness will be notable over time.
Besides, without a comprehensive grasp of the principles of Taoism, tai chi and martial skill, how are you ever going to make the art work?

Use your mind

Charles Darwin said that it is not the fittest or the strongest who survive, but the ones most able to adapt, change and improvise. To do this you need a very flexible mind.
At first, some people are reluctant to undertake study. They look at mainstream martial arts classes and believe that it is enough to beat a man to the ground with your fists...
Study is not what they expected or are used to.


The internal arts are not mainstream. Tai chi embodies Taoist principles and insights. How can you apply these if you do not know what they are? You want to make real progress? Do the study.

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023