The Power of Pictures

We use a lot of pictures and metaphors when we describe movements or principles in Tai Chi: stroking the mane of the horse, grasping the bird’s tail, the white crane spreads its wings, open and close like a flower, grow roots into the ground,… and I could go on forever.

Why do we do this?

Pictures help us to simplify complex combinations of movements, engaging numerous separate muscle groups and our breathing. If we wanted to keep tabs on each of those and every detail to coordinate the muscles properly, we would quickly overload our brain.

That’s why learning to drive is so hard in the beginning: we dont’ have the picture yet as to what it means to start driving again after you stopped on a steep hill in a stick-shift car. That’s why the first weeks are so hard for a new Tai Chi student, as they still try to make sense and coordinate arms and legs.

If we think about metaphors and pictures rather than describing the physics and physiology of a given movement, we take away the task from our conscious brain and give it to our subconscious brain. Our conscious brain is a great single-tasker. It’s overloaded quickly with complex problems. Our subconscious brain marvels at complex interwoven systems and tasks. It does that all the time. That’s how our organs, breathing and everything vital are kept going. That’s what keeps us alive.

If we were to talk to our conscious mind, we would have to say something like this: “Please extend your forearm while also extending you upper arm, twist you elbow and wrist and open the fingers a little bit. Not too much though. Do it all at the same time. Don’t forget to breathe! Have we talked about your ankle, knee and hip yet? Please extend them also at the same time. Don’t lift your toes though. By the way, are you all relaxed, joints and all?” (And this is a drastically simplified version.)

That’s what beginners in Tai Chi struggle with. As we get more familiar with the basic movements, we don’t give our conscious mind these instructions anymore. Rather we tell the conscious mind to imagine ‘stroking the mane of a horse’ or to ‘spread the wings like a crane’ and the conscious brain takes that at face value and delegates the complex execution of the details to the subconscious brain, moving on to just enjoy the ride.

Simplify the complex movements for your brain. Keep your conscious mind focused on the big picture and let your subconscious brain deal with the details.

The Chinese are great system thinkers and observers, looking at the big picture and how complex systems work together overall. That’s the core of Chinese medicine and that’s also how they approached martial arts. In the West, we got a little distracted by Democritus and Descartes who focused us on atomism and reductionism. That has its own benefits and led to huge advancements in science and medicine. It’s not the right answer to everything though and for sure it’s not the only answer out there (which is how we often treat it these days). Let’s learn a little from the Chinese and look at the big picture.

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