How does tai chi reduce fear you might ask? My 18-year old daughter, after seeing a quick tai chi demo, said “because it reduces attachment?” To which I answered, “why yes”. In tai chi we train to give, to yield, again and again. Tai chi teaches us physically what Buddhism teaches mentally and emotionally. What we learn physically is that each time we are able to let go, there is a gift, and a lesson. It hurts less to give way than to struggle. And so, we learn to do less clinging, less insisting of our way in the world.
After a time, yielding and following seeps into our relations with others. When our spouse wants something, we find ourselves more willing to be led in that direction. That is a truly beautiful thing. It makes our relations more harmonious. This less clinging / more go with the flow way of life is one of the primary goals of Daoist practice and tai chi.
Professor Zheng himself said, “the more we relax, the less we are afraid and the less we are afraid, the more we relax.” Studies show significant reductions in anxiety and improvement in mood from studying tai chi. In addition, Zheng Manqing said tai chi cultivated three specific “fearlessness”: Freedom from Fear of Attack, Old Age and Sickness. Tai chi allows us to relax in the face of these fears by doing something about them.
There are literally hundreds of peer-reviewed studies documenting the health benefits of tai chi and a number showing that it reduces dementia and falls among the elderly. In addition, because tai chi can be practiced at any age, it can be enjoyed until the day we die, unlike many of our youthful passions.
Freedom from fear of attack is not something we often think of as useful in modern life, but physical attacks do happen, and this fearlessness has far more everyday uses than one would think. I have been physically attacked twice when traveling overseas as a young man (once at a youth hostel in Taiwan and another time in a bar in Zimbabwe). Both times tai chi allowed me, through no particular effort of my own, to come out on top. My physical response just emerged before I could even think because of the tai chi training I had done.
While physical attack is rare, I have found this “fearlessness” useful in my corporate career. For example, once while working at a Fortune 50 Company, I sat in a small conference room with one of the company’s most senior executives where I had been taken along with my boss and the regional head of Human Resources. We were to discuss the removal of an executive from a business unit where I had recently become General Manager. The big boss was arguing for the “sacking” as they would say in Britain. After I, and others in the room, suggested several times this was not the wisest course, he slammed the table and exclaimed “&*#@ — I keep telling you guys what I want done and you keep giving me reasons why not!” At this violent outburst, everyone in the room jumped — except me. I felt no flinch and calmly retorted that that was because of one very important difference between the businesses our Chief had run and this particular business unit that made his decision inappropriate for the situation. The head of HR and my boss took me aside afterward and said, “you get the award for managerial courage because the most senior guy in the room slapped the table, cursed and everyone in the room jumped except for the most junior guy (me). You calmly responded with the one reason that would change his mind.”
Researchers have found that Olympic meditators, people who have logged more than 10k hours in meditation, are able to deactivate one of the most basic reflexes, the startle reflex. This reflex is a raising of the eyebrows and an acceleration of heart rate in response to being startled. When researchers test for the startle reflex, one sits with eyes closed and sometime during a countdown from one to ten, a gun is fired off beside their head. Now I don’t claim to have the skills of an Olympic meditator, but in that room that day, I felt no startle and others did. That’s an edge in a highly competitive career. It allowed me to demonstrate on more than one occasion what is sometimes called “executive mettle”. One might say “but you were not meditating in that room — you were engaged in a debate — how is that like meditation? And therein lies the beauty and uniqueness of tai chi — it teaches us to make our “on guard” position one of openness and relaxation.
In this manner, Tai chi fundamentally unwires the “fight or flight” response. That is why tai chi is sometimes called meditation in motion. Tai chi’s prime directive is “relax,” not only when we are at rest but most of all when we are under attack.