Monthly Archives: April 2014

Three Painful Modes of Communication

Much of classic Chinese thought holds that human nature is originally good.  For example, take the first line from the “Three Character Classic,” a text which summarizes the teachings of Confucianism for children: 人之初,性本善 (People at birth are naturally good).

But if we’re so good, why are there so many ‘bad’ people out there?  The next line gives us a hint: 性相近,习相远 (Our natures are similar, but our habits make us different).  In this post, I want to talk about some of our habitual modes of communication which tend to take us away from our natural state of ‘goodness’ and bring us ever more pain and suffering.

The following three commonly used forms of communication are highly likely to lead to defensiveness and resistance from anyone (including yourself), making it more difficult to get in touch with our natural state of benevolence described by ancient Chinese wisdom.

1. Moralistic Judgments

“He’s such a jerk.” “You’re not cut out for this.” “I’m so stupid!”  Labels, criticism, insults are all forms of judgment.  On a theoretical level, all labels are inherently inaccurate because they don’t take things like relativity and constant change into consideration (this is why our Daily Zen program focuses on observing rather than judging or labeling).

But on a practical level, judgments can take

ve, which will make it ever more difficult to come to a mutually beneficial outcome.

2. Making Comparisons

It's all apples and oranges (and bananas)

It’s all apples and oranges (and bananas)

“I wish my Tai Chi form looked as cool as his.” “I’m way prettier than she is.”  ”I liked my old boss better.” Comparisons are another form of judgment.  If you’d like to experience the negative power of making comparisons, try out the following exercise:

  • At age 29, Mark Zuckerberg had a net worth of over $25 billion.  How much were you worth at that age?  Ponder on the difference
  • Ate age 12, Jet Li won his first National Wushu Championship, where he competed against the best athletes from all over China.  How were your martial skills at age 12?  Compare them with Jet’s.
  • At age 8, Mozart composed his first symphony, which I’ve embedded below.  Listen to the song and think about your proudest achievement at the same age.

After trying this exercise, how are you feeling?  Let that feeling guide your future decisions about making comparisons.

3. Denial of Responsibility

We are responsible for all our thoughts, feelings, and actions, but much of our language attempts in vain to free us from that responsibility.  One of the biggest perpetrators of this kind of language is statements involving the phrase “have to.”  For example, “I have to go to work,” “You have to do your homework.”

When we speak this way to ourselves or others, whoever we’re speaking to only has two choices: to submit or rebel.  If that person rebels, they won’t do the thing they ‘have to’ do.  If they submit, they’ll do it, but with an energy of negativity and resentment.

 In summary, if you’d like to be happy, you might be better off leaving moralistic judgments, comparisons, and language that denies responsibility out of your vocabulary.

Admittedly, it’s hard to do a don’t.  I’ll write another post soon on some alternatives to these negativity inducing forms of communication.

What has been your experience with communication like this?  Do you enjoy being judged, compared, or blamed?  Tell us your stories in the comments section.

Turning Personal Growth into a Competition

I recently wrote briefly about the spirit of competition in my post about how to practice Tai Chi effectively with a partner.

Check out this great article from MindBodyGreen that talks about the potential ugly side of competition:

Are You Turning Spirituality Into a Competition? Read This

This type of spiritual competition may lead us to wonder why bother, since we’ll never be as good as so-and-so. I’m the first to admit that I still have moments like this, as do a number of my friends, students and clients. Here are five ways to navigate away from spiritual competition and towards spiritual fulfillment, unity and harmony.

Don’t get too caught up in the race of life that you forget to be happy!


Is competition a helper or a hindrance to your own practice?  Tell us what you think in the comments section!

Flexible Goal Setting: Be Like Water

I’ve always liked Drunken Boxing.  Something about the way the fighter stumbles into his opponent, flowing around his opponent’s attacks, filling in whatever gap is left open, has always appealed to me.  A good drunken boxer just refuses to be denied.  It’s like throwing a bucket of water at an enemy.  Sure, the enemy could stop a handful or two of water from getting to him, but that won’t stop him from getting soaked.

Taiji Zen founder unleashing his drunken boxing skills

Tai Chi operates on the same principle.  In fact, in Tai Chi it’s actually called “attacking like water.”  The idea is simple.  Rather than picking an individual attack to use on an opponent, a practitioner picks a direction.  So instead of thinking, “I want to punch this guy in the nose, because that will make his eyes water up, and then I can use a headlock to a hip-throw which will achieve my ultimate purpose of getting him on the ground,” I would just say, “I want to gain greater control over this situation.”  I then look for any opportunity to do that.  Now that might still be a punch to the nose, but maybe it’s just asking the guy to stop, or maybe it’s letting him punch me so that he overextends and I can use a knock down.  It just depends on which opportunity presents itself.  I never commit to the individual attack, I only commit to the direction I want to move in.

That way if I do throw the punch and he blocks my fist, I can turn the attack into an elbow, and if he blocks that, I can step in and use my shoulder.  Though the shape of the attack may change, the direction of the momentum is preserved.  I let the situation determine what I follow up each attack with, rather than planning it out in advance.  That way I remain effective without giving away my moves before I make them.

This is one of the main reasons to stay relaxed in Tai Chi — the more relaxed a person is the more quickly they can adapt to new situations (both physically and mentally).  Plus, it prevents the opponent from using my arm as a lever to control my center and force me off-balance, thus halting my momentum or drastically changing my direction.  This principle applies to more than Tai Chi Chuan, though — it applies to life in general.

For me, the most obvious of these applications has to do with goal setting.  For years and years goal setting was business canon.  You could not be a manager without knowing what S.M.A.R.T. goals were.  Recently, however, goal setting has come under fire.  There was a particularly influential study that showed goal setting only positively impacted performance when the people setting the goals could be held accountable for them (i.e. when they put it in writing, or stated it publicly).  So in other words, it’s not the act of setting a goals itself that increases performance, but the act of making a commitment.

Yet this study had a major flaw:  the tasks that the participants were given were so simple that no prioritization was needed.  In the real world, things are never that simple.  When I was a CEO, there were always 100 things that should have been done every week, and only time to ever do 50 of them.  More importantly, the 100 things might have been in 10 areas, and so I could do 50 individual things but not actually reach any major milestone; I’d just have 10 half finished projects.  Goal setting gave me a standard against which I could make decisions when it came to allotting my time and resources.

flexible goals

Even this has come under fire recently, though.  In the past five years, a team of leading researchers from Harvard, U Penn, University of Arizona and Northwestern’s business schools have all pointed out that this can be taken too far.  Goals can be useful for bringing focus, but people have a tendency to become too focused when working with specific goals, blinding them to other important factors at play, and crippling their ability to adapt to changing situations.  If one becomes overly focused on their steps while walking, it’s easy to get lost.  Of course if one is too focused on finding a turn, it’s easy to stumble…  Finding the balance between these two is where the Tai Chi model can be helpful.

By bringing the mindset cultivated by Tai Chi Chuan practice into our everyday lives, we can learn to focus on positive directions rather than being tied to overly specific outcomes.  It helps us keep perspective, making it easier to give up small concessions for a greater purpose (such as yielding in order to advance).  It also reminds us to take stock of our options at each juncture, and to listen to the changing situation, so we are making decisions based on how things are, not how things were when the plan was created.  Lastly, it helps us deal with failure, which is an essential part of any process, by reminding us that just because the thing we were trying didn’t work doesn’t mean we should stop trying.  As my Tai Chi teacher David Block used to say, “The difference between an advanced student and a master is that the advanced student is very good at not falling.  The master is very good at falling.”

Just like an opponent in a fight, life can conspire to foil our best efforts sometimes.  If we’re fixated on achieving things in a specific way, it can stress us out, lead to frustration, and eventually cause us to surrender.  If instead we are open to it, roll with it, adapt, and simply keep moving in the right general direction, sooner or later we’ll find ourselves where we wanted to be, even though we never had imagined walking the road that got us there.

Dax is a Taiji Zen guest blogger.  Want to contribute your posts to the Taiji Zen Blog?  Find the details here!