Category Archives: Practice

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!

Free Yourself. Make Light Your Burden.

One of the most important principles in Tai Chi is to relax.  In this post, I want to share why I believe relaxation is so important.

At Taiji Zen, it seems that we talk about two forms of relaxation.  Relax your mind – this can lead to happiness.  Relax your body – this can lead to health.  But in reality it’s not so simple.  Mental relaxation has clear physical implications – the next time you feel relieved, check in on your body and notice the release of physical tension.  Physical relaxation also has clear mental implications – it’s much more difficult to be stressed in a hot tub than on a bed of nails.

So what does this all mean?  The important thing is to know that relaxing physically will also lead to mental relaxation and vice versa.  And how can we use this information?  My favorite application of this concept is trying to maintain a state of deep relaxation all day long.  That’s not to say that I never work hard.  But I believe that the most productive work comes from a calm mind and healthy body.

And how to stay relaxed?  The first step is awareness.  We need to be aware of how we feel (physically and mentally) in order to change it.  Once you become aware of all the stress you’re carrying, only then can you start to let it go.  Try checking in on your feelings at a specific time every day.  Are your shoulders hunched up?  Is there tension in the muscles of your face?  Your neck?  Let it go.  It’s as easy as taking off a heavy backpack.  Or as Jet might say, “Free yourself, make light your burden.”

If you can’t let it go, try doing the opposite – inhale and completely tense every muscle as hard as you can for 10 seconds.  After 10 seconds, exhale deeply and release every muscle.  If you still can’t let go, then let go of letting go.  Sooner or later you’re bound to relax deeper and deeper.  Worrying about it about it will only slow down the process.

In my opinion, the best way to relax is to approach it from both angles – both physically and mentally.  Think about the law of diminishing returns – the fourth slice of pizza is less delicious than the third, and the fifth slice is less delicious than the fourth.  Similarly, as you spend more and more time on mental relaxation, the time is likely to become increasingly unproductive.  The same is true for physical relaxation, and almost any other productive endeavor.  Put more simply, it’s all about balance.

This is why I love Taiji Zen.  By practicing Taijiquan, we learn to relax our bodies.  Through practicing mindfulness, we learn to relax our minds.  In my (admittedly biased) opinion, Taiji Zen is one of the best systems for learning how to relax, and by extension, developing health and happiness.

What are some ways that you like to relax?  Let us know in the comment section!

Tony Schwartz: Ultradian Rhythms

Before working at Taiji Zen, I used to teach classes designed by a really smart guy named Tony Schwartz.  I wanted to share an article with you all about one of the most important things we used to teach, because Tai Chi philosophy has been stressing it for thousands of years.  In order to be perform optimally, you have to take breaks!  (Sound familiar?  If not, you should read Dax’s post about Gathering and Exploding.)  Specifically, research has shown that taking a break every 90 minutes (a period of time called an ultradian rhythm) is one of the most effective strategies for sustaining top-notch performance.


Here’s an excerpt from an article Tony wrote:

“In his renowned 1993 study of young violinists, performance researcher Anders Ericsson found that the best ones all practiced the same way: in the morning, in three increments of no more than 90 minutes each, with a break between each one.”

I highly recommend reading the entire article, which you can find here:

Schwartz, T. (2010, May 18). The 90-Minute Solution: How Building in Periods of Renewal Can Change Your Work and Your Life .

In order to Fālì (use explosive energy), first you much Xùlì (gather energy).  Without Yin, you can’t have Yang.  It’s always comforting to see scientific research prove ancient Chinese philosophy.

How often do you take breaks at work?  What do you do during your breaks to Xùlì?  Share your favorite techniques in the comments section!