Many of the secrets of the Internal Arts such as T’ai Chi Chuan (taijiquan) and Chi Kung (qigong) are hidden in plain sight, and many people miss those secrets because they haven’t been properly taught where and how to look.   One such “secret” is the theory of the Four Unities of Training, which are embodied in four different terms:

  1. Song
  2. Jing
  3. Zhi
  4. Hai

These four words, loosely translated, mean Song/relaxation, Jing/Quiet Tranquility, Zhi/Focused Intention, and Hai/Turn around.

The heart of T’ai Chi Chuan grows out of these four ideas, but in order to reveal the “secrets” hidden within these practices, it is necessary to break down each word to its more subtle meaning, because therein lies the real treasure for all to discover and utilize.

SONG:  This word, loosely translated as “relaxation,” refers to the body in a state of ease.   Throughout Cultivating Qi, I speak of the physical elements of training of Song wherein the body is properly structured and aligned, relaxed, and rooted.   Song embodies these three interconnected things: in order to be rooted, for example, the body must be properly aligned (structured), and relaxed so that the weight sinks downward and creates a solid foundation.    Relaxation, structure, and rooting together comprise the unity of Song, which is physiological, but  also forms the foundation for the other three unities.

JING:  This word in Chinese can have a number of different meanings and is sometimes confused with “Jin,” which means force.    Nevertheless, Jing can refer to essence, which in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is the genetic structure (DNA) of an individual and is stored in the kidneys.   Jing also can mean “quiet”—tranquility—which is the more appropriate meaning of the word in respect to the four unities.  To develop Jing in practice is to seek a tranquil mind and heart.   The classic saying is the mind and heart to be at ease.   Jing and Song, in this case, mean the dynamic relaxation of body, mind, and heart.

ZHI:   When we speak of Zhi, the literal meaning is will and purpose, but a more accurate definition would be focused intention and concentration.   The development and refinement of Zhi is the bolstering of concentrated focus.   It is both the energy that fuels exploration and reflection (the will to examine) as well as the tool to explore.  Focused concentration grows out of Song and Jing.  To focus mind is to be engaged in the act of being aware of the state of body, heart, and mind.   If the body, heart, and mind are relaxed, the concentration is impeded.   In this sense, Zhi drives the act of looking and as it is developed, becomes an even more refined tool for personal exploration.

HAI:  The term Hai means to turn back around and to return to the source.   Of the four, Hai is the most ephemeral of the unities and the most elusive term to comprehend.   The turning around is like a river that flows back to the lake from which it originated.   In this regard Hai refers to the path of enlightenment wherein the individual turns the attention inward in order to explore the self.   Enlightenment, though, is not the narcissistic examination of the self, but connects like the river to its source, which has many names: the Tao, Buddha Nature, Infinity, Grace, the Divine.   Hai in this respect is concerned with a dynamic interrogation of self in world, and draws upon the tools of Zhi to examine and the body, heart, and mind.

These Four Unities are deeply interrelated and work together to create the secret heart of the Internal Arts.   A different way to speak of these unities is referred as the Five Regulations of T’ai Chi Chuan training.   These Five Regulation are

  1. Regulating Body
  2. Regulating Breath
  3. Regulating Mind
  4. Regulating Chi/Qi
  5. Regulating Spirit

The Four Unities side step the issue of Breath and Qi since both fall under the unities of Song and Jing, and mind leads to Zhi (Intention) which is the tool of regulating spirit.

The Four Unities, like that of the Five Regulations, constitute seemingly distinct streams that flow together into one ongoing process.    For example, once the body is relaxed, the mind and heart will ease into tranquility, which allows for the sustained sense of focused concentration that is free from distractions—physical issues, as well as things that may be bothering a person psychologically or emotionally.  The honing of concentration and the cultivation of will leads to a deeper receptivity to objectively perceiving self and world.   The individual in the act of looking is reflected back with clarity and focus.   From this experience of deeply knowing oneself, that comprehension can be extended outwards in order to discern the world as it is.

Seen from a broader perspective, the movement from Song to Jing to Zhi and then to Hai might be visualized as a funnel.    The initial focus upon the body leads to the mind and heart, which then creates a more focused intention directed inward.   The mouth of the funnel (relaxing body, mind, and heart) leads to the more narrow tubing (the sustained concentrated awareness of the body, mind, and heart).   The unimpeded and relaxed state of the body, mind, and heart allows for more focused concentration that turns even more deeply inward.    The funnel inward then has a reverse funnel outwards that illuminates the self in the world.  The first funnel from Song, Jing, and Zhi points from mouth to nozzle, and another funnel reverses from nozzle (self) to mouth (world).

When T’ai Chi Chuan is described as “meditation in motion,” it is precisely this dual process of focusing inward and then outward that makes it meditative.   Perhaps one of the reasons these “secrets” of T’ai Chi are not more widely acknowledged is because of the cultural misrepresentation of meditation as an escape from self and world instead of as a dynamic engagement.   To think of T’ai Chi as an escapist “meditation” in this erroneous way means that the practice of T’ai Chi is a mere distraction from life like a television show or mindlessly surfing social media.   To incorporate these Four Unities into every moment and movement not only makes the body stronger and the mind more focused, it brings the self into a more authentic presence in the world.   As Shakyamuni Buddha explained about the nature of meditation, “The purpose of life is to find ones purpose and to follow it with ones entire being.”   T’ai Chi, in light of the Four Unities, becomes a revelatory act, immediate, and transcendent—the unveiling of the immortality of each moment.   Turning back around is the path of enlightenment, which, after all, is the most nuanced meaning of Hai.