Tai Chi Under the Lens
Let a Lens Magnify Your Tai Chi
by Christopher Dow
Lenses aren’t usually associated with Tai Chi Chuan. And why should they be? One is, most often, a specially shaped piece of glass or plastic, while the other is a complex physical movement discipline that functions in various ways. They aren’t even apples and oranges, which are at least both fruit. They are so totally unrelated that they’re more akin to something like apples and ball-point pens. But if you capitalize Apple, the computer can be considered a sophisticated version of mechanical instruments for writing and illustrating, of which ball-points also are examples. Perhaps, in many unexpected ways, lenses and Tai Chi, too, are more akin than is at first apparent.
Lenses aren’t usually associated with food, either, but the name comes from the Latin name for lentil because a lens—at least in most magnifiers—is lentil-shaped. Nor are they usually thought of as toys. Lenses are serious business. They’re in telescopes astronomers use to delve into the far reaches of the cosmos. They’re in the microscopes modern medicine relies on to help identify disease. They’re in the binoculars wielded by military commanders surveying their tactical options and in the thedolites of surveyors who map our world. They’re in the eyeglasses a great percentage of humankind depends on to see well. Naturally occurring lenses are in almost every eye.
I once read a news story about a fire at a liquor store that burned the place to the ground. The fire occurred during the middle of the day, and the proprietor saw nothing that could have caused the fire, which started at the front of the store, in the display area. Everything was normal one minute, and the next, the place was a raging inferno. Investigators determined that the culprit was the sun, whose rays coming through a window had been focused by a round bottle of clear liquor that acted like a lens. The focal point of all that burning energy was another bottle of alcohol, which, being highly flammable, went up like a Molotov cocktail. That set off the several hundred other Molotov cocktails lining the shelves. From there, the fire worked its way to the cases of Molotov cocktails in the storeroom, and then it was all over for that building. Lenses, it seems, really are serious business. They aren’t toys.
But heck, almost as soon as I received my first dinky little hand-held telescope when I was about eight, I came into possession of another just like it. Almost instantly, one of them lay in pieces: hollow tubes, screw-on rings, O-ring clamps, and the precious guts comprising several lenses of different sizes. I valued these isolated lenses almost as much as I did the telescope that remained intact. The largest of them, I quickly observed, could start a fire when focusing sunlight. In that, I was simply replicating the experiments of my human forebears. The oldest known lens is the Nimrud Lens, which dates back to Assyria of the seventh century BCE and is now held in the British Museum. (Figure 1) It has been proposed that it and other ancient lens artifacts were used for much the same purposes that we use lenses today: to magnify things and start fires.
Lenses are surprisingly complex business, too. There are six different types: biconvex, plano-convex, positive meniscus, negative meniscus, plano-concave, and biconcave. Convex is where the surface bulges out, and concave is where the surface curves inward, and the range is from lens that bulge out on both sides to ones that curve inward on both sides. (Figure 2)
But there is another property of lenses that is only partially tied to the lens’s profile, and that is whether the lens is a positive/converging lens or a negative/diverging lens. The former focuses light—or other forms of energy in microwave lenses, electron lenses, or acoustic lenses, for example—while the latter spreads light. (Figure 3) Lens manufacturers can control the exact amount of power and focal length of a lens by precisely altering the relative curvatures of the two faces.
Light is focused by a positive lens, which means that such a lens magnifies the power of the energy coming through it by taking the light striking over a relatively wide area and redirecting it all into a smaller area—theoretically as small as an infinitesimal point—on the other side of the lens. A lens with a large, blunt focal point only magnifies a little bit, but it magnifies a wider area, while a lens with sharp focal point magnifies more greatly but of a smaller area. (I guess that yin and yang can’t help but crop up throughout reality.)
To bring in Tai Chi, finally, this is exactly how fa jing works. In applying fa jin, the Tai Chi Chuanist creates a surge of jing energy, which is essentially a wave of compressed chi supported by correct body alignments and just the right amount of exertion by the sinews and muscles. The wave can be focused either a little and somewhat softly for a non-shocking shove or a lot and sharply for a strike or shocking jolt.
The operation of a negative lens is the yin in action. Or is that reaction? Or non-action? Certainly it’s not inaction since something happens. It definitely is the yielding, though, as it takes in, then dissipates, the light, just as the Tai Chi exponent leads an opponent’s energy into emptiness either by dissipating the opponent’s energy around the sides or by refocusing it somewhere other than the exponent’s own center.
Figure 1 The Nimrud Lens, the oldest-known lens, dates to Assyria of the 7th century BC. It is now held in the British Museum.(2)
Figure 2 There are six different types of lenses: (left to right) biconvex, plano-convex, positive meniscus, negative meniscus, plano-concave, and biconcave.(3)
Figure 3 A positive (converging) lens (above) and a negative (diverging) lens (below).(4)
Another interesting fact about lenses is that they all have zero thickness. In simplistic and theoretical terms, it’s the faces of both sides of the lens—their curvature and relation to one another—that count, not the actual thickness of the lens material. In practice, some lenses have to be thick to accommodate the radical curvatures of the faces, and in such lenses, the faces often have to be shaped in certain ways to account for the thickness of the lens material. But at base, it’s just the faces that count. They and their curves are what cause the light to bend from its usually straight line into an alternate straight path, either for focusing or for divergence. In essence, the lens material is just a substrate to hold the faces in place. Lens faces, not their material, are the interface where things happen—where one state transforms into another state—and that interface is infinitely thin even though it does have two sides that are no where parallel.
We tend to think of lenses as clear, curving objects made of glass or plastic. In these objects, the light is bent at the surface of the lens by the difference in refraction between the air and the surface of the material making up the lens, such as glass or plastic. In glass or plastic, this takes place instantly at the curve of the material, but other things or forces can alter the trajectory of incoming light/energy. The aforementioned microwave, electron, and acoustic lenses use different methods to focus the energies they deal with.
One example is the electrostatic lens, which is a device that can focus charged particles, such as electrons. Electron lenses once found use, for example, in the cathode ray tube electron gun that was the principal mechanism in the functioning of old tube TV screens. And most of us probably have heard of gravitational lensing, in which astronomers use the bending of light rays by the powerful magnetic fields around massive stars and galaxies to view magnified images of stars or galaxies that lie great distances beyond.
When you get down to it—and related to Tai Chi in a more direct sense—a rocket motor is really a lens that focuses the tremendous energy of the burning rocket fuel into a relatively narrow but highly intense beam of energy powerful enough to thrust the mass of the spacecraft out of the well of Earth’s gravity. The rocket’s “focal point” is its ignition point within a constricted space with a narrow outlet. Similar is the way a hose nozzle focuses the energy of a stream of water. Also there are explosive lenses, which are explosive charges shaped to produce a focused blast. Think of a sharply focused expulsion of Peng energy, as in Press. And speaking of blasts, how about those stereo speakers blasting music? Aren’t they, in effect, lenses that transform and magnify electrical pulses into conically expanding sound waves?
It’s clear that lensing is a basic tool that can be used to act on and manipulate moving energy—be it light, microwaves, burning rocket fuel, water, sound, or a great many other forms of energy. Even chi. In a very real sense, Tai Chi movements operate on physical and energetic levels as lenses that can focus or disperse one’s internal energy. At various places along the chi meridians are certain acupuncture points that, because of their locations, can be internally manipulated to restrict or open the flow of chi to create specialized expressions of jing energy.
Three of the more important of these points are the mingmen point in the center of the lumbar area which controls the chi flow to the legs through the sacral plexus, the dazhui point at the base of the neck which controls the chi flow to the arms through the brachial plexus, and the daling point in the inside of the wrist which controls chi flow into the hand and affects the flow in the entire arm. In each case, the power and expression of the chi flow is manipulated to correct effect by how the several acupuncture lenses work together to create various “focal points” and “focal ranges.” Both of these are generally articulated by the "terminal" positions of the various Tai Chi postures.
These are examples of chi lensing that take place within the Tai Chi Chuanist’s own body, but in practical terms, the entire Tai Chi exponent becomes a lens. He or she accomplishes this by drawing energy—either the exponent’s own energy or the opponent’s—through the infinitely thin interface between the opponent and the exponent and altering it in ways that aren’t always straightforward, dimensionally speaking. Those ways can twist and turn more than one way simultaneously, can expand and contract along curving lines that recoil on themselves, and can use various other deviously sinuous means to subtly defeat an opponent.
The dynamic produced by Tai Chi movements finds a perfect parallel in lenses because a lens doesn’t just make things look bigger or smaller; it inverts an image projected through it. (Think: Transforms attack into defeat.) This is what happens inside a Camera Obscura, the earliest practical camera. It consists of a darkened room with a single pinprick-sized hole in the middle of one wall. Although some historians believe that the Camera Obscura dates back to the Pleistocene, the device first appeared in the historical record in writings of the Chinese sage Mo Tzu dating to about 500 BCE in China.
When you stand inside a Camera Obscura, an image of the scene on the other side of the wall will be projected through the pinprick hole onto the wall opposite the hole, but the projection will be upside down and backwards. (Figure 4) Mo Tzu correctly posited that the image is inverted because light travels in straight lines, and his followers developed this into a theory of optics. (1)
Observing illustrations of reality flipped and flopped through a lens, I keep seeing this, in profile, as the infinity twist in the middle of the taijitu. (Figure 5) (See The Infinity Twist.) In other words, because a lens is round, light going through it produces a circular image on a plane parallel to the other side of the lens. But the energy involved—the light itself—is not the flat projection of a Camera Obscura. Instead it fills the space between the lens and the surface with a conical construct of light, of which the flat projection is really just a slice. If the surface on which the image is projected is removed, the conical projection simply travels on infinitely, albeit with steadily diminishing effect with each passing second. At some point, the energy is no longer easily recognizable as a cone, but it is one, nonetheless, just an extremely tenuous one.
Now, let’s look at the other side of the lens: the side that is the original reality projected through the lens. Interestingly, because the lens only takes in a circular segment of that reality, the energy of the light involved in the projection also is in a conical shape that is exactly the same size and dimensions as the projection, just in its “normal” orientation instead of inverted. And the reality it expands through also goes on forever.
Figure 4 Inside a Camera Obscura, an image of the scene on the other side of the wall will be projected through the pin-prick hole onto the wall opposite the hole, but the projection will be upside down and backwards.(5)
Figure 5 The twisting of one's combined sense of energy, gravity, and balance through the infinity symbol at the heart of the taijitu.
We can graphically relate this internally energetic double cone shape, with the lens at its pinch point, to the figure-eight at the core of the taijitu. Looking at both figures flat-on, we only have to cap off the ends of the cones with arcs, which far from terminating the energy, simply recycles it back through the resulting infinity symbol. And the parallel continues when one considers that the lens and the central juncture of the taijitu’s figure-eight are both interfaces between the yin and the yang—the this and that—where energy going through the focal point turns inside out and backwards.
This idea becomes even more interesting in terms of physical dynamics when one views the linked cones not as a flat figure-eight but as a three-dimensional hour-glass, with each side of the lens projecting the other side equally. In a sense, both cones are sets of reality that are interposed upon each other, though they are flipped and flopped on each side of the lens, creating a dynamic interplay of yin and yang within the double cone shape. Looking at it this way, a lens becomes the neck of an hourglass through which the sands of space-time continuously flow from one state to another and back again. This makes lenses seem like some sort of dimensional leaks that transpose reality into its opposite at an infinitely thin and magical interface. Heck, maybe they are, and we just can’t get through.
If all this isn’t odd enough, consider the following. Tai Chi Chuanists frequently talk about yin and yang but rarely about the interface between them—between this and that, between order and chaos. After all, true Tai Chi should be able to transform not just the aggression, but the aggressive intent of an opponent, into their opposites. As it is precisely at the lens-like interface between aggression and non-aggression that Tai Chi functions, I thought that it might be edifying as well as educational to observe this interface in action. Could I actually witness “the one” transform into “the other?” Probably not, but you know, I gotta try, I wasn't doing anything else, and there was a magnifying glass in my desk drawer.
Because of the lens's particular shape, I know that it shows an upright image only when the face of the glass is relatively close to the object that it is magnifying and when my own face also is relatively close to my side of the glass. This brings both the viewed and the viewer within the proper focal range of the lens. But if I hold the magnifier at arm’s length and look across the room—or even at relatively close objects—not only are they blurry to one degree or another, they’re upside down and backward.
Okay, I expect that, just as I expect proper alignment when I’m using the magnifier within its focal range—close to the object being magnified and close to my face. But we all know that upside-down-and-flopped and right-side-up-and-not-flopped are two diametrically opposed extremes. And both are visible through a glass and theoretically could be viewed sequentially and without interruption. That led me to wonder what I would see if I watched through a magnifier while I gradually changed its distance from both its object of focus and my eyes? Would the actual interface between yin and yang become visible or apparent in some way or other?
At first, I tried that, holding the glass at arm’s length while I stared through it at the bulletin board on the wall behind my desk. I could make out a word—properly upright—that was scrawled on a piece of paper tacked there, and I tried to keep the glass trained on the word while I slowly retracted my arm. The scrawled word grew predictably blurry and finally magnified out, so to speak. Only when the glass was very close to my eyes could I again see the bulletin board upright, albeit extremely out of focus. Everything in between the two orientations had been a blur, and I saw—and learned—nothing.
Part of the problem was that I’d changed both the distance between the lens and my eyes and the distance between the lens and the object of observation. That gave me two variables where I required but one. I needed something I could focus on steadily and actually see some sort of image throughout without changing the distance of the magnifier from my eyes. I chose the juncture of the desktop and the strip of bare wall just below the bulletin board. When I held the glass at arm’s length, I could see an upside-down image of the juncture, and if I held the glass lower, but still at the same distance, I could see the desktop in its correct, upright position. Somewhere in between was that place where the inverted image changed to the normal image.
I moved the glass slowly down and up many times, each time with the same result: When I lowered the glass, the image of the juncture would move from top to bottom (upside down and backwards), and then, for just the barest of moments, the image would blur out and all visible movement would halt in a sort of haze. Then, as I continued to lower the glass, the image resumed moving as the desktop came into increasing focus, but this time the movement was from bottom to top, or, oriented normally. The interface of yin and yang, chaos and form, upside-down and right-side-up, was in there, but it just couldn’t be seen behind the blur of its state of non-formation.
I know that optics experts and so forth will point out that the blurring is because of focal-this and focal-that, and yeah. Okay. But so what? It’s also philosophically interesting from other standpoints. I like looking for similarities, parallels, and congruencies and their opposites in systems of energetic balance. And I can only say that, with my magnifying glass experiment, I watched as one state of reality devolved into the inchoate haze of non-existence, only to reemerge a moment later as its opposite state of reality. Everything in between remained a mystery.
Something similar to the blurring happens to astronomers who peer into the farthest reaches of the universe. They now have instruments that can observe so far in distance—and therefore, back in time—that they can discern the state of the universe just moments, astronomically speaking, after the Big Bang. The Big Bang is, of course, the lens through which our universe was/is being projected—that pin-prick hole that eventually spread the energy coming through it into a vast area. But even as researchers pierce the veil of time and space more and more deeply in their search for the moment of the Big Bang, all they can see is the increasing haze of radiation that, like a dense fog, eventually hides anything farther and older—and more primordial—from view.
Again, I'd seen nothing, but in this case I did learn something: We probably will never be able to actually witness or discern, either visually or by other means, the interface between the states of yin and yang. Reality is binary, but every thing and every force is a heady mixture of the yin and yang, and any direct view of the division between the two is necessarily obscured in a haze of motion, uncertainty, unformation, and transformation.
Oddly enough, it would seem that when things or forces suddenly transform from one state into the opposite, they, in essence, vanish from reality for a split micro-instant. Reality is, in reality, only energy that is manifesting through motion and binding together, and if the empowering energy ceases to manifest and move, so do its manifestations. When an object moves in one direction and then changes to the other direction, there is a moment of pure equilibrium when the one has not yet changed into the other. A moment in which there is energetic stasis, or non-being. The art of Tai Chi teaches the exponent to avoid this bifurcated state by effectively weaving his or her movement and energy without pause, without loss of momentum or continuity, allowing it to emerge on the other side both coherent and magnified.
For the Tai Chi Chuanist, the art is like a lens. At its best, it can aid in teaching us how to diminish the tensions and magnify the relaxation of our bodies to gain maximum use of them and to both expand and focus our personal energies. In a practical, martial sense, it can teach us how to diminish the power of incoming energy or magnify the effects of seemingly small movements. And because Tai Chi closely adheres to the laws of nature, it also is a lens through which we can view the world and parse the mechanisms and effects of the reality in which we live.
Perhaps that leads to greater power and to a greater understanding of life and the place in which we find ourselves, and maybe it might even be able to shed light on the deeper mysteries of the universe. Those outcomes are for the individual to explore, but in any case, the search sure is interesting.
Pass me that magnifier, will you? It’s time to do Tai Chi.
1 Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilization in China, vol. IV, part 1: "Physics and Physical Technology," p. 82.
2 “Lens (optics),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lens_(optics).
3 “Lens (optics),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lens_(optics).
4 “Lens (optics),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lens_(optics).
5 “Camera obscura,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camera_obscura.