A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Under the Tai Chi 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 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 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 7th century BC 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 jing, the Tai Chi Chuanist creates a surge of jing energy, which is essentially a wave of compressed chi. 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.
Another interesting fact about lenses is that they all have zero thickness. In simplistic and theoretical terms, it’s the curvatures of both sides of the lens that counts, 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 curves that count. The curves are what causes the light to bend from its usually straight line into an alternate straight path, either for focusing or for divergence. So, in essence, the curves—not the lens material—are that interface where things happen—where one state transforms into another state—and that interface is infinitely thin.
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 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 massive magnetic fields around massive stars and galaxies to view magnified images of stars or galaxies that lay 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? Also, think of a bullwhip that focuses a large impulse of energy through a snaking path (waveform) to a sharply cracking terminus. There’s a little Tai Chi in there, for sure.
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 own energy. At various places along the chi meridians are certain acupuncture points that, because of their locations, can be internally manipulated to restrict or alter the flow of chi to create specialized expressions of jing energy.
A few 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.
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)