A magazine of martial and movement arts, with a focus on the internal style of Tai Chi Chuan
Under the Tai Chi Lens
by Christopher Dow
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. This is what happens inside a Camera Obscura, the earliest practical camera. It consists of a darkened room with a single pin-prick-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 pin-prick 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)
Looking at 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) 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. 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 as it spreads infinitely. 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 that is 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.
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 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 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.)
To see, I grabbed my magnifying glass. 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 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 the magnifier’s 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 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 only one. I needed something that 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 the 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 a 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 saw 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 or move, so do its manifestations—namely, reality. 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. It is the challenge of the art of Tai Chi to teach the exponent how to effectively weave his or her energy through that moment 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,
3 “Lens (optics),” Wikipedia,
2 “Lens (optics),” Wikipedia,
5 “Camera obscura,” Wikipedia,
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)