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The word 'magic' is typically associated with fantasy fiction: particularly movies and books like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.
These stories deal with magic as some kind of mystical otherworldly phenomena; like the 'force' in Star Wars. Every rational adult knows that such depictions of magic are rooted in make believe.
Hong Kong cinema
In Chinese history and folklore the ancient Taoist sages were imbued with magical powers and abilities. This was transferred to the martial arts. Qi energy lightning bolts, flying and so on...
Martial arts movies continued this trend; often focusing upon fantasy/the impossible - rather than real world skills.
Magic deals with some of the most
fundamental psychological and philosophical questions. What do you believe
to be possible? What is consciousness? How much control do you have over
your thoughts and your actions?
Magic relies on powerful
psychological illusions and magicians create their tricks by exploiting gaps
and errors in our conscious experience. For example, magicians use
misdirection to manipulate what you attend to and this allows them to
control what you see Ė and what you miss. However, as I enrolled on my
degree course, I was surprised to learn scientists were not particularly
interested in magic.
Street performers, conjurers and illusionists have thrilled people will apparent feats of magic since the dawn of human history. They perform 'tricks' that cannot readily be explained.
Technology, sleight of hand, physical and psychological misdirection all coalesce to provide the appearance of magic. The movie The Illusionist illustrates this nicely.
For hundreds (if not thousands) of years Indian fakirs have performed feats of 'magic': charming deadly snakes, the Indian rope trick, lying on a bed of nails, walking across burning coals, putting needles through flesh.
Feats of magic may be inexplicable to the audience, but the practitioner knows exactly what they are doing. The what, the how and the why. It is a very carefully practiced trick.
Like a sleight of hand card trick?
Magicians train themselves rigorously to perform tricks that are designed to fool their audience. They perform impossible feats using sleight of hand, illusions and misdirection. It looks like magic.
Endurance & skill
Other feats are the outcome of endurance training, or the cultivation of specific skills. Think about it: how many people can throw a basketball through a hoop as consistently as a professional player?
Perform a handstand, somersault or cartwheel?
Much of our work on misdirection
reveals that the gaps in our conscious experience are bigger than most of us
had assumed. As you look at your surroundings, you experience the world as a
rich and complete sensory experience. However, our research on misdirection
illustrates that this conscious experience is a powerful illusion. Our true
perception is full of gaps and holes, and much more removed from reality
than most of us imagine. I spend much of my time studying these types of
illusions, and even though I know my brain is being tricked, I still
struggle to appreciate just how little I am truly conscious of. Itís a very
compelling illusion and one that is very difficult to break.
The Art of War
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu points out that All warfare is based on deception. He strongly encourages indirect, circuitous strategies, misdirection, deceit and cunning. Standing toe-to-toe is not advised.
His book contains 13 chapters dedicated to being dishonest concerning one's intentions.
Appearances are deceptive
The skills of taijiquan sometimes appear to be impossible. They are unusual feats. But is it magic? No. Not at all...
Magic isn't real
Remember that magic isn't real. Everything a magician shows you is a trick. They are fooling you into believing that you have witnessed the impossible despite knowing it cannot be.
What you don't know is how they did it. Therein lies the mystery, the wonder and the appeal. You want to know the secret but you also want to preserve the illusion of magic, the mystery...
Unlike magic, taijiquan skills are real. But akin to magic, unless you are adept at the Art yourself, you have no way of knowing how they performed the feat. This is no different to being an acrobat.
How many people can backflip? Play a Mozart piece, build a mobile phone or dive to the bottom of the ocean? There's no magic involved. There's no trick. You're not being fooled. But there is certainly skill.
This research on misdirection has
important real-world implications. It is often important to accurately judge
our own cognitive abilities, and misjudgments can have fatal consequences.
For example, most people underestimate the extent to which their attention
is misdirected by a phone call. Research has shown that talking even on a
hands-free phone has the same detrimental impact on your driving as being
over the drink-drive limit. However, since we overestimate our own
abilities, we donít notice the impact this technological misdirection has on
It is tempting for many new starters to read about qi and believe that some kind of mystical energy is going to power their Art. Be prepared for disappointment. You still need to exercise the body.
There will be no 'mystical' moments where qi does the work for you.
Instead of thinking about qi, turn your attention to the human mind. Now that is a fascinating subject, and a bona fide mystery. We use the word 'mind' quite readily and freely, but do we know what it is?
Philosophers and scientists have explored the workings of the mind for a very long time now. Yet, nobody knows quite how the mind affects the body or even what the mind is.
There are many scientific studies exploring how our thoughts directly affect our health and wellbeing. In taijiquan, the role of the mind is significant.
It doesn't make sense...
Taijiquan new starters always make the mistake of trying to understand something unfamiliar in terms of the known. They want to get a handle on the training. They want reassurance and security.
They want to feel confident. Not knowing is daunting. But it is the truth. You cannot possibly understand taijiquan in terms of anything else.
18 April 2005
Last updated 13 April 2019