If you have ever played a competitive sport, you have probably been exhorted to give 100 percent. Or, as the sports cliché would have it, “110 percent.” And the attitude embodied in that exhortation extends well beyond the arena of athletics. Whether the field of activity be business or law, selling cars or playing tennis, giving 100 percent of one’s effort and energy is widely regarded as a virtue, if not a moral imperative.
In the present American workplace, those fortunate enough to be employed might have little choice but to give 110—or 150—percent, day in and day out, to their jobs and sponsoring institutions. But for the conduct of everyday life, a wiser guideline may be found in the ancient Chinese practice of Tai Chi. At once a martial art and a contemplative discipline, Tai Chi is rooted in the Taoist tradition. And a cardinal principle of Tai Chi states that the practitioner should not exceed 70 percent of his or her physical capacity. As Bruce Frantzis, a contemporary Tai Chi master, explains, “[s]triving for 100 percent inherently produces tension and stress because as soon as you strain or go beyond your capacity, your body has a natural tendency to experience fear and to begin, even without you[r] being aware of it, to tense or shut down in response.”* By staying within the limit of 70 percent, you “can use your full effort and energy, but not to the point of strain.”**
In Tai Chi, the “70-percent rule” applies to every dimension of the practice, including the force behind your movements, the extension of your turns, twists, and stretches, and the length of your practice session. For example, in the move Carrying Tiger to Mountain, the practitioner repeatedly bends down on the right knee while advancing forward and moving the arms and hands in a spiraling motion. At the beginning, if you are capable of bending all the way to the floor, you bend no further than 70 percent. By so doing, you can give your full attention to developing the move, unhindered by fear or resistance. Later on, as your strength and flexibility increase, you can bend all the way. Likewise, if you are capable of doing forty minutes of vigorous Tai Chi, you practice for thirty, lengthening your sessions as your stamina increases.
As a longtime practitioner of Guang Ping Yang Tai Chi, I can attest to the efficacy of the “70-percent rule,” not only in the practice of Tai Chi but also in daily life. With respect to Tai Chi practice, observance of the rule has enabled me to relax, pay closer attention to detail, and execute the form with greater fluidity. Beyond that, the rule has helped me to perform, without strain, such routine domestic chores as scraping an ice-glazed windshield or lifting a forty-pound bag or hauling a loaded trashcan to the curb. And, not least, I have found the rule applicable to mental as well as physical effort, particularly the practice of Zen.
When many of us detect a problem, we want to fix it. And for some of us that means fastening on the problem and examining it from all sides, as a dog might worry a bone. By remaining mindful of the 70-percent rule, we can learn to step back from obsessive problem-solving, allowing conditions and causes to reveal themselves and solutions to arise of their own accord. By releasing ourselves from doing, we can leave more time for being, which is to say, for steady contemplation or patient inquiry rather than grasping for immediate solutions. And we can open a space in which intuitive perception, in tandem with rational analysis, plays a role in the process of understanding.
In similar fashion, if we practice Zen meditation, the 70-percent rule can protect us from excessive concentration on any one component of the practice—breath, posture, the particulars of form—or, in a more general way, on meditation itself. When newcomers first experience the benefits of sitting, they sometimes behave like recent converts, believing that meditation can “do it all.” If their practice happens to be Zen, they may sit for fifty minutes at a time and up to twelve hours in a day. For some, such striving is a requisite for full awakening, and if the practitioner is young and healthy enough, he or she may be able to sustain it for a time. But for older practitioners, an uncritical embracing of the harsher aspects of Zen training can be destructive of health and well-being. “Just as we should not idealize Zen masters,” writes the Zen teacher Grace Schireson, “we should not idealize monastic training as a perfect lifestyle for all ages. Medical research suggests that getting enough sleep and a diet appropriate to one’s personal needs is important for sustaining health.”*** In essence a principle of moderation, the 70-percent rule can remind us to temper our enthusiasm with critical thought and our commitment to the practice with realistic expectations.
Tai Chi is not a science, and its foundational rule is not a rigid absolute. It is a flexible guideline, which like the practice of Zen must be adjusted to suit one’s age, health, and relative fitness. But as Bruce Frantzis observes, the 70-percent rule, intelligently applied, can prevent people from “becoming heroes at the expense of their bodies.”**** Please bear it in mind on these winter mornings, especially when shoveling snow.
* Bruce Frantzis, The Big Book of Tai Chi (Thorsons, 2003), 36.
** Frantzis, 191.
*** Grace Schireson, Zen Women (Wisdom, 2009), 250.
****Bruce Frantzis, Opening the Energy Gates of Your Body (North Atlantic Books, 1993), 85.
Photo by Rubbo