An Introduction to the heart-mind

In Tai Chi texts such as the Tai Chi Classics, there are two separate but related terms and concepts. These terms are i (yì) and hsin (xīn). English readers may not realize that, depending on the translator, both terms can be translated to the English word ‘mind’. It’s true that both terms have to do with the mind, but they have different meanings.

The character for i (yì) is 意. As with all Chinese characters, the character has multiple meanings and the proper one must be inferred from context. In the case of i (yì), here are some of the terms relevant to Tai Chi: “idea, meaning, thought, to think, wish, desire, intention, to expect, to anticipate”.

The character for hsin (xīn) is 心. Again, the character has multiple meanings and the proper one must be inferred from context. For hsin (xīn), some of the terms related to Tai Chi are: “heart, mind, intention, center, core”

From these we can see that the terms have some overlap in meaning but also have distinct differences. To help differentiate them, hsin (xīn) is often referred to as the ‘heart-mind’ (you’ll note that ‘heart’ is the first definition for hsin (xīn) above). This concept is one you already know. Consider when someone says “Listen to your heart.” They don’t mean listen for the sound of your heartbeat. They mean for you to use a different way of thinking than the logical, linear, ‘internal monologue’ approach. They mean to use your mind in an intuitive, creative, receptive, non-verbal way.

When trying to understand what these mean in the context of Tai Chi, we have the benefit of the Glossary in “The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan - The Literary Tradition; Annotated Edition”, where both terms are defined (Page 122) :

Hsin: The essential mind which produces the I (idea or will).

The term i (yì) is nearly always translated as ‘mind’, referring to the thinking mind, what we tend to mean in English when we talk about thinking and thoughts. But sometimes during translation, either character is translated as ‘mind’ without clarification of the original character. One reason this may happen is that the term ‘heart-mind’ is not a normal English term, and translators may choose to present the translation in a way that aligns as much as possible to normal English.

This can be challenging and confusing for English readers. As one example, consider the excellent translation of “Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises on T’ai Chi Ch’uan” by Ben Lo and Martin Inn, where the following two sentences appear in the translation of Treatise Three (page 31):

Lao-tzu studied and interpreted the Book of Changes; reading between the lines, he said, “Develop the ch’i to reach suppleness.” That is, sink the ch’i to the tan t’ien and keep it there with the mind.”

In the original Chinese text, the character translated as the word ‘mind’ at the end of the second sentence is 心, the ‘heart-mind’.

At this point we might ask ourselves if this is all ‘a tempest in a teapot’, making something out of nothing. But there are important implications here. Take for example the beginning of Tai Chi Classic “Expositions of Insights into the Practice of the Thirteen Postures” from “The Essence of T’ai Chi Ch’uan - The Literary Tradition; Annotated Edition” (pages 49 & 50):

The hsin (mind) mobilizes the ch’i (breath). Make the ch’i sink calmly; then it gathers and permeates the bones. The ch’i mobilizes the body. Make it move smoothly, then it easily follows (the direction of) the hsin. The i (mind) and ch’i (breath) must change agilely, then there is an excellence of roundness and smoothness. This is called “the change of insubstantial and substantial.”

It is the heart-mind, the intuitive, non-verbal aspect of our mind, that mobilizes the ch’i. When we can move the ch’i smoothly it is following the direction of the heart-mind. Then it is the thinking mind or the will, the i (yì), along with the ch’i that together change agilely. The thinking mind and the heart-mind are two different things with two different roles.

† If you have questions about Chinese terms used, you may find About Chinese Terms helpful.

This is part of Thoughts on Tai Chi, a collection of writings exploring various aspects of Tai Chi. If you know someone who would enjoy reading it, please forward it to them.

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