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Introducing Interior Taiji

Taiji, or often pronounced as Tai Chi in the West, has been a quintessential concept through thousands of years of Chines history. The embodied practice of Taiji can be traced back to the medieval period as a physical and spiritual exercise. Immersed within this ancient tradition, Interior Taiji is a unitive praxis, which has enriched the personal and social lives of contemporary China for over a decade.

It is the fruit of its creator Gong Yan’s meager childhood Catholic catechesis, enduring love for Chinese classics, early academic training in psychology and philosophy, and Jesuit theological education. Interior Taiji has two faces, one facing the Chinese Catholic Church as a spiritual practice under the name of “unitive spirituality” that moves practitioners towards union with God. The other faces the broader Chinese society as a therapeutic practice under the name of “unitive therapy” that promotes integral healing. Both “unitive spirituality” and “unitive therapy” are well received in China, with the former being implemented into Catholic seminaries, retreats, non-violent communication training, marriage encounters, and faith formation; the latter, considered as an indigenous approach, has been widely incorporated by Chinese psychotherapists into their practices of individual, family, and group counseling.

For Gong, “unitive spirituality” and “unitive therapy” are the two manifestations of a singular praxis with love and life as its central expression. This praxis was birthed from and first enacted in his own life, during a period when he experienced an intense desire to enter the Society of Jesus, becoming a Jesuit novice three times, yet each time, had to leave the novitiate due to life-threatening illnesses. The physical suffering, mental anguish, and spiritual desolation left him in an immense dark night of both the senses and the soul. Pouring forth to God and himself all the unbearable negativity felt in his flesh, Gong underwent a remarkable event that gave rise to a surprising peace and tranquility in his soul. Interior Taiji originated from that deep experience of personal transformation, where one does Taiji with God and with oneself in a creative process. It expresses his personal knowledge[1] that the experience of negativity and darkness are not ills to be suppressed, nor evils to be escaped, but the locus of a profound encounter with God and oneself, an encounter that leads ultimately to growth and boundless transformation.

Central to Interior Taiji is the movement and transformation of affect concerning the human capacity and desire to love and be loved unconditionally. Affect is essential to Gong’s theological anthropology. Its essence is a vital impetus[2]that originates in God and exists essentially in every human being as well as in God. God, who is love, is the perfect health for Gong, whose vision of human integral health is a person who loves and is loved in freedom. Gong speaks of modes when referring to health and affect. Perfect health is the divine mode of affect, a pure act of love that is free and infinite; while the lack of health is the expression of a finite mode, when one’s affect is limited and one cannot love in an unconditional capacity. Though differentiating between the perfect mode of affect in God and the unhealthy mode of affect in human beings, Gong Yan does not recourse to a dualism between the divine and the human, but rather considers the possibility and the path of integral healing through which the unhealthy mode of affect in human beings is to be transformed into the divine affect of love. This path is laid out as Interior Taiji, a praxis whose goal is the transformation and perfection of human affect through which one attains union with God or unity between heaven and human beings as denoted by the Chinese concept Tianrenheyi, achieves integral health, and becomes an authentic self.

While Gong considers the centrality of affect as unique to the Chinese cultural sentiment, his approach can indeed find resonance in mystical theology, where affect – as both affectus and affectio – is fundamental to the soul’s divinizing transformation and union with God. The concept of affect has deep roots in early Christian thought and in the Latin and Greek rhetorical and philosophical traditions that influenced it.[3] The Christian conception of affect that is identified with passions and of ethical value emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries, though its specific meaning for ancient authors was rather diverse.[4] In the twelfth century, Bernard of Clairvaux – with a superlative contribution of monastic theology to Christian spirituality – attached a range of meanings to the term, while using it most basically to refer to a transforming influence on the order of grace and the human capacity for it – that is, our active capacity to desire and love and our passive capacity to receive love.[5] Gong’s conception of affect as essential to human nature, its capacity to be transformed and divinized through the process of divine union, where one attains at once the knowledge of God and the knowledge of the self, and the unity of the body, psych, and the spirit share deep affinity with Bernard.

Perceiving through Bernard’s mystical theology rooted in a much older tradition, Gong’s approach to affect acquires a fundamental ethical dimension. Bernard considered affect – set in order by grace – as virtue itself, in which one is able to reach wisdom, whose superior value is the wholeness of its knowing and its engagement of all dimensions of the subject.[6] Virtues are affectiones ordinatae. They are natural, belonging to the restoration of human nature. They are also spiritual, signifying an operation of the Spirit for which affect is merely ordained.[7] Forming part of the governing apparatus of medieval moral psychology, affect could be shaped by a program of moral training captured by the habitus.[8] There are abiding connections between medieval and early modern affect and virtues, or habitus understood as an ethical and spiritual practice.[9] The practice of an ethical habitus is akin to the cultivation of specific affects to produce different, frequently new forms of subjectivity.[10] Training the will through the formation of an ethical habitus is at the same time social, spiritual, and moral, “since they constituted a socially intelligible self that accorded to ethical principles with spiritual significance.”[11] The retrieval of medieval affect provides an appropriate entry for the conceptualization of Interior Taiji as a praxis and a habitus of transformation.

Moreover, inherent to Interior Taiji is Gong’s serious attention to professional ethics. Gong created a comprehensive structure of supervision through which therapists and spiritual directors are to be trained and held accountable to each other. He emphasizes that Interior Taiji is an open process of learning in community and a service for God and for the world. Its goal is not to produce “experts,” but the growth of persons and the unity of knowing and acting. Interior Taiji expresses a social vision of personal communion, where everyday life in community becomes a habitus of transformation. It is also a moral program, through which conscience is formed not by external forces, but by a communal discernment of affect, that is the love of God. Gong’s vision for therapists and spiritual directors is akin to Pope Francis’s notion of spiritual accompaniers, as those who “do not do the work in the place of the person accompanied, but walks alongside him or her, encouraging them to interpret what is stirring in their heart.”[12] Their practice manifests the traditional Chinese principle of wuwei, which according to the Korean Catholic philosopher Byung-Chul Han is “a process free of compulsion and intention,” where one is simply present at the process, which one nudges into existence by making use of the possibilities that lie dormant in it.[13]

While theological reflection for Interior Taiji — presenting a promising development in the Chinese Catholic Church and a contribution to the universal Church — requires further exploration, it can be discerned that implicated within it is a vision that centers on the union of love and life. Interior Taiji follows the Catholic spiritual and ethical tradition, especially that of mystical theology — one that has flourished in the past primarily in monastic contexts — while expanding its horizon so it bears upon the complexities and diversities of contemporary life. It bears the contours of a Chinese Catholic theology that is slowing emerging from the lived wisdom of the Chinese people as an expression of the unbearable sorrows and the profound joys, manifesting a tremendous desire for healing amid the complex and diverse realities of everyday life. Perhaps, Interior Taiji as a praxis of a new generation striving to heal both itself and the world can redirect our gaze to an open field, where, as Julia Ching – the renowned Neo-Confucian philosopher, scholar of Chinese intellectual history, and a Catholic nun for over two decades – puts it, “we shall witness the dawn of a new age, and enjoy the view of the sunrise over a rejuvenated horizon.”[14]

[1] I invoke “personal knowledge” in a Polanyian sense. See Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Toward A Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[2] I invoke the concept of “vital impetus” in a Bergsonian sense. See Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (New York: Dover Publications, 1998). See also Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, trans. R. Ashley Audra and Cloudesley Brereton (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013).

[3] Robert Glenn Davis, The Weight of Love: Affect, Ecstasy, and Union in the Theology of Bonaventure (New York: Fordham University, 2017), 16.

[4] Davis, The Weight of Love, 17.

[5] Gordon Rudy, Mystical Language of Sensation in the Later Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 2002), 59.

[6] Bernard and Emero S. Stiegman, On Loving God (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 94.

[7] Bernard and Stiegman, On Loving God, 95.

[8] Glenn Burger and Holly A. Crocker, eds., Medieval Affect, Feeling and Emotion, Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 8-9.

[9] Michael W. Champion, “From Affectus to Affect Theory and Back Again,” in Before Emotion: The Language of Feeling, 400-1800, ed. Juanita Feros Ruys, Routledge Studies in Medieval Literature and Culture 14 (New York: Taylor and Francis, 2019), 246.

[10]  Holly A. Crocker, “Medieval Affects Now,” Exemplaria 29, no. 1 (January 2, 2017): 94.

[11] Crocker, “Medieval Affects Now,” 84.

[12] Pope Francis, General Audience, 4 January 2023

[13] Byung-Chul Han, Vita Contemplativa: In Praise of Inactivity, trans. Daniel Steuer (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2024), 27-28.

[14] Julia Ching, The Butterfly Healing: A Life Between East and West (New York: Orbis Books, 1998), 220.