Alan Watts – The Principle of Not Forcing

Alan Watts – what a guy! As the public philosopher entertainer de jour he spearheaded the Eastern spirituality movement of the 60s that took America by storm and forever gave Tai Ch its hippy associations. The lectures on Eastern religions, particularly Zen, he did for a local radio station in California have provided endless motivational video fodder for advertising-packed YouTube videos, and they’re all very good. For example:

He had such a good speaking voice, and could articulate mystical ideas, particularly the idea that existence was simply consciousness playing an eternal game of hide and seek with itself, in ways that Westerners could understand. Of course, the downside of that after you die your words get used to advertise all sorts of things you may or may not have been in favour of. For example, he’s currently doing a voice over for a company selling cruises on UK TV at the moment. I’m not sure what the old guy would have thought of that, but there you go. That’s life! It’s never what you expect it to be.

I’ve heard people say that Alan Watts was a good communicator, but a poor example of the Taoist ideas he espoused. This is mainly because he was an alcoholic who died at the relatively young age of 58 due to related health complications. However, if I look at the 60’s popular philosopher entertainers like Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell, they’re so much more interesting and interested in their ideas than today’s sorry crop of pitiful, grifting, sophists like Joe Rogan, Scott Adams and Jordan Peterson. All of them are usually trying to convince you of some terrible conspiracy theory with one hand while selling you something with the other. At least Alan Watts had enough self respect to be dead before he started trying to sell me cruises!

I saw one of Alan Watts’ videos on YouTube recently, that sparked a few ideas in me. It was to do with the Taoist idea of Wu Wei. It’s called “Alan Watts – The Principle of Not Forcing”

“Not forcing” is Alan’s translation of the Taoist idea of Wu Wei, which is usually translated as “not doing”, or “doing nothing”, however Alan’s translation is much better for martial application. In martial arts, like Tai Chi, it is forcing things that is bad. Alan even mentions Judo in his explanation above. 

In English, the idea of doing nothing sounds too passive. Tai Chi isn’t passive. You can’t do a marital art by doing nothing, so I much prefer the translation of “not forcing”. It’s what we aspire to in Jiujitsu as well as Tai Chi. If you feel like you have to force techniques to work in Jiujitsu then it’s not the right way. It might be required in a time-limited competition, but the Gracie family were always famous for not wanting time limits on their matches, mainly because, with their hyper-efficient style of Jiujitsu, they knew they could survive longer than their opponent, exhausting them in the process. When you are forcing things to work you are burning energy, and wearing yourself out.

I think different styles of Tai Chi might look at this situation differently though. Yang style, and its derivatives tend to effortlessly breeze through the form. The emphasis is on efficient, continuous movement and relaxation. And while it may look effortless, you feel it in the legs, even if you are not visibly out of breath. Chen style seems to want to work a little harder. The stances are lower, there are occasional expressions of speed, power and jumping kicks. But there is still that emphasis on being like a swan moving through the water – graceful up top, but the legs doing all the hard work below the surface.

But regardless of style, all Tai Chi forms follow the same principle: Wu Wei.

11 thoughts on “Alan Watts – The Principle of Not Forcing

  1. I used to do Taoist Tai Chi from 2004 to 2006 when I was a young kid. I really didn’t appreciate how good it was for my body. I dropped out, because I came down with severe mental illness, but I still do some qi gong every now and then. God bless your blog!

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  2. Hi Graham,

    I am glad you are feeling better. I hope your recovery allows you to enjoy the remainder of the holiday season. Merry Christmas.

    You wrote:
    “…when I look at the technique Push done by a Yang stylist and a Chen stylist – the application of power looks the same to me: linear direction.”

    I think I better understand your quandary. Since I focused primarily on rotation, you missed my inclusion of longitudinal expansion and contraction, which are explicitly linear inside the rotation. Longitudinal linearity is essential, but many people violate this rule to the detriment of their martial skill.

    Perhaps you understood that, but you didn’t understand why there’s also need for rotation during expansion and contraction. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s similar to the difference between a nail and a screw.

    A nail is forced into and through the wood by application of tremendous focused force. Further, the least little force off-line will bend the nail causing it to fail.

    A screw is driven by torque, rotational force. By application of mechanical advantage, the screw is pulled into and through the wood. The screw rotates, but in this case it also move linearly through the wood.

    Similarly, many martial arts simply overpower the opponent with brute force, but this is not the professed Taiji way. In taijiquan actions, the mechanical advantages offered by rotation make a linear expansion or contraction easier, yet more difficult to resist or deflect, and have a greater effect on its target.

    It would take me an extended amount of time and specific examples to figure out how to begin explaining the biomechanics of this. To me, the advantages are just obvious.

    You also wrote:
    “I keep being told by people who are much better than me that “there is only one Tai Chi” ”

    I’ve probably said and agreed with their statement, but obviously, it is not strictly true. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be separate styles. I think using your notion of brands as an analogy explains both their statement and your ambivalence about it.

    There are different brands with differing features, but at their root, they are all derived from the same product with a set of characteristics. Artifacts of those characteristics remain in the current brands. That’s the “only one Tai Chi” concept.

    But, over time, there have been adaptations and evolutions in each brand largely due to responses to external factors. All adaptations were made to increase the likelihood of survival of the art. It is likely that no brand survived with all of the original characteristics intact, though some may have retained more than others. Yet others may have made essential improvements to the original. So, there are differences between brands, sometimes superficial and sometimes significant.

    I guess a person’s viewpoint on “only one Taijiquan” depends on whether they want to focus on the artifacts or the adaptations. I think it also depends in what way you compare styles.

    There are several layers and ways in which to compare styles. A fairly superficial way, in my estimation, is to compare techniques. For each movement in the form, there are multiple variations in techniques that one could use, so a comparison of techniques between brands will yield a great amount of differences. But, there is also a significant amount of difference within each style on the specific details of the techniques taught.

    Skills in various categories can be used to compare styles. One is the skill to produce a desired outcome. In comparing the Push of Chen Zhenglei to that of your teacher you said, “In this case, forwards and downwards. (My teacher was showing forward and up).” The skill of Push, based on outcome, is to push down the opponent. Whether you push them directly down, or up to knock them off their feet to fall down, or if you change the target and push through the pelvis instead of through the chest, or if the trailing foot stays back or comes forward are all just manifestations of the same skill. Comparing forms at this layer, focusing on the skill required to accomplish objective and minimizing variations in technique, reveals a shocking number of similarities in the types of skill required by the forms of the different styles.

    Another skill category is skill based on application of principles. While generally, there is widespread agreement on many principles among the styles. Ultimately, however, this type of comparison seems to indicate depth of teaching as much as style. I have found the teaching of certain advanced principles to be absent from the traditions of many other branches of Chen style and found them in the traditions of skilled Yang and Wu style practitioners.

    There are also academic and other ways to compare styles. I find these provide evidence, but their conclusions are not compelling to most practitioners.

    Finally, you posted the Chen Zhenglei demonstration video.

    It has been many years since I watched that video. I now find it sort of odd. It is a demonstration of actions shown in an exaggerated way, so they can be seen and recognized.

    If Master Chen were actually pushing hands with Wang Haijun and used these actions as a matter of course rather than demonstration, Wang would just fall down or be thrown back or whatever. The trigger that Chen used would be very difficult to see. The movements would have an element of wu wei, in terms of not forcing and a quality of stillness, where in this demo Chen is primarily just shoving the heck out of Wang in most of the actions.

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  3. Hi Richard,

    Thanks for the reply, I’ve managed to have an entire cold attack in the last 5 days and been in bed for most of it, but back on my feet now.

    It’s not that I want you, a Chen stylist, to convince me of something in the Yang style. I keep being told by people who are much better than me that “there is only one Tai Chi”, and I admit I can’t see it a lot of the time, but when I look at the technique Push done by a Yang stylist and a Chen stylist – they application of power looks the same to me: linear direction.

    For instance,

    Chen Tai Chi Push Hands w/ Applications: Master Chen Zheng Lei and a young Master Wang Hai Jun

    He’s doing the “8 energies” in order, so “Push” is number 4 at 0.35 seconds. He really extends his stance and throws his head back, but let’s ignore that, it’s a linear movement, just like they do it in Yang style. In this case, forwards and downwards. (My teacher was showing forward and up).

    Push is like the passage from the Tai Chi classic on the 13 postures, by Wu YuHxiang:

    “To fa-chin [discharge energy],
    sink,
    relax completely,
    and aim in one direction!

    In the curve seek the straight,
    store,
    then release. ”

    Not that I think you’re wrong about moving in this rotational way you talk about at all – I think for most of the time in a Tai Chi form that is exactly what you should be doing, but there are times where you need to express energy forward without needign to add rotational extras into it.

    Anyway, that’s my 2 cents, not trying to convince you of anything.
    Graham

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  4. Hi Graham,

    Thanks for your patience in waiting for a reply during this busy holiday season.

    You wrote:
    “I’m not convinced that this is how the energy of push is supposed to be done. To me it feels more like just a case of bringing energy into the body (from the opponent) and into the ground then sending it back on the same line from the ground, which doesn’t require any rotation (along the vertical axis) of the torso – i.e. rotating your torso to the right or left.
    It’s more like the dantien is doing a bit of the rotation in the vertical axis, seen from the side it would look like a letter U as you move the weight back then forward and the torso is kept centered.”

    Well… You are primarily a Yang style taijiquan practitioner. Your illustration fits the method for Push many Yang style teachers teach. I did specify the alternate method was from Chen style, so your response was only to be expected.

    However, I want to make it clear that I am not trying to “convince” you of anything. I only present a perspective gained from the traditions I have been taught.

    The short answer is that the rotation of the arms and vertical rotation of the torso, in this case, are primarily defensive. That is, to make sure the Push reaches its target as the opponent tries to deflect you and your arms off-vector. This is a very “not forcing” way to get into someone’s core.

    The long answer would touch on many topics other than Wu Wei.

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  5. Hi Richard,

    You say: “Alternatively, you could rotate your torso to the left as you bring your elbows in, then reach out rotating your torso to the right. This is the preferred method in Chen Style, but all can be correct if the principles are followed.”

    I agree, that I can do Push with rotation like this, however, I’m not convinced that this is how the energy of push is supposed to be done. To me it feels more like just a case of bringing energy into the body (from the opponent) and into the ground then sending it back on the same line from the ground, which doesn’t require any rotation (along the vertical axis) of the torso – i.e. rotating your torso to the right or left. It’s more like the dantien is doing a bit of the rotation in the vertical axis, seen from the side it would look like a letter U as you move the weight back then forward and the torso is kept centred.

    Look at my teacher doing push at about 53 seconds – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZELiEcNL5eo&t=45s

    It seems to me that adding in sideways torso rotation would be unnecessary? ( I also don’t see any arm rotation on the push, which you mention in the first part of your answer, although they rotate a bit as they come back to the body initially).

    Thanks,
    Graham

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  6. Hi Graham,
    From Press, rotating the two arms, so the palms face you, slide your forearms down the imaginary extended rotational axis of your forearms to your ribs. Then, rotate the arms reaching outward to the Push end position. You may use the same rotational axis out as in or imagine a new direction.

    I learned this action as a drill with my first taijiquan teacher, a Yang stylist. He called it Two Dragons Leap from the Sea. He added bending forward at the waist to help find connection to the feet as you reached out. We never used it that way. It was just a way to find the connections and alignments.

    Alternatively, you could rotate your torso to the left as you bring your elbows in, then reach out rotating your torso to the right. This is the preferred method in Chen Style, but all can be correct if the principles are followed.

    Try it with a partner in push-hands fashion to gain other insights. In some ways this can be easier than the form. You don’t move. Your partner moves you, but you only allow longitudinal rotation of the torso and extremities. See what happens.

    Remember, this is am exercise in Wu Wei, so you can focus on “not forcing,” or “not moving, only rotating,” which ends up amounting to the same thing. If you toss out preconceptions about what the form should look like, you don’t even have to expand and contract.

    These are also just the basics of two rules. There’s a lot more to it, as you know.

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  7. Hi Richard,

    I think I get that. Transposing this to a Yang form, it’s easy to see how Roll Back works like this, because the vertical rotation is part of the movement, but how do you deal with movements in the form where you need to move forward and backward without any vertical rotation though, say like in Push?

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  8. Hi Graham,
    Nice perspective article, BTW. I did not know anything about Alan Watts other than the name.

    So, that is not Chen-style-speak. Those are biomechanics terms; granted they are jargon. I thought including them would allow readers to Google the terms and get precise scientific definitions and understanding.

    Translation (physics) is linear motion. This would be tracked in an x-y-z coordinate system.

    Rotation (physics) is rotational motion. Rotation around a point or axis, generally speaking.

    Longitudinal runs lengthwise rather than across.

    Latitudinal runs crosswise rather than lengthwise. I interchanged it with Lateral, (toward or away from the side), which in anatomical reference is the more common term, but they are not exactly the same.

    Longitudinal rotation is rotation where the axis run through the length of the object. The axis does not have to be in the center. This is usually used in biomechanics applied to a body segment or segments, such as an arm, leg, or torso.

    A translating rotation would be one where the axis of rotation moves in the x-y-z coordinate system as opposed to being fixed in space or reference frame.

    Helical (helix) is a spiral whose path winds around a longitudinal axis, such a single layer coil of wire, a spiral staircase, the flutes of a drill bit, etc.

    I did not include the Chinese terms,

    zòng (纵 or 縱) – warp (the vertical threads in weaving), vertical, longitudinal, north-south (lines of longitude), lengthwise, and so on.

    héng (横 or 橫) – weft (the horizontal threads in weaving), horizontal, across, and so on.

    As for rotating in the kua or the hips? That will just sort of take care of itself along the way.

    It’s conveying precise ideas in writing that is difficult. In a class, I’d just say, “Do this,” then make corrections.

    Here’s an exercise: Put one of your fingers on a wall. That finger is the end of an axis that runs through your forearm. Now rotate just the forearm, imagining your finger is a screwdriver turn a screw back and forth. That’s longitudinal rotation.

    As you rotate, imagine that you move along an imaginary string running through your rotational axis. Move away from the wall as you turn. Move toward the wall as you turn. That’s translating along the longitudinal axis creating a helical path.

    To mix it up change fingers. To start adding layers of complexity, add body segments like the upper arm.

    If you get through the jargon, and make the movement a little complex, your first reaction should be, “What the ______? How can anyone move like this? This can’t be right.”

    It has to be relaxed movement, but it’s not particularly relaxing, at first. I’ll turn to Alan Watts, “Don’t force.”

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  9. Richard – I find it very hard to understand what Chen people mean when they start talking about translation, longitudinal rotation, etc. I think you mean, rotate from the kua not the hips. Is that it?

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  10. I don’t know much about philosophy and only a little about the vast topic of taijiquan, so I’ll only comment on the latter.

    While taijiquan classics and other sources do not explicitly mention wu wei, it has become a Chinese cultural artifact. You’re right, we might well ask, How does taijiquan manifest wu wei, if at all? Here is a perspective from the tradition of my Chen-style training.

    Wu wei is implied in the taijiquan classics by not meeting force with force, in neutralizing, in yielding, in “balanced like a scale”, in “turning like a wheel” in notions like “movement in stillness and stillness in movement.” It is even in the very components of the taiji concept, yin and yang. But, like many cultural artifacts, there is esoterica associated with “wu wei.”

    A brief aside on yin and yang
    It has always helped my understanding of teachings, such wu wei, to understand yin and yang related to processes. Rather than yang being active and yin being passive, an explanation of this to me by a Chinese medicine practitioner fairly early in my taijiquan study was Yang is active and Yin is creative.

    If yang is the male principle, its action only initiates or provides energy for the yin. Yin, the feminine principle, takes what is given by the male principle and creates something, or even nothing, out of it. We see this in reproduction and procreation in nature. Also, in processes like photosynthesis, a yang sunbeam falls on the leaf of a yin plant and the plant uses it to create life sustaining nutrients, and so on.

    Is this passive or inactive? Did the plant do nothing? I think that is a stretch even superficially, so “passive” and “inactive” as a labels are entirely incomplete.

    Yang and yin in taijiquan
    An aggressor attacks a taijiquan practitioner who creates something new out of the attack. She could send the energy harmlessly into space, neutralizing the force, or she could turn it upon the attacker to break his bones or dislocate his joints, and so on. And, lest it seem that a taijiquan practitioner must wait to be attacked to respond, a yang aggression carrying the threat of eminent life-threatening violence can be sufficient to create a pre-emptive creative response.

    Wu wei in taijiquan
    Sure, wu wei, doesn’t force, but it’s not just going with the flow wherever the flow leads either. It uses what is present to tap into the creative process in an unpremeditated way…

    …But… according to the rules.

    Chen Fake’s students have quoted him as saying that “taijiquan is performed according to the rules (gui ju).” My teacher is well known for conveying an aspect of wu wei as “Don’t Move.” How can one do anything in taijiquan without moving? Taijiquan obviously moves. This can flummox befuddled students for years, until they start watching him and finally listening to him, emptying their cups, so to speak.

    This is a way of teaching “the rules.” “Don’t move, rotate.” In biomechanical terms, we might say, “Don’t translate, rotate without the axis translating.”

    Chen Fake also taught, “Don’t move horizontally, only vertically.” A knowledge of Chinese language informs us that horizontally also means latitudinally and vertically means longitudinally, so “Don’t translate latitudinally, only longitudinally.” That is only move aligned with the lengths of the bones.

    Finally, we understand this aspect of wu wei, “Don’t move, except according to the rules.” Like the plant who follows the plant rules of photosynthesis when receiving the sun’s yang energy, two of taijiquan’s rules are “only rotate, expanding and contracting longitudinally.” This creates rotation and helical expansion and contraction. This is not the default human way of moving, which tends to include a lot of lateral movement. It takes a lot of dedication, focus, and mental discipline to learn how to move in the taijiquan way.

    So, there is a lot of meaning and a lot of practice packed into a tiny term like “wu wei.”

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