Is there a secret to Tai Chi? To martial arts? To life? If there is I think it might be encapsulated in the two words, “Don’t try”.
Famously offensive American poet and author Charles Bukowski had “Don’t try” written on his gravestone:
It makes you wonder what he meant. Did he mean just give up? I don’t think so. Underneath “don’t try” is a picture of a boxer, indicating a struggle.
Mike Watt in the San Pedro zine The Rise and the Fall of the Harbor Area interviewed his wife Linda about, “Don’t try”:
Watt: What’s the story: “Don’t Try”? Is it from that piece he wrote?
Linda: See those big volumes of books? [Points to bookshelf] They’re called Who’s Who In America. It’s everybody, artists, scientists, whatever. So he was in there and they asked him to do a little thing about the books he’s written and duh, duh, duh. At the very end they say, ‘Is there anything you want to say?’, you know, ‘What is your philosophy of life?’, and some people would write a huge long thing. A dissertation, and some people would just go on and on. And Hank just put, “Don’t Try.”
As for what it means, it’s probably best to let Bukowski tell us:
“Somebody asked me: “What do you do? How do you write, create?” You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it.”
– Charles Bukowski
Now that’s starting to sound like Tai Chi to me…
I was working on an application of diagonal flying yesterday. The one where you get underneath their shoulder, arm across their body and lift them up and away. There’s a sweet spot as your shoulder goes under their armpit where you have leverage. Where they move easily. You go an inch or so in the wrong direction and you lose it. The technique doesn’t work.
Compared to wrestling and judo I think there are different factors to consider in making a Tai Chi throw work.
You have to think more about your posture. Say, your chest position (is it sheltered? Are the shoulders rounded?) and if you are sunk and in contact with the ground correctly. Is your butt sticking out? Are your legs bent enough?
All these factors matter more in Tai Chi than in Judo and wrestling because Tai Chi is a less physical art. (Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing is debatable, but it either way, it just is.)
With a less-physical art it’s much easier to notice when you’re having to “try” more to make a throw work. Having to “try” too much is a sign you’re muscling it, not letting posture, correct position, leverage and Jin (power from the ground) do the work. Judo and wrestling incorporate these elements too, but Tai Chi relies on them. And without them it just falls apart.
In BJJ I also really like the philosophy of “don’t try”.
For example, if I’ve got the knee on belly position on my opponent I love to go for the baseball bat choke:
The problem is that once you set your grips up on the classic baseball bat your opponent doesn’t just lie there – he defends. He grabs your arms, shifts his hips and generally does everything he can to prevent you from getting the finish.
Now the video shows you three ways to do this – they’re clever little counters to his counters. (I really like the last one actually – I’m going to try that).
But I tend to prefer a slightly different approach. Rather than think of each technique in isolation I like to think of them as being paired. Quite often when I go for a baseball bat choke I set up my grips and immediately my partner has cast iron grips on both my hands. Now sure, I could fight through this – ie. “try” to make the choke work – or I could just go, “you know what? The way he’s defending this means he’s lifting his far elbow – I’ll use that instead”. I give up the baseball choke entirely, but before you know it I’ve spun around and I’ve got a successful kimura grip. He defends the kimura and guess what? It leaves his neck open, and I go back to the baseball choke, so on.
I’m not trying to make anything work, I’m just going with what he gives me. And eventually all the pieces fit together like a jigsaw and it’s done.
I don’t always get it right. More often than not I get it wrong, but that’s what I’m aiming for. If you’re going to adopt this attitude you have to have a really flexible mind. You can’t get fixated on one thing. In fact, you can’t think too much. Just go with what you feel is available.
What I’m talking about is getting off the baseline and onto the middle and top lines. For a full explanation of what this means you’d need to listen to the Woven Energy podcast, but in a nutshell, it means you stop using the thinking, rational part of your brain and just use direct feedback from nature (your partner in this case, who is as much a part of nature as you are) and that gives you access to the midline (body) and topline (spirit).
In Chinese culture the topline, midline and baseline form a trigram, which can have broken or unbroken lines, as so:
And since we’ve returned to China we should note that the Taoists were all about this “Don’t try” philosophy. They called it Wu Wei – to do by not doing.
From the Tao Te Ching chapter 2:
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.
Or as Yoda put it, “Do or do not, there is no try”.
And to return to the topic of Tai Chi, it is also exemplified in the short but concise classic on push hands:
Song of Push Hands (by unknown)
Be conscientious in Peng, Lu, Chi, and An.
Upper and lower coordinate,
and the opponent finds it difficult to penetrate.
Let the opponent attack with great force;
use four ounces to deflect a thousand pounds.
Attract to emptiness and discharge;
Zhan, Lian, Nian, Sui,
no resisting no letting go.
And to finally return to Bukowski, he might be a strange role model, but I kind of like the old guy. His poems aren’t beautiful, but at least they are honest. He was always, exactly himself. He didn’t need to try.