Learning becoming a part of you

I was doing some push hands today, trying to work on integrating the spiral movement of silk reeling force into the movement pattern of push hands. It became obvious to me that you ability to do this is directly proportional to the amount of silk reeling exercise you’ve done in the past, not how well you understand it. It’s not just an idea that you can intellectually grasp, then apply instantly. With an opponent to deal with you have no time to think how you’re going to use spiral force to deal with their incoming pushes and attacks, changes in weight distribution and changes in force. There’s simply no time – it has to be a feel thing.

The equation is simple. The more silk reeling exercise you’ve practiced in the past the better you’ll be at putting that spiral feel into the myriad of changing circumstance you encounter in push hands. Your only option, if you want to get good at it, is to practice it every day until it the learning becomes a part of you.

Push Hands: Wu Wei in action

Another Classic that often gets quoted in connection with Tai Chi Chuan is that mainstay of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching (The classic of the way and its power) * . While debate continues to rage in academic circles over whether you can truly say Tai Chi Chuan is a Taoist art or not, I’d like to neatly sidestep the whole issue completely. It’s obvious that you don’t have to be signed up card carrying member of a Taoist sect to read and enjoy the Tao Te Ching. What’s more its philosophy of “know the Yang, but stick to the Yin” has direct relevance to many martial arts, and Tai Chi Chuan in particular. To say that Tai Chi Chuan hasn’t been influenced in some degree over the years by the type of thinking found in this giant of Chinese literature is simply incorrect.

In this article I’d like to talk about how one particular verse from the Tao Te Ching can help you understand how the combat strategy of Tai Chi Chuan can be applied in Push Hands practice. Push Hands is a type of 2-person sparring exercise that belongs to Tai Chi Chuan. There’s a lot of subtlety to it, but in brief, one person pushes on the other’s arms, they try and deflect the push and then push back and so it continues in a circular pattern. In a lot of classes it’s the only type of 2-person training available. Push Hands is not fighting, but it should be practiced in a competitive way – you’re meant to be actively trying to unbalance the other person when you push. If you’re both simply moving your arms around in circles then nothing is really going on. You need to help your partner out by giving them something to work with. If you don’t have any force to work with then how can you ever hope to understand that “A force of four ounces deflects a thousand pounds” (as it says in the Tai Chi Chuan Treaste)?

The problem with push hands is that as soon as the idea of actively seeking to push the opponent is introduced the whole thing can descend into a very physical pushing and shoving match. In an effort to unbalance the opponent it’s human nature to try to impose your own will on the situation, which usually results in that great sin of Push Hands: Double Weighting (using force against force). It sounds contradictory, but to be truly good at push hands you need to try to not impose your own ideas on the situation – “Fundamentally, it is giving up yourself to follow others”, as it says in The Treaste on Tai Chi Chuan. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but I’ve found that reading the Tao Te Ching can add some great insights into how that is achieved. In particular I’d like to look at verse 15:

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.

They were careful
as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.

As soon as you touch your Push Hands partner’s hands you are “a warrior in enemy territory”. If you let your guard down you will be easily pushed, and this applies as much to the mind as to the body. You need to cultivate your sense of awareness. A calm, steady, but receptive mind is what is needed. Verse 15 describes the actions of somebody with this type of mind, the “ancient Masters”, whose wisdom was “profound and subtle”. They are sensitive and receptive to conditions, so they can act correctly. In fact, it’s almost as if they don’t act themselves, instead the “right action arises by itself”.

Here we see the philosophy of Wu Wei in action – literally it means “doing nothing”, but I like to think of it in the terms described in Verse 15 – it’s effortlessly doing the right thing at the right time. Essentially, you don’t do it, instead it does itself. It’s not about acting when the self-centred ego-mind tells you that you should (usually for its own gain) – it’s about having the “patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear”. The metaphor of a glass of muddy water is well used here. Once its stirred up it becomes cloudy and impossible to see through. However, by doing nothing and waiting for the mud to settle you will be able to see through it.

If you are “Shapable as a block of wood” then there’s no way you can be trying to impose your own will on the situation. Let your opponent shape you. Or, as I once heard it put, “Bow to their superiority, then show them who is boss!”

If can learn to take your ego-based desires out of the equation and learn to follow your opponent’s actions then correct action should arise naturally. When you can get that feeling into your push hands you’re really getting somewhere. This is indeed a lofty goal, but everything you need to do it is right here with you, right now, not off in some far away land of abstract thought. As the Treaste on Tai Chi Chuan goes on to say:

Most people mistakenly give up the near to seek the far.
It is said, “Missing it by a little will lead many miles astray.”
The practitioner must carefully study.
This is the Treatise

* The Tao Te Ching is one of the most translated of all Chinese texts, and there are hundreds of translations available. By far my favourite is the one by Stephen Mitchell that I link to here. You can also buy a wonderfully illustrated hardcover version from Amazon here. I’d recommend the hardback with illustrations.

Tao Te Ching, An Illustrated Journey

It should be noted that his translation is by no means a literal one. However, he explains himself very well in the forward:

“With great poetry, the freest translation is sometimes the most faithful. “We must try its effect as an English Poem,” Dr Johnson said; “that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation”. I have often been fairly literal – or as literal as one can be with such a subtle, kaleidoscopic book as the Tao Te Ching. But I have also paraphrased, expanded, contracted, interpreted, worked with the text, played with it, until it became embodied in a language that felt genuine to me. If I haven’t always translated Lao Tzu’s words, my intention has always been to translate his mind.”

You can compare his translation of verse 15 above with the James Legge version below, for example. I know which translation I prefer.

The skilful masters (of the Tao) in old times, with a subtle
and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep
(also) so as to elude men’s knowledge. As they were thus beyond men’s
knowledge, I will make an effort to describe of what sort they
appeared to be.

Shrinking looked they like those who wade through a stream in
winter; irresolute like those who are afraid of all around them; grave
like a guest (in awe of his host); evanescent like ice that is melting
away; unpretentious like wood that has not been fashioned into
anything; vacant like a valley, and dull like muddy water.

Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it
will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest?
Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.

They who preserve this method of the Tao do not wish to be full (of
themselves). It is through their not being full of themselves that
they can afford to seem worn and not appear new and complete.