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.

Sinking in Taijiquan

black and white waves close up view circle

Photo by Skitterphoto on

I generally try to avoid telling people to “sink” in Tai Chi for the simple reason that they usually try to physically lower themselves in the postures, inevitably resulting in using too much force and sticking out their butt, or putting their knees at an odd angle.

Sure, you do need to have a lower-than-normal-standing posture, so you can relax the lower back and centre the coccyx, but when people start to get uncomfortably low (usually combined with too much tucking of the hips) that’s when things break down.

I was doing some push hands recently, and I was trying to work on the idea of reacting to being pressured with a push with the action of sinking as your initial response rather than by trying to do something with their push.

Taoist non-action

By sinking I mean internally sinking – letting go of tension and letting it all drop, rather than by physically lowering yourself. In a way – it’s a kind of non-action. You’re taking something away rather than adding it to the situation. If you can do that then the tension that is created between you and your partner – the pressure – when they start to get too close with their push just dissipates, and the right action arises spontaneously by itself. It’s easy to redirect them because you have ‘got underneath them’.


Sun Lu Tang

It’s a difficult concept to grasp. It reminds me a lot of reading the Tao Te Ching, the Taoist classic of the way and its power. The Tao Te Ching constantly advises us to take the path of no resistance, which initially seems like a passive response to a situation, but when done skillfully, is anything but.

By taking ‘you’ out of the conflict, it can often resolve itself, and usually in your favour.

“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.”


Related stories on this blog:

Is Taijiquan Taoist?

Wu Wei – the art of doing without doing

Don’t push the river, listen to it instead

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.