Audi—thanks for your response—you can thank YJ for the bit about points of contact! I had some more general ideas about push hands that I’ve written out below.
Audi wrote: <BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR><font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2"><B>
Another thing I wanted to mention for those who may not train in this way is that the exercises themselves require a high degree of external detail that is comparable to what is done for postures in the form. … At the same time, the object of this "circle training" is not to pay attention to oneself, but rather to one's partner…. </B></font><HR></BLOCKQUOTE>
Very true—it’s easier for beginners to learn the external detail by training with someone more advanced who knows the shape, feel, and rhythm of the circles’ requirements. And yet, without learning to listen at the same time, it’s difficult to “hear” what happened well enough to replicate the intricacies of the circling motions. Someone who knows the circles can guide someone who does not, often “carrying” or otherwise physically moving their arms or hands into position as the two partners circle so that the inexperienced player can get the feel for it.
Later when the beginner knows the pattern but hasn’t yet standardized it, the more experienced player can still train their listening energy and practice fine points like making sure the amount of pressure at each point of contact remains the same even if it means the circle has to be non-standard.
Some other thoughts about paying attention to one’s partner: push hands practice is a two way street. When there are tensions, discrepancies, sliding, separations, or resistance it’s easy to get frustrated and come to the conclusion that everything the other person is doing is wrong (or vice versa—you’re the one who can’t do it right). But it takes two to tango, right? If your opponent is doing something “wrong” then as a training exercise try and see if there is something you can change about what you are doing to correct it. Don’t correct them first. First correct yourself. Give up the ego part that externalizes the situation and see which part you can be personally responsible for.
Grammar tangent: my head gets tangled with the grammatical construction “one could…” etc., so I’m using “you” instead of “one.” I’m not talking about anyone in particular in my various posts. But I do think it’s useful to personalize ideas. For example, if someone writes to me and says, “If one makes such and such a mistake…,” I tend to externalize it and think, “Yes, that person needs to change their training habits.” But if someone writes to me and says, “If you make such and such a mistake…” I am more likely to examine my own training habits. So that’s why I write “you” instead of “one” (even though I was raised to know better).
Back to the point: errors in attention and not listening enough seem to fall into two categories: pushing too hard and not pushing hard enough.
For an example of pushing too hard: if your opponent is increasingly stiff and resistant, it may be that you are pushing them too hard or too fast for their capabilities and if you were to back off and slow down, decrease the pressure on their arms, they might relax enough that the circle could be more fluid. Some who push too hard have difficulty understanding why slowing down, being more gentle, or reducing pressure can be useful. In the short term, it can be frustrating to not push at full capacity, but in the long term it trains giving up the self to follow the opponent. Also, if you continue pushing hard at the person who’s gone all stiff, then their learning process will be slower than if you give them a little time (in tai chi terms: a few weeks, months, a year, maybe more) to relax and improve. If you bide your time this way, you’ll help train a worthy opponent who can challenge you to learn new things down the road.
Slowing down is also a useful tack for when your opponent seems “not all there.” Some people tend to “check out” or dissociate during push hands training—suddenly a solid connection becomes tenuous, or they separate, or they simply relinquish control. Depending on the person and the situation, these are the “openings” we look for when fighting. There’s another consideration, however—the wellbeing of your practice partner and their development as well as your own. People who seem to check out during the process often can be encouraged to come back to themselves if you back off a little internally (without separating!) and then you can have a more interesting push hands session with a real person instead of a rag doll or stiff automaton. This is a case for making haste slowly. While some people will develop skills quickly when pushed to their limits, others will simply seize up and learn stiffness instead of responsiveness.
There are other people with whom every practice seems like a pitched battle—although the one who seems to be “fighting” isn’t always aware of it. That level of conflict may feel normal to them and won’t necessarily register as “fighting” at all. If you train yourself to back off and give your scrappier practice partners space in the present—instead of engaging with them and “fighting back”, you may be able to avoid a real fight by listening closely enough to someone with a hair trigger to avoid triggering their impulse to fight in the first place.
I’m not talking about physically backing down, or separating (though it’s fine to take a break if you need breathing room to regain your center). I’m talking about staying present with your opponent, but gauging the amount of contact to just the right degree that your partner feels like you’re sticking with them, but doesn’t feel pushed around—even if you are physically leading them into emptiness over and over again.
In the category of not pushing hard enough there are people who seem hard to find because they don’t push hard enough or make good contact at the point of sticking. They feel hesitant, or too gentle, and its hard to know where they are b/c there’s not enough pung energy for you to get a read. If you push on them, they often collapse and it’s too easy to push them out. Sometimes their hands fall away if you change directions suddenly because they’re barely sticking at all. These are the ones who could benefit by showing their presence more clearly.
If people complain that you are not pushing hard enough, but pushing harder makes you feel stiff then you might try this exercise: imagine that your hand is a lead blanket. A lead blanket isn’t stiff and doesn’t resist, but it’s heavy and hard to move. If you are too light, you will feel like a feather blanket covering your opponent and won’t give them enough information to feel like you are there or know where to find you. They may end up pushing you harder as a consequence. Nor will you receive enough information from the contact to understand energy well. It may feel safer to have a light touch and stay farther away (as though inside yourself or outside of the situation) but if you don’t stick well, if you aren’t present and conscious at the edges of your body, you can’t control your opponent. Paying attention to sticking can help, but it may also help to think about come out from your center a little bit more, like a turtle coming out of its shell. This is another place where going really, really slowly can help, and also just circling without actually pushing each other over or even pushing too hard in your part of the circle.
It’s fascinating to learn to listen to a person this closely—to pay attention to the subtle nuances of mood, pressure, internal sticking, presence, etc.
A note about sources: I have been on both sides of “pushing too hard” and “not pushing hard enough” and have received corrections from my teacher about sticking more, listening more, not fighting, not resisting, not separating, etc. But all the stuff about separating it into categories, presence, absence, things to try (except the lead blanket exercise), are things I’ve either extrapolated from observation or worked out elsewhere and have never heard Yang Jun articulate in this way. Of course, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. I’ve been fortunate enough to observe my teacher’s sensitivity in these things—from the early days of push hands where he pushed with me like holding fine china to the present where I’ve relaxed enough to occasionally be his demonstration dummy in class: being tossed around, whapped audibly, and subjected to joint locks, etc. But it took a long time and if he’d tossed me around from the get-go, I probably would have quit.
Soft training is just an early phase of learning to combine hard with soft. As the Yang family maintains, we have to dissolve the stiff, clumsy strength in order to attain the softness that can become hard instantly—the way a whip is soft until it strikes. I believe the endless rounds of circles and learning to yield, follow, connect, stick, etc. are just the first phase of training where we learn to dissolve stiff strength in softness in order to transmute our physical understanding of soft and hard to later combine them. Not all students stay with their teachers long enough or practice enough to transform soft into hard, much less dissolve stiff strength into softness. Many of us are still working on it, myself included. Yang Jun himself spent his first three years of push hands training practicing only circles and learning to yield without being permitted to return the opponent’s force. I’m guessing that there are many teachers who have achieved a degree of softness, but far fewer who have attained the ability to combine hard and soft to manifest pin-point hardness, the kind that suddenly appears and suddenly disappears. This may be why there are teachers out there who focus on softness only. It’s easy to mistake the first phase of training for the whole curriculum if a student and teacher are separated too early, or if the student is unable to make sufficient progress to understand the later points.
I don’t believe there are secrets either. Or if there are, they are hidden in plain sight—in the classics, in the form, and can be uncovered through diligent practice, personal research, and the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher. Good teachers love to teach what they know—but good teachers also gauge the level of their student provide the appropriate lesson at the appropriate time. The better the teacher, the less they seem to be concerned with “protecting” secrets from outsiders or foreigners. It’s a student’s willingness to learn, diligence, and moral character that count.
[This message has been edited by Kalamondin (edited 04-19-2005).]