It's good to see you back and active on the Board.
In connection with Push Hands, you asked:
<<Do you generally do better when your mind is actively and consciously engaged in searching for the center, or an opportunity; or, do you do better when you disengage from conscious analysis and just let things happen?>>
I must disclaim any great ability in Push Hands, but I think I stand by my earlier response. I would, however, like to add to it.
I think that in Push Hands one must be consciously setting up certain conditions in the body and mind. Once this is done, I think you must yield initiative to your partner and "follow." You neither consciously look for an opportunity, nor just let things happen. No analysis is involved.
By "yielding the initiative," I do not mean that you must wait for your partner to "do something" or to initiate "a technique." In my view, he or she is always "doing" something, whether or not a technique or overt movement is involved. The issue is how you respond to their arrangement or disposition of actual and potential movement energy. Ideally, you should feel as if by having no control over the development of the action, you retain complete control.
Here is another way of explaining what I meant by concentrating on general Peng energy. Most people describe Taijiquan in "Yin" terms. I believe that a flaw in these description is that Taijiquan involves the interaction between yin and yang, not just yin. Accordingly, to balance all the talk of "yielding," I think it can be beneficial to think in terms of attack. I believe the real truth to be in the interaction of the two, but I believe it can be beneficial to approach this interaction of yin and yang from both perspictives.
In approaching Pushing Hands from a "Yang" perspective, I believe one can think about constantly pushing the opponent. When I say constantly, I mean that one is literally and physically pushing or pulling against the opponent's body 100% of the time. Even as you shift weight to the rear, you are still pushing.
As one does this, there are some further requirements. First, one must have the intention of pushing with one's entire body, not just a part. It is not a local push. Your whole body feels as if it is expanding toward the opponent. To have this feeling, it will be necessary for some local parts of your body actually to contract. If I expand front and back, my sides must contract. If my sides expand outwardly, my front and back must contract. Secondly, one must be absolutely willing to allow the opponent to deflect your pushing wherever he or she can manifest power. You must not restrict the focus of your pushing in any way. Trying to push against effective opposition of your opponent is merely the equivalent of limiting your pushing intention.
The result of this is that the opponent will funnel your weak overall pushing and pulling into his or her weakness. You do not plan or predict the path of your force. It is simply inherent in the method you are using. It is like water crashing on a rocky cliff. The energy of the water is initially equally distributed along the cliff and has very little force. As the hardness of the cliff funnels the water into crevices, the power of the water is magnified and can surge through gaps.
Yet another way of thinking of this is that you must consciously allow your energy to be molded by the opponent. Although you conscously establish this condition, the exact form your energy takes is dictated by your opponent's use of energy, not by your own will. To the extent you attempt to mold your energy independently of the opponent, i.e., independently of the "cliff," you merely constrict your own power. You also delay your reaction time, because you are now required to make conscious decisions and choices. This is what I understand by "Forgetting oneself and following the opponent."
By the way, this view of mine also comes from two points about traditional Yang Style Taijiquan that I think are often not sufficiently discussed. From what I have read, Yang Style has a unique emphasis on "Peng" energy that does not exist in some other styles of Taijiquan. By this, I do not mean that the other styles do not use "Peng" energy, but rather that the emphasis is different. Also, Yang Style has a unique emphasis on "being there" for the opponent, but not giving him or her anything to work with. "You can always get to me, but you cannot get me." This is why I like the image of a beach ball floating on the water. It appears to push back against your hand, but in reality only returns the force you give it. You try to push it into the water, but can never seem to get the necessary leverage and end up pushing it away instead.
As for having a conscious or unconscious mindset, I find that this is not the most helpful polarity for me to analyze. When you swim with the best form, are you consciously or unconsciously choosing where to place your limbs? I find this hard to say. What I would say is that you are totally aware of how every limb of your body is interacting with the water. In Push Hands, I would say that one should be totally aware of how one's energy is molding to the opponent's, while having no intention of planning anything. Your Yi is totally on having moldable resilient expanding energy and not at all on reproducing any sequence of movements that other martial arts would see as techniques.
Does this address the question or have any resonance? I see that Eli comes from a different perspective. Does anyone else see this very differently?