Greetings to all,
I think there are some great comments and advice here. The problem you have described is what I think is still one of the basic problems with my own practice at the moment, although I would express it somewhat differently. I think I asked a question similar to this near the very inception of this discussion forum.
To avoid repeating what has already been said, I wanted to amplify specifically on some comments Jerry and David made about angles and “following.” Since their comments were somewhat concise and track some of the traditional advice, I think the importance of what they say and allude to can sometimes be underestimated.
I personally prefer to think of “Listening Energy” as focusing on information that is conveyed by touch. This is different from simple “alertness.” I also think of “Understanding/Interpreting Energy” as different from simple “anticipation based on experience.” For me, Understanding Energy involves interpreting a fact, not anticipating a fact. Hua, for me, is not about “neutralizing” what the opponent does or will do, but about “transforming” what the opponent is doing in the present.
In the simplest scenario you have described, one can ask what is really difficult about dealing with a straight push. A push is not particularly hard to feel or understand. The difficulty lies in knowing how to transform it into something useful and deal with the follow-up or the “changes” that result from your initial action.
If you think of rotating the waist only as a counter to a push, this kind of visualization can sometimes render all the traditional theory superfluous. It implies that the issue is one of external angles and triangulation, not of internal mobilization and understanding. Sticking, Adhering, Connecting, and Following become accessory features of your tactics, rather than the heart of what you are attempting to do. If one tries to succeed through judicious use of angles, one becomes vulnerable to the fact that angles can be changed.
The only energy you can transform is energy that the opponent is already giving to you, not energy that you anticipate the opponent will give to you. The former involves following (which is good), while the latter involves leading (which is bad in this sense). If you rotate your waist based on what you think the opponent is about to do, instead of based on what he or she is actually doing at the exact moment of your rotation, you are leading, not following.
Put in other words, I think that your waist should turn aside only the amount of energy you have been able to receive from the opponent. If you attempt to turn aside more, the opponent can simply change his or her intent. For every rotation, there is a counter-rotation that neutralizes it. If you focus only on timing and strength of physical rotation, you leave yourself vulnerable. I also think it is less a matter of using the waist to turn force aside, than of deploying the pressures in your own joints so that external force at the point and angle of contact will tend to make you rotate at the waist. This deployment requires no time or movement, since it is basically an “internal” process. Even though you will end up using some of your own force, the crucial initial force comes from the opponent. There must be some element of standing still at your core, while it is the opponent who forces him or herself into disadvantageous movement. You make the rotation possible, but it is the opponent that actually provides the physical trigger and cause. Think of how and why a gear rotates. You accomplish this by “adhering” at the leading edge of the rotation and “sticking” at the following edge.
To make a strategy of Following work, you must be able to receive some energy. If your structure is insufficient, you must resort to anticipation, speed, and strength. These are excellent skills to have and are central to some arts, but I do not think they are central to the core tactics of traditional Taijiquan. If your structure is good and you are “song,” you can receive and control enough of the opponent’s energy to “buy yourself time and space” to convert the energy. The better your skill, the less time and space is needed so that eventually, the tactic appears to take no time or space at all.
If the opponent is not skilled, he or she will be tethered to the energy you arrange to be turned aside (i.e., he or she will be double weighted) and he or she will fall on “emptiness.” Even if your opponent is skilled, he or she cannot attack you with the energy that has already been turned aside, but must marshal new resources to begin another attack. Since it is a new attack, you will have a new capacity to receive the energy of the attack, as long as you know how to “Connect” (“lian2”) and have not gotten out ahead and begun to “lead.” You simply transform whatever new energy you can receive in the new configuration and begin the cycle anew, waiting for the opponent to expose a flaw that can be exploited. If your level is high enough, it can be easy to provoke such flaws.
If this scheme makes sense to you, notice that Listening and Understanding may have a different resonance than if you think of them only as “being alert” and “being able to anticipate.” It is not enough to be alert to a push or understand that a push is coming, you must “know” or rather “feel” its exact speed, direction, and character. A “reaction” that is too fast is just as bad as one that is too slow. Rotating in the wrong direction or in the wrong plane amounts to no rotation at all, since it will not properly absorb and redirect the opponent’s energy. What you need to do is redirect, absorb, and transform, not to deflect. You transform a linear vector and a linear intent into a rotational vector and a rotational expression of power.
Since your calibration must be perfect, you cannot “anticipate,” but rather must adapt to what is actually happening. If something is already “happening” one way, you do not need to worry about or defend against it happening in another way.
On a more prosaic level, making your body act like a rotating sphere means that many of your joints may have to change in a coordinated fashion. This usually includes your elbow, shoulder, lower spine (“waist”), both knees, both ankles, and one wrist. Some teachers do not make clear how these joints need to be coordinated, give vague instructions about “relaxing,” or imply that nothing but your “waist” should be moving. In my view, there is no fixed combination of joint angles that works in all situations, but good circling exercises can give you a feel for the possibilities and the consequences of each.
An essential element of such exercises is an understanding of the internal principles that lie beyond the external requirements. After the initial learning period, these should not be exercises intended to make certain patterns or responses automatic, but rather exercises to train you perceptions of certain feelings that allow you to understand principles of energy patterns and intuit how to respond to different patterns.
An analogy would be how a swimmer reacts to being pushed by surprise into the waters of a swimming pool. Such a swimmer does not mobilize pre-learned patterns of movement, but rather feels by clear intuition what movements can efficiently allow him or her to swim back to the surface and go wherever needed. Whether the swimmer is pushed into the pool forward, backward, head first, or feet first, the result will always be the same, even though the physical realization will never be the same twice.
One last thing I should say is that in reality, techniques are not applied against techniques, but at the people performing the techniques. If your partner’s level is high enough, you may simply be unable to succeed. Good practitioners can alter full and empty with little or no apparent physical movement. Where you need them to be empty, they will be full. Where you need them to be full, they will be empty. If someone has this level and you do not have an equivalent command of empty and full, you cannot succeed with many techniques.