You posted the following exchange above:
<<A: <<First, I think one can be quite “successful” in competitive push hands play without establishing a firm basis for learning intermediate or high level push hands skills.>>
K: Are you talking about push hands competitions? I’ve heard they can become quite hard in style and execution, but I’ve never seen one. Or are you talking the competition that is inherent in the practice? I can think of at least two types of competition here (and I’m sure there are more): 1) the kind where personalities clash and one or both are trying to assert dominance; and 2) the kind where the competition is more with yourself—to improve and maintain balance.>>
I was referring more to freestyle push hands within a normal practice setting than to actual competitions. In either arena, the prime goal of competition is to win and only secondarily to learn new skills. If one has non-Taiji skills, it think it may be laudable, but somewhat unnatural to suppress them in such settings. My belief is that Taiji strategy, tactics, and skill sets overlap with those of other arts and sports, but by and large are not the same. Using Taijiquan is not the only way to upset someone’s balance or send him or her tumbling. If you are engaged in an activity where the prime goal is to uproot your opponent, I believe that one can easily draw on non-Taiji approaches to do this, without necessarily advancing one’s own Taijiquan.
You also posted the following:
<<I asked my teacher about some of these things, indirectly, and he suggested that I add standing or sitting meditation to my practice as a way to stay calm. I had done this only sporadically before, but it is helping. He also pointed out, gently, that I’m not reading people well enough because I’m not empty enough. I’m thinking too much and not just feeling and reacting naturally to what’s going on.
I could use some advice on what this process is like (feel free to add your two cents, everyone!): what is it like to empty yourself in the face of what feels like attack (even if the opponent has the requisite self-control not to break things)? It’s one thing to be empty in meditation, or even during push hands practice with someone you trust—but what is it like to be empty in the presence of someone with whom you constantly have to be en guard?>>
Your teacher’s advice is, of course, very good and is what most people say. I find such approaches difficult, however. If it is in your nature not to be calm, is it not unnatural to fight this head on? I find it is like telling someone who is overweight just to concentrate on eating less. Would that it were that easy. As I mentioned, in such arenas I try to find a way to change what seems good, but unnatural to me, into something I would naturally want to do.
Let me give my general view of push hands from where I see it at the moment. First, I should say that I am no expert and have every reason to believe you may have more experience in it and be better than me at it. I certainly do not get anywhere near the practice time I think I need and have gone through many years when I basically had almost none.
I should also say that I try to follow the Yangs’ teaching in my actual training, but do bring to bear some viewpoints I have been taught by other teachers. I have had still other teachers, who have taken substantially different approaches that I do not think are compatible with the Yangs’ approach. Although others disagree, I find it of crucial importance not to mistake one approach for the other. The words may be the same, but I find the intent behind them different.
From time to time I have pushed with people who have had no experience with push hands, but do manage to “stick” and “follow.” When I do this, I sometimes feel that underneath their sticking is really an intent to deflect and block my arms, rather than an intent to exchange and manipulate energy. When I have felt this, I have occasionally asked my partner to engage in the following exercise to try to show them the difference.
First, I make sure that my partner feels completely comfortable with me and feels no sense of intimidation or fear that the exercise can result in injury to either of us. I then ask him or her to maintain a slow and constant speed and concentrate solely on preventing me from touching them (in order to simulate a hit), rather than on attacking me.
As we then begin to push, the person usually overacts as he or she tries to block and deflect my arms away. I react by simply folding my striking arm around the point of contact. A simple way is to alternate between back fists to the nose and hammer fists to the abdomen or groin. If the person catches on too quickly, I throw in a few elbow strikes. To avoid the possibility of injury (like fingers in the eyes), I keep my striking hand in a fist and take probably at least a second and a half to two seconds between strike attempts.
The wonderful thing about this exercise is that the person has a palpable experience of why hard techniques are not always the answer. The more the person tries to strong-arm my arms out of the way, the less he or she is able to keep me away. If the person tries to use speed to block the strikes, I make a point of not speeding up and simply using the person’s speed against them to fold around the block and strike in another direction.
If the person lets intimidation take over, he or she immediately loses the ability to “listen” and receives a simulated hit. If he or she begins to let frustration, anger, or any unsettling emotion take over, he or she again gets “hit.” Only when the person maintains focus and calm can he or she summon up the appropriate feelings to follow the exchange.
Everyone I have done this with catches on in a minute or two and manages to change strategy and begin listening to my energy and changing it, rather than just blocking and trying to anticipate what I will do. I think this gives a little taste of why Taijiquan talks about launching later and striking first, why the path to success leads through calmness, and how mastering Yin and Yang relationships can overcome speed and power. Another benefit is that some people seem too focused on trying to maximize “softness” without knowing what to do with it. In this exercise, there is only one way to defend, and it takes the focus off of self and puts it back onto the interaction with the partner.
I do not actually think of this exercise as Taiji training or really an appropriate way to learn or practice Push Hands skills, but I think it can open the door to a different way of thinking and acting. I do not train this way, but simply show it from time to time to help people understand a little bit of how push hands skills can relate to fighting and why it needs to be an exchange of energy, rather than of “techniques.”
With people who know the vertical four-hand circling, I occasionally do something similar to the above. For instance, when I am working with a partner and we are trying to improve together, I try to sense when he or she is being too “flat.” My understanding is that you more or less always have two points of contact with the partner and should have good Peng energy flowing through both. If I can disconnect with my partner without his or her immediate knowledge and ability to react, I understand this to be a faulty use of energy.
Another thing I look for is that both of us feel “round” without any “gaps.” To me, it should feel as if we are two big balls and as if we are rolling each other’s force away and constantly circulating it back and forth. When I feel that my partner has a point where he or she is stuck, I try to emphasize this so that he or she can figure out what is wrong with the structure. I use the analogy of following someone closely around a small room. No clash develops until the lead person happens to head into a corner. He or she cannot continue without turning around awkwardly to push the follower out of the way. As a “leader,” you try to avoid walking into corners. As a “follower” you try gently to herd the leader into a corner.
Most of what I discuss above, I would classify under the heading of Listening (i.e., Ting1). All of this merely sets the stage for learning how to “understand” how energy is being used (i.e., Dong3). After one has practiced Listening for a while, one begins to understand how the body uses energy. One begins to be able to distinguish empty and full in one’s partner’s intent and how energy has to circulate to follow that intent. I assume that everyone is familiar with these theories.
Once you get good at “understanding” the energy exchange, you can concentrate on learning how to manipulate and “transform” it (i.e., hua4). You learn how to guide your partner’s energy into “corners.”
Kalamondin, you ask what “doubling up”/“being double weighted” feels like or how to detect it. The way it was described to me is that when it happens to you, you feel your Qi rise into your chest and throat and your breathing gets tight. You feel as if skewered, like a bug on a pin. You feel as if you need to control a certain spot in order to move, but your partner occupies that spot and cannot be safely dislodged. When you do it to someone else, you feel as if he or she is forced to uproot his or herself and has no more control over the center. Your partner tries to rotate, but you control the pivot point. He or she is trying to exchange full and empty between two points, but you stand in a position that short-circuits the exchange. As you begin to “listen” better and “understand’ more, I think you begin to feel how to guide your partner into such points. You sense where they will need to be to make full and empty match their intent and you make sure you are there first.
I think one way to think about it is to use the image of the jumping cat mentioned in the earlier posts. If your partner is visualizing how to “jump” to a spot, but has not yet jumped, his or her mind is out of synch with reality and cannot change appropriately to match changes in the ever-moving present. He or she is trying to be in two places at once and is “doubled.”
If instead of visualizing how to jump, the partner feels for the web of energy that connects “here” with “there,” he or she is staying in the moment and is focused on the current reality. Any change is readily apparent, since it is already within the field of focus. To truly feel for this “web of energy,” the person must have enough training to be able to feel for how the body works and how it truly interacts with its environment. At least for me, it is not so much about predicting the future, but more about understanding and being aware of the present, in all its implications and potentialities.
Since my meaning may be somewhat opaque, let me describe it in another way. Imagine preparing to toss a light object underhanded into a trashcan at some distance away. I think that, when most people do this, they estimate the appropriate arc and speed to use on the object, based on their experience. A different way to do this is to “feel” for the proper path of the object. You feel for the connection between the arc and speed of the arm and the arc and weight of the object, even while it is still in your hand. You try to “see” how the already existing, but invisible arc in the air intersects with the mouth of the trashcan. If you do this, you actually perceive the arc taking shape before the object leaves your hand. The vectors are not just creations of your mind, but things with independent existence. When you release the object, you feel the arc that your mind has been groping to perceive coalesce with the actual path of the object.
If you push hands with this sort of mind set, you perceive how your partner must use energy even to stand in front of you. Energy is necessary to support the body weight, raise the arms, maintain the shape of the fingers, hold up the head, keep the feet flat on the floor, etc. I have found it best to focus my practice on this element, rather than on accumulating techniques, honing my “sensitivity,” or increasing my “softness.”
Kalamondin, you also asked about “highlighting or harnessing qualities that seem linked to personality.” I have found that working on counters is one way to explore this. The main way that I have been introduced to traditional ideas of Peng, Lü, Ji, and An were through various attack and counter drills. In doing these, I have found that the techniques do not work unless I consciously work with my partner’s intent, as opposed to his or her limb positions.
A counter presupposes something to counter against. If that something is not present, there is nothing to work with. In one drill, we have an attack, followed by a counter, which can in turn be countered. If the initial attack is poorly performed and does not appropriately follow the partner’s movement, all the following techniques become empty of content and unrealistic. If the first counter does not have enough Following in it, a clash again results, and the action stops. To work on these, I find I really have to focus on Zhan, Nian, Lian, and Sui as specific things that I cannot ignore. I have to work with my partner’s intent in all that I do. By intent, I mean the intention, conscious or unconscious, with which my partner deploys his force or energy. What he is trying to do, consciously or unconsciously, has somewhat more importance than what he may actually be doing. If I do not do this, I invite my partner to resist my motions in such a way that my techniques become immediately ineffective. All this is hard to express in words, but easier to demonstrate.
When these techniques are successfully applied against you, you feel that there is no scope for struggle or resistance. You do not feel that you are tricked into anything, but rather that the attack comes out of nowhere. You do not feel a clear beginning to the attack and so are not sure what you should have done to avoid it. Since you are not sure how should have deployed your force, you do not feel that deploying more force or deploying it quicker would have been more successful. Often, you feel that such a reaction would have made things worse.
One way to attack with this method is to strive to make the opponent feel awkward while you feel comfortable. As your partner becomes more and more agitated to find a way out of the awkwardness and sense of vulnerabitiliy, he or she will give you the energy you need to launch them effectively. Your parteners’ anxiety forces them to push themselves.
If you experience such attacks and can understand the broad picture intellectually, you have the opportunity to connect this understanding with your “spirit.” (I do not mean this in a religious, new age, or occult sense.) This can allow you to reorient your training of the moment into understanding why you need to be calm in order to learn to respond. In other words, you work through your understanding of the Shi to make calmness feel like the only natural response. If, on the other hand, you do not connect this with your spirit, it will be hard to set aside other methods you are comfortable with in order to seek something that seems esoteric. Even if you tell yourself to be calm, you cannot be, because your spirit will be screaming inside you that this feels suicidal and that your only prayer for safety is to use more adrenaline, more strength, more speed. This disturbance in your Qi will then prevent you from truly experiencing the nature of what is happening to you and from feeling comfortable with trying a different path out of the dilemma.
As usual, I have droned on and on, but hopefully this can spur some thinking. Let me now if you have any questions about this.