I'm a dozen years into learning Tai Chi. Which just means, I'm not a beginner. Tai Chi, an internal-style martial art, is so exquisitely subtle, most practitioners never feel like they have come close to fathoming it.
But every class I take, I get further insights into what Tai Chi is all about. Which really is what life is all about. (Links to my previous posts about Tai Chi can be found in "Me and Tai Chi -- eight blog posts about 'Taoism in motion.'"
Last Thursday I experienced a better understanding of the key notion of sensing skills. Robin Gamble writes:
Genuine Tai Chi Chuan is very efficient at growing this ability to understand others because one of the primary training tools in the art is something called “push hands”, which requires you to give up your own motives and just listen and follow your partners moves, at least in the beginning stages.
It’s an exercise where your hands and wrists are in flowing contact with your partners, and in the initial stages, no force is used. All you have to do is flow in a circular fashion and listen to your partner’s force, or intention. You may even close your eyes to enhance the benefit of sensing.
This method was originally developed so as to be able to sense the intentions of your opponent in combat and to then exploit their intentions with a suitable counter attack. However, Tai Chi Chuan is adaptable and now the same skills can be used to develop listening skills for interpersonal applications.
Agreed. One of the reasons I like Tai Chi so much is that it embodies some great philosophical principles about how to get along with other people, and deal effectively with our everchanging world.
Consider someone being pushy towards you.
It may feel like they're on the other side of a door, leaning hard on it, trying to get into your personal space. You can hear them yelling and banging on the door, wanting to be let in.
OK, says Tai Chi. Unlock the door. Turn the door handle.
As you stand to one side, their inward-leaning intensity causes them to stumble past you as the door swings open. Helpfully, you aid them on their way by guiding their body forward with your hands. But now they've realized they've gone too far. So they try to stop their momentum and reverse direction to get back to you.
Again, you move in accord with their own intention. Facing their back, you grab their shoulders with your hands, helping them move toward the door they'd just rushed through.
So helpfully, their reversed energy leads them out the door. You close it. Lock it. Go back to drinking your tea. Harmony restored.
"Push hands" exercises (which really aren't about pushing, nor about hands) are used in Tai Chi to develop sensing skills along the lines of the door-opening/closing analogy I just shared. Feeling the intention of someone else, you harmonize with them, redirecting their energy as necessary rather than forcefully opposing it.
Thursday Eric and I were engaged in an exercise that started out in a ward-off posture akin to that in the photo above: our right arms were connected as we stood facing each other, right legs also forward.
The purpose of the exercise was to learn how to deal with someone who wants to push into you, such as with a elbow into the chest (not pleasant; elbows are hard and bony). If you merely push back with your own arm, there's a good chance you'll still get an elbow in the chest.
They could be stronger than you. They could be using their entire body weight to push forward against your arm. Strength against strength is a Tai Chi no-no.
What Eric and I practiced was a double sort of redirection, a small circle followed by a larger circle, basically.
When I felt him begin to push inward against my arm, I shifted back into more of an empty stance, my front leg/foot being mostly unweighted. Simultaneously, I used my own right hand and arm to move Eric's arm in a small circle forward and down -- the direction he was moving in with his own energy.
This interrupted his inward push in a hard-to-describe, but easy-to feel, way. It wasn't exactly like the "through the door" analogy, but pretty close. By aiding his intention, I altered Eric's ability to push into me with his right arm.
That small circle, me briefly rotating his hand/arm/shoulder forward and down, made it possible for me to then rotate Eric's arm in a larger circle, ending in a arm-bar.
The more general self-defense lesson is that the Tai Chi A-B-C mantra of Accept - Blend - Control applies in most potentially contentious interpersonal relationships. Usually it is more effective than a Resist - Push Back - Battle sort of approach.
What I found is that the first step, accept, is key. I needed to be aware of what Eric was actually doing and intending, not what I thought he might do.
Often we overreact when there isn't a real threat. Someone "pushes our button" and we think they're about to harm us. Probably not physically, but emotionally or psychologically. So we push back, needlessly escalating the situation. When Eric and I simply were gently resting our arms together, there was no need for me to do anything.
Tai Chi is almost entirely reactive, in contrast to hard style martial arts, which have a more assertive, attacking approach. If nobody is acting in a genuinely threatening way towards us, there is no need to get out our metaphoric Big Guns.
In fact, I learned that if I anticipated Eric's inward push, pressing on his arm to deflect it before he started to move, then now I was the one at risk of being on the other end of A-B-C, Accept - Blend - Control. Meaning, if I initiated a defensive movement before there was any offensive intent, Eric could then turn the tables on me, redirecting my energy to his advantage.
Simply put, it's almost always better to relax, while being exquisitely sensitive to the intentions of those around you. Don't over-react. Embrace mild threats, whether psychological or physical, with good humor. Do your best to either laugh them off or deflect them as gently as possible.
If someone truly is out to get you, though, act to defend yourself. Wait for them to make the first move. Then respond by recognizing their energy, redirecting it, and controlling them so they don't hurt you or anyone else.
This applies equally to what usually is the most common form of self-defense: defending ourselves against our own self.
We imagine unseen enemies when no one is actually threatening us. We worry about being attacked when the only danger is in our own over-active mind. Religions, of course, are notorious for fostering paranoia, with all their fantasies of the Devil, Evil, Hell, Negative Powers, Satan, and such.
And even if we aren't overtly religious, our tendency to over-react to threats that aren't really there can make us fearful about opposing political views, cultures different from ours, people who see the world from a varying perspective than we do.
It isn't necessary to learn Tai Chi to develop sensing skills.
Do your best to sort out real and present dangers from false and distant dangers. Feel what is actually there before you, not what your anxious, worrisome mind imagines could be there. Yes, there are genuine things we need to be concerned about and deal with.
The trick is seeing them for what they are, and not mistaking our own internally-generated fear and trembling for the tremors of an actual approaching threat.