The Power of Ten

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Many of my friends have the good habit of setting their New Year resolutions at the turn of each year. While some of them would achieve most of their goals at the end of the subsequent twelve months, most of my friends would not be able to achieve what they have set out achieving at the beginning of the year.

Which brings me to the question; are we making the common mistake of overestimating what we can achieve in a year? We would love to be able to skip over the many hours we would normally need to put in, and go straight to the final results that we want. Suddenly we would want to be able to retire within the next twelve months, or to be able to speak Italian fluently and flawlessly in fifty-two weeks’ time.

The other side of this observation is that we tend to underestimate what we can accomplish in a time-span of ten years. Imagine if you can, that we learn a new word every day. In ten years, we would have learnt at least three thousand six hundred and fifty-two words. If we were to save ten dollars a day, then we would have a tidy amount of around thirty-six thousand five hundred and twenty dollars at the end of the decade.

The point I am putting across is this; we often want to become a Taiji master in the shortest possible time, without having the commitment of putting in daily practice for the next ten years. If we are able to manage the expectation properly, then we tend to be able to keep faith in what we set out to do.

Three Steps Back

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After each push hands sessions, it is a good habit to do a quick review on our performance. This way we could have a better idea on what we have done well, and which area we would need to improve.

Many of my fellow practitioners would focus on how to “escape” from a disadvantageous position. For example, when the opponent has managed to destabilize the practitioner, he would find ways to regain back the stability. I would consider this type of learning as ineffective. This is equivalent to practicing how to regain balance when one stumbles and trips over.

Some would take two steps back and realize how the opponent manages to dislodge him. The practitioner then focuses on preventing the opponent from performing the actions which would dislodge the practitioner from his balance. While better than the earlier example, I would still consider this approach as sub-optimal. This is as if one would constantly look out for obstacles, and would stop walking when he comes across a potential tripping block.

Taking three steps back, it would be ideal if one would review his own positioning at the point when the opponent dislodges him. If one had been able to maintain his balance throughout the pushing hands session, the opponent would not be able to destabilize him at all. Thus through such a review, one could have an idea how to improve on his balance. When one is consistently able to maintain his balance, he would not have to worry about tripping over banana skins on the floor.

功到自然成

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Previously I would understand the phrase “功到自然成” as putting in enough effort, and you will succeed naturally. If I would read it out loud, the phrase is “功到,自然成”.

However after a recent lesson with a teacher, I have a different interpretation to the phrase. During the lesson, the teacher was explaining how we have to commit the principles of Taiji into our every movement. Just like what the forefathers have mentioned in their Taiji literature, “信手而应”, “应物自然”, etc, it has to become second nature to us.

So now, I would read the phrase as “功到自然,成”, which loosely translates into “when it becomes natural, you have succeeded”.

Taiji Routines and Pushing Hands

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If we were to dissect every move of the Taiji routines, we would realize that each move is a counter-measure to the opponent’s attack. Every move involves the practitioner diverting the opponent’s attack, before counter-striking the opponent.

While we all practice the taiji routine diligently, when it comes to pushing hands, we seem to forget about what we have practiced completely. We would attack our opponents first, instead of waiting patiently and counter attacking.

To divert an attack is not to block the attack. Instead, it is to redirect the opponent’s attack, and in the process disrupting the opponent’s balance. We would only attack the opponent after he has lost his balance. This would allow us to use minimal force and yet have a great effect on the opponent.

My teacher always reminded us that “when you are pushing hands, don’t be the first one to push”.

Shyness and Ego

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A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine told me what her yoga teacher had said during their yoga class. The yoga teacher was sharing with the class a conversation between a yoga guru and his student.

The guru told his student that he believed the student was ready to step up and become a yoga teacher. However despite the confidence shown to him by the guru, the student was somewhat hesitant about starting a class on his own. He told the guru that he was not ready to do so, and claimed that he needed to overcome his shyness before he could stand in front of everyone to conduct a class.

“You are not shy,” the guru replied. “Your ego is too big.”

The guru went on to explain that instead of feeling shy, the student was afraid to fail; he would not allow his ego to be bruised by rejection.

This insight was a revelation to the student. He promptly acknowledged that his ego was holding him back from his yoga progression, and in his words, “Thereafter I am shameless”.

When there is no ego, there is nothing to be ashamed of.

Sweet Surrender

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A fellow practitioner shared with me how he felt that there must be an easier way to get fast results from the Taiji practices. In fact, he was confident the teacher was holding back these methods from us.

While I do not subscribe to his views on the teacher being not forthcoming in his teaching, I do think that constantly challenging the status quo is not a bad thing. However simply challenging anything and everything is not productive unless it is followed by researches and experiments, plus a lot of practice! Or else, we would always lack faith in the teacher’s methods, and yet we would do nothing about it.

Only when we “surrender” ourselves to the training methods and principles could we have no doubt about the time and effort we invest into the daily practice. And only when we have no doubt could we start to see things clearly.

Fast and Slow

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Last week we had a visiting practitioner from a neighboring country joining us for a pushing hands session. While he does not practice push hands normally, this visitor is no push-over due to his strong foundation in “qigong”. In fact, he was very much able to hold his own when he pitted against other more experienced opponents.

A fellow practitioner, after observing how this visitor pushed hands, remarked on the “mistakes” that the visitor made. While his remarks could be right, the point he totally missed was that the visitor had little experience in pushing hands, and yet his opponents were struggling to even uproot him. Furthermore, as I personally know this fellow practitioner, I was quite sure that if he were pitted against the visitor, the visitor would be able to handle him without breaking a sweat.

The above brought to mind an advice a teacher once gave me. He told me “to be fast in appreciating others’ strength, and be slow in criticizing their weaknesses”. If we keep focusing on others’ weaknesses, we would miss out the opportunity to learn from their strengths.

The Three Jewels

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In the Buddhist philosophy, there are three very important elements, namely “Dharma”, “Buddha” and “Sangha”. Dharma is the law of Nature, Buddha is a person who has attained full enlightenment, and Sangha is the practitioner of Dharma.

Drawing parallel to our Taiji journey, we also have three jewels, namely the Taiji principles, the Teacher, and the Taiji practitioners. The Taiji principles must be able to stand up to the test of time. The teacher is one who understands these principles fully, and has the compassion to share his wisdom. The Taiji practitioners, as the name suggests, put whatever Taiji principles they have learned into practice.

When we have all these three elements in our Taiji journey, we will get closer to full understanding of the Taiji principles with each passing day.

I “Am” a Singer

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Recently I was watching the second season of the very popular Chinese TV program, “I am a Singer”. In the program, seven professional singing artists will perform “live” to an audience of five hundred. At the end of these seven performances, the audience will give their votes to the artist whom they think performed best. Once the votes are totaled up, the artist with the lowest vote counts will face elimination.

As you can imagine, the pressures were tremendous on the performing artists. Not only were they subject to scrutiny, they also have their egos bruised should their performances win the lowest votes from the audience.

One participating artist put a very thoughtful meaning to his involvement in the program “I am a Singer”. He said that both the “I” and “a Singer” are no longer meaningful to him. The most important thing, to him, is “am”. That is because only when he can prove that he “is” a singer could he say “I am a Singer”. It is a state of being.

Very often we hear people describing themselves as Taiji practitioners. If we challenge that claim further, we would find that most of these people are not really Taiji practitioners. They do not practice Taiji. What they practice is the Taiji routines, and not Taiji. They do not adopt the Taiji principles and introduce these principles into their daily activities. They could be future Taiji practitioners, but until they practice Taiji even in the most mundane daily chores, they could only say they are Taiji routine practitioners.

I am thankful I have watched that episode of “I am a Singer”. It has given me a timely reminder of how I should continue my Taiji journey.

The Art of Persuasion

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I was reading a book on Persuasion, in which the author explained how we influence our audience to move from point A to point B through persuasion. It is the art of getting people to do something they would not ordinarily do if we did not influence. More importantly, when our objective is met, the audience does not hold ill feeling towards us.

This made me think about the similarity to pushing hands. In push hands, our objective is to “convince” our opponent to move into a position where he loses his balance. Without our influence, our opponent would normally be able to maintain his balance. We have to “persuade” our opponent to move from a position of balance, to one of unbalance. Because the whole process is about gentle “cajoling”, at the end of the push hands session, there is no ill feeling of “coercion” (by brute force), and we can all go home happy!