Finding the Trigger

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I was pushing hands with a senior Taiji practitioner during one of the pushing hands session. Throughout the whole practice, I was unable to find an opportunity to dislodge his balance. I ended up pushing “blindly” every now and then.

During the chat we had after the session, this senior practitioner did a quick review of the pushing hands, and he brought up some interesting pointers. One advice came across as really helpful. He asked me if I realized I was “blindly” pushing at times, and if I knew what the trigger was for such actions.

He went on to suggest that the behavior could be a result of bad habits, and bad habits are results of bad conditioning. We basically conditioned ourselves to respond badly to a triggering event. To effectively overcome the bad habit, we have to re-condition our response to this triggering event. Thus it is important to find out what the trigger is, and thereafter start a re-conditioning program.

We will need to take an honest look at our behavior and mental state before, during and after the pushing hands session, to find out what the trigger is. If we are not honest with ourselves, we could never be able to find out where the mistake is.

Demonstration versus Real Life

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We have to constantly remind ourselves that Taiji pushing hands during a demonstration is not Taiji pushing hands in real life. When we are demonstrating how a particular technique is applied in a demonstration, our opponent would stop and listen to our explanation. This causes a “break” in his movement, allowing us to exploit such a weakness.

In real life pushing hands, our opponent would not be so kind as to hold their positions in an awkward manner, and literally “wait” for us to exploit their weaknesses. Their movements would be more fluid and their approach more cautious.

It would be a folly to expect our real life opponents to be thrown off balance as easily as those during a demonstration. We should do a reality check on ourselves every now and then to avoid over-estimating our capabilities.

The Limitation of Scientific Method

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It is always very tempting to attempt to be very specific in our approach to learning Taiji, or any other oriental arts. However I believe it will be a daunting task. Not impossible, but daunting.

The oriental approach is one of experiential, while the modern approach is predominantly one of scientific method. While the scientific method is very useful in transferring knowledge, it could not readily transfer wisdom. And while the oriental approach could not transfer wisdom as well, it reminds us from time to time of its limitation. A very popular reminder is from Laozi, who started Daodejing with “ 道可道,非常道。”, loosely translated into “if the truth can be put into words, it is not the truth”.

So does that mean all the early Taiji literatures are useless to us? I think the authors of these literatures put in a lot of effort to pass on their experiences and wisdoms to the later generations. However these are their experiences and wisdoms, not ours. We could attain our own wisdoms by putting their knowledge into our practice.

He is not Aggressive, He is Fearful

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My teacher once shared with us on the topic of the psychology of pushing hands.

He said we often mistaken someone who pushes at the word “go”, regardless of whether he is in a good position or not, as someone who is aggressive. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, he is not an aggressive practitioner, but a fearful one.

It could be that he is uncomfortable with the close distance between himself and his opponent. It could be that he could not detect where his opponent’s attacks would be coming from. Whatever the reason, the practitioner is averse to the situation he is in, and he reacts by pushing his opponent (the common factor in all possible causes of his discomfort) away, if not in the first attempt, then possibly in however many pushes it would take.

If we are fearful when we are pushing hands, we would have already lost half the battle.

The Fear of the Unknown

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Human beings are programmed to be uncomfortable of the unknown. When we are unsure, we become hesitant. Our normal movements become hindered. We become more defensive. This built-in response of the unknown helps to ensure human kinds behave cautiously when we encounter situations which we are unsure of.

It is also this automatic response that Taiji practitioner exploits in pushing hands. When our opponents cannot detect any physical strength from their contact with our hands, they tend to become more cautious. This also results in additional stress on them mentally. When the mental stress builds up to a certain point, it manifests itself into physical stress. This is the time when our opponents become stiff and their responses become slower. It is also the moment of victory for us.

You will Become a Normal Person

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My teacher reminds us time and again to have a reasonable expectation of the Taiji we have practiced. There have been too many practitioners who have oversold the benefits of practicing Taiji. My teacher would only promised us that at the end of the day, we would just become normal people.

And why is that so?

The practice of Taiji could allow our bodies to “rebalance” themselves. The ultimate objective of Taiji is to have balance in our lives. Years of bad habits have driven our bodies to a state of unbalance. Thus if our bodies were to regain their balance after long period of Taiji practice, we merely regain a “normal body”.

There are too many misconceptions about the benefits of Taiji practice. It is only when we cast aside such unreasonable expectations of the art that we can see clearly how Taiji can bring about a change in our lives.

We merely become the normal people that we once were.

The Problem Lies with You

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Very often I hear other people praising my teacher on how well he does his push hands. His opponents tend to lose their balance and be dislodged just when they touch his hands. My teacher would just smile and tell them that it is a matter of time when they can do the same.

When I asked my teacher how he is able to do what he is doing, his answer was shocking.

“The problem lies with you. I can see where your shortcomings are, and I exploit them.”

Oouch.

The painful truth.

And the earlier we realize this, the more empowered we would be.

The reason why our opponent can dislodge us during pushing hands is not merely because our opponent is better than us. More importantly, there are imperfections in our pushing hands which allow our opponent to have a more than even chance to throw us off our balance.

Thus, instead of thinking that our opponent is better than us, we could have asked ourselves where our shortcomings are, and how to overcome them. This way the power to change is in our hands.

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”.