Unconscious, Conscious, Subconscious

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There are many activities taking place in our bodies that we are unconscious about. When things are happening in our unconscious state, we are ignorant of them, and hence we are powerless to affect these events.

To be able to make changes to these unconscious activities, we first need to bring them up to our conscious state. Thus if we are mindful of these activities we can begin to affect them. Just like the age old saying, what you are aware of, you can affect.

Once we have “fine-tuned” the activities that we were once ignorant of, we may then commit them to our subconscious state. At the subconscious state, we can still be mindful of these activities, though they are best performed subconsciously.

To illustrate this theory, say, we could be feeling tense when we are pushing hands. We are first clueless as to what we are doing wrong in our push hands routines. We then begin to be mindful of the tension, and thereafter through conscious practice, we learn to unlearn the bad habits which created the tension in the first place. Now that we can begin to perform the push hands in a more relax fashion, we commit the newly learnt good habits to our subconscious through practice. Thereafter we can still be mindful of these good habits when needed to, but most of the time we do not need to pay extra attention to them.

Thus it is very important that we are mindful of ourselves during every practice. While we can groom good habits when we practice, we can also be reinforcing bad habits if we are not mindful of them.

Teachers I have met

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I have learnt a lot from the various Taiji teachers I have met. Some of them taught me the technical aspect of the Taiji practice, and some of them taught me the spiritual aspect of the art. A few of them set an example of how I would like to approach Taiji, and a handful of the teachers reminded me of what I would become if I spent too much time debating with others instead of focusing my time on the actual practice.

One of the teachers I have met is gifted. While he does not practice Qigong himself, he is not only gifted with an abundance of qi, he is also able to manipulate the flow of the qi. Unfortunately he is not able to share with the other practitioners how to train to attain his level of qigong skills, and he has yet to meet a student who has the same gift as he has.

Another teacher I have met is talented but not gifted. His talent is his keen understanding of the Taiji principles. On top of that, he has been consistently practicing Taiji for the past twenty years. Each time he makes a breakthrough, he would share with us his experience and I believe that has shortened our learning curves tremendously.

There is one teacher who would ask his students to practice the basics for three years before teaching them anything at all. That was how his teacher taught him, and that is how he would transmit the teachings to his own students.

I have also met one teacher who would overrule his own teachings every few years. Each time he has a new understanding of the Taiji principles, he would emphasis on his new discovery in his lessons, and dismiss his earlier teachings as “wrong”. Imagine how confuse his students would be!

Finally there are many teachers I know who can easily win a debate on Taiji principles, but when they are asked to demonstrate what they have earlier claimed to be the “true” Taiji, they come up short. They are a constant reminder of what I do not want to become.

All the teachers I have mentioned teach me in one way or another. There are always lessons to be learned from them. They are all my teachers.

“Sung” and Balance

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A fellow senior recently shared with me his insight to the concept of “sung” (or “song”). He believed true “sung” is a balance between tension and relaxation. When the physical body is at equilibrium between tense and relax, this is when we experience true “sung”. And this also applies to mental “sung”.

When we are overly tensed, we definitely are not in a “sung” state; when we are overly relaxed, we are actually in a “soft” state. Either state is not the ideal Taiji state. Do note the difference between being “soft” and being “supple”.

An early Taiji literature wrote that Taiji is about “not over, not under” (“wu guo bu ji”). Thus it is about balance, and through achieving balance we start to understand the principles of Taiji.

Unfortunately there is a common trap that many Taiji practitioners fall into. They are under the impression that they are relaxed when they practice the Taiji routines, when in fact they have been overly relaxed to the state of being “soft”. While these practitioners would still get some benefits out of the practice, most of them would lose out the opportunity of a true Taiji experience.

The Definition of Winning

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How do we define success in pushing hands? Do we win when we simply pushed our opponents off their balance? Or do we have to push our opponents off their balance in order to win?

In my youth, I pushed hands to win, and I felt like a winner when I pushed my opponents off their balance. A few years passed quickly before a realization fell upon me. The term “pushing hands” is a misnomer, as pushing hands is not just about pushing your opponents away. It is also about absorbing, diverting and re-channeling their attacks.

More importantly, it is about our balance, both physical and mental.

If I were to focus on pushing all the time, I risked losing my mental balance.

Since then, I made a decision to re-define my success in pushing hands as being able to apply the Taiji principles during the session with my opponents. At times I would just focus on one particular aspect, say for example diverting the opponent’s attacks. If I were to be thrown off balance by my opponent during that session, it would only serve to remind me that I have much to learn. As with all education, we tend to retain better when we learnt from our mistakes.

I find myself enjoying my pushing hands sessions more from then on.

How You React is Your Karma

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A friend of mine posted on his Facebook the following phrase,

“How people treat you is their karma, how you react is yours.”

Putting aside any religious nuances, they are indeed some wise words, and they bring to mind an incident I have recently come to know about.

A couple of very senior Taiji practitioners were pushing hands, and somehow the pushing hands match turned into a more physical and competitive exchange. There were other practitioners around watching, and they had to step in to break up the two overly enthusiastic guys before these two come into blows with each other.

One of the two Taiji practitioners started complaining that his opponent was totally un-Taiji in his push hands (for using brute force). He further claimed that he had been tolerating his opponent’s unsporting behavior for a long time, and he had decided to publicly denounce this opponent.

This sets me thinking. If my opponent uses brute force against me while we are pushing hands, he is the one losing out for not using the push hands session to practice the Taiji principles. And if, in my response to his “un-Taiji” approach, I were to react by also using brute strength to counter my opponent, I would similarly be a loser whatever the outcome of that pushing hands session.

How we react to an event would determine the outcome. How we react is our karma.

Knowing, Understanding and Becoming

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We all know the principles of Taiji. The more senior practitioners would understand the principles of Taiji. Only a handful would become Taiji grandmasters.

If we only know the principles, it is only an intellectual knowledge. We would not be able to make much use of this knowledge other than to “mental spar” with others, and hopefully win an intellectual argument.

Through practice, we would understand the principles. We can now “defeat” our opponents through physical sparring. But would this change our life for the better?

When these principles become part of our life, we no longer need to win a match to prove anything. The way we conduct our daily activities becomes our daily practice of the Taiji routine. Every step we take when we are walking, every page we turn when we read the newspapers, every sip of the morning coffee, it all embodies the wisdoms of our Taiji forefathers.

I am now the knowing stage. Which stage are you in right now?

Simple but not Easy

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As with most Truths and Wisdoms, the principles of Taiji are simple and elegant. That, however, does not mean they are easy to apply in our Taiji routines.

I can almost hear my teacher telling me time and again, “Relax, relax and relax”.

Like what Cesar Milan (of Dog Whisperer’s fame) always says, “The dog’s way of life is simple; it is the humans that make it complicated.”

I find myself enjoying my Taiji practices more when I keep it simple. I only focus on one aspect of the Taiji principles with each practice. This way, I can focus better and at the end of each practice, I feel contented that I have given myself enough time to work on this one particular aspect of the Taiji principle.

The drawbacks to this approach are greed and impatience. I have to constantly remind myself not to get ahead of myself and to refrain from focusing on too many other aspects during the practice. This is a constant struggle with my untrained and ill-discipline mind.

The Root of the Problem

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I was pushing hands with a fellow student after our Taiji class last weekend. My fellow student was sharing with me some of the problems he experienced during push hands.

One problem which was bothering him was the tensing up of his body when his opponent stands too close to him. He had been struggling to relax whenever he finds himself stiffening up in such situations, to no avail.

As we continued pushing hands, I observed how he automatically tensed up when I stood too close to him for his comfort. It was almost as if he reminded himself that his opponent was too near to him, and his natural reaction was to tense up and push his opponent away. It somehow occurred to me that this was simply a psychological pattern. If he could break his mental pattern, he should be able to overcome this problem.

I offered him another perspective to his problem. What if, instead of focusing on how to relax, he can focus on reducing his sense of personal space. If he becomes comfortable of having his opponent closer to him, he would not have the impulse to tense up and push his opponent away.

We often focus on the symptoms of a problem, rather than the root of the problem itself. If we can identify and treat the root of the problem, rather than treating the symptoms, most of the time we would be able to come up with a clear approach to overcome the problem.

The Importance of Foundation Building

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Recently I visited a group of practitioners, and the teacher there was explaining some push hands concepts and techniques. The teacher was able to demonstrate these techniques on me easily, and I am really grateful to him for letting me experience first-hand what the concepts are about.

During the practice session that followed, I was pushing hands with one of the teacher’s senior students. Throughout the whole session, this student was giving me instructions on how to apply the earlier techniques. After all his lectures on my many mistakes and what I should do to overcome these mistakes, we started pushing hands more seriously. To my surprise, even though this senior student knew exactly what my mistakes were, he was unable to dislodge me using the techniques he preached. In fact, I actually used my “wrong” techniques to throw him off a few times.

On my way home after this practice, I was thinking back on this incident. How was it that the teacher could use the techniques on me easily, while his senior student struggled to even hold his stance using the same techniques?

The conclusion I came to was that the teacher’s years of training were apparent. His student, however, seemed to be lacking in the foundation department. Thus when the latter pushed hands with me, he was not able to issue attacks which could threaten me.

Foundation building takes years of proper practice. We often get carried away with small successes, and we start to think we are beyond the mundane basic training. This is the danger which we will face, one time or another. We have to stay grounded and humble if we want to avert falling into this false sense of achievement.

Your Opponent is Never Wrong

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Have you ever had the experience of pushing hands with someone who has never participated in pushing hands before? And can you recall if you actually find it difficult to anticipate, at that time, what your opponent’s next move was?

Recently I started helping my teacher with his classes, and one of the areas is to be the training partner for the new joiners during the push hands lessons. Perhaps it is due to inexperience, and maybe it is due to complacency. The truth is that sometimes I get “surprise attacks” from the fellow students in a manner I never thought is possible.

After giving it much thought, I chanced upon an old video clip where my grand-teacher was giving some lesson instructions on push hands techniques. As he demonstrated the technique with each of his students, he started explaining the application of the technique under different circumstances. Each student would have his preferred attacking strategies, so the grand-teacher would have to react differently when the attacks come from different angles.

At the end of the lesson, the grand-teacher gave us a very valuable lesson. He said that the opponent is never wrong. We cannot demand the opponent to push hands in a manner that we want so that we can apply certain counter actions. The opponent can use brute force, and he can also push hands with finesse. We simply cannot control how the opponent wants to attack us. What we can control is our counter strategies and actions.

Many times we simply assume the opponent will behave in a certain way, thus we go into a push hands practice with a pre-conceived mind. When we get pushed out by the opponent with an “unorthodox” move, our ego will cry foul and we think the opponent used brute strength rather than using Taiji techniques. The cold hard fact that we often fail to acknowledge is that we were pushed off-balance by our opponent. Period. Any post match analysis should be on our strategies and actions, and not on our opponent. Only after we have identified and acknowledged our shortcomings and weaknesses, can we start to improve.