The hands of Ed Cooper and Carol O'Connor, ~ 2010
On the weekend of Oct. 19 to21 of 2018 I attended an excellent workshop on Pushing Hands conducted by my old friend, colleague, and teacher Sifu Sam Masich. The following is an extension of what he shared with us and includes material based on my personal experience as a veteran Tai Chi practitioner.
Q: Why do we study Tai Chi?
While it is clear that traditional Yang family Tai Chi is an effective self-defence and combative system as well as an excellent health regime, it is also true that its primary focus is on spiritual illumination. This is made clear in the Forty Documents of the Yang Family. This is also true of traditional Yang family Pushing Hands. Pushing-hands can greatly empower Tai Chi self-defence but this is not its primary purpose in the Yang family tradition. Its primary purpose is to help us become better human beings. The enhancement of our personal defensive skills is a side effect of the process. It most definitely is not directed toward success in any kind of competition.
The path to enlightenment presented by traditional Yang family Pushing-hands practice is achieved through the perfection of perceptual (or ‘conscious’) movement. This involves the study of Sensing-hands: sticking, adhering, connecting and following – ideally practiced as a two-person exercise. This is why in the Forty Documents of the Yang family Pushing Hands is described as a non-sexual form of dual cultivation. Why the reference to sexuality? Because in Old China there were tantric forms of Qigong practiced within the context of marriage which were called dual cultivation. Pushing Hands is not of this kind.
(Chen Wei-ming, senior student of Yang Cheng-fu, on R pushing with a student)
Sensing-hands, the first set of Tai Chi skills, consists of learning how to stick, adhere, connect with, and follow our partner. Pushing Hands builds upon these skills and and extends them.
This practice requires:
developing focus and attention to detail
surrendering the egoistic desire to win
generosity toward our partner
confronting and overcoming the fear of physical intimacy
giving up selfishness and self-assertiveness
eliminating personal aggressiveness
surrendering any sense of personal superiority
This can be a very tall order!
Often one commences martial arts studies in order to compensate for personal insecurity, a lack of self-esteem, etc. Research has shown that generally the study of martial arts is more about self-development than self-defence. ( see Barry Allen's Striking Beauty. ISBN: 9780231172721) Another major goal can be health. While physical health is one obvious objective, mental health is another. For either of these, the ability to defend one-self is clearly a legitimate health concern.
Spiritual development is intimately linked to mental health and is at the core of the Tai Chi experience. Pushing Hands is where spiritual development and defensive skills meet.
The practice of Sensing-hands inculcates qualities like paying attention, resting-in, supporting properly etc. It also requires that we cooperate with our partner and connect to their energy, focusing on them more than we do on ourselves. This in itself is a BIG spiritual lesson.
Sensing Hands also requires that we confront our defensiveness and admit the other person into our intimacy zone: another BIG lesson. Perhaps we fear injury. Perhaps we are put off by sensing our own inner aggressiveness. In other words, perhaps we are unwilling to face certain things? If people refrain from joining in this training for these or similar reasons, their decision should be respected.
But Sensing Hands does not have overtly martial intent and therefore ... does not offer scope for questionable or bad behaviour. As we extend our training into Pushing hands, the martial impulse becomes more apparent and the scope for bad behaviour increases. This is where the rubber hits the road in terms of our spiritual discipline.
Pushing Hands tempts the veteran to share his / her superior expertise with the other person, perhaps to start showing 'applications'. But is this within the assigned terms of the exercise? Is this perhaps a masked assertion of superior knowledge and experience? Is this potentially confusing for the recipient? Is this a manifestation of the more experienced partner's impatience with the assignment? All food for thought. These traps particularly apply to the veteran practitioner!
Pushing with Carol O'Connor
Another issue is that the mutual experience can be so easily polluted by the desire to win. We can make it a bit harder for the other person to neutralize our push by delivering it just a bit off centre, or a bit too hard, or a bit too fast. We can make it a little difficult for them to respond. Moreover, this can be subconscious! We may not be aware that we are taking advantage of the situation...unless our partner tells us. And then, how do we receive this information?
In terms of vulnerability and disciplined patience, are we content to be pushed off our feet; or must we always recover? Must we always maintain our root to make it a bit more difficult? Why? What are we protecting? Our vulnerability can be a gift we give to the other so that they can learn from it. Have we sufficient generosity?
One senior practitioner pointed out to me that almost all pushing hands out there is competitive and directed toward establishing who has greater skill? Winner and loser! Tournaments! This is not part of the spiritual path. It can be great fun, (I regularly 'wrassle' with friends!) but it is antithetical to this training and must not be allowed to dilute it. It's a nice pastime, but can be a distraction.
I remember having some robust fun with my buddy Ed Cooper out on a sidewalk at the 2006 Masters' Symposium in Thunder Bay. We were passing our time while waiting for transport back to the residence where we were staying. In the middle of our engagement I glanced over at a limo parked nearby and spotted Grandmaster Yang Zhenduo, his face pressed up against the window in the back seat, as he watched us with a big grin of delight!
Me showing a certain lack of equanimity when pushing with my friend Sifu Ed Cooper!
Obviously. these challenges apply to all of us. The challenges provided by this kind of training are challenges I personally confront and fail at regularly!
Well, nobody said it was easy!