Don’t push the river, listen to it instead

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Bruce Lee was onto something with his water analogies…

I recently read the phrase, “Don’t push the river, listen to it instead”, and it resonated deeply with me because it’s a great way of summing up my approach to jiujitsu’s rolling and tai chi’s push hands. The water analogy was famously used by Bruce Lee and also crops up a lot in the Tai Chi classics, for example “Chang Ch’uan [Long Boxing] is like a great river rolling on unceasingly.”

The flow of water is analogous to the flow of energy, or movement, when performing a Tai Chi form, or between two people engaged in a martial activity . In both jiujitsu and tai chi your ultimate goal is to ‘go with’ this flow in such a way that you come out on top. You want the opponent to be undone by their own actions.

In jiujitsu that might mean not using excessive strength to press home a collar choke from mount if your partner is defending it well, and switching to an armbar instead, then switching back to the collar choke (and hopefully getting it) when they defend the armbar.

In push hands it could mean not resisting your partner’s push and using Lu to let it pass you by, then switching to an armbar to capitalise on their over extension.

Of course, this is for when you’re engaged in the ‘play’ mode of both these arts, which is the mental space you need to occupy if you want to get better at either of them. This is the relaxed practice that nourishes the soul. It kind of goes without saying that in competition or in a self defence situation you’d be better off in Smash Mode. But when winning isn’t the only thing that’s important you need to open up your game a little and keep it playful. Or ‘listen to the river’ as the phrase has it. It takes a lot of expertise to be able to be that relaxed in a real situation, but as your experience in the art increase so too should your ability to remain relaxed under increasing amounts of pressure.

Rickson Gracie said, ‘you can’t control the ocean but you can learn to surf’ and that’s the heart of what I’m talking about.

To be aware of the way the river is flowing, and not waste futile energy pushing it in a direction it doesn’t want to go you need a degree of self awareness, and the ability to be aware of the situation you are in. And to get that you need to slow down and stay calm. Or, as the ancient Taoists said:

“Do you have the patience to wait

Till your mind settles and the water is clear?

Can you remain unmoving

Till the right action arises by itself?”
Lau Tzu, Tao-te-Ching

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