Sinking in Taijiquan

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I generally try to avoid telling people to “sink” in Tai Chi for the simple reason that they usually try to physically lower themselves in the postures, inevitably resulting in using too much force and sticking out their butt, or putting their knees at an odd angle.

Sure, you do need to have a lower-than-normal-standing posture, so you can relax the lower back and centre the coccyx, but when people start to get uncomfortably low (usually combined with too much tucking of the hips) that’s when things break down.

I was doing some push hands recently, and I was trying to work on the idea of reacting to being pressured with a push with the action of sinking as your initial response rather than by trying to do something with their push.

Taoist non-action

By sinking I mean internally sinking – letting go of tension and letting it all drop, rather than by physically lowering yourself. In a way – it’s a kind of non-action. You’re taking something away rather than adding it to the situation. If you can do that then the tension that is created between you and your partner – the pressure – when they start to get too close with their push just dissipates, and the right action arises spontaneously by itself. It’s easy to redirect them because you have ‘got underneath them’.

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Sun Lu Tang

It’s a difficult concept to grasp. It reminds me a lot of reading the Tao Te Ching, the Taoist classic of the way and its power. The Tao Te Ching constantly advises us to take the path of no resistance, which initially seems like a passive response to a situation, but when done skillfully, is anything but.

By taking ‘you’ out of the conflict, it can often resolve itself, and usually in your favour.

“Therefore the Master
Acts without doing anything
And teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
Things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
Acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.”

 

Related stories on this blog:

Is Taijiquan Taoist?

Wu Wei – the art of doing without doing

Don’t push the river, listen to it instead

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Tao Te Ching, chapters 8 and 61

 

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I was giving the Tao Te Ching the cursory glance I occasionally give it recently. I’ve got the copy shown above. I usually flick to a random chapter, read it three times and ponder it deeply. Well, as deeply as I am able to. I landed on chapter 61, and the next day I landed on chapter 8. These two seemed to be linked in theme, so I thought I’d say something about them.

Incidentally, I really like the Stephen Mitchell translation. I’ve no idea how accurate it is compared to the Chinese, but all translation seems to involve some interpretation, and I like the way he’s done it.

Here’s chapter 61:

61

When a country obtains great power,
it becomes like the sea:
all streams run downward into it.
The more powerful it grows,
the greater the need for humility.
Humility means trusting the Tao,
thus never needing to be defensive.

A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.

If a nation is centered in the Tao,
if it nourishes its own people
and doesn’t meddle in the affairs of others,
it will be a light to all nations in the world.

 

and chapter 8:

8

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don’t try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don’t compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

 

So, firstly let’s look at the imagery of water, one of the classic symbols of the Yin side of the Taiji diagram. Both chapters use water as a metaphor for the correct way of acting or being in the world.  It’s a theme that repeats through the Tao Te Ching, and also throughout the history of Asian martial arts, even in modern times. I’m thinking of Bruce Lee in the infamous interview where he says “Be water, my friend!”

 

I was reading another article about Wing Chun today by Ben Judkins, which also expanded upon this idea of softness overcoming strength, and how this idea has permeated Asian martial arts:

Early reformers in martial arts like Taijiquan (Wile 1996) and Jujitsu sought to shore up their own national identities by asserting that they brought a unique form of power to the table.  Rather than relying on strength, they would find victory through flexibility, technique, and cunning (all yin traits), just as the Chinese and Japanese nations would ultimately prevail through these same characteristics.  It is no accident that so much of the early Asian martial arts material featured images of women, or small Asian men, overcoming much larger Western opponents with the aid of mysterious “oriental” arts.  These gendered characterizations of hand combat systems were fundamentally tied to larger narratives of national competition and resistance (see Wendy Rouse’s 2015 article “Jiu-Jitsuing Uncle Sam” .

but as the author notes, the situation is often muddied

Shidachi appears to have had little actual familiarity with Western wrestling.  It is clear that his discussion was driven by nationalist considerations rather than detailed ethnographic observation.  And there is something else that is a bit odd about all of this.  While technical skill is certainly an aspect of Western wrestling, gaining physical strength and endurance is also a critical component of Judo training.  Shidachi attempted to define all of this as notbeing a part of Judo. Yet a visit to the local university Judo team will reveal a group of very strong, well developed, athletes.  Nor is that a recent development.  I was recently looking at some photos of Judo players in the Japanese Navy at the start of WWII and any one those guys could have passed as a modern weight lifter.  One suspects that the Japanese Navy noticed this as well.

But while the idea of the soft overcoming the hard has already fallen to the level of a cliché, especially when it comes to martial arts, and mixed with political ideas, should we ignore it as a way of being in the world?  I’d say not. It does point to a truth.

Anyone with any familiarity in martial arts is aware of the feeling of having to ‘muscle’ a technique to make it work, as opposed to executing a clean technique based on good leverage. This points towards what I think these chapters of the Tao Te Ching are talking about.

When it comes to Tai Chi one of the hardest things to grasp about the techniques exemplified in the forms is that they shouldn’t necessarily feel powerful to you as you do them. My teacher often uses this phrase: “…if you feel it then they don’t – you want them to feel it, not you“.

If you can give up the need to control and struggle with a situation, then you can relax and access your own inner power. See what acliché that statement sounds like already? It sounds like one to me as I wrote it, but I guess all cliches were probably based on something real, otherwise, they wouldn’t be a cliché.

In Chinese martial arts that sweet spot between doing and not doing (to bastardize some more Taoist terminology) is called Jin. I’ve written a bit about that before:

The 6 directions and Jin

Rickson Gracie using Jin

Mike Sigman on basic Jin

Jin in Chinese martial arts (and tennis)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Push Hands: Wu Wei in action

Another Classic that often gets quoted in connection with Tai Chi Chuan is that mainstay of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching (The classic of the way and its power) * . While debate continues to rage in academic circles over whether you can truly say Tai Chi Chuan is a Taoist art or not, I’d like to neatly sidestep the whole issue completely. It’s obvious that you don’t have to be signed up card carrying member of a Taoist sect to read and enjoy the Tao Te Ching. What’s more its philosophy of “know the Yang, but stick to the Yin” has direct relevance to many martial arts, and Tai Chi Chuan in particular. To say that Tai Chi Chuan hasn’t been influenced in some degree over the years by the type of thinking found in this giant of Chinese literature is simply incorrect.

In this article I’d like to talk about how one particular verse from the Tao Te Ching can help you understand how the combat strategy of Tai Chi Chuan can be applied in Push Hands practice. Push Hands is a type of 2-person sparring exercise that belongs to Tai Chi Chuan. There’s a lot of subtlety to it, but in brief, one person pushes on the other’s arms, they try and deflect the push and then push back and so it continues in a circular pattern. In a lot of classes it’s the only type of 2-person training available. Push Hands is not fighting, but it should be practiced in a competitive way – you’re meant to be actively trying to unbalance the other person when you push. If you’re both simply moving your arms around in circles then nothing is really going on. You need to help your partner out by giving them something to work with. If you don’t have any force to work with then how can you ever hope to understand that “A force of four ounces deflects a thousand pounds” (as it says in the Tai Chi Chuan Treaste)?

The problem with push hands is that as soon as the idea of actively seeking to push the opponent is introduced the whole thing can descend into a very physical pushing and shoving match. In an effort to unbalance the opponent it’s human nature to try to impose your own will on the situation, which usually results in that great sin of Push Hands: Double Weighting (using force against force). It sounds contradictory, but to be truly good at push hands you need to try to not impose your own ideas on the situation – “Fundamentally, it is giving up yourself to follow others”, as it says in The Treaste on Tai Chi Chuan. Of course, that’s easier said than done, but I’ve found that reading the Tao Te Ching can add some great insights into how that is achieved. In particular I’d like to look at verse 15:

The ancient Masters were profound and subtle.
Their wisdom was unfathomable.
There is no way to describe it;
all we can describe is their appearance.

They were careful
as someone crossing an iced-over stream.
Alert as a warrior in enemy territory.
Courteous as a guest.
Fluid as melting ice.
Shapable as a block of wood.
Receptive as a valley.
Clear as a glass of water.

Do you have the patience to wait
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving
till the right action arises by itself?

The Master doesn’t seek fulfillment.
Not seeking, not expecting,
she is present, and can welcome all things.

As soon as you touch your Push Hands partner’s hands you are “a warrior in enemy territory”. If you let your guard down you will be easily pushed, and this applies as much to the mind as to the body. You need to cultivate your sense of awareness. A calm, steady, but receptive mind is what is needed. Verse 15 describes the actions of somebody with this type of mind, the “ancient Masters”, whose wisdom was “profound and subtle”. They are sensitive and receptive to conditions, so they can act correctly. In fact, it’s almost as if they don’t act themselves, instead the “right action arises by itself”.

Here we see the philosophy of Wu Wei in action – literally it means “doing nothing”, but I like to think of it in the terms described in Verse 15 – it’s effortlessly doing the right thing at the right time. Essentially, you don’t do it, instead it does itself. It’s not about acting when the self-centred ego-mind tells you that you should (usually for its own gain) – it’s about having the “patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear”. The metaphor of a glass of muddy water is well used here. Once its stirred up it becomes cloudy and impossible to see through. However, by doing nothing and waiting for the mud to settle you will be able to see through it.

If you are “Shapable as a block of wood” then there’s no way you can be trying to impose your own will on the situation. Let your opponent shape you. Or, as I once heard it put, “Bow to their superiority, then show them who is boss!”

If can learn to take your ego-based desires out of the equation and learn to follow your opponent’s actions then correct action should arise naturally. When you can get that feeling into your push hands you’re really getting somewhere. This is indeed a lofty goal, but everything you need to do it is right here with you, right now, not off in some far away land of abstract thought. As the Treaste on Tai Chi Chuan goes on to say:

Most people mistakenly give up the near to seek the far.
It is said, “Missing it by a little will lead many miles astray.”
The practitioner must carefully study.
This is the Treatise

* The Tao Te Ching is one of the most translated of all Chinese texts, and there are hundreds of translations available. By far my favourite is the one by Stephen Mitchell that I link to here. You can also buy a wonderfully illustrated hardcover version from Amazon here. I’d recommend the hardback with illustrations.

Tao Te Ching, An Illustrated Journey

It should be noted that his translation is by no means a literal one. However, he explains himself very well in the forward:

“With great poetry, the freest translation is sometimes the most faithful. “We must try its effect as an English Poem,” Dr Johnson said; “that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation”. I have often been fairly literal – or as literal as one can be with such a subtle, kaleidoscopic book as the Tao Te Ching. But I have also paraphrased, expanded, contracted, interpreted, worked with the text, played with it, until it became embodied in a language that felt genuine to me. If I haven’t always translated Lao Tzu’s words, my intention has always been to translate his mind.”

You can compare his translation of verse 15 above with the James Legge version below, for example. I know which translation I prefer.

The skilful masters (of the Tao) in old times, with a subtle
and exquisite penetration, comprehended its mysteries, and were deep
(also) so as to elude men’s knowledge. As they were thus beyond men’s
knowledge, I will make an effort to describe of what sort they
appeared to be.

Shrinking looked they like those who wade through a stream in
winter; irresolute like those who are afraid of all around them; grave
like a guest (in awe of his host); evanescent like ice that is melting
away; unpretentious like wood that has not been fashioned into
anything; vacant like a valley, and dull like muddy water.

Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it
will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest?
Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.

They who preserve this method of the Tao do not wish to be full (of
themselves). It is through their not being full of themselves that
they can afford to seem worn and not appear new and complete.