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So What Is Push Hands?

Some years ago as an experiment, six psychiatrists were asked to examine a patient and give a diagnosis.  They gave six different diagnoses.  I mention this only in its similarity to what would happen if you asked six Tai Chi teachers 'What is Push Hands?'  The difference might be that you would get more than six different answers in the struggle to classify as evasive a subject as Push Hands.  I am more sanguine about the difficulties these days and tickled by the irony that the subject itself is as difficult to pin down as someone who is good at Push Hands.  Perhaps that is the way it is meant to be.

If truth be told, any answer given is more informative in allowing us an insight into the respondent, rather than in defining Push Hands itself.  In pursuing the subtleties of an art like Push Hands we are restricted by the template we impose on it in order to understand it.  Ironically, the more we try to understand it, the narrower will be our conception of it.  In practice our view is heavily influenced by our experience and expectations.

Bearing in mind the above, I am outlining here my personal view derived from studying with several teachers but also from what I instinctively feel is right for me. 

I am not concerned to convert people to my point of view but to express it as a valid viewpoint among several which may be posited in the Tai Chi community.  Nor do I want to stray into realms of the glib, offering ill-advised counsel to those suffering or in pain.  However, in writing about Push Hands, we tread a line between saying something which is sincere and useful and preaching the gibberish of false hope to those in anguish.

So, what is Push Hands?

Put simply, it is an exercise where two people try to disrupt the balance of their partner, while at the same time not succumbing to the attempts of the other to do likewise to them.  Here ends agreement on the subject so what follows will inevitably be controversial.

>The main grounds for disagreement centre around whether push hands should be a cooperative exercise or competitive; martial or self-developmental; practised with minimum use of physical strength or the intelligent use of strength; a spiritual exercise or strictly secular.

My view is that Push Hands should be cooperative to the extent that our fragile egos can tolerate losing to those who we perceive to be our 'inferiors.'  We try not to use more than a little bit of force (four ounces is the often quoted maximum, although Dr. Chi Chiang-tao recommended an ounce) to stay balanced in the face of even strong pushes and, when the incoming force has been neutralised, we push using the energy known as chin (also written jin or jing.) rather than purely muscular strength.  The goal is not necessarily to be good at pushing and not being pushed (although that would be nice as well), but to learn something else from the practice.

Cheng Man-ching has been quoted as saying: 'The form teaches us about ourselves, Push Hands teaches us about others.'  This suggests to me that the value of Push Hands goes far beyond the confines of the genteel Tai Chi studio or the competition arena.

I believe it offers us instruction in maintaining peace of mind and happiness, clarity of perception and the ability to act effectively even in the midst of difficult conditions.

Quite often the fruits of equanimity and happiness are thought to come from without in the form of achievements and acquisitions, but a story by Anthony DeMello concerning a rickshaw ride he took in India suggests something else.  The wallah pulling the rickshaw was a man, who was not only terminally ill, but so poor that he still had to work and had already sold his skeleton.

That degree of poverty was nothing new to DeMello, a Jesuit priest living in India.  What was surprising, however, was the happiness of the wallah in spite of his lot.  He was a man not at the mercy of circumstances.  How he became that way is not related by DeMello, but I believe that push hands can lead us to a similar attitude, where we do not allow ourselves to be caught in the negativity surrounding the threat, insult or calamity which may befall us periodically.

Bear in mind this is not a negation of reality.  It is not the same as affirming that 'Everything happens for a reason!'  'It's all good, right!' or 'This is a learning opportunity!'  It is, rather, a keen observation of what is happening and a realisation that the sharp sting of Yang energy is neither good nor bad, and can be neutralised and deflected.  This is not an avoiding strategy, but a facing up to our pain and fear, even if they cannot be removed, without letting them turn us into their victim.

It is a premise of this point of view that our natural state is, in fact, happiness- but we allow circumstances to cause our dis-ease with life; further, that this dis-ease can be ameliorated, even if change of circumstances is not possible.  There is common ground here with cognitive approaches to dealing with fear and doubt, but Push Hands offers a physical method of understanding our problems in terms of Yin and Yang energy which enables us to apply that knowledge to any problem, since all problems are in effect yin/yang exchanges.  Push Hands applies as much to fighting as to building a loving relationship, the difference is only in adapting the principle to the situation.

Although attention should be paid to the important work of practising yielding and neutralising, we must not forget that we are beings of action and must, therefore, be able to use our own yang energy when in a position to do so.  As a former teacher of mine said, 'It took me a long time to realise that Tai Chi is not a Yin art; it is a Yin and Yang art.'

This is important because so many decent, sensitive people come to Tai Chi hoping to find a way to avoid confrontation.  They are empathetic enough to feel the discomfort in those they find themselves having to discipline, supervise or contend with everyday of their lives.  They know they are not good at confrontation and look for a way out.

A way out is not possible, however, as we all have to act and risk getting it wrong or making things worse.  Jesuit priest, Anthony DeMello, who was a great collector of parables from all traditions, tells of the monkey sitting in a tree plucking a fish from the river below and placing it high in the tree to save it from drowning, an action with good intentions but disastrous consequences. The skill in action lies in the ability to act with sensitivity to our surroundings and not force solutions based on our own prejudice or impatience. 

How do we develop this skill?  How do we avoid, in our 'push,' the negative effects of imposing our view and hence our will on the situation?  How do we physically push another person without initiating bad feeling by our 'victory'?

Even assuming we can do this in the relatively controlled environment of the Push Hands hall, how do we extend this principle to dealing with an employee, or lover, or child, or even a mugger?  How do we stand up for ourselves without violating the principle?  To misquote Raymond Chandler 'How does a man walk down these mean streets without resorting to becoming mean himself?'

In my yet immature understanding of the lessons Push Hands has to offer I nevertheless notice the difference in me when my push is 'personal,' in contrast to when it is artless.  The artless push - which is anything but art-less, is powerful, I surmise, because it has less ego in it i.e. less of me in it and more of the Tao about it:  It is not quite that they push themselves, but it is not quite that I push them either.

A former teacher told me of pushing with Dr. Chi Chiang-tao who, despite being considerably smaller, older and physically weaker, still managed him with ease.  The lasting impression was not one of being 'pushed' but a feeling of being 'wrapped in the mind,' of Dr. Chi.  My impression is that a good push does not taste of wilful force winning the day.

So the question becomes, how do we push 'without pushing'?  A clue, I think, is to be found in a saying of my former Aikido teacher, Sensei Coyle, who summed up the matter with his customary eloquence when he said, 'Only throw someone who is already falling.'  In other words once led to the consequences of our own imbalance, the push is only a confirmation of the natural order of things. We sail through the air, knowing that we are borne not on another's egoistic intention but upon an organic process of which we are part. 

Clearly I do not believe that winning and losing is the only factor under consideration when we talk about Push Hands.  The ability '....to meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat these two impostors the same,' (Kipling) is equally, if not more important.  To become defined by our wins and losses is to be held hostage by these impostors and never be free or happy.  As a captive of circumstances we are in danger of believing that life is mostly about 'having' or 'winning'.  Yet, ultimately, we can choose to invest what 'we are' or what 'we have'.  I would suggest that Push Hands gives us the opportunity to study the interplay of these two perspectives and endeavour 'to have' and 'to be' in balance.

Indeed, if the question was 'What is Push Hands all about?', we could simply answer - Balance.

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