Getting Out of the Way of Force
By Pat Gorman
Students of Professor Cheng and Yang Cheng-Fu’s tradition have endlessly heard this phrase. It sounds like a nice homily, but in working at the wall, push more often comes to shove, or at least to stolid resistance, depending on the degree of one’s rootedness.
As one of the people who worked in the early days with Patrick Watson (the founder and director of the School of Tai Chi Chuan), I was occasionally put in what was for me, a woman, a terrifying role: if an outsider came to challenge Patrick “to see what Patrick had” in the martial sense, he would often have to defeat me before Patrick would play Push Hands with him. Sometimes these events were carefully orchestrated meetings between heads of different schools, or occasionally we’ be working together in a classroom and someone – usually half crazy – would show up to challenge him. If Patrick turned to me and nodded, my mind would start racing and my breath immediately became shallow – how did I know I wasn’t going to get hurt or ignominiously defeated and not measure up to Patrick’s exacting standards? Engaging in martial arts with a stranger bent on defeating a mere woman can be quite frightening.
Since I began studying tai chi for its beauty, balance and its connection to the forces of nature, being told to engage with these visitors was distasteful. I hated to fail my teacher but I just wasn’t interested in the martial aspect of this art. My fear and resistance made no impression on Patrick. To him, tai chi encompassed all aspects of everything in life that needed doing. And right now, this needed doing.
I remember an occasion when the leading student of a Yang Style Chinese teacher in Southeast Asia was sent to our school to check out Patrick’s skill. Patrick informed him that he would have to play Push Hands with me first. Patrick whispered in my ear, “Get out of the way of force,” as if it was a secret I’d never heard before. And in a way, I never really had. He was saying, “This is it – the secret; just do this.”
The experience is etched in my memory: I remember how long and wiry were the limbs of the fellow I was about to engage with and I remember I should have taken a longer step when my back was against the wall. Fear flooded my body because I was about to make a fool of myself in front of my teacher and all our senior students. In this state of heightened awareness I remember our first moment of contact: I could feel him. . . he was a bit harder than me. Aha, I thought, my first break. To get of the way of force, I must at least feel him – so I must be softer, more yielding than him.
His hands were really “sticky,” staying with my every movement so that I could not escape him. So I needed to become as “sticky” as he was, adhering to every slight change. He was also very flexible and had a good “root”: his feet seemed immovable and stuck to the ground. His moves were sinewy and quick and he immediately noticed if I took the lead and tried to trap me. In response I tried to become more absorbent and soft, letting him lead and only following his moves. He was obviously a practiced competitor and this made me feel at quite a disadvantage: it seemed impossible to match or catch up in that moment with his much greater experience. Panic began to overtake me as I felt my energy rise and clench in my chest. The guy really wanted to get me – to slam me into the wall!
When I felt it couldn’t get any worse for me I remembered Patrick’s words about not being there – getting out of the way, like water as your hands sweep through it, adhering to and dissolving around the oncoming force. This experience taught me that each part of the body must be equally relaxed and responsive in each moment, not just rote responses like, “Well, he’s pushing on the left so I’ll just yield to the left.” Rather, I must be a centrally coordinated, rooted, responsive-all-over-receptor.
As we played, I perceived my partner as a sinewy mass of energy surrounded by lots of empty space into which he was leading me. But then I realized: I could move anywhere he was not. Suddenly I had more options because I had a great deal more room to move in. For a moment I was able to let go of the thought of winning or losing and instead stayed with tai chi principle.
As we continued I noticed a slight stiffness in his body. Although he was very willowy and yielded easily, this stiffness was like an arrow pointing to his defended, and therefore weaker, areas. If he had stayed more upright, and kept his connection between heaven and earth straighter, I would not have been able to push him several times, by going where he wasn’t – not directly attacking his defended areas, but guiding him off balance – without using any pressure. I was only able to do this because of my experience earlier of space being either full or empty. When we were finally done (and those minutes seemed like hours) my fear had dissolved into a peaceful internal state.
Patrick politely bid our visitor goodbye – much to his disappointment. “To get to me,” he’d told him, “you have to go through her – a teacher is only as good as his student.” So, our visitor never got to work directly with Patrick. Later Patrick began a whole new period of work with his senior students based on the flaws he’d seen in me during this encounter.
While I never relished being put on the spot in this way I see the value in being forced to take the principles of tai chi literally – to really get out of the way of force with the entire body. And on a higher level, to get out of the way of my own forceful thoughts which inhibit the seeing and experiencing of principle in action.