I’ve been a bit busy these days(months?), so my postings have been on a hiatus. But I would like to start regular postings again at least once a week, perhaps after my Sunday class when questions from students are still fresh in my mind. That’s the plan anyways . . .
Let me start with a rather odd and cryptic quote from Cheng Tzu’s Thirteen Treatises (p. 80):
“If the opponent’s ch’i originates from the ligaments and is normal, then it means he is defensive. If his ch’i is in the vessels, then you know he is concealing it, and it will change. If his ch’i is in his membranes and surges up to the surface, it means he is ready to attack. If his ch’i is in the diaphragm, he is gathering the ch’i and preparing to attack.”
This is a rather difficult passage to make sense of even if you believe ch’i exists (a whole other conversation). I don’t think Cheng was deliberately trying to be misleading, so perhaps I can try my best to interpret his meaning for the modern reader.
When practicing push hands it is often clear to me from the very first moment of contact what kind of person I am dealing with. The reaction to that first touch could be resisting, collapsing, stagnant, agitated, forceful, yielding, stiff etc. The best is to be precisely responsive to whatever energy your opponent gives you, even before contact is made. Yet, all of these adjectives could be descriptions of movement viewed from the outside, whereas Cheng is clearly talking about something going on internally apart from how the body appears to be moving. In push hands practice I have also noticed particular kinds of tensions which don’t give me foreknowledge about the direction of another’s intended movement but does tell me something about their disposition. In other words, whether they are on the defensive, collecting themselves in preparation to attack, or ready to attack at any moment. It’s not a direction of movement but something in their skin which give away what is going on deeper in the body.
These are things which really have to be felt over a long period of conscientious practice. But having Cheng’s words in the back of my mind all these years perhaps helped me to stay open to the possibilities of much more subtle types of sensitivity and responsiveness, so it is wise not to dismiss such strange passages out of hand.
Last thought for today: if one can be still without being stagnant and move without being dispersed, that is at least a foundation for tai chi practice.