USE YOUR MIND NOT FORCE
One of the most important achievements in the study of Taiji quan is ‘use mind not force’. This is such an important ingredient that it could be said that if you do not achieve this you are not doing Taiji quan at all. Outwardly this achievement shows itself in the calm demeanour and ease with which the highest level practitioners can divert, move or throw an opponent and exhibit extraordinary levels of control and hence a ‘martial understatement’ that seems as if Taiji quan is a martial art that is not a martial art!
This of course sounds ridiculous but most people who train to a high level, in the ‘Internal Arts” under high level teachers will have seen extraordinary (not mysterious) skills exercised against opponents with no apparent effort but with remarkable effects. Indeed the level of mastery can seem abstract in that it is often hard to discern specific techniques or definable ‘moves’ that are the cause behind the opponents defeat.
Typically most martial arts teach a set of movements, the essential vocabulary, and then a set of accompanying applications which are then trained repetitively as responses to particular types of attack situations. Body conditioning and the methods of applying speed and force to strike, kicks and throws are typically trained to a high level of competence. However in Taiji training emphasis is generally more on ‘hardwiring’ principle and qualities of action than training reflex responses, striking power or fixed responses to particular configurations of attack.
Taiji, does teach the technology of applying force but lays much more emphasis on the means by which force is applied. By this I mean that in conjunction with the practice of ‘Jin’ or “trained force”, the Taiji practitioner must achieve other more important qualities like, ‘stick, adhere, join and follow and do not resist, do not break away’. These are defining principles in Taiji martial strategy and methodology. To achieve them means to develop specific ‘energetic’ properties without which your Taiji may look a bit like Taiji but it wont be
The business of giving up ‘force’ is both an intellectual and physical problem since it is counter intuitive in a martial exchange. We naturally become tense, this is how we are programmed. However, in Taiji training, it is considered wrong to ‘win’ an exchange, if you have done it by force. This level of training is particularly difficult since it is hard to believe you can better an opponent without using superior strength. Superior technique however, may win over strength but to achieve a throw where you have used gross strength is still not high level Taij quan just as to meet force with resistance is not Taiji. Each example, and there are many more, transgress the essential principles of Taiji quan. This level of training is referred to as “Investing in Loss”, since you must give up conventional wisdom and typical body response before you can achieve the Taiji.
Staying within the principles of Taiji as you progress through your training is hard and often is counter intuitive. It can also seem, at least for quite a long time, as if Taiji quan has no real use as a martial art since the principles seem contrary to perceived martial wisdom. Perseverance furthers though and a good helping of ‘faith.” And of course a good teacher.
My teacher Master Li Liqun taught ‘skills’ and ‘technology’ but did not put much emphasis on typical ‘application’ training. He told me that his Master Ma Yueh Liang also taught in this way. Applications Master Li said are too restrictive and you can get stuck ‘in’ them. What is more important is to be able to interpret the incoming force and use the body principle of the 8 Gates and 5 stepping patterns to neutralize, redirect, expel or return the opponents force. Obviously there is a technology of both receiving and applying force here but it is controlled and targeted in a very specific way. The Taiji way does not rely upon physical ‘force’ or predetermined attack and defence strategies. Indeed one of the highest skills is the ability to continually and seemlesly (to the opponent) change between attack and defence, Yin and Yang, employing listening and interpreting skills. This is known as Zhuan Hua. Taiji quan attempts to achieve something on a very subtle level perhaps in the same way that Akido is more ‘subtle’ than Karate.
To achieve this I was taught that first you must train the body to give up force but to retain structural integrity in movement, then to harmonise the External and Internal by using the mind to police the structure, direct and control the outward, inward, rising, falling and rotational skills to fully understand and fully subdue the bodies habitual and intuitive tendencies. Then, to practice Tui Shou to understand how to retain that state whilst energy and intention is applied externally to you by a partner then, and only then to train apply the martial technology of the 8 Gates and 5 stepping strategies. Primary to achieving the skills of Taiji quan are the the principles of softness, being rounded, flexible, rooted and agile whilst responding to an attacking force. From this evolves the ability to ‘listen ’ to your opponent and then ‘interpret’ your partners force. It is at that point that Master Li said applications can take on the characteristics of Taiji quan.
These skills are more important than the simple study of martial applications since without them, you will not be able to apply martial applications according to the essential principles. Master Li always reminded me that to achieve this level of skill requires you to always use ‘mind, not force’. This maxim alone describes the very root of what Taiji quan is and most importantly how it should be practiced and the skills and technology developed.