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Beginners spend ages training various 'sensitivity exercises' only to go to pieces when faced with actual combat. Their lack of composure ruins everything.
Typically, the student pretends to be calm but tenses up.


Combat training must address composure and fear. Unless fear is understood, you will never have the opportunity to use your sensitivity skills.
Most students do not remain calm when assaulted. They tense up and become external. The tai chi is forgotten.


Of all the sensitivity skills, 'listening' is the most important. And perhaps the least understood. Listening pertains to tai chi, self defence and everyday life.
It is about being present, being receptive to what is happening in the moment.

Being present

This may sound quite straightforward, but people are very self-absorbed. They do not really listen. Instead of paying attention, they talk. Their awareness is selective.
Impatience, selfishness and greed make people restless and bored.


Listening takes composure. You need to be quiet inside. Patient. Receptive. Open. Flexible.

Awareness is like living with a snake in the room;
you watch its every movement,
you are very, very sensitive to the slightest sound it makes.


Sensitivity drills

Tai chi sensitivity drills train the nervous system to accurately determine what the opponent is doing. The information is received through the body (via touch) and from the eyes (peripheral vision).
All data is processed by the brain.

Empty mind

The skill of 'listening' is unconscious. You do not think. You do not concentrate. You have a 'sense' of what is happening and you respond accordingly.

Wrong path

Unfortunately, many sensitivity drills are trained incorrectly. The onus is on the wrong thing. Instead of cultivating softness and re-educating the nervous system, the drills are often about winning.
This is a mistake.

Pushing hands experts

Exercises such as 'pushing hands' must be seen in the wider context of the tai chi. They are not an end in themselves.
They are a learning tool for teaching skills that must eventually be utilised in combat.
Some exponents seek to be pushing hands experts, which is absurd. It is like becoming an expert at 'indicating' when driving a car. Everything you learn in tai chi only has meaning in the context of combat.


Unless you become soft and receptive, you will not cultivate any meaningful sensitivity. Your ability to listen will be poor.
You will miss opportunities 1-5, and maybe catch number 6, believing it to be the first.

4 ounces

The solution to this is to slow down and exert only 4 ounces of pressure (at all times). Muscular tension, aggression, fear and force will hold you back.
Awareness, softness and yielding offer the path to sensitivity, but the real source of listening is your mind. Unless you open yourself up to your opponent, you will never hear them.

Your body

Beginners do not 'listen' to their own body. They ignore range, commitment and discomfort. People adopt physically painful stances because somebody else tells them to.
You need to be smarter than that.

Beyond ego

Biofeedback, proprioception, kinaesthetic awareness - these things are missed by most tai chi people. They are too concerned with posing.


Most students are unforgivably tense and totally unaware of the fact. They actually consider themselves to be 'relaxed'. By whose standard?

Don't tense-up

When touched, the student immediately responds by tensing up. That is fear. Remember: tension is used in karate. It is not tai chi.

We don't often consider that the actual ways in which we assimilate what is presented to us have a tremendous impact on our progress. How we learn in the dojo is at least as important as what we learn.

(Dave Lowry) 

Your opponent

In terms of listening, your opponent(s) is everything. Without them, you would have nobody to evade. There would be no need for combat.
You must become a shadow, echoing your attacker, exquisitely sensitive to their every movement. The aim is to move as one.


This takes you into the realm of meditation. Unless you are present, you will not see/feel what is happening right in front of you.


Listening skill is far more than pushing hands. If you cannot put the listening skill into actual combat and use it effectively, why bother training it at all?

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023