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At some point a taijiquan student lets go of their preconceptions and just does what they are being told to do. They stop being awkward, arguing and over-analysing everything... And suddenly it works.
Freed from self-consciousness, the art emerges and the skill is just there. This is called 'tzu-jan'. It happened without being forced. Typically the student is sceptical; convinced that there's a trick.
They question their practice partner - leery of unwanted compliance. This is a normal response and quite reasonable. So, the situation is reproduced or the roles reversed. The same thing happens again.
Awe & wonder
When a taijiquan student discovers that they can reproduce an unexpected outcome repeatedly; in varying and unpredictable circumstances, their confidence grows. They seek to gain new power and skill.
Research on magic highlights that
we are not only wrong about the amount we see, but also about the extent to
which we can trust the things we see and remember. As we are learning more
about the mind, it has become apparent that most of our experiences are an
illusion. Of all of these illusions its the illusion of free will that I
find most unsettling.
When a new student begins to learn taijiquan they are not allowed to use muscular tension. The muscles must remain relaxed at all times. The importance of optimal alignment is emphasised.
Over-reaching, sweating, exertion and force are all rejected. This is bewildering for the student. They feel lost and confused. This is a good starting place.
Cup is full
There is an over-used Asian example whereby a teacher pours tea into the student's cup until it spills over. The student urgently tells the teacher to stop pouring.
The teacher explains that the student's mind is like the cup; it is already full of ideas and preconceptions. Until they empty out what they already think, no new knowledge can be comprehended.
The magical skills of taijiquan are not common in modern society. The reason for this is simple. People are quick to dismiss biomechanical and mind skills in favour of qi. Qi is a quick and lazy answer.
It requires no deeper explanation. It is akin to a conclusion.
Rather than conclude that a mystical force lies at the root of taijiquan skill, why not read the Classics rigorously? Taijiquan. Taoist. Martial principles. Anatomy. Psychology. Learn how things work.
It will not yield all the answers, but is far more rational than just saying "qi".
We like the feeling of being in charge of our thoughts and actions, and
abandoning our sense of free will feels rather uncomfortable. However,
magicians have developed powerful ways of manipulating your thoughts, and
they can influence many of the choices you make. For example, the magician
may ask you to choose a card from a deck of playing cards, and while you
feel you have an entirely free choice, the magician made you choose one
particular card. This is known as forcing and is a principle by which
magicians covertly guide you towards a predetermined choice.
Words have severe limitations. Not everything will fit the form of words. Can you explain the colour red to a blind person? The taste of a dosa pancake to somebody who has never eaten one?
What love feels like? An orgasm? When an expert (in any field of study) shows a spontaneous demonstration of skill, they are drawing upon experience and abilities that are largely intuitive.
The skill comes from the subconscious mind.
Even if the expert patiently breaks down their performance afterwards; step-by-step, their explanation will be inaccurate because in truth they don't fully understand what they did. They just did it.
In taijiquan you need to become exceptionally sensitive. You need to be capable of 'listening' to what is happening. You need to adapt, change and improvise again and again and again.
Our drills cultivate these skills. If they did not, what purpose would they serve? As you become increasingly competent, you are less and less able to explain just how you defended yourself.
You just did it and it worked. This is tzu-jan.
The I Ching teaches us that events, people and circumstances coalesce to create 'the moment'. In order to get the most benefit, we have to align ourselves perfectly with what is taking place.
This is 'wu wei'. Not forcing. The challenge facing us is that the moment is instantaneous, unique and not reproducible. It continually changes. In order to deal with this, we must flow.
That is why we learn to listen, to feel, to be sticky, to follow. Thinking won't help at all.
A taijiquan student will never be asked to wear a top hat, a leotard or to pull a rabbit out of a hat. But you will get to do some pretty amazing things. And no tricks or fooling people.
There are some incredible abilities in the syllabus. Arcane skills. And you can learn them all. But they are not magical. They are the product of patience, practice and persistence.
But first, you must work on freeing your mind.
Our class is like Alexander the Great teaching Dad's Army. Sifu Waller's not even trying. It's unbelievably powerful and looks like nothing. It's beyond impressive. I think it's the ease and speed at which Sifu Waller does it. It's like a magician with a sleight of hand but obviously with potentially deadly consequences. It's amazing to watch and utterly awe inspiring. Sifu Waller is incredibly quick sometimes it's impossible to get your head around it. The more I get into this, the more I realise how lucky we are as a class. Most people could look their whole lives and never find anything close. I find the class to be very empowering.
Experiencing the Impossible by Gustav Kuhn
Heightened level of awareness
Myths & magic
The Way and Its Power
18 April 2005
Last updated 13 December 2019