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What is panic?

Panic is an adverse emotional reaction to unexpected events. Instead of going with the flow of what is happening, the mind begins racing and composure is lost. People react in different ways:

  1. Thinking

  2. Emotional upset

  3. Freezing

  4. Tensing-up the muscles

None of these reactions are considered to be constructive in tai chi.

The limitations of thought

Thinking reflects the mind's need to anticipate and control the outcome of unfolding events.
It is an attempt to reassert the illusion of control now that reality has become apparent and your ideas have crumbled. The menu is not the food. Words and thoughts cannot contain the actual.


A Taoist accepts that reality is too complex and convoluted to be controlled.
They treat everything as temporary and provisional, and never hesitate to let go and step back when events take an adverse turn.
Instead of plotting, scheming and planning, they move smoothly onwards, following the rhythm of what is happening rather than seeking to manipulate it.


In a real-life combat situation, thinking is death. Your opponent will not wait for you to make your mind up.
When in class, if you feel the need to gather your wits during a drill, then you are out of your depth.
You need to practice simpler partnered exercises that offer a less sophisticated challenge. In time, you can return to more advanced situations, but in the short-term you need to calm the mind.

Not fit enough

Typically, students who panic and start thinking are the ones who do not practice standing qigong daily and fail to read the Tao/Zen literature regularly.

Look at misfortune the same way you look at success.

Don't panic! Do your best and forget the consequences.

(Walt Alston)


Our bodies experience a wide range of physiological responses to an event. This process is what we call 'emotion'.  Allowing emotions to become manifest and sustained is a serious folly in the martial arts.


Emotional upset can reflect either crying or aggression. Both represent a total loss of composure.
When the emotions overwhelm you, your ability to interpret information rationally and respond skilfully vanishes. You become careless, stupid and vulnerable.
There must be absolutely no tensing, flinching, panicking or aggression in tai chi.


At all times, you must maintain composure. Without it, you are not capable of yielding. During
partner work you need to be detached. Dispassionate. Indifferent. Do not make it personal.


Sifu Waller offers melee scenarios in which randomness is optimised and the unpredictability of events defies control.
Instead of fighting to maintain order, you must compose yourself and go with what is happening. When a person freezes, they cannot yield.

Resisting the flow

Only the most inexperienced members of a tai chi class tense their muscles. Whole-body strength removes the need to do this; tensing is a vestigial reaction, a throwback to the use of external strength.
Tensing is an attempt to block the kinetic energy flow and deny the attacker their ability to move. Yet, there are no blocks in tai chi. You never attempt to stop the flow.
When somebody persists in using tension, it reflects an underlying fear, an inadequacy. They are yet to understand tai chi or the physics involved, and consequently have no faith in the material.


If a student has practiced diligently and pressure-tested the tai chi, they know that it can and does work.
They rely upon whole-body strength and remain composed. When incoming force is applied, they yield. No other choice would cross their mind. You cannot express energy (jing) with tensed muscles.

Don't panic

Beginners who panic make life difficult for themselves. They are inconsiderate, careless and difficult to work with. They lack experience but are too impatient to go slowly.
Panicking is the worst thing you can do. Be calm. Be patient. Be gentle. Be soft. When something occurs, move with it. Be receptive and open.

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023