The Keynote speech in 2017 World Shenlong Day Conference by Stephen Frost: Shenlong Australia
This article is about why we need to totally eliminate any form of physical, emotional and mental tension to activate the fajing process. It is about the moments just before and at the time fajing happens. What happens after that (i.e. the follow through) is not the topic of this article.
To go down the rabbit hole means to enter into a situation or begin a process or journey that is particularly strange, problematic, difficult, complex, or chaotic, especially one that becomes increasingly so as it develops or unfolds. After this, there is no turning back. (An allusion to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.)
In the cult movie The Matrix, the main character (Neo) is invited to take either a blue pill or a red pill. If he takes the blue pill—the story ends, and he wakes up in his bed and continues to believe whatever he wants to believe. If he takes the red pill—he will stay in Wonderland, and he will be shown just how deep the rabbit hole goes. The person offering the choice reminds him that all he is offering is the truth.
So strap on your seatbelts – suspend your disbelief for a while – use your imagination and intuitive mind and join me on a wild ride down the rabbit hole, where everything may seem like a contradiction or a challenge to your internal map of reality as you currently know it.
I’m using research material for my presentation which is based on the English texts of our Master Wu and his teacher Professor Cheng Man Ching. The other source is from Scott Meredith who is from the Cheng lineage. Meredith writes on Taiji and presents a radically challenging perspective on Taiji as first and foremost an energetic art. I’m hoping that it will facilitate debate and challenge us to think deeply about this art that we all love so much.
In Master Wu’s book The Application of Tai Chi Philosophy he states “Tai Chi can be anything and encompassing everything or nothing at all. The concept is so old that determining when or how it began is impossible. Thus, most efforts in interpreting Tai Chi for our modern understanding have ended in failure. This is because Tai Chi is something eccentric, spiritual; and yet unyielding in nature. So by insisting on naming it as something, it may end up as nothing. Confusing? Welcome to Tai Chi.” Or, if I may be so bold to reinterpret Master’s words – welcome to the rabbit hole!
He once told me that you could substitute Taiji with the western philosophy term of Metaphysics, which is the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time and space. Master Wu was above all interested in the practical application of Taiji. His understanding of Taiji was very deep, but he loved simplicity and practicality. For example, in interpreting the meaning of Taiji, he said many sages and scholars have studied this over thousands of years and every one of them had his good points and bad points. Master Wu said his personal view was that “Tai Chi is Tai Chi and there is no need to explain any further. It is just like the sky is the sky and the earth is the earth and me is myself”.
When given an opportunity to present or write a paper I try my best to contribute something meaningful and helpful that has been grounded and comes out of my own experience. I thought long and hard about giving this presentation, because I’m illustrating my talk using other peoples’ viewpoint. This is deliberate, as I think sometimes it is helpful to step outside the box and see something from a different viewpoint. This is what you do in critical analysis and it is something that Master Wu frequently challenged me to do. He said that it was a very good discipline to take something very familiar to you and step aside from your own personal perspective and see it from someone else’s.
My particular interest in Taiji has always been on the energetic internal side of the art. It was what drew me to it in the first instance. It was what drew me to Master Wu when I first met him in Sydney way back in 1986.
Even though my interest is in the full art of Taiji, given my particular circumstances, I have not had the opportunity to have daily hands-on practice with a partner to fully develop some of the skills in this area. However, I have diligently applied myself to the internal aspects of Taiji. I recall the first time I had the opportunity to speak to Master Wu. It was at his home in Sydney during the late 1980s.
I recall that conversation as if it were yesterday. I had not yet become his student, but was very interested in what he had to say. I was at a crossroad in my martial arts journey. I had already been doing many different kinds of Chinese martial arts over the previous 25 years; however, I had not yet experienced the real feeling of qi. I said I was ashamed of my progress in this area given how long I had been practising. Master Wu was very kind and said that I was being too hard on myself and I should not compare myself with him. We both had led very different lives and had very different opportunities and experiences. I asked if he would teach me his Taiji and to my great joy he said yes.
I’m telling you this personal story to illustrate my original reason for wanting to learn Taiji. It was to learn how to feel my qi for real. So, for the last 30 years now, I have always had this as my primary Taiji goal.
What is Qi?
During the 1950s in the US there was a famous TV quiz show called the $64,000 Question. The term, “that’s the $64,000 question", became a common catchphrase for a particularly difficult question or problem. So, what is qi – well, that’s the $64,000 question isn’t it! I have naturally been interested in this question myself, but strange as it may seem, I have not spent too much time trying to define exactly what qi is. Once you go down this particular rabbit hole it gets very complex, very quickly – it gets convoluted and even contradictory. No – my interest has always been the experience and feeling of the qi as a real, tangible and non-imagined experience.
At this stage in my journey, I prefer to call qi – internal energy – as this is closer to my experience and it avoids all the connotations and cultural overlays that people place on it. As a concept, it gives me a workable framework for my daily practice. Master Wu once said that I should practise more and let my feeling-awareness and experience inform my understanding of internal energy. In other words: one percent theory and 99 percent doing.
The Etheric Body
In The Complete Song of Tai Chi Chuan and its Application it states
“The body is like a cloud full of Qi…”
The etheric body or energy body is a term taken from esoteric philosophy. In esoteric literature the Etheric Body is a non-physical body that is made of internal non-physical energy, but importantly, co-located with the physical body – overlaying it like a suit of clothes. It also permeates inside our body and extends outside of it. Outside the body it can be felt like a close fitting energy layer. The etheric body is so closely connected to our physical bodies that when we pass away the etheric body does not survive. It reminds me that Master Wu said that where there is no qi, there is no life.
Most people are not aware of the etheric body, because the sensations and feelings of the physical body are so strong that they overwhelm the more subtle energy body. We have spent a whole lifetime using our physical bodies. We rely on it to move us through life and survive each day. All this focus on our physicality automatically brings tension – physical, emotional and mental. This tension virtually locks and paralyses the etheric body.
One of the great benefits of daily Taiji practice – if done correctly – is helping to release and unlock the etheric body. By letting go of all conscious and unconscious tension we give the etheric body a chance to come to the fore so that we can distinguish it from our physical body.
Taiji practice also helps us to feel our partner’s energy through our sensitive Taiji feeling and touch. Master Wu said that we first connect with a partner through touch using our tingjing. Later we connect through qi, but later still using Shen. Therefore, we should be aiming to work with the etheric, or energy body more so than the physical body, but more on that later.
Tension and Relaxation
Why is it important to strictly adhere to the principle of achieving maximum relaxation in every moment of your Taiji practice?
Meredith says it’s because the development of the “Taiji energy depends on getting physical tension out of the way.”
“Muscular force and tension can be useful in daily life tasks. You need muscular force to move a piano. The point is not that tension and the ordinary use of muscles are somehow evil. The problem is that for most people, mind and muscular tension are inextricably bound together.”
“The broadest lesson of Taiji for daily life is learning to use tension only and exactly when you need it – for moving the piano – but being quick to drop it at will.”
“When it comes to Taiji, whether doing the form or push hands (or fajing), you never need it.”
“The work of Taiji is not so much to eliminate tension completely from your life as it is to help you understand it. We must learn to stop it whenever we need to tap into the universal energy flow.”
“But for most of us, where the mind goes, the physical tension comes along too, as a stowaway.”
“As you advance in Taiji work, the internal power will be connected and directed by the mind alone, not the muscular force.”
“The work of Taiji is to separate mind from the physical tension, so that the internal power has a fighting chance to creep in.”
Professor Cheng was once asked if it wouldn’t it be easier to become an alcoholic as a means of relaxing the body. The Professor said “True enough, a drunk’s inhibitions are released, his muscle tone depressed, and his body relaxed … (however) a drunk forfeits his mind-intention and is thus at the mercy of circumstances. In Taiji, on the other hand, we relax but keep an active comprehending mind”.
Meredith says: “Certain conditions are naturally physically relaxed, such as being asleep, unconscious, or drunk. That’s genuine physical relaxation, but we could also use the word collapsed – with its negative connotation – for those kinds of states. The difference between relaxed and collapsed is that in collapse the mind is missing.”
“For most people, as soon as the mind is re-introduced, physical tension comes along for the ride. So we bounce between two undesirable poles: collapsed vs. tensed, blasting straight past the ideal state of relaxed every time.”
Don’t confuse the uniqueness of Taiji with anything else. As Master Wu said, let Taiji be Taiji.
As you progress, you may be feeling the first stirrings of your internal energy. This is a crucial stage in your Taiji development, but many think that this is it – that they have it. However, this is the time to be even more dedicated to resolving all tension in your body – even the deep unconscious tension that we all have built up over our lives.
Feeling your internal energy is not enough. If you are not relaxed you may still feel your qi, but will have a hard time mobilising it functionally. You may feel relaxed inside, but because you haven’t resolved the deep internal tension, someone with a sensitive Taiji touch will be able to feel it, connect to it, and take advantage of it.
No other art will be able to resolve this kind of tension – as Meredith says,
“Only correct practice of Taiji will take you all the way down the rabbit hole”
The cornerstone of Taiji is, in a word relax. Yang Chengfu said it. The Taiji classic writings say it. Cheng Man Ching said it and so did our Master Wu, so we would do well to pay close attention to it as well.
Why we hold on to Tension
To be dedicated to ultimate relaxation is tedious and difficult, therefore, many people ignore it.
Meredith says: “Even hardcore Taiji people are sometimes more into proper structure and alignment and other mechanical stuff – anything rather than address the basic issue: the need to relax.”
“Taiji does have an inventory of distinctive postures, structures if you will. But there’s a certain knack to doing them without overdoing them.”
Part of the problem is that everybody wants to look good. That desire induces tension.
Taiji doesn’t look like much, although it does have a kind of natural elegance about it.
Meredith says: “The postures should be recognisable and have a bit of spirit to them. But, fundamentally the goal really isn’t to achieve any particular structure beyond minimally keeping the body upright. Doing much more than that is adding stuff, building up something …”
I once naively asked Master Wu what was the fastest way to learn Taiji. He laughed and said don’t add anything just do what I say. He told me that there was a common Chinese proverb that said “don’t paint legs on a snake”, they shouldn’t be there!
Master Wu was fond of saying that Taiji is easy, learning English is HARD! So don’t make Taiji hard by adding things that are not there.
Meredith says: “The goal is more to strip away all the tension, which would leave you without structure, like water.”
“It’s a difficult point to appreciate, because people love tension, structure, and forward-focussed aggression. Anything else feels weak and unsafe – even psychologically threatening. It’s a human thing. Taiji is rowing against the genetic tide on this point.”
Now, even if you develop your internal energy to a high level, if you retain tension in your body a Taiji master will be able to detect it and use it when he applies fajing and you will be easily uprooted. So, as all the great masters have said before us, we must relax, relax, and then relax again. It is the doorway to the application of Taiji.
So, let’s talk about structure!
Meredith puts it this way: “The only thing you need from physical structure and posture is something negative: at least, it must not engender tension. Real Taiji is energetic, not physical, postural or anatomical”.
I like his analogy using electricity: “Taiji’s power is not more physically structured than is electricity. Once you plug one end of an extension cord into your wall outlet and the other end to your electric chainsaw, it doesn’t matter whether that orange extension cord is coiled or straight. Your saw will grind just as well either way, because electrical power, for practical purposes, isn’t structural or material. It’s energetic, and it flows fine regardless of the wire’s shape, as long as there’s no impedance of short circuit (those would be analogous to physical tension in the Taiji space). This all comes from correct form practice. So you need a form that not so much fusses about ‘correct structure’, but one that gets out of your way: one that at the very least doesn’t encourage you to tense up.”
Always think Water
Master Wu often said to me that we should think of our bodies as if they were water with our skin being like a thick rubber skin holding the water inside. We should imagine that our bodies have no bones or tendons, ligaments or muscles. Perhaps because I worked in the water industry, he would often talk to me using water as an analogy for Taiji. It works for me!
Meredith says: “Water has a molecular structure, and spontaneous kinetic structure, but it isn’t a Lego set. It has no mechanical structure. Water is a heap of molecular looseness that transmits energy flow. And for Taiji purposes, that’s all the human body is. Understand that our body is just a pile of cells, no one type any better that another. It’s the same as a water-filled heavy bag in a boxing gym. What matters for Taiji is not the cells’ functional arrangement but their energy conduction properties. The beginning student of Taiji needs a dose of physical structure teaching to get him going. That is provided by proper Taiji form practice.”
The Positive Side of Structure
The Taiji forms are the structure we work with to mobilise the internal energy. The forms and postures are the minimum structure allowed and they serve an important function:
Structure keeps our mind in the game
The structure of the forms and the postures give our mind something to hang on to. Otherwise our mind would be all over the place; out of control and not focussing on the task at hand.
Meredith says: “The postures are essential because our target is relaxation with mind. If we relax by sitting down or lying down, our mind will quickly go AWOL on us. That little bit of Taiji standing structure helps nail the mind’s feet to the floor.”
“In real Taiji, we do use our mind, but we use it to soften everything inside. Softening is de-structuring and de-linking all those physical innards so they are left connected by energy alone.”
“Strangely, the more softened and de-linked physically you get, the more hardened and connected energetically you’ll be. It’s weird, it’s counter-intuitive, but that’s just how it is. Only physical softening and de-linking can produce the ultimate Taiji power stream.”
There is only one goal: to relax with mind.
“The minimal structure of a good Taiji posture is solely geared to that end. Once you’ve relaxed enough to trigger the internal power flow-through, you’re good to go.
“Then your energy can take on any shape at will, like water, and physical structure won’t matter in the least.”
Master Wu once said to me that, as a beginner, our forms are probably 99% external. However, as you progress they will become more and more internal. There is a tipping point in this equation when you get to the point where …
The alignment doesn’t create the energy – the energy creates the alignment.
“Instead of needing to create the perfect alignment within your body to attract the higher energies, the energies sculpt your body to suit themselves.”
So, the test, according to Meredith, that we always need to apply to our Taiji practice is:
“Does it (our Taiji practice) foster the total elimination of all physical tension whatsoever, consistent with the requirement to remain upright? Does it promote the absolute permeation and projection of relaxed aware mind into every single cell of the body? Does it shun attention to itself as a theatrical display?”
Master Wu said:
The visible and physical part of the art is not the art.
Meredith says: “Total focus on obsession with physical structure as the be-all-and-end-all of Taiji practice is not what the focus should be. The real energy-centric Taiji method is an absolutely specific mode of practice. It’s quite rigorous. In fact, it’s a crucible. You start with a firm foundation of basic classical posture practice. There are a few physical foundation points for beginners – Yes, those rudiments are physical. But with that once in place, the rest of the work and the results are purely energetic.”
The Taiji Form
This doesn’t mean that we neglect our Form. We need our body to express and deploy our internal energy. However, Taiji Form as taught to us by Master Wu is optimised to enable complete relaxation while still maintaining proper form. The more we can relax in our form, the more we will be able to connect to the internal.
Our Taiji 37 forms are linked in a series of movements and are a central part of the practised art of Taiji. The Form is a primary vehicle and central to our training and is crucial to the development and use of our internal energy.
The 37 Forms are the genius of the late Professor Cheng who used the Yang Family forms and added the Tso Family neigong into them. Our own Master Wu then spent 50 years of his life in refining and developing this system that was passed on to him. So clearly, the Taiji form has a central place in our practice, but we should never forget that our Taiji is primarily an internal art.
There is a saying in Taiji: It’s all in the form
However, it’s only all in the form – if it’s all in the form. In other words for the form to be complete it must be practised in a way that fully expresses both the internal and external requirements. If it is performed correctly, then it is something very unique and precious that will yield the massive benefits and results promised by the great Taiji masters of the past and written about in the classic writings.
If you focus only on either the external or the internal you will not receive that full benefit that the art can offer.
The purpose of the form is to allow the mind to fully express the internal energy through the body in a way that no other Qigong, meditation, or esoteric art can do. The art is unique because of the principles under which it operates. Remember that Master Wu said Taiji is Taiji.
Taiji works in a way that the mind-intention
fully permeates the body with the internal energy.
For many years, I was stuck in the physical obsession with structure – always trying to find the right structure and perfect posture. However, it was Master Wu that pointed out to me that, at a certain point, obsessively holding onto the structure as the be-all and end-all was limiting the natural expression of my internal energy. He said that not many people would be able to find too much wrong with my external Taiji Form, but my internal energy was broken and not connected on the inside. He said nature is not perfect so we should not try to be either.
He added, that if we follow the principles and make a diligent and daily effort to apply them in our practice then our internal energy will naturally flourish and manifest when it is ready.
Meredith says: “The form is a finely honed machine with only one purpose – to help you understand relaxation and thereby establish the energy path/connection. Always remember that real Taiji is the art of energy cultivation and deployment. Though the physical body is employed, the true skill is not mechanical, not structural, not anatomical, not angular or momentum-based or any of that crude physical/structural stuff.”
“Real Taiji power is completely invisible and is triggered and propagated by the mind alone, not by any kind of physical snap whatsoever.”
How to relax and release tension
Master Wu said that if you have to think to relax, then you aren’t really relaxed.
He said that relaxation in Taiji is a life-long process. A beginner is so physically tense that you can often actually see the tension reflected in their movements and postures. However, as one advances then it may not be so easily observed. It then becomes a relative concept and only the person can describe how relaxed they are by comparing to some other time in the past. However, this tension can be detected through touch e.g. in push hands. Push hands is a valuable diagnostic tool, which provides feedback in a way that no other drill can provide. This is the value of push hands practice. It gives us feedback on our own tension and that of our partner.
In Professor Cheng’s book on Taiji there is a question and answer section. A student asked the professor why none of his pupils had been able to reach his level of mastery. The student asked what the secret was. Grandmaster Yang said “there is a secret, but it is so simple as to be unbelievable! Its nature insists that you believe; that you have faith; otherwise you will fail. The secret is simply this:”
You must relax your body and mind totally
He added that he achieved success because he pushed all pride aside and believed his master’s words! I relaxed my body and stilled my mind so that only qi, flowing at the command of my mind, remained. He said “My students either do not believe in this path or, if they do, they do not pursue it eagerly enough”!
Master Wu echoes his teacher in saying that it is a matter of belief or faith. He said that in Taiji you have believe (it) before you will feel the internal energy. Conventional wisdom usually has this maxim the other way around – I won’t believe it, until I feel it!
Meredith says: “It’s mental, that’s all. It’s not that hard, but you have to take it seriously. Most students don’t. Try starting your Taiji form and then stopping a few moves into it. Now check yourself. Are you really relaxed? Is every part, every muscle and tissue, that isn’t essential to holding you upright soft as tofu?”
In a previous article I have written about the mental side of tension in my series of papers on the mind and body connection. I described one particular kind of mental tension that is reflected in the body called psychic body armour. This kind of tension is psychologically based and buried deep in the subconscious and reflected and manifested in the body.
The mind directs the qi and the body follows. However, most people use too much mind – which is a form of tension in itself – and when people use mind, physical tension is almost automatically attached to it. This is why Taijiquan only uses the lightest mind/intention in its application. So, to release tension use only a light application of your mind-intention.
Be mindful and take notice of the sensations happening in your body, but without fixating on them. If you are not mindful, then you are on autopilot, or asleep at the wheel.
Eventually you need to be able to feel the energy running inside yourself.
Master Wu said that you needed to be able to feel your qi if you wanted to use it. Meredith says:
If you can’t feel it, you can’t feed it
One time Master Wu was checking my form and when I had finished he said that I was using too much mind. He said he didn’t know what I was thinking, but he warned me not to use too much mind. He said that using too much mind is like becoming accustomed to a dark room and then suddenly turning the light on – it’s blinding – it’s too bright and overwhelming. Master Wu’s advice to me on this particular occasion was to practise the form fast for 100 days so my mind would not have time to think too much.
Relaxation is a relative thing for every person. For some it means being like a rag-doll, totally devoid of any structure. For others, either intentionally or unintentionally, it is what they would call dynamic tension. True relaxation in Taijiquan is neither and in the quest to find the ideal state most people tend to swing between a state of collapse at one end and tension at the opposite end, unable to find the ideal state. This becomes even more pronounced once we start to do partner work.
Persist in Daily Practice
Never ever miss daily practice as the results in Taiji are cumulative. If you aren’t doing your Taiji every single day of your life, it’s going to be hard to make any significant progress.
There is a saying in Taiji: “if you miss a day, it’s like you are starting over”.
Master Wu said that he always found some time during the day to do some Taiji, no matter what was happening.
Professor Cheng said “To reach mastery one must have recourse to the things you mentioned (i.e. hard work and regular practice); one must work hard and never leave off daily practice. But we must be careful lest we make the work of Taiji synonymous with that of Shaolin. The latter generally is muscle, power, and perspiration smothering the mind. Taiji, however, asked that you work with its principles in mind. It is not enough to allot an hour or two daily for practice; the practice itself must be done correctly. Otherwise it is a total waste.”
We can’t eliminate tension completely in our everyday lives, however, the method passed on to us by Master Wu enables us to understand how tension works in our practice of Taiji and in our everyday lives and how to let it go when we need to for the application of Taiji.
Once we learn how to use the light application of the mind in directing our internal energy, without unnecessary tension, we can mostly eliminate muscular force.
Meredith says: “We learn to separate the use of mind from physical tension and allow the internal energy to come to the fore.”
I recall one time in a lesson with Master Wu, he was telling me to relax and not use tension to redirect his push, but I just wasn’t getting it – my mind was not correctly directed to the task at hand. He suddenly left the room and he came back with a very large kitchen knife! Without any warning, he started to push me in the shoulder, the hips and elbows with the knife! I got the message! Relax, don’t resist, yield, but don’t run away – DON’T THINK – just be mindful and in the present moment.
The Fine-line between Relaxed and Collapsed
I recall very early in my Taiji journey we were travelling through China. One morning we were at our morning practice. There were a large number of us crowded into a small area. All of a sudden Master Wu stopped and moved through the lines of people to someone in the back row and spoke to him in a very urgent voice. Not understanding Chinese, I wondered what was wrong. Master explained to me that our Brother was committing a mortal Taiji sin. He was collapsing rather than relaxing.
Taiji is full of these fine-lines and contradictions. On the one hand we are directed to release all tension in doing Taiji, however, we are told not to collapse either. In reality the difference is very fine. Master Wu once said that a building rests on its structure, which is supported by a foundation. Without the correct combination of these parts, the structure would collapse. However, we do not need to over-design the foundation and the structure. In Taiji we need elegant design structures and sufficient foundations.
Meredith says something similar: “When you are in a relaxed state, you’re using no more physical force or muscular tension than is required to correctly maintain a given body configuration… In a tense state you’re using more physical force or muscular tension than is required to maintain the desired body configuration … In a state of collapse you’ve eliminated all physical force and your mind is unable to effectively engage your body to accomplish anything.”
“Taiji’s ultimate paradox and point of power is its insistence that you maintain yourself on the razor’s edge; just enough physical support to achieve the posture – not even four ounces more.”
The Tension Gradient
In keeping with Master Wu’s simple and practical application of Tai Chi we need a simple way to categorise tension, so we can recognise it and work with it.
Tension could be physical, emotional or mental. In reality it is most likely a mixture of all three. However, in the spirit of simplifying it, I like Meredith’s approach.
“Tension is a central concern of push hands practice. In my world, and to my hands, there are two kinds of tension in a partner. The push hands adept will immediately sense both kinds of tension in most people’s bodies, and both can be exploited.”
The first is superficial tension. The second is deep tension.
Meredith says: “The tension that appears and disappears quickly is superficial tension, either conscious or unconscious. It’s very easy to work with. You can manipulate that kind of tension with about the same ease as lifting a teapot by its rigid handle. The other sub-species, unconscious superficial tension, usually arise from carelessness, laziness, or habit. The diagnostic feature for superficial tension is that your partner is able to drop it quickly, whenever you point it out to him.”
“Superficial tension lends itself to on-the-spot teaching and correction, just by drawing attention to bad habits. And just as it can easily be fixed … it can easily be exploited by a relatively unskilled person.”
This is how Master Wu used to teach us push hands when I first starting learning. It’s a kind of biofeedback drill, where both people are giving feedback to each other during practice. Master Wu used to say to me that I should not practise silent push hands. This surface or superficial kind of tension is the most easily worked with at the conscious level.
As mentioned already, I have written about deep tension and used the term Psychic Body Armour to describe it. It’s the kind of habitual tension buried deep inside our body and embedded in our subconscious. This type of tension is often due to trauma; either physical or emotional. The conscious memory of it is long forgotten, but it is still there in the subconscious and manifests as tension somewhere in the body. As we will see, the main difference in the deep tension that Scott Meredith describes is that to his hands this deep tension is reflected everywhere in the body and not localised to any one area.
Meredith describes it thus: “Deep tension is different … (however) it’s also available for an experienced Taiji player to use in unbalancing (push hands and fajing). But unlike superficial tension, deep tension normally isn’t anchored to a particular strong muscle or habitually concentrated in a single body area. Deep tension is a holistic, almost inherent property of a partner’s body overall.”
“Deep tension tends to be entirely unconscious and cannot be dropped on instruction. Becoming aware of it and shedding it is a long-term process. Unlike superficial tension, it can’t be significantly reduced in a single training session, or with a teacher’s one-time verbal correction or posture fix.
Deep tension is like a dye which pervades or permeates the entire cloth, while surface tension is like a sudden coffee spill on your pants or shirt – it comes and goes.”
“Deep tension can only be fixed by training the Taiji process through good Taiji form over a long period.”
“Deep tension is not only hard to get rid of, it’s also harder to detect. You need to have a much greater level of Taiji development to detect and exploit deep tension than was required in the case of superficial tension.”
The Fajing Connection
What’s actually happening at the very first moment of fajing? Some say that it is the application of force through the correct alignment of the body, which is then focussed in one direction. Or, you get your partner off balance and then send him away. Others may say that it is the application of your internal energy that bounces them away. I’m sure that there are many other variations and opinions out there. When I typed what’s happening when you do fajing? into Google, within 0.75 seconds I received 1,530,000 answers!
It is no surprise that Meredith believes that it is an internal energy process; however, he adds a twist or nuance that I find very intriguing.
He says: “We now come to an interesting question and a really deep subject. What exactly is happening in real push hands (and fajing)? Especially, if there really is no essential physical power in the movement, what exactly is causing your partner to stumble or hurtle back?”
The Trigger Effect
“To defeat a thousand pounds with a trigger force of four ounces” – (Yang Chen-fu’s Twelve Important Points)
Meredith asserts “The applied internal power does not act directly to move your partner’s body, rather it acts as a trigger applied to his tension … (It’s) like a spark on gunpowder, which causes your partner to unbalance (or throw, or knock down) himself. The force that propels people back when popped is not my internal energy; it’s simply their own deep internal tension. Weird as it sounds, that’s all it is – their own activated tension is jumping them back. Their body is jumping back without being entirely under their conscious control.”
“The tension to which your internal effects are applied can be of either type above: superficial or deep. But essentially, your partner is always moving himself. Or to be most accurate, your partner’s tension is doing the real work, the heavy-lifting so to speak – triggered by your application of energy.”
“The deep unconscious tension (which everyone seems to have, apart from great Taiji masters) is not permanently localised to a particular area of the partner’s body. It’s everywhere and never leaves them altogether. So you might as well work simply with his arms and upper torso, there’s no need to touch the head or other sensitive places … since the deep tension isn’t localised or transient, as long as you’re in contact, you’re good to go.”
“You use your internal energy as only the primer not the powder. Just like a bullet fired from a gun, the cartridge’s primer has only a small physical triggering force. But the primer ignites the much greater physical power of the powder charge, which is what actually propels the bullet out of the barrel. The powder in this analogy is your partner’s internal tension, and the bullet (the thing that’s ultimately moved) is his physical body.”
The first time I read this it reminded me of when I first met Master Wu in Sydney in 1986. It was also the first time that he ever did fajing on me. His fajing was like nothing that I had ever felt before. BUT – it was exactly as I had always imagined it would be. I had read Professor Cheng’s books on Taiji and from that I realised that I had finally found someone who was able to do it for real.
Up until then I had been pushed around by some very good Taiji teachers, but every one of them used some kind of body mechanics, leverage, trick, or clever technique like Chin Na.
I have been uprooted by Master Wu many times and even though his fajing became more and more refined since 1986, it was always a surprise. I could never tell when it was going to happen. And I could never escape from his touch – even as I improved and became more relaxed, he was still able to move me at will.
I now realise that even though I have progressed in releasing and letting go surface tension, Master Wu was able to connect to my unresolved deep tension with his highly developed tingjing.
For example, a few years ago we were all gathered here again for our annual Shenlong Day. I had literally just walked into the foyer of the Guba hotel and Master Wu was standing there welcoming everyone. I was tired after a long flight, but as soon as Master Wu saw me he called me over and said let’s do the Bafa!!! Wow, totally the last thing I expected. I thought I was pretty relaxed, however Master Wu, as always, was able to lock me up, or fajing me as he chose. And, as always, it left me wondering where I was going wrong and why I was not progressing despite consistent daily practice.
I think Master Wu could see what I was thinking and he said to me that I was actually much better than the last time. I’m now convinced that he was speaking of how I was progressing in resolving the deep subconscious tension buried inside my body. Because it is unconscious, it is hard to know how you are progressing. You only know from the experience of working with a partner who has a high level of tingjing, who can detect this deep tension in your body.
Master Wu often said that all he had to do was to lightly touch anywhere on my body and he could feel the tension – lightly here being the important word. He was connecting to my body through my etheric energy body and detecting the deep tension. One light touch and he knew where I was tense. He could even close his eyes and tell me where my weight was placed and where my tension was the strongest.
He would often use the analogy of leading a bull by the ring in its nose. He said our job in push hands was to learn how to find the bull’s nose on our partner’s body, and then apply the ring to it. When we could do this, it would be a very easy and simple matter to lead our partner wherever we wanted.
I recall him saying to me once, that people admire his fajing, however,
he said he spent far more time developing his tingjing.
This is why it’s essential to absolutely commit to the elimination of ALL tension. If not, then your ability to improve your fajing will be limited.
If you feel that you have been stuck or reached a plateau in your training, then perhaps you need to look more closely at this principle of relaxation. Being Fang Song, releasing, letting go of all tension.
Everything in Taiji is on a continuum. That is why it is a lifetime art. Master Wu said that in the beginning you connected to your partner through this light touch. At the next stage you connected with your partner’s internal energy (etheric body). At a higher level yet again, he said you connect through your Shen. At his level, you actually don’t even need to connect physically to know your partner’s intention and his tension.
The only way we can resolve our own deep tension, is using the Tai Chi method that Master Wu has taught us. At a certain point in your Taiji journey you may feel like you are not progressing, however, if you have the mental, emotional and physical belief in what he has taught and practise it diligently you can be confident that you will be making progress. The results are cumulative over years of daily practice – always actively seeking to be Song and not using physical force. Release and let go, allowing the internal energy to soften our bodies. If you hold onto any vestige of physical force, the real true internal energy will not manifest and you will not be able to use it.
If your own body is full of tension, how can you hope to be able to detect it in your partner’s body?
Stay soft at all times, physically, emotionally and mentally. You should never need to issue any kind of direct physical power to do fajing. True internal energy training always rests on the fine-line or razor’s edge between the physical and mental.
We need to believe and have faith in what we have been taught by Master Wu and faithfully practise the principles of Taiji. I believe that Master Wu, his teacher Professor Cheng and the line of Taiji masters going back into history, meant for these principles of total relaxation and non-use of physical force to be taken literally. I believe that when they spoke of Taiji as being an internal art they meant it.
The real, energy-centric Taiji delivers its power from quiet relaxed practice. This is truly a mysterious skill and worthy of the name Taijiquan.
I want to conclude with some words of encouragement from our beloved Master Wu. He said “If we follow the path of Taiji, we should be able to enter the gate of Taiji. Then all contradiction will automatically be assimilated into the Taiji Spheroid”. Perhaps this is what we are seeking at the end of the rabbit hole.
Chung, W. K., 2005. The Application of Tai-Chi Philosophy. Taipei: Spirit Dragon Video and Book Publishing Company.
Meredith, S., n.d. JUICE Radical TAIJI Energetics. Kindle Edition ed. s.l.:s.n.
Smith, R.W.; Cheng Man-ch’ing.; 1967. T’ai Chi: The Supreme Ultimate Exercise for Health, Sport and Self-Defence. First U.S. Edition, Second Printing (with corrections) ed. s.l.:Charles E. Tuttle Co..