Life Lessons from Practicing TaiJi Push-Hands
[This article was originally published in Pacific College of Oriental Medicine’s Oriental Medicine Newspaper in 2015. The audience is my colleagues and current students.]
by Josh Eha, DAOM, L.Ac
Master Herman in Action
This is written out of appreciation for a living treasure. Master Herman Kaus has been teaching martial arts for over 60 years. A former world competitor in Judo and Karate, Master Herman shifted his focus to Tai Ji and push-hands to reap the benefits of martial arts with less distraction. I was blessed to be his push-hands student at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine (PCOM) and around the San Diego area from 2002 to 2005. Now, a decade later, the essence of what he teaches remains at the core of my clinical work and my life.
As I entered the room on my first day, I still remember how foreign it all seemed. Students moved desks, clearing a space around a bent old man with a stick leaning against a table. A student turned to say, “Bow to the room. Then bow to Master Herman before joining us”. So I bowed.
After a few stories, questions, and words of wisdom, Master Herman exclaimed, “Words are cheap. We are not going to learn push-hands by talking about it.”
And so it began. I was placed with a senior student to learn the simple form before actually pushing with a partner. Stance was corrected. Shoulders positioned. Kinks ironed out. It was a sort of dance. Qi moved like a hydraulic machine: extend, accept, extend, accept. Again and again I was reminded by my partner and by Master Herman to relax, relax, relax.
After ten minutes or so, I began pushing with my partner. Start with defense. Just get out of the way. Make sure you are not there when the attack comes.
I was having a hard time being “not there”. A well-placed attack makes one seize up like a deer in headlights. The whole body goes rigor mortis and one falls off the center like a chopped down tree. For an instant we feel as a small child would: petrified. Relax, relax, relax.
A certain phrase was repeated over and over, “four ounces can move 1,000 pounds.” Use less strength. Instead, cultivate timing and position.
Any gains I made over those years had the risk of pride attached to them. Master Herman was an expert at noticing this and would choose me as his partner during times of elation. There is nothing more humbling than getting pushed around repeatedly by a bent, 75 year old man. Never once in three years did I ever uproot him. He was the embodiment of his lessons. He was almost super-human and definitely super frustrating. So I would push a little harder. And I was reminded, “relax”.
So it continued with small triumphs in the beginning and random blips of clarity as the months and years rolled on. I saw things changing underneath the surface: a certain meaningful easing. I could not describe it at the time, but I was relaxing.
RESULTS ARE MEANINGLESS
We attach so readily to results. Getting good grades, a good job, successfully managing patients and a business –even being “goal-oriented” is a goal in and of itself.
Meaning, on the other hand, is derived from the process and our relationship to it. It is through the process that we discover essential truths and ourselves. Push-hands is a good process and a great teacher because the results really are silly. Big deal if you can push someone over when a foot away from you. You are left to deeply experience the process, free of the distraction of potential outcome.
The core process for dealing with adversity, as I have come to understand it, can be stated as follows: Become aware of internal conflict, accept life by dropping resistance to it, and finally, surrender.
To experience push-hands is to experience an essential awareness of energy. Energy is our life force and, through awareness, is the root of our experience of life itself. As acupuncturists, we conduct this qi within our patients. When we practice “energy techniques”, such as push-hands, Tai Ji, Qi Gong, and meditation, these core experiences transfer to other areas of our lives through abstraction. Push harder. Fall. Over-extend. Fall. Resist. Fall. Overbear. Fall. Get angry. Fall. Lose focus. Fall. Disconnect from everything and figure it out myself. Fall. I have done all of these things countess times in push-hands and, as a consequence, I recognize these tendencies more readily as an indication of how I deal with adversity.
Life becomes very telling as awareness is increased.
At the exact instant of attack, be ready to defend. Defense is simply a redirection of the flow of attack to another position on the attacker. Everything is instantaneous. Once timing falters, once you resist, even the tiniest bit, an adept student will upend you. Cleverness and learnedness do not enter into it. If you have to think about it, it is already too late. Instead, be instinctual and fully connected to the flow.
Acceptance is being in the flow. We fall out of flow with resistance. Resistance responds to perceived threat by countering with force. It is rooted in fear: the petrified child within us, or the ‘shadow’, according to Jung. It is our identification with a threatening idea, our rationalization for all kinds of sabotage. It leads to fragmenting and dis-integration. In the instant of resistance, we believe we have been cut off from the source and are fending for ourselves. We will consequently assume a compensating position of power and attack or take the insult and assume victimhood.
We have already lost at this point. The loss was the resistance. Everything happening afterwards is merely the natural course of our programming.
When we accept everything for what it is, we prevent conflict.
Once we experience failure past our threshold, we learn to change our way of thinking. It takes a lot of energy to hold onto resistance. Trying to win, outdoing someone, outwitting someone, protecting oneself from harm, protecting the herd, justice for wrongdoing, punishment, sacrifice, victimization, and the face of innocence must all be continually surrendered.
There is no loss in surrender, except the false idea that we are separate and on our own, dis-integrated, and special. To let it go is exhilarating because we not only regain the energy used to keep us fragmented, but we gain the universe by reconnecting. This is the stuff of miracles, near-death experiences, hitting rock bottom, and transcendence.
Surrender is also a very natural phenomenon and can be nurtured through repetition. We learn to let go of results and focus on the process. We let go of everyone’s opinions and trust our instincts. In his book Push-Hands: The Handbook for Non-Competitive Tai Chi Practice with a Partner, Master Herman describes this process as “unlearning.” In push-hands, we unlearn somatically. The mind itself is put aside and the body learns that conflict is an illusion carrying with it resistance and fragmentation.
Practicing push-hands lets these concepts sink into the very fabric of our energy system where they can harmonize and integrate our being.
AS A CLINICIAN
One of our main tasks as acupuncturists is to treat the root of any condition. My process in the discovery and integration of root pathology is forever tied to the wisdom of Master Herman’s push-hands. When I see resistance in patients, I bring it into awareness, assimilate it through acceptance, and release it with an attitude of surrender. What is left is free flow, fully integrated. In a sense, this is the root of all healing.
With gratitude, I bow to Master Herman, a living treasure.