The Essential Energies: Peng

For more context about the essential energies, start with this introductory post.

The first of the essential energies in taiji is named peng, a Chinese word which is misleading to English speakers.  The sound of it is closer to “pung” then “peng,” or maybe like the second word in “ping pong.”  Without this energy, I don’t think any of the others work as they should.

All of the energies have been explained to me using the metaphor of an inflated rubber ball, which captures the idea very well.  Peng is the force inside an inflated ball that keeps it inflated, that presses out equally in every direction.  It is an energy of fullness, of expansion.

Peng gives a ball resilience.  If you push on a rubber ball, it pushes back; if you push harder, it pushes back harder, it resists being squashed.  It resists you with exactly the same force you use to push on it.  It is pressed inward in one spot, but the rest of the the ball expands and becomes firmer.  When you let go, it returns immediately to its full, original shape.  It doesn’t chase you, doesn’t push on you at all if you lose contact with it.

The energy of peng relies on an internal fullness, but not over-fullness.  A deflated rubber ball is a flat, squidgy thing that lays on the floor and isn’t much fun to play with.  It doesn’t resist you if you push or kick it, it doesn’t spring back, it doesn’t have any kind of energy at all.  On the other hand, an over-inflated ball is too strained to use.  If you apply any kind of force to it, it pops, it stops being a ball altogether.  Peng is therefore a relaxed fullness, it is full enough — neither too much nor too little.  It is an appropriate fullness to the size of the object.

Many taiji movements rely on the idea of relaxed fullness.  Neither limp and slouchy, nor stiff and tense.  It is standing up straight, expanding the body and limbs, but in a relaxed way — to an appropriate degree and no more.  Just like inflating a ball to the right internal pressure, it is standing up to one’s own full natural stature, not a bit more or less.  Assuming this kind of posture enables one to have the same kind of resiliency as a rubber ball.  If someone pushes on you, your body pushes back.  If they stop pushing, you don’t chase them.  Part of the body flexes, accepting pressure and dispersing it, and part of the body remains firm and stable — in many cases, the force an opponent applies just makes the taiji stance more stable.

One English translation I’ve seen for peng energy is “Full,” but in my school motions which incorporate peng are often called “ward off,” which is another aspect of the energy.  In taking up its own full size and expansion, peng moves other things out of the way.  Peng is inexorable.  One example from my teacher is that of waves at the beach, the feeling of standing in the surf and having a wave come in and lift you off your feet, push you along with it — the energy in the wave is essentially peng energy.  It doesn’t ask you politely to step aside, it just moves you.  Taiji movements incorporating peng can be used in this way to move an opponent aside.  Not by forceful, strained pushing, just by standing up into one’s stature, expanding the body, assuming one’s internal sense of fullness.

So this is peng.  I’m beginning to understand it in taiji practice, but I’m also pondering it in the more universal sense, what this energy looks like through the rest of life.  Remember, taiji as a martial art is simply a physical exploration of taiji as a universal philosophy, so the idea of peng is not restricted to physical movement.

I’ve been struggling with articulating what peng looks like in the rest of life, and I think it’s because I don’t naturally express it well, or often enough.  It feels to me like a lot of the things I’ve been fighting with for a long time, especially since the beginning of this year, are because I’m not standing up into my own full stature, not assuming my full talents and abilities, not giving myself credit for everything I am and everything I am capable of.  Too often, I am like a deflated ball, lying in a sad little pile on the floor and not able to respond when I get kicked, not able to push back, not resilient, not energetic.  I don’t take up space in the world — too often I deliberately try to take up as little space as possible, hoping that I’ll be tolerated if I’m not too much of a bother.  It doesn’t occur to me that I’m not merely tolerated, that my presence is welcomed and valued.  It doesn’t occur to me that if I stood up into my full stature, physically and emotionally and spiritually and in every way, with all of my talents and skills and ideas and creativity, my capacity for and enjoyment of work, my need to help other people and make the world better — that if I stood up and claimed all of these things about myself, stood up into them fully, that I could move things — that I could do some good, and also be both more full and more relaxed inside my own life, inside my own skin.  I’m not intended to be flat and listless and fit in the cracks between other people; I’m here to be full, to take up space, to interact with the world in good ways.  To be resilient.  To be peng.

This is the bigger lesson I’m thinking about, ways in which I express this energy of fullness and fail to express it, and how I would like to be able to.  I want a fuller life; the concept of peng is showing me that it doesn’t come from what you’re given, from what is outside, but it comes first from what is inside, from being full in oneself.  I don’t think I’m there yet, but it shows me what to seek.

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