The Essential Energies: Effort

I haven’t had much opportunity yet for practicing taiji push hands, a deficit I want to rectify as soon as I can. “Push hands” is the taiji form of sparring or partner training, when you use your skills against another person instead of inside the context of a form. The idea is to learn how to feel another person’s movement and find ways to push them off balance, using taiji principles and motions. Pushing against another person is a vital way to learn about the energy at play inside taiji — if you never put that energy to use against something physical, how can you be sure if the energy is there? It’s educational to push against someone and feel how one’s own body responds, especially if it reveals unexpected tension or weakness. Adversity is a powerful teacher, even a gentle, collegial adversity like training push hands with a partner.

In the few occasions I’ve had to practice push hands drills, I’ve been surprised sometimes by how little force it really takes to move someone, when you let the movement work the way it is supposed to. The couple of times I’ve managed to push someone off balance, I felt like I barely did anything, but my partner still moved. I remember the surprise of those moments, the feeling of “what just happened here?”

I know my surprise stems from an unconscious assumption that moving someone who doesn’t want to be moved is hard, and it’s going to take effort. I get distracted by the fact that someone is in the way of how I’m moving and instead of just trusting the movement to do its work, I start to use more muscle and try to shove my partner around. I pile on effort to get a result, and it doesn’t work — it actually wrecks the result I’m looking for.

So it can take very little effort to move someone, when one uses taiji to do the moving. But in a different sense, it takes tremendous effort to move someone using taiji. Gaining this ability is an example of gong-fu — a skill acquired through time and effort. Nearly every physical art is a kind of gong-fu, because the body needs time and repeated action to learn and change. Taiji is no exception. It needs repeated effort, repeated intention, repeated practice, repeated motion, to absorb its principles and learn how to use them effectively. It takes a very great effort, but a kind of effort that can’t be exerted all at once, out of nowhere. It’s effort that has to be exerted over a long period of time, accrued bit by tiny bit, until in the moment when one pushes against an opponent, the effort required to move the opponent is just one tiny bit more. In the moment when the taiji player shifts someone off balance, the effort visible is only the tip of the proverbial iceburg, floating on top of a mountain of prior study and hard work.

There is this about watching anyone at work who has really mastered what they do — in the moment of performance, the act appears effortless. We envy the virtuoso his or her skill in any arena, be it the athlete, the musician, the artist, the actor, the teacher, the leader. Don’t be fooled by the apparent ease of what you see. Remember the effort required to succeed is enormous, but also stretched out over time and measured in discrete, manageable pieces. The moment of effortless, beautiful performance is simply the cap, the last dram of effort, the final flourish.

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