Pushing Hands – Listening Skill
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Listening is an important part of pushing hands, our ability to react in a skilled way can only be based on the information we have received. This type of listening is not done with our ears, but through our sense of touch, through any point of contact between our body and our opponent. Based on what we feel through our sense of touch we can in a special way, listen to our opponent.
If these skills are not strong then the amount of information we have to react on will be poor and this makes us vulnerable to attack from our opponent due to poor timing. The skill of listening is our way of knowing our opponent, their strengths and weakness and also it is our way of knowing our own strengths and weaknesses in relation to them.
Listening skills do not only apply to the feeling of our opponents force but also to the balance of our own body, for we cannot really feel our opponent, rather through developing a sense of what our body feels like when it is fully balanced, through listening, we can be aware of any shifts in that balance which in turn is a reflection of our opponents balance and force.
If we want to strengthen our listening skills then we have to approach our pushing hands practice with that in mind. Too often in pushing hands it is too easy to get overexcited and allow your yang chi to dominate. If this is the case then it tends to turn into a wrestling match or a race as the movements speed up to the stage that all feeling is gone. As soon as we notice this we need to sink our chi down, relax and slip back into feeling and listening again. Regardless of what your opponent is doing do no be drawn into the wrestling match or race, if they want to go down this path let them carry you, follow them but do not join them.
To develop your listening skills you need to go back to basics, basics are the foundations on which everything sits; if you do not build strong foundations then when you really need to act your building will crumble. Going back to basic movement does not mean going backwards but approaching it in a different way. Our listening skills can not be developed by moving fast, thinking about other things or by random chatter, to really develop them we have to give our pushimg hands practice our full attention.
Attention is a key factor in developing your listening skills; your attention should be placed on as much detail of your experience of the movement that you can observe whilst in contact with your opponent. This constant attention will develop your concentration which will make you calmer in the way you react and that will inturn clarify your experience. Your attention should be sitting on any point of contact with your opponent; it should focus in on the changing sense of pressure, the feeling of smoothness in the movement and importantly looking for any corners that appear in you or your opponent.
Corners are sensed by following and dissolving your opponents force with circular movements, even very small ones. This circular movement when listened to appears as a smooth flow, a corner arises when you feel the circular movement wants to move in a straight line, this is the point in which your opponent or yourself have lost their balance. At this point you can choose to take advantage of this corner or if the corner is on you, then you can dissolve it with a circular movement before your opponent takes advantage of it.
All this cannot be developed or observed without heightened listening skills, to develop them we need to create an environment in which it can grow. For this exercise you will need a partner and some experience of pushing hands practice, be it single hand or ideally double hand, if you do not have this foundation I suggesting sourcing a good teaching as this is the only way to truly learn the routine.
Stand opposite each other and choose one partner as positive – the aggressor, and one as negative, the dissolver, you will both stay in these roles for the whole routine. If you know stepping movements you may use them during this practice, also use any hand routines that you know. Do not get too caught up in using this or that as the practice is very much a free form routine.
Make contact with each other and close your eyes, keep the point of contact soft and light, both stand still and mentally pay attention to that point. Notice how you can feel the pressure from your opponents contact, how you can listen to this pressure with your mind. Now the positive person increases the pressure with a gentle attack, the negative person should then dissolve the attack into void, using either circling, shifting or waist turning. When the attacker senses that their force has been dissolved they should then redirect this into another attack. The negative person then sensing this should dissolve the force again.
It is important that in the beginning of listening practice that one person stays in the positive position, as the attacker, and one in the negative, as the defender. In this way both people will know their roles, thus allowing them to relax into their roles so that they can study either attacking or defending. For both attacker and defender at this point no force should be used, both should remain soft and subtle, studying how to use force and dissolve it. Investigating what it means to be economical with movement, how to use the opponents force against them without adding any of your own.
This then creates an endless flow of change, do not stop or pause while you are practicing, with eyes closed, body soft, listen to the movements, sense the changing pressure with all your attention given to the points of contact. After ten minutes you can swap roles, in these different roles study the difference of the flow between attacker and defender, watch the different uses of yin and yang force, get to know your opponent and more importantly yourself, your strengths, your weaknesses.
As the positive person moves towards you, you don’t need to use your eyes, use the point of touch on your hands and follow their movement. Stick to them and move with them, as if you were one, seeing through the changing pressure in the contact point of your hands. All you are doing is listening to their pressure and you are moving and sensing where they are going, learning to use their force, following and always bringing their force into dissolution, into void.
This is why we are practicing, this is why it requires us to move slowly, to learn to follow, listen, this is where it requires sticking and following. Just close your eyes, sense what they are doing, and move your body with that. Doing this you can find a hole in their movement.
We are using our sensitivity, the touch sensation on body wherever the point of contact is, if you do that and allow the body to move dependant on that contact, your sense of touch will become stronger. You will then start to notice and know,” this point here they are unbalanced, that point there is unbalanced”, we are looking for corners in their movement, because the corners are their weak spot, if you listen you will see what I mean. With listening and watching you will notice that the movement will be smooth and circular then suddenly you will feel that the energy wants to go off in a straight line, that is the corner, that is where their point of balance can be broken.
Stages of Development
There are various stages of development that you can move through as you get skilled at the previous level. Do not let yourself feel like you have to rush thought these levels, just because they are there doesn't mean that you have to use them, if you rush you will stop yourself from progressing. This is because each level is designed to support and create the foundation for the next. Also be careful not to progress based on someone else, be true and honest with yourself, this is not a competition, you are the only one that will lose if you try to progress when your skill level is not quite developed enough yet.
When doing these exercises picture yourself as a ball, the outside of your posture is the outside of the ball, wherever you feel incoming force let it in and turn the ball. Remember a ball does not push sideways but it rolls, you need to roll with the force, roll the force into nothing, then eventually at higher levels of skill learn to roll the force into back into your opponent, study this.
Stage 1: Follow the flow of the other person’s movement and force, always letting the force in then circling it away. Do this using your whole body, not just your arms, feel the flow of the movement, and feel the change between void and solid. At this stage neither person is trying to break the other persons balance, just letting in force and circling it back.
Stage 2: In this stage learn to dissolve the incoming force into void, let it in and turn. The difference here is that you let the force in and turn, using your wrists, elbows, shoulders, waist or legs shifting so that the force is dissipated. The force is dissolved by turning the ball, picture your whole body as a ball, when you feel force pressing against it turn the ball to feed the force away. Remember a ball when turned does not move in a straight line but in a circular motion, if you feel any resistance or increase in pressure you know you are doing it wrong. When it is right it feels effortless, it is important to learn to do this without using strength.
Stage 3: In this stage both players can attack and defend, be very careful not to end up in a wrestling match, see if you can do the movements without using any of your force, only theirs. Let the force in and turn, dissolving it, but when you feel the force dissolve then circle it back into your opponent. At this stage the ball can turn both ways, when dissolving the force the ball rolls away from your opponent, once dissolved the ball can circle back towards them. This is the skill of learning to use your opponent’s force against them, circling their force back. The more highly you develop this skill the smaller the circle you will need to perform to achieve the same result. Just as if you had a beach ball or a marble, both can make you lose your balance if you step on them, so too can skilfully used small circles turn away large amounts of force.
Stage 4: During this stage follow each others force and study how you can use their force to break their roots. Once again it is important not to use any of your own force, the reason for this is if you develop your skills based on your strength you will always come across someone who is stronger then you. On the other hand if you learn to use only your opponents force to do what needs to be done then when the skill is developed you can add your force to it. In this way even if you are not a strong person your strength will always be their strength plus yours which means that you will always be stronger then them. It then comes down to height of skill then physical strength, since there are less people with heightened skill you have put the odds in your favour.
Stage 5: Now is where your pushing hands practice will start to feel like a game of chess, this is because in chess you start to look ahead of what is happening now. You plan a few moves ahead thinking, if I move this pawn here, that will force them to move their, bishop, and then if I move here, they will move like that until – checkmate. During this practice we learn to use false force, false force is testing force, it can be applied with any part of your body, but for this example we will talk in terms of hands and elbows. When you contact your opponent in pushing hands feel their force on your hands and elbows, give a little pressure to their hand with your hand and see if they give some back, if they do then quickly turn your hand into yin and your hand on their elbow into yang, following their force. If they didn’t give force back then use testing force on their elbow, again if the push back on their elbow, turn the testing hand into yin and the one touching their hand into yang, following their elbow force. This is the technique of creating force for you to use where there is none, at this stage you want the other person to use force, you are happy when they do, because you get to understand that whenever they use force they also expose weaknesses
Stage 6: During this stage use stepping techniques with your movements, steps are no longer fixed, movement becomes free form, as it develops you can use some of your own force in attacks. When doing this be careful, whenever you use any of your own force you too are exposing your weaknesses to your opponent, be aware of that. Only use your force when the timing is right, after using it quickly sink it back into void so that your opponent can’t use it against you, don't allow your chi to sit high, always have the feeling of being rooted into the ground, whether attacking or defending.
With practice the roles of positive and negative can be removed and you can open your eyes whilst following the routine. When you open your eyes do not look around, focus them on the persons upper chest, then take a wide view so that your can also watch their shoulders and body without moving your head. Do not forget however that your ability to listen is your main sense for learning to react, it leads to a higher level of skill and understanding.
Listening skill can only be developed in softness, it is heightened in stillness, it magnifies and reveals. When developed fully it leads to highest skill, how to make the most efficient use of your opponents force whilst using the least amount of yours. It points towards and reveals to us the ever flowing change of things around us, with deep listening we are taught the flow of life and how to flow with it, if only we take the time to listen.
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This article was written by Stephen Procter, instructor from Tai Chi Health for Life, Australian College of Tai Chi & Qi Gong and Meditation Instructor from Meditation in the Shire, Kirrawee NSW, Australia. If you wish to post this article on another website or in a publication please respect the author and reference / link back to this website, thank you