The art of defense from self
The first law of Tai Chi, as my teacher used to say again and again, is “no force against force”, or in other words, don't oppose, but connect with the forces exerted against you.
My theoretical knowledge of qi and how it flows through the meridians doesn’t help me to feel, doesn’t help me to connect with the person in front of me – to truly meet him. When people touch each other they usually miss – they press too hard or too soft, unable to detect where the other really is. This is why there will always be friction and collisions (as if someone's moving around a room with his eyes closed and keeps bumping into the furniture). That’s why it’s written in the Tai Chi Classics: "The opponent does not know me; I alone know him"
But after years of practice a question arose that kept coming back to my mind. A question that gradually became the main focus of my practice: If I have developed my ability to feel, to sense the person in front of me, why not use this ability to help him find his center? Instead of using it to defeat him?
When this sensitivity, however refined, is tainted by a desire to win, the quality of its touch becomes aggressive and impatient. But why not use it to help the person in front of me find his center? So we can have a real dialogue? a creative one?
When I touch someone with sensitivity and he responds to me, our connection is intrinsically creative. But when I use my expertise – soft or hard – to overpower him, I inevitably cause him to stiffen or break. And as usual, whoever is stronger, more cunning or more skilled, will win. But not for long. There will always be someone stronger, more cunning, or more skilled than I am. And this kind of encounter will always leave a residue – some kind of resistance – behind. In a true victory, there are no losers and no residue remains.
So if someone wants to attack me to test my skills as a Tai Chi practitioner, I will ask him politely to go and look for someone else for his tests. But if that person genuinely wants to learn and explore Tai Chi together, I would be more than happy to do that.
And now to the famous question: What happens if someone attacks you in the street?
I don’t know. I'm not so young any more, and I’ve never been attacked in the street. I hope it carries on that way… And what about you, the martial artist? How many times have you been attacked in the street in the last year? Or in the last ten years? And then again, how many times have your wife, children, friends or the rest of the world hurt you, insulted you or upset you in the last week or two? And how did you react? Did you stiffen up and defend yourself? Did you lash back? Justify yourself?
When Dr. Chi, (my teacher’s teacher) was asked why a master like himself had never become famous, he replied: "Stupid people come want to fight." Cheng Man-ch'ing, the first master to emphasize the potential of connection in Tai Chi for the purpose of communication, coined the phrase "invest in loss" and accordingly moved Tai Chi into the next stage in its evolution – changing its posture to something less combative, more like an embrace.
I suggest here a new way of looking at the martial arts: an art of defense from my self – defense from the inner nudnik who is always trying to win, to overcome, to manipulate... defense from the inner know-it-all who always argues or explains. Or the reverse (which is exactly the same), the one who doesn’t know and doesn't want to know what is required of him.
Man has been trying to defend himself for so many thousands of years. He even turned it into an art – and look where we've got… the world is on the brink of extinction. We are constantly defending ourselves, in more sophisticated or less sophisticated ways. Even the atom bomb was invented for the purpose self-defense.
And maybe this is why Tai Chi is called an internal martial art? Because the battle is within me, and the teacher is there to help me fight my most ferocious enemy – my self. But I have to understand this, otherwise I’ll constantly feel that the teacher is threatening me, harassing me – that he doesn’t let me express myself.
My role as a teacher is to bring the student into his center – to a place where he acts spontaneously without friction or resistance. The student's role is to allow me to help him enter his center. But surprisingly, this is the last thing he wants. He came to acquire something – to accumulate material; and I try to peel off the technical and emotional material he has accumulated all his life – consciously or unconsciously. From his point of view, I’m attacking him, demanding the impossible from him. I’m asking him to forget himself – to lose himself in order to be.
This is the struggle that takes place, beneath the surface, between teacher and student. When the teacher wins, the student wins, and when the teacher loses, the student loses. And contrary to conventional learning, the student doesn’t accumulate knowledge, he gathers moments of truth, of connection, that have absolutely nothing to do with memory.
Edited from an article published in NRG Maariv in 2010.