12 March 2017

A good yield

Here comes another push.
You do something and don't get pushed over.
So it worked, right?

Before I answer that I want to recommend a wonderful book: The Essential Writings of Wendell Berry, edited by Paul Kingsnorth called 'The World-Ending Fire'. How can the award-winning writings of an agrarian, a farmer from Kentucky, no less, be of interest and help to us in our ongoing T'ai Chi journey?

The connection is in how we define 'yield'. Very briefly, Berry has spent over 40 years farming and writing about it from the viewpoint of someone who lives on the land, sees its good health and protection as part of his own health, as well as his duty. After each harvest, or when livestock are taken from a field, he describes how the traditional small farmer does not just think in terms of the tonnage of crop or of meat that it yields, but in the condition of the soil, the richness of the wildlife, the possibility of habitat for beneficial species, the prevention of run-off and soil-erosion, indeed from the pleasure he or she takes in it: in sum, a complete picture requiring there to be good conditions for continuing to farm that land. This implies a duty of care to the wider landscape than just your farm, which seems such an old-fashioned idea to the bean-counting mind of the modern person, but makes perfect sense if you, for instance, hope your children may one day farm the same place. (Or if you actually give a hoot about anything other than a fast buck). Quick fixes based on technology or commerce cannot help a whole environment like the combined care of people integrated into and loving of their locale. If yield continues to be measured in tonnage alone, and not in the increased health, depth and richness of the world's soils, and the good lives of the people who live and farm there, then the prediction that our topsoil will be gone by the end of this century will come to pass.

What this seemingly unrelated topic has to do with T'ai Chi yielding, other than the strictly etymological link, is the negative effects of defining yield very narrowly. Perhaps we think in terms of 'did I have to move my feet or not' (which is the definition used in the frankly ridiculous sport of T'ai Chi Competition Pushing Hands). All the great fighting arts of the world (and all actual fights in real life) use stepping of some kind. It's great to practice fixed feet pushing hands and learn to stand your ground using softness, and this is an essential part of our training: but it is an exercise, which must lead to learning how to step. There is a limit to what standing in one place can allow, sometimes after we have turned, we must step, so as not to block, deflect or start wrestling with the opponent. (Note that blocking, deflecting, locking and controlling are the epitome of the arts of the Security Forces of any state, and some ordinary people also devote their time to learning these). It is also true that we should not step too soon to avoid the attack, as any good T'ai Chi player will just stick, adhere and follow: backing us up. I have pushed hands with many other people from diverse schools and styles over the years, and you can search this blog for my reports from Taichi Caledonia and Push Hands Hannover. When I watched two fixed feet folks wrestling over their tiny patch of ground by grabbing, hanging on and winding up in bizarre postures, I felt immensely sad, any beginner Sumo trainee could have moved them with one hand. T'ai Chi is not a great wrestling art! Why make it into one? Greco-Roman, Sumo or plain western wrestling are all vastly superior. It is like like trying to paint a mural with a watercolour brush. I know this strange hybridisation has happened to other martial arts which have become sports, such as Tae Kwon Do, so I should not be so surprised.

What makes all traditional styles of T'ai Chi so rich and so special? Too many things for me to list, but one is yielding, seen most often in the Form and push hands as Roll-Back. I have practised it in Chen Style, Sun Style and Yang Style so far, and all are equally as deep. One outreaches and connects to the push or incoming attack, really senses what is going on, stays upright and turns, not allowing the push to land on you, and yet somehow drawing it out of the person until they are unbalanced and either fall, retreat or stop, at which point the appropriate response can be made, without conscious decision making or recourse to a list of techniques. It takes years to be able to do this well and is as rewarding and frustrating to learn as any musical instrument.

If the answer to a problem such as 'we need more fuel to make electricity' is 'let's strip mine this mountain', or 'let's frack this valley in a National Park', then yes, when someone pushes you in T'ai Chi, or in life, deflect them any way you can so that you don't have to step. In fact, why not just kick them in the head, or better still break their arm? Then you definitely won't have to deal with them again, (maybe just their angry friends...) If you define successful problem solving in tiny, narrow terms, such as 'having yielded' as 'not having moved your foot', then what I am going to suggest won't be of interest to you. Defining problems and solutions in simplistic terms is the popular contemporary specialisation of an entire army of bureaucrats in every walk of life: medicine, education, agriculture, ecology, charities... you name it. Not seeing things as a whole, as interwoven, but choosing to see them as systems and machines, which behave in mechanistic ways, is a widespread mainly undiagnosed disease.

My suggestion is this: in terms of T'ai Chi yielding: a good yield has only occurred if what we gave back was proportional to what we received. Our posture at the end of a yield should be as upright as when we began, and remain as soft. We need to have received and not rejected the incoming energy, or tried to control it and make it go away. In many respects we need to get in the way, rather than out of the way. After yielding there needs to be no lingering discomfort or agitation (I call this 'residue') that prevents us from immediately joining with the next moment, push, person. Rather than lose our posture and wrangle with someone we should easily be able to 'hop like a sparrow' if uprooted, (which is a wonderful form of yielding, allowing us to be rooted and grounded a split second later, inches or feet from where we just were, ready to yield, push or issue straight away). After a push, however unexpected, we hope to be in as good a frame of mind and body as before it, if not better.

Interestingly, in Nassim Nicholas Taleb's terminology, the unexpected push could be termed a 'black swan event', and if we are merely strong or resilient, we may one day still be overpowered, in T'ai Chi that's like practising hard force all our years then finding at a certain age we just can't rely on our strength or speed any more. If we are week and fragile, and have never developed our centre-line and ability to turn, we will be prone to 'tofu T'ai Chi' or 'noodling', and eventually we will certainly be hard hit. However, if we are 'anti-fragile', we can actually be enlivened and energised by pushes, as we can by really engaging with the unexpected things life throws at us.

I hope I have interested the T'ai Chi practitioner in a broader appreciation of what denotes a good yield, inspired by what Wendell Berry suggests is a deeper way to appreciate what constitutes successful, sustainable farming. I am currently up in Scotland teaching the Aberdeenshire students, and we worked physically on all these things last night in the regular partner work session, resulting in some incredibly soft yields and some wonderful returns. Yield is 'what is given up': in the fully paradoxical nature of being totally empty in order to receive, and also completely full in order to give back. When I get home to my copies of the T'ai Chi Classics I will add the relevant quotes for the interested reader, as everything I have mentioned above is fully backed-up in the Classics. But for now, from memory: 'If after many years you still cannot neutralise a push, seek the defect in the legs and the feet'. Not: 'push them away harder', 'lean over and grab them' or 'try and make them move their foot then say you won'.

Much so-called practical T'ai Chi has no practicality outside the gold-fish-bowl of competition. Lists of techniques are no answer for life's, or the street's demands. To quote the Classics again: 'The principles are few, the permutations are endless'. The incredible yielding taught by Dr Chi, which I have felt independently in several totally unrelated students and grand-students of his, has been, without doubt, of greatest benefit to my life, up there with learning to read, to walk, to draw, to sing. Uprightness and softness, that is to say one's integrity and responsiveness, should not be sacrificed to win a hollow momentary victory, or indeed ruin one's environment for monetary gain. For those who say that such ideas are beyond the original remit of T'ai Chi, a martial art that evolved over time originally in China, I say this: writing was first used, for many hundreds of years, as a means of accounting crops and goods. Wherever it evolved it was pretty much for counting beans. That it hasn't stayed that way is a cause for celebration rather than complaint. Sex evolved for simple organisms to reproduce. We don't argue that it should still only be used for that purpose. Similarly, that T'ai Chi has transformed and spread, to be such a vibrant and fertile part of so many people's lives is a great thing.

1 comment:

Christian said...

Great post!