Relaxing with High Spirit
We are practicing “sensing/pushing hands” in Tai Chi class. This exercise involves recognizing through the slightest energy movements of one’s partner just what move that partner is about to make, and then redirecting it away from one’s center of balance (root). Each partner is trying to sense and redirect the other, simultaneously. The exercise sounds simple, but it is not very easy.
“Relax,” says our instructor. One cannot do the sensing from a state of tension. “Keep your spirit high,” we are urged. When the spirit is high, one is alert, aware. We keep trying to find an optimal balance.
Trouble is, most of us are wired to tense up when we perceive a challenge, either a contest or a threat. We get ready to fight or flee. We are highly alert, and definitely not relaxed. On the other hand, most of us tend to lose alertness as we grow more and more relaxed. We space out or even drift into light sleep. We are very relaxed, and not very aware. Sensing hands requires us to be both at the same time.
Tai Chi teaches to not resist a challenge or attack. Instead, we yield and redirect the energy away from us. We don’t force it away; we simply move in such a way that the force of the presumed attack cannot reach our center of balance or harm us. It is non-resistance on steroids.
As we practice, we also notice that in order to do even moderately well at the exercise, we must clear our minds of as much thought as possible. Obviously, we cannot be thinking about a problem at work or what we are going to have for dinner tonight. We must also not be thinking about what our partner is going to do, not anticipating. We must not be reasoning out a response to the anticipation. That is harder. Non-resistance and sensing are done in the moment, laser-focused in the present.
The exercise is a routine part of Tai Chi training. It is also, as is so much of Tai Chi, a lesson in how to approach life. We tend to tense when we sense a challenge, focusing intently on the problem. We also tend to distract our awareness with memories and rehashing of the past or with worry and efforts to anticipate the future.
When we resist another person or circumstance in life, we become open to being thrown off our center, emotionally and situationally. To resist what we do not like gives attention to that circumstance, involves us in an energy-sapping struggle, and increases the strength of that which we are trying to resist, change or avoid. When I resist a situation I do not like, whatever that may be, I actually stick myself more firmly in that situation than if I were able to let it go, to relax, to not focus my energy on how much I do not like that situation and how much I would like things to be otherwise. Not resisting what I do not like does not come easily, just as the practice of sensing hands is not mastered overnight. To yield to what I do not like feels like passively allowing myself to be battered. Non-resistance, however, does not mean allowing oneself to be taken advantage of. As in Tai Chi, the trick is to act, relaxed, just enough to redirect the energy so that one is not thrown off balance. One must relax and keep the spirit high. Both are done with mind focused on the present moment.
“How?” is a good question. There is no step by step answer. “Just do it,” is a frustrating response. Continued practice, over and over, is the path to mastery – or even partial mastery. It also helps to put oneself in the company of those who have mastered the art of non-resistance. The energy of the adept surrounding one makes practice easier.
May we, as beginners, forgive ourselves for not yet being masters. May we be willing to practice, and may we find those with whom we can advance our level of adeptness. May we be open to the concepts of relaxing in response to challenge, of high spirit and of remaining in the present moment. May we become skilled navigators of our lives.