A few weeks ago, April 15, I gave a seminar at David Shaver’s Peaceful Wolf T’ai Chi in East Haddam, CT. I love the folks at Peaceful Wolf. David and I go way back to the last century and we erupt into peals of laughter every time we meet. He’s a special teacher and I am truly grateful for the support he’s shown me and my work through the years. We try to make something happen a couple times a year.
This seminar was called “Push Hands for Lovers.” “For those who love and who love to love. Not just for sweethearts.” It’s based on one of the core concepts of my gongfu: Love-based Martial Arts. The idea came to me when I was competing in push hands tournaments (over 20 years ago!): I found that I played my best when I was unconditionally loving. It’s a theme that I visited often going forward.
Here’s an excerpt from a post I wrote in 2014:
In each moment of our lives we are presented with the opportunity to choose between Love and Fear.
Love embraces what is.
Fear rejects it.
The human animal is wired to respond to challenging situations in much the same way as other animals: fight, flight, or freeze. The challenge is seen as a threat and our responses are fear-based (not just fear, but anger, hostility, contemptuousness, resentment, etc.). The human spirit, on the other hand, is inspired to transcend and include the challenging energies through understanding and compassion—Love.
Many martial arts draw their strength and effectiveness by emphasizing fear as motivation. Students are instructed to develop armor to resist incoming energy and powerful weapons to pierce opponents’ armor. The world is seen as a harsh and hostile place, and training rewards fear-based behavior.
Paradoxically, we are actually empowered by love and compassion, even in the face of threatening behavior. We are physically stronger and have clearer perceptions and better reactions when calm, centered, and expansive. Some martial arts use this to their advantage.
The challenge is to allay the fears of our animal nature while learning to handle unpredictable behaviors with confidence and understanding. Those who can do this are rewarded with expanded consciousness, a heightened sense of well-being, and a trove of unexpected abilities.
There are certainly times when a feral response to a desperate situation is entirely appropriate, particularly when we are unequipped to handle it otherwise. “Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six,” goes the old saw. However, the complexities of modern life render those vicious outbursts risky at best. We are more often challenged by an odious boss, an unwanted sexual advance, or an overbearing relative pushing an ideological agenda with the ruthlessness of a medieval Jesuit, and it’s usually better to handle people with a minimum of bloodletting (if only to avoid the paperwork).
Yet we are often triggered by unwanted and unexpected energies and intentions as if attacked by a wild animal—fight, flight, or freeze. It’s a program that is imbedded in our DNA and is often immune to logic. “I know I shouldn’t be frightened by my (boss, ex-boyfriend, teacher, etc.), but I can’t help it.” That “reptile brain” response is a default setting for many of us and remains so until we practice shifting to more sophisticated parts of the brain. Response patterns are encoded in our neurochemistry by repetition, enslaving us to our fears. The “choice” of Love vs. Fear seems a cynical illusion when all we know is fear.
How to break the cycle? What if we try lots of underhand pitches before we start throwing fastballs? What if we re-train the nervous system to handle challenges more calmly as we gradually raise the bar? What if we employ some of the taiji tricks of the trade to confidently receive energy and act with effortless power?
Pushing Hands for Lovers is for anyone who wants to re-program those subconscious fear-based response patterns and encounter others with an open heart, even in challenging situations.
I think that authentic love comes from Wholeness, not neediness. It happens when we Meet another with our whole being, and that requires a state of wholeness. In Meeting, we give our object-based consciousness a temporary break and shift into non-objective awareness. We encounter another as a partner and resonate together. We embrace the actuality of the situation, and the person or thing we are Meeting.
This was easier to explore in competitions where you knew that your opponent meant you no actual harm. Injuries were few, and the only thing at risk was your self-image. But the intensity was still high and you got a chance to see what you actually trusted when under pressure.
For me it was love. Without it, I couldn’t find my gongfu. My mind was too small, because I wasn’t in the present. I would get tense and reactive, relying on crude muscular effort, not the soft power of taijiquan. My responses were slower because I wasn’t fully present.
Of course, there are many (most?) martial arts that are fear-based. “Kill or be killed” is a motto that pre-dates all mottos. But is that the game you want to play with your martial arts? Martial arts is not just smash and burn. Bushido is the name for the Samurai Code, the “Code of the Warrior.” One of the key principles is Jin: Kindness and Compassion.
Extending from wholeness empowers us. And power is directly proportional to our ability to occupy space and time in the present moment. When we objectify self and others, we fabricate a narrative. When we get lost in our narrative we are no longer in the present.
Push Hands for Lovers begins with Wholeness. In Wholeness we can get out of our heads and get into the game.
I came across this photo recently. It reminded me of the joy I experienced when competing in push hands tournaments. Many thanks to my old buddy Don Ethan Miller (a great champion himself) for the love, laughter, and wonderful explorations we shared during that period.