One of my favorite quotes from Bruce Lee was not completely original. The concept was already part of Taoism and Zen long before he said it, but Westerners had not heard it in the early Seventies.
"You must empty your mind," he said. "Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. Put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend."
I think of this often when I work with my students on push hands and other close-up self-defense skills. I try to be water, and flow around resistance to find my way to my target.
What happens when you punch water? Bruce Lee talked about an inspiration he had when he was frustrated and punched water one day on a lake. Whether this story is true or not doesn't matter. Bruce said that when he punched into a lake, he was inspired because the water gave in to his punch and yet flowed around his fist.
Taoism says "the softest thing cannot be snapped." It discusses a blade of grass or a reed, bending as a strong wind blows. The wind might knock down a large tree if it is old and stiff, but a blade of grass is soft and flexible, and lives through the storm.
When you are practicing push hands or any close-up fighting drill with a partner, you should become that soft blade of grass, giving way to force but surviving.
Be water, my friend.
Flow around the force that your partner or opponent directs at you. Relax, intercept it and find your way around, just as water in a stream does when it encounters a large rock in the river bed.
When I do push hands with someone who is too stiff, they are very easy to defeat. It is easy to find their center and move it, because a stiff arm connects directly to their center. Push the arm and the center follows.
Likewise, someone who is focused on the force they are trying to give you has often lost their center. Their focus can have too much purpose and too much intent. If you are able to remain relaxed and flow around that force, you can find your target and strike effectively.
This type of training should be started very slowly. You and your partner should look for openings and move very slowly for a while as you learn how your body should best respond. You will find yourself tied up, twisted, and off-balance, but you must respond as slowly as your partner moves (if either partner moves too fast, they must be called on it). Both partners should attack and defend whenever they feel an opening.
It is okay to do poorly at first. If you find yourself in a double-weighted position -- in a position where you cannot defend -- ask your partner to do it again, slowly, so you can figure out how best to deal with an attack. This is "investing in loss." If all you are interested in is getting a shot in on your partner, your skill will not progress as it will if you understand that your goal is to find your own weaknesses and make improvement in your skill.
Over time, you speed it up, but for a while, it is best to go very slowly, learning to walk before you run.
It doesn't take water very much work to be relaxed -- only a temperature above 32 degrees. For you and me, being relaxed and learning to flow like water takes a lot of hard work.
So how do you apply this to your life outside of self-defense? I'll talk about that in my next post.