In a number of past articles (and quite likely in some future ones) I am less than kind about people who do ‘empty force.’ I like to think of myself as a kind person, so I’ll take a few moments to explain my position.
I am not only motivated by kindness. I think that there is a lot of mixed up thinking, which overlooks interesting phenomenon, some of which can be useful. Clearing that up may be kind. More selfishly I believe that fake superpowers give a bad impression of internal martial arts to the kind of people who I most like to work with.
I’d like to start with a number of personal experiences in which empty force was demonstrated.
My first Taiji teacher was a pioneer of Taiji in London in the 1970s and 1980s. The teacher was pretty light on instruction of how exactly to use the body, but pretty strong on philosophy. In class and partner practice emphasis was on yielding and sensitivity. There were also various exercises in which the students were thrown dramatically by the teacher, and each other with little or zero contact. The teacher, being quite canny, would usually only do hands on (or energy on) practices with certain kinds of student. These included cute women and sensitive male believers.
One day I found myself partnered with the teacher for one of these exercises. I remember very clearly making a decision to jump back when I was given the signal (pushed a little bit) because I was embarrassed not to. I understand the dynamics of social pressure intimately.
The second was a teacher of Chinese origin in the North of England who has since adopted a Tibetan name. He cultivated a worshipping attitude in his students, who would go spinning across the room at the slightest wave of his hand.
I had the privilege of pushing hands with this ‘celestial master’ in public, but away from his usual crowd of people. I did not get thrown at the slightest touch. In fact I did not feel like the teacher could really control me in any way. All he could do was try and keep his hands over mine (the upper position giving certain advantages) in a mildly panicked way. I let him. Like I said, I think of myself as kind.
On its own this would not mean much. But later a student of this man moved to London where I was teaching and joined my class. Each time I demonstrated a technique with him he would fly across the room in a way that was disproportionate to what I had actually done. I told him to stop doing that, and he eventually learned to behave like a sensible human in class.
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to look into a lot of different disciplines and train with a lot of people. I have gone deeply into the study of subjective experience, and explored how plastic it can be through hypnosis and NLP. I have learned to recognize various trance states in myself and others. There are some very pleasant and healthy altered states that can be entered through martial arts and Qigong practice. The internal experience is usually extremely personal, and if shared the sharing is consensual, the parties agree on some level, conscious or not, to have the same hallucinations.
Human beings are rationalising primates. There are a great many studies that show when put in a situation people will rationalize to justify their behaviour.
As soon as you enter a group you by default begin to take on some of the behaviours of the group. As soon as you behave a particular way, the mind will start to justify and rationalize the behaviour. In time you take on the beliefs and worldview of the group. This can include beliefs in chi based powers that allow non contact striking.
Other studies show that this tendency can be especially strong when the situation or the behaviour is guided by an authority figure. Martial arts teachers almost always fall into this category of authority figure to their students.
It is a constant tendency within groups, and martial arts groups to become self referential. The techniques and methods of practice become solutions to the question of how to deal with others in the same style.
Attempts to get past this tendency do not always work.
A friend Tony Felix told me once of how in a Taiji school a technique was explained as being useful against Thai round kicks. To demonstrate the teacher asked a student to kick him like a Thai boxer. It was an attempt to go beyond the limits of the style.
No one except my friend seemed to question that the student could not kick like a Thai boxer, because he had not trained like a Thai boxer.
The student demonstrated his faux-thai kick, the teacher countered and threw him on his ass. The members of the school were happy because the school’s superiority over Thai boxing had been demonstrated. My friend, who had actually been kicked by Thai boxers knew better.
When the UFC started there was a big wake up in martial arts. Suddenly techniques were tested outside of their style and often found to be ineffective.
The desire to make things work that do not actually work is a constant force in martial arts, one that every martial artist needs to be wary of and guard against.
As I said there is something useful to be learned, aside from the interesting social dynamics that lead people into believing their teacher’s qi can knock them down from a distance. There are some aspects of non-contact work that I think are worth playing with.
We do influence each other without physical contact. My words are influencing you now, though perhaps not in the way that I intend.
If someone moves to block a feinted attack he has been influenced without contact.
We do not need to explain non-contact influence in terms of internal energy.
When in close physical proximity with other humans our nervous system creates a model of the the posture of the bodies around us. It is thought that we do this to understand the intention of the other, to predict their behaviour.
This system of understanding or prediction can be tuned and refined. Practices that focus awareness on a relaxed body serve very well for this. The result is a sense of connection between the parties, and often a synchronisation of actions that happens faster than conscious process.
Take it one way and you have empty force phenomenon, the felt sense that another person’s action has a direct effect within the body without contact.
This is the same phenomenon that allows two people to raise their glasses and drink simultaneously, one mirroring the other spontaneously, without conscious agreement or rehearsal.
When I work with teachers I do my best to engage these systems, because it is in mirroring the teacher that I have the greatest insight as to how to do what the teacher does. I try to learn directly nervous system to nervous system without conscious interference.
When I work in a non cooperative way I use the same system. I feel the person in front of me with the aim of predicting their behaviour. I am not just ‘receiving’ information, I transmit as well.
By adopting different body postures I can to some extent influence my partner to move. For example if I lift a hand to a position where it is capable of striking the partners face with force then he is likely to move to counter the threat. The more the partner does not want to be hit, the more that he will probably move. Having a deadly weapon will usually amplify this effect, as will having the potential to hit very, very hard.
I do not control how (or even if) he moves though there are certain predictable tendencies.
Once familiar with these tendencies it becomes possible to push people around without touching them, or play a game of non-contact chess vying for position looking for ‘holes’ in the partner’s awareness.
The more both parties agree on the ‘rules’ of this chess game the more elegantly the moves of the different partners will fit together.
This can work providing that the other person do not just go for me – which is what genuine attackers usually do. However if my posture and position is good when he goes for me I should still have options to respond on a contact level such as the well placed threatening hand.
The awareness that this creates is not only interesting, and can be used to communicate non-verbally in a variety of non-martial situations. I’m also willing to say that this is at the root of the ability to feel compassion.
It saddens me that so many people are alienated from these skills because of how they are usually explained. I find full engagement with the mirror neurons gives the fullest experience of life. I think that is something worth standing for.