If you place a ball on a hill, it will roll downward. The ball has no choice in the matter. But if you stood on a hill, you can choose to walk uphill or downhill. Although you might prefer, or find it easier, to descend the hill, you have the choice. That is what it means to have free will.
Sometimes we live without making use of free will. If every time you see a cake, you eat it, and if every time someone cuts you off on the road, you yell and honk at them, do you have a choice in doing so or not doing so? If the answer is no, are you truly free?
Push hands – the martial practice of free will
Martial art practice and push hands practice is a physical practice of free will. In push hands, your partner will apply pressure to you. When you face this amount of controlled threat, do you tense up?
We aim to be able to remove our attention and intention away from the site of the conflict. Even though the pressure may be on your arms or your torso, we practice to accept the circumstance and to choose our action.
Accept the circumstance
When the pressure is applied to your arm, if you immediately become concerned with how much pressure is on your arm, then your intention will be trapped there. Instead, we will first accept the pressure. It may not be what you like to feel. It may be an obstacle keeping you from accomplishing what you want to accomplish. But it is there and that is the present circumstance. That is the present moment.
Once you can accept this without denial, and without struggle, you will begin to be conscious of your free will. If you resist this reality, you will react. You will react with tension. You might even react emotionally. But reaction is not free will.
Action = reaction. That is the the law of physics for objects. But we are more than objects. Instead of reacting, we can accept. And having accepted, we can choose.
Choose your response
Once you can accept, you will not react. Once you do not react, then you automatically become aware of your ability to choose your response. In push hands, you gain an advantage in force control, stability, and geometry by being able to shift your intention away from the site of conflict.
As we repeatedly practice this, we become more and more able to maintain control of our intention, and thereby maintain control of the conflict. As we grow our capacity to face threats and challenges without tensing up, we gain a greater degree of free will that helps us in all aspects of life, not just in martial arts. This is the practice of 意, yi, intention through Chinese martial arts.
Martial practice brings mastery of your reaction and mastery of your destiny
We commonly think of martial arts practice as mastering your movements, your ability to move in spectacular and powerful ways. While this is true it is just a part of the picture, in particular, the solo aspect of it. Martial training is also a way of mastering your reactions, of regaining your freedom to choose the best response in tough situations.
When viewed in this light, we can easily understand the relationship between enlightenment practices in Chinese temples and martial arts.
What’s your experience with push hands? We all tense up at first! Share a time when you did push hands or partner practices well and how your ability to overcome knee jerk reactions played into it!