Unhitched and Untethered

I watched a lot of westerns when I was a kid. Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, Wild Bill Hickok, Have Gun Will Travel...the list goes on. It was a staple of our meager television diet when there were only three channels available and the world was seen in black and white.

One thing always puzzled me as I watched this feast of oatburners. The cowpoke would ride up to the saloon and would loop the reins over the hitching post to park his horse. No sailors knot required. Not even a granny knot. Just once around that post and this half-ton of equine muscle was locked into place.

Stephe with his t'ai chi teacher

Stephe with his t’ai chi teacher

Why didn’t the horse just back up and give the reins a yank? A six-year old girl could do it, why not a full-grown horse? Then there’s “ground hitching,” where you just drop the reins on the ground and the horse won’t even try to go back to the barn for a pint.

The light went on for me much later when I heard a story about training elephants. It said that an elephant was secure by a heavy rope attached to the leg when it was young. Frustrated in attempts to get free, it stopped trying. The memory of failed attempts stuck and as an adult, it could be secured by the flimsiest of tethers.

We’re not much different, we humans. We “learn” from our failed attempts and stop trying those things that we are pretty sure are “impossible,” or at least too difficult. We also develop elaborate explanations to explain our limitations.

I see this all the time in the wonderful microcosm that is push hands. When the familiar primitive responses stored in our body-mind don’t yield the results we hope for, we retreat to our fight-flight-freeze state.

Or we ask, “What else is possible?”

For example, one thing that creates that deer-in-the-headlights response is when a strong partner pins your elbows behind you. You “know” that you are stuck. Your shoulder muscles are just not strong enough to overcome the power and mass that opposes them, and if you struggle too hard, injury is a likelihood. (I speak from experience here. Multiple injuries. I’m a slow learner about such things.) Most experienced players solve the riddle by not letting you get them in that position, but that strategy opens them up to exploitation in other ways.

In this video, Dennis McDonald demonstrates a solution using elbow jin. He makes it look easy, but there are a few insubstantial things going on here. In addition to heightening energetic coherence by pointing the index finger (which also accesses tensegrity), Dennis reaches to me with his elbow. He DOES NOT try to push me away with muscular force (li). He MEETS me and reaches toward me.

Jin uses qi directed by intention to produce physical effects. It takes many forms and is essential to taijiquan. Elbow jin is a shorthand expression that covers using jin in the various ways the elbow can be used.

When we go from the microcosm of push hands to the larger arena of the lived life, we can start to identify the many ways we are tethered to the hitching post of old ideas and self-imposed limitations. How many times have you heard someone say they were “tone deaf”? While there is a congenital condition of amusia where one cannot distinguish between two tones, I have not met anyone who could not get through at least one verse of “Happy Birthday.” But many people who DO want to sing latch onto that label to account for the fact that they never learned to sing to their satisfaction. Not “deaf” but untrained. After they repeated the excuse enough times, they started to believe it themselves.

Whenever I would complain that I was incapable of something as a child, my mother would quip, “Argue for your limitations and they are yours.” So now when I bump up against my (perceived) limitations, I ask an abundant, benevolent universe, “What else is possible?”

The results have been amazing.

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