Tai Chi Balancing Miracles

While I was away in the mountains I did some thinking about balance illusions. There are two kinds.

1) The opponent believes/feels they are balanced when in fact they are off-balance. This allows you to freely hit them, even in slow motion.

2) The opponent believes/feels they are off-balance when in fact they are balanced. This allows you to move them around as if tipping a cardboard box or a styrofoam castle.

These two illusions are opposites or reversals of each other, something they have in common with all Golden Elixir progressions (future blog post).

Both illusions work because balance has three main components which can be manipulated to produce perceptual dissonance. The three components of balance are visual, tactile, and vestibular (inner ear).

Balance is an unconscious process, which is to say, it happens instantaneously. When perceptual data from the three components of balance is contradictory it could cause a processing delay. In evolutionary terms, a processing delay could be deadly. It could cause you to fall off a cliff or get eaten by a lion. Instead, the mind instantaneously chooses to dismiss the perceptual data from one of the components of balance in favor of the others.

Scientists have been studying this effect in child developmental and in airplane pilots for some time. Airplane pilots who fly at night and into clouds have to learn to fly exclusively by looking at their instrument panels to assess balance (pitch and roll), otherwise they become disoriented and crash. Perceptual illusions can be created by the ground as well, especially for high speed fighter pilots.

I teach this in the push-hands game (but it can be applied in sparring too). The first version, where the opponent believes they are balanced when they are not, requires the Shanghai push-hands rule-set. Namely that the game ends when one person puts their hand on the other’s neck. Unfortunately, in the West, this does not feel like a natural end to most people. George Xu has a modified ending which is more convincing to Westerners, he clips you with his fist on your chin. In this illusion the opponent is very vulnerable because they have unconsciously given up their structure to maintain their root. This first method is superior to the second method for applied fighting because the opponent does not resist rotational attacks (called “split” in Tai Chi language). The opponent will mis-perceive you as incredibly strong and might allow you to maim them. Fortunately, for my psyche, I have never taken it that far so I do not know for sure.

The second version, where the opponent believes they are unbalanced when they are still balanced is a better con man illusion. It is more universally convincing. The trick is to get the opponent to stick to you in a futile attempt to use you to maintain their balance. This causes them to become rigid, and so easy to tip.

The components of balance, touch (tactile), visual (what the eyes think they see), and vestibular (what feels like “balance” and “unbalance”), are intrinsically linked. By making the physical body empty of intent, most opponents will mis-interpret touch. By moving the center of orientation in counter-intuitive ways, most people will mis-read what they are seeing. Vestibular information is harder to comprehend, it is part of the feedback loop but is not sufficient to produce balance in a dynamic situation.

It is a good idea to practice balancing on one foot with your eyes closed. It is also a good idea to practice stand-up wrestling with your eyes closed. Both of these will help you understand the illusion. But the Golden Elixir is the key because the Golden Elixir produces the four main reversal-tools of the illusion: 1) emptiness, 2) neigong (inward power), 3) qi on the back, and 4) counter-balancing all incoming forces.

The ideal situation for producing both of these Balancing Illusions is the Miracle of having an opponent who has been training the Tai Chi skill called “Tingjin” or “listening power.” Everybody please keep teaching this!