“Good, good… now you’re eating ‘bitter’!” Sifu goaded as my legs started shaking and my spine felt like it was going to snap during Yang style ‘dynamic pushing’. It seems pain and suffering are the only contexts in which my darling Sifu will ever use the word ‘good’.
“Now when you’re ready you can now start pushing!” he laughed as I tried to ‘start’ pushing despite the fact I was already ‘pushing’ with every ounce of might I could muster.
We were doing a drill Sifu calls ‘pushing to exhaustion’ which is always a crowd pleaser when he visits my classes and my students have the opportunity to see me suffer. In this drill you assume a posture from the form and take it into a push hands environment. At a certain point in the proceedings Sifu will resist your push and you then have to start pushing harder, and harder, and harder… until you eventually collapse. It’s isometric training from hell and one that always dispels the myth that Tai Chi is only a ‘soft’ art and it also gives Sifu the opportunity to explain the importance of ‘eating bitter’.
He explained that in Tai Chi there are two ways of eating, ‘sweet’ and ‘bitter’ and it’s only through the latter that you can truly experience the essence of Tai Chi. ‘Eating sweet’ refers to the fact that the training is very light compared to the real thing.
In the Tai Chi world it is what is referred to as ‘Tourist Tai Chi’ because people literally went on holiday to receive their art. They spent a relatively short period of time in an exotic location, had their picture taken with a ‘Master’ and were given a certificate pronouncing their newly found ‘master’ status, and in exchange the Master filled his rice pot and could ‘eat sweet’ until the next tourist walked into his Kwoon. When we speak of ‘eating bitter’ we are referring to the meal that the student consumes which is one of endurance, frustration, aches and the occasional ‘sweet’ moment thrown in to tempt the appetite.
Many people are attracted to Tai Chi because it seems soft and effortless and mistakenly believe they will be on an easy ride, and to be honest most actually get one. Giving the people what they want is good business, but it is only through the ‘hard’ training of Tai Chi that you stand any chance of creating harmony of mind, body and spirit that blends together via a form of osmosis. As my Sifu often tells me, “My job is to give you what you need not what you want!”
Now when we speak of ‘eating bitter’ it would be easy to imagine some mindless ‘beasting’ session but in reality it is the exact opposite. One of my passions in life is a hard workout on a heavy bag, I love dripping with sweat, fighting whilst ‘switching off’ the pain and just simply unloading on the bag. It’s a glorious sensation to start pushing into those last few rounds, your eyes stinging with sweat and your lungs trying to escape through your mouth, but although physically challenging, this only requires the presence of mind to actually keep you pounding away. I find that I regularly switch off and just pound through the rounds ignoring the pain and trying harder, I finish the session ‘in spite’ of my mind and body arguing by actually ignoring the messages of complaint that my body is sending to my brain. My heavy training allowed me to develop the ability to ‘disconnect’ from my body and soldier on regardless and although this is a great quality to have I was losing the ‘skill building’ aspect to my training because the mind-body connection had been virtually severed. Nearly all of my training was intensive, but at the time I didn’t realise that most of it was mindless. In a way I was paying people to ‘eat sweet’ myself because I was giving them money to tell me to train hard. It’s pretty easy to smash a bag when someone is shouting at you to go on, I found it took far more mental fortitude to train hard on my own when I didn’t ‘have’ to do it.
I became very dissatisfied with my training as it had become tasteless and bland. The lessons I was learning from smashing pads and sparring hard spiralled into the law of diminishing returns. I was eating sweet because although I was training hard physically it was becoming less and less mentally and spiritually challenging. Like our perception of taste, we become accustomed to the sweetness very quickly and end up putting more and more sugar on top. I was finding that I had an endless supply of teachers who could give me wonderful beasting sessions, but very few who could really develop my skill. Nowadays it bemuses me why anyone would pay someone to make them hit a bag and a do press-ups for hours on end, anyone with an ounce of mental fortitude could do that a home for nothing and that is exactly what I started to do. The trouble was that my own martial arts classes had also turned into mindless sweat sessions. I realised that I was giving my guys something that they could quite easily do themselves at home AND I was eating sweet because of it. Luckily for me the Tai Chi gave me an opportunity to begin to really transmit skill rather than just providing a place for people to come and work out.
Within the Tai Chi, sometimes horrific demands are placed on the body as it tries with all its might to fight the postures and movements in the form. This fight often comes when the body rebels against the new positions you are forcing it to hold and desperately struggles for the old habitual patterns it is used to. It is here that we first start experiencing ‘bitter’ as we need to the harness the willpower to hold the position. The reason for the seemingly slow pace of Tai Chi is to ensure that there is awareness throughout every inch of movement and to pay attention to the smallest changes in muscle tone. You need to become aware of how your weight is transferring from leg to leg and holding your balance so that you don’t ‘fall’ into your steps, but drive the weight through every movement. As your body starts to scream as you tire and it begs you to speed up. Then your Sifu will tell you to slow down and be mindful of your movements again. If you imagine lifting a barbell slowly enough that you are aware of every movement and muscle twitch, then drag that for twenty minutes you’ll begin to appreciate what it is like to practice the Tai Chi form.
This excruciating pace develops the student both physically and mentally. It breeds a great tenacity into the practitioner and instils the discipline to remain focussed through adversity. One of the other attributes this austere training also develops is what my Sifu calls the ‘video mind’ and is something that you really can’t achieve through the more outwardly intensive training regimes such as bagwork and heavy sparring. Sifu often tells me that I have a ‘butterfly mind’ and I initially took that as a compliment. What he actually meant by this was that my mind flutters constantly from place to place; he also calls it a ‘magpie mind’ because it is drawn to and distracted by shiny objects. When the mind is wandering it isn’t concentrating on the task at hand and as a result misses bits and has gaps that can be exploited. In Tai Chi we are supposed hold our ‘mind’ in every part of our body 100% of the time, which is no easy task!
It is in developing this level of conscious awareness of the body that really defines the process of ‘eating bitter’ and puts you in a struggle with your own mind and it is quite often a very unpleasant experience. During a recent lesson Sifu was expressing the importance of having the limbs ‘driven’ by the body so that I could be powerful throughout every movement in the form and eliminate the dreaded ‘gaps’. To give me something to pace myself by he played some Buddhist chanting that had a distinct ‘dirge’ in the background throughout its twenty-minute duration, which coincidentally is the same length as the form.
As I began the form Sifu was on me, “your head is dropping… your arms aren’t being driven by the waist… you’re not softening… too slow… too fast… get in the front leg… you are getting tired, get in your legs… your mind is wandering, stay focused!” and this went on for twenty minutes. My body was in agony, shaking and exhausted, but it was my mind that had really taken the brunt of the training. Holding my concentration and staying centred for that period of time with both my body and Sifu deliberately trying to steal my mind it was emotionally draining. At the end of the form I actually felt like crying and almost felt broken. Sifu had a big smile on his face and said, “and that’s just good Tai Chi basics!”
As I sat there composing myself I began to notice the chatter that was usually in my mind had gone. My body felt pumped and cleansed and delightfully light. Had I performed a ‘killer’ cardio session, my body would’ve been surging with adrenaline, but instead I was sitting in what could only be described as a state of relative peace. My ‘butterfly mind’ had been momentarily tamed and it was a very tranquil sensation. Sifu explained that when the mind is ‘quiet’ it functions to its full potential and with total clarity. When the mind is fettered and scattered it misses huge pieces of the jigsaw and clings onto the parts that shine the brightest as the rest of the world whizzes past at an unperceivable pace unnoticed. It’s ironic that in order to view the hectic pace of the world around us you actually need to slow down…
The mind is like a wild animal that needs to be tamed and you’ll never tame it by winding it up. To tame an animal requires patience and time to calm it, and it is only when calmed that you can begin to train it. Likewise you’ll never tame the mind by continually giving it treats and eating ‘sweet’. Eating bitter is the only way to learn that necessary patience and to develop the required aware and focused mind to tame the animal inside of yourself.