One of the activities the Black Rock Kwoon often hosted was a push hands* meetup organized by the Dread Pirate Lee. It was a great time to meet fellow practitioners and to get to push against a wide variety of people from all sorts of backgrounds, lineages, and experience levels.
One year, mid-way through, I began to develop a sense of something. Taking it on as an inquiry for the rest of the meetup, I began to formulate a principle/theory I quickly coined as the Tai Chi Push Hands Skill Differential Exponential Experience Factor (or TCPHSDEEF for short**):
If I have 1 level of skill, and you have 1 level of skill, to me it will feel like you have 1 level of skill.
If I have 1 level of skill, and you have 1.1 level of skill, to me it will feel like you have 1.25 level of skill.
If I have 1 level of skill, and you have 1.5 level of skill, to me it will feel like you have 3 level of skill.
If I have 1 level of skill, and you have 3 level of skill, to me it will feel like you are a god.
As the skill differential grows, the one with the greater skill gains the multi-whammy ability to be more relaxed, have less openings, sense the other’s movements and openings with greater clarity, and has the techniques to be able to engage those openings, AND those techniques will have greater subtlety, compounding the lesser sensitivity on the other side to respond before flump! You’re off balance.
The upshot of it was this: when I pushed against those at higher skill levels than me, it almost always felt like I was light years behind (both physically in the movements/responses but also metaphorically), being tossed this way and that. On the other side of the skill coin, however, it mattered little what my partner would send my way, even if I was unfamiliar with the technique. I could remain centered and able to redirect with seeming ease. I felt very much in control.
While the idea of the compounding nature of skill, and the abilities that it grants us, was important enough, it was the experience, the feeling, that came with that really struck me (and stuck with me).
Especially as this, as they so often do, ranges far beyond just implications for the martial arts.
No matter what skill we may aim to develop, whether it be tennis or skiing, drawing or cooking, working or playing, listening, giving, caring, or even in the realm of profound skills such as being peaceful, generous, passionate, expressed, loving… for any of those skills it means that the high level of ability is actually closer than we might think.
For one, that compounding nature works in our favour. But more importantly, it further means that things that may seem out of reach are not really that out of reach. We need not accuse ourselves of lacking talent, or fall into “I can never…”, or relegate ourselves to the dustbins along the margins.
It is nigh-well inevitable that we compare ourselves with others and their skill level(s), but any vast gulf that seems to scream at us that we (still) suck is illusionary and, in actuality, an overly dramatic scream.
We may see someone, interact with someone, be with someone, and come away with the feeling that they so own that skill that it must be ingrained, and I must have an equally ingrained difficulty with it. And yet that feeling is just the Skill Differential Exponential Experience Factor (SDEEF for short…?) at play.
Thus, we can let that feeling be the feeling, and continue to play. For that is what great push hands is, play. You play, you teach, you learn, and ultimately grow, enjoying the moment now and enjoying the fruits and fulfillment that comes with the ever-deepening skill.
* Push Hands is a practice from Tai Chi to develop the basic concepts of sensitivity, following, emptying, redirecting, and effortless pushing, beginning with simple drills where one partner pushes while the other receives and empties, followed by a switch in roles, continually back and forth.
** Well, OK, not really for short…