Peter Ralston Holland Interview

Last summer while doing a retreat in Holland, Peter sat down for an interviewed with a Dutch T’ai Chi magazine. The interview was in English then rendered into Dutch. We’re making it available to you in the original English so to share it more broadly. The theme is mostly about Cheng Hsin Art’s relationship to T’ai Chi.


2016 Peter Ralston Holland Interview

A man a man, a word a word

[Old Dutch saying referring to being a man of your word, honest]

Interview with Peter Ralston

by Connie Witte

Peter Ralston has intrigued me since I saw him in a Dutch magazine for the first time, about 15 years ago. A man in which soft and hard seemed to flow together. His history as a fighter appealed to me and repelled me at the same time. It also gave me the idea that his lessons were not suitable for women.

“Assumptions,” writes Peter clearly in his books, are something to “get rid of” (shifting from belief to experience). Also my beliefs did not stand up, so at the end of June I took the plunge into the deep end and followed his weekend workshop in
Effortless Power at De Glind, Holland.

The first participant I met was a woman. Elisabeth switched five or six years ago from Taijiquan to Cheng Hsin: “It is so much more fun. I have never been afraid I would get hurt.” For me the workshop was a revelation.

Peter Ralston talks quickly, makes a lot of (funny) jokes, has clear eyes,
and is a driven teacher. The unexpected movements of his body, face, and mouth are so quick that I couldn’t believe my eyes. “Don’t try to accomplish a result; just do what I say.” At a fast pace we stretch out our bodies, roll over the mats on the floor, fall and get up again, yield to the pressure of the other, push effortlessly (“Effortless power does not mean ‘with less power‘, ‘it means with no power”), learn how to lead the other (hanging the carrot in front of the horse), or let ourselves be compressed (“you can’t compress yourself”). The instructions are clarifying: learning intelligent pushing is like sticking a thread into the eye of a needle or locating a small stone in the food in your mouth with your tongue. After two days I have a muscle ache all over my body, I am unusually lively, frisky, and creative.

I sat down with Peter afterwards and we had the following conversation.

2016 Peter Ralston Holland Interview

CW: You created your system Cheng Hsin out of the essence you discovered in various martial arts. Can you briefly describe Cheng Hsin?

PR: Cheng Hsin was never meant to be a martial art and it was never intended to be a system. It is a way of approaching discovery. In the martial domain it was about discovering the principles and dynamics that actually function well, oriented around being effortlessly effective.

I studied many, many martial arts, almost every martial art there is. This pursuit was about trying to understand what’s true, beyond every martial art, beyond dogma and beyond belief systems. I didn’t want to stay with any tradition, dogma, or belief system. I know the traditions because I studied them since I was a child. So I was trying to discover what’s real and not just what’s handed down.

By “real” I don’t mean just what works immediately simply because I can understand it, but what’s real beyond my understanding, beyond anybody’s understanding, because it may well go beyond what anybody has ever understood or has invented. And that is Cheng Hsin.

It refers to the “true nature,” and also implies an
integrity of being. It wasn’t supposed to be a system
but it was a way of understanding, a pursuit of what’s real, what’s true. Over the decades, in order to teach people, it evolved into what looks like a system because it has developed techniques, exercises, workshops, and a huge amount of knowledge about the body, interaction, mind, perception, communication, and so on.

In the martial domain the basic pursuit is effortless effectiveness. You can be most effective when you’re also effortless. This is helped tremendously by developing what I call effortless power. You can pursue it because you want to be effortless, or because you want the power. But pursuing effortless power leads to so much discovery about yourself, about reality, about how the body works, how your mind works, how the nervous system works, how physics works. In Cheng Hsin you will discover huge amounts of information and understanding that you would not discover otherwise.

Cheng Hsin refers to the “true nature” and also implies an integrity of being.

2016 Peter Ralston Holland Interview

CW: What is in it from Tai Chi?

PR: Well, in our martial studies, t’ai chi played a very important role, as did other martial arts, but t’ai chi played probably the most important role because t’ai chi provided some ideas about effortlessness—which t’ai chi doesn’t really do, but at least the idea is there. As well as ideas of yielding, grounding, being more fluid, joining, and so on. These ideas were a good direction. When I started in the martial arts as a child I did judo and jujitsu and then karate and kenpo and all sorts of kungfu’s, Chinese and Japanese weapons, aikido, hsing I, pakua, t’ai chi and Western fencing and boxing, wrestling in high school, stuff like that, trying to understand the whole field, not just one limited Art. And t’ai chi was part of the direction in which I developed.

In judo, as a teenager I had a breakthrough and realized it was supposed to be easy. I moved away from karate into kung fu, because it was more fluid and there I heard about this internal power, and found that idea intriguing. Then t’ai chi seemed to be even more relaxed, more in that same direction in which I was evolving.

But t’ai chi wasn’t enough for me. It’s a very big art that almost nobody really knows. Almost nobody does it like a complete functional art. There are very few people who do it functionally at all, William Chen, and a few others, but most people just do a set of movements, and maybe some push hands. It had the potential to be much bigger and I’m sure at one point it was much bigger than it is now. It’s degraded too much in being easy, being something you can do in a park, being something everybody can do. So that cuts out a whole lot of stuff that makes it more difficult and more realistic and I didn’t want to cut out any domain.

When you end up just uprooting, like in t’ai chi, okay, that’s fun, but that’s not very much. I mean, many arts throw people down, t’ai chi used to throw people down and to do striking, kicking, breaking, etc., but now even those few who try to do those things are stuck in so much dogma and traditional methods it is very ineffective as a real fighting art. No one in t’ai chi does good throwing, and there has never been any grappling art in it. I missed the whole broad-spectrum of possibilities and I wanted to do it all.

So although I used some of the basics, some of the ideas, from t’ai chi, I did much more. As I said, I didn’t want any of it stuck in dogma or in tradition or any belief system. Over time any particular martial art almost always develops a myopic way of looking at things. Most martial arts are very blinded. For instance, karate only looks at a very small world as do all the kung fu’s. T’ai chi only looks in this direction and aikido only in that direction, and that’s just too small if you really want to engage seriously, every

2016 Peter Ralston Holland Interview

direction is valid, and there’s no reason not to look in every direction, but most people may not have the time or care enough in order to study and investigate so much.

Taiji has degraded too much in being easy, being something you can do in a park, being something everybody can do.

CW: Also you were very young then?

PR: Basically I started t’ai chi when I was 19, by then I already had ten years of martial arts experience. So although t’ai chi played an important role it was necessary to go beyond it. I’m sure t’ai chi people and t’ai chi masters will say: ‘How can you go beyond t’ai chi, it’s a great art?’ Well yes, sure, there’s a few good arts and t’ai chi is one, but again, is this an honest view? Are people practicing it to really understand what’s true and effective, or are they following a belief system? That’s where we separate. Some people can be very good at some thing but it is limited to one particular area. For me, one of my interests was to be a good fighter, being able to fight anybody, anywhere, any time, doing anything. Not just if you cooperate, nor just if you do this or that game, but anything. And t’ai chi practitioners cannot do that, most t’ai chi masters cannot do that, most martial artist of any kind cannot do that.

CW: The full contact world tournament that you won in the Republic of China as the first non- Asian person, you were acknowledged by the world conference of t’ai chi and considered to have won it with t’ai chi?

PR: Everybody likes a winner. I didn’t say I won my fights with t’ai chi, they did. There was a conference happening at the same time as the tournament, and they heard about this strange guy winning fights and the guy seemed to be more relaxed, more fluid so they decided to claim me. Kumar (Bruce) Francis, who saw me fight also visited this conference, and told me about it. But on the other hand, in the Chinese papers and on their TV, they were kind of upset with me because, besides the fact that they were losing, they reported that this guy is using “foreign” arts. Mostly what I was doing looked to them like judo and boxing, since I was striking with boxing skill, and throwing with judo skill, and neither of those are Chinese arts, they’re Japanese and western.

2016 Peter Ralston Holland Interview

CW: But it was a full contact world championship?
PR: Yes. As it was put on by Chinese they expected to win.

CW: By that time the name Cheng Hsin already existed?

PR: At that time I was 28 and the first time I named Cheng Hsin I was 25, in 1975. I called it “Cheng Hsin” because it was too obvious that I was not doing the same thing my teachers were doing, or any other art was doing.

CW: In the Dutch workshop we did tai chi?

PR: Yes, we also did a little t’ai chi. We do a push, and t’ai chi does pushing—and we do some other things that t’ai chi might do—but we also do lots of things that they don’t do. But even if we do a push, it’s not the t’ai chi push. We do it very differently, it was created from the ground up and created consistent with principles of Cheng Hsin and the goal of effortless power. So the fact that we push doesn’t mean we do t’ai chi. The only real similarity is, they push and we push.

CW: I saw two differences with the push as I know it; you always stay down where we come up in the front, and you keep your attention always with the opponent, our attention is meant to be at the wall behind the person we’re throwing.

PR: It’s more than that. What we do is actually quite different. We use intrinsic strength in a way that t’ai chi does not. We use compression and effortless power and although t’ai chi uses a more sophisticated form of strength, like fajing, it is still strength. So it’s not the same. In t’ai chi do they talk about compression? No, it is loading, or something like that, loading and then releasing, isn’t it? That’s TWO things and you heard me say (in the workshop) it’s only ONE. So the type of power and the way we do it, is a different thing and the use of the mind is different because it’s a different activity. Also in karate one is told to think through the board, things like that, but it does not mean they are doing t’ai chi.

2016 Peter Ralston Holland Interview

CW: What is ch’i?

PR: Well, if you want to know the truth, ch’i doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as ch’i. Now that’s a very unhappy idea, so let me reframe it, because t’ai chi people do not want to hear there’s no ch’i. Ch’i is something we create, we have the power to do that. We have the power to use our mind and our intention to move our feeling-attention around in the body and outside of the body to increase grounding, feeling, sensitivity, awareness, flow, circulation, etc. There are many things that we can do without any notion of ch’i.

Obviously ch’i is a Chinese word, it is related to ki for example, that’s generally the same word if you look at the language and the way it is used by the Japanese. When westerners get hold of this idea of ch’i they think it’s a mysterious thing, but in the west we say things like ‘you seem very energetic today’ or ‘that person has a lot of vitality’, or ‘you seem depressed’. Now in Chinese and Japanese they would express these ideas with words that have ch’i or ki in it, so instead of ‘you’re depressed’, they say ‘you have down ch’i/ki’. They wouldn’t think of it as a mysterious kind of thing, it’s just what’s happening to your ch’i. Like when we speak about being energetic or enthusiastic or depressed, we don’t think of these states as mysterious but commonplace.

People in judo or aikido want to use the Japanese names and that’s fine, because they are Japanese arts but what we miss is that in Japan they’re not using a foreign language, that is their own language. So instead of saying ‘Ogoshi’ or ‘Deashi Harai’ they are saying ‘hip throw’ or ‘foot sweep’. That is what they are saying in their own language. But to us westerners the Japanese name puts a different flavor on it, but this is not so for the Japanese. So, I try to use mostly English words, to demystify the art and reveal it’s just whatever we’re talking about.

If you want to know the truth,
ch’i doesn’t exist; there is no such thing as ch’i.

CW: Can Cheng Hsin be helpful to mastering T’ai Chi (or the other way round)?

PR: Of course both, anything can be helpful. Cheng Hsin will definitely be helpful to master t’ai chi because it will break up ideas and expand one’s world. Besides you should remember that in t’ai chi there are many kinds of schools with many different thoughts. Different t’ai chi people push differently, most t’ai chi people never push at all, and even in Yang style there are many differences, almost every teacher has a different

2016 Peter Ralston Holland Interview

idea of what Yang style is, there’s not just one t’ai chi. But in any case, it would help to break up these small view of what’s possible.

It’s kind of the same thing that occurs when people live in one culture and think the whole world is that way. People think that their values and morals, that their cultural perspectives and what’s valuable and what’s not, should be what everybody has around the world. And then, if they go to another culture they find ‘whoops, that’s not the way this culture sees the world.’ They’d probably think the other culture is just wrong, because it’s different. If you go through more cultures you start seeing all are inventions. They are only what humans have made up.

It is the same thing with martial arts and with t’ai chi, all these are inventions that people have made up, people make up different things and have different perspectives and some will be more useful than others and some will be more powerful than others. Regardless of the invention, whatever your purpose is for taking up a practice or an art will determine what you want to get out of it. If your purpose is to become healthy, or to become a good fighter, or be more physically effective, or to be happy, you must see what in the practice is in line with that purpose and what’s not. In many arts there may not be a lot that’s in line with your purpose.

CW: You know the legend of the Shaolin monks: as they were falling asleep during their long contemplating activities their teacher Boddhidharma started teaching them physical exercises which eventually led to martial arts. Did you follow this way or the other way round; from fighting to spiritual insight?

PR: I did both. When I was a child of six years old for some reason I was contemplating without knowing what that was, about time and now, so this kind of questioning seemed to be with me early on. I don’t know why. Also when I started to do martial arts in Singapore at 9, it was judo, I then lived in Tokyo, and back in the US in my mid- teens. I was kind of an outsider, I had lived in so many different places growing up, so I was drawn to be a part of a community and joined a Judo-Jujitsu school. But I had this same disposition, not just to learn but to question and look into it.

My first career was to be a doctor, but studying medicine at the University seemed too abstract at the time, not grounded in helping the real people around me. In the 60’s and 70’s in Berkeley California, there were lots of New Age movements around San Francisco. Lots of stuff was happening there at that time that I was impressed with. I had lived my life studying and I continued that work, but then I saw that people were living in a new way I wanted to be part of it, and to contribute. I wanted to help people,

2016 Peter Ralston Holland Interview

to do something useful, and strangely, medicine didn’t seem to be the right vehicle for that. It was just working with sick people but I wanted to work with everybody.

Then I discovered Zen and contemplation intensives, and in a very short time I had several enlightenments and that was it, consciousness work became definitely what I was going to do and what I’m doing now. For example, I taught martial arts and effortless power for many, many decades. I like it, it is good and it teaches people many things about themselves and about life. It’s very useful for many things. But mostly I taught martial arts to pay the bills. My real interest is conscious work. Now at my Center I do six weeks of consciousness work and two weeks in the art of effortless power a year, where it used to be the other way around. In any case, that’s what I want to be doing. This pursuit has always been towards the truth, honesty, and integrity.

CW: You designed Cheng Hsin as a young man. How did the system or your teaching develop in these last 40 years?

It’s not a system. It’s like an umbrella for a multifaceted pursuit of discovering the truth and the principles behind everything. For a long time I said don’t call it a system, but in time it has become one, and even though it has always kept its original message and purpose, over the years it has matured and become more refined as well as more complex.

CW: Did the conscious work become more important throughout your life?

PR: No, it has always been.
CW: You offer online courses, like a Tai Chi Body-Mind

mini-eCourse. Are these new?

No, not really; newer than some courses but they’ve been around a long time.
CW: Cheng Hsin is not only applicable to fighting situations, but also to daily life. In the

workshop you said ‘Do everything to avoid disadvantageous situations.’ Did you live up to that?

PR: Disadvantage means something that’s going to harm you, that is going to put you in a bad way. The key is recognizing it, and then taking action so that you can handle it,

2016 Peter Ralston Holland Interview

manage it, or avoid it before it becomes a problem. You work to manage life before it becomes a crisis—instead of doing things and being ignorant of what’s unfolding or could unfold until it becomes a crisis. Of course you may not always succeed, but that’s the art of it, to see something coming and take action before you have to.

CW: Participating in a fighting tournament is looking for trouble.

PR: (laughs) Yes, maybe, but everybody who participates is looking for trouble. You could say that all sports are looking for trouble, that’s what a game is, or what all competition is about.

CW: Cheng Hsin not only makes you move faster, but also talk, think, and react faster?

PR: I don’t know about talking faster. But yes, thinking is improved as well as responsiveness. People learn how to learn, to investigate, and to get past dogmatic thinking. Being able to tell the difference between having to think something through and understanding it right away. It does help create new domains of mental ability.

CW: About the relation between mind and body. My town has a town poet. He once said: ‘Some people live life as if riding a rented bicycle.’ You did not only adjust your bicycle but built a new vehicle! What is that vehicle, is it the direct access to your reptilian brain?

PR: Ah, it’s much more than that. The reptilian brain is just one aspect. In a sense you could say—and it wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t always linear, it was success and failure, followed by success and failure—but in a certain way you can say I purposefully crafted my whole life and my whole existence. I created “Peter Ralston.” On purpose. I created Peter Ralston as a master. I created Peter Ralston as a facilitator, as a teacher, as a writer, etc. These are all skills. And so I created them, meaning I worked on them and tried to understand them so I could do them. Clearly I did this with the martial arts. And of course I also look at religions and gurus and spiritual practices: ‘what is this, what are they doing?’ I spent time looking into many different studies about mind, psychology, psychiatry. These are all very interesting but myopic. They

2016 Peter Ralston Holland Interview

only look in a certain direction and I wanted the whole thing, how things exist, not just how we think about them.

So what I recommend to people in order to become really good at anything is to have a certain audacity, a willingness to step outside of the norm—almost like an arrogance— to take risk, to insist that you can do it and not stop until it is done. You’re not waiting for people to hand it to you, or for people to do it for you. You take as much help as you can get, but if you can’t get help you do it anyway. I recommend you have that attitude.

In order to become really good at anything, you have to have a certain audacity.

CW: During the workshop I regularly saw you make sudden unexpected movements, so fast they were almost incomprehensible to my eyes and brain. Were these deliberate or did they occur to you?

PR: I cut out a lot of the middleman. Most people get stuck in the thinking—that’s an abstract process. And are also weighed down by all sorts of social concerns and self- concerns and self-concepts and such. So in order to move more quickly, you eliminate all that and you get right into what’s immediate, rather than spend any time with all the stuff that gets in the way. It takes an unusual depth of training and mind control.

CW: Do you teach that in the conscious work?

PR: The conscious work helps, yes. The more conscious you become of how the mind works—what you’re doing with it and what you don’t have to do—the better you understand how to eliminate unnecessary or ineffective processes, and know what to get rid of. And of course you need lots of practice. The nervous system becomes more finely tuned through practicing, and then you practice getting beyond the norm.

One of my favorite quotes from a Japanese samurai: ‘The moonbeam enters the moment the door opens.’ It’s poetic. The moment you open the door, bam, the light is there. In the martial world it’s rare for people to be able to do that, but if you can, there’s nothing between thought and action, or perception and action.

2016 Peter Ralston Holland Interview

CW: There are places in the body, physical places, where the conscious and the unconscious border on one another.

PR: What you are talking about is perception, being able to perceive something, recognize something. What I am talking about is consciousness that goes beyond perception. It’s difficult to explain what I mean by that. Just imagine being conscious beyond cognition. There’s stuff that you do know, and stuff that you don’t know. But you can know much more. Your consciousness is not restricted to knowing what your self generally knows physically. You can actually know much more than that. But it usually takes work, like contemplation intensives I’m afraid.

CW: You said you never lost a fight. Are you proud, what are you most proud of?

PR: I guess I’m proud of that, I never thought about it. I just said I never lost a fight, not that I am proud of it. I never lost a formal fight, but studying of course I failed a lot. What am I most proud of? My daughter. I also think I am most proud of my honesty. And the fact that I keep working trying to be really honest, working with consciousness, discovering what’s true. And I am proud of Cheng Hsin. I think it’s a magnificent invention, and I think it’s also going to die when I die. (laughs)

Nobody can contain Cheng Hsin except me apparently. I tried to teach for forty, fifty years, and I’ve never managed to get it all across, not to anybody. People have pieces of it, and also it has influenced many other arts; sometimes they don’t even know that Cheng Hsin has influenced them. That’s probably how it will survive, by the influence it has had. But as itself it will likely not survive because you need people understanding and teaching it, and because it requires a lot of intelligence and commitment it will probably die out.

CW: You created apprenticeships and have teachers on different levels.

PR: True, but there are seven billion people on the planet and we are few. It’s not going to last. I’m sure there are many arts in the history of humans that have died. Look at the Greek philosophers, some of them were just fantastic, genius. but how much of that is understood broadly? Something will remain. That’s the reason why I write these books, so that something will remain and people can dig it out later. Or sooner. It’s like in the old school I had in California. In 1995 I shut it down, I moved to Hawaii. I had six good teachers and each one of them was different. It was like each teacher had a part of Cheng Hsin. I told them: ‘If you guys can stay together, you will have a powerful

2016 Peter Ralston Holland Interview

school.’ They didn’t. Some of them are doing very well, but only with a part of Cheng Hsin. Maybe it’s just too much for one human being—except for me because I’m obsessive.

CW: Yes. You mentioned your daughter. Is your kind of life possible with a family life?

PR: People confuse having a family life with being dominated by a family life. I was never dominated by a family life. I was never really dominated by anything. But my pursuit is still the same and it took huge amounts of attention.

CW: That’s clear. The people you mention as examples, Einstein, Picasso, Newton, and I’d like to add Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, are people who managed to create something really new. Their ideas and art didn’t die.

PR: The artist, and with them the creating of their art, died. The only thing that’s remaining to the world are their paintings or ideas.

CW: Last question. You said: “We question not for an answer, but to experience whatever is true.” What did I not ask that should have been asked? What would you add?

PR: The only thing that comes to mind is: What is love? And what does that have to do with anything?

Have you seen “A Man for All Seasons?” It’s a movie about Sir Thomas More. He was head of the church of England and a friend of King Henry VIII. The king wanted More

2016 Peter Ralston Holland Interview

to lie about something and tried very hard to make him do so. More refused to, knowing this would mean that his head would be chopped off. He was put in the tower, where his daughter visited him and he told her: ‘your self is about integrity, being one, being honest with yourself and with others. Your self is like holding water in your hands; if you give your word it’s like holding water and so yourself. When you lie, it’s like you separate your fingers and the water falls through the cracks, and don’t expect to find yourself quickly again. When you do that you will lose yourself.’ She’s kind of upset about it and he says: ‘It all comes down to love.’ That is hard to understand and it is a whole domain that most people miss. Because such lying in one’s being develops slowly and seems subtle, and is also accepted by the culture.

CW: Sometimes it is even expected.

PR: That’s right. And if you do not do that you are considered dangerous. But people don’t know that they’re losing themselves because it most often happens slowly. You don’t know that your life is diminishing.

So, how’s that?
CW: Thank you.
PR: You’re welcome.


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