Written for T’ai Chi Magazine
by Peter Ralston
All serious students of T’ai Chi are exposed to the principle called double-weightedness, and yet few of us have any clear understanding of what it’s really all about. It’s possible that this principle has more to offer than first meets the eye. But to get at this “more” we need to consider it from a new perspective.
Looking at how and why the term was created in the first place gives us some clues as to its meaning. Applying some common sense, and a little basic physics and neurology provides even more information. For myself, I can personally contribute decades of in depth experimentation and investigation. Using these tools we can come up with a pretty solid idea of what this principle might be.
Although there are no completely solid accounts about the beginnings of T’ai Chi, a brief historical look is appropriate to begin our investigation. The idea of being double-weighted originated with a man who many historians identify as the first known T’ai Chi master, Wang Chung Yueh. Accounts that we have are inconsistent, but suffice it to say that Master Wang appears many years after the founder of T’ai Chi — who may have been Chang San Feng. Most accounts state that it was Master Wang Chung Yueh who first delivered T’ai Chi to the Chen family. It’s said that Wang demonstrated such superiority over the pugilists of their village that the Chens wisely entreated him to stay and teach.
Upon his departure from the Chens, Wang left a manual describing his art. Toward the end of the manual he makes mention of a central fault found in martial practice that is often translated as “double-weightedness.” In the Appendix of my book The Art of Effortless Power (1991), I chose from nine different translations of the T’ai Chi Classics those particular translations that were significantly different from one another. I did this so the reader could better see them as translations of something difficult to convey in English. Here are two translations of the very same Chinese characters from one of the lines in Wang’s manual where this fault was mentioned.
The reason why a person can still be subdued, even after years of practice, is because he has not been made to realize the fault of ‘double-weightiness.’ (Lee Translation)
It has often been the case that one who has practiced boxing for several years but who has not mastered the correct principle is usually beaten by his opponent. His divided attention is to blame. (Kuo Translation)
You can see that the phrase double-weightiness isn’t in the second translation, here it’s presented as divided attention. That two terms for the same issue have such diverse translations points to the likelihood that there is simply no English equivalent for the distinction that Wang was really making. When we factor in that even in his own time and culture he was communicating something that no one grasped, it’s not surprising that we are left with such different translations of the same Chinese characters. Yet, when it’s translated as “double-weighted,” people commonly assume it refers to standing equally on two feet. On the surface this seems logical, and many T’ai Chi teachers have passed on that viewpoint. But is that what Wang was actually pointing to?
The closer one looks at the issue, the more it seems unlikely that the fault Wang spoke of was merely weight distribution. How hard is it to stop standing on two feet? Most of us can learn to do it within seconds, and can train to do it regularly very quickly. There are reasons not to stand on two feet equally. It restricts mobility and limits pelvic rotation and center movement. Since we can’t shift our weight forward or back our use of the center is severely restricted. So standing equally on two feet isn’t a good idea. But is this all Wang was referring to?
Wang was saying that even after years of training, this “fault” is the reason someone can still be beaten. Do you think that could possibly be standing on two feet? One reason we would hesitate to assert this is that there are plenty of martial artists who regularly distribute weight equally on both feet, but they can’t necessarily be beaten just because of it — even by those who don’t. But mostly, if these students of Wang’s lost only because they kept standing on two feet for years on end, they would have to be the slowest learners ever! I propose that Wang was actually referring to something far more challenging, and certainly less simplistic than just standing equally on two feet.
What might we ourselves find difficult to change even after years of practice? A good candidate would be something counter-intuitive. If bracing up on two legs is difficult to avoid, we need to know why. We brace up to meet a force, or engage a weight, or deal with opposition. This is because we habitually counter strength with strength. We can see that this would be difficult to stop since it is the most automatic response used by almost everyone when fighting. Unless we actually engage in a real martial competition of some kind, it is easy to suppose that we could simply stop using strength if we believe we should. But this is just a thought, which neglects the fact that the brain and nervous system of our bodies have been programmed since childhood to do otherwise.
Investigating the matter, we find that any time we use strength — which is every time we try to move a heavy object, struggle with a significant force, or meet with some resistance to our actions — we always brace up. We also tend to lean our body’s weight in order to counter any weight or resistance we run into. Simply observe any “push hands” competition and you will see these activities obviously taking place. If you study this, you’ll find that whenever people try to apply or receive a force, they always use strength, brace up, and lean. Further investigation reveals why.
Consider a baby just learning to stand. He is mastering balance but hasn’t yet mastered applying a force to a large object. He’s excited about his new power of mobility and so waddles over to push on his toddler sister. What’s going to happen the second he applies force? He’s going to land right on his diaper! Why? Because his use of strength pushes his own weight just as much as it does hers, so he knocks himself to the floor. Undeterred, however, he tries again and again until he finally learns to brace up his chubby little legs and lean into his sister’s weight. Making this shift counters the push-back he will receive from using strength, and in this way he succeeds in pushing her over while remaining upright.
So it goes with all of us. Every time we use strength to move an external object of any significant weight or groundedness, we immediately put our balance in jeopardy, just like the baby. This is an indelible matter of physics. Yet we have trained our bodies and nervous systems to counter the expansion that occurs when we use strength. Bracing the legs and leaning against the force offers us a rigid platform from which we can shove or yank and affect another’s weight while not losing our own balance. But this still puts our balance in jeopardy, increases tension, and greatly restricts our fluidity. Since we’ve been doing this from childhood, it is engrained and difficult to change.
If we want to change this deep seated programming, we need to understand a little about how our bodies function in this domain. Our brains are extremely complex, but in general we can divide them into the cerebral cortex, often referred to as grey matter, and the “reptilian” or more primal part of the brain. It’s the reptilian brain as well as the white matter that controls pretty much everything that goes on with the body except thinking.
Our highly developed cerebral cortex set us apart from the other creatures of the world, and we are quite proud of our ability to think, reason, and formulate abstract ideas and imaginary possibilities. Yet we may be underestimating the essential role played by our reptilian brain in the domain of mastery. Have you ever tried to catch a fly? Even if the fly insists on sitting on the edge of your cup as you repeatedly swish it away, it evades you with skill and often lands again on your cup. Do you have that degree of ability?
Have you ever seen a fly crash land? No? Neither have I. They are not only hard to catch but make perfect and exact landings almost anywhere. Any human who could perform so skillfully would be considered a master, wouldn’t he? The point is that the fly has such a small brain it’s hard to find, and none of it is cerebral cortex! This means all of that skill comes from the inconspicuous white matter, which, when it comes to skill, puts our “superior” grey matter to shame.
We often fail to notice that the reptilian brain, the non-thinking part of our brains, contains far more skill and “intelligence” than we realize, and that it dominates our every bodily function. If we are going to accomplish anything close to the skill of a common house fly, it is the non-thinking part of the brain that needs to be transformed. In order to avoid putting our balance in jeopardy and freezing our bodies in rigidity — in other words, remain constantly balanced and relaxed even under pressure — we need to make a fundamental shift in our nervous system. Such a deep alteration is a challenging affair, and Wang’s students could have easily practiced for years attempting this transformation and still failed to give up their habitual use of strength.
Consider that this “fault” is brought about by our nervous system’s automatic and often unconscious use of strength in reaction to encountering another’s weight, force, or resistance. Although standing equally on both feet should be avoided, the difficulty in transforming our habitual and reactive use of strength is a much more likely candidate for what Wang was communicating. The domain we’re talking about isn’t found in our solo practice, it is one involving interaction and is integral to becoming truly skillful at T’ai Chi.
I’ve looked into this matter myself for many decades, and I have engaged every kind of martial artist without loss since I was a teenager. Many of you knew of my reputation even before I became the first non-Asian to win the full-contact World martial arts tournament held in China in 1978. Yet you probably didn’t know that the reason the International T’ai Chi gathering, held close by that same week, claimed me as a “T’ai Chi” fighter during the 5 days of the tournament, was that I refrained from responding in kind when my opponents used strength. It’s been more than thirty years since then and I have only confirmed this choice over and over again throughout this time.
At age 60, I want to share with you that there is a way around this “fault.” It isn’t a quick fix since, as I stated above, it demands a fundamental shift in our neurological system. If we aren’t going to use muscular strength then obviously we need to find another source of power. This new power can’t depend on how much we weigh or how strong we are, and must be consistent with keeping our balance in our own feet throughout its use without bracing up. Such is the nature of what I call “effortless power.”
Effortless power uses an “intrinsic” strength inherent in the body, which allows us to avoid the use of muscular strength, bracing up, and the loss of balance. In short, we avoid Wang’s fault. The use of effortless power, however, is not something that can be picked up overnight. But merely pondering the dynamics that must be involved to do so is enough to suggest that the principle called “double weightiness” isn’t what it seems at first. Set aside any beliefs you have on the matter, and look into it for yourself. A more thorough investigation can contribute a great deal to your studies, even if all it does is to invite you to question beyond what you take for granted. Such an open perspective will enhance your practice no matter where your search takes you.