Monday 23 August 2021

The Eyes Have It...

Chinese martial arts across the many different systems agree on the fundamental importance of training the four aspects of shou yan shenfa bu (hands, eyes, body and footwork).  

Within Chinese philosophy there’s a saying often repeated in martial arts theories that the “mind is the commander.” From a position of balance and stability the mind decides the appropriate actions the body must take: “The heart-mind is the lord of the body and the master of one’s spirit and intelligence. It issues orders, but it takes orders from nothing.” To be able to do this it must habitually be in a state of “empty single-minded stillness.” This is described in History of Chinese Philosophy Through its Key Terms: “’Empty’ refers to not letting the existing knowledge that one has interfere in or obstruct the reception of new knowledge. ‘Single-minded’ refers to not letting an understanding of another phenomenon interfere with understanding the phenomenon at hand. ‘Stillness’ refers to not letting one’s free-wheeling thoughts disturb one’s normal understanding.” With these qualities in place an instant and appropriate response can be made within any situation.

However, for the above statement to make sense the mind must have enough information to be able to accurately read any situation. A second saying is that “the eyes are the vanguard.” In the military tradition of Sunzi the vanguard is the part of an army that goes ahead of the main body gathering information on the ground before any tactical decisions are taken.

I was struck by the following vivid description by Teddy Atlas of the importance of the eyes in a fight. [Atlas has been a well-respected boxing coach since the mid-1970s, including six years at the legendary Catskill boxing club of Cus D’Amato. Atlas is perhaps best known for serving as Mike Tyson’s trainer the first four years of his career and preparing him for the eventual world heavyweight championship]:    

“The eyes are so important in a fight. You must always see everything. That’s what I mean when I used to call the fights on ESPN and say a guy’s got “good eyes.” He’s got good vision, he’s calm, he sees everything. He’s laser-like, he’s concentrated – you have to see! Because if you don’t see it [an incoming attack], your brain won’t register it coming and you’ll be hurt more. You can get knocked out; those are the ones that can hurt you even more. The punches because you don’t have time to prepare yourself for it. You didn’t see it!” Using the eyes properly allows a fighter to be “… always balanced, always in position, always ready to take advantage of a mistake.”

Boxing coach Teddy Atlas: "You must see everything"

Despite the importance placed on the subtle methods handed down to train the capacity of the eyes in Taijiquan, today many practitioners pay little more than lip service to this aspect. Within Chen Taijiquan’s syllabus and its underlying theory is a clear and progressive method for developing the eyes:

Stages of training the eyes

1. In the beginning stages of training the basic habit of keeping the eyes level is laid down. For example, before starting the form almost like a mantra checking: the body is loosened as much as possible with weight sinking down to the feet; the eyes are level and taking a wide view; breathing is natural and unrestricted; and one’s mind is calm. Then repeating this process as you go through each of the postures of the form. 

2. The habit of keeping the eyes level is incorporated during jibengong (basic training) and coordinated with movement at a gross level. For example, during the front reeling silk movement the eyes look beyond the hand during the upper part of the circle; During the lower part of the circle, they follow the direction of the hand without looking down.  

3. When a practitioner is very familiar with the choreography of form and they have laid down a foundation from stages one and two, the requirements become more stringent. For example, each movement finishes with a precise focal point of intention. A recent post on a mind training in Chen Taijiquan included the following examples which are also relevant in this context:

Performing Single Whip (Dan Bian), “Maintain visual focus on the left hand which moves left and upward from the lower right side in a large semi-circle at the front of the body. At the end of the movement, focus on the middle finger of the left hand… In Pie Shen Chui (Turn Body and Punch), focus the eyes on the toe of the left foot, while in Zhou Di Kan Quan (Fist Beneath Elbow) the focus is on the fist located under the elbow.”  (Source: Chen Xin’s Illustrated Explanation of Chen Family Taijiquan)      

4. Throughout the course of each movement practitioners use intention to use their eyes in relation to their stepping, direction and the position of a potential opponent. The elements “guard the left” and “anticipate the right” from Taijiquan’s five methods (jin, tui, gu, pan ding) refer to skills such as instinctively glancing in the direction one is going to step before taking the step. Carefully watch any good football player running with the ball and you’ll catch taking in the situation around him before releasing the ball. Likewise, in Taijiquan it doesn’t make sense to step blindly without checking first.  

The eyes synchronised with one's footwork, direction and the position of a potential opponent. 

5. The culmination of all the above factors leads to a place where we can say that the eyes lead, and the intention follows. Like driving a car where your actions are dictated by the information taken in through eyes. You wouldn’t dream of driving with your eyes closed or looking down towards the floor of your car. But this is just how many people practice Taijiquan. Instead of feeling the movement while keeping awareness of the outside situation, they are almost transfixed by the “skill” of their own movement and oblivious to what is going on around them.      

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