The Wisdom of the Willow

It was Ben Morris’s workshops that attracted me at Tai Chi Caledonia this summer. Ben is an experienced martial artist with a background in Kyushindo Judo,  Xing Yi and Bagua as well as Taiji. And what makes his take on things so special is the fact that he is a lecturer in Health Psychology at Leeds Trinity University – in other words, someone who combines modern and ancient healing arts. I thought he might offer some unique insights and I wasn’t disappointed.

His called his workshops ‘Translating the tai chi classics through sensing hands’. I rarely have the opportunity to practise partner work so this was a gift not to be ignored. The workshops were carefully built up, exploring the 8 energies or 8 powers of taiji. This is like practising scales on the piano, a chance to put everything you know into something uncomplicated, thereby working without the distractions of trying to remember a form (or melody, to continue the analogy).

We learn from day one in taiji, ‘Wait until your partner moves, then move first.’ This is great advice for everything in life – don’t waste energy and effort if you don’t have to. And make sure you know as much as possible about the nature of the threat so that you can counter it efficiently.  


If you watch two people engaged in sensing hands, they will appear not to be moving, not to be doing anything, just standing holding each other’s shoulders. But there is a focus. In Chinese, the character ‘ting’ used for ‘listening’ (as opposed to ‘hearing’) means ‘attending to the other person with your eyes, ears and heart’.

This act of patient and deliberate listening is seen as a sign of generosity, and an acknowledgement that you are taking the other person’s needs seriously. Here it is applied to listening to your partner to see if you can sense the point at which he or she makes the decision to move, or if you can find a small place of imbalance that you aggravate.

But you can also use it to listen to yourself. 

This is where we come to the wisdom of the willow. Each morning as I practise standing meditation, the view from my window is of our wild crazy runaway willow hedge and the message is reinforced.

Yield and dance

The willow doesn’t try to fight things it can’t overcome. It moves with the wind, it bends when a bird alights on its branches. At times it seems to even enjoy the dance. I don’t think I have ever seen a willow break, not while it is rooted into the earth and drawing nourishment from the soil. Only when it becomes disconnected and dried out and brittle, might it break. 

As human beings, we can be resilient and strong and kind in our responses to all manner of kindnesses and injustices that we receive for as long as we are rooted in a nourishing environment. When we don’t have that, and we feel threatened, we are weakened in energy, in strength, in confidence, in our ability to think before we speak or act. Therefore the ability to sense that something is happening is something we should all cultivate.

Buddhists call this mindfulness. It’s an early awareness that something is happening and we should sharpen our senses so as not to miss the point at which that something requires us to act.

Giving the Finger

One of Ben’s exercises was to simply use one finger to apply pressure to the partner’s chest. At first the pressure was not a problem but, as it increased, it became irritating, then painful, then dangerous, as the receiver lost balance and fell. As Ben pointed out, this might apply in a work situation, when under stress. A little stress might be exhilarating but there comes a point at which you can lose your balance and it’s good to be able to recognise that. 

Your reaction may be to ask the other person to stop or you might choose to step away but all too often people don’t like to be seen not to be coping and so they keep going and keep going until they fall over.

If we can train ourselves to be like the willow and to enjoy the dance of interaction with the elements of life, we might be better placed to recognise the times when we need to say Enough. Even if we don’t feel we can simply walk out of the situation, or desert the people we care about, we can still ask for help, or time, or space before we lose touch with our roots and our ability to care for ourselves and others.