Learning to Desire Pain as a Tai Chi Exercise

In response to Transforming Conflict with Tai Chi, many of you sent me stories of situations where you were forced into a tense encounter and you had to draw on your practice to get you through it.

After, you feel relief and you can move on, but sometimes the idea slips through that, “hey, I’m a little better able to handle this kind of thing because of the way I faced it.”

What if you actually started to seek out challenging encounters because you sensed their transformative effect?

That is exactly what psychologists Phil Stutz and Barry Michels teach in their book, The Tools, and it has some surprising Tai Chi parallels.

Watch this short video clip about “The Reversal of Desire” which is their technique for facing pain that will move you out of your comfort zone and into new growth:

Now, by itself, this is a fascinating idea, that you seek out pain as transformation. But as we discussed in the podcast, I want you to go beyond ideas and into practical, physical manifestation.

That’s what’s so exciting about your Tai Chi practice. It’s not a metaphor for transformation. You’re playing with the very material that will shift and change through practice.

How the Reversal of Desire is like an Interactive Tai Chi Practice

The steps that the authors teach in their tool are very similar to the physical experience you have in Tai Chi when you neutralize your own fear response and move towards the resolution of a confrontation.

Here’s how the tool works just like Tai Chi:

  • First, you call out to the pain, you face it. In Tai Chi, the first stage of the encounter is face-to-face and the first hurdle you have to overcome is your impulse to “freeze up” in response to the threat. The connection here is that you literally experience this freezing in the front of your body, like “a deer frozen in the headlights”. Either you activate the front with enough sensitivity to pass to the second step, or you revert to the fear response, which plays out in a yin or yang way: you collapse or you tense up. The tool is similarly training your sensitivity and priming you to move into the encounter.
  • Next, you move through a cloud of pain. They want you to feel it all around you. In the Tai Chi encounter, you do something similar. You have to let the other person’s energy move through you (rooting) or past you (neutralizing). In both cases, step two you are completely enveloped by the energy of the threat.
  • In the final step of the tool, you visualize being spit out by the cloud of pain and you feel it at your back. In your Tai Chi response, once you can feel your back engaged, loose, flexible, and connected to your root, you have pretty much resolved the incoming threat and your best response arises.

In both cases, stepping up to the encounter without running away and letting it wash through your system, allows you to come out the other side, engaged, connected, and ultimately stronger.

In both cases, you are training to allow the most natural response to arise, something you most likely hadn’t planned, ruminated on, or conceived of, but that emerges because of the interaction. You get to a new place, because you have grappled with pain you would have otherwise fled.

The other tools in the book address different dimensions of the question, “how do I turn my challenges into courage, compassion, and creativity?” There certainly are more parallels to Tai Chi to explore. What sets The Tools apart is the emphasis on teaching exercises that you have to practice over and over again to build new responses. They are not after theoretical understanding, they want to cultivate an embodied response. Sound familiar?

What are some of the encounters you’ve had lately where your practice either did or did not factor in to how you resolved the situation?

Please take this anonymous, two-minute survey, so that we can how we talk about the potential for Tai Chi to transform conflict.


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  1. Bob Hughes says:

    Hi Dan,
    Thanks for pointing out a good book on psychotherapy (altho I haven’t and probably won’t read the whole book–I have gotten a good overview of it from Amazon reviews).
    On your previous topic (Transforming Conflict with Tai Chi) I had a minority dissenting opinion:
    I didn’t think that one solely can “bring resolution on OUTSIDE forces.”
    Setting OUTSIDE against INSIDE is dualistic; dualism is the problem (we have met the enemy and the enemy is us).
    To approach a problem from a dualistic viewpoint is delusion.
    To accept the problem as part of the Self is enlightenment.
    So, I did agree with you that we should DESIRE the problem–
    just as we should DESIRE a non-dualistic Self.
    This is Buddhism:
    1. All is suffering (pain).
    2. There is an arising of pain.
    3. There is a stopping of pain.
    4. There is a way leading to the stopping of pain.
    Nagarjuna’s insight was that the “way out” of the cycle of pain (dualistically separating SELF and PAIN–here’s me and there’s pain) lay right in the middle of these cycles.
    PAIN by definition is dualistic: here’s ME and there’s PAIN (NOT ME, something that I want to get rid of/transform).

    I’ve always admired the practice of Tai Chi because it does not subscribe to the “No pain, No gain” strategy of training.
    Without the complementary aspect of pain, your title subverts this concept with the words “DESIRE pain.”
    Likewise, most reviewers of the Stutz/Michels book subvert the underlying “Source” by focusing on “The Tools;” their Source is a Higher Authority–the non-dualistic SELF. This SELF embraces both non-pain and pain/emptiness and fullness/negative and positive.
    Buddhists do DESIRE, they desire the Middle ground and do not attach to the extremes.
    To paraphrase “The Tools:”
    1. Bring it on
    2. I love pain (and non-pain)
    3. Pain (and non-pain) sets me free.

    “The Eight Truths of Tai Chi” in the Tai Chi Classics seem consistent with my view.
    In part they say:
    1. … It is best to forget your own existence.
    2. …Let inside and outside fuse together and become one.
    3. …Learn to ignore external objects. …
    4. … See the ocean in its vastness …
    5. … cultivate the positive and the negative
    6. … Your mind should be as the water and your spirit like the spring
    7. … Make your chi like these natural wonders.
    8. … Establish life.

    The reader should explore the complete text of these “Eight Truths of Tai Chi”
    as well as the Higher Authority supporting the Tools–
    rather than emphasizing the PAIN.

  2. Bob, real enjoying your comments on this series. I’m curious to know what you’ll make of the next one, where I try to demonstrate some of the “Tai Chi solutions” to these issues. Thanks for contributing!

  3. Bob Hughes says:

    Hi Dan,
    I’m not qualified to comment on Push-Hands.

    For years I’ve taken workshops with sana shanti (student of Sam Masich) in Nelson B.C.
    But, there are very few people to “touch in” with in northern Idaho (maybe a few bears).

    So I never have gotten a good feel for the acid test of Push-Hands.

    Yours is a nice blog on the subject.


  4. Interesting thing about water is when still it reflects everything as one. Apart of, not separated from. Personality doesn’t get in the way. Thanks for the posts.