How to make things work for real? Now, I am speaking about practical applications, not Qi or magic, just practical Tai Chi application as qinna (like a lock or similar), a take-down, a simple punch or a more complex technique. How to make things work in different situations is a difficult thing to answer because of the complex nature of reality.
I had a teacher that would show and teach many different techniques and many variations on the same method and theme. He was very honest about what he did and said that you should practice applications against as many people as possible, because then you will understand that sometimes some things work and other things won’t. And often you won’t even understand why something works or not. So what you need to do is to figure out what methods and techniques suite you the most, what techniques you like and try to understand what you can make work in different situations.
So a good reason for trying out many different techniques and methods is not really to learn how to make everything work, but a reason to try things out on different people and try to understand your own prerequisites, your own limitations. And try to be very honest about your own lack of understanding and about your own level. This is also the reason why I don’t like grades and belts. Someone else should not tell you at what level you are, what you can do or not. You must understand it all by yourself and it’s very important that you do understand by yourself. We are dealing with the Martial Arts world here, a complex world, that often cross the lines between “reality” and “abstractions”, that teach things through friendly matches and practice, but at the same time wants to teach something else, how to handle yourself and protect yourself outside the school environment. Which means that you need to have an extremely realistic approach towards yourself. Tai Chi is not about paying for diplomas and belts to have something to show up to your friends so you can nurture your vanity. Instead Tai Chi is all about self-knowledge.
So when you try to analyse yourself and your skills, you need to be most brutal to yourself, try understand your own limitations, what you can do and not. You must also understand the nature of Tai Chi combat methods and applications, that different things will work on different people. And that you need to adjust your whole strategy and game-plan according to who you meet and in what circumstances.
Master Li Yaxuan expressed this very well. He said that you need to approach fighting and push hands like you were a medical doctor treating patients. Every patient needs a different treatment depending on the nature of decease or problem. Some people might need medication others might need a physical therapist. Some people just need rest while still others might need surgery. A doctor deals with a great range of methods and strategies. Every single meeting with a patient is different and everyone needs to be treated differently. This is something to keep in mind and work from, even when you practice with different partners inside the school environment and with friends. There is no “one size fits all” type of technique, method or approach. This is also why competing might teach you a false sense of security. Just because you can control the situation when competing it doesn’t mean that the same skill sets you have developed there and can make work there would work on anyone else outside the same arena.
So when you encounter a situation, to make things work in that specific time and place, is to first get rid of any preconceived ideas of what you should or can do and treat every encounter as a new and unique experience. Fighting, even on a friendly basis, demands all attention and focus and great timing. There is no skill that will make every opponent you meet to bounce away just upon touching your arm. There is no method or skill that can make combat easy. It will always be hard and difficult. And there is nothing that can secure a certain outcome. But being very realistic about your own limitations could at least save you from doing stupid things. It might even save your life.