Active learning

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Active learning

'Active learning' involves being in the here and now; actually seeing what is right in front of you and learning from it.
This requires attention. By paying attention to what is taking place we can learn.


Thinking is the enemy of attention. Thoughts are the product of memory, of past experience. They occur after the event.
There is a time and a place for thinking, but if you are thinking at the same time that something is happening, you are not really paying attention at all.

Impediments to learning

There are many common habits that impede learning:

  1. Filtering
    - you listen to certain parts of the conversation rather than what is actually being said
    - you hear what you want to hear


  2. Distractions
    - your attention is somewhere else
    - your own thoughts, feelings, physical sensations
    - other people or events taking place around you

  3. Rehearsing
    - thinking about what you are going to say next
    - waiting for your turn to speak
    - not actually listening to the other person

  4. Judging
    - you have already made up your mind
    - your opinions are what matter to you
    - you are applying your own criteria; what you consider to be important

  5. Comparing
    - you are basing what is taking place now on what you have previously experienced
    - attempting to understand the current experience in terms of a past event

  6. Daydreaming
    - your attention has wandered and you are no longer watching or listening

Seeing rather than looking

When the mind is calm and you are here and now, the
brain passively acquires information. This is the opposite of concentration, where you consider one thing at the exclusion of everything else.
The eyes receive data passively. So do the other senses. We do not need to try, or use force. Everything is processed by the brain. We experience reality in our minds.
With 'passive learning' we do not try to memorise things. Instead, we pay attention to what is happening right now. The brain becomes like a sponge.
By ceasing to try, you no longer stand in your own way. Instead of looking, you see.


Our syllabus has been designed to train a wide variety of skills from the very first lesson. As you progress, the context and meaning of the training methods take shape.
Until that point, the exercises are simply an end in themselves.

Tai chi fighting method

Consider 'pushing hands'. Exercises such as 'pushing hands' must be seen in the wider context of the tai chi. They are not an end in themselves.
They are a learning tool for teaching skills that must eventually be utilised in combat.
Some beginners seek to be pushing hands experts, which is absurd. It is like becoming an expert at 'indicating' when driving a car.
Everything you learn in tai chi only has meaning in the context of freeform application, and life itself.

Involuntary learning

Students with Sifu Waller learn without realising that they are learning. Whilst considering one topic they are also training countless other skills simultaneously.
Most partner drills involve the use of multiple jing. We do not label the jing or explain them to a beginner. That comes later. For now, the onus is upon the drill itself, not the jing being employed.
Later, all that will matter is the jing, and not the drill.

The student has nothing to offer but an absolute willingness to follow the teacher's instructions and direction without question or comments or personal improvisation.

(Dave Lowry) 

Not knowing

Not knowing is nearest. Until you can admit that you do not know, there is little scope for real progress. Admitting your ignorance is not an excuse. It is a realisation of truth.
Existence is too vast to be comprehended. Everyone is limited by their fractional knowledge, their incomplete understanding. This is just the Way of things.
When you remove the pressure of 'knowing', the mind can relax and see.


Instead of approaching things head on, we address them obliquely. This occurs in both combat and when learning the syllabus. A circuitous approach catches the person unawares. They do not resist.
Students find themselves capable of doing things they never imagined possible. If we explained in advance what was going to happen, the student might become self-conscious and fail.
Instead, they find themselves in the midst of an activity, without any warning. They cope without realising it. This is why all of our drills are playful. 
By playing, any potential pressure is absent and the emotions remain calm.


We are not interested in discursive (verbal) thought. Internal verbalisation is the echo of real thought. We want the subconscious mind to bypass the conscious mind.
Zen is designed to encourage immediacy. We cultivate simultaneity, spontaneous responses, instantaneous action.


Zen/the Tao advocates an attitude of not doing. Instead of learning, we unlearn. Instead of forcing, we allow. The aim is not to acquire new information, but to remove what impedes us.
Typically, holding and
fixity are the problem. We cling to things for security. Our attachments to people, places, memories and ideas prevent freedom of movement.
If you want to discover something new, it is necessary to shed the old. Although we do teach new skills, much of the syllabus is concerned with unlearning what you think you know.

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023