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Words and ideas
Modern culture perpetuates the misconception that anyone can understand anything providing it is properly explained to them. And that the failing of the individual is caused by a shabby explanation.
This is absurd. If a concert pianist patiently taught you how to play the piano, could you hope to match their skill? A ballerina? An airline pilot? A surgeon? A chef? A tailor? An engineer? A mechanic?
Words have severe limitations.
Blind and lost
To understand anything we need context. Reference points. Case examples. A comprehensive mental representation. A knowledge base.
We need experience, parameters, guidelines, limitations, applicability. We need to know where the pieces fit together, how and why.
A novice does not and cannot possess this. No matter how eloquent or detailed the explanation nor how thoroughly they study.
Talk is cheap
A 'verbal understanding' is no understanding at all. The ability to regurgitate information in no way means that you possess the skills or the understanding...
The student has
nothing to offer but an absolute willingness to follow the teacher's
instructions and direction without question or comments or personal
A tai chi student acquires knowledge and skills by following a clearly defined tried and tested syllabus. The training methods instil muscle memory, cultivate awareness and encourage mindfulness.
Throughout much of their learning process the student must simply do what they are told. Without alteration, improvisation or real understanding.
The student may have modest glimmers of insight but these are partial and fail to reflect a more comprehensive grasp of the material or its true nature and purpose.
It is quite common for a student to become frustrated by their lack of understanding. They often seek to make comparisons between what they are encountering and other unrelated sources.
The outcome is akin to seeking to understand Susan in terms of Melanie... Pointless and self-defeating.
In the hope of deepening their understanding, the student presses for further explanations, new insights and expects gratification. But this is not the way...
Instead, the student needs to take the initiative and plough through the books in the reading list and practice their tai chi at home between classes.
Reading the recommended books and completing assignments serves to provide a contextual knowledge base. It is essentially furnishing the mind with relevant information it can draw upon.
The clouded mind sees nothing
Another obstacle impeding the student is their lack of presence. Their minds are usually filled with noise. Polluted with ideas and distractions.
Many of the qigong and tai chi training methods are concerned with bringing the mind home. Back to the here and now.
If you cannot see what is right in front of you and are not actually listening to what is being said, what hope do you have of learning? Or understanding?
The problem facing the student is ultimately neither their own naivety, distracted minds nor lack of adequate 'motor skills'... it is something else: not everything will fit the form of words.
Can you explain the colour red to a blind person? The taste of a dosa pancake to somebody who has never eaten one? What love feels like? An orgasm?
When an expert (in any field of study) shows a spontaneous demonstration of skill, they are drawing upon experience and abilities that are largely intuitive. The skill comes from the subconscious mind.
Even if the expert patiently breaks down their performance afterwards; step-by-step, their explanation will be inaccurate because in truth they don't fully understand what they did. They just did it.
It happened. The ancient Taoists called this process 'tzu-jan', meaning "of itself so"... According to the book Maximum Brainpower, modern psychologists are now investigating this same phenomena.
Tai chi drills
You need to become exceptionally sensitive. You need to be capable of 'listening' to what is happening. You need to adapt, change and improvise again and again and again.
Our drills cultivate these skills. If they did not, what purpose would they serve? As you become increasingly competent, you are less and less able to explain just how you defended yourself.
You just did it and it worked. This is tzu-jan.
The I Ching teaches us that events, people and circumstances coalesce to create 'the moment'. In order to get the most benefit, we have to align ourselves perfectly with what is taking place.
This is 'wu wei'. Not forcing. The challenge facing us is that the moment is instantaneous, unique and not reproducible. It continually changes. In order to deal with this, we must flow.
That is why we learn to listen, to feel, to be sticky, to follow. Thinking won't help at all.
Our enemy is the ego. Self-consciousness involves thinking about ourselves. About competing, winning, succeeding. About looking cool.
This is useless in combat. We need to be immersed in the event, not thinking about ourselves or the opponent.
There is no concept of an
enemy or opponent in taijiquan.
Likewise, the emotions associated with either - anger, hatred, friendship - also have no use and therefore play no role in this art.
In a real life combat situation you need your body and mind to act as one. They need to evaluate the situation, respond accordingly and make continuous, successful on-going changes as it evolves.
Your conscious mind simply cannot perform this type of action. It would be like a Formula 1 racing driver pondering every manoeuvre... Suicidally slow and inefficient?
Taijiquan trains the exponent to adapt, change and improvise rapidly, effectively and automatically. If you cannot do this - and you're entangled in thoughts - you're just a novice.
• Not knowing
• Wu wei
21 May 2002
Last updated 13 January 2020