The Challenge

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Beginner's mind?

A new starter is hopeful, idealistic and naive. They have notions about tai chi that have brought them to the class. They are expecting to find confirmation of these ideas. Instead of an open mind, the student is searching for something familiar. The problem with being a new starter is that you know nothing about the art. Nor could you. The values you attribute to things stem from your own experiences and opinions, not from an understanding of the art itself. What you see as being skill has no bearing whatsoever upon the reality of the system. And, if you understand the art... why seek lessons?


Very few students have the necessary calibre and character to move from being a new starter to a committed student. It takes a certain kind of person to stick at anything. In our modern culture, people are usually dilettantes; dabblers who expect immediate results and get bored when asked to endure, to sustain, to commit. These people drift from one endeavour to the next, and seldom (if ever) settle anywhere long enough to gain any measure of skill or understanding. When asked to be patient, dilettantes become defensive and resentful. They want instant results. As an excuse for quitting, they blame the art, the instructor... anyone, anything. Anyone but themselves.

A measure of calibre

Each year a small number of students persevere against enormous obstacles and decide to learn tai chi properly. This is a difficult journey and it will test their resolve repeatedly. These students have a certain grit. They are not easily deterred. Undertaking such a challenging journey will cost them more than they imagine (and not just money) and offer rewards that they are yet to even comprehend. Faith is required. As is tenacity.

What are these challenges?

There are many, many challenges facing every student. Those that stem from the art itself are technical in nature. Most arise within and represent an internal battle that must take place if a student is ever to penetrate the mysteries of the art. Not everyone will have determination enough to stay the course.

Moving in a different way

The first real challenge is to get your mind and your body to work together. This may sound easy but it is not. Tai chi does not rely upon brute force or muscular contraction, and your body must move as a relaxed, integrated whole. The only way in which a student can acquire this first skill is to practice regularly. It is not enough to blindly repeat movements. These movements must be carefully performed, with close attention to detail. Even though you may try your best, your own body might well refuse to cooperate. Considerable patience is required. Simply learning the crude pattern of the movements will be an achievement. And you will know in your heart that your very best looks clumsy next to the grace of your instructor. Humility is born of this realisation.

Memorising a complex sequence of movements

Why is it so hard to learn the tai chi form? Every movement must be performed in a particular way, with close adhesion to the tai chi guidelines. For any tai chi pattern of movement to be even remotely correct, a whole series of factors must coordinate. The mind, the intention, the energy, the discharge - these must synchronise. It could take years for the process to reach any degree of satisfaction or familiarity. Learning the form is a humbling experience requiring the student to comb over the same set of movements endlessly. It is easy to go wrong. Immense patience and enthusiasm are needed. When you can perform the set quite competently, your instructor will then encourage you to apply the form. They will illustrate how this can be done, and highlight the many lessons inherent within the set. At this stage you will realise that memorising the movements was not the conclusion of your form training but merely the preliminary step.

Concentrating for a sustained period of time

To practice the tai chi skilfully, you must cultivate presence. Being in the here and now. Calm, quiet and still. You must also be capable of keeping your mind on what you are doing, without distraction or boredom. In our culture of television, mobile phones, videogames, computers, fast food and caffeine, you may find this to be very difficult indeed.

Remaining composed

Tai chi challenges you to stay emotionally composed no matter what happens. It teaches you how to approach things in such a way that circumstances unfold in a favourable manner. It also trains you to be malleable. To adapt, change and improvise. Instead of being rigid and defensive, you learn to flow.

Living in harmony

Most martial arts meet conflict with resistance. Tai chi is different; it requires the student to blend, to join, to avoid blocking the path of force. This process is called 'yielding', and the joining may be seen as 'mutual arising'. It is the completion of the yin/yang diagram. Given the prevalence of conflict in our culture and the common urge to fight, the challenge of non-contention is daunting. By overcoming fear and using the physics skilfully, a tai chi person can meet the incoming attack softly, redirect the force and avoid unnecessary violence. A person may choose to apply this methodology throughout all aspects of their life.


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Page created 11 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023