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Freedom from the known
Tai chi requires you to unlearn what you have learned, to forget what you think you know. People are reluctant to let go. This is a hindrance to learning.
Free your mind from the past and be prepared to discover the new.
If you read the book Maximum Brainpower, the authors assert that our existing pool of information and experience is an impediment because it prevents us from using the brain fully.
Rather than being open to new situations, new variables and new challenges, most people respond to the unfamiliar by seeking to re-frame it in terms of what they already know.
e.g. a karate person sees tai chi in terms of their karate experience, a yoga exponent in terms of yoga, and so on...
It is important, if you grew up in
a dysfunctional family, to take time to reflect on the competitive edge it
has given you. People from happy, harmonious homes may feel healthy and
well-adjusted, but they're fixed on one family model which they try to
emulate the rest of their lives.
If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, however, you may be deeply damaged, but you've acquired a broad repertoire of negative models to outgrow. As you go about your adult life, you should be thankful to your parents: they have given you the kind of education that happy children, through no fault of their own, never receive.
My parents taught me everything I need to unlearn.
Not the same
People are biologically inclined to group similar-seeming situations together. It is convenient, energy efficient and saves on learning anything new.
Pre-20th Century, this worked quite well because human life changed at a fairly slow pace. Nowadays, it is a major problem. Things are in flux.
Tai chi students are taught a lot of new things. Progress is contingent upon 2 factors:
How readily they can shed their existing habits
How much they practice and explore the new material
Practice between lessons is ideal, but
this alone won't work unless the student is willing to address the obstacle
presented by their existing habits of
thinking and body use.
Lifelong learning is attainable only if we can successfully accumulate and shed/discard information, knowledge and skills. Acquisition alone is worthless.
It can leave us trying to address today's problems with yesterday's solutions. We also need to let-go of what we have learned in the past.
Learning how to learn
Tai chi students in our school are required to work on their bodies and minds continuously. New experiences are explored, and old habits identified.
When somebody is introduced to a subject they come to realise that this is not the final product. It is the level they are currently capable of understanding.
As their learning/unlearning develops, the student becomes increasingly aware that there is always a deeper, more subtle layer of comprehension... Learning is a journey, not a certificate.
Taoism and Zen study are designed to take you beyond the limits of experience and logic. They do this by encouraging the student to unlearn, to set aside what they think they know.
This involves recognising the drawback of words, concepts, ideas, conventions, habits and thought itself. By dismantling how your mind perceives reality, you begin to see things in a different way.
You attain an altered state of consciousness.
Wabi sabi art challenges us to
unlearn our views of beauty and to rediscover the intimate beauty to be
found in the smallest details of nature's artistry.
Zen/Tao advocates an attitude of not forcing. Instead of just learning, we also unlearn. Instead of forcing, we allow. The aim is not simply 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 are always teaching new skills, the syllabus is also concerned with unlearning.
New starters tend to have appalling body habits. These have been accumulated across a lifetime; producing a random, haphazard mess. Sometimes, the habits are the outcome of yoga, the gym or a sport.
The tai chi teacher usually wishes they could dismantle the student's body and start again, but it doesn't work like that because bodies are organic. The body needs to loosen up, relax and then re-grow.
This requires patience, focus and perseverance... like a gardener. Results won't come overnight.
The thinking patterns and habits of new students are often far worse than their bodies. Most people have never stuck any new endeavour long enough to understand what learning entails.
They tend to be impatient, overconfident and naive concerning their own abilities. e.g. we once had a man with an artificial hip who neglected to mention it on his 'medical liability disclaimer' because he personally didn't consider it to be a medical matter...
If you want to reconsider 'thinking', why not read Grit, Smarter Faster Better, 5 Elements of Effective Thinking and Peak...? Then put the suggested thinking skills into actual practice.
Our information-saturated culture has produced a distracted, lazy, bored, restless, stressed, unhealthy population. People expect instant gratification. They want to show off.
They want results without putting in any work. They want to share their opinions. Speculate. Talk politics.
Not a great starting place for a new starter? However, the very fact that the person wants to try something new is a good start. It offers hope. The possibility of change.
At some level the individual wants to change. This is good. However, to make any real progress in tai chi they have shed these modern, unproductive attitudes...
A balanced body?
Tai chi is not aiming to produce a 'tai chi body'. Rather, it seeks to restore the body to a unified condition of wholeness. Balanced. Mobile. Coordinated. Agile. Supple. Youthful.
Balance is a good thing to think about, but can lead to a false idea of fixity. Our aim is not to be rigid and stable like a wardrobe or a house.
We want to be balancing... 'Balancing' is a process of adjustment; altering what we do in response to what is taking place. Now, that is healthy. Mentally and physically.
Students often want to do other forms of exercise in addition to their tai chi. This is fine. The question is: does the other method conflict with the goals of tai chi? Balance? Relaxed muscles? Coordination?
If it does, the tai chi will not work and you will not get the desired fitness benefits or any martial skill.
Sifu Waller has designed the syllabus such that everything works together. There is no discord between different facets of the curriculum.
Every exercise, drill and form works in conjunction with everything else. The entire syllabus follows the teachings of Taoism and The Tai Chi Classics. All areas of study are in harmony.
A spanner in the works?
Most people exercise with extremely bad posture and poor habits of body use. Qigong and tai chi are trying to remedy these.
If you train another system frequently enough, the benefits of tai chi are nullified. It is OK to train a wide range of exercise methods without ruining your tai chi. The key concern is moderation.
Avoid over-doing it: over-stretching, straining or exerting. Be mindful of posture, poise and tension.
Sabotaging the tai chi
Many forms of exercise can actively develop bad posture. They often cause serious fatigue and adverse wear and tear on the body. The tension in the body uses energy and tires you out.
Local limb action is typically favoured rather than whole-body movement.
Martial arts training, meditation, spirituality and cognitive development all require a great deal of gentle, patient, mindful work. Over a lengthy period of time.
Often the student is wanting a quick fix. Lacking the tenacity to sustain on-going daily practice, the student is hoping for an easier route. Does it exist?
It is absurd to think you are going to get
anywhere by giving only an hour a week to your practice or that you can
regularly skip classes. Martial arts is not like a bridge club, where you
drop in when you have nothing better to do. Martial arts will always make
greater demands on your time than would most hobbies or avocations.
Hack away the unnecessary
When you begin to see the essence of the art, you stop looking elsewhere. The how, the character, nature, quality of the art fascinates you. Instead of looking afar, you look closer.
All of the (non-relevant) peripheral training you have in your life is hacked away and you whittle it all down to what matters. And you train that. Your aim is to be natural, balanced, healthy.
Clarity is contingent upon simplicity. If you want to see deeper, you must be willing to let go of the clutter. To release your ambition, your fear, your insecurities, your need to be special.
You must unlearn and become whole again. Once your art has been stripped down to the bare bones, understood and re-built carefully step-by-step, you can truly begin to appreciate it.
Will to power
Tai chi skill is not about will/force. It is not about aggression, strength or pretty performances.
To be skilled at tai chi you need to be aware, to be present, to be peculiarly sensitive and to listen to what is occurring in this very moment.
Instead of willpower, you learn to accord yourself with what is happening. Your mind must unlearn. You must let-go of the past, of your opinions, of your preconceptions.
Pride & stubbornness
We live in a culture where many people believe that the ability to regurgitate snippets of information constitutes understanding, knowledge or wisdom.
Instead of shedding bias, opinions and preconceptions, people merely acquire new opinions, new information and filter it according to what they currently think.
Often when faced with a major new challenge, the individual falsely believes that they have invested in change, when in actuality they haven't changed at all...
Not knowing is nearest
Some people like to have their opinions, values and ideas endorsed and confirmed by others. It is a form of validation. They filter all new information accordingly. This is not learning. It is bias.
It is about maintaining status quo. Learning means embracing the unfamiliar. The new. The unknown.
Yesterday's ideas are known. Set them aside. See what is needed today.
18 April 2005
Last updated 13 January 2020