Verbal understanding

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New starters

New starters are often confounded by the fact that they cannot understand the tai chi immediately. They sometimes assume that the explanation is poor and the instructor is inept.
Can the teachings be articulated so readily, so easily? Can there be such a thing as a verbal understanding?


There are many naive myths in society when it comes to learning. One of the most absurd is that the idea that you can understand anything if it explained to you properly... This just isn't true.

Beyond words

To illustrate: buy a book by Stephen Hawkins or read something written by Einstein. Did you understand it? What if someone tried to explain it to you?
Could the teachings of Hawkins be simplified enough to make sense to the lay person without losing their actual meaning and significance?
If a heart surgeon explained their method, could you then do their job? If a chef gave you their recipe can you reproduce it to their standard?


One factor when it comes to learning is capacity. We are all different. We have different strengths and weaknesses. A verbal description is seldom enough to furnish understanding.
Often, in order to understand, you must experience, you must do...


If we could teach tai chi by simply talking to you, why bother with years of physical exercise and study? Words have severe limitations. It is important to realise this fact.
The word for chocolate does not taste like chocolate. Even the memory of chocolate does not taste like chocolate. Life can only be experienced through the doing.


If we said to you: "This one goes over there to the left..." does this make any sense to you? Of course not.
We have not established a context. We have not introduced the component parts. We have not demonstrated what is occurring. An explanation only has meaning relative to something.
If the subject has not been established, the teaching lacks context. It floats around, untethered and meaningless. 


If we told you that the human body were just skin and bone, would you accept this as being true? Or that the human mind is made up of two halves: conscious and unconscious?
Does the explanation do it? Are you now furnished with understanding?
The human body is complex beyond belief. Medical science is potentially millennia away from truly understanding how it works. Systems are seldom just one thing.
A cursory explanation will not illustrate how the seemingly separate parts function as an integrated whole.

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typicalů and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze.

 (Joseph Conrad)

Verbal understanding

There is no verbal understanding. This is a silly delusion. All understanding must be actual. A blind person may claim to understand what 'red' means, but do they? Of course not.
A chair is not the word 'chair'. It is not a picture. It the experience of the sitting. The functionality. The substance. The reality of the thing. The 'this-ness' of the chair.
This is why you cannot learn tai chi from a book or a video. You need human contact. You need to touch people, to feel. Tai chi is a physical art - there is no 'verbal understanding'...


A beginner lacks the acuity to understand what they are seeing. It would be akin to a novice motorist looking at the engine of their car. Does it mean anything?
Compare their bewilderment with the discerning eye of a trained mechanic...
beginner sees what they are capable of seeing. Sometimes this is simply what they want to see. High level tai chi does not look remarkable. It is not showy or impressive.
It looks smooth and easy. It also appears to be stunningly ordinary. Casual. To a beginner there is no indication of
They simply cannot discern what the advanced practitioner is doing or what the significance is.


Our tai chi school has a curriculum. The art is not taught in an ad lib way. Given the sheer complexity and sophistication of tai chi, this approach is imperative.
The material needs to be introduced slowly and deliberately, with the permutations and connotations thoroughly explored at each step of the journey. Regular revision is a must.
As the student begins to physically demonstrate their comprehension, more material can be added and the existing training can be re-considered.
Familiar practice is dismantled and the constituent parts are explored in greater detail. The learning process is a spiral, turning both outward and inward.
Talk is a necessary requirement if we are to communicate. However, the best teachings are silent. The greatest skill is shown by example.

If you can't do it, you don't know it.

(Mike Sigman)

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Page created 18 April 1995
Last updated 16 June 2023