personal awareness

I was reflecting today on my (arguably variable) abilities as a teacher of Tai Chi – wondering how to better “get it across” to my classes of likewise variable ability, age and education – and was struck by the observation that actually the biggest problem I have is with students who think they know it all. They may exhibit this immediately or it may take a year or two.

I recall advice from one of my teachers in Hong Kong to “be humble” and finding that being humble simply means to have a realistic understanding of ones ability. Such otherwise closed mindedness is a sure barrier to learning on a personal level but worse it can poison a whole class if only by taking up excessive resources and creating distraction – if you are bored or think that the teacher doesn’t know what they are doing then please leave and seek another teacher – or preferably keep quiet, then stay and seek to understand by redoubling your own efforts, rather than blaming someone else.

 

Over the years I have from time to time noticed changes in the way my body moves – recently I have noticed some small changes. Interestingly these changes have begun with very small perturbations in existing patterns – so small I could not properly describe them until a while later after more relaxed practice when they have grown bigger and more defined.
They are initially so small and undefined that it is often not even clear if they are a fault or an improvement until they have grown naturally into an extension of the basic pattern.
I suspect the same is true of other types of behavioural change where the new is developed “underneath” the old habitual pattern before it emerges and eventually replaces it.

I have noticed many cultural differences between studying Tai Chi in the east and in the west – perhaps the most difficult for beginners to understand is the completely different approach to the relationship of teacher to student – a good example is the lack of praise – westerners like to be told they are doing things right as with for hand positions – and if they do not receive this praise they can often become confused and even resentful – but this sort of ego reinforcement can actually be counter productive since it leads the student to focus on “doing it right” or doing more of the “right thing” thinking perhaps that more is better, actually to completely misunderstand what they are being praised for –  in other words leading them to trying too hard in the wrong direction and not paying attention to their movement itself. So in this case praise maybe motivational but often to do completely the wrong thing and so is generally detrimental to the learning process.

In my experience the most a good Tai Chi teacher will risk is the occasional “quite good” in a vague sort of way, maybe once in 5 years – you will know when it is right and learning how to know for yourself is absolutely essential – a teacher can correct and introduce new exercise experiences but reinforcing bad old habits of ego driven body usage is not good Tai Chi or good teaching.

So perhaps the first hurdle in learning Tai Chi is learning how to learn and not to demand that Tai Chi is exactly the same as everything else – if it were then it would not be worth doing.

I have learned through painful experience that partner work and physical corrections make up a potentially very sensitive subject – martial arts people will probably wonder why I am bothering to write about this at all – whereas beginners or people with no experience of interpersonal physical activity may well recoil that I even dream of writing about it – let alone speak of it as normal, when they may well find the prospect completely frightening, foreign, unnecessary, invasive and more – especially if it involves touch across the gender line. If that is you please bear with me and understand that this is one of those deeply personal subjects that spans very divergent extremes.

You may be someone who emotionally or for religious reasons avoids interpersonal contact completely – or you may be a martial artist or sports person into wrestling, dancing or similar, to whom close/intimate contact with strangers is normal, necessary and an important learning tool. So this piece is intended to address those people more toward the avoiding end of the spectrum with the hope that you may be somewhat reassured and perhaps even encouraged.

Humans are a social species with close personal contact ingrained in our psyche from ancient ancestral grooming and physical closeness in communal living. This is something our modern society has led us to draw away from in recent generations. It is also something associated with our vulnerability and our sexuality – so today many of us do not comfortably interact with close touch especially with strangers in public even in a relatively controlled group environment. Nonetheless when we see a child or adult crying (especially close family or friend) our first, and natural response is usually to make some sort of physical contact – maybe to hug, kiss or massage it better.

We need to remember our ancestral roots and the physical communication that is such a fundamental part of our species existence. Interestingly once people cross that intellectual fear barrier they generally become quite comfortable with partner work and physical correction – as they come to understand it’s benefits and how physical interaction forms an essential part of the healing and learning processes – especially with an internal art such as Tai Chi.

Personally I was brought up in a family both distant and smothering derived from post Victorian parenting – which led to a very conflicted view of this subject, but now with the perspective of martial arts training since 1971 it is really not a problem, except in judging and dealing with the extent to which students – especially female beginners – are comfortable with this vitally important aspect of Tai Chi. Issues of pain, responsibility, respect, appropriateness and intimidation are replaced by the benefits of enhanced awareness, clearer understanding, easier trust on many levels, the use of pain signals in learning and healing as well as an appreciation of how physical communication can enhance relationships by grounding and bonding the partners

Not only is touch an extremely quick way to communicate, it is also a very reliable way that can communicate many things words are completely incapable of conveying – we should remember that words after all only make up 30% of communication – visually physical and tonal voice cues generally make up the remaining 70% – until we factor in touch which often overrides all the rest – try closing your eyes and moving around a bit. It is difficult to lie with touch or physical expression, whereas words and intellectual models are not only inaccurate but make lying easy and common.

Clearly this is a much bigger subject than a few martial artists training together – if you do not include partner work in your training you will be missing out on the very core of Tai Chi and risk being blinded by lack of understanding that goes with the un-knowingness of simply not having the experience. Fears are involved here so I would strongly urge Tai Chi practitioners – actually probably everybody – to look at what is stopping them from dealing with them. If you choose not to that is fine – it is your choice, but in my view a severley limiting one.

 

 

Tai Chi – important behaviours

10 August 2016
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I was talking one day with a student about the behaviours that might be considered advantageous in a physical conflict – and gave him a homework project to think of a list of 5 or 6 – then to write about them – and of how they might also have positive aspects in constructive relationships. […]

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Feedback and Education in Tai Chi and the human experience

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As a child in a post war western society of the 50’s feedback was a very hit and miss affair – sometimes literally – but rarely was there useful guidance. It is only in recent times that the growth and popularisation of western psychology has led to study of human behaviour in anything like scientific […]

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A good back for a long life!

29 April 2016

One of my students has a long standing lower back condition which flared up recently to the point that his doctor thought he had slipped a disc – after a couple of weeks rest he came with a few others of the group to my teacher Karel Koskuba for a 3 hour seminar. Before we […]

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Mindfulness in Tai Chi

18 December 2015
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Mindfulness is receiving a lot of attention in “alternative” circles at the moment – but it is worth reflecting that it is, and has been, a vital component of spiritual meditation and of martial arts for centuries – helping us to link mind, body and spirit on a daily basis. For example we use the […]

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What Are Martial Arts Really About?

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The title question “What are Martial Arts Really about?” can be simply answered at the most basic level – survival – and left there. However it is my belief that many things flow from that simple statement. Things which do not go off the point and which are timeless in their relevance to men and women […]

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Be wary of definitive arguments

20 November 2014

In your practice be wary of definitive arguments – especially of the “my great expert said this and they must be right” variety leading to an argument about who is the greater expert – they are a distraction from the reality of internal experience. There is only one solution – use the scientific method – […]

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