Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Addressing the need for perseverance in Classical Tai Chi

Last night I watched 2 of my more concientous and persevering students take to the learning of Square Form like "Ducks to Water".  What a rewarding experience.   I offer this quote:

"Teachers are sort of faced with a thankless task, because no matter how good they are, unless they find a way to personally rationalize the rewards of their effort, nobody else is really going to do it for them en masse."  Julius Erving 

In a recent conversation with my teacher Master Stephen Hwa, he stated that the problem of student perseverance needed to be addressed.  What follows is my humble attempt, mostly based on my personal experience and insight to address the problem.  Unfortunately, I do not have any easy solutions, but what I do offer is some analysis and  insight into what constitutes the problem.  I organize the analysis around what I feel is a persistent symptom of the lack of perseverance which is as follows: 

 That is the rationalizations over training or not training that students engage in on what often seems like a constant basis to this teacher.  I have a feeling that if students can recognize their own urge to rationalize their lack of practice, absence from class, etc., then they can at least head off some of the impulse they have to not persevere in the discipline. On the other hand a rewarding facet of Classical Tai Chi training is that it is indeed subject to such rationalizations.  One can learn to deepen their practice and since Tai Chi is indeed a meditation in motion a student can learn to recognize them just as they would in any other meditation practice. Rationalizations, emotions, thoughts, fantasies, quasi-logic, insights will all come to the surface during consistent and deep practice of the Classical Tai Chi and it is part of the mediation process for the student to not only recognize them but to detach themselves.

Classical Tai chi essentially is a self-discipline, of both body and mind. Its practice is not intended only for the days when one feels good, inspired, awake, enthusiastic, or energetic. Classical Tai Chi is meant to be practiced through everything that life offers up.  Consistent daily practice is the only way to progress through Tai Chi's many stages of personal development. Whether one is  financially burdened, responsibility laden, busy, sick, worried, sad, injured, tired, or even indifferent, the discipline calls us into that present moment to face life’s constant changes.

The mind will always provide opportunities to rationalize not engaging in practice. In other words, one must persevere to practice in spite of lack of motivation. Master Hwa has always stressed the importance of consistency and perseverance. Through his decades of experience, he knows as do I that the Tai Chi is not only a tool to face difficulties in life, but also a way to create the capacity and potential for growth. In tough times, when it becomes actually easier for one to hone the ability to make rationalizations/excuses, a steady practice can make a huge difference. I advise students to come to class, take off their shoes, begin their practice, and see where this leads. This teaches not only discipline, but detachment.  Detachment, equanimity, grace under pressure...all rewarding things that can come from perseverance in spite of adversity.

Self-discipline, like many other qualities, must be cultivated. Progress in learning the Tai Chi forms is accomplished through sustained effort. There are no shortcuts. The truest essence of Tai Chi is not in any outward physical manifestations, but rather in the deeper, more subtle and profound physical and mental internal changes. These are gained only through meeting the challenges that a daily practice reveals. Except that I see many, many students over the years who tell me they rationalize such challenges as mountainous, when actually they become molehills if one can persevere with practice. After all one of the eventual goals of learning Tai Chi are: Using internal movement to direct external motion.

I even have conscientous and devoted students still studying who tell me they cannot wait till they retire from their jobs so they can devote time to learning Tai Chi. On the other hand people have come and gone who have said: "but, I cannot come to class, I have (insert responsibility)". "But, I did not study, I have... so what's the point of coming to class", "but I came to Tai Chi and expected this and I did not get it, so why should I come to class", "but the teacher is too meticulous, I just want to do it", etc., etc.  So then they end up quitting entirely in spite of their protestations that they "will continue study on their own".

It is not learned in a vacuum, you need almost constant input from a teacher, preferably in person. Beginning students not only need steady input from a teacher but they need nurturing (yes, much like growing anything from plants to children) over the first 3 years and some cases perhaps 5 years. Now if you truthfully are so disciplined that you feel you can study on your own, there is no reason why you cannot come to class if there is one near you. My weekly trips to Toronto to learn , encompassed hundreds of miles per week for study and in the face of the adversity and responsibility, some of which I still have.

I understand completely and I empathize, please do not say that I do not. Before I retired, I raised children, cared for a spouse, cared for 3 dogs, other family, worked for U.S. Customs before and after 9/11, taught Tai Chi at 3, sometimes 4 different locations , traveled to Toronto for lessons, ran a studio in Buffalo, NY. I did these in conjunction with each other and I had my own practice. As the saying goes, I needed my practice even more, sometimes very much more to "consolidate the input" from all these other stressors. So, I do understand, and that  in contradiction to people who say or imply that I don't. I do not contradict them however as to the veracity of their responsibilities.

However, had I waited to have such time as I do now before I began or continued with Tai Chi would waiting for a "but" that will never come. As some have said: "it is like being a person waiting for the ocean to calm before going to take a bath in it".

Don't get me wrong here. I am not the proverbial man with a stick who "whacks" someone if they do not come to class or study. Nor am I the confessor that will tell you to "go and sin no more" for not coming to class or practicing. I once had a clinical psychologist in class who after his initial interest wore off seemed to have a different excuse (he jokingly called it "rationaizations") each week for why he did not do this, or do that. Finally, I told him: "I tell everyone this and that is that the emotion of guilt is no help whatsoever in learning this". I'm pretty sure most folks who come and go whether long time or short get to the guilt stage. It has been said that one reaches the guilt stage when they run out of excuses/"rationalizations". Or as the psychologist would say "rationalizations for not coming or practicing". Some run through the rationalizations faster than others. Here's a "confession": I stuck with it sometimes because I got tired of feeling guilty.   I told myself, "if you feel that bad for not doing it, then you must really need it".  Believe me, I do understand but I'm not going to feel guilty with you. I learned to recognize my rationalizations and detach myself from them, but that only comes with continuing the Tai Chi.

It does give you a "look inside" yourself, doesn't it? I have a suspicion over these many years of seeing a "revolving door" of students, that people do not like what they see sometimes, don't want to see anything deeper and find it easier to rationalize, feel guilty then...


Barry said...

Sifu how true ! Everyone wants to make an excuse as to why they no longer want to do some thing. They don't want to be honest with themselves and say this is to hard or I'm just not committed to doing what needs to be done in order to develop my skills, or even just saying I am not interested in this any longer! So instead the blame outside factors, as it is always easier to look outward than inward when one fails to develop or continue to grow.

Rick said...

It's not like you practice for a while and then you suddenly start making all the green lights, don't have to rotate your tires anymore or can stop flossing. The skills you cultivate must be maintained and deepened. There's no pixie dust.