Cultivating the Persistence of Your Expectation
When you see those who are highly skilled, there is a tendency to think they were born with that skill, and you tend not to realize that they had to put in a lot of work to achieve what they can do. However, if no students surpass their teacher(s), those arts and their associated wisdom severely deteriorate over time.
Over the decades that I have taught physics, I have observed that often students sabotage their learning process by thinking, "I'll never be able to that." Expressing—or even having such a thought—programs your subconscious mind to blindly accept the impossibility of succeeding. e door is then closed to any possibility of achieving a desired benefit. Henry Ford (1863– 1947) aptly said:
"Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right."
Abstaining from negative thinking does not mean that you should go to the other extreme. Just see things as they are, and understand that things of great value take time to achieve. Allow your skill level to evolve naturally.
Use All of Your Tools
Students of any Teaching often lack the tools to make refinements to what they learn. Such a process requires critical thinking, analytical skills, perseverance, and knowledge of other arts such as science, mathematics, philosophy, etc. Ford also said:
"If you need a machine [or tool] and don't buy it, then you will ultimately find that you have paid for it and [still] don't have it."
A similar truth holds for tools for learning Taiji. Of course, excelling at Taiji requires consistent practice. But having and utilizing the proper tool is essential for getting any job done efficiently, and a price is paid for not doing so. But once you have that tool, its usefulness will carry through to new and seemingly unrelated material.
Tools of Learning
Tools for learning include the Internet, videos, books, workshops, group practice, reflection, visualization, dreams, lots of experimentation, and having an appropriate of succession of teachers of Taiji and related arts such as Qigong, healing, and meditation. Another important tool is periodic reference to the Taiji principles, the primary ones of which are non-action, being in the moment, circularity, continuity, naturalness, balance of yin and yang, non-attachment, non-intention, song, and the cultivation of nei jin (expansive strength).
In my view, additional powerful tools for understanding movement arts such as Taiji are physics, anatomy, physiology, mathematics psychology, and others listed below.
Physics is the study of stability, strength, and movement through an under- standing of force; leverage; stable, unstable, and neutral equilibrium; friction; pressure; linear momentum; inertia; kinetic energy; potential energy; gravity; center of mass; straight-line and circular motion; speed; acceleration; angular momentum; wave and periodic motion; hydrostatics; hydrodynamics; elasticity; and tensile, torsional, shear, and compressional stresses.
Anatomy involves an understanding of muscles, ligaments, tendons, and optimal alignment of bones.
Physiology involves an understanding of the organs, breathing, and the circulatory, neurological, hormonal, eliminative, immune, and balance systems.
Mathematics helps us with an understanding of spatial relations, axes, planes, angles, vectors, and perspective.
Psychology sheds light on conscious and unconscious thought, learning, perception and perceptual illusions, memory, and brain function.
Philosophy provides tools for analyzing and clarifying complex ideas.
Intuition is an important but much-neglected aspect of Taiji training. Intuition steers students to their ideal teachers, guides their interactions with teachers, and helps them to benefit from their teachers' modalities. Intuition also helps you know when to change teachers should that be appropriate.
Writing is of tremendous value. When I studied with William C.C. Ch'en in the 1970s and 1980s, I often took notes. For some reason my note-taking annoyed my classmates. When Ch'en sensed their reaction, he said to me directly, "Take your time, That's good." My interpretation was that he was also telling my classmates that they might do likewise.
One of the values in writing things down is that you are forced thereby to clarify your thinking. Another value is that you tend to emblazon the content of what you write on your mind. Moreover, your written record is something to which you can refer should your memory evaporate. I still have all of my class notes from all of my martial arts teachers and often refer back to them. A valuable byproduct is seeing your progress and increase in understanding.
Experimentation is essential in order to progress in any endeavor. As we go on, we tend to become captured and fixated on what we have learned at an early stage and find those concepts and tools very difficult to set aside in favor of something more appropriate and valuable. Just as we constantly need to remind ourselves to let go of habitual, unnecessary muscular tension, we also need to periodically reevaluate what is firmly embedded in our conceptual framework. Doing so is in keeping with the Buddhist idea of "seeing things as they are" and "non-attachment."
As beginners, we were taught simple ways of remembering the movements. For example, "holding a ball" in "Ward O Left," and "left palm-up under right elbow" in "Roll Back" are firmly emblazoned in the minds of all of Professor Cheng's progeny. Freezing what should be "Kodak" moments, however, tends to be at the expense of recognizing the essential elements of the movements. These elements would otherwise reveal themselves if allowed to do so. Instead of holding onto what was learned in "kindergarten," it is extremely valuable to put those items in your back pocket and try doing movements in such a way that the feeling of the movements becomes a teaching tool.
Accessing the appropriate source of knowledge can substantially accelerate your progress. Sources can be books, videos, the Internet, teachers, class- mates, and your students (if you are teaching). As a student, it is crucial to listen to others' questions and the teacher's answers.
Ask yourself and others questions. Asking others questions not only helps you, it can also help them. Teachers especially love questions, which add to their knowledge, teaching repertoire, and exhilaration. Even when the same question is asked twice in a row, an experienced teacher will provide a second answer introducing an important, new dimension. Asking a carefully formulated question at the right time can lead to a pivotal moment in your progress. Always seek an answer based on the Taiji principles or other appropriate branches of knowledge.
Visualization is an important tool that requires only mental energy and time and can be done while sitting or even lying in bed. Visualization provides dividends beyond that of learning the material at hand. Dividends include improvement in memory and observational and learning skills. Also, by visualizing a movement without doing it outwardly, baggage of unnatural, habitual movement can be reduced.
Knowing your limitations and adjusting to them is important and totally in keeping with the spirit of Taiji. Limitations can be injuries, pain, or lack of strength, mobility, or range of motion. Rather than ignoring or masking pain, it is important to recognize that pain provides a feedback system, which, if utilized, can facilitate its reduction or even promote healing. For example, there is great therapeutic value in doing movement that would normally produce pain but doing it in a way that avoids it by "sneaking" through without pain. Practicing movement that way educates your everyday way of moving to be less likely to produce or exacerbate an injury.
One way of taking limitations into account is in altering Taiji movements subtly and appropriately, based on your limitations or those of your students. A possible example is the difference between the current and earlier Yang style as taught by Yang Cheng-fu, specifically, that of the inward turning of the rear foot. In the earlier version, to which Cheng Man-ch'ing and his classmates appear to have been exposed, when transitioning from one posture to another, the rear foot remains at 90 degrees during stepping with the other foot and turns 45 degrees inward at the end of the movement. The current way, as evidently taught by Yang in his later years, involves presetting the rear foot 45 degrees inward prior to stepping with the other foot. It is much harder to step 90 degrees than 45 degrees. In his later years, Yang might have changed that feature because of his own or his students' knee or other problems.
The above is an excerpt from Tai Chi Concepts and Experiments: Hidden Strength, Natural Movement, and Timing by Robert Chuckrow, Ph.D., Publication date March 1, 2021, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 978-1-59439-741-7.