I know that look too well.
It was a look of despondence. Discouraged. Defeat. Right after my student found out that he has misunderstood a number of things about Tai Chi and suddenly realized that he may never master the art. To add to his woes I said that to master the art one must not make mastery the objective of learning.
To which my student asked what is wrong with wanting to master the art. Nothing wrong with it except the more one wants to master the art the more elusive mastery seems. A famous Zen story illustrates this point perfectly :-
A Zen student goes to a temple and asks how long it will take him to gain enlightenment if he joins the temple.
“Ten years,” says the Zen master.
“Well, how about if I really work and double my effort?”
In fact, this was the same advice my teacher gave me. He said simply that the objective is to practice daily. Simple advice but effective, at least for me.
For most students they want to master the art but they are unable to put in daily practice. When they do they fail to pay attention to the essentials. My student still has some stiffness in the leg that his entire balance is resting on. The problem could have been solved a long time ago if he had paid careful attention to what I said many times over. But I know that he never really listened because every time he plays the form he always skips this part.
In many schools the advanced stuff is always taught years later in the high dan rankings or reserved for the disciples or those who are willing to part with the dough for it. In our approach the beginning stuff is always the advanced stuff. Its the simple, seemingly unimportant things staring at you in the face, so much that its boring and seemingly irrelevant, stuff you chucked aside, those are the important stuff and they will come back to haunt you when you start asking why you still didn’t get it.
So yes, that first step. Why is it important? How does it solve the leg stiffness problem as a by-product of getting the principles right. Why one must practice it many, many times in the beginning and continue to do so until the principle becomes alive in the body. At this point you no longer need to do this part here because the principle is there in each and every movement that you do.
In not solving the stiffness problem then one’s true power will be obstructed. So you can push, you can push. You can bend your knees more. Brace against the ground harder. Lower your hips. But try as you might you can’t get the power out of your hands. Why?
This is why one must practice the form in accordance with the principles. The principles call for sung. Why must sung? What is its importance? And the million dollar question, the one question no one asks and no master wants to or can give the answer is how much sung is necessary and sufficient. How to know?
Again, the principles have already defined how much sung is necessary. But if you don’t read the Tai Chi Classics you won’t know about this. If you don’t know the amount to at least attain then how would you know where to begin and how to work towards it. Like I said, there are methods and there are methods. You can use any one. But make sure it leads to where you want to go. If not, then the method is a failure, at least where you are concerned and you must be prepared to abandon it and start anew. Again and again. Over and over.
Learning Tai Chi is like trying to achieve Zen enlightenment. It can happen suddenly. Or it can never happen. If you keep working on the methods with your energy focused on achieving mastery you might miss the important clues that can spark off that “it” moment. But if you cast aside the mastery objective, instead you work on getting on the means correct as the objective then you will realize that the important things have been right in front of you all along, if only you had looked near, at the now, the present moment, at the means instead at afar at the day you will attain mastery. Then when you didn’t expect anything, the insight will be sudden.
But such insightful moments do not happen regularly. Sometimes they come once in a blue moon. Sometimes they happen more often. Mostly, they happen when you have a problem to work on. This is why you cannot learn Tai Chi without understanding it as the art that it is. When you keep at the problem you will come up with solutions on your own for those problems that are simple. Such logical problems won’t enlighten you. Why?
This is because to be enlightened you need to be confronted by a problem that is vexing, so much so that you end up having doubts. Not just small doubts but great doubts. Ones that makes you despondent, ready to give up. But somehow you keep plugging at it. And keep going and going.
You might even go back to your teacher with more questions. But you end up with more questions, more doubts. And on and on. Greater and greater doubts until you want to explode. Then when you didn’t expect it, that flash of insight.
I told my student about the learning koan my teacher presented me with on achieving a force that can penetrate wall. Its an impossible thing to do. But as a koan not unsolvable. I had known the keys all along but didn’t put two and two together until that day the Eureka moment occurred. Still it took me many more years to be able to translate the understanding into a practical skill. This is why as you are today, so are you tomorrow after the moment of insight. Our force will become greater in the years to come but our muscles don’t become harder, more defined because as we sung more the muscles start becoming softer. As they do so, the principles of physics become alive through the body. So each movement you do, including force issuing, becomes more efficient, using less energy to generate more force, thus requiring the muscles to be more and more sung; a virtuous circle of internal changes.
Tai Chi is not an art for those who are too ready to give up at the first sign of difficulty. I know its difficult to get a handle on the mind. Its so much easier if the whole thing just boils down to doing push-ups, squats, etc. Yeah, hell, unfortunately being internal is not that easy or straightforward. Yet one day when you get it you will find that its really simple and straightforward. Its your complicated mind, the unenlightened and full of stuff, burdened, mind, unable to let go of the useless, that is the real problem.