In order to be able to learn traditional Chinese skills properly it is important to understand there is an art to learning, all by itself; in other words, knowing how to learn and either possessing or developing the qualities needed to be a student. Many assume that merely attending class and copying movement is all that is required. If only it was that simple. Modern Western culture differs vastly from traditional Chinese. It is important to understand the Chinese way, and certain Westerners soon come to discover they cannot handle the demands, obligations, and standards expected of them, and this is why so many fail.
Perhaps the most critical aspect to understand is that the teacher is the most important aspect in the learning equation. He or she is the source of knowledge, and controls the flow of information. The teacher decides when the information flows slowly and steadily, when the tap is turned on full power, and when it is to be shut it off for a while, or altogether permanently. Students may assume that the teacher teaches every student in the same manner, but every student is not the same, and behaves and relates differently. Will a teacher really teach a distant, frivolous, or troublesome student the same as his own offspring, or a trusted close student that is a joy to teach? Of course not! A teacher will take the responsibility to teach a student as seriously as the student takes the responsibility to learn. It is in the student’s best interests to seek harmony with the teacher.
Some students lack the self-discipline needed for consistent daily solo practice; able only to practice along with a group. If others are not available to practice with then they will either fail to practice or else engage in any other physical activity than train by themselves and gain necessary experience. No matter how many years of study in class under their belts, they will never manage to develop Qi and Shen (Mind/ Spirit), and achieve gongfu (internal strength) and “super health”, or come to know and understand their internal body. Still, this is not an “issue” for the teacher as long as they continue to enjoy the class and derive benefit from attendance. The problem tends to exist for those that are greedy and impatient, in addition to being lazy! Never content, they always expect or demand more from the teacher; more skill, more answers, more personal attention, and more praise and encouragement, yet do so very little to warrant it. They want and expect everything immediately, and give nothing of themselves, in return. When the teacher begins to slow down teaching and hold back (to teach patience), they can become frustrated and malcontent, which consequently affects general attitude, behavior, and attendance. This, then, becomes the issue, and may result in the teacher no longer willing to teach them, and their instinct to quit, without having learned the lesson.
Our outer, interpersonal world, and how others respond to us, including our teachers, is a reflection of our internal world, our mind, thoughts and attitude. Everything we project comes right back to us. These types of students go on to repeat this pattern with subsequent teachers, and fail to realize that the problem lies not with all the teachers, but within themselves. They believe they cannot find the right teacher, but they are really looking for a teacher that doesn’t care about standards, or is willing to overlook their lack of care and respect for the skill. Most lazy students are not necessarily greedy or impatient at all, but the greediest students always happen to be the laziest and the most impatient! Impatient students unwittingly set themselves up for failure. They make unsound appraisals about how far along they should be within the syllabus when, in fact, they have not the vaguest idea, and so, they place unrealistic time limits upon themselves. In reality, all students are exactly where they should be, due to their own efforts, or lack thereof.
Learning Chinese internal skills slowly, incrementally, and organically (allowing time to develop the basics and build upon this foundation) always yields the best result. Traditional teachers would teach very, very slowly, and it could take months before they were satisfied that students were performing the movements adequately before moving them on. There are no quantum leaps in ability, and if a teacher taught advanced knowledge and skill at the beginning then the student would not understand it or be able to apply it, in the same way that a member of the public may sit in on a university lecture, but without rudimentary understanding will fail to comprehend much of the information.
Only through consistent practice and gradual realizations can the student eventually arrive at sudden realizations whereby revelations match the teacher’s descriptions. Relaxation is the first and most important step in the process. This is why every traditional Chinese skill includes meditation and stance (stillness) training as foundation. But, this aspect, most important to cultivating Qi and understanding internal skill is also the most neglected, which accounts for why so many students, practitioners, and even teachers (!) exhibit “Hollow Form”, with “Empty Qi”, that move stiffly, awkwardly, disconnectedly or chaotically. Impatience is therefore the antithesis, and rushing is contrary to the philosophy. If patience, and a calm, still mind, is not cultivated at the outset, it becomes much harder later on, down the line.
Without patience there is no inner stillness. Without Stillness there is no Emptiness. Without Emptiness, it is not possible to achieve Dao (the Way of Nature) and Enlightenment, which is the ultimate goal, beyond health. Experiencing Dao is to live mindfully and skillfully in the present moment. Impatience is dissatisfaction with the present. It is living in the future; the way things “should” be. Constant motion and restless inability to be still is a form of neurosis and mental imbalance that only expends and wastes Qi. This behavior eventually leads to energy depletion and fatigue, then illness, and, if not addressed, premature demise, because it is contrary to Dao, and disharmonious.
In the beginning, with the glass empty and thirst for knowledge abundant, everything is progressing swimmingly and the student is happy. As long as the amount of practice is greater than the amount learned then this is like a “healthy appetite”. With serious practice, the capacity to absorb and assimilate the knowledge is increased because the information is “digested”, and sufficient space has been created for more knowledge. But, when knowledge continues to accumulate and is not met with equal or greater practice, then this is like a “greedy” person that eats beyond his capacity. In this scenario, the information is not digested adequately, and with insufficient space created, the student inevitably becomes oversaturated and overwhelmed (especially when more than one skill is being studied). In order to make space, something, therefore, must be sacrificed. With basic or previous forms no longer practiced these soon become forgotten and lost, which is egregious. And, even worse than this, the intrinsic energy and movement principles that make the skill right become lost too, because there was insufficient practice to gain this experience, which means every form learned subsequently will never be right either! The standard, which was gradually improving, on an upward trajectory soon deteriorates and regresses, and then plummets downwards. It requires much greater efforts to correct bad skill later on as “old habits die hard”. The basics have to be strong and solid, just like the foundations of a building. If not, then it is not long before gaps and cracks begin to appear in the structure, and soon entire parts just crumble away to dust.
One of the most common mistakes students make is to assume that once they’ve learned any form that they now “know it” and that is “all there is all there is to it” (nothing more to understand); or that the movement/ techniques within the form is the skill itself. Every skill is much greater than the sum of its parts, and there is a vast difference between knowing and merely remembering! When we truly know a skill we cannot ever forget, because we are no longer relying on memory. It has, by now, become ingrained and instinctual. We do not even need to think about it. The skill has become part of us, not separate. The skill is us, and we are the skill. This is having learned properly! The true level and depth of a good skill only reveals more of itself the more the student is prepared to work at it. There is no limit or destination; it is unending. It is only once the learning of the outer form (or “shape”) is complete that the journey inward (the “internal work”) begins. Developing skill is like making pottery. In the beginning you throw a lump of clay on the spinning wheel and add water, to make it malleable. First, you create the rough shape, and only by continually working the clay does it begin to take its intended form. But, this is far from complete. Details must be added and then it still needs to be dried, bisque fired, and then glazed and fired before being sanded and finished. Similarly, good Chinese skill involves much “Polishing” (refining) before moving onwards, and then revisiting again later! Many leave before the refining process, and officially stop being a student before completing their training.
Learning traditional Chinese skill requires maturity. This has little to do with biological age, as supposedly intelligent and intellectual adults can act more immature and petulant than teenagers. Some students claim to “love” these skills, but this “love” is based only on the fun and excitement of learning new material, constantly acquiring and accumulating. For them, the fun and excitement is not found within the daily solo practice itself, where the real deep joy, wisdom and understanding lies. They can be like a child with a new toy: happy only in the beginning, with the latest acquisition, when everything is new, fresh and exciting. After a time, as the pace of learning new material begins to slow, during the “Polishing” stages, they grow bored and restless. They demand stimulation and gratification. So, what they consider “love” is really more like a silly teenage infatuation than the adult responsibility and commitment of real love such as that of a spouse or parent.
At this point, some leave in order to continue their search elsewhere. Others happy to remain will do one of three things: If the teacher offers more than the one skill, they may be tempted to learn another; alternatively, they may learn other skills from other teachers or try other activities to fill in the time when they should be practicing; or they may (if they can get away with it!) learn the exact same style from another teacher or variety of other teachers concurrently, either in classes or just seminars. They do not trust one teacher can lead them to the top, and they possess no sense of loyalty. Instead of just getting on with work at hand and training hard, they believe they will gain more by learning from as many sources as possible. While it is inarguable that they will certainly gain different perspectives, more is not necessarily better as it can, and often does, only lead to greater confusion. All we truly need is one good teacher and our own consistent efforts, rain or shine. That is it. As it is said, “The teacher provides the key to unlock the door. The student must walk through it”. (Teacher singular not plural!) The best masters I know, and have met, all had only one teacher in any one skill at any one time, but they also had a dedicated and focused, quality peer group. Students and teachers that boast of having studied literally with dozens of teachers (with no peers) cannot have learned very deeply with any of them as it takes time and effort to develop a solid relationship with just one.
By Adam Wallace