The Art of Learning (How To Be A Student) Pt. 2 Contentment & Sacrifice

In the past, if one was lucky enough to be accepted as a student by a respected teacher (not every hopeful person was) this meant a great deal personally and would never have been taken lightly. The honor of being accepted would have precluded the desire or even the thought of studying with another, or others, at the same time. Today, though, there are innumerable teachers, of all levels, offering a smorgasbord of skills and everyone wants to taste everything. A few are not content with what they have, and feeling that something is missing, they are always looking for more. The greater majority, today, though lack discernment in knowing the difference between high-level and low-level, between correct and incorrect, and between genuine and fraudulent.

The best situation for all parties concerned is where the student is focused intently on studies and devoted to the class. This is best for the relationship with the teacher, and good for the student’s development and ultimate understanding of the skill. Students that practice other arts, disciplines, or activities, may still enjoy a good relationship, and receive sufficient personal attention and care, as long as they are, in every other sense, good students i.e. respectful, conscientious, diligent, willing to help out etc. and ensconced in the group. But, students that study elsewhere and fail to make efforts to be otherwise model students, and endear themselves, are unlikely to gain very much at all. Some students that fall into this category and also lack a sense of propriety, may even invite classmates to attend outside seminars and events hosted by their other teachers. This is not only disrespectful to the teacher, and to the lineage, but also potentially divides the class, and brings other students down to their level, encouraging them to be equally distracted and unfocused, and unclear about loyalty, thereby preventing them from developing their potential. Students that do indulge in similar or competing activities should keep them private and separate, and not bring them into the class. Praising other teachers or waxing lyrically about other disciplines to other students is highly inappropriate, and doing so in front of the teacher is the height of bad manners, and insulting. This situation would never have existed in the past to even be an issue, as every student would have been devoted and loyal. This accounts for the difference in general standards between past and present. Most students today still possess a clear sense of right and wrong, and only a minority needs to be taught. But, those that cannot even understand and appreciate this as an issue clearly do not deserve to be anywhere near good traditional Chinese skill.

Learning one skill alone demands commitment and concentrated, consistent effort over many years in order to reap all the comprehensive benefits. “Treat one year as a day”, is a traditional saying. Students may blame the skill or the teacher when they fail to achieve results after many years, but do not consider their minimal effort or stop-start routine throughout this entire timeline. If one hour a day, consistently is required to make quantifiable progress with one skill, then two skills requires doubling the time needed for practice. Assuming a student realistically can only devote half an hour per day to one skill (many students can’t even commit to this) then the potential, in terms of form, application, and health is thereby halved. So, with two skills and time allocated remaining the same, this potential is thus reduced to a quarter! Like a tree that grows upwards and outwards, its roots must continue to grow downwards and outwards to support it. Simply gaining more knowledge to fill the head without sufficient practice to fortify the foundations is to invite failure, ultimately, without exception.

Learning different skills under the same teacher at least provides consistency, and clarity, as the skills are filtered through the lens of the one teacher’s energy, heart, and mind. In this case, different skills may even aid or complement one another. But, those studying under different teachers, facing contrasting energies, attitudes, philosophies and values can experience contradictions, and even inner conflicts. This affects the student’s mind and ability to absorb information, much like trying to listen to one television channel when there are two different sets on in the room with different channels running at the same time. These students, instead of becoming clearer and coming to a natural point of realization and knowing, and maturation, tend to become more confused and experience the greatest learning difficulties and memory issues. In this case, less is definitely more!

The teacher knows exactly where all students should be at any point in time during their development, based on their abilities, and can see as plain as day when they have not been practicing and are stagnating or worse, regressing. In this situation, the student’s source of learning, instead of being accelerated, becomes drastically slowed down. The student may even be forced to go back and revisit earlier skills before moving forward. This can be too hard for some to accept. They must face the truth that they are not as advanced as they may think they are, or should be, and may feel a mixture of shame and perhaps embarrassment, and humiliation in front of peers. But, this is just the ego. They regard this as punishment instead of what it really is – a wonderful opportunity to correct mistakes, regain all that was lost, and capitalize on time already invested, to ensure a good future. Until the basics are right, nothing else will ever be correct. It is at this point some quit because they cannot accept what they perceive as going “backwards”. Sometimes we have to go backwards in order to go forwards, just like we need to crouch down when we want to jump high.

Students stuck in the external training of the form, unable to really relax, and develop mind and awareness of breath and internal body, may begin to say to themselves, “I don’t find the skill as exciting as it was a year ago”, or “I haven’t really learned anything new for a long time“, or “I’m just not making any progress”. Learning of the external form is always going to be finite. When that is complete there is nothing more to learn in that regard. However, the internal journey – understanding and experiencing Qi and its connection to the body and physical movement – is unending and fathomless, and deeply fascinating. The beginning of this stage is where the teacher is really needed. For some comprehensive styles, it may even be the first ten years, and then the student is fully equipped to correct himself. Once students feel they are not progressing, some may convince themselves that the system is no good, while others may be unjustly harsh on themselves, and feel they are “too stupid” to learn. Both views are equally erroneous. It may be normal for some to reach plateaus, once their own practice lags, but the answer is to keep the direction, and double efforts to forge ahead and keep climbing higher. We must reach down deep and find it within ourselves. No one else can do it for us. Any skill that has endured for centuries cannot be bad otherwise it would simply have died out a long, long time ago. And, no one is too stupid to pick up the external movement! Anything that comes so easily to us, and demands no effort, no sacrifice, cannot be worth studying in the first place. When we find the skill a real challenge, then it is simply a matter of how badly we want it: our level of desire, determination, and commitment. Many students today just give up far too easily, and that is too bad, but completing the studies of traditional skills requires “heart” and real character.

Some students join with an agenda to learn as quickly as possible and leave to continue practice by themselves. Others repeat this modus operandi with many teachers, some solely by attending seminars, so they are, in essence, just “form collectors”, like those that acquire books and boast a large library, but really have read none of them. They are unable to make honest self-evaluations about where they need to improve, and care little about learning correctly and personal standards; as long as they can keep acquiring more and more. In truth, it is far better to know just one basic skill intimately and perform it well, applying the principles correctly, and understanding how to make Qi flow smoothly than it is to have learned many advanced skills and not understand the internal workings, and be unable to execute them correctly.

Every once in a while, there is one student that has been in class for a period of time with no desire to leave, but wants to learn faster, and seeks to find another teacher or group practicing the exact same style, hoping to learn from both concurrently. Many teachers will find this objectionable, and will not take kindly to this situation at all because they understand the meaning of loyalty and would never behave in this manner, nor would have any of their predecessors, all the way back to the first generation under the founder of the skill. Students like this would never regard themselves as disloyal, but then what other definition for loyalty exists? And, beyond this thinking and behavior, how would one even begin to go about proving loyalty?

This situation cannot work because it creates doubt among students (of both classes) that what they are learning must be insufficient or incomplete, since their classmate feels the need to study elsewhere, especially if he or she were to compare teachers and classes with fellow students of either or both groups. Doubt is a like poison that separates people. And, also, this all sets a bad example. If every student behaved in this manner there would be no loyalty found anywhere, the traditional values would count for nothing whatsoever, and there would be no skill worth learning. This student would also, in effect, be elevating himself above fellow students, by possessing knowledge perhaps not yet privy to classmates, and feel special and privileged to experience the “best of both worlds”. The Chinese say, “The Hunter that Chases Two Rabbits Catches Neither”. Additionally, the student that studies with two teachers at the same time is no real credit to either of them.

Greedy students can be like children in a candy store. Parents place limitations on their children to protect them from a poison that will rot their teeth, and lead to diabetes and heart disease in later life. Children lack the wisdom and experience to understand this at the time. They only regard the parent as acting like a tyrant and altogether unreasonable. The teacher knows full well the pitfalls and future issues in allowing the student too much freedom and not providing education in character, loyalty and restraint. In this situation, where a student’s heart is divided between two classes, and mind is unclear, the teacher may force the student to make a choice (to make the situation better for all parties concerned). The spoiled and unenlightened student will view not being allowed to study both unfavorably, as the teacher being “restrictive” and “unfair”, just like the “mean parent”. Some even convince themselves that the teacher must possess insecurities and harbor control issues; that a confident teacher, secure in himself, would not even care, and allow the student to do exactly as he pleases, or even actively encourage the student to go out and find other teachers in order to “broaden horizons”. They tell themselves, “A good teacher would never hold a student back” or “keep a student down”. Students with this notion may be judging the teacher by their own standards and do not know the meaning of integrity. The only reason a traditional skill managed to survive is due to those good students with respect and loyalty! It may be so that some teachers really wouldn’t care, but then they most likely would not have had to make great sacrifices and earn the trust of their teachers. Some teachers may not care simply because they may not even possess any skill that is worth protecting and preserving in the first place. Realistically, why would a teacher that had to prove his worth and earn the teacher’s trust invest so much of his time and energy to impart all he knows to students with such very different intrinsic values that may feel free, or entitled, to corrupt and exploit the skill, teaching without dignity and propriety, to just about anyone who is willing to pay them?

Actually, allowing the student to choose his fate is very fair indeed. This teaches accountability, and being responsible for our actions. This is what it means to be an adult, and is an important life lesson. We can’t have everything we want in life and we need to make choices. It takes greater wisdom to understand that in order to gain something first we may have to give up or sacrifice something else. So, we need to decide what it is that we really want. If the heart is right then we always make the right choices for ourselves. The good students never feel threatened or bound by such “restrictions” because the concept of loyalty is inherent within them, and they never feel the need to push the limits and test the teacher’s goodwill and patience. They generally feel happy and grateful to be exactly where they are. It is only the wayward students that feel restricted and the need to resist or rebel, and would probably just up and leave at some point anyway. Ignorant students tend to expect everything on their terms, and consider themselves “customers”, “buying skill”, and that “the customer is always right”. Of course, they get to choose where to spend their money, but while they may think they pick the teacher, they may not realize that it is the teacher, ultimately, that chooses the students he wants to teach.

Some students take the choice to leave and join the other class that attracted, or distracted them, only to regret their decision a short while later. They may long to return, but lack the resourcefulness and knowledge of how to accomplish this. Nothing is impossible. It just may not be as easy as they might like. Depending on the manner in which they left, most may be granted a second chance, but it is important to make a good impression. Simply asking to rejoin without showing remorse, humility or an apology is a gamble with exceedingly low odds. In this case, they may just be informed that they made their choice, must take responsibility for this, and live with their decision. Regret, by itself, is not enough because this is solely concerned with the student’s own selfish wants and needs. Some may feel that this is quite harsh, but why should those with no respect of the traditional values and the teacher, and few redeeming features, get to have everything their own way, with no consequences for actions, and no personal sacrifice? This is the time to change and make some form of offering as a statement. It could be a gift or a donation, or in fact something/ anything that shows sincerity and heart. Consider what a repentant spouse must do to make amends in a relationship. Words alone may not be sufficient as talk is cheap. The student needs to convince the teacher, beyond doubt, that he is making the right choice in accepting him back. It is sad that many students with deep regrets lack the courage to face the teacher, or else cannot overcome their own pride to admit mistakes and lower themselves. Far too often it is the ego that is the biggest obstacle preventing students from ever reaching their potential, and is their worst enemy. The question they really should be asking themselves is why the teacher would even want them back after the disappointment or disharmony caused the first time around. The student needs to somehow reassure the teacher he has actually changed his nature and that the same issues will not resurface.

Except in the most egregious circumstances, most may deserve a second chance. But, students given a second chance may not always just pick up from where they left off. They may lose that privilege and have to return to the very beginning, and start the process all over again. As always, we cannot have everything we want, exactly as we like. This is a big test, and can prove too hard for most. Nevertheless, those with wisdom will recognize the fact that they are being granted one last opportunity to learn a precious life skill unlikely to be found readily elsewhere, or taught in the same manner, to the same standards. These students need to try harder than before to demonstrate their sincerity, willingness to change and improve their faults, and do all that is required of them as a student this time around.

By Adam Wallace