The Art of Learning (How To be a Student) Pt. 3 Trust & Loyalty

It is said, “A good teacher gives the student not what he wants, but what he needs”. If we are to learn properly, we must trust in the teacher’s guidance, which means not only to follow his or her methods, and pace of teaching, but also heed advice (especially if we have sought this advice!) and recommendations. If the teacher possesses both knowledge and wisdom that has been handed down orally for generations, as well as deep personal experiences, it is very wise to trust in this. We need to accept restrictions, heed warnings, and especially be able to accept criticism as deserving, if we are to ever really improve ourselves. Students that proceed to do the polar opposite of what they’ve been told, and believe they know better, effectively are electing to follow their own path and not the roadmap provided by ancestors, so how can they expect the right results? Only with initial trust can students actually test the teacher’s advice and discover for themselves whether or not it is the truth and the right way. And, only from gaining experience in learning to trust can they develop faith in the teacher; that whatever he says has to be accurate. So, this is not “blind faith”. Then, they will come to understand and trust in the skill even more. They will experience ancient wisdom and knowledge firsthand instead of being reduced to believing in other’s accounts, or what they read. Failing to trust in the teacher’s methods means to forever remain in the dark, under a cloud of ignorance. If a student does not or cannot trust the teacher, then really, the question is what is he even doing there? What is the point? Just to learn some empty basic movements? Once the teacher can see that the student has developed trust, and is able to follow his way, he will begin to teach more liberally and with greater depth because this student has proven he is clearly open to learning the essence of the teaching, and may be one of the few to discover the essence of the skill.

Teachers welcome questions in class, as questions indicate the student’s level of skill, level of enthusiasm and interest, curiosity, and knowledge and intelligence. With more serious practice, generally more pertinent and deeper questions will arise. With no practice, there are always fewer questions. In class, some may be shy to ask, but as the Chinese say, “It is better to be thought a fool for a minute than to remain a fool for life”. There is also an art to asking questions, and a great difference between asking questions of the teacher and questioning or cross-examining the teacher. Asking the right questions, at the right juncture, in the right manner, will never cause offence or insult, but some students ask the wrong questions, in ways that can seem discourteous, especially when they express doubt or appear to challenge the teacher’s authority, or credibility, because this implies lack of trust. For example, being asked “Why?” at every juncture, means the teacher has to explain and justify everything he shows to the group. This becomes tiresome very quickly, and the persistent student will soon find himself out of favor. The Chinese way is not to explain everything at the beginning, but later when the student comes to a point of experience from practice to ask intelligent questions, and adequately comprehend the answers given. Every teacher’s most universally detested question has to be, “What comes next?” or “Can you show me the next movement?” Asking for more only betrays an inherently greedy nature, and anxiety, which seems desperate. The student thus feels he has not been given sufficient material to develop by himself, with the implication that he is able to determine his own level and needs better than the teacher! This also implies a lack of trust. Upon being asked to show more, many traditional teachers will simply walk away. We should never dictate to the teacher what to teach or how to teach. It is best to trust, accept and follow. Being pushy never works, and if students do not pay heed to admonitions in this regards, they tend to find themselves being held back for a period, until patience and acceptance has been learned.

Some students are perennial “seekers”; constantly trying out all kinds of new exercise fads or “spiritual” trends, despite having more than they can even practice. They fail to trust in the skill as a complete method that will keep them healthy, and are afraid to “put all their eggs in one basket”. Traditional Chinese systems are complete forms of mental/ physical exercise and internal/ external health, at least in terms of everything that is really relevant. There really is no need for anything else. It is just a matter of personal preference as to which style, or styles suits us best, as they are all so varied, and different in so many ways. My Sifu and grand-teachers never felt the need to “supplement” their skills with running or lifting weights etc. or the host of fad (here today/ gone tomorrow) exercises, nor are they concerned about their “core”, and other isolated aspects of the body that certain Western fitness devotees obsess over. Their skills were more than sufficient for all their needs, and have endowed them with great health, vitality, strength and longevity. Those that doubt and cannot trust in their skill, and feel the need to seek out other forms of exercise, will never really come to know the true value of what it is they are studying! It takes wisdom to know sufficiency.

Some “seekers” attend retreats periodically. They may achieve a type of blissful state, and feel cleansed while sequestered away from the frenetic chaos and mental/ physical pollution of the ‘world of dust”, but their time away is limited, so this experience, if not maintained, is just fleeting. They may gain wondrous insights into the nature of existence and the human condition, but without the daily discipline of cultivating oneself and applying the knowledge to everyday life, the experience on retreat is superficial. Ancient Chinese wisdom says, “Knowledge is important but practice is the key”. Knowledge without applying it is ultimately meaningless.

Seekers, by definition, spend most of their lives searching, and fail to possess and access any one discipline that can provide an “anchor” to keep them stable amidst the ups and downs of life. So, largely, they remain out of balance, physically and mentally, and some find themselves constantly swayed by their base emotions of worry, anger, and sorrow, and animal instinct of fear, instead of employing one practical method to transcend them. Why is it that internal masters have no major dramas recurring in their lives? Because they are wise and mindful, and developed stillness and quietude inside, to which the universe and external world responds like an echo. Despite years of practicing internal training, the internal Qi of the seeker is no more abundant or refined than that of ordinary folk. Certain students, lacking a solid basis, remain as ignorant of Mind, Qi, their own bodies, and the nature of internal health and healing, as one that has never even been exposed to the skill! Those addicted to “Mind-Body exercise” and/ or meditation classes, rush from one to the next, only to return to their self-absorbed ways, and their busy, chaotic lives that run completely contrary to Dao. (The Dao De Jing says, “What goes against Dao soon comes to an end”.) They remain, throughout their lives, fundamentally unchanged and no wiser because they do not live a philosophy and follow a practical path of action that, when applied, cannot help but effect positive changes.

Loyalty and character go hand-in-hand. Loyalty denotes a true and sincere heart that aligns with the teacher and group, in the same way we stand by our families. Though we are not bound by blood, sometimes the bonds can be stronger than with certain actual family members. Loyalty gains the teacher’s trust. There are students, however, that choose to remain separate and maintain a distance, placing an impenetrable barrier around themselves. They do not open up their hearts, and do not form lasting friendships with other students, in class and outside of class. They may be conspicuously absent from class meals, special occasions, gatherings and outings; always having something more important and pressing that takes precedent over spending time with their teacher and brothers and sisters. They feel no sense of belonging, and so no sense of loyalty, and allegiance. There are different reasons for this. Some are benign, such as acute shyness, and lack of social skills, while others may be more concerning, such as trying to conceal true motives, intentions and agendas. They may simply not want others to see through them so they show up to class and exit as soon as possible. Once they have acquired what they really came for they disappear, never to be heard from again. Assuming they continue to practice, after they leave, they will develop along an entirely different path from the teacher, the group, and the lineage they may claim to study under. If the lineage, hypothetically, is following a clear, straight path heading due north, the wayward student’s path is crooked, filled with obstacles and detours, and ultimately heading in a southerly direction. Their form can end up being literally unrecognizable from the original skill of their teacher and predecessors.

If the teacher is unsure of the student’s heart and loyalty, it is unlikely he will teach everything, beyond superficial instruction in the external form. Details may be omitted, and filled in later, once time has allayed concerns. In the past, certain techniques would be held back altogether or even taught incorrectly, at first, to those not known or yet trusted, and the correct version shown after a period of time of getting to know the student. When the teacher trusts implicitly, the student is destined to gain so much more.

Loyalty goes beyond simply training with one teacher exclusively! It also includes dependability and trustworthiness. If a student has offered, promised or agreed to help then he should honor the commitment. If a student says he will do something, no matter how apparently inconsequential, even like a phone call, he should always do it when he says he will. Otherwise, it is best not to say and commit to anything at all. To neglect or fail in this matter, after giving one’s word, is to let the teacher down. This is not altogether acceptable. It breaks trust and confidence because the student can no longer be relied upon, and, ultimately, it shows lack of respect. The student loses all credibility and no one can take the individual seriously. Anything this student says going forward really counts for nothing. He or she may be allowed to remain in class, but will gain very little of the teacher’s personal time. In the past, in every culture, loyalty and giving your word, or taking an oath, meant “Everything” and without loyalty, or if someone could not keep their word, that person was literally worth “Nothing”. He was considered the lowest of the low. All a person had was his word. If a person gave an oath that person would stand upon it, and even die for it. Breaking one’s oath could have been punishable by death, or at the very least, meant being ostracized from a family, village, or community. Today, character counts for far less than status; wealth, power, and celebrity being lauded above everything. (This is just one reason why the world we live in today is in such trouble!)

Still, in life, we should always say what we mean and mean what we say. With our teacher, it really does not pay to be “wishy-washy”; vague, indecisive, irresolute, equivocating and prevaricating. Weak characters, such as this, seldom possess the perseverance to complete their training, and even if so, could never be selected to teach and represent a traditional skill with lineage, because they are incapable of representing the style in a good light. If they cannot even remain loyal to their own word, and set an example, how can they be trusted to properly educate others? They would only be equipped to show physical movement, and, in essence, would be no different than a personal trainer or fitness class instructor.

Every once in a great while, teachers encounter deceitful students that come along and study with multiple teachers, but secretively, without informing any one teacher of the other(s). These students are like cheating spouses, skulking about in desperate fear that their partner might discover their infidelities. It is impossible to attain high-level health and develop Spirit when Heart and Mind are corrupted because these are all interlinked. The external condition and outward energy (aura) is a reflection of inside, so if inside is warped then their movement or form also becomes deformed and strange too, as movement is an expression of the soul.

Most importantly, loyalty is about allegiance. Hypothetically, let’s say two training brothers (or sisters), studying in class, happen to be very close. The first begins to study from another teacher, behind their teacher’s back. The second learns about this transgression either as a witness, by happenstance, or perhaps as told in confidence. He now finds himself in a dilemma, torn between friendship to the first student and loyalty and honor to the teacher. Does he inform on his friend or feel it is better to just remain quiet? This becomes a great burden, but it is a simple matter of right and wrong, of morality. What would you do? The student with moral ambiguity will prioritize the concern about losing a close “friend”. The good student will feel outraged, and as equally betrayed as the teacher. This is what loyalty and a true heart entails. He will be angry for the other student putting him in a compromising position. In his mind, some form of action must be undertaken. No one likes to be a “snitch” or a “tattle-tale”, and those with weak morals or character will use that as an excuse to say nothing, but to paraphrase the quote, “Evil triumphs when good people do nothing”. The second student could choose to issue the first an ultimatum, “Either leave or tell Sifu what you have been doing. Do this or else I will have to inform him myself”. If the second student allows the first to study just as before, and keeps the secret, while continuing to face the teacher every time, he is, by default, as guilty of dishonesty and betrayal as the first student. In life, the right choice is always the hardest one to make (initially), and it takes courage and character to do the right thing, but later, life becomes simplified and smoother as a result. The wrong decision, or doing nothing, may seem easier, in the beginning, but complications will inevitably arise later, creating great discomfort, pain and regret, and there are always far reaching consequences.

Those with a moral compass, but lacking the character to act, will find their conscience weighs heavily upon them. Few understand the impact of Heart/ Mind on Qi and on our general health. A healthy body needs a healthy mind, and Mind needs a healthy “Heart”. (Heart here does not refer to the actual physical organ though this corresponds, but to the subtle energetic heart.) There must be harmony between Mind and Heart for the mind to be settled and for Qi to be smooth, so that the internal body is balanced. This harmony is disrupted when the conscience is uneasy. Our conscience works overtime during the quiet and stillness of night, or when we are alone with our thoughts. This is one reason some find meditation particularly torturous, and why some prefer to keep themselves busy, busy, busy, using activity as a distraction. Conscience can disturb sleep patterns, affecting Qi and Spirit (Shen), and, over time, weakening the immune system, which takes its toll on health, and can manifest as illness and disease. Chinese medicine (rooted in Daoist principles) and also Buddhism recognize that the internal causes of illness lie within the mind and emotions, when the causes are not external (Wind, Heat, Cold, Damp, and Dryness) and miscellaneous (fatigue, diet, etc.) The average person makes use of prescription sleeping pills, alcohol and/ or narcotics, to suppress the conscience and enable sleep, but all of these only dull and arrest higher brain functioning, preventing one from ever reaching the higher levels of Mind, and human potential, and the ability to really feel and experience the fullness of life during waking hours.

All traditional Chinese skills are rooted in the philosophies of Daoism or Buddhism, of which morality forms the foundation for both. Students with moral ambiguity and moral weakness that are unwilling to learn and work to overcome these, not only do the skill they study a great disservice, but also cannot possibly succeed. Most foibles and improper conduct can be corrected, as part of the complete education, and can be easily forgiven; all except betrayal and deception, as these are representative of a fundamental heart and mind that is corrupted.

In today’s society, where most traditional values, like humility and courtesy, are dismissed as antiquated and obsolete, some may question whether loyalty itself is even relevant. This is why, generally, it is even harder today for teachers to find many worthy students. But, character (including a true heart) is a necessary quality for any spiritual training. If this is absent, those studying Chinese internal skills will always be missing a vital component that will always hold them back from ever reaching their full potential. Loyalty may not be expected or demanded at the outset, but as time goes on and the teacher reveals more of his art, he will want to know the student can be trusted and this trust is based upon loyalty. Just being a pleasant, amiable, and gentle person with a sunny disposition really is not enough. We might imagine that the teacher is stricter with novices, but senior students are held to higher standards and must set better examples for the junior students to follow. Thus, when a senior student breaks the ethical or behavioral code it is more serious than the novice that may not know any better, and will just receive a harsh lecture as “education”.

By Adam Wallace