The Art of Learning (How To Be A Student) Pt. 4 Respect & Humility

Respect plays an important role in traditional Chinese martial arts, Qigong skills, and formal studies of philosophy or spiritual discipline. Chinese skill, generally, is far less formal than other Asian arts, where the student must wear a uniform, and kneel and bow to the teacher at the beginning and end of class, but disrespect is not acceptable. A student that cannot be respectful simply does not even deserve to learn good skill! Generally, this type of student does not manage get too far along with studies. Either they will be refused outright early on, or they tend to leave (or are encouraged to leave) of their own volition.

The very first step to showing respect is to address the teacher as ‘Sifu”, as a “skilled person” or “master”. In order to have and show respect there first must be humility. Arrogant, egocentric, or alpha-type personalities, unaccustomed to being in a subordinate role within a hierarchy, may have issues with having to address their teacher as “Sifu”. They would prefer to consider the teacher as a “friend” (an equal or peer), but without any of the responsibilities and obligations that come with true friendship. The truth is they need the teacher far more than the teacher needs them. Yet, why is it that these same people have no issues, or even second thoughts, in addressing their doctor or dentist respectfully as “Doctor”? University students call their teacher “Professor”. Culinary students address their teacher as “Chef”, and sports players refer to their supervisor as “Coach”. Sifu remains our Sifu outside of class, in social situations, and even when we are no longer a student in class. As children, we do not call our father and mother by their birth names every time we leave the house, nor do we as we become adults and self-sufficient, because the relationship remains the same throughout life. The Chinese say, “Teacher for one Day, Father for a Lifetime”.

Some students are fortunate enough to meet their Sigong (Sifu’s teacher) and experience a deeper connection to the source of their skill. It is, of course, very important to show respect and gratitude to one’s Sigong, as the most senior person present, and to treat him or her very well. However, certain students can literally become awestruck, and behave discernibly better towards their Sigong than towards their own Sifu. They may show reverence, generosity, readily offer assistance, and listen intently, in ways they do not with their own teacher, whom they may take for granted. In this situation, a student’s loyalty and heart has to be seriously questioned. Our Sifu is the one most responsible for our development; the one we go to when we need help and advice or answers to questions, and when we have personal issues, and the one who knows us best, so this relationship is far more important to develop. For certain students, it can be a case of trying desperately to impress the wrong person.

Grandparents are renowned for fussing and spoiling their grandchildren. Children see their parents as the taskmasters and disciplinarians, and their grandparents as the nice, warm, fun family members, always treating. But, it is the parents that nurture and sustain, and meet their responsibilities to educate and ensure the children grow into useful members of society with values and principles. Our Sigong is like our grandparent. When the Sigong visits he brings his “presents” (skills and knowledge) with him, and none of the restrictions, demands, tests and punitive measures. For that brief period of study, it is all fun and games; acquiring knowledge and skill without any of the responsibilities and obligations. Few students, if any, will stop to consider that their Sigong is actually “Sifu” to his own students, and will be just as strict with them, when they flout codes of conduct and need changes in attitude. He will not tolerate any nonsense behavior, or suffer fools gladly, in exactly the same manner. It is not the Sigong’s job to educate and correct his grand-students in behavior and etiquette. This is the responsibility of his student (i.e. their Sifu), while he concentrates his energies on educating his own students to be good examples. A strict teacher develops good students, in skill, morals and behavior. “Strict” is often mistaken for unkind and uncaring when it may just mean serious and caring about standards. A lenient easy-going teacher may well be very nice, but will be soft and weak, much like a lazy or cowardly parent that succeeds only in raising spoiled children who become lazy, unruly, ill mannered, disrespectful, and discourteous. A weak-willed teacher will not possess the character and mental fortitude to develop high-level skill, and ultimately fails his students, and also his teacher.

Some Western students feel entitled and are used to being pampered. They expect flattery and compliments, or what they may regard as “positive feedback” from the teacher, in order to find the motivation to practice. Really, they just need constant encouragement and validation, to feel good about themselves. This seems to be the modern (Western) way, but this is all just about having the ego stroked. Spiritual training demands minimizing or destroying the ego, along the path, and humility is one step towards attainment. The traditional way of gongfu is to “Eat Bitterness”, which means to endure hardship, and this, of course, never included flattery and indulgence. Eating Bitterness teaches fortitude and forbearance and is part of the Life and Character (or “Spiritual”) Training aspect of traditional Chinese skills. When these types of students encounter a “traditional” teacher they may find the experience challenging because it is not the teacher’s job to motivate, or to cajole the student into practicing, and to mollycoddle them. It is understood that students are only present in class because they are already self-motivated to learn, coming in with the desire to work hard. The teacher’s job, therefore, is solely to educate, in skill and heart, and to inspire students to be greater than they are, helping them reach their full potential. If students require praise, every step of the way, in order to jumpstart practice, in truth, then they may be waiting forever, and will never develop a good enough standard. The good feeling garnered from practice, as well as the tangible results, should be its own reward and incentive to work hard. Being tested and passing forms, or executing a technique or application flawlessly and effortlessly, are the true benchmarks of progress of which one can feel really proud from one’s efforts. This counts for far more than being damned with faint praise. Students intent on gaining their teacher’s approval just need to consistently apply at least as much effort as the teacher would had given in his formative years. Once the teacher can clearly determine accelerated progress (only possible through persistent work) and recognizes a like-minded individual, he cannot fail to be duly impressed, and then praise will follow.

When the student receives praise that is justified it can inspire other students to work harder, which is good for friendly competition, and for the general standard of the class. If the teacher dispenses compliments that are unwarranted to preferred students, this favoritism will only lead to jealousy among other students, and creates disharmony within the class. And, if the teacher compliments liberally to all students, equally, then that praise is insincere and carries no weight or meaning. When compliments are given that are not expected they count for so much more. Students that seek praise to find motivation, and receive it, without putting in the work, become addicted to the “feedback loop” or “dopamine hit”. This comes to play more importance than the practice itself, and only contributes to their delusion. So, when the praise stops, or the teacher is no longer around to supply it, enthusiasm wanes and these students cannot practice alone without it. Lavish praise can actually ruin students as it can lead to pride and arrogance, and complacency, as they “rest upon their laurels”.

Ego causes some students to believe they know better than the teacher and the combined experience and accumulated wisdom and knowledge of the ancients. These students think they are clever enough to have superior, easier or faster ways of doing things, or believe that certain aspects of the skill are now superfluous or redundant, and therefore can just be omitted. For example, they may deem warm-ups unnecessary, or neglect meditation, and stance training. Of course, aspects of the skill, which may be deemed physically or mentally more challenging, or misperceived as “boring”, all have an intended purpose, and are included for good reason (and make the skill complete). Anything that did not yield results would have been phased out over the hundreds of years of experience. These students reach these conclusions without any experience, and time spent, to realize the importance of every facet. To the contrary, their thought processes are borne out of ignorance, laziness and impatience. Some create their own ways of practicing in ways that were never taught or suggested. They come up with their own interpretations. This type of “cleverness” renders these students literally un-teachable, as they cannot follow the simple instructions contained within the“roadmap” handed down for generations used to find success. All it requires is to follow the directions and not deviate from the path, or attempt shortcuts.

It is ego (pride and arrogance) that causes many beginners to equate corrections with criticism. They cannot accept the fact that they can possibly be performing the skill incorrectly, or could be anything less than “perfect”. Many do quit very early on for this reason, convinced that traditional Chinese skill is just not for them, and they would be right, as the Art Of Learning begins with an open mind and the right intent. In the beginning, no one is correct, or anywhere close to “perfect”, for quite some time, and to think otherwise is quite humorous. Beginners make so many mistakes, and this is perfectly natural, to be expected. We should not be overly concerned by this or be deterred. Others, more fascinated or captivated by Chinese skill, and less apt to quit readily, will stay in place, but may still shut down the mind to hearing the information and effectively resist corrections given, especially from senior students that they consider peers. As incredible as this seems, it is no altogether uncommon, after many years, and many forms, for students like this to possess the overall understanding and abilities of a rank beginner.

Students with a good teacher that administers the necessary corrections that take care to work in ensuring these mistakes are not repeated, will find the further along the path they travel, the number and magnitude of the mistakes will become minimized, and then they come closer to what the skill really is, and should be. But, without constant realistic self-evaluations and corrections, it is not possible to ever improve and reach anywhere near good enough standards. Today, the numbers of people practicing Qigong, Taijiquan and internal martial arts, throughout the world, has never been greater, but only a small percentage will come to any meaningful level of skill. Practitioners that left class too early have no corrections, but that is only because they have no teacher to correct them, and if they possess hubris, they literally become legends within their own minds, because there is no one above them to show them otherwise.

Ego leads to competitiveness and petty jealousies, and in some cases even resentment and showing disrespect to the senior students that lend their help and assistance. Ego separates instead of binds, and causes disharmony rather than harmony within the group. Egocentrism causes some students to act up, cause disruptions, and seek attention, or even attempt to challenge and undermine the teacher’s authority. Students such as this become like a killer weed in the garden, or a virus or cancer within the body, able to pollute, and corrupt the spirit of the class. As such, they categorically have to be removed for the sake of the class. This immature behavior is foolish as it is ultimately self-defeating. It makes no sense whatsoever to antagonize or make an enemy of the teacher.

Respect is shown in a variety of other ways, such as punctuality with regards to arrival at class, and paying tuition fees. Repeated tardiness (without good reason) shows a general lack of care and respect. This often tends to reflect how the student approaches and treats his general practice of the skill too. Some students need to be reminded to pay for lessons, or forget tuition fees often. It is best never to owe our Sifu. Paying late or after the lesson is equivalent to the teacher as an employee, working for the student, waiting to get paid, based on performance or service given. Owing fees does not endear the teacher to the student, and will only spoil the relationship. And, then the student may wonder why the teacher does not give much personal attention, or show much interest. It is also respectful, polite and courteous to inform the teacher of absences from class, and not merely coming and going as we please, without any care or sense of responsibility.

Some prospective students expect or inquire about free trial classes or hope to secure a “deal”, and negotiate free lessons. No true master, throughout history, ever began his journey in this way, by haggling over prices and attempting to gain some advantage over the teacher. This is no way to start off the relationship on good footing. Traditionally, in China, students would bring gifts and/or donations in the hope of being accepted. They would “pay it forward”, forget all about money (money should never be an “issue” between teacher and student), and trust in whatever and whenever the teacher is willing to impart, instead of bargaining, or demanding what they want to be taught.

When we visit a teacher’s school, or class, it is like entering someone’s home. We are guests. We would not walk into a host’s house with muddy shoes (without removing them or wiping them first), walk straight to the fridge and help ourselves to the contents. Then, put our feet up on the coffee table, or the sofa, and turn on the television, and demand a sandwich. Some people go through life attempting to change their environment and every situation to suit themselves, instead of adapting, and accepting others’ customs and conditions. The Art of Learning lies not in demanding and controlling, but in accepting and following, in “going with the flow” and trusting. We should be polite, be respectful of the rules, whatever they may be, and if we don’t agree with them, or disapprove, or find them too restricting, then we are simply free to leave. Standing about complaining, or arguing terms, conditions, and fees, hoping to be granted some exemption, or expecting to be treated any differently than every other single student is futile and ridiculous. Some feel that the rules everyone else is bound by simply do not apply to them.

To respect the skill is to handle it with care and with love like a good chef preparing food. First, he takes time to find the very best quality, freshest ingredients, and does meticulous preparation work in cleaning and trimming etc. Then he seasons, and tastes the sauces, pays attention throughout the entire cooking process, finally making sure the plating is right and presentation is pristine. He won’t allow any dish to leave his kitchen unless he is thoroughly satisfied that everything meets his standards. At the other end of the spectrum, we have cooks that may not care to check if the food is seasoned properly or is bland, and if it is overcooked or undercooked. They do not care enough to taste first, and just slop the food on the plate, haphazardly, with complete disregard. Well, students also fall into these two categories. Their movement, skill and knowledge, ultimately reflects their attitude to it perfectly.

Emulation is the highest form of respect, just like children will imitate the mannerisms of parents and adults they really admire. A good student, while not trying to be a carbon copy of his teacher, will nevertheless carry the energy, attitude, heart and values of the teacher, and teacher’s teacher before him, going back through the generations of the style. In this way, the past is very much alive in the present. This is the heritage, and really how an ancient skill is able to survive and thrive. The greatest respect we can show and honor we can give to the teacher and to the skill is to practice everything we have learned to the best of our abilities, and not carelessly lose forms, to set a good example for others to follow, and eventually to pass it on with integrity to the right students.

The teacher has a great responsibility to carefully select the right students to carry on the tradition, as the fate of the skill lies with the next generation. One good skill that has endured for hundreds of years, left entirely in the hands of inferior teachers with weak character and no ethical moral code, unable to lead by example and pass on good technique and the ethics, can find its reputation destroyed and it can be rendered extinct within one or two generations!

By Adam Wallace