The Art of Learning (How To Be A Student) Pt. 5 Gratitude & Courtesy

Students that come to taste and experience the benefits of internal training first hand, and gain profound joy and fulfillment through practice, naturally cherish the skill. It is no longer just some exercise activity (if it ever was). It becomes impossible to conceive of life without it or to ever not be practicing. The skill impacts and supports their life. A deep sense of gratitude naturally follows. The more we work to develop our skill and the more we sacrifice, the more we gain, and the more we come to value and derive more meaning from it. For example, students that have to save up and deny themselves certain pleasures in order to travel abroad for studies, only to return home and save up all over again, are far more likely to value the skill and the teacher, and practice what they have learned that much harder than those for whom everything comes easily and tends to be taken for granted. Students sacrificing so much are far less likely to be lazy and not practice, and forget the forms they have worked so hard to acquire.

Some students express their gratitude verbally while others physically show their appreciation. Actions do speak louder than words. Teachers appreciate and remember all acts of kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity that come sincerely from the heart. These may range from small, random, token gestures to grand statements that can genuinely astound. Students may gift the teacher at any time throughout the year, and some do, but certain times such as birthday and Christmas, whenever gifts are so customarily offered to family, friends and work colleagues, are the most important. In the West, there are students that will actually present a gift or donation to their postman or doorman at Christmas time before they would ever consider doing so for their teacher! In China, teachers are treated far differently, with greater reverence, appreciation and affection.

On special occasions, the class may come together to contribute to a collection for their teacher and present gift from everyone. Yet, in almost every group, there is usually one individual (or two) that not only donates to the collective, but also elects to give a personal gift in addition, sometimes even equal to or exceeding that from the entire group. Teachers are most impressed and touched by this gesture, and the level of thought, care and appreciation behind it. This really shows the student’s heart and nature. Two of my California students moved far away last year, yet, despite no longer learning in class, they continue to send gifts on special occasions, even Chinese New Year. Other students, at various times in the past, have also made grand, unforgettable statements on occasion too. Even just sending a card with a personal message to show teachers that they are in our thoughts and hearts, is better than doing nothing at all, and always assuming they know how much we care and feel grateful.

Whenever we offer a gift to anyone, it should never come with any expectation of reward or a favor, with strings attached. If so, then this is not really “giving” at all. This is more like a poison within the heart. If we decide to buy a present for our Sifu, it need not necessarily be an expensive luxury item, but if we are truly giving from the heart, we must never think cheaply or miserly, choosing fake brands, bargain basement or grossly inferior quality products. If the teacher realizes this he or she will only end up feeling insulted. It is also useful to learn our teachers’ likes and dislikes, as it is pointless every time to give items they have no use for or would not appreciate. There is nothing better for teachers to know that their care and efforts are recognized, and nothing worse than to feel unappreciated and taken for granted. Gratitude shown appears to be directly proportionate to the amount of meaning the skill holds in our life.

For those students possessing humility and respect, as well as care and awareness, courteousness naturally follows. Students happy and willing to lend assistance when asked, or even better, those that do so voluntarily and spontaneously are always greatly appreciated by the teacher. Help may include collecting tuition fees and keeping records, setting up the training hall (opening windows, putting out chairs, making tea or whatever is required), making prospective and new students feel welcome, and assisting with teaching juniors and those visibly struggling, as the teacher cannot be everywhere at once, and tend to everything that requires his attention. Willingness to help clearly indicates who possesses the right heart, and the nature potentially to be a good teacher in the future. Some students think only of themselves, and when being tasked with assisting other students in class they do so cursorily, and are hasty to return to their own practice. The best teachers not only possess skill, but also the care and desire to help and nurture.

Typically, in class the teacher does not handle money or financial transactions, and a student will accept this responsibility. If we ever deal one-on-one with the teacher, such as private study or personal tuition, we never hand money directly to him. This would be degrading and insulting. Instead, we offer the fee in an envelope, always before the lesson, so this is more like a donation, and it shows trust. Traditionally, a red envelope (for good luck) is even better, but, if one is not available, a plain white envelope is sufficient. The teacher is not a shopkeeper or a businessman selling skill (and the student is really not “buying” skill either). In truth, good skill cannot even be bought, because it needs to be worked and developed. Until it is worked, it has no value, and even then no price can ever really be placed upon it, as its true value in the real world is priceless! Can one price out super health, or true peace of mind, or the practical knowledge to heal oneself? If monetary value could be placed on a skill such as this we would never even be able to afford it. We should never think as if we are paying for a class, or buying a lesson, but instead consider the journey overall. Paying the class fee does not guarantee personal attention from the teacher, or even learning new forms or skills in each and every class, or even that the teacher will always be present in class. He may need to travel away periodically, in order to teach, or to continue studies or maintain standards and visit his Sifu. Sometimes he may even just need to take a vacation. The class fee merely gains entrance to the class, and its purpose is to help support the class and the teacher so that he may continue to offer his skills for everyone’s benefit. No support equals no class. It is up to the student to be like a sponge while in class, absorbing as much as he can through watching and listening, and just being present.

Some new students that do not yet understand “the Way” may balk at having to pay for class when the teacher is absent, because they still consider “buying skill” and expect to enter into a transaction with the teacher. So, if the teacher is not present then there is no transaction. Yet, even in the teacher’s absence, they will still continue to learn and benefit, albeit from senior students, selected by the teacher to deputize. So, being discontent, and complaining, when the teacher cannot be present is an example of “Wrong Thinking” or “Wrong Heart”. This is an affliction, borne out of ignorance, and will not only spoil the student’s overall learning experience; it will ultimately ruin it.

Traditionally, it was always said, “The teacher has no hands and no pockets”, which means we should look out for and take care of our teacher, helping carry items, open doors, pour tea etc. When the teacher asks a student to collect tuition and keep records, the student is placed in a position of greater trust and responsibility. The question is how he or she responds. Some students feel honored and privileged, while others feel uncomfortable and appear less than willing to help, as if this chore is beneath them, or perhaps they feel they are being asked to do too much. This is, in part, a test. Unwilling students are unlikely to refuse outright, but they may express that they do not feel comfortable, either verbally or by body language. Those keen to lend support generally find that the teacher trusts and gives them extra help and attention, and those that have shown themselves to be unwilling will gain far less attention than they could or should be receiving, but no less than they may deserve.

Students should never regard lending assistance as doing the teacher “a favor”. Favors come with the expectation of reward (quid pro quo). When the teacher makes a request, or needs a task completed, the misguided or shrewd student, believing that “Everything is Negotiable”, may make the erroneous assumption that assistance automatically deserves free private tuition or complimentary group classes. If a student is always looking to make a deal, or gain some personal advantage over every situation, then trust cannot ever be earned, and no good relationship can ever be developed, as the teacher would always be having to broker a deal with a mercenary. This myopic attitude is ultimately foolish and stifles all chances of any good opportunities, since it quashes the teacher’s natural instinct and desire to be generous with passing on knowledge and information, and to take an active interest in the student’s development.

Non-practitioners, ignorant of Chinese culture and the traditional way of learning, may even regard students as assistant instructors, without any agreed upon form of compensation, or remuneration, as some kind of modern-day slavery, or cult-like subservience; that willing students must be the ultimate chumps or rubes. Actually, senior students helping teach in class gain so much. Aside from the honor, having earned the teacher’s trust to do so, there is increased status and the respect of junior students. The senior student comes to a deeper level of understanding through teaching, being forced to answer juniors’ questions, and think about the skill in a vastly different way. The student gains invaluable experience and greater confidence in teaching within a comfortable, familiar environment, but also has the teacher present and available to provide answers to questions and clear up any misconceptions. This not only aids his own development as a student practitioner in class, but also provides a solid foundation should he go on to become a teacher outside.

Many skills such as gardening, cooking or learning to play an instrument etc. do not necessarily require the physical presence of a teacher, guide or mentor. They can be learned on-line or from a book or video. With Chinese martial arts and Qigong movement and its applications, it is just not possible to learn any good skill adequately without an actual teacher. It is very foolish to think otherwise. A teacher is needed not only to demonstrate and elucidate the concepts that technology and print media is able to provide, but also physically to place the student into the right posture (or “frame”), so he can feel, experience and know what is the correct way. The teacher is vital to correct the beginner students’ multitude of inevitable mistakes in their form and energy, and to test the student’s knowledge and understanding of movement principles. Also, the teacher is there to answer every question that arises in form, application, theory and philosophy. No technology or media can or will ever be able to substitute this role, so learning without a teacher can only yield the most superficial of results.

Exclusively private students may gain more concentrated time with the teacher, but they miss so much because a group of individuals working together towards a common goal and shared vision, with focused energy, gain results that are far superior to that which can ever be achieved by the ordinary student working entirely alone. Everyone inspires and pushes each other to reach a higher standard. Also, being around others provides a good barometer to gauge one’s standard, progress and ability, and also highlights weaknesses, and areas in which improvement is necessary. This is all very important to development and also a foundation in reality. For those without a proper teacher above them to supervise and point the way, and without contemporaries, with which to compare themselves against, in practicing all alone will assume they are making progress, and ascending, when in fact they may just be moving permanently sideways. They may imagine they can reach the highest standards possible, all by themselves, and some, after a time, may even consider themselves “masters”, but this can only ever be real within their own fertile imaginations.

The secret to learning and knowing the skill lies in knowing the teacher! The teacher is the skill embodied in flesh and blood. Skill only exists within a living breathing human being. Without a live person where is the skill? Skill is not the movements or techniques alone: It is the intrinsic energy that has to have been properly trained, cultivated and refined, and this energy is also a pure reflection of the teacher’s heart, mind and spirit, which may change as the skill develops. As such, it is totally unique, like an “energetic” fingerprint. No two teachers can ever be precisely the same, like carbon copies, even those coming directly from the same lineage, under the same teacher, during the same time period. Not only are body sizes and musculatures different, but minds and attitudes are too. If we know the teacher’s motivations, views, interests, preferences, character and philosophy, how he or she thinks and acts, we come to understand and apply the skill that much better. We also know how to handle certain difficult situations in life better too. Of course, a long-term relationship by itself is no guarantee of good skill if the student is not prepared to work hard, and trust and follow the principles, guidelines and recommendations, but some of the worst practitioners (teachers included) we find commonly are those with no relationship or very little connection to a teacher and peer group, or contemporaries.

A relationship is like everything else in life; the more we put in the more we get out. “Nothing comes from nothing”, or “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”. I have encountered several men and women in conversation that claim to have studied Chinese skills in the past, yet cannot even recall their teacher’s name! This is unbelievable and appalling! It becomes immediately apparent that these people all share the same common factors. They not only lack “Heart” (the human ability to connect with fellow sentient beings interacting with in a regular basis), but they also understand nothing about human relations, nothing about Chinese culture, and nothing about the minimal skill they acquired along the way. Anyone that possesses genuine skill (especially recognized by others) has done so under the guidance of a teacher, and it would be absolutely impossible to not know that teacher’s name.

Some students move away, and only contact the teacher when they want something; such as answers to questions, advice with health issues, seeking permission to teach, hoping to gain some reference or endorsement, or to arrange a lesson if they return periodically. They never think of contacting just to say “Hello”, from time to time, and see how the teacher is doing, and may always be “too busy” to share a meal with the teacher or group when they return visit to study. They never seek to develop any form of relationship, and if this situation were allowed to continue, after twenty years they would really not know teacher and the teacher would still not know them. They fail to realize the only practitioners ever to achieve a good standard in their skill all publicly acknowledge their successes are owed to their teacher’s direct involvement. And, this care and interest to take an active role is based solely upon knowing and liking the student, and wanting to help the student develop. These students that think only of themselves are no different than a stray cat that is hungry and appears only when it wants feeding, and promptly disappears as soon as it is satiated. What teacher really wants a student such as this? It is important to see the teacher as a sentient being and not just as some service provider droid working to satisfy one’s selfish needs. These are “Human Skills” after all, developed by human beings for human beings, to improve the human condition and to develop the full human potential. They are best transmitted with an open human heart and loving care to an open and receptive human heart. This is the secret of the transference of knowledge, in the same way you can water feed a plant, but all gardeners maintain the plant positively thrives and blooms when it is shown love. Those that habitually take the teacher for granted should not be surprised if, one day, he is no longer as easily accessible, or available to them, perhaps at a time when they want or need him the most. The real traditional teachers possess dignity and integrity, and place principle over money. A good teacher treats all students equally and wishes for everyone to bond and come together like family, but will not initiate or pursue relationships with individual students. This would be undignified and desperate. The onus is on students to make efforts or take steps to develop this relationship further, and if they do most teachers will gladly reciprocate.

People today only understand health in terms of physical fitness, stamina and strength. One may be very fit and yet not healthy, from a Qigong or Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective. Western exercise does nothing to develop and balance Mind and internal organs and Qi, and does not lead to wisdom, insight and awareness or self-knowledge either, no matter how many miles one may run or be able to bench-press or cycle or dance. Some understand the importance of mind on general health, and may consider themselves “spiritual”, and gravitate towards meditation or Eastern influenced “Mind-Body” type exercise classes. But, modern Mind-Body classes are missing something very important, and that is “Heart”. This completes the trinity that makes us whole human beings and allows us to develop our spiritual potential.

Few teachers today understand Heart; its influence on health, and how it connects the physical body and the mind together. Heart includes many characteristics. When we say someone has “Heart” we refer to bravery/ courage, fortitude/ endurance, and a strong will (to overcome adversity). When we say someone has a “Big Heart” they are generous or forgiving, and filled with loving kindness, compassion, sympathy, empathy. A True Heart also governs loyalty, sincerity, and morality. When the heart is tainted (by greed, envy, anger, pride, pettiness etc.) the poison affects the mind and thought processes, and general attitude and behavior, and ultimately the imbalance affects physical health, leading to illness. According to Chinese Medicine and Qigong theory, “Mind is the Ruler of Qi”, and Heart governs Mind (and nature and character), so Heart therefore affects Qi. Health and appearance is the outward manifestation of internal Qi and Spirit, and is evident within the face and body to those with the experience and eyes, or rather “Sky Eye”, to see. Good Heart can make a physically plain person radiate positive energy and become beautiful and attractive, while Bad Heart can cause a person with outwardly enviable classic model features to become very unattractive.

The goal of Daoist Qigong and also Daoist Chinese internal martial arts, beyond health (balance and harmony), is changing Jing (essence) to Qi to Shen (Mind/ Spirit) and merging with Dao. This is real alchemy and not merely symbolic. Just as transforming base metals into gold is accomplished by burning away the impurities, proper internal training works to cultivate and refine Qi and Spirit through tempering and reinforcing Mind and Heart, transcending the base emotions (the lower energy vibrations that enslave) and destroying defilements. A real purifying and cathartic process occurs which raises energy further and transforms Spirit, and the Body into a lighter, brighter, stronger, healthier and more positive and vital state of being that literally shines. This is one vitally important “secret” to health you will never see on the cover of sensationalist magazines or in television segments, promising health and beauty tips. But, without developing Heart, it is not quite possible to successfully cultivate Spirit, and while some milestones may be achieved, and impressive or even seemingly “supernatural” abilities gained, there will always be something missing. Training the Body is not exactly ever easy, and training Mind to be still, empty of thought, and relaxed and natural, can be even harder for some, but Heart is certainly the hardest to open and the hardest to change! Thus, the greatest enemy, or greatest obstacle facing us, on the path to success with Chinese skills, is invariably ourselves!

By Adam Wallace