Chinese martial arts and Qigong can boast millions of practitioners throughout the world, but a high percentage may never actually come to gain the greatest benefits because they succumb to “The Plateau”. Statistically, if you are reading this, you could even be one of them! Hopefully, by the end of reading this, you will have lowered those odds.
The Plateau is the level where the student feels he or she is no longer progressing any further and reaches a point of stasis, coming to experience a deep boredom or frustration, and even resentment. It begins to spell immediate disaster for a great many, as this is when interest, or whatever enthusiasm was present at the outset, is replaced with a lassitude that is hard to shake off.
A plateau, by definition, is “an area of relatively high ground” or “a state of little or no change following a period of activity or progress”. It is also a verb. Most students that plateau tend to do so quite early on in their studies, and never even manage to reach the “high ground”. Had they done so, sufficient layers of the onion would already have been peeled back to reveal the numerous benefits and unlocked mysteries, making it too addictive to give up. Like a good book or movie, we want to know where it will take us next, and we want to reach the end so we can know the outcome.
Learning and developing a traditional Chinese martial art or Qigong system is really like climbing a mountain. To some, this presents an exciting adventure and challenge, one to attack with energy and enthusiasm, while to others, it can be seen as daunting, or too laborious, and sooner or later, to become insurmountable. Modernized, simplified versions exist, better suited to the greater number of dilettantes not looking to climb any mountains, even half-way, unwilling to work or have knowledge and skill tested in order to progress, and not seeking to improve or train character and develop their human potential.
In order to climb any great mountain, we first need to find the best, experienced guide, the right tools and right clothing. Establishing a base camp is also a priority. The trek is a constant uphill struggle along a precarious path fraught with obstacles and dangers that can easily lead to a slip or fall, requiring a desperate scramble to get back to where we were, so that we may continue with the ascension, or else leaving us stuck in a chasm.
The “Guide” is our Sifu, or teacher, further along the journey, shining the torch to illuminate our path out of the darkness. Having been where we find ourselves currently, he knows exactly what is needed in order to reach the next level, along every single step of the way. From his experience, he can point out all the obstacles and pitfalls to avoid, that will hold us back. It is said, “One word from a master can save you three years of practice”. (This is not about shortening the time, but rather to avoid prolonging the journey!)
The “Base Camp” constitutes foundation training, our formative years. Learning intermediate and advanced skills without a firm foothold in the basics would be tantamount to commencing building construction using wood for the support beams and lintels, instead of steel or concrete. If the basics cannot be grasped or applied properly, the skill offers only the most limited benefits to the student, and in certain cases can even prove detrimental! For example, in Chen Taijiquan, if Qi, stamina and the physical body have not been tempered through the more internal First Form (Yilu) then the inordinate amount of issuing power (Fajing) demanded by the Second Form (Erlu or Cannon Fist) will almost certainly lead to chronic fatigue or injury to joints, tendons, or musculature. With Qigong, if intrinsic vital energy has not been cultivated, for health as the primary goal, then using the skill for other purposes such as healing others, seeing colors of Qi or remote viewing etc. will only deplete prenatal Qi, inevitably leading to exhaustion or other side-effects.
So, internal health skills, like altitude sickness, or deep-sea divers’ decompression sickness (The Bends), ascending faster than the body can balance with the changes in air pressure and oxygen levels, can prove harmful and dangerous to health when not treated responsibly and adhering to rules governing practice. Gradual acclimatization at every level is for safe practice and right results. Coming to learn the higher levels too soon can be illustrated by the Chinese fable of the impatient farmer who sees his neighbor’s tall rice plants while his own are failing to grow at the same rate. One night he decides to go out into his field and tugs at some of his own crops in the hope that they will grow as tall as his neighbor’s. He awakes eagerly the next morning only to see his plants lying dead all over his field. So, he decides to give the rest that survived triple the water he’d been giving them and awakes the next day to see his entire crop destroyed. Everything, including knowledge, should come at the right time, when natural, and not be rushed or forced.
Within the first few years we are provided with all the basics we need to adequately learn and correctly execute the intermediate and advanced skills, in order to reach the summit. This brief time needs to be used judiciously and productively. The teacher, in imparting the skill, is merely handing us a treasure map, with arcane symbols to the hidden gold or diamonds, as well as the tools to excavate. That is all! So, we know how to arrive at the location where the valuables lie, but we only come to physically possess them through intellect, hard work, and determination. So, learning is really just an abstract. The skill only becomes skill once it has been worked, and reworked, consistently over time, until it manifests from inside out. This is Gongfu. The fruit of Gongfu (super-health, vitality, increased resistance to disease, youthfulness, longevity, tranquility) is the buried treasure. True skill “lives” within and becomes wholly inseparable from the individual. This is the epitome of “internal”. Relying purely upon memory, retaining and accessing information solely within the brain, means the physical movement always remains external and separate. Memory fades and cannot be relied upon with the passing of time. When knowledge is not applied as habit, to become knowing (like learning a foreign language) then it will inevitably become lost, or at best, spotty and unclear. Knowledge through remembering is limited, but knowing, through understanding, is eternal. This is how we arrive at Wisdom and Enlightenment.
The responsibility for establishing the foundation level, or “Base Camp”, lies solely with the student. It is not the teacher’s job to cajole or provide some dopamine-driven feedback loop for the student’s ego. Time, by itself, means nothing and does not determine any kind of foundation. In fact, long-term students considered “senior” can study for twenty years and yet, from their own limited personal experience, know surprisingly little internally. Meanwhile, those more junior that practice consistently within just the first three to five years will understand so much more and perform so much better. This cannot be faked. The proof lies within the movement. Practice equals Gongfu, and Gongfu equals an unshakeable inner confidence. Without Gongfu there is only uncertainty and insecurity. Junior students are not expected to know much, but seniors are, and the more time that passes without solid knowledge and skill, the greater that insecurity and fear of being exposed becomes. That is what life becomes like for some on The Plateau! Sometimes, rather than step backwards, in order to reclaim the basics they failed to achieve the first time around, it is easier to fast-track back down to earth by taking a flying leap off the mountain.
The “Uphill Struggle” is the effort needed to overcome all manner of obstacles that prevent practice. Or rather, the natural inclination to be lazy. The hardest part, sometimes, is just arising out of the comfortable chair or to leave a warm bed to go out into the cold. Once this is accomplished, then the rest is easy. If the habit is developed early on, like brushing your teeth, then it is not really an effort. Developing the habit of daily solo practice, to become self-sufficient and independent of the need for others with whom to train requires some strength of character. I know a Sifu who, in his youth, would not allow any food to pass his lips until he’d completed a set number of routines. If he did not practice, he went without. For some, “life” always manages to get in the way of practice. In allowing themselves to be left to the mercy of fluctuating circumstances, they become like an untethered kite, carried by the wind. Is it mere coincidence that the physical health and emotional/ mental state, as well as situations and events in the lives of these individuals, are equally erratic and fragile? The outer world is actually a reflection of the internal condition and responds like an echo. So, when Qi and Mind are balanced, through internal training, life becomes much smoother and effortless. Masters tend not to have great dramas in their lives as they are trained to be calm and live skillfully and with dignity. When we don’t make practice a priority and habit in life, there will always be some reason to prevent us practicing, if we allow it, and more chaos ensues.
The Chinese say, “Skill is like rowing in a boat upstream. Miss one day and you go backwards”. That one day, which can never be reclaimed, is not the issue. It’s the permission we give ourselves in allowing so many days in succession of missed practice to become acceptable and normal. The lack of consistency preventing the foundation becomes the essential problem. Students in this perpetual situation only ever know The Plateau, and yet may complain and blame the teacher that they are not progressing. When we truly love the skill then we don’t want to miss any days. Being realistic, and pragmatic, there are twenty-four hours in a day, and on average sixteen of these are spent awake, so, there really should be no good reason why we cannot commit to a mere ten minutes! Of course, ten minutes daily practice will not lead to mastery, but ten minutes can easily become twenty, or thirty, or even more. And, if not, then at least we can still look into the mirror and say we managed to do “something” that day! But, if we really cannot commit to a mere ten minutes every day, out of sixteen hours, then we are not serving our own best interests, we are not treating the skill with the respect it deserves, and we are certainly not honoring our teacher and ancestors who worked so hard to bring this treasure to us. At this point, it might be time to have an honest conversation with ourselves and evaluate what it is we are really hoping to achieve by investing next-to-nothing of our time and energies. If you were to ask those struggling with practice whether their health is a priority for them, most would answer emphatically, “Yes”, and yet they cannot commit to the one thing that can literally guarantee this?
The “Dangers and Pitfalls” to avoid are really our own foibles – impatience, greed (for more forms), doubt, envy, arrogance, inattentiveness, and carelessness. Then there is pride, when we begin to attain some reasonable standard, and instead of pushing on to reach higher levels, we become complacent and rest on achievements, only to plateau out. Once we become satisfied with our present level, then we cease to really improve any longer. The problem for many students today is that they are satisfied with themselves from the outset! They are keen to grasp the knowledge, but not necessarily wanting or caring to perform the skill correctly or raise their standard. Of all, fragile ego is perhaps one of the greatest pitfalls. There are students that hold a high opinion of themselves, unable to accept any failure in life, and remain closed to feedback, taking corrections as negative criticism, preferring to believe they are without fault. In truth, absolutely no-one can ever be close to perfect for a long while. Good skill is only attainable with constant corrections by the teacher and assistance by those senior. Instead of accepting and welcoming these corrections, some may be prone to acting defensive and resistant.
Mind and attitude is everything. Many will not even make it to Base Camp and will become stuck on a hillock. Kong Zi (Confucius) said, “If you make a mistake, and do not correct it, this is called a mistake”. Skill is improved by asking questions. Some never have questions because they do not practice enough to generate them or think deeply enough about the skill in general. Some may not ask questions for fear of appearing uninformed, stupid or weak, but, again, that is just ego. Kong Zi also said, “Better to ask a question and be a fool for a minute than remain silent and be a fool for a lifetime”.
By Adam Wallace