Some people argue for the studious approach to learning Tai Chi: Study, strive for excellence, express a devotion to teacher and style, be disciplined, work hard, foster dilligence and respect...whilst certain other anarchic types, question this approach.
It is... “not an acquisitive process of learning more and more facts or greater and greater skills, but rather of unlearning of wrong habits and opnions.” Alan Watts. Or if Alan sounds just too over-quoted these days, how about Tom Horwitz in book - Tai Chi Technique of Power - where he warned that “In striving to execute more and more perfectly the given movements, (the) expressive source of motion is too often lost.”
Now I know that Jet Lee, Donny Yen and even Kwai Chang Caine all promoted the striving and disciplined approach to learning, but what if they were wrong? What if, they were just acting the parts as though they were in a fictional film or TV series? Difficult to imagine I know, but lets try anyway.
Now, if aquiring and striving are to be eschewed in the pursuit of the way, then what tools would be available for us to use? Well, Al Huang said in “Embrace Tiger Return to Mountain: "Play your tai ji body like a bamboo flute. Lift it up to the wind, it plays itself”.
And it is here that we find a clue, a sign, an indication that if we change our approach to learning - we can change not only the what we get, but the process of arrival too. And we can do all that by embracing the notion of play.
PLAY DON’T STUDY
Let’s look at play in music for example. We say we are learning to play an instrument. Why is it that we use the verb to play here but not when learning mathematics or physics. We don’t say learning to play at hairdressing, heart surgery or brain transplants. We don’t say I’m learning to play criminal law, or learning to play economics, banking or political theory. Why is that? Is not a violin just as technically challenging as a scalpel, an investment bond or a hairdyrer?
If the concept of play encapsulates not just the idea of dexterity, but the unification of body and mind too - then perhaps it can help us in the learning of tai chi.
In Tai Chi - whilst we repulse the monkey, brush the knee, stroke the shoulder, Ride the tiger - we also Play the Guitar. Some teachers even describe the process of learning the form as play becasue in the art of playing, we become engaged. Being engaged, we employ our curiosity and sense of adventure. We learn to see not only what is there in front of us, but also what is not there. It’s not just the strings on the guitar that give it the sound, but its hollowness that produces the music. Space becomes as important as what moves within it. Even languages depend on this too. How would we ever learn a language if we could not distinguish one word form another by the spaces between them?
In tai chi the space is the air around us. To move through the The air around us. is a sensual experience not unlike moving through water. We swim over dry land - a bit like riding through the dothraki sea.
PERMISSION TO FAIL
But there is another important characteristic of play that is essential for us novice immortals. And that is permission to fail. When we play at something, we are giving ourselves permission - not to GTD but to GTW to get things wrong, to make mistakes, to stumble and fall and in so doing to explore our boundaries.
So when we Play we relax, we look to stumble as a way to learn, and in so doing we discover simplciity. We return to the state of an uncarved block , untangled from the complications of study, that turns life into a discipline with its rigorous training methods and competative ideology. Achievement, mastery, certificates, awards, coloured belts, grading systems, examinations trials and tribulations. Dispense with these and return to a state of awe in the world.
Become as a child once more.
Chpt. 49 - Tao Te Ching
A Master throws herself
into the world completely,
forgetting everything she's been told.
People pay attention to her
because she lives a life of child-like wonder.
It is said that the Tao itself depends on you and me, individually fulfilling our destinies. You and me finding our own paths. But not just finding our path, and then walking it with a serious frown and a stiff gait. We must (re)learn to skip and dawdle, the stop and stare and to smell the scent of the eucalyptus tree.
And if we are committed to doing this, to fulfiling our purpose, then the universe will always be with us, and everything that exists will come to assist us on our journey, because, the harmony of everything depends upon us reaching our chosen destiny in the most delightful way.
How do we know when we are on the right path?
Easy: When everything we do comes naturally .
Blockages, struggle, resistance are signs that we aren't there yet.
Play don’t study.
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Contrary to popular belief, the teapotmOnk (paul read) is neither a mOnk nor a teapOt. He is, however, a writer on Tai Chi, a podcaster & teacher with more than 25 years of experience. He can be found wandering between Andalucia (Spain) & Devon (Uk).
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