The Use and Abuse of Titles in the Arts
Since my last post - I've been working on a whole series of things, distracted as usual, by events in Spain. As some of you know, I’ve lived and worked a good chunk of my life in Spain - the land, it is said, of sunshine, siestas, bullfights and corrupt politicians. Although at the moment I am in the UK, my heart and spirit still resides overseas. Particularly this week as a particular crop of dodgy fruit got booted out of the Olive Press.
But I digress,
What I want to say is that adopting two countries, languages and cultures is an interesting balancing act. And one that keeps me always thinking about ways in which I can still do the things that are important - from a distance.
Since I stopped teaching a regular Tai Chi class 18 months ago, I’ve been putting that energy and time into finding alternative ways of sharing knowledge and skills through social media, Meetup groups and exploring online channels such as Teachable and Udemy.
All this has meant redefining what is meant by teaching , not because the technology has advanced to the point I can teach holographically or in a way more authentically than in a class room, clearly this is still not the case. It has, however, meant I can devote more time to other content, another curriculum, and another audience. 3 things not to be sniffed at in the repetitive world of classes, workshops, classes and more workshops.
This last month for example, I’ve been compiling a new Udemy course on learning the Tai Chi Form - exploring not only the postures, but why its taught the way it is, the length it is, the format and the process. Eventually, asking myself questions about its adaptability and relevance in these times. This is something I would never have done, if I’d carried on teaching the same way these last 25 years: following the same format, going to a class, working posture by posture alongside the same level group etc. With space and distance, you can explore other aspects of teaching and introduce new forms of content
So online teaching has been one area of work, but other formats challenging the classic weekly session appear more and more. Let me tell you briefly about 1
Most of you will have heard of Airbnb - the online accommodation alternative to rip off hotels, smelly old B&B’s and monopolistic tourist complexes.
Well, at last in the Uk Airbnb, the newest monopolistic digital platform - have introduced the Airbnb experiences. You can now book time with people, learn their skills, soak up a little of their energy and enthusiasm. And this has given me an idea as to another way of teaching.
I’ll explore this concept more in future podcast that will focus on technology and teaching , Meetups, Experiences and Online platforms - but for now, anyone interested can do a search on Airbnb Experiences, or the MeetUp website and track me down in, Devon and see what sort of stuff I’m playing with. All very beta, but curious.
An Incestuous Complacency?
All of this has brought me round to thinking about not only what we convey when we teach, but how we convey it. You see, traditionally one conveyed skill, experience, knowledge by displaying in prominent areas of your dojo, certificates, belt colours, uniforms, hairstyles, adopted names, initials, and family tree charts. Sadly, many still rely too much on this method.
Although this did give newcomers some point of reference, the Chinese arts just don’t do this too well. Without certificates, the Chinese arts have had to rely more on lineage and tradition. Yet even here, these values have been questioned. Often, an over reliance on lineage and inter-school traditions leads to an incestuous complacency, a stagnation of ideas and techniques that freezes an art in time and space until - an outsider emerges to nudge things on - to encourage a little evolution. Any brief look over the history of Tai Chi will show dozens of such cases.
Take a look at images of Tai Chi grandmasters, satin suits, pony-tails, collections of adoring students at their side - and then, look to see how Tai Chi is marketed today. See any parallels?
Badges of Honour
This is why I've little time for lineage, for family names, for titles in the world of Tai Chi and martial arts. Though I understand why teachers cling to the cliches of Sifu, Sensei, Master, Guru, I'm not one to participate.
Usage of these terms denote for some students, a certain smugness. I know I'll be shot down for saying it but you just don't get this elsewhere. And that's the problem with titles: Adopting titles separates and divides people. It creates distance between people, it seeks not to bridge differences, but to highlight them. Now this is perfectly fine if you are an aristocrat, Senator, Ambassador, Councillor, Your Majesty, Professor, Doctor, Captain, General, Your Holiness…these titles, ranks, hierarchies all bind together to form a class of people who benefit from their use. They exist because of the benefits thier use provides. Labels and titles and badges do this. But take them away...and what . have you left?
It's this fixation on names, titles, certificates, family lineage that -in theory - is meant to denote competency, but, these days means little at all. Such terms once did when there was no alternative, but now we have other tools, and anyway, they have long since been hijacked by social media and every corporate organisation, every new-age group, blogger, alternative cafe or whole food library in town. They have become sad cliches of the 21st century,
If you really must use another name, use one that no-one will be taken seriously. Such as teapotmonk. No one is going to think that such a lineage really exists, and for anyone unsure, let me set the record straight (as if it needs pointing out): I'm neither a teapot, a monk, a Taoist or a Tai Chi master (Sifu, Sage, Sensei, Guru etc).
Drop the titles. Drop the cliches. Become who You Are. (Oops, see how clichés can so easily slip in. Apologies.)
Nonsense or no sense?
Feel free to disagree and tell me why I'm an upstart. Leave a comment on any social media platform, and I'll attempt to defend my position. Without being defensive ... if you know what I mean.
In the meantime, do take a look at the Airbnb Devon experience, or the Meetups - it's an interesting slot that has opened up, and although you may not wish to come and train with me for a morning, it might give you some ideas about how you can vary your Tai Chi offerings to people in your Area.
And watch out for the new Udemy course on the Tai Chi Form. If you've done my Complete Immortal course, then you'll qualify for a free code. Otherwise it’ll sell at some ridiculously cheap price that only other monopolistic companies like Udemy and Amazon can get away with.
But what can you do in these days of digital globalisation
Time for another book review. I know I have included it in with a list of others, during a live FB video, but I think this one deserves an extra plug.
The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life by Michael Puett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There just aren't enough books out there that convey the practicality of early Chinese philosophy to English readers. Most are swimming in mysticism and caricature, doggy-paddling frantically in all directions in their attempt to stay afloat in the eyes of the unsubscribed.
Puett manages to do what others have failed, partly because he leapfrogs between Confucious and Mencius, Laotzi and Zhuangzi and in so doing breaks our preferences for one over the other, and partly because he chooses a language that resonates with the healthily sceptical.
In his leap-frogging, his doggy-paddling and his sewing of conceptual threads, he transports us back and forth between an abstract cultural and historical point centuries ago and the practical needs of the 21st century citizen. If scrumptious could be said of a book on philosophy, then this would be that book.
View all my reviews
We talk a lot in Tai Chi...in fact some say we talk too much. Theories on this, theories on that. How to disarm a rampaging rhino with Ward-Off Left. How to disarm a nuclear North Korea using just the Tai Chi Fan Form. Some may rightly point out, Tai Chi types talk more than listen.
I've spoken before on this topic. Perhaps too much. So today, I wanted to encourage the use of ears, rather than tongue. Your ears that is. So here you go - 3 opportunities to listen rather than speak (or read). Give your eyes a break from all this screen time and explore the world of Audible Tai Chi
3 AUDIO DELIGHTS
1. - Virtual Not Distant Podcast
Listen to the Interview on 21st Century Work-life with the mOnk talking about Teaching, Online Activity and Tai Chi.
2. - 50 Questions Audio (and ebook)
Why listen to a book on Tai Chi? Surely it should be read, studied, analysed for postures and elbow angles? Not with the mOnk, -better to forget about the geometry until you have mastered the concept.
3. - Second part of the podcast: Don't Die in Shackles
Finally, the long-awaited 2nd-part to the podcast series on FEAR - in which the mOnk scratches the surface of Mencius and his ideas on the unpredictability of life and how to live with generosity. Listen to Part 1 here and Part 2 here. - or (if you insist on using your eyes) read the abridged summary below.
"Make time, act and always reward people for the things they do, - for this is how to implement change. It’s easy and you can begin right now."
Living Without Fear
Summary of full podcast:
So how do we live without fear? How do we:
These qualities depend on as much as what you don’t have, as what you do,
Forget grand gestures, grand donations - focus instead on the small moments.
For we are small people after all, on a small planet, in a rather small solar system. Recognising our smallness can help in taking action. Taking small steps in showing people we care, showing how to share, showing how to engage in this life of unpredictability.
The unpredictability of life
The Chinese philosopher Mencius wrote that every day, events happen to us. These events are often outside our control, despite our best plans, despite writing a most thorough to-do list, despite designing the most detailed of spreadsheets. Some things just happen. And these things don't always turn out well.
Mencius called this the unpredictability of life, and although, we cannot always control these events, we can control how we respond and how we interact with such endless streams of unpredictability.
Unless we learn to do this, he said, we will live life controlled by the things that happen to us - the things we cannot always control or predict - and “our fate will be to die in shackles".
Lets look at an example
In most martial arts we learn that when someone strikes out, we block, parry or we instinctively strike back. It's the trained reflex. The conditioned response: If you press your nuclear button, I'll press mine. This training - to respond in kind - Unleashes the worst in ourselves, and in turn unleashes the worst in others. But in Tai Chi we are taught something else, we are taught a 3rd option - and that is to yield.
Yielding is an interesting concept. It doesn’t mean, that when someone strikes you accept it, It doesn’t mean you take a blow to your head by absorbing a punch with your teeth or eye. But neither do you strike back, unhesitatingly, instinctively, as a reflex.
These responses are what Mencius called standing under a falling wall and then saying it was your fate to be killed by that wall. Instead. He suggests we learn to step out from beneath the falling wall. To step out from its shadow and live in the light. In Tai Chi that is called yielding.
Now....combine the element of Yielding with the philosophy of timing, known as Wu Wei, and you get to choose not only how to respond, but how to live.
Mencius said. Learn to work with everything that comes your way.
Make time, act and always reward people for the things they do, - for this is how to implement change. It’s easy and you can begin right now.
Mencius said we must resolve to become the best human being we can be - not because of what eventually we will get out of it, what we will earn, or for the thumbs up we will receive. But simply in order to do good, and in the act of doing good, set an example to others around you. Little by little - small token effort by small token effort - nothing grandiose - just small actions we can take each moment of each day - and turn that moment into a general good,
For Mencius, one person can indeed affect change: think Martin Luther King, think, Gandhi, think John Snow
And together - well together - by choosing unity over division, by seeing what we have in common over what separates us, we can choose a life without fear.
Join us this year in Birmingham UK.
Why do people begin a class of Tai Chi? Over the last 25 years I've had people come to my classes for all sorts of reasons: wanting to learn to fight like Donnie Yen, wanting to learn to walk over rice-paper like Kwai Chang Caine, wanting to be able to hum 'Give Peace a Chance' whilst cooking an omelette, wanting to levitate, gravitate or salivate in front of relatives... the list goes on and on. But most people, if I'm honest, amble in through the hallowed doors of the teapot-temple in search of useful ways to help them deal with stress. They may not call the issue stress, they may refer to it as insomnia, nerves, lack of confidence, poor balance, an absence of coordination or a sense that life is passing them by and they are watching from the sidelines. So they begin a class and thats when they discover the true power of Tai Chi.
SO WHAT IS STRESS?
Is stress something new that requires modern tools, or is it something that has been around awhile and that were we to look back over time, we would find a whole series of interesting answers there? In Michael Puett's excellent book: The Path, he explores many of these questions regarding the applicability of Chinese ideas and thoughts to the 21st century and concludes that, surprisingly, a lot of our modern day aliments have have actually been circling around for centuries.
It was after reading his book that I thought how useful it would be to organise a short course dealing with something we think of as a new phenomena, but in truth has been part of work pressure and home life for as long as we can remember (and as long as our antecedents can remember too). Hence, I set out to create a new short Udemy Course on how we can use Tai Chi to deal with stress. Because the answers were already out there, centuries ago.
The course is structured over 5 Sections:
HOW DOES IT WORK?
Unlike many practices that focus exclusively on re-thinking or changing our attitude, Tai Chi backs up it's ideas and philosophy with practical exercises that have been used for centuries. These exercises, like many of the practices in Tai Chi, have been gradually developed for dealing with all types of conflict, and it is the conflict we find each day in our work or home environment that places such demands on our mind and body.
Each of the 5 sessions consist of 2 approaches. The first is an emergency first aid kit: A series of exercises and approaches to dealing with stress - as and when it arises. Something useful for the moment that can be drawn upon immediately.
The second approach works by selecting a few of the postures from the Tai Chi Form that incorporate measures for balance, co-ordination, posture, rooting and yielding and all serve to build our capacity to deal with stress over the long-term.
GIVE IT A SPIN
Like to take a look? Curious as to see how it could be incorporated into your practice?
Watch the video below, or nip over and take a look at the course structure, try a lecture or two to see if it's of interest to you and should you be tempted, then I'll even offer a special priced code for you. Use this code here - WEEB2STRESS - and get the course reduced from 35 pounds to just 11 (just for a short while guys, sorry it's got to go back up).
Find out more A Beginners Guide to Managing Stress with Tai Chi | Udemy
Or check out all the teapotmonk courses over at Learn Tai Chi Online.
Download One Book Here the Other from Amazon.
Sometimes people say behind my back - "that teapotmOnk - he's all words and no action". Am I bothered? Not really, because in a way they have a point. I write, I podcast and I do lots of video work. But, when I say something I like to back it up.
Last week I released a new podcast on the Way of Laughter. (Not heard it yet? Listen here). It was an introduction to the role of humour in the teaching and practicing of Tai Chi.
I recommended reading One Last Thing to grasp the essence of what I was saying. Today I want to go a step further and give you a copy of One Last Thing (ebook version) for free - for 48 hours on Amazon. If you prefer a paperback, I'm afraid you'll still have to pay for that, but the ebook is yours. All this weekend: 17th and 18th of March 2018.
There is a second book too. The Accompanying Book of Images from One Last Thing - with quotes, links to videos and excerpts. Its another ebook - a PDF - and you can download it here and now for free.
Just my small way of going a bit further than just talking about things. Enjoy.
The Subversive Power of Comedy in Tai Chi
“The only honest art form is laughter, comedy. You can't fake it...try to fake three laughs in an hour -- ha ha ha ha ha -- they'll take you away, man. You can't.”
Let’s just get one thing straight from the beginning. I don’t mean comical in the Frankie Howard, Carry On up the Kyber, Bennie Hill, Fawlty Towers, Monty Python sense. Well, maybe a bit of Monty Python
Nor do I mean in the "2 Taoists and a giraffe walk into a bar and one says to the other…" No, not that sort of humour either.
What I mean is a style of humour that enables or liberates. Humour that dispels tension, breaks down stuffy and artificial boundaries between people and ideologies, a humour that dislodges stances and unbalances staged postures. Thats what I mean. Thats the humour I’m referring to. Thats the subversive power of comedy.
Because a world without humour is a world without lightness of being, a world without self-effacement, a world dry and barren occupied by a zombie race with a serious face, a serious expression, a serious stance, a serious shirt collar. And what happens when people and places take themselves too seriously? What happens when the shirt collars of the world are in charge? Well, I’m glad you asked. You get people like Teresa May, Donald Trump or that Snr. M Rajoy in control of your life. You get the Dead Walking. You get stagnation of movement, stagnant waters beneath your feet and ideologies that have become far too starched to do anything with. Thats what you get (so thanks for asking).
So Why are Tai Chi People So Serious About Themselves?
It doesn’t help if all you read is the Tao Te Ching. You see, everyone and their dog can quote Lao Tzu into their manifesto or class curriculum - thats the attraction of the book - but you don’t chuckle much when you read it. It’s not a page turner. For that you need to visit the comical genius of Chuang Tzu
When I say “comic genius”, bear in mind everything is relative and when you are chatting to a Taoist, you have to have a pretty broad range of reference points.
Now I do know what you are thinking - Taoism and Tai Chi are serious, subjects, so it isn’t fair to treat them in this superfluous manner. I hear you, honestly I do. I recognise that some of you probably went to China and studied with a grandmaster in some monastery or hermits cave for 15 years and survived on just donkey-pooh and panda air. At home these days, you wear white robes (and not after having just stepped out the bath). You proudly sport a pony tail and are growing your eyebrows as long as you can, just so everyone knows how radical, yet reliable, light-hearted yet wise you are when you teach. I get it I really do.
But, and heres the thing: This eyebrow thing - and calling yourself master this, sifu that- it's not doing a lot for the future of the art, and, well, to be frank, it's a bit comical. .
For those of you suffering from unwanted bouts of seriousness, I’d suggest going to live in Andalusia and try teaching Tai Chi there.
For 8 years, thats what I did. The people there embody noise, disruption, and chaos in all its glory. There is an absence of respect for hierarchy and hair styles - all very sound qualities for a people with long anarchic roots. As a teacher you must learn to adapt.
For example, you may try to explain the concept of sticking or the duality principle behind yin and yang, and whilst you are pondering over a simple translation of wu wei into Andalou’ you become aware that most people have wondered off to the loo, broken open a packet of choccy-biscuits and are handing them around whilst someone else is showing the rest of the class a YouTube video of their 3 week old kitten. Worse still they are not even looking at you. You! The enlightened one! You up there on your stage, you, with your pony tail neatly tied back and your satin suit ironed just that afternoon.
Under such very un-northern cultural conditions, you must learn to yield, and you must learn, above all else, to laugh with people and to step off your pedestal - for they are there to teach and well as to be taught. Stepping off your pedestal is greatly advised. Get down there amongst everyone and get your hands dirty. Embrace the fact that it doesn't make much sense, but then again, it doesn't have to.
THE POWER OF COMEDY
“Life doesn't make any sense, and we all pretend it does. Comedy's job is to point out that it doesn't make sense, and that it doesn't make much difference anyway.”
Comedy is far a greater tool to demonstrate in a class than a lethal front kick. Comedy is a disruptive force. For Comedy says: ‘hold on a moment, just listen to yourself - none of this is real, it’s all just one way, one perspective, one stance. As much as you might think what you are teaching or learning is of global importance, it isn’t. Most people in the world will never try a class of tai ch, especially with you - no disrespect - but statistically it ain’t gonna happen.
And, you know what. they’ll get by just fine as they are.
But comedy is not just a means to lighten an atmosphere. Embracing Comedy enables you to commentate from another angle - Comics see the tragedy of their times. Shakespeare used comedy to critique the establishment. Think Jon Stewart. Think Russell Brand. Think Monty Python.
Oh and One Last Thing
Think One Last Thing - that classic philosophical parody by the teapotmonk (in all good ebook stores). A comical look at the martial arts - a book that takes our cherished Tai Chi history and blows it up into small ludicrous pieces so we may reinterpret personal histories, distorted timelines, and regurgitated words.
One Last Thing was my attempt to debunk the frowns and scowls from certain quarters of the Tai Chi community. Debunk the movement of serious internet memes and slogans because only though comedy can you do this. Only though comedy can you show it’s ok to let up, to relax. And If you’ve lucky enough to have enough hair on your bonce, to let it down a little.
So learn to laugh with your class, its a precious tool to pass on to others, they will love you for it. It shows that they don’t have to always be right, always be correct, always be on time, always be in attendance, always be attentive to your every word,
And neither do you.
ONE LAST THING is available in digital form here or in paperback here or as part of the teapotmonk Gumroad bundle here.
Want to support the 10 podcast? Visit patron.com/teapotmok and find out how. This article is also available as a podcast here.
The Darker Side of Taichi
A GLOBAL BACKDROP
All of this is understandable in light of the unstoppable expansion of the capitalist economic order, globalisation, the hegemony of the market place, the dominance of the economic and the parallel collapse of any alternative vision from the progressive movements. The cult of individualism at last could reign supreme, finally breaking out on a national scale when Britains voted to go it alone, and Trump promised to make America great again - by building a wall.
Tai Chi in the west has hardly been immune to such changes. It has, on the contrary, played its part in propping up, reinforcing and mirroring such tendencies. Initially embraced as part of the alternative culture, Tai chi in the 60's and 70's promised not just personal change, but the potential for doing collective good. Its deep philosophical roots were entangled and entwined with the world. It sought not to withdraw but to engage with it, not retreating from it but actively changing it.
However, these concepts and practices were left on the sidewalk of the 60’s and 70's. Politics had proven an unworthy companion for an art that could be sold in so many different ways, and like Yoga, Tai Chi could sell a slogan to embrace any new movement:
Be the change you wish to see
All change starts from within
Become who you are
Start with yourself.
If you can’t stop the waves, learn to ride them.
It all sounded so good, so refreshing, so individualistic. Who wants to wait for world change, when we can change ourselves instead? Learn to leave things the way they are, concentrate on your personal mantra and retreat inwards. Settle for a life of personal goals. Tick off your todo list, speak to your personal assistant. Just do it.
But movements are never constructed by talking to yourself (even if that self is called Alexa or Siri or Google Home). The suffragettes didn't retire after convincing themselves of the need for universal suffrage. Nor the Black Lives Matter movement. At some point we all have to talk to someone else.
I know, this is difficult these days, as we leap consciously and enthusiastically into our own echo chambers. It is so much easier to abandon the politics of the street for an online petition.
SO HOW DOES TAI CHI FIT IN TO THIS?
At present, Tai Chi does very little to counter this tendency.
Cyclical debates on the practicality of pugilism versus the practicality of living well, drive us back into the realms of individualism again: Styles and masters, grandmasters and schools, prowess, skills-sets, internal strength, internal energy emissions, challenges, slogans, Trump’s red-buttons, the length of a Steven Seagal pony-tail, colour of a silk suits….
SO WHAT CAN WE DO?
So what could we do? Where could we go with this art if not up our own back-sides, bobbing inanely on the flotsam and jetsam of a Facebook timeline?
Well, here's a few ideas. But, don't get too excited, they’re not for everyone…
What's yours? Where do you find the purpose in what you do, the challenges in what you learn, the currents that run agains this age of complacency? How do you engage with something more than your own self, how do you escape the reverb of your thoughts? How do you touch and change the world around you through your art? Leave a comment on the FB page, web site, or on twitter and let's talk. (This article is available from the 10th of Feb as a podcast here)
My chequered history of podcasting has been plagued by hosting companies going under. First it was Posterous that sent my first series of podcasts: Talking tai Chi with the teapotmonk off air. Then Opinion, the second company ceased functioning last year, leaving the Empty your Cup series with no home to speak of.
This year, though I may be down, I'm far from defeated. So I'm launching a new series called 10 - starting next weekend. In fact each episode will be released on the 10th day of each month, at 10am - for 10 months. And, it will be approximately just 10 minutes long.
What will it be about? Well, I think a podcast explaining in detail how to perform Diagonal Flying or the best 5 ways to breathe through your spleen might be a little dull in these days of short attention spans and the need for an accompanying Instagram image. So, I'm going to focus on other stuff - on the applications of certain Eastern principles to our daily lives - how to live the art rather than just practice it. Listen to the sample intro below, subscribe and the first episode will be shooting your way next week.
- WAYS TO GET THE PODCAST (OTHERS TO BE ADDED SOON)
* Itunes Podcasts
Contrary to popular belief, the teapotmOnk (paul read) is neither a mOnk nor a teapOt. He is, however, a writer on Tai Chi, course-creator & teacher with more than 25 years of experience. He can be found wandering between Andalucia (Spain) & Devon (Uk). More here.
Contact him here or keep in touch, subscribe for some great Tai Chi stuff delivered to your inbox.