Learning - My taiji journey continues...
Back in 2011, I wrote about how my taiji journey got started: http://practicalmethod.com/2011/10/how-did-my-taiji-journey-get-started/. 7 more years passed by quickly on this journey, and it is now 2018. Much of the time was spent learning how to learn. In this article, rather than talking about taiji principles or concepts, let me share Master Chen Zhonghua's teachings on learning.
Listen to instructions
If "don't move" is what shifu says the most as a rule, "listen to instructions" will probably be the counterpart in terms of learning. Most of us will probably think that we are all listening to shifu's instructions when we train, and shifu is only saying this to tell others (not ourselves). The sad news is that we don't fully listen. The difference among people is only a matter of degree in deviation. We all need to constantly remind ourselves that what the instructions are, and look for things that we are not doing according to the instructions. We cannot be selective about what to listen. Since we don't understand the topic, we don't have good grounds to make any choice. We need to trust our teacher. Shifu reminded me that people just wanted to practice the way they wanted to practice (in a way that is suitable for them, or confirms what they believe in). We can only hear what we want to hear. We may filter out words without even realizing that we are doing it. How can I know that I didn't miss any instructions? Well, I don't know until maybe when I watch a video recording or I just happen to hear the missing piece the next time in a different location. Since we are in it for the long haul, we will run into the same topic many times again. Another criteria for even having a chance to hear the missing piece is that we can't assume that we know the stuff. If we believe that we know the stuff, we won't pay attention to the instructions again, and we will simply shut our ears.
Trying to do what shifu said has enabled progress over time, and I realize that he is always trying to give the most appropriate instructions for the moment. I often interrupt it if I immediately respond with a reference of something he said another day. I won't be able to hear the real message of the moment, and needless to say to remember it. There is no conscious reason to doubt and not listen, but the unconscious factors as mentioned above will always be at play and I would need to be alert about them. The most important instruction that we should listen is the one that we don't agree with and are unwilling to follow.
Be observant and have good memory
Two things that shifu mentioned that are required to learn. We need to be observant, we need to be able to look at the right places, and we need to be able to notice differences in shifu's actions compared to other people. We often look at or pay attention to the wrong places because we look at what we want to look at only. Once we see it, we need to remember it. Our memories can often play tricks to us, and they can be altered in our minds after some period of time or things are simply forgotten. Being able to replay what was actually seen was paramount in copying shifu's action, and even if we couldn't do it at the moment, it would let us understand the gap between now and the target, and help set a proper direction in practice. Writing things down will help counter the effects of bad memory, we can use the notes to check if understanding is still the same as a few years back. Sometimes, I see people indicating that shifu's teaching may not be consistent, and may say he was teaching something one way one time, and a different way a different time. There are two possible reasons for such impression: 1) shifu was using different examples to show the same concept, but people were not able to see what is really common, it may take considerate amount of time of attending workshops and practice to overcome that, 2) he was focusing on different topics of teaching, and ignoring other aspects at that time being. Try to quietly observe. If we have questions, write them down, so that we can ask later or the answer will automatically reveal itself if we continue to listen. Having the urge to ask a question but not yet able to ask may prevent us from being able to quietly observe and pay attention to what he is being taught at the time. If we don't see what he is being shown, there is no way to remember it correctly.
Be consistent in practice
You may have heard shifu said to do 10,000 yilus, and you would begin to understand taiji. Like most people, I didn't think that I would ever do that many, and couldn't fathom what it would take to achieve that. That idea stuck in my mind nonetheless because when I first heard about it, shifu mentioned about how Todd Elihu kept doing yilu in a segmented way for a much longer time than some of the people who started at the same time with him. Others were soon doing the form in a smooth flowing fashion, which was typically the way taiji was expected to look like, however, Todd was the only one who became good at taiji at the end. At that time, shifu said Todd was at around 8000 yilus. Being able to keep practicing consistently in the same way was important to get taiji skills. Besides that, being able to consistently practice with a set number of yilus per day in an extended period of time gave me the opportunity to change habits. With consistent accumulation of yilus, 10,000 became achievable and was no longer far fetched. Shifu mentioned getting taiji was like boiling water. If boiling water turning into steam denotes getting taiji, unless the water gets to the boiling point, it would still be water. There is no real quality change. We need to consistently boil the water, and we can't turn off the fire, if we want to turn all the water into steam. No one can learn taiji without making ever any mistake, while we are trying to get new habits, it is inevitable that some of those will be new bad habits. We must be prepared to get corrected as he/she improves his/her understanding, and that will be a never-ending process. Only through consistent practice, that we change our habits and improve overall.
Begin with real physical experiences
We often hear people use imaginary to help train a particular action in taiji. Shifu taught us to start with real physical experience, and not just imagine things. For example, in order to learn how to take out space, we must first put physical body parts into the space to occupy it. We need to stick with these types of physical actions for a long time, before we understand how to do the equivalent without the apparent external motions. To learn how to pull ourselves up without moving the front knee, we must first hold on to a non-moving bar, and pull our bodies up. Through such repetitive training, we can observe and learn what each of our body parts must do. Once we can replicate such body part movements, we can then pull ourselves up even without the physical bar.
Have a good partner
Back in 2010, I was practicing 2 to 3 times a week with a friend, Sherman Lau. Looking back, I was fortunate for having him practiced with me at the early part of my taiji journey. Without my friend's company, I might not have continued. We learned the yilu together through a video. When we met, we practiced yilu a few times, and then did push hands or some drills. We were able to repeatedly attempt and practice the same action. It was fun having the interaction and experimentation. In 2012-2013, I was training with Hugo Ramiro on Saturdays. We trained a lot on finding the opponent's center, and we did drills we learned in workshops. In 2014-2016, I had another training partner, Ernie Aleong, at Sunday practices. I met him at my very first Practical Method workshop. When we did a drill, he would let me practice on him repeatedly many times until I got the desired result. He was very consistent in providing the same amount of resistance such that I could totally focus on adjusting and correcting myself. From him, I first learned what bouncing was like. It was important to have training partners who are willing to help one another learn. Shifu at a later time mentioned having a good partner was crucial in developing our skills. I am grateful to these guys, and many others I worked with in workshops or other occasions.
I started teaching Practical Method in 2011. I turned one of my previous practice evenings into a class time, and I began practicing 5 yilus daily in the morning. I was not a morning person before, but taiji made a change in my daily routine. I taught only foundations and yilu at the beginning. As I continue to learn more myself, I am able to pass on more to the students. I try my best to replay Shifu's teaching in his words. Shifu emphasized that his terms should be used as we passed on the art, as those words were carefully chosen. Those words very likely don't make sense to us at first. As an adult, we often search through our current knowledge base to find the closest match. We should learn like a little kid, e.g. in order for a little kid to recognize an apple, a parent will typically repeatedly show an apple to the kid, and say "Apple" until he/she can say the same when he sees an apple. Taiji is not in the realm of our existing knowledge. It must be taught to us. Trying to compare Taiji to other things we may have known is already starting with the wrong foot in learning. Comparing things may lead to jumping to the wrong conclusion, and take away the chance to learn something we don't know. During class, I often get these "Aha" moments, in which I seem to get an improved understanding on what shifu was originally saying or I remind myself what the rules should be. I also get a chance to interact with people of different sizes, weight, skill levels and background. Being able to help others improve is also a motivating factor to keep myself improving. Shifu encourages teaching. As a disciple, teaching and promoting Practical Method is my responsibility. It plays a significant role in my own learning. In Chinese, there is a saying, 教学相长 (jiao xue xiang zhang)，which means the teacher and the student both progress. You may ask when one is ready to start teaching. I would say, ask your own teacher. We can teach at different levels, and different people may benefit from it.
Have a taiji community
Practical Method is a worldwide organization. Being a disciple, I am part of the Practical Method family. Wherever I travel, there always seems to be someone practicing Practical Method. Shifu's teaching is so consistent and systematic, even for people I meet for the first time, we are able to communicate and share in a coherent way for taiji. It is such a unique experience meeting people with different background and yet with something common linking us all. Locally, it is also important to build a community or support team for our practice. It is a bit of competitiveness, support, encouragement, sharing mixed together. Practicing alone can be very dull and boring. It is inevitable that we will encounter times when we don't feel like practicing or we hit a plateau. Having people who we can share such experiences help a great deal. I am very fortunate to have both a local Practical Method community, one at Iowa and a virtual one over the Internet (thanks to technology). This has all made Practical Method very special. Both solo and group practices are needed. While solo practice gives me the focus and solitude to explore my body, group practice gives the chance to test things out, learn to adapt to other people's rhythm.
Watch Master Chen's videos
Shifu's videos provide an excellent source of information while shifu is not around locally. I was attracted to shifu through his Youtube videos initially. Learning from the videos is a norm in Practical Method. The yilu instructional video along with different students' yilu correction videos allowed me to correct myself. All the corrections given by shifu in those videos apply to me as well. Videos showing drills and applications provide exercises that I can do. However, no video can replace seeing and learning from shifu in person. We should at least meet shifu once a year to get personal corrections or instructions to help set a focus for the training. When shifu demonstrates a technique/action, I always volunteer to be the object or try to take any opportunity to touch shifu's body part at interest of the demonstration. The physical contact changes the way I look at shifu's action over time, and it helps deepen my understanding. When I go back to the videos I have already watched before, I often see something different than before. Periodically going back to the same videos continuously allows me to discover new perspectives. Sometimes I can even feel as if I was in the video since shifu has demonstrated similar things on my body. Instructional videos, such as basic foundations and detailed yilu instructions, have allowed a lot of people to get started on Practical Method around the world even when they don't have immediate access to shifu or any other disciples/instructors.
Record and post yilu videos periodically
In the first workshop, shifu has asked me to record my yilu periodically. Like most people, I felt shy in recording and showing that to anyone. I did it anyway and send it to shifu. He posted that video on the website, and gave me some corrections in the comment section. Since then I have been periodically posting my yilu videos, and find it beneficial to get comments from shifu and other fellow practitioners. Through the videos, I find that my yilu is always not what I thought it would look like. What I thought I was doing was not apparent or clear in the video. I use these videos as feedback to find my own mistakes. However, when comparing new and old videos, they have been improvements as well. They do give me a pat on my back to provide some encouragement to keep going. Shifu always emphasizes what we do needs to be real. As mentioned above, our memories may change over time, the videos can serve as evidence on how we have been doing.
My latest yilu video at around 25,500 yilus:
My collection of yilu videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vExqjhL8bk0&list=PL0935E0D44FE0EF7A
Keep" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture; web-share" allowfullscreen> a record of your yilus
The quality of someone's yilu is difficult to be measured. However, the quantity of yilus done can be. We have often heard people mentioning how long people have been learning taiji. However, whether you are a weekend taiji practitioner or someone who spends 8 hours a day training certainly makes a lot of difference on how quickly one can progress. Most of us probably lie somewhere in between. The quantity of yilus serve as an alternate measurement equivalent to the timeline. The number of yilus done by a given person shouldn't be compared to the same number done by another person. However, if you look at your recorded yilu videos at 1000 yilus, 5000 yilus, and 10,000 yilus, progress in the form should be apparent. If there isn't any obvious progress, other aspect of the training should then be examined. Shifu firmly believes how yilu would transform the body, and I can attest to that. By Oct 4, 2018, I completed 25,000 yilus, which is half way to the goal of 50,000 yilus. Yilu will instil the taiji principle into the body if we give it consistent time and effort. Shifu is looking to gather quantitative data on yilus, workshop/class/practice attendance, video viewing, etc to see if there is any coorelation between skill level and these aspects. The data collection is a long term project, we should all contribute to the data by inputting our practice records regularly at: http://practicalmethod.com/pm_practice_record_main/pm_practice_new_record/.
Make and post notes
Shifu encourages us to make notes for workshops and classes. There is so much content in each workshop. I find it difficult to retain much after the workshop if I don't make notes. We should record two sets of notes. One showing the exact words he uses, and one showing our interpretation/understanding. Posting the notes as soon as possible to the website after they are taken forces us to organize them properly. We may have taken some cryptic notes quickly on the spot. If we don't process them quickly enough, we may have trouble remembering what they really mean. Such processing helps put the information in more permanent part of our memory. Besides, posting notes can help other participants who have attended the same workshop exchange notes, and catch up on things that may have been missed themselves. In the future, when we revisit these notes, we may see if our understanding has changed/improved over time. From my notes, I can see that shifu has been teaching the same principle and concepts consistently. When teaching in the future, these notes serve as experience to be shared with others who will walk on the same path.
Write and post taiji articles
Writing articles periodically helped me organize my understanding on taiji. Write article provides me a way to link lessons learned from different workshops, videos, and other occasions, formulate patterns, systematically categorize and store the information, and prepare myself for receiving further information. It is like organizing a messy closet before I have room for new clothes. Posting the articles helps reflect my current stage of understanding. The articles may help others or generate a topic for discussion. My articles can be found at:
Ensure that there are constant breakthroughs
Shifu said to make sure that there would be constant breakthroughs. I found that constant progress was what really driving myself forward. Repeated training can be boring, and we will hit plateau time and time again, we need to try our very best to make sure that we don't stay there for very long. For taiji to work in applications, many elements are needed to come together. We are constantly building parts, and those parts will eventually be put together to form the final product. At first, we may not even be able to see the big picture, and what role each part plays. If we just focus on making little progress each time, things can continue to be interesting and fresh, so we won't feel like that we are standing at the same spot all the time. Having a collection of various parts will eventually allow us to have a better perspective on taiji.
Never believe that you got it
The moment that we start to believe that we got it is the moment we stop learning. No one can be absolutely perfect when compared to the taiji principle. The better people are ones who are simply making fewer mistakes comparatively. There is always room for improvement. Always try to seek better ways to do the same action. Explore the many variations using the same principle. Never stop learning.
Trust shifu whole-heartedly, and he will help us get to a level of taiji that we can only dream of before. Happy Training!