Ask any 100 tai chi students what the hardest part of tai chi is and I suspect the majority of answers you’ll get are variations of:
o Memorizing the form
o Getting the body position correct
o Remembering the Ten Essential Principles
o Doing well at push-hands
o Feeling the energy
…and so on.
These are important, but to my thinking they’re not the hardest part of tai chi. The hardest part is making the time to practice.
I’m facing it right now as I type. I’m putting off practicing because I want to get this blog post done. And I could put it off further because the lawn needs mowed, and the house needs picked up, and…and…and…
I think the problem with getting enough tai chi practice is twofold, one of which is quite counterintuitive but which I alluded to just a bit ago. The counterintuitive reason is that it’s fun, but we’re conditioned to put fun things off until our drudgery is completed. We come to see it as indulgent; or if we’re really guilt-ridden, we may even see it as frivolous. This is silly and we know it, but it’s the same sort of pernicious, self-defeating silliness which turns us from investing in all sorts of self-care. You could say this is a function of Western civilization and Judeo-Christian work-ethic conditioning, but the phenomenon exists everywhere in the world – no culture on earth has this figured out.
The other reason, for many of us, is fear of doing something wrong. What if I practice something wrong and there’s no one there to correct me?! I’ll get worse at tai chi rather than get better, right?! I’ve wasted my money at class and I’ve wasted my time and I’ve screwed everything up and and and….
There are other roadblocks, I’m sure, and I’d love to hear from you about them. As for these two, let’s take them apart starting with the last one first.
What if I screw up?
Well…what if you do?
When we were learning stuff like walking, talking, figuring out which end of the spoon goes in our mouths and so on, we screwed up all the time. But we learned, and we succeeded. Everyone of reasonable health and intelligence can walk, talk and “land the airplane.” And we did this by figuring out every possible way not to do it. Screwing up – failure – is an under-utilized resource. We’re deathly afraid to embrace it and put it to work for us. We don’t want to be seen as incapable or as a stumblebum or be thought of as inept. A great deal of human potential is squandered simply because we’re afraid to be seen screwing up.
But that’s how we learn! Behavioral scientists understand how terribly important unstructured play is to the human mind – we need to be free to discover and learn with as few boundaries as possible. We learn very little from our successes. Tai chi can be thought of as a playground or, if that’s too juvenile, as a laboratory, wherein we discover what we’re capable of and what our bodies tell us. That sort of discovery simply can’t be planned, it can’t be scheduled, and just like going to the bathroom, no one can do it for you.
Practice leads to self-discovery that’s simply not possible in class because in class, your attention is focused on the group, the instructor, and so on. You’re not focusing on you, and this is essentially necessary in tai chi. So practice is essential, exploration and experimentation is the goal, and “failure” is an inherent & necessary part of learning which we must all learn to embrace.
The first condition – the one we put off, the one about feeling indulgent – is harder to tackle. There is no tackling in tai chi, but there’s plenty of sensing, neutralizing, redirecting and deflecting.
Remember how I referred to practicing “self-care” as an investment? It really is. Well, what are investments? Financially, it’s putting money to work for you that will return dividends later. Self-care can be thought of in the same way. We take care of ourselves now so we won’t be burned-out and useless later.
Part of my life involves looking after my elderly parents. They need me in their dotage as much as I needed them in my youth. If I completely immersed myself in focusing solely on them, to the exclusion of myself, I’d be frazzled, burned-out, just as neurotic as they are, and no use to either of them in a very short time. We’re told to put our own oxygen masks on before helping other passengers in the airplane for this exact reason – we have to be capable of helping in order to do so.
So I practice. It keeps me balanced and fit, able to think clearly & calmly when my parents (or in a “past life,” my Soldiers) can’t, it gives me a “deeper well” of patience & resilience to draw on.
So how do we “make time” to practice?
When everything’s going well, I spend about 40 minutes total in martial arts practice every day. That’s the goal; but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. At a minimum, I do about 10 to 15 minutes’ worth. For me this is whatever combination of Zhan Zhuang, qigong, tai chi, weapon forms, archery or dry-fire I feel like that day. I don’t hold myself to strict regimens when it comes to my martial arts practice; but if you want to, in order to get into the habit, that’s okay too. Warming up with a few of your favorite qigong exercises and doing as much of the form as you know is perfect! You don’t have to wait until you know the entire 103-posture form to start practicing. Going as far as you know, even if it’s only a few postures before you get stuck and can’t remember, is how the form is learned. You’ll figure out your own way to remember the form – our brains are designed to do exactly this. And since it’s yours, it’s better than anything I could try and teach you.
I said I try to do 40 minutes of martial arts a day, but sometimes that’s impossible. Oftentimes though, it just seems impossible. One of my favorite stories of my young adulthood might be worth retelling here – I’ll leave the post with it.
My first apartment in Valparaiso was in the same building as an artist named Hermann Gurfinkel. He’s worth looking up. His last major piece was a sculpture of a lion for his old school in Germany. It looks like the sort of stylized lion you might see on a coat of arms. At one point he became frustrated and discouraged with the work and told me during a visit that he’d decided to give the project up. I knew what it meant to him, so I asked him if, as a favor to me, he’d do five minutes worth of work on it. Just five minutes. He promised and that was that.
I didn’t see him for a few days, but when I did he said he wanted to thank me, because he got so engrossed in the work that five minutes turned into five hours! He ultimately finished the sculpture and I’ve always felt proud of the tiny part I played in its completion.
Maybe you could spare five minutes for practice?