When you come to a river how do you cross it?
You could swim or you could use a boat, assuming you can get your hands on one.
After you cross the river do you continue to carry the boat with you?
I guess it depends on whether you are going to cross another river sometime soon.
What if you need to scale a mountain first before you will come across another river? Should you bring the boat along?
This is a philosophical question but it’s relevant to our learning of Tai Chi. For example, how long do you keep working on a form?
For some the answer is simply as long as you need to whereas for others it could be indefinitely. What’s wrong with both these answers?
Well, they fail to address a critical question – what’s the objective or is there none?
For some teachers the basics from the form should be learned properly before going on to applications. This is a reasonable requirement for those time when society didn’t have the distraction of television and now the internet.
Today most students won’t have as much time or the inclination to train as hard with so many competing distractions in their life. So does this mean that they should not be able to master the art?
I looked at my student. For the short time she spent learning punching in a self defence course she can move reasonably well and even copied the flavor of how to move the body to throw certain punches. But she could still not do a good enough imitation of how we move in Tai Chi that can imbue her with the skills.
If I impose a strict linear learning requirement this would mean that I cannot teach her any self defence applications or push hands. If so, would I be failing her should she ever have to use the art?
This is where some teachers don’t give a hoot about it. They are too caught up in preserving what I see as a useless tradition which might have meant something once but is becoming increasingly out-dated today.
The way I see it the objective is competency is using the art whether for demo, self defence or playing physical chess. The requirements are one and the same. We should not keep a double set of accounts such that what you do in push hands is useless for self defence.
To get to this stage each form is a vehicle to bring us to a different level. We work it to the point where the returns are marginal then we move on. Don’t carry the boat along to climb the mountain.
When you eventually come to another river perhaps one more raging than the previous one then you may realize that the old boat is useless for crossing this river. Had you carried the boat along you would have either wasted your time or if you are lucky you can still modify the boat to handle this new river.
Since the learning is non-linear this means we can approach it from different directions. If you can’t see it from the perspective of doing a form perhaps learning the application will help you to see it.
Stuff like timing, how much to bend, angle, twist are not immediately obvious when doing the form. However, trying to apply the technique will make this more obvious.
For example, if you block wrongly you open more doors for your opponent to attack you. You may think your response is correct but your opponent’s ability to follow up or not with another attack will answer your question.
Carry the boat if you like to but know when to set it down, when to come back to it and when to leave it behind and walk on. There is a time for everything and knowing when is a key to your successful learning of Tai Chi.
It would be a great pity if you one day discover you had wasted your time pursuing a way that took you off the path just because you were fixated on a way. Some teachers can be well intentioned but as experience sometimes prove the road to hell can be paved with good intentions.
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