In a previous post “Learning to Be Soft” I mentioned the book “Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes” by Maria Konnikova.
I brought the book up again because I read something there that offers validation in what we do in our Tai Chi Chuan practice.
If you have a copy of the book go read Chapter 7 : The Dynamic Attic : Putting It All Together. Under the sub-topic “Time To Keep a Diary” there is the story of Amy and her migraines that is worth a close read.
If you don’t have the book the story of Amy in a nutshell is about how Amy thought she knew the cause of her migraines when told by a new doctor to keep a diary about her migraines to try to identify its possible causes. In the end, Amy discovered that she didn’t know as much as she knew about the possible causes of her migraine after keeping the diary.
I know some of my students would write down what they learned when they first started. They would give up later when they found that there is too much to keep track of. This is why I told them not to write down because I know that this would be a problem later on.
Instead, I advocate a simpler approach. Repeat after me the instructions I would give when I taught them how to do a movement. Remember the sequence of instructions and repeat it out loud each time they practice.
But as people goes, students would not do this readily. And so they would do things out of sequence, in the wrong sequence, with the wrong intention, and so on.
Is remembering instructions really so difficult? Not really.
Its just human nature not to want to listen. Because of this they cannot make better and faster progress. They end up repeating the same mistake over and over again. They cannot achieve the exactness and refinement demanded if they want to internalize the movement, preventing them from breaking through to feeling what the internal is really like.
Fortunately, after years of telling them to do so some students do begin to practice this way. Those that do would see the changes come, maybe not so fast, but still they come. The reason is because they tend to pay lip service to the steps.
When we learn Tai Chi we should never, ever perform a movement blindly, or blindly follow instructions. All my instructions come with explanations of why we do the movement, how to do the movement, what the feelings should be.
These step-by-step procedures also have an important function – keeping the monkey mind in check. Again, the typical student is unable to keep his awareness and mindfulness turned on all the time. The mind would wander. I can tell, and I can also prove to them when their mind wanders.
Now in Konnikova’s book I found a story that parallels what we do. She related the story of how in 2006 a group of physicians lowered the rate of catheter-related bloodstream infections from a baseline of 7.7 to 1.4 infections for the mean rate of per 1,000 patients.
How the physicians managed to do it is by simply implementing a mandatory checklist, a practice many physicians resisted because well, it was so rudimentary that the average physician should not require it. Yet the statistics proved that they do. The checklist only had 5 items so any physician could go through it quickly.
In Tai Chi it would be cumbersome to hold a checklist in hand as we practice so we keep a mental checklist. It may sound difficult but with practice you would be surprised that you can do it. The mental checklist reminds us of what we must do, in what order when we practice. As Konnikova wrote :-
Clearly, no matter how expert at something we become, we can forget the simplest of elements if we go through the motions of our tasks mindlessly, regardless of how motivated we may be to succeed. Anything that prompts a moment of mindful reflection, be it a checklist or something else entirely, can have profound influence on our ability to maintain the same high level of expertise and success that got us there to begin with.
Below is an example of a mental checklist that we can use in our practice of the Yang style long form. This example relates to the practice of Push.
I offer a different checklist to different students depending on the learning level and capability as the learning of Tai Chi is not a cookie cutter practice. Despite this, the checklist has a singular objective which is to be able to perform the movement of Push in compliance to the principles of the Tai Chi Classics and physics.
Checklist for Push
Step 1 – Hands in position, check roundness
Step 2 – Mobilize the intent (where to put the mind); use the first three count to mindfully move the arms
Step 3 – Keeping the awareness of Step 2, slow down the arms, implement the last two count to mobilize the body as a unit. Feel what you are doing
Step 4 – At the conclusion of movement mentally check what you are feeling and visually check your posture
Summary – if you want to improve your practice of Tai Chi to the point where you can actually master the art do not neglect the development of a mental checklist. The checklist will enable you to keep your mind focused on the movement that you are performing, minimizing your mind drifting off.