A Student Perspective by Harold Van Hise
This morning I went to T'ai Chi Ch'uan class just as I've done for one hundred and one mornings and evening for the past year. I did the same exercises and movements that those with 801 classes were doing. But their presentation of the form was different somehow. A turn of the elbow here, a better alignment there and the flowing movement I was watching made my own similar movements seem jerky and unbalanced. But I am encouraged by the fact that I've been in training similar to this and know that even though we're all doing the same movements, we experience them at different levels of mental and physical awareness. So I must be patient and know that I too, will one day be at the point where my body will respond to training with flowing, aligned, powerful movement.
I know this because I am a teacher of musical instruments. I open doorways for children and adults to work toward mastery of themselves through learning the instrument of their choice. Regardless of the instrument chosen, the journey of self-discovery must accompany them or the path will be difficult. My continuing journey with T'ai Chi began as a way for me to reacquaint myself with the path from which I had been absent for too long. From my experience in learning to play a musical instrument to the professional level I see such similarity in the study of T'ai Chi that I know I will succeed if I can just rekindle those feelings of being a student, a collector of knowledge rather than a dispenser of it. I've already found some surprises along the trail.
My first surprise came during the second month of class. As the teacher approached my exercise space to give some well-needed instruction, I began losing control of my extremities and could not remember what I was supposed to be working on. What was happening? Why was I experiencing stage fright? After all, I am a performer, a teacher, and a conductor used to being observed while performing. Then it struck me. At the moment I was none of the above. I was a beginner and I was afraid of failing. And then all of those stories and aphorisms that I tell my own students about failing being the road to success came back to remind me that most success is reached by correcting for error. Even our technology reflects that.
A missile reaches its target by correcting for error. I once saw a slow motion video of a Sidewinder missile in flight. As the sensor in its nose scanned searched for the correct coordinates the missile wobbled through the air almost as if it were out of control. During the flight it gradually eliminated everything that wasn't the target. That's a lot of error correction, but it hit the target. Being aware of how the goal achievement works helps on those days when I seem to be wobbling more than usual.
We've all heard stories about the human analogy to this goal setting process. Abraham Lincoln's many political defeats before he won the American presidency and Thomas Edison's ten thousand failed light bulb experiments prior to his successful invention of the incandescent bulb. Lincoln, Edison and each of us who ultimately succeed at what we are doing learn that failure is merely a part of the process and that we must learn from it to achieve. The most successful are usually those who have failed more times than the rest of us.
I decided to learn something from each repetition of an exercise or movement. What I began to learn didn't always have to do with which arm to put where or whether my bow and arrow stance was correct. It often had to do with knowing how to learn.
As an experienced music teacher I thought I knew everything about learning a new task. That attitude blocked my progress and I came to a conclusion: You can't put anything in a full cup. I can't learn anything if I think I know everything. Therefore, I'm much better off not knowing anything. That way, since there's always something to learn, I'll be open to it.
This amazing bit of wisdom came to me as I began experiencing suggestions and corrections such as "slow down", "don't look down; feel where you are", "drop your shoulders", "your alignment is broken". These were shocking statements to me. Shocking simply because I have said precisely the same phrases to my own music students for the past twenty-eight years and didn't realize that I was making the same mistakes because I thought I already knew all about it. Once you think you have arrived at the "top," there is no need to pay attention because there are no goals to set and therefore no motivation to improve. Now I enter class with a different mind set. I know nothing. I'm proud of that.
After studying and training for a year I have begun to experience a growth process that, in my eyes is much the same as learning to play a musical instrument. That is something which, I admit, I do know something about, having made more that my share of errors. I have found that in both disciplines what I learn at each class is added to my foundation and must be mastered before I can move on. By mastered I mean integrated into my mind-body system by repetition (constantly correcting for error) so that each movement is done automatically without thinking consciously about it. That first scratchy note "A" I played on the trumpet is the same one I played beautifully in a concerto later on. The learning is gradual, the reward great.
I've heard it said that all T'ai Chi students, novice and master, are in the same place in their learning. That place is, to me, not one of movement but attitude. As a musician, I have played the note "A" hundreds of thousands of times. Yet each time I play it I seek to make it richer, more in tune and in perfect alignment with the note surrounding it. In T'ai Chi each move, no matter how simple, can in concert with other moves create a beautiful melody of movement and energy. So each student, no matter how experienced, seeks to make each move more aligned and flowing every time it is attempted in order to make the form a more beautiful and expressive melody. I have relearned most of what I was originally taught a few times now, each time learning a bit more of the subtleties of the form and a bit more about myself as well. I wonder how far I will be this time next year? Oh, that's right - same place.