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A few years ago, I was talking to someone who was going away to a health club for the weekend. 'Excellent,' I said 'What kind of stuff will you be doing there?'
'Well they have really good food and you can get a facial and five different types of massage; oh, and a really great aromatherapist and a hair dresser . . '
I had misunderstood. Not having any experience of a health resort, I presumed it was a place for exercise, contemplation or study with learned teachers. My view was coloured by my experience of Aikido and Tai Chi courses and so I was coming at the 'health' issue from a different angle.
To have a really good massage is wonderful and can help the body heal, but it differs from doing a Tai Chi class because someone does 'it' to you. While some resorts may offer Tai Chi sessions, a regular class with a committed teacher is about self cultivation. This is a fundamental difference. Our aim is to develop ourselves, in respect of physical and mental well-being, as well as managing conflict, and deepening our understanding of our life. We see change resulting from our own efforts as being permanent and reaching deeply into our being. It is not a makeover mentality; it is about development at the very core of that being.
In some ways, the Tai Chi class has an old fashioned rationale. I remember being told as a boy in martial arts class and in youth organisations, 'the more you put in, and the more you get out.' We were encouraged to take responsibility for our own progress and enjoyment. As with Tai Chi, fundamental to the approach is that no-one, not even the most gifted and brilliant teacher, can make it happen for you. The very act of taking the time and energy to study is intrinsically linked to the rewards gained. This is something too easily forgotten in the entertainment and product driven modern world which persuades us that we are passive recipients for their merchandise. This is the road to dissatisfaction which only results in 'changing channels,' when the inevitable boredom sets in. Greater levels of pampering are offered, all with eventual tedium built in.
I really welcome the fact that Tai Chi class is one of the antidotes to that kind of thinking, and also that it matters little how much money you have, how it is earned or what your social status is.
For the most part, I do not know what work my students do - if they are professionals or unemployed. In time these details may come to light but do not initiate the pigeon-holing which normally follows the 'What do you do?' question in social interactions. Of more importance is a genuine interest in Tai Chi - and what used to be known as common decency.
The only 'discrimination' which exists in a respectable Tai Chi class is to do with natural talent for learning the art, but even that is tempered by the equal, in some cases greater, importance ascribed to good character. There is an understanding that, given enough time, the slower student will catch up with the quicker and, in the process, have gained greater depth from the experience. Struggling to understand has its own reward as progress hard won is valued more highly in the internal currency of what really matters to us. The 'quick study,' does not have it all his own way in Tai Chi and, as often happens, talents granted easily are talents ignored.
Many of us take comfort in studying an art that calls for some effort to make progress, and is probably part of the reason why I continue after 20 years study. Knowledge gained this way is 'gong fu,' i.e. knowledge internalised to the point where it is part of a person at a 'molecular level.' It is not a theory or a technique which disintegrates when challenged by the vagaries of life we are obliged to bear from time to time. It can be relied on in a crisis, at the very time we need it. Like our skin, it is us, and cannot be parted from us like clothing. It is true knowledge.
Recently, a debate was joined in one of the Tai Chi forums found on the internet. A well known Tai Chi player and winner of some push hands tournaments commented on how quickly he lost his ability when he stopped practising. This was countered by a student who quoted Ben Lo's thoughts on the matter: 'you gain it slowly and lose it slowly.' The latter is the nature of gong fu. It comes from study and insight but like riding the proverbial bike, once acquired, it stays with us.