Everybody makes mistakes or so the saying goes. There is often a lot of common sense in these old adages and this one certainly rings true, for wisdom comes from experience and experience comes from making mistakes. In fact, it is usually when we’re not frequently making little mistakes here and there, and learning as a direct result, that we set ourselves up for something seriously undesirable and unexpected in the form of a really big mistake. In most aspects of our culture the acceptable norm is to avoid mistakes, little or otherwise, at all costs. To do this however, is very counter-productive as it denies oneself a highly valuable source of adaptation and learning – two of life’s essential essentials. Mistakes, if you capitalise on them, make you very resilient and at best antifragile[i], the precise opposite of fragile.
Back in the day Tai Chi was taught in a non-prescriptive fashion with the emphasis lying heavily upon the student’s ability to observe, practise independently, evolve and learn heuristically i.e. from trial and error, observation and discovery. By developing and relying upon one’s evolving experience, common sense, creativity and incremental exploration the student, through diligent training, actually uncovers Tai Chi for herself. The teacher simply points a finger in the right direction:
‘It is like a finger pointing away to the moon; if you look at the finger then you miss all the heavenly glory.’
So, by learning in this way the student develops independence and many other unexpected and invaluable skills which translate into domains other than Tai Chi, such as daily life, relationships and business. Students who are new to Tai Chi usually avoid training on their own because they want to avoid making mistakes. They want to ‘remember’ the movements/exercises ‘correctly’. I usually explain that Tai Chi has nothing at all to do remembering anything other than the necessity to practise every day. Similarly, I like to vaguely suggest that terms such as ‘right and wrong’ or ‘correct and incorrect’ have nothing to do with anything related to our training seeing that they are such limited and unrealistic concepts.
Tai Chi training i.e. learning how move well and focus your mind, is similar to learning how to play a musical instrument – but with Tai Chi it is your body/mind that is the instrument. So you just have let go a little and make some ugly noises to begin with, for if you don’t have any feedback from your actions you simply can’t learn anything. Reading books about music or remembering music theory will not enable you to be able to play beautifully or indeed at all. You just have to do it. It is the same with Tai Chi and, of course, life. Just as a wise old master once said: ‘You have to be in it to win it!’
Most of us are very much used to being spoon fed information from various external sources (educational institutes) and confuse this top down process with more wholesome grass roots learning. The infinitely more useful heuristic model of learning can be difficult for us modern folk to get our heads around but if you always have to rely on someone else to give you information in order to know what you are doing then you are in a very fragile and weak position. So remember, don’t cry over spilled milk, instead simply learn from it
[i] Check out Antifragile by Nassim Taleb.