Mak Che Kong, a kung fu master, giving a lesson in a park in the Kowloon section of Hong Kong. He had to shut his studio when his rent soared. CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times
Cold Mountain BLOG #14
This all springs from this article in the New York Times:
I shared lunch with some Tai Chi friends last week in Toronto. One of them had an observation about new Beginners. He pointed out that, in comparison with the Beginners of yesteryear, today's seem to come with very set expectations and a very short time-line. They seem more in tune with the idea of a 10 week session than one of 10+ years. Did I have any suggestions?
I don't, really. My model for delivering the goods is pretty old-fashioned.
I believe in teaching fundamentals at the beginning of the process, teaching them in the context of the Tai Chi philosophy, and teaching them in a way that incorporates allusion to the classical tripod upon which the art rests: health, meditation and self-defence.
But there are problems with this approach.
One immediate problem is Tai Chi's image. It has come more and more to be seen as graceful, New-Age, line-dancing. It is indeed the rare individual who comes to it prepared to seriously engage with a deep and demanding culture.
I believe that another problem is the requirement that the Beginner will learn and remember a sequence. We live in the age of "Discovery Math" where even school children are not expected to engage in tasks involving memorization. When a fact is needed, it is instantly retrievable through the agency of Google or Wiki. When a calculation is required one has speedy recourse to the number pad. There is nothing instantaneous or speedy about Tai Chi Chuan!
A third issue is that the student must learn to go slow, and to pay attention in doing so. But the world of electronic media and social media is predicated upon ever shorter and punchier sound bites, and now we live in the 140 character world of the Twitterverse. It is a world in which opinions rule over fact, quick impressions displace thought, and selfies substitute for insight. What could be less insightful than a selfie? Is this fertile ground for Tai Chi?
A fourth issue is our perhaps unreasonable expectation that the student will try to relax. But relaxation runs counter to the idea that it is desirable to be (as Donald Trump puts it) "high-energy". Tai Chi does not teach high energy, but judicious energy; energy that is refined and informed by intelligence.
I admire my colleagues who grapple successfully with these issues and I am interested in the solutions they come up with. In the meantime I continue as I have done, in the patient expectation that, as Charles Dickens' Mr. Micawber says, "Something will turn up!"
I think is is crucial to continue to focus on fundamentals: resting-in and supporting, central equilbrium, loosening the joints, arousing the spirit.... These things are the essence of the art and the gateway to its inner experience.
Whatever the students expect, this is what they must be given if we are to remain true to the art.