The spiraling dance

On Monday evenings I attend one of my bi-weekly taiji classes, which are normally a joy.  Tonight though, I felt disconnected, uncoordinated, vaguely annoyed.  For the first few months I worked with the other less-experienced students on a simplified training form, a stripped-down version of the form the advanced students have been learning, developed for the purposes of teaching fundamentals. For the last three weeks, though, I have shifted to working on the “big kids'” form, Fu-style Lianguiquan, and it is a whole other world.  All of the basic movements I am familiar with are represented, but in a different sequence, sometimes with additional details or emphasis, and with some totally new movements interspersed.  Before I started learning Lianguiquan, I felt like I was pretty well getting the hang of things, like I knew some stuff about this taiji business, which I daresay was a little truth plus a lot of hubris.  I’m certain there’s much I’m not even seeing yet, let alone understanding, let alone able to do.  But at least I was happily ignorant of what I was missing.  I am gaining a greater awareness of it, along with fumbling through a great deal of new choreography, and as a result, I feel like everything has rather gone to hell.

Let me be clear and up front that I don’t believe this is objective fact; I am really in no position to judge my own progress at this stage, and I’m guessing nearly all students spend a good deal of time fumbling around during the process of learning — it is probably not an incorrect statement to say that the fumbling around constitutes the learning sometimes.  I’m pretty sure that “all gone to hell” is not a fair way to judge my progress so far.  But subjectively, that’s what it feels like.  And I have to admit, I really kind of hate it.

It’s taken me a while this evening to figure out what the problem is, to be able to get words around it and understand.  Talking briefly with one of the coaches after class, he reminded me that much of what we’re working on is familiar, that I already know these movements, now we’re just putting them together differently and learning some more about them. I agreed with him; I know that’s true, I know I actually have learned a great deal and now I’m building on what’s gone before.  But that is actually the root of the problem: I feel like I know this already, like I ought to know this, that I ought to be able to do the parts that are familiar, better and faster and more smoothly.  Instead, I feel like I’m fumbling through everything, even the basic form that I thought I had down.  It seems as though the new knowledge I’m trying to put in is disarranging all the stuff that was comfortable and settled, and so it’s all a mixed-up mess and I’m floundering.

Once again, let me be clear that objectively, I can believe this is probably typical — I’m not an expert on how the brain and body assimilate new knowledge and skills, but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that this is just the way the process works.  (Any brain specialists in the audience?  Am I completely wrong here?)  But this messy, saw-toothed progress, several steps forward, several steps back, doesn’t feel right to me, to the perfectionistic judge inside that is trying to say “come on already, you had this part, why are you suddenly crap at doing it now?”

And there’s the dark lie again, the unreasonable standard, the thing that tries to make me believe I’m nothing if I’m not proving myself by my performance.  There’s no room inside the lie to fumble, to take steps back, to lose ground, even temporarily and in the service of moving forward.  There is either constant progess or nothingness, obliteration of self, negation of worth.  No in-between.  No space to breathe, no room to move, no grace.

So here it is again, the dark lie underneath, dragging down my spirits and distracting me during class, wrecking my concentration with annoyance.  But tonight I’ve spotted it, and I’m calling it out.  I’m calling it what it is: false, untrue, unsound.  Wrong.

I’m going to continue my practice and try to remind myself to breathe, to relax, to extend to myself the grace that is so much easier to offer other people.  Taiji is a beautiful art, it is deep and wise, it is lighthearted and joyful, it is calm and intentional, and these are all things which I want to grow in as well.  However jagged my progress, however rubbish I may be, I want to keep moving, to continue the spiraling dance that is Taijiquan.


4 comments so far

  1. Naomi on

    My expertise, alas, is not really relevant. However, your taiji experience sounds kind of like me at last week’s English dance: I know all the basic figures, and the week before, I’d danced really well, but last week… I think some of it was the caller, who didn’t explain as thoroughly, but I got really tangled up in a couple of dances, when I knew the simple bits (heys, casting, leading, etc.) but hadn’t danced them in those particular combinations/forms before. (I also know from a lot of experience that I am slower to learn things like dancing than fine motor skills; this may or may not be relevant to you.)

  2. Barbara on

    Tai Chi is similar to so many physical things that we attempt to learn. The basics don’t take long but it takes a lifetime to master. There is always more to learn and when you’re body has gotten comfortable with one routine you often have to struggle to convince it to move another way.
    My experience with Tai chi was that each form used moves from previous forms plus some new ones and this way of learning is a good way for you to focus on being in the moment and being aware of your body. Being comfortable with a series of moves can make you complacent and therefore not be totally focused on what you are doing.
    I’m sure you’re familiar with the phrase “Be here now”, that to me was one of the prime things I had to learn from Tai chi. Being aware of your breathing, your posture, your weight shifting, your hands, what’s going on around you, releasing tension in your shoulders or where ever you may be carrying it.
    In otherwords this is part of the learning process as the forms are just a way to teach your body to move and for you to be aware.

  3. Wanderingskopos on

    Congratulations! :D That’s what our taiji teacher said to us, commenting on the feeling that you can’t get your feet or hands to do what you want (because at that point you are enlightened enough to know that something is not right, which is the beginning of progress; also, what Barbara says in the comment above sums it up beautifully).

    That’s something what I’ve found very freeing; because there is always something new to learn or discover in the simplest movement, you can never become perfect. But at the same time, you can always learn something and find that fleeting moment when everything is going perfectly and you’re in the flow, a kind of perfection in imperfection.

    But there’s another side to it: accepting frustration as a positive thing. That’s been another mind-bender for me, not to fight against negative feelings but to accept them as signs of progress, or indicators of stress. Now, responding to those indicators in time and doing something about the source of the stress – there’s yet another thing…

  4. gina on

    Cris, you can not know how much “the dark lie” hit home with me! You are so brave for putting this out here for all to read! :)

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