No matter how exalted, how proud, how sure one is on the lofty peak of perfection, the greatest teacher needs a student. Even Zarathustra had to descend the mountain to seek them.
My students have made me. It is a peculiar (and possibly common) quirk of my pedagogy that I enjoy teaching myself while I myself teach.
In other words, I learn while I expatiate at length. I relish the thought that Knowledge will dawn in their heads in the same way that it dawned in mine, and I genuinely want them to know. This has had unfortunate consequences, as I have, over the years, expounded and descanted upon concepts to my seniors or not-so-seniors that sounded like Hittite or Maori to them, and I have had to slacken the pace of teaching to seek not only the essence of the new idea, but think about the best way to teach it with drills and simple two-person exercises. I have had to cut my teaching cloth to what I need to convey. A few days ago, I was chastened by a senior student who asked me to slow down as I had gone into Assumption Mode, assuming that the new concept was already embodied, when a cursory glance would have confirmed that it wasn’t.
Much of what is glossed and presented as “tai chi”, even in hallowed China, is mere external choreography. As I have argued elsewhere, if the underlying structure is poor, the student is merely learning a dance. If the mind is distracted, as it is in every gymnasium, then it becomes mere “exercise”, something boring to be done for a muscled reward.
My students have forced me to think, to be disciplined; they have been whetstone, critic, cat’s eye, guardian, conscience and foil. In general, I have found most people are unaware of the potentiality of tai chi and qi gong. They mostly arrive with an injury or recurrent pain, extreme stress, or a desire to seek refuge from the madness that passes for “normal “society. The more enthusiastic or passive-aggressive they are, the faster they disappear. It is the quiet absorbers who stick around.
As they silently and slowly ascend the slopes as sometimes-perplexed Sherpas, I always see myself at their level, as I explain some finer point of movement. Often, they tumble back down the hill a bit, but a few are gifted, capable of rapid adsorption of information to their neurons . As we sedately progress, of course we shed. I lose students to jobs, babies, money, boredom, incomprehension, umbrage, frustration, pain, weather, emotions, projection, and sometimes Death. In other words, the panoply of Life. But we also accrue. I can see when they comprehend, when the ears whisper the rules to the brain, and down to the limbs. When they manifest power. I keep students via Delight, Power, Strength, Agility, Serenity, Energy, Equanimity, Wholeness, Symmetry, Comprehension, Drive, Accomplishment, Achievement and so on. Aspects of personality change, I see the portrait of bodies change weekly on the canvas of their lives. Many of my seniors who I know well enough to be ribald to, of their home and professional lives, I know almost nothing. We meet at a fixed weekly node of our making, and interface with our personal lives during a ritual movement practice and then, some chit-chat after, they disappear into the ether of their existence for another 7 days and I await the next cohort.
As a teacher and a student, I know the power of each to define the other.
When I was younger, if I were shown a new move, I would often “see” white noise, and mild anxiety would result, as I feared looking clumsy, and I know my students suffer from this too. Learning new movements is a complicated sonata for the nervous system. It is only when I am “on stage” performing the movement for my seniors that my brain, my explicating brain, “sees” the movement from many different angles, and flashes of insight inform my teaching. I learn, and my students learn, through a very public dis-assemblage, and dissection. We then attempt to cohere and “incorporate” the newness. It is a debate and a drama, a ritual and a rite, a Socratic exchange and a mercantile bargain.
It is impossible, of course, to separate out all the elements that go to make a class what it is. But the Teacher-Student dialectic is critical, and fundamental.
And yet it is so, so often unheeded. I am always conscious of the deadened, calcified furrows that my own schoolteachers ploughed, killing so much of my teen life, that I actively impart in ways that I wish I were taught. Humour and self-deprecation are necessary. Students can smell bullshit and hubris planets away. Like mechanical stress and weight-bearing on a bone, my students, the many thousands of them, have formed and deformed my teaching style; kept me primed, keen and sharp with their flinty minds, fists, kicks and astringent quips. I salute you all.