Saturday, March 3, 2012

Thoughts on Knowing Nothing while Having all the Answers

I've been studying T'ai Chi for nearly seven and a half years. I know several forms, both "solo" and "partner," have attended retreats, and even given workshops of my own. One might might think I know a thing or two about T'ai Chi. The knowing I do have has been a long, slow hike up a very tall mountain, containing obstacles, switch-backs, and an almost menial pace of progression. During class today, I'd had a moment where my solo form felt a little clumsy and I thought briefly to myself of how little I really know about the long form, and I really ought to take a private lesson or two have have an expert show me my insurmountable amount of errors. On one hand, my waist and legs know what is expected of them, on the other my mind is often surprised when an ankle twitches with lack of balance or my shoulder twinges with tension. Why, after all this time, do these things still happen?

Not fifteen minutes later during the same class, we were asked to do an exercise in pairs, and my teacher paired me with a woman who was just finishing the form. He said to her, "If you have questions, you can ask Karen. She has all the answers." Now I know he didn't mean that I know everything, and in our school to hear a statement like that is a very high compliment. The only way I knew to answer it was with a modest smile and proceed with the assignment, but internally I was laughing at irony known only to me. How funny to experience one moment where I feel I know nothing, and another minutes later being told I know a lot!

The whole experience reminded me of reading a book called Mastery by George Leonard. He discusses an idea known as "the mastery curve" in which steady progress is made, there is a slight reverse, and a long plateau. The pattern repeats itself indefinitely. In a later chapter, he describes a phenomenon known as The Plateau, a place where any one learning any skill will eventually find themselves. It is the place where, if it is not a talent one is truly interested in, a person will fade away from learning that skill. Leonard elaborates to say our society values the end goal, that all we do is based on getting something (a degree, a better job, a bigger house, etc) rather than placing a value on the hard work between goals. He writes,

"We are taught in countless ways to value the product, the prize, the climactic moment. But even after we've caught the winning pass in the Superbowl, there's always tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow... The question remains, where in our upbringing, our schooling, our career are we explicitly taught to value, enjoy, even to love the plateau, the long stretch of diligent effort with no seeming progress?" (pgs. 39-40).

To connect this with my experience today, I have to say I'm not sure where on the mastery curve I might be. Sometimes knowing one is wrong or unskilled is a sign of progress in and of itself, but I'm not sure how that reflects any amount of true progress on my part. At what point do the clouds in my mind lift, does tension fade, and I cease having doubt of my own knowledge? Does it just happen in some indiscernible way, as my Astrology teacher often asks, "when does a kitten become a cat?" In the meantime, I hope I would make both Sifu Ray and George Leonard proud in saying I am in love with The Plateau. It is the near-daily practice, coupled with a school where all learning abilities are honored and respected, that has kept me hiking up this mountain.

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