Two years ago, I felt palpitations in my chest. For a few months, I attributed it to stress (I was in a very stressful job). Then I visited a doctor, who became alarmed and told me I had atrial fibrillation -- my heart had developed extra electrical pathways and the heartbeat was all screwed up.
I had two choices -- take blood thinners the rest of my life to avoid a stroke or clot, or undergo "laser ablation," where they go into veins in your groin, send lasers and a camera up into your heart, and burn spots to stop the extra electrical activity.
I wanted to be back to normal, so I opted for the laser ablation.
It was a surreal experience after being healthy and fit my entire life. After the procedure, it was clear within a day or two that it hadn't worked. My heart was still beating strangely -- part of it was fluttering instead of beating normally.
I returned to see the cardiologist, Dr. Bengt Herweg, a week later. He came into the room and looked at my charts.
"What dose of coumadin (blood thinner) are you on?" he asked.
Hmmm. I just got the prescription a week ago and hadn't paid attention. I just took it and didn't ask questions.
"I don't know," I replied.
Dr. Herweg looked at me sternly. "Why don't you know?" he barked. "You have GOT to take responsibility for your own treatment."
I was surprised, and for a few seconds I was a little steamed.
And then I realized he was right. From that moment forward, I can tell you how much I'm taking of each medication. And often, I called the doctors to tell them what needed to be done, what medicine I needed, and why. They almost always agreed.
In fact, I know what's happening with my body and my medicine so well, I have caught nurses when they made mistakes, and I've had them re-check to find their mistakes. Unfortunately, I ended up having three laser ablations and that set off a year of near-death experiences that I'm just now recovering from (losing the function of my left lung in the process from side-effects of the procedures -- but that's a story for a different time, boys and girls).
So what does this have to do with martial arts?
A kung-fu student once complained to me that I hadn't given him written material to answer some basic questions about Chen tai chi, and I hadn't written out some techniques for him. We had just gone over these techniques two days earlier. One of the questions he wanted me to write out for him was "What are the eight main energies of Tai Chi?"
As a teacher, this presented me with an opportunity to drive home the same lesson that Dr. Herweg drove home to me in that hospital room in Tampa. So I pointed out a couple of things to the student:
1. You've got to do outside research and reading, and stop using me as the sole source of your information. A quick Google search can turn up a lot of information about the eight main energies and just about any other question you have. You don't need me to hand it to you in writing. There are also some excellent books on Chen tai chi that everyone should read, including the books by David Gaffney and Jan Silberstorff.
2. When I have attended classes with my teachers, and when I've been able to spend time with people like Chen Xiaoxing, or attend workshops with folks like Mike Sigman, Chen Xiaowang, Ren Guangyi and others, I have written pages and pages of notes. I spent a thousand dollars one weekend travelling to San Francisco for a private day of training with Chen Xiaoxing and my teacher at the time, Mark Wasson. I was given personal feedback and coaching from each. On the plane ride home, I wrote pages of notes, going back over each movement in Laojia Yilu and recalling the corrections that were made and the advice given.
3. At workshops by the masters, you'll see some people run to their notebooks during breaks and write down notes to remind them of what they've learned so they retain it after the workshop.
4. You have GOT to take charge of your own training. Write down notes after each class. Write down the feedback you have received and the corrections made. Write down techniques and body mechanics. Practice from your notes. And don't depend on anyone to spoon-feed you everything.
5. If there is ANYTHING in the curriculum you're fuzzy on or haven't practiced enough to be able to recall it instantly in physical expression, bring it up and ask if the instructor will go over it again with you. There's really no excuse at all for a brown sash not to be able to recall everything in earlier levels right now if asked to perform it.
6. Break up all the curriculum you know into lists that you can get through each day. This includes forms, applications, self-defense, push hands, silk-reeling exercises, chin-na -- and try to get through all the curriculum at least once a week. For students of mine, this represents a lot of material by the time they earn a black sash. Perhaps you can't get through it all in a week. Perhaps it's every eight days. The point is -- you should practice everything often enough to be able to recall it instantly.
You won't become the martial artist you want to be until you take control -- and take responsibility -- for your knowledge.