A Martial Arts Journey -- Signposts Along the Way
June 29, 2013
There's a quote that has been attributed to different people, including Voltaire, the famous French philosopher. It goes like this:
"The perfect is the enemy of the good."
As I finish my 40th year in martial arts, I've been reflecting on the journey so far. Since the day I began back in 1973, I've had a goal in my mind of the perfect technique. In my twenties, I imagined looking as good as Bruce Lee. It was an elusive but worthy goal.
As I got older, goals changed along the way. When I was introduced to Chen Taiji back in 1998, the goal of perfection became more elusive.
But I keep trying.
When we study and practice any martial art, we work hard to be perfect. We want to have the perfect stance, throw the perfect punch, move with perfect body mechanics.
Sometimes we get so hung up on trying to be perfect that we forget to have fun, and we forget that being good just might be good enough. Ego can get in the way, and we can fall into a pothole of image -- not wanting anyone to think we actually have a lot to learn.
I'm frequently amazed when I look at videos of some great Chen tai chi masters such as Chen Xiaowang, Chen Xiaoxing, and others. And when I see them in person, the difference in quality between these guys and regular mortals like us is striking.
I've been told that some Tai Chi students who travel to the Chen Village in China come back to the U.S. and give up Taiji, because they realize they'll never be as good as the people they see there.
It can be a humbling experience to be corrected and made to feel like a beginner. It has happened to me and I've seen it happen to one or two of my teachers. As I've said before, we have an image in our minds when we practice that we look like Bruce Lee or Chen Xiaowang. In reality, we look more like Charlie Chaplin.
I like to compare my practice of the internal arts with playing other sports such as basketball. I can get together with a bunch of athletic guys and do pretty well in a basketball game. But put me up against Michael Jordan and I'm going to be humiliated. Heck, put me up against a good player from the UCLA or Kentucky, or even the local high school basketball team, and I'll be humiliated.
This week I watched a video of a younger Chen Xiaowang demonstrating a form on Youtube. He forgets where he is and does the wrong movement at the end. He tries two or three times to get it right. It's refreshing to see that I'm not alone. And neither are you.
A lot of people expect perfection. A lot of folks in Tai Chi, if they see a photo or video of another Tai Chi student or teacher, will criticize the person's form or skill. I've really never seen anything like it in any other martial art I've studied -- the unrelenting criticism of Tai Chi folks. It's quite shocking.
You can't let these people bring you down.
I sure do enjoy it, though, and every year I take a few steps farther along the path, getting a little deeper -- just a few baby steps -- and I see the arts getting deeper beneath me. Being on a lifelong journey is part of the fun.
As you travel this journey, the signposts along the way are the lessons you learn, the insights you gain, the baby steps you take with your skill, and the gradual improvement and understanding.
I've had many people who have studied Tai Chi for decades come into my classes, and they quickly see that they've been traveling the wrong path. It's the same feeling I had when I met Jim and Angela Criscimagna in 1998.
Suddenly, the sign on my journey said STOP! Like some of the long-time Tai Chi students who have come to my classes, I realized I had to take a few steps back in order to go forward. It was worth it.
The journey is more satisfying if you open your mind to new information. This next month, I will meet Chen Huixian for the first time. I expect to get another perspective and, if I'm lucky, will learn something that will take me a few more steps on my own journey.
It's all relative. If you have skill that another person doesn't have, pass it on while you continue to study and improve your skills. Don't be side-tracked by people who make you believe you have to be perfect, because that may never happen. And don't be sidetracked by the people waving signs that promise you will learn supernatural powers. They have no such powers to teach to you. They will take you down a dead end.
Being perfect is a worthy goal, but in the meantime, let's travel this journey with clear eyes, be as good as we can be and have more fun with these great arts.
Note: My new ebook is a collection of 50 informative and hopefully inspiring posts from my blog, mostly between 2006 and 2010. It is only $3.99 and is called Signposts on a Martial Arts Journey: Tai Chi, Hsing-I, Bagua, and the Art of Life.