Monday 16 November 2020

Words vs Direct Experience

Grueling basic training might  look simple but it provides the necessary framework for skill development

Every morning Chen Xiaoxing leads the training in the small dark room a couple of doors from his own quarters in the Chenjiagou Taijiquan School. While the faces in the class change, the programme never varies. For the first hour or so students are put through “simple” basic exercises. This part of the class is repetitive and gruelling. He moves around the room, wordlessly for the most part, adjusting people’s postures and using his hands to lead them through the correct movement route. This is the ultra important process of laying down deep foundations. During this stage [which never ends!] there cannot be any shortcuts. The structure and movement patterns established here provide a steel frame of understanding upon which to build further skills. As one of the guys in the class said “if you want to build a skyscraper you have to dig deep foundations.”

A key feature is the lack of discussion. In the tradition of Eastern teachers Chen Xiaoxing doesn’t ask people for their opinions about the movements. But what he does frequently is ask them to concentrate and “feel” the position or movement. Throughout the training there is an implicit understanding that words often get in the way. The realities of direct experience, and the fiction created by the spell of words people weave around them, can lead to great 

distortions of meaning. Many people can quote the fundamental requirements of Taijiquan – song (looseness), peng (expansion), sinking qi to the dantian while raising the spirit to the top of the head; maintaining a sense of opposition and harmonisation etc. Problems start when practitioners who haven’t gone sufficiently deeply into what these things actually are reinterpret them according to their pre-held understanding. [The pre-held knowledge is typically either in the form of intellectual knowledge from some other field or experience from a different physical discipline] It doesn’t matter if someone has done Taijiquan for decades, if they’ve never emptied themselves of existing frames of reference it’s difficult to really “enter the door.”      

Morning session in Chenjiagou Taijiquan School
In a wide-ranging interview Naval Ravikant, a fixture of the Silicon Valley start-up scene, spoke on the importance of learning the difference between “knowing the name of something” and “knowing something”: “This is a very deep point. A lot of times we just define something with another definition.  Or we throw out a piece of jargon as if that means we know something. It’s the difference between memorisation and understanding. Understanding is a thing that you want. You want to be able to describe it in ten different ways in simple sentences from the ground up and re-derive whatever you need. If you just memorise you’re lost. So, I think this is one of the things that I get stuck on a lot just keep going back and reading the basics over and over trying to understand them.”

In the end training must be grounded in reality and the challenge is not mistake the word for the thing. The terms used and passed down in Taijiquan represent a compressed way of communicating knowledge that can only be understood from the first principles embedded through direct experience.

Chen Xiaoxing with long time disciple Lin Jun - "feeling it"!



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