Slow Learner

tedrelaxingNext October, I will celebrate my 50th year in the martial arts.

When I started studying, I had no idea or plan to make this a lifetime practice. I joined up for the same reason a lot of 16 year olds do: I was getting bullied at school and I wanted to learn some self-defense. Wait– you mean it took me 50 years to learn to defend myself? Am I just a slow learner, or did I find something else to keep my interest all these years? Honestly, the answer is “both.”

I had learned all the self-defense moves I’d ever need by the time I was voting age (it was 21 back then;) as a matter of fact, I was already a head instructor, training other teachers to teach 16 year olds how to keep themselves safe. I was voracious for information in those days. I learned hundreds of forms, techniques, names, stances. I helped create manuals so others could learn, organize and advance their martial studies.

But I think what really saved me was the idea of going slow–not just the slow moves of a tai chi set, but what it means to really pursue a slow course–to savor and go deeply into something meaningful. This is something that must be learned, and this is something the martial arts taught me.

Slowness is transformational, whether you are talking about a high school reunion or dynamic equilibrium. There is an odd saying in martial arts, “Slow makes smooth, and smooth makes fast.” When we adopt slowness as a practice, we treat everything moving in life as though we were checking ballistics. For a martial artist, slow repetitions “groove a move,” clarifying just how the mechanics and neurological cascade changes with every inch of movement, ounce of applied power.

Tai Chi is certainly not the only style in the courtyard that employs slowness as a training and discovery method. Slowness does not mean apathetic, sluggish, languid or indifferent. Rather, it is intention brought down to a laser-like coherence. It is the finger crawl of the safecracker. It is the momentary diary of our condition recording, even as it happens, any flagging of concentration, nervousness at the skin level, anxiety in the heart.

Slowness brings on quiescence and thereby establishes a place for stillness to sit in the soul. Oddly enough, slowness energizes. Sometimes it even frightens us because, as we see everyone running around and speeding up to catch up, we have the revelation that the world might not actually need us to constantly accelerate.

We have another saying, “Go fast, never hurry.” Slowness allows us to see the hidden seam in everything. Eyes closed, hands folded, breath quieting; yet still we see the hurry to be someplace though we don’t know where. Throwing a punch can require, if only for an instant, a determined application where waiting and slowing brings itself to a burst of power and speed we could not even have imagined.

To some, this is a welcome byproduct of martial training. To me, after fifty years in the arts, this is the training itself.

One Response to “Slow Learner”

  1. Gordon Cooper says:

    Thank you for this. In college at UT El Paso, I spent about twenty hours per week studying martial arts (first, Shotokai then Lohan and Shaolin with the typical admixture of Ba Gua, Hsing I and Tai Chi Chuan) and spent another ten or so hours on my own practicing forms or sections of forms. After three years, late one evening, I performed mawashi uke for the 10 or 20th thousand time. As I finished the motion, I suddenly smiled. After all that time, I had finally gotten it. I view the standing practices in Yi Chuan and mud step in Ba Gua as similar in goal: to get it right once in a fashion that results in a spontaneous smile.

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