The Sophistication of Simplicity

tai chi basicsEarlier today, I had the opportunity to work with a group of beginning Tai Chi students. A few hours later, I met with another group of students in my advanced Tai Chi class. Now, relaxing at the dusty end of the day, I realize that what I had taught to these two classes was essentially the same material.

I know the saying that ‘all the knowledge is ultimately basic,’ but I wonder if that is true. Might there not be such things so advanced that they should be held in storage until the student is ready? The question is important because this will occupy, in some measure, the rest of my life, and maybe my student’s.

The idea is that training, like wine, ages and deepens. But sometimes I think that the reason for the change in taste is that we are switching wines somewhere in the process.

For instance, the simple ideal of standing straight up is a beginning lesson that never seems to go away. You hear it extolled all through any martial career. Initially it sounds like a comment on good posture. At the advanced end the balance gained by practicing verticality is said to become a profound means of power generation.

But are these really two faces of the same coin? It is important to investigate this because it can lead to a more essential relationship with the training. Are these foundational, solid truths like optical illusions: look at them one way and you see one thing, then with a flick, another image appears?

Is this double image one thing or two, superimposed in a way to make them look the same?

I think most teachers and parents bump into this issue when trying to teach youngsters. Of course you can’t really teach a child exactly the way you would an adult; so people then attempt to teach these principles by, somewhat, lowering the standard. This is fine, but we should not forget that this is regression—the practice of  simplifying even beyond their normal counterparts, like Salvatore becoming “Sal.”

So, getting back to it. How do you present the information without leaving out the steps that, later, will allow the beginner to climb high? At the same time, how do you keep the advanced students from losing interest just as he sets foot on the pinnacle of his skill?

One way is to be honest, to tell the student that it will take many strokes to master the art, so he might as well enjoy the ride. You re-imagine for him the athlete perfecting his stroke, the craftsman refining his art, and also  the patient parent relating youngster’s achievements to friends and family. We finally see that just about everything in life can reaffirm this idea of core principles, evolving right along beside you as you grow and discover.

It is not easy. But we go back to the same movements again and again, practicing the simple as well as the fabulous. We sigh long and low, then the session begins.  On the very first move of training that day, the image of simplicity gives way to the physical reality and you are riding along with the change. The simple reminds us that  yesterday was better than last month. Advancement is inevitable. Even if you wanted to, you could never completely stall yourself by investing effort into the solid and simple.

Some times the simple/sophisticated process is so obvious it makes you laugh. You stumble into some improvement. You want to call someone up and tell him how you figured it out. You shake your head. It was so obvious. So simple.


“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

T. S. Eliot

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