A student arrived for his lesson today with apologies for not practising enough. “I only did a minute or two of practice here and there since our last lesson,” he said.
My instant reply was “Congratulations! That’s wonderful!”
“What?” says he.
“You did some practice,” say I.
“Hardly any.” he insists.
“Now now. What do I always say is the first rule of martial arts?” I quiz.
“Hmph. Don’t beat yourself up.”
“Right. Now, is there a reason why you were unable to practise more?” I ask, setting him up.
“Well, there was a lot..”
“Never mind! It doesn’t matter. Excuses are irrelevant. You didn’t practise as much as you would like to. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that practised, even if it was only for a few seconds.”
“Perhaps you were busy, or distracted, or sick, or just plain too lazy to practise. But you still did some practice. Maybe it was only for a minute or two. But you must give yourself credit for those brief moments when you were actually practising.”
There have been times when I did not practise because of mental or physical illness or injury. I remember feeling sorry for myself because I couldn’t practice. I was just too sore or too depressed. I lay in bed thinking, “I can hardly move.”
Then a part of my brain said, “YOU CAN!”
“I can what?” I asked from within my clouded psyche.
“YOU CAN HARDLY MOVE.”
So, I did. I hardly moved. If you had been watching, you would not have seen movement. It was mostly in my imagination. Laying in bed, imagining a lazy tai chi routine, for a few minutes, until the futility overcame me. A while later, I barely did it again. Then I slept. Over time, I got worse, then I got better. Then I recovered, not all at once but as part of a slow, irregular, sometimes sporadic climb from the abyss.
Those few moments of barely practising had a profound effect on my life. In fact, those short practice sessions were at least as important as the long hours I had put in during my youth.
I recall a parable told to me by various teachers in 1980s. It is the story of a new student asking the teacher how long it will take to get really good at tai chi. The teacher tells him it will take about 10 years of steady practice. the student then asks, “But what if I practise really really really hard?”
“Oh,” says the teacher, “Then it will take you 25 years.”
Tai chi is not about the hours you put in, or about the progress you make. It is about learning to walk the path. You are programming yourself to be better, not beating yourself up to make it harder. “Learning to eat bitter” as some Chinese teachers like to say, should not be about force-feeding yourself painful lessons and forcing yourself to suffer. It is about transcending the suffering, and finding the nourishment in difficult situations.
A few years ago, I was visiting Belgium, and met a charming woman who introduced herself as my student. She had learned tai chi from my videos as a way of coping with chronic fatigue. At first, she practised while lying in bed. Gradually, she progressed to sitting up, then standing beside the bed. Eventually, she was able to go downstairs, and even to a nearby park. I met her when she was part of a local tai chi group. The last I saw of her was a photo from a seminar in Italy. This all started from being able to hardly move.
Even elite masters sometimes practise very little. I met an extraordinary Aikido-ka who claimed to only practice Aikido for one minute per day. His aikido was truly impressive. How can that be? Well, his real talent was zen.
When you have very little time, energy, and discipline for training, and yet you do some anyway, then you are spending all of your available time, energy, and discipline on training. By contrast, someone who spends 4 hours per day at scheduled training, but also has 4 hours of free time when they are not training, or thinking about training, is only spending half of their available time, energy, and discipline on training.
This may seem like a cute manipulation of data. But consider the effect of this ratio on the long-term conditioning. Sure, the person who practises more will likely get more benefit. But the person who practises what little they can will get a much more significant return on investment.
I remember the Canadian Hockey team playing the Soviets. The soviets players were full-time professionals. The Canadian team was made of players who had day jobs, and did hockey for fun. The Canadians won.
Think of this analogy. Buying a single lottery ticket is not, statistically, a sound financial decision. It is said that the chances of winning are the same as the chances of someone sending you the money by accident. If you play every draw, you will win, on average, once every 135,000 years. You might win this week, or you might go for millions of years without a win. If you buy no ticket, your chance of winning is infinitely small. So, buying a single ticket gives you infinitely better odds of winning than not buying a ticket. Buying a second ticket merely doubles your chance. Buying a third ticket only increases your chances by one third. Buying a fourth ticket only increases your chances by 1/4. If you buy one thousand extra tickets, you will not increase your chances of winning by anywhere near as much as you did with your single ticket. If you bet all of the possible number combinations to win a massive jackpot, you could still lose money if one or more people play the same winning numbers, and you have to split the winnings.
Now, Tai chi has a much better return than the lottery. We have studies to prove it, and I have tai chi testimonials coming out the yin-yang. But the analogy still works.
When you take a spare minute to practise, your subconscious and your conscious mind come together inside your body, and align you with the path to mastery. Every little bit helps. Sometimes the littler the better.
If you condition yourself to take little steps when you have the chance, then the bigger journey will happen in the background.
If you condition yourself to hardly move whenever you can hardly move, you might soon find yourself being able to move quite well.
The more out-of-shape you are, the more significant the small amounts of exercise will be. …..*****
If you take a moment to yawn and stretch, and do that several times a day, you could make it a habit, and you may find that you add 150 minutes of exercise to your week without even thinking about it. (as an aside, I am 57 years old and 100 lbs overweight, but my blood pressure is 116/75.
If you set aside 2 hours three times per week for tai chi training, then tai chi becomes something that you do. But if you find yourself doing invisible tai chi at your desk, or while queueing at a restaurant or a cinema, then tai chi is something you are.
Baby steps. That is how most of our progress is made.
The same applies for positive thoughts, kind words, friendly gestures, a curious thought, an idea, a feeling, a penny saved.
It is the little things we do that make us who we are.
Another thing: if you do find yourself willing and able to practise more, then please by all means put in all the hours you can. But pay attention to the seconds. Also, if you find yourself getting bored after an hour or two, try telling yourself that you just started. Make every minute the first minute, and keep practising until you are not bored anymore.