Just returning from a very productive trip to California. Most of my time was devoted to private lessons for my advanced students in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I also taught several classes for my student of over forty years, Tom Maxon, at his Tamalpais School in Mill Valley. I was very pleased with the progress there and the appearance of several promising beginners. One of Taijiquan’s biggest problems, from a methodological perspective, is the almost logarithmic progression of skill as one proceeds. From a personal point of view, this is gratifying, especially since one’s initial impression of Taijiquan is that one will never live long enough to master it. But it produces a kind of “expanding universe” effect, in which the gap between students is widening, rather than becoming smaller. This effect almost demands a separate class for every student. However, one of the most important and significant features of Taijiquan is that it concerns itself principally with personal interaction with others. Separate classes for everyone, even if logistically feasible, would be completely missing the point. The only solution to this dilemma is for every student to cultivate the skill of learning, not only from his betters, but from those whose skill is inferior to his own. Since my own teachers are either dead or beyond my immediate reach, only this possibility allows me to continue my own personal improvement. On the contrary, I feel that my own technique has done nothing but accelerate in its progress, more and more in the most recent times. The real technique of Taijiquan is a compilation of a great many skills, and a deficiency in any one of them can make the others seem ineffective. Only when one’s progress is well-rounded does this ever disappear, but once the various elements of one’s training start to work together pieces of the puzzle that seemed far in the distance suddenly fall into place, and what was strange and enigmatic becomes somehow natural and obvious.
This ability to learn from one’s own students, or at least to improve as a result of interaction with them, is possible precisely by virtue of the discreetness and technical rigor of Taijiquan’s various elements, these fundamentals. The good student seeks not only to improve, but to isolate and clarify the reasons for such improvement, in a specific manner. He should not regard any skill to be sufficiently developed until he can completely control its presence or absence in his technique. At this point he can concentrate on those skills most appropriate to the level of his partner, his own discipline providing positive feedback for them without developing bad habits. As students learn to make use of such sophistication in the realm of personal interaction, they become more and more capable of offering each other positive reinforcement, rather than utilizing a “zero-sum” concept to punish each other for perceived mistakes. Such an attitude, when acted out physically, leads inevitably to a parallel sophistication of interaction on all levels, including those intellectual and emotional, and such an atmosphere resembles, more than any other model, a family. I am happy to say that the Mill Valley school is starting to demonstrate this level of practice.