The Literary Assassin

Fiction, fashion, and hand-to-hand combat by Holly Messinger

I wrote this about martial arts study, but it applies to almost anything--music, math, life.

On Being a Good Student

by Holly Messinger

September, 2008
all rights reserved

I've been studying kung fu and tai chi at the same school for almost ten years. My sifu runs an ongoing, all-levels class. On any given weekend we have a handful of ten-year students, a couple of first-time guests, and a dozen folks who fall in between.

I've watched a lot of students come and go. I've seen people better than me and people who thought they were better just because they'd been doing it longer. I've seen a lot of folks with preconceived notions about martial arts who get disappointed and drop out. I've seen eager, earnest students become frustrated and angry because they aren't progressing as fast as they'd hoped, or because the results aren't what they expected.

All these students received the same instruction from the same teacher. They all started with the same basic materials---four limbs and a head---but in every case, the failure to learn comes from the student's own mental blocks. If you're considering attending a tai chi class, or if you've been studying for a while and can't figure out why you're not progressing, this mental exercise is for you.

Part One: Finding the right teacher for you

What are you looking for?

Ask yourself, why are you interested in tai chi? Do you think it will make you fit and healthy? An unbeatable fighter? Do you want to use it for self-defense? Are you hoping to find Enlightenment?

If so, please adjust your expectations. Studying tai chi may help you on the path to those goals. But tai chi is not, in itself, the vehicle to any of those things. Any teacher who makes miraculous claims about his art should probably be avoided.

Tai chi is a fighting system. In order to fight, one must be physically fit and mentally acute. Health and fitness are happy side effects of training the body and mind to be fit for fighting. It's that simple.

Tai chi uses the following techniques to condition the body and mind:

  1. forms practice,
  2. meditation,
  3. health-promoting nutrition and medicine,
  4. push-hands practice or sparring.

If you are not prepared to practice all of these things faithfully, then your progress in tai chi will not be optimal.

Of course, if you are not interested in learning to fight, you can probably find a teacher who focuses on the health aspects of the art, and studying with that teacher may be very beneficial. However I think it is important to understand the martial root of the art to receive the full benefit of it.

The body-mind concept

Americans may be ill-equipped to understand tai chi, because tai chi is based on the idea of mind and body in harmony, and Americans are used to keeping their minds and bodies at a comfortable distance from each other.

Think for a moment about the work that you do. Odds are you either sit at a desk all day, moving nothing but your index finger, or you do very physical work and come home exhausted. In either case, you probably don't do much cognitive reasoning. You do the narrow, specialized task that is assigned to you, and to keep yourself from going crazy, you distract your brain with pop music, trashy journalism, or sports chatter.

Some of us realize that our lack of exercise, mental as well as physical, is unhealthy. But too often we treat the mind or the body separately: we see a psychologist, or study meditation, or join a gym. Exercise is often tedious and punishing, accompanied by strident loud music to distract our brains from the pain.

If you are looking for a tai chi class, you probably have realized the fallacy of the mind-body split. But it is still possible to bring your prejudices to class with you.

I see people come to tai chi class who don't want to practice; they prefer to talk about their Reiki retreat, or their homeopathy treatments, or their Zen meditation studies. These folks are looking for spiritual or emotional nourishment, but they are skimming the surface of several pools, rather than looking deep. This type is usually overweight or sickly, because they tend to neglect their physical selves.

Then there are the guys---they are almost always young men---who aspire to be some kind of Zen-warrior. They want to pound their knuckles against things and practice barefoot in the snow, and they lose interest when my sifu talks about improving health, relaxing the mind, reducing stress. Even worse, they disbelieve the teacher when he talks about Internal Force---the kind of energy that comes from relaxing the body and abandoning the ego.

If you are the kind of person who is intrigued by the mysterious, you may be drawn to tai chi for that reason, but you will probably be repelled by the martial aspect of it. If you are the warrior type, you may try to focus only on the strength and fighting aspects of the art---but your progress will eventually run into a wall.

Evaluate your own reasons for seeking a tai chi class. A teacher who focuses too strongly on one aspect of the art may not be the best long-term teacher for your development. If you are leaning too strongly toward one side of the scales---too much physical or too much metaphysical---try to see the benefits in the other half of the equation. Adjust your thinking toward the middle way.

Part two: Being the right kind of student.

If you are lucky enough to find a good teacher, then you owe it to him (or her) to be a good student. You also owe it to your classmates and to yourself.

Bring an empty cup

Probably the most famous saying about kung fu is that you can't add tea to a teacup that's already full. In some cases, prior martial arts training, or being a martial arts "groupie"---watching too many movies and reading too many books---can hinder your learning.

If you are seeking a tai chi teacher, it may be assumed you are not a master. In this day and age it is not unusual for a student to study with multiple teachers, but it doesn't matter what books you've read, or what workshops you've taken, or what master you studied with before now. If you are coming to a new teacher, it may be assumed you are not a master. Therefore you must be prepared to humble yourself and start over at the beginning.

There is an old saying, ""No one can serve two masters, because either he will hate one and love the other, or be loyal to one and despise the other." The quote is from the Christian Bible (Matthew 6:24), but it holds true in tai chi studies as well.

I have seen a few students come to my sifu's class after spending long years with another teacher. The previous teacher may have died, or sometimes the student had to move away because of life's other commitments. For whatever reason, the student knew he or she had more to learn and went in search of a new teacher. This is commendable.

However, it is probably not a good practice to constantly compare the new teacher's methods to the old. You may find it helpful to relate this new learning to your previous experience, but try to do it without making comparisons. Thinking about the past too much will only confuse you and hold you back.

I know of a tai chi master who, when he was a young man, won many medals in tournaments. Then one day he met an older master from another discipline, who told him "You are not even inside the circle." The young master gave up his old style and went to study with the older master. He became a novice again, because he recognized how much more he had to learn.

Be present in body and mind

Americans have another obstacle to tai chi success---the ridiculous concept of multitasking. My sifu likes to say, "You can only do one thing at a time. Even if you have twelve windows open on your computer, you can only work in one at a time!"

If you want to learn, you must commit to attending every single class, especially during the first 6 to 12 months. If you miss a class and fall behind your classmates, you will feel stressed and frustrated, and be more likely to drop out.

Being present also means being attentive. Don't use class time to socialize or plan the rest of your day. Turn your cell phone off, or leave it in the car. Besides being very rude to your teacher, these disruptions distract your classmates. Be on time and don't leave early. Arrange your life outside of class so you can fully commit to being in class.

All these guidelines may seem obvious but I see them broken every week, often by people who express frustration that their progress is so slow.


You must practice to remember what you've been taught. Most people's brains cannot hold on to new information for more than a day or two, without rehearsal. This is especially true if you are not by nature an athletic person. Your mind-body connection probably has not been fully cultivated and you will feel awkward at first, trying to translate the actions you saw into muscle-movement.

When you are in class, do not try to remember new moves with your conscious mind. Simply follow. Later, when practicing on your own, close your eyes and try to visualize each move clearly before duplicating it with your body. If you get stuck, skip to the next move you can remember. Sometimes this will jog your memory. Even if it doesn't, you will be prepared to ask questions during the next class, and can easily fill in the blank spots in your memory.

Daily practice is also necessary is because you cannot get significant health benefits from a mere hour of class each week. Would you seriously expect to get fit and trim from a single hour of aerobics each week? If that hour or half-hour of daily practice seems daunting, consider this: your daily tai chi routine is like doing an hour of piano practice while simultaneously lifting weights and cycling. You are training your mind, muscles, heart and lungs, all at the same time! How efficient you are! And the benefits of clear mind, soothed nerves and increased energy support you through the rest of the day.

Be obedient, and teach yourself

The above guidelines are the bare minimum needed for knowledge to seep into your brain. If you do all that you will learn in spite of yourself. But this kind of passive learning will only take you so far.

It has been said that the best student is an obedient student. This means doing all the boring single-movement exercises, the meditation, the endless repetitions of form. It is true, sometimes Enlightenment comes in a flash, but that is usually after years of hard work to pave the way. You have to "eat the bitter" to get to the sweets.

Students are always trying to find the "trick" in tai chi. Week after week, they listen to their teacher explain about relaxation, and timing, and focus. They nod impatiently, and then muscle their way through the exercises, trying a hundred unsuccessful variations of leverage and torque.

I've been one of those students. I remember vividly the night my teacher took me aside and said, "Look, you know all the techniques, but when it works it's an accident. You don't have the gong, (ability) so you don't really believe it will work. You just need to practice regularly, so the muscles remember when and why it works. Then you do it right more and more often, until it's a new habit."

I have seen drastic improvement in my yin strength over the past two years, but it definitely waxes and wanes with my diligence in practice. Some applications I can do quite consistently. Others are still locked behind mental blocks. But whenever I start to think there must be a trick involved, I remind myself of how I learned to sing.

When I was in college, I sang in the elite choir. I had good natural pitch, but my tone was breathy and timid. The conductor insisted I take voice lessons, so I went dutifully, once a week, but I seldom practiced outside of that lesson-time. My progress was sluggish. I learned the techniques but I couldn't implement them consistently. My range improved but I still had a break in my mid-voice, which was a combined result of mental tension and lack of muscle tone.

At mid-term, the choir went on a ten-day bus tour. Every day of that tour we sang at least three hours---a practice session in the morning and a concert in the evening. It was exhausting, but we had little choice but to keep going. I developed muscle-aches in my throat, back, and diaphragm, from the extreme workout. When you are singing at the top of your lungs amid fifty other voices, there is no space to be self-conscious. You open your mouth and use your lungs as a bellows. I would go to bed each night with my ears ringing and my jaw aching from being opened so wide.

A few days after the tour ended, I went into my voice teacher's office and astonished both of us with the new power and agility in my tone. I had stopped trying to force my breath out, with the result that it flowed naturally. I had stopped tensing my throat around the break in my tone, trying to control it, but the marathon of singing for three hours every day had toned my throat muscles so that I had control. It was all because of the work I had been forced to do---the strenuous, attentive practice at making a full, supported sound. Once I quit trying to "reason" my way through it and simply did it, my body found the way---the only way---it could do the job.

Suddenly all the metaphors and explanations made sense, although I realized, also, how the explanations were not entirely relevant to the way my body wanted to work---I had been given good, clear directions, but ultimately I had to find my own way.

The happy ending to this story is that I figured out how to support my breathing and relax my throat. The downside is, after I left college and no longer sang every day, the break in my voice came back. I seldom sing anymore, but I have on occasion had to re-condition my voice for different performances, and it always takes about two weeks of daily practice to get my old control back.

This is why you can't "figure out" how to do tai chi. This is why reading all those books will not give you gong. This is why you have to do the boring, pointless exercises your teacher assigns to you. If you have to do ten thousand repetitions until your muscles are exhausted and all your yang strength is gone, then that is what you must do. And once you have the ability, you must keep tending it. Like the multiplication tables you memorized as a child, if you don't keep rehearsing them, they will eventually fade away.

Be compassionate

Now, you may have read through all of the above recommendations and thought smugly to yourself, "Well, I don't do any of that!"

You may attend every class faithfully. You may practice every day and never take a phone call during class. You may be attentive and open-minded to every silly requirement your teacher hands down.

You may know someone, or many someones, who breaks all of these rules.

Be gentle with those people. Even if you feel someone's behavior is disrespectful to your sifu; even if they come to class bragging and throwing their weight around, don't let them get to you. Shrug and just say it's their karma. Don't get angry or judgmental, because those emotions will hinder your ability to learn.

Resist the urge to rank everybody in the class and estimate where you stand---you'll do it, even unconscously, but try not to let it matter. When you start thinking you're better than everybody else, you'll stop learning.

Always keep learning

Tai chi can be a lifelong pursuit. Sometimes I find this thought discouraging, when I realize how much further I have to go. But then on the other hand, in thirty years I will still be 60-something, so why not practice tai chi in the meantime? And look how far I've come in ten years!

There is always more to learn. You may go through several teachers in your lifetime. You may teach others. You may---if you practice---teach yourself a few things. But there is always, always more to learn. Don't let your ego or your prejudices get in the way of that potential.

Writing Homepage