Not Such A Beginner Anymore

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This past November, when I saw that the Tai Chi Broadsword class was being offered at the school again, I decided to try my hand at it again. I had taken the class about 5 years prior but had not really grasped it.

That first time I took the class, I had never held a real sword before and the movements felt alien and awkward to me. The sword seemed big and tall…and I small. During the course, I often seemed to be holding the blade the wrong way or I’d have the wrong foot forward because I forgot to take a step. As I struggled to see over whatever perceived giant was standing in my line of vision I remember a feeling of overwhelm and stress at times. Certain everyone was “getting it” but me.

Consequently, after that first course was over I did not practice what I had learned, knowing full well I didn’t really have it. Plus, I consoled myself, that I had plenty to practice at my own level in my regular martial arts classes and I decided to focus my efforts there. I never did make that sword form “mine”.

Fast forward 5 years later. The fact that I had not done well the first time round was one of the reasons that motivated me to try taking the class again. As I’ve heard Shifu say, “no challenge, no growth” right? I honestly didn’t know if I would grasp it any better the second time round but I was curious. Would things have changed for me in those 5 years? Would my memory and ability to catch and absorb the series of movement be any better? I knew the form was not that easy to learn…at least not to me.

So I decided to sign up for the course again. Indeed, as it turned out I was not the same student who took the class five years prior. Thanks to some additional exposure to the sword at Pa Kua Chang camps, I was more comfortable handling a sword and I was not so afraid of making a mistake. My attitude had become more passive about my success in taking the class and I approached it more this time with a “let’s see what happens” attitude.

During class, I found that I was more instinctively holding the sword the right way during the sequence. I was quite certain I had not grown any taller yet, somehow this time round, the sword did not make me feel quite so small. It also turned out somewhere along the line, my focus had improved making the form much easier to learn and I found myself actually enjoying the graceful and fluid movements of the Tai Chi form. Granted, the form was not all new to me, and I’m sure somewhere in the cobwebs of mind that helped at some level but it all felt new and I could not predict what we’d be shown next.

Certainly one of the things my first experience had taught me was that you cannot focus on learning the new movements being taught if your mind and body is still trying to recall the movements learned in a prior class. So I practiced and I practiced some more and when I suffered an injury half way through the course (doing something else entirely) I went to the classes anyway. After first being injured, I had been visualizing for days doing what I learned in the previous classes. So I went without sword in hand and carefully watched while going through the new section in my mind, repeating what I could with an empty hand. I especially made sure to pay attention to which way the blade was facing and tip was pointing on my imaginary sword. That is when I realized something that apparently improved when I wasn’t looking – my ability to visualize.

I tell this story partially for those who try something like this for the first time and feel that same sense of frustration as I did that first time. Who look at others in class and wonder how do they learn the movements so fast? How come they don’t look as confused as I feel? I certainly have had, and sometimes still experience that feeling, when looking at more advanced students. But the difference is I now know something I did not know then…that part of the secret lies in the years of practice itself. One day you realize that few movements are entirely new to you. You can draw upon your experience with a stance or some other form you learned, some other feeling or skill you cultivated and you suddenly find yourself applying it to something that, on the surface, may seem unrelated. Yet, in reality it is all connected. This sudden revelation whispers the promise of more good things to come through the practice.

The other part of the secret lies in the attitude. When my mind was not busy and consumed with worry over not being able to do it, it left space for actual learning.

Don’t get me wrong, I am certainly no sword master! My Tai Chi Broadsword form is many miles away from being perfect and there are still a couple of sections I struggle with but, what I have been taught this time is “mine”, as are all of the other little revelations that went along with it.

Sometimes when we sign up for martial arts lessons, we learn much more than just the lesson itself.

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