The First 10,000 Times Don't Count

by Kim Ivy

…Familiar taiji saying

The roots of qigong and taiji sink into a culture that is thousands of years old. Their physical movements and philosophical underpinnings derive nourishment from the belief that cultivating one’s self in this lifetime will affect the physical or spiritual evolution beyond this lifetime. Systems of acupuncture and medicine, the I-Ching and cosmology, the scholarly and poetic writings of Confucious, Lao Tzu and Chaung Tzu have similarly evolved from this ancient culture. The originators were inspired not through achieving a specific goal, but by observing the repeating cycles of the natural world and human involvement over an extended period of time.

Most of the practitioners of taiji, qigong, and related disciplines I know are primarily familiar with 21th century America. We are somewhere in our mid- to later- life and come to the practice for various reasons: health, peace of mind, martial arts skill. We enter a class with various experiences of and beliefs about our learning processes that have been molded by the American educational system and enforced by the rapid-fire world around us. In our first class, we are invited into a world that is completely different from how many of us know life around us.

How we respond to this varies. I have seen students become very judgmental and angry with themselves as early as the second lesson because they “just can’t get it.” I have seen students sink into the recognition of the immensity of the project and become very goal oriented; “I will get this.” I have seen students try to control the teaching process to make them feel more comfortable; “will you move over there so I can see better?” And I have seen my own self: a combination of all! I have a half-joke with the new students. “If you come back after the 3rd lesson, you will probably stay with it for 3 months, if you stay past 3 months, we’ll see you for 1 year, but if you stay with the practice three years after you complete the form you are working on, it might then become part of your life-long journey.” It seems to take that long to begin to break through our own expectations of ourselves.

“teacher, how long will it take to
learn this form?”
“3 Years.”
“what if I practice twice as hard?
“10 years.”

It is true that these practices are not right for everyone. Some people prefer a faster moving discipline, one that “produces visible results in a timely fashion.” However, as our culture and our world move faster, we do experience repercussions, and it might be important to cultivate a dif ferent approach, if just to balance the chaos around us. Taiji and Qigong allow ourselves the experience of slipping deeply into a process that is not goal oriented; one that invites us to re-evaluate our approach to our relationships, and one that allows us to observe the repeating natural cycles around us.

The most repeated question I get from students is “how do I develop a home practice?” This is a very good question. I think the first step is to realize that we are embarking on a way, a process that is steeped in that assumption that we are more than just this lifetime and certainly more than this particular session of classes. What if we took one year to learn one movement well, what does it matter? What if we playfully struggle with an aspect of a movement, how about the excitement of that process? What if we let go of the idea that we “have to” do anything at all? I can tell you from personal experience that right now, there is not another form I could learn that will teach me what I need to know. Returning to what I have already learned to inquire into secrets that I missed is the real practice.

In one of the classes this summer, we were discussing this point. I shared with the group that I studied one form for 7 years before I went on to the next one. One of our students said, “why did you give up so soon?” Good observation! It reminds me of a story: A farmer was frustrated with his slow growing melons. Every night he inspected the garden begging them to grow faster. One night, he began to tug on them, hoping to inspire them. Several days later when he went on his nightly rounds, he found them dead, roots exposed.

In the I-Ching, the hexagrams help us to see the cycle of life. The metaphor of the first line is the seed, or the birth year. It is important to pay attention to that line, as it talks about the deep rooting process that occurs as the seed sends out its shoots for nourishment. In each line, the hexagram walks us through different growth phases. The true nature of any seed is to reach its full potential, and the deeper the rooting process the brighter the flower.

The I-Ching also helps us to see there is no separation between our self and the cyclical process of life, no finality of journey, and certainly no judgment or blame. Bring this idea to your practice.
Allow the first several years of practice to be your seed; stretch out your roots and take your time growing up. When you practice, whatever you practice, have fun, inquire, let go. Take your time as though you believe there is time.

Hints for home practice:

  • Begin with quiet time. Start with five minutes a day in sitting or standing meditation.
  • Spend time in nature.
  • Set aside the same time and place every day to practice and just do it. You will feel better.
  • Practice the feeling of the movements whenever you get a chance; doing the dishes, vacuuming, driving.
  • Practice the spirit of the movements daily; slow down, let someone else win the argument.
  • Take one aspect of the form: the footwork, the hands, the internals.
  • Understand there is no “perfect.” It is a process. Be sincere, but lighthearted in your approach.