[From the GRTC old blog, October 2018]
Or ‘Are we there yet?’ (Thanks Davina)
My siblings have both been secondary school teachers for many years. A few years ago one was telling me about students who, when asked to read a chapter of a book for class, or do a complicated task and write it up, often complained, ‘Sir, it’s long.’ Coming from a school kid that may be normal, indeed may even have been something a young William Shakespeare thought silently while at Grammar School, but did not voice, fearing the cane. But for an adult it’s a default position that does not serve us well.
Last week my bushcraft instructor complained how the attention span of students over the last 5 or 6 years has deteriorated, so that tasks that would have been an ordinary part of a workshop are now seen by folks as too long, too hard. ‘We’re never going to use that in life, what’s the point?’ Speaking with other well-known and respected instructors, he found they had experienced the same thing. All were reappraising their courses and dropping some topics, making them accessible for the bite-size tastes of the current customer, making sure there were plenty of Instagrammable photo opportunities… Having paid many hundreds of pounds studying wilderness skills, maybe a couple of thousand over the years, every last bit of information and training I could get I would suck up, even if the end result was not success (yes, fire by bow-drill, I am talking about you…)
This is not a rant about the better moral fibre of the older generations, you can get a webful of that elsewhere. I think folk of all ages are being badly served by our lack of trained concentration, powers of attention and physical stamina. My neighbour asked me why I was slowly carrying a 20 kilo container by hand last month, rather than using the trolley, and I told him it was so that I could still do it if I needed to. I wanted to retain the strength to do it as I got older. Boat life and gardening are much more fun and cheaper than the gym. Machines, services and devices that make things so easy for us, if routinely used by default, rob us of the ability to do difficult things, which is a form of self-disablement. It is not a reactionary view to suggest doing difficult or time-consuming things for their own ends, it is a view of people who wish to retain and nurture human skills, it is what I will call ‘the craft view’. (I am aware of the neo-Luddites, by the way, having met some through Dark Mountain, but they take this further than I would.)
It is essential to fail. It is absolutely critical at a young age to get over failure and learn to carry on. This does not have to include humiliation, bullying and trauma, as several of my Aberdonian older students report from their school days with less than kind Calvinist teachers. In the context of T’ai Chi, it is failing to get an application, technique, topic or entire area of study, for however long. It is laughing at oneself and having another go anyway. It is realising everyone is pretty busy worrying about their own T’ai Chi and didn’t notice you went wrong. At school I was a perfectionist, I had to get something right, as being ‘right’ was ‘good’. It was debilitating, and meant I gave up what I was not good at to avoid the ‘shame’ of getting something wrong, missing out on so much. Many people will have their own version of this, and their own psychological roots of fear of failure, disinclination to do difficult things or aversion to the unfamiliar. However all can be met with kindness and persistence to great effect, in the present moment of the practice, and with a teacher who is compassionate and encouraging. (One does not necessarily have to pick apart the tangled roots of the issue, but if inclined, of course, therapy, certain kinds of insightful introspection or counselling are good safe places to do this.)
Failing, having another go, doing difficult things, getting past frustration, boredom or confusion are the heart of learning. No great craft is achieved by avoiding any of this. I care about the craft of things, whether this is dance, song, writing, painting, handcrafts, engineering, martial arts, medicine… Really, all the important and excellent things humans ever do could be termed ‘craft’. Working with commitment and steady intent, and taking the protestations of the mind with a pinch of salt, gives such deep benefit to the whole organism, makes us resilient and also anti-fragile. It means that we can be much more present for others, because we know we can rely upon ourselves. The side effect of all this slightly difficult sounding advice though, is beyond wonderful: a sense of humour! Reader, more recently than I care to remember, I did not have one. Luckily for all my students, and via some classic Taoist ‘false cultivating the real’, I now can laugh at myself and my predicament and stop taking everything so personally. I take the work very seriously, but my own sometime-foolishness is beyond doubt. ‘Progress’ may well be a myth, but change is real.