Here’s a synthesis of the ideas presented by Tim Gallwey in his Inner Game books as applied to T’ai Chi. Integrating these ideas will greatly facilitate the process of learning T’ai Chi.
Gallwey makes the distinction between two selves which he calls Self 1 and 2. Self 1 is basically the analytic mind, while Self 2 is the body mind. His distinction is quite similar to the kinds of distinctions folks make between the two sides of the brain. In any case, the utility of this distinction is that it points out that we have two parts to our minds and leads to the recognition that each part has its area of expertise. Self 1 or the left brain, analytical self is primarily concerned with keeping us safe and does so by learning and trying to follow procedures and prescriptions. Self 2 or the right brain, holistic, exploratory self is more concerned with the big picture and learns in a holistic fashion. It is much better at mimicry than at following directions.
The practice of T’ai Chi (or any other sport) involves a complex integration of the body’s systems at a pace that is impossible for the left brain, Self 1, to really analyze. However, because most of us have not clearly sorted out the differences and areas of expertise of these two parts, we will often try to learn complex physical tasks from a analytic, Self 1 perspective. This is usually frustrating and always less effective than allowing Self 2 to be primarily in charge of learning. The ideal situation is where we have clearly distinguished job descriptions for each part.
In T’ai Chi we have a big chunk of physical learning to do and a small bit of analytic work. First we learn the overall feel of relaxed movement within the T’ai Chi principles and then apply that to the specific postures and movements with their coordination and balance issues. On the analytic side, we learn the names of the postures and their sequence and a list of dos and don’ts. This requires memorizing less than a page of material. That is really all there is for the analytic mind to do.
However, because in this culture we are so accustomed to dwelling in the analytic Self 1, most people try to learn Self 2’s material with Self 1. This leads to the familiar difficulty where Self 1 watches over Self 2’s shoulder and comments (often critically) on everything. As we all know, learning any complex physical coordination pattern (like walking, writing or driving) takes a lot of repetition. But that is really all it takes. All we need is a model of the target behavior (walking) and the will to repeat our efforts to duplicate the model. As infants we learned to walk and run and climb with parental modeling and encouragement, but usually with no verbal pointers and with no Self 1 looking over our shoulders and analyzing our progress. Learning T’ai Chi is easiest and most effective the more we recreate this sort of internal learning environment.
We do this by having a clear idea of which part of us is responsible for learning what and how each can best contribute to the project. Self 1 is good at memorizing the principles of T’ai Chi and the names of the postures and can serve as a good tape recorder for playing back this material in a supportive fashion. Self 2 will be memorizing the physical postures and movements as well as the overall feel of practicing T’ai Chi. In this, Self 1 can contribute the most by allowing Self 2 the time and space to simply repeat the movements with overall confidence that this will lead to mastery.
In a way, we can imagine Self 1 being the parent and Self 2 the child learning to walk. As the parent, we know that through trial and error our child will learn to walk – we want to cultivate that same absolute confidence that Self 2 will master the T’ai Chi movements. And again as the parent, the only ways to really speed up a child learning to walk is to provide lots of time for the child to practice attentively and to encourage and praise the child when he needs support. As Self 1, we can do those things for ourselves too.
The key to practice is the attention. Five minutes of focused and interested practice brings more learning than an hour of bored and dreary repetition. Self 1 can be very useful here in brainstorming aspects of the movements to become curious about (“what exactly is my left leg doing as I come forward there?”) in order to keep the attention alert and in the present. Similarly, Self 1 can be very useful in reminding us of how well we are doing and why we are excited about learning this stuff in the first place. By helping us to remain in an optimistic and playful kind of frame of mind, Self 1 really helps Self 2 to concentrate on the learning at hand.
Ultimately we can see our study of T’ai Chi as a vehicle to study the far more important issues of the internal relationship between Self 1 & 2 and the internal dynamics which effect our ability to concentrate voluntarily in the present moment. Improving your skills of fostering a positive internal relationship with appropriate tasks delegated to appropriate parts and of voluntary concentration is ultimately more important to me as your instructor (and I assume to you) than whether you become proficient at the T’ai Chi form. Becoming skillful in these areas leads to pervasive life improvement and will serve you in any learning endeavor that you undertake in the future.
In summary then, Self 1 is responsible for:
1) memorizing the T’ai Chi principles and the names of the movements
2) helping create the space for attentive practice and experimentation
3) maintaining and conveying faith in Self 2’s abilities.
Self 2 is responsible for memorizing the physical postures, movements and overall feel. And this whole process is really to help you learn more about this fundamental internal relationship, how to operate your organism more skillfully and how to concentrate and be in the present.