Those who can´t do, teach. And those who can´t teach... - artikel på skämt och allvar om lärare

Those who can´t do, teach. And those who can´t teach...

Well, let´s face it. Those who can´t teach, teach anyway. A guide to the hows, whys, and why-on-earths of teachers in the Internal Arts.

I won´t put any money on it, but my bet is that next to bickering over the weight-shift in Single Whip, the most popular topic of discussion when internal artists sit down for a chat is teachers. Teachers past, present, and future. Seldom perfect. Often tense. Someone will say that his teacher is the best since he knows this and this, and okay, he doesn´t know that, but otherwise he´s pretty good. Someone else will say sure, but my teacher knows this, this, that and this, and she studied with whatsit who was the only student of Yang Chengfus janitor! Whereupon the first one will say, yeah? Well, she doesn´t teach the martial side, does she now? And the second one will mumble something about push hands, immediatly getting scoffed at, because that won´t do you any bloody good in a pub like this around this time of night, will it? And next there might be a scuffle involving the postures Raise Hands, Says Who, Punch Under Beergut and Fan Through Window, ending in a spectacular Squatting Single Whip in the gutter. This will settle who´s teacher is the best at teaching the martial side, but the next few hours in the IC unit will quickly settle who´s teacher is the best at teaching self-healing. Should it be like this? Of course not. Not for those reasons. But some teachers out there would make even a neophyte internal arts practitioner go into paroxysms of rage. So let´s have a look at them, type by type.

Oh yeah, I´m good

Just like in any other business, the boom in Tai Chi and qigong has created a backlash of low level teachers trying to occupy the slots of ignorance in the public mind. Most articles in the popular press show nice glossies of someone dressed in chinese pajamas, doing postures that will Instantly Decrease Your Stress, bring you Fresh Energy and a Harmonious Lifestyle, all in Five Easy Steps. Few mention that the five easy steps indeed do come, but only after the four hundred difficult steps you have to take first, such as actually practicing the stuff. This goes for some professional magazines too, leaving the sincere practitioners and teachers out in the cold. Where most of them prefer to stay, doing standing meditation. The really serious teachers seldom publish full color ads including phrases such as "have taught 6000 students". Along with the huge influx of books and articles that promote qigong for health, not many offer facts. Texts mentioning that there might be risks if your teacher doesn´t know the material, are practically nonexistent. So now we have teachers with two years of training ("But I practiced every week!") or less, and they´re out there, teaching. More alarming is that people go to these teachers in good faith, investing time, money and effort and sometimes a lot of hope in someone who should wear a chinese suit, but only to bed.

Means so well, knows so little

Is it starting to sound mean yet? Well, let´s not be too mean. There are a lot of teachers out there who mean so very well, but who know so very little. Most of these will never ever tell their students that they, the teacher, is in fact not, well, you know, not to put too fine a point on it, really, If they did, they would probably lose students, ego, and money, roughly in that order. A minority, however, will tell their students up front that they know what they know, that it´s not a whole lot, but I teach what I teach, and I´m trying to learn more. This equation is further complicated by the expectations of the student. Some students go out to socialize, to have a good time while doing slo-mo dancing to the tune of a chinese flute, and that´s all they want, period. But the majority want to learn to relax and get some tools that can help them cope with life. Along with those comes a growing number of people who have some sort of illness, and who in desperation turn to qigong or Tai Chi, expecting it to work as they have been told it´s supposed to work. Which it will not do in the hands of an incompetent teacher.

The spiritual alien

Teachers come in all colors and sizes, with different angles and different personal focus in the training. This is usually divided into three cathegories: for health, for martial arts, or for spiritual development. Health being those who focus on the health-side of qigong, physical as well as mental, sometimes including how to heal others. Martial arts-oriented teachers have a strong bias on "making it work"; some of them do this with great skill, some fail miserably, and some do it in their very own, special one person I knew who did kickboxing mixed with medical qigong, perhaps trying to re-invent the Internal martial arts. Of these three, the spiritual side is arguably the one with the highest number of trendy gurus, weirdos and fakes, partly thanks to the New Age idea of spirituality, which tends to be a far cry from the real thing. In qigong this ranges from teachers outrageously far out, who mix qigong with Wicca, add a dash of chanting and a splash of rules that will get you a better lifetime next time around, no, honestly, I mean it... Then there´s the teachers who do have a real lineage, but who have gone down the wrong path in their training. Some of these end up losing their grip on reality, space out in front of their students (adding to their credibility, of course), misuse their powers to control people, and in some cases simply go insane. This goes especially for qigong-styles that start off too quickly with upper dantian practices, or the ones who build huge amounts of energy fast. Anybody can do that; few people can do it safely.

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Over the past few years, I´ve often been faced with the argument that "It was part of your Path to find that teacher; it was a necessary trial of your growing consciousness to spend pointless sums of money on a teacher who didn´t know anything and forgot to tell you this - it´s all - all! - part of the great Dao!" Fair enough, it might well be. But if a surgeon accidentally forgets a pair of forceps in your lower intestine, few sane people would be likely to say the same thing. They would scream blue murder, report the surgeon, and see to it that his licence expired very quickly indeed. And the surgeon was, in all probability, charging less. We are used to and conditioned to the workings of Western medicine, but most people seem to take leave of their senses - especially the common sense - as soon as they stumble into Eastern medicine, waiving rights they normally take for granted. There now exist any number of "certified qigong instructor" courses: several one-year, a few three-year, and I know of one who contains the incredible amount of fifty hours of training before you get that coveted diploma with chinese characters, gilt insignia, and roaring dragons on top. These courses charge steep prices. Very steep. But, hey, let´s give them the benefit of a doubt. Many practitioners who attend such courses probably do so with good conscience, integrity, and a full knowledge afterwards of how little they know. I haven´t met them, but that´s just my (probably well-deserved) bad karma. They must be out there, not only their classmates who practiced for a year and now teach with flying colours, all the yin/yang trimmings, and a swelling account in the Ego bank.

The honest teacher. Ha ha ha.

So what should you have a right to expect from someone who says they teach the Internal Arts? Just like for our two friends in the pub with their serious shang qi-problem, this is a difficult question. Ask one practitioner, get one answer; ask another and get, well, another. Everybody has their image of what makes the perfect teacher. But if we skip questions about age, size, gender, race, and whether the teacher really does look like your uncle Mike, we end up with the crucial word "knowledge". A teacher should have a fair amount of knowledge and experience of the style or system that they claim to teach. If someone says they teach "Tai Chi" for health, well, then it might not be too much to ask that they know what style they´re doing, the principles that makes it Tai Chi, and the very basic internal components of the movements. From there on you can widen the field, including, for example: specific knowledge on how to treat different illnesses; knowing what not to teach so as to avoid making a problem worse; in-depth knowledge of the internal connections that multiplies the health benefits by a factor of ten. And for how long has your teacher been training? Most traditional teachers say that ten years is a minimum before you start teaching the stuff. This will vary with each individual - someone who practiced five hours a day for a good teacher might pull it down to, say, seven years, whereas someone who practiced ten minutes daily for the past twenty years still shouldn´t qualify. This period of time is necessary not only for learning the actual movements, their effects and internal components, but also for going through all the glitches in your own energy; digesting your life, getting the experience you intend to transmit. Calling yourself "teacher" means being mature enough to take responsibility for your own actions. If you´re not positively sure that you can fix problems that might arise in one of your students during training, you might want to take a second look at that shingle outside your door.

Back in those days we had it rough

Congratulations! You have finally found the teacher you were looking for; twenty years of experience, a solid lineage, and he seems to know both about the health, martial, and spiritual side of the Internal Arts. He doesn´t, however, talk a lot. He teaches through repetition, never explaining what happens inside your body, never talking about the internal structure that should fill the external movements. He just says "do this". No, no, that´s quite normal, his senior students assure you; he never says much, just turn up and practice and everything will be fine. Weellllll...will it? Next snag: when you have found a competent teacher, she must also be able to communicate her experiences to you, the student. Among the teachers out there who are qualified to teach, maybe even eminently qualified, there is also a number who simply can´t teach. They would never pass grades in a teacher´s college, but they do have the knowledge, which is better than nothing and rare enough to treasure when found. In China, just as anywhere else, it´s considered good fortune indeed to find a teacher who not only walks the walk, but also talks the talk, and hopefully in a language you know. You can find teachers like the one mentioned above: who turn up, line you up, go through a form without explanations, or do standing meditation for two hours without saying a whit. This is a traditional way of teaching in China - partly used to check which students have the mettle to stay and learn. But with the amount of watered out information in the West, you might want to make certain beforehand that the teacher really knows the stuff at all, and that he´s not just turning up saying nothing, simply because he doesn´t want to break the spell.

The real thing

The real thing rarely looks like the real thing. Most of them will never wear the chinese pajama, except maybe to a costume party. The really good ones sometimes have a tendency to be slightly...eccentric. Some of them laugh a lot; some don´t. Some of them you will never meet in this lifetime unless you´re very lucky or very, very serious about the training. Some of them charge a lot of money; some teach virtually for free. Some of them are nasty; some of them are nice. Some of them have swelling pecs; some look like they would need help to cross the street. Some teach all parts of the Internal Arts; some focus on one specific topic to exclusion of all others. Some of them never get feed-back from their students because they´re held too much in awe; some of them aren´t respected enough for their hard-earned knowledge. But with all this said, let´s accept that most who teach at least teach with good intentions, despite the fact that they don´t know the most basic basics. No. On second thought, let´s not. The role of teacher should come with the built-in responsibility of continously trying to upgrade and deepen your knowledge and understanding, so that your students get a chance to study with who they think they´re studying with: a good teacher. And does all the stuff in this article seem like a tall order to fill if you want to be a teacher? Good. It should be. But let´s keep in mind that the perfect teacher is probably like the perfect move. And if you don´t understand what that means, ask your teacher. And if your teacher says "well, it looks like this", then you really should go someplace else.

© Daniel Skyle 2003. Daniel Skyle is a freelance writer and Internal Arts teacher based in Sweden