Sensitivity is often confused with weakness and nowhere is this more the case than the world of martial arts. This is an unfortunate misconception for some of the highest levels of the martial arts can only be reached through sensitivity.
Without the sensitivity to feel where the Chi is flowing within your body, you can only ever repeat the patterns taught by your instructors and hope what works for them works for you too.
I have been a Tai Chi player for most of my life and over the years I’ve seen many arguments about where exactly you should place your foot on this move and if your index finger on your left hand is in exactly the right position relative to your left ear on that move: generally which position is “right” and which is “wrong”.
The forms – both ancient and modern – that we learn and practice for hours on end are of course vital and steeped in method and meaning but I always want students to keep their eye on the goal. The goal is not to reproduce some movements like that guy over there; the goal is self-understanding. In order to start on that path we need to listen: listen to our bodies, listen to the Chi flowing through our system, listen to the universe as we flow through it. This may sound very esoteric or mystical but it is grounded in the most practical reality of all of us: we are different. No two people are exactly the same.
When we are starting out in our training we need structure, of course we do. We start by following an instructor who seems to know what they are doing, but as we progress beyond the beginning stages we need to start listening and developing our sensitivity to the flow of Chi. Even if we don’t know why we need it yet this is essential. Your instructor has developed their art for them, it fits them, the Chi flows through their meridians. Is your body identical to theirs? No. Are your meridians in exactly the same places as theirs? No. So if your end game is just to perform the moves in exactly the same way as your teacher, it is like borrowing their shoes to go running. Will they fit you perfectly? Unlikely. If you borrow someone else’s shoes you may be a good runner, but to be a great runner you need to get your own.
If you are going to reach your true potential, at some point you will need to become your own teacher.
Does that mean we should look at our instructors and just decide to do things differently for the sake of it or because we find something difficult? Of course not. But it means if we develop our sensitivity along the path, by the time the differences between our instructors and ourselves are beginning to make a difference we will have the tools required to listen to our body and modify what we do accordingly.
If you see four great masters performing the same Tai Chi form you will see them do it in four slightly different ways. Does that mean that three of them have got it wrong? No. I would suggest it means that all four of them have got it right.