Born without the gift of sight, Raymond Thiberge’s disability proved to be one of his greatest strengths.
During his lessons with expert pianists, Raymond used his refined senses of touch and hearing to compensate for his blindness. Listening to his teachers’ instructions and following their hands, he made a critical observation that his fellow students missed.
The experts did not follow their own advice. Their actions and professed principles contradicted each other. And those students who relied solely on their masters’ verbal instructions, consequently failed to realize their masters’ abilities.
Naturally, the problem is not confined to piano lessons. Verbal communication is necessarily indirect—people interpret words according to their own unique experience—and by itself is inadequate to capture any highly developed skill. This is particularly true for activities that demand complete coordination of the mind and body: words to elucidate a slightly incorrect performance simply do not exist.
Notes from a Taiji Workshop
I recently attended a conference with some of the world’s leading experts on Taijiquan, where I encountered the same problem noted by Raymond Thiberge.
Lao shr (the instructor) was leading a class on his 13-posture form of Taiji for approximately twenty other instructors. As he moved through the form, lao shr explained the importance of keeping the toes pointed in the same direction as the knee. As this is a fundamental rule that most people learn on their first day of practice, none of the instructors were surprised to hear it. I, however, was surprised to notice that lao shr sometimes ignored it himself.
Moving through the form, his toes drifted off-line by around 20 degrees. In the wrong circumstances, this misalignment can cause a crippling knee injury, so I felt compelled to ask for clarification. With the help of a Chinese translator, I inquired diplomatically: “Must the toes always be directly in line with the knee?”
Twenty pairs of eyes suddenly looked upon me with a mixture of pity and disgust: the internal martial artists did not approve. Some literally muttered under their breath, incensed that I should waste time on such a remedial topic. Through the translator, lao shr explained that the alignment should always be maintained. Once again, he demonstrated, and once again, I watched his toes slip outwards. As far as I could tell, nobody else even bothered to look at his foot.
I learned two lessons that day. First: lao shr did not consider the alignment of the empty leg to be critically important. Second: even in a room full of Taiji teachers, real listening skills were in short supply.
The Importance of Whole Body Listening
When verbal communication is supplemented or replaced with the context-free language of the five senses, a student is free to spend more time in the state of awareness and observation. This inclusive state, rather than the exclusive states of analysis or interpretation, is the most skillful and appropriate attitude for a sincere student of a holistic art.
In more concrete terms, what are some habits of good listeners, and how do they contribute to the learning process?