Unlearning

For the last twelve months I’ve been taking a Ba Gua class from the wonderfully skilled man who also gives me acupuncture treatments. I’ve used acupuncture as my primary form of medical care for more than 40 years, and have been cared for by a number of able practitioners over that time. Without question, John Mince-Ennis is the best of them all. He’s a gentle and effective teacher as well.

I began my physical-activity life as a dancer, studying both modern and Thai classical styles, with an occasional ballet technique class thrown in for its discipline. I’ve also been a horseback rider, European rather that western-style, and a hiker. In later years, I’ve learned a 27 form Tai Chi pattern, taken a couple years of Tae Kwan Do, and finally found Ba Gua. Also a ‘soft’ martial art, like Tai Chi, Ba Gua works on realigning the fascia, resulting in a suppler yet strengthened body, improved balance, and overall improved health. Used as a fighting form of active martial art, it is both beautiful and effective, with a distinctive circular, coiling and uncoiling movement.
The challenge for me in learning Ba Gua is in fact not learning something new, but unlearning something old. My body has had many decades to practice moving in ways instilled from as long ago as those first dance classes at age 8. Legs turned out from the hips, knees over toes, balance maintained by tight control from the core (abdomen) which is pulled in and up. All movement (including the graceful lifting of an arm) originates from that same central place.

An overlay of how to swing through with a tennis racket, was added during my sojourn in Saigon. I had no language in common with the pro, so he placed himself behind me, reached around and grasped the racket with me, then moved my body through the correct motions. An amazingly effective and enduring type of instruction. I don’t run to meet a ball any longer, but placed where it will bounce, my body still knows the right way to connect with a solid swing.
None of which is of use – indeed all of which must be refuted – as I learn Ba Gua. Instead of pulling my core in and up, I must “hang from the one point” at the crown of my head, sink my lower body into a semi-seated stance and relax the middle, “rotating waist inside of hips”. Toes are slightly pointed inward (a similar slightly pigeon-toed walk is understood to be natural to some Amerindian tribes) in direct contradiction to my ingrained habit of toeing out. A set of twenty-four “gao” – exercises – seem to begin with arm movements, but have the effect of teaching the inner core new ways to move. In other words, where my dance training initiated movement in the belly, from where it moved outward, the beginner’s instruction in Ba Gua initiates movement in the limbs, from where it works inward to retrain the fascia.

My teacher on the MasterPath speaks of a similar, necessary unlearning of all our habits of mind and unconscious ways of believing, thinking, behaving – in order to uncover the truth of Being. Neither process of unlearning the old, to acquire the new, is easy. Both take years of instruction, diligent practice and, above all, the willingness to change. Odd, how persistently we cling to old ways of doing and being, even in the face of ample evidence that our circumstances have changed, and we should change also.

Staying at an acquaintance’s home recently, I looked for silverware in the drawer closest to the sink. Instead I found storage containers. My hostess directed me to a different drawer to find a spoon to stir my tea.
“Why did you look in the drawer by the sink?”
“Because that’s where the silverware would be in my own kitchen.”
After a pause to reflect, I had to add, “That’s where my mother stored the silverware.”
Decades later, I felt disoriented because something as mundane as the location of a silverware drawer was not in accord with my conditioning!

Beliefs about ourselves, about how to relate to others, about what aspects of ourselves we should identify with – these concepts are so ingrained that few of us are required to examine them unless we experience a traumatic shattering of our sense of self from which we must work to find our way back to wholeness. Or perhaps if we start on a path of spiritual exploration.

The challenge, the excitement, the work and the reward of MasterPath lies – for me – in being asked to examine every single assumption, expectation, concept and belief in my life. Most especially, it challenges patterns of being which are buried so far down in the unconscious that I have no recognition of their existence, until some circumstance or life event pushes me to bring the assumption into awareness, to be contemplated and understood for what it is (or is not).

Just as my body is being renewed by the process of unlearning/relearning that is Ba Gua, my essence is being redefined by the unlearning/relearning of what I Am – of what it means to Be, to Know, to See.

On all levels, the unlearning/relearning is hard work, but amazingly rewarding!

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4 Responses to “Unlearning”

  1. chelawriter Says:

    thank you!

  2. chelawriter Says:

    I share your pleasure in stumbling across content from other writers – and stumble is certainly the best word to describe how I find material on the web since I rarely have time to do an organized search. Thanks for the kind words.

  3. Kip Allen Says:

    The concept of unlearning / relearning is a wonderful jumping-off point for self-observation. Thank you for raising the issue!

    I wonder why we humans make unlearning/relearning “hard work.” Is the difficulty a fact or an opinion? If it is an opinion, couldn’t we make it easier by a shift in perspective / attitude?

    Or do we need some things to be difficult? There wouldn’t be as much of a sense of accomplishment if everything were easy….

    • chelawriter Says:

      I wonder if the reason humans make unlearning/relearning hard is because we believe we have limited capacity for attention? We tend to want to reduce many things to habit, in order not to have to give them further attention. So long as these habits ‘work for us’ we can just let them function, rewarding us with efficiency or effectiveness while we attend to other areas of our lives where the rewards may be less readily forthcoming. In Ba Gua class I not infrequently hear myself thinking “I already know an effective way to do that” which I must counter with the conscious thought that the new way I’m learning to do that action will be better for me in the long run. And I must admit a chunk of my motivation to learn Ba Gua arises from a gradual admission that the “effective way to do that” which I already know is not serving me as well – in my older body – as it did when I was younger.
      It’s certainly true that we don’t relish accomplishment as much when the learning is easy – unless we convert the pleasure into a gloat about how easy we found what others find hard. If we’re not inclined to gloat, we dismiss what comes easy to us and value it less… I’m not sure why.

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