Artistry and Aesthetics: What Tai Chi Chuan is teaching me about the adult learning gaps in coaching by Simon Darnton
I have been playing Tai Chi Chuan for over 15 years. I've also been teaching, or should I say coaching(?) Tai Chi for a couple of years having completed a 3-year Chen-style Tai Chi teacher qualification.
When I did my coaching masters' research project, Tai Chi inspired me to delve into Chinese philosophy by using a synthesis of adult learning theory. The experience has underpinned my coaching work ever since.
When completing my dissertation, I expressed my surprise and delight that I had found the process of learning-how-to-learn to be as valuable, if not more so, than learning about Chinese philosophy and employing it within coaching.
Forward-wind to today and I'm finding that Tai Chi is teaching me more about learning and my continuous process of learning-how-to-learn than the established "Western" approaches to adult learning did during my masters.
Given my view on coaching - that it is primarily about learning and growth, as opposed to solving problems - this is naturally having an effect on my practise as a coach as well as how I view the coaching and learning & development fields right now.
This is unexpected to say the least, because if you were to search, say for “Tai Chi and learning,” all you’d find is a load of results about how to learn Tai Chi. Nothing on how it can inform learning itself. So what is going on here?
My discomfort about learning in coaching
In brief, I think that coaching, adult learning and development as they are today, typically represent narrow views of learning which are ultimately limiting, not only for coaches, but for clients too. I feel stifled by much of what is out there in the mainstream. This is especially the case when it comes to topics influencing the fore-front of coaching; for example, the contemporary complex, volatile, uncertain, and ambiguous world that we're figuring out how to navigate right now (there is an increasingly popular term for this called VUCA). I don't think 'VUCA' is anything new, just that there's more of an awakening to the reality of things!
There are other discomforts niggling away at me too.
One of these is "Leadership Development," which has really grown during the last 25 years or so. Despite its growth I struggle to find inspiring examples of leadership out there in these circles. Worryingly, there's been recent focus, lauding leadership born out of the microcosm that is Silicon Valley - do we really want or need this kind of leadership perpetuated around the world?
Then there is what appears to be a rise in mental and physical health and wellbeing issues at all strata. In my son's primary school, for example, the school nurse told me that her current no. 1 reason for referral was anxiety. I’ve lost count of the number of senior people I’ve come across that have had their own blips or more serious history along the road. This rings some alarm bells for me.
Given that we live in a coaching world that appears to provide more 'solutions' than ever, something doesn't seem to be firing quite right.
In my view these issues are interconnected.
I wonder how much of it has got to do with a question of whether we're actually learning, or not.
One issue I see is that there’s too much focus on technique (including skills, capabilities, competencies, and process) when it comes to both personal and professional development, especially within business contexts. I question how far this can take anyone. I find myself particularly interested instead in what lies beyond technique, in the realm of artistry and aesthetics.
By artistry and aesthetics, I broadly mean the nature people demonstrate when they're doing something they shine in doing. There is a certain quality about them; a naturalness, an inherent beauty, rhythm and flow, and an appropriateness to their activity and how they handle themselves. These are qualities that I think apply to an enthralling musician through to a barrister who knows how to navigate the law and play to the courtroom, to a programmer creating new software, or an executive making decisions. But equally and just as importantly it applies to the mundane like someone walking down the road, or cleaning a house, doing the gardening.
Aesthetics I also apply to an awareness of self, how a person experiences themselves doing what they're doing, whether they're considered to be good at it or not, and any associated sense of the learning process - there's beauty in this too.
In my journey within coaching and learning, this is where the underlying philosophy and principles of Tai Chi stand out for me in valuable ways. Tai Chi is highly technical but it isn't just about learning techniques, its process takes the player beyond technique into a realm of artistry and aesthetics both in terms of experience, action, and probably most importantly, learning. There is also a consistency across all classical Chinese thought about striving (or not striving, depending on who you read) for achieving aesthetics in daily life. Tai Chi provides a systematic method of putting this into practise in practical and wide ranging ways.
So with these thoughts in mind, I felt compelled to do a little exploration with you here on the good coach about this.
What is Tai Chi?
Tai Chi Chuan is mostly known as a mind-body exercise that used to be a martial art. It still is a martial art, if that's how you choose to practise it, mind you. As a mind-body exercise, it has been studied for its benefits, which are far reaching. A recent article in TIME Health suggested that Tai Chi could be as good for you as cross-fit (http://time.com/4758683/tai-chi-exercise/).
Unfortunately, Tai Chi has also been labelled as a mindfulness exercise (http://www.drdansiegel.com/blog/2014/04/15/how-to-bring-presence-into-our-modern-digitized-world/), which is a bit misleading. It could be better known perhaps as a mind-less activity as it is less about the mind (in the Western sense anyway). Instead it is about exercising the parts of us our mind cannot reach (or in cases such as breathing, shouldn't be trying to mess with in the first place). In most instances, the mindfulness aspect of Tai Chi represents a simplistic overlaying of the reduced Buddhist type Mindfulness, or similarly that of Yoga, without considering its very different historical roots and philosophical foundations.
In totality, Tai Chi touches every part of us as well as our connection with our environment. In doing so it can help us to learn how to learn and subsequently to learn how to deal more effective with the chaos of life.
What is learning?
I’ve decided to take the broad view here. Knud Illeris (Illeris, K ed. Contemporary Theories of Learning, 2009, Routledge) defines learning as:
"any process that in living organisms leads to permanent capacity change and which is not solely due to biological maturation or ageing.."
In terms of learning processes, he goes on to say that:
"all learning implies the integration of two very different processes, namely an external interaction process between the learner and his or her social, cultural or material environment, and an internal psychological process of elaboration and acquisition."
"It is also important to mention that each dimension includes a mental as well as a bodily side. Actually, learning begins with the body and takes place through the brain, which is also part of the body, and only gradually is the mental side separated out as a specific but never independent area or function."
Jarvis (in Illeris, K ed. Contemporary Theories of Learning, 2009, Routledge) defines learning as:
"the combination of processes throughout a lifetime whereby the whole person – body (genetic, physical and biological) and mind (knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, emotions, beliefs and senses) – experiences social situations, the perceived content of which is then transformed cognitively, emotively or practically (or through any combination) and integrated into the individual person’s biography resulting in a continually changing (or more experienced) person."
In describing the learning process Jarvis says:
"the person is both mind and body. All of our experiences of our life-world begin with bodily sensations. These sensations initially have no meaning for us as this is the beginning of the learning process…in the first instance experience is a matter of the body receiving sensations, e.g. sound, sight, smell and so on, which appear to have no meaning. Thereafter, we transform these sensations into the language of our brains and minds and learn to make them meaningful to ourselves"
Firstly, I think that the mode of learning currently dominating coaching as well as mainstream learning and development is what Illeris calls "an internal psychological process of elaboration and acquisition." This is pretty much established cognitive and behavioural approaches to learning. This may be okay, and valuable, but only under some limited circumstances.
Secondly, it seems to me that despite these theorists acknowledging the body as somewhere in learning, it isn't quite clear where or how it plays its role. Nevertheless it's the mind that does the learning. The bodily stuff is merely the "physical and biological." The mind makes sense, or meaning, or reality which is the basis of learning. Basically the mind creates the world out of 'meaningless' input which comes through the body in the form of senses and stimulus.
But that's only if you consider the full gamut of experience to have no meaning until it's been processed by the mind or brain in particular mental ways.
The fact is however, that the above theories of learning simply hold narrow views of both what is meaningful and what constitutes processing.
A somewhat wider perspective of learning deals with felt experience. Phenomenology is one of these areas where the lived experience is explored, but it can obviously only access the parts of experience that make themselves available to this kind of exploration, where in coaching it becomes a process of translating the felt and lived experience into language, to make sense of it by talking about it; in essence we're back to making meaning in our mind and creating concepts upon which we hang our proverbial coats, even if we might be more open to acknowledging and feeling the body.
My opinions of the emerging embodied or somatic coaching and learning approaches are similar in that whilst they do indeed get us more in touch with the body, and our felt experience, they’re typically aimed at processing this experience through our minds so that we can become aware of and change the stories we’ve written about ourselves, in part by gaining awareness of how the body responds to the things we’re going through in our daily lives. For example, one learns to respond differently to being grabbed (either physically or metaphorically) by using techniques to centre the mind first, followed by the body. So, it kind of goes back to the mind...
Bridging the learning gap with the body
What I am learning from Tai Chi, which is missing from almost all theories of learning, is the body in its fullest glory. This is a body, mind and environment which are inseparable, but also how systematic yet natural movement or stillness of the body, together with the mind, create a deeper in the world meaning that has more flow to it and can be less fixed. From here we can not only soak up existing knowledge but create entirely new knowledge (new knowledge is also an unfilled space in learning theory so maybe I need to rename my piece to 2 unfilled gaps!)
Based on the underlying Chinese philosophy, Tai Chi's view of the person, the mind and body, and their relationship with the environment turns things on their heads. How we experience and make sense of the world is seen as primarily through active physical experience. So this means using the active body as an integral part of making meaning and thus learning. It easily accepts the whole spectrum of experience as inherently meaningful, including all the parts of experience that our minds cannot grasp, translate into language, conceptualise, or rationalise. In this way Tai Chi opens up an entirely new world of experience to be played with in learning.
This isn't to say that in the eyes of Chinese philosophy we don't use mind and reason in making sense of the world. In fact, classical Chinese philosophers have been through various debates about this over 2000 years ago (Graham. A. C. (1989) Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. Open Court Publishing Company), and rather than one view dominating another, the situation settled on a tension and harmony between them (some might argue that Confucianism/Taoism have rising to dominate). I think this is a useful facet of Chinese thinking, its syncretism. However, the overall result is that mind, body, activity and environment are all integral to the person, experience, and of course, their learning.
How a person reasons and makes sense of experience however, is rather different according to Chinese philosophy. Rising out of direct experience, it is done through imagery, analogy and metaphor. This is something that I began to experience during my masters when I began to actively engage in newfound qualities of experience - both mine and that of coachees - only to find that the only way I could adequately deal with it was through imagery and metaphor. This has only grown as my depth of knowledge of this domain of experience deepens through my practise of Tai Chi and how I then apply it within coaching contexts. In my view this invites a more artistic and aesthetic side of me to come to the fore and helps clients to enter this space for their benefit too.
So what do I mean by this?
Meaning, in a broader sense than the learning theories above, is comes through direct, bodily experiences which are inherently meaningful. The meaning of these experiences is derived from the associated feelings and senses together with our thinking and doing, indeed even down to how our thoughts feel. This meaning is shared through the imagery conjured up by the qualities of the experience together with the use of analogy and metaphor (see not only classical Chinese thought but also Mark Johnson, (2007) The Meaning of the Body, for example):
Take, for example, the common English phrase "boxed-in." The meaning for this arises not from some abstract definition but much more likely times spent playing as a child when they almost inevitably find a large box somewhere and crawl into it, perhaps to hide, or just to find out what it's like. I know I did this as a child and both my sons have done the same together with a whole load of their friends. So in future, when the phrase "boxed-in" is used, it's meaning is derived from the visceral experience of literally being boxed-in at some point. If we haven't had that specific experience perhaps we'd use an analogy of some experience that is like being boxed-in, maybe hiding in the broom cupboard or something. Later in life, we find ourselves in situations that illicit the prior felt experience.
Take now the meaning of freedom. As I think about this, my felt experience conjures up some interesting imagery which seems to tell me that my primary sense of freedom comes from living in the north of Sweden where I regularly spent time in what is Europe's largest remaining wilderness – so I feel some feelings that result in my mind seeing this amazing landscape which then affects me physically. Right now, this is physical freedom for me, but it also represents space to think as when I was younger I used to do the Swedish thing by getting away to our cabin for the summer holidays and spending time on my own. I learned a meaning of financial freedom when I lived and went to school in Geneva, Switzerland - I was literally surrounded by, and held by, an amount of wealth. I learned about some freedom of expression living with and socialising in more alternative social groups in England and London. My meanings of freedom arise thus from direct, physical activity within real-world environments, both social and natural ones. I know this because I am imbued by patterns of felt experience that provide this meaning.
What is most important, I think, and how Tai Chi influences this, is that the quality of my experience is in constant flux. In 20 minutes it will be different, as it will in 2 days and 3 years. So my meaning and experience of freedom will never be the same as in this very moment. I love this, but I’m also aware how threatening it can be when we hold beliefs about who we are and what things means to us, especially if they’re based in concept which has a tendency to ‘fix’ things.
Normally we’re trained to think that there is a ‘true’ self, an authentic me, that we have a particular way we learn, but this turns it on its head.
These patterns are examples of what I call felt experience. But this felt experience is not just within me it is inextricably linked to a wider, out there, environment. This experience provides me with an ‘aesthetic’ guidance in my life, together with a quality of artistry that shapes my approach to coaching. My world of coaching has become a rich ebb and flow of experience to guide what I do, how I learn, and more importantly how I’m continuing to learn how to learn by the day.
In my coaching I am currently putting together something, a kind of package the form of which I don't quite know yet, but based on providing broader learning experiences using the form and principles of Tai Chi combined with some Western adult learning methods to corporate clients. I’ll be writing a few more pieces on the subject going forwards about how this relates to my own practitioner development.
To connect with Simon Darnton
1. Illeris, K. (2009) Contemporary Theories of Learning, Routledge.
2. Graham. A. C. (1989) Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. Open Court Publishing Company.
3. Johnson,M. (2007) The Meaning of the Body. The University of Chicago Press.