Burning to Earn

I still remember perhaps my first workshop with Ben Lo. It was near the start of my Tai Chi studies and I felt pretty good about what I was learning. I thought I knew the postures and the transitions for most of the Form, and was excited to be part of a large group workshop and “show my stuff”; ah, the innocence and arrogance of youth.

In reality, I knew very little. Yes, I knew the basics of many postures and roughly how to transition from one to the next. And I could name Mr. Lo’s five basic principles. But I had no concept of what those basic principles really meant. And while I could (and may yet) write many things about what I didn’t understand, one of the most basic was Ben’s saying of “No burn, no earn.”

Ben started with some background and descriptions of some of the key ideas, including his five basic principles. I recall thinking I understood what he was saying and being impatient to start doing things. After five or ten minutes of lecture, we ‘finally’ started at the beginning of the form. So there I was at the start, with somewhere around forty or fifty fellow students, working our way through the form under Ben’s watchful guidance.

Preparation had been ‘straightforward’. And Beginning had been ‘simple’, because I had no idea what ch’i was nor how it related to doing Tai Chi. My first inkling that this was going to be different than I expected was when we started the transition into Ward Off Left.

When giving a workshop, Ben would work through the form, including key ‘waypoints’ within transitions. So we shifted all our weight onto the left leg and turned ‘the waist’ (really the entire torso) as best we could to the right, turning out the right toes. And we held that position, fully on the left leg, while Ben walked around providing guidance, correction, and reminders. He didn’t make us hold it long. I think he was ‘easing us into it’. But it was probably at least a minute, as he went around and gave guidance and correction to some individuals.

I was determined to do a good job, and refused to stand up, despite growing ever more tense from my already tense starting point. We made the transition into the right leg, and again held it while some corrections were given throughout the room. We continued in this fashion until we reached Ward Off Left. I was already sweating (a clear sign I wasn’t doing Tai Chi). I tried not to think about how I would survive the remaining hour and a half, much less the rest of the workshop.

And then the real work began. When we were in postures, Ben gave correction based on his keen assessment of what would be most beneficial for each person. He moved quickly, but with forty or fifty people it was still something like five minutes of holding for each posture. I remember at first being slightly disdainful of people who had to take a break, prompting one of his well-known phrases: “Don’t stand up.” That quickly evaporated as I found myself struggling to hold postures and work through transitions. Eventually, I had to stand up, though I lucked out and a number of other people did so at the same time, prompting Ben to tell us all to take a short break. That was the first time I stood up, but not the last. It was a deep blow to my pride and sense of accomplishment as the workshop continued.

I fundamentally didn’t understand this process, and at the time I was angry and frustrated. How could he expect us to do what he was asking? It was clearly unreasonable if not impossible! Those other people who were holding were cheating somehow! It was only years later that I started to understand what Ben was teaching us. Ben even explained it to us during his workshops, but I wasn’t ready to hear it.

Tai Chi is an incredible art with many benefits. But gaining those benefits requires investment. It requires spending time in practice, working on the principles to achieve results. And this means spending time with the legs, usually one leg, doing lots of work (yet not overly tense) while we keep the rest of the body fully relaxed, upright, and with an integrated torso. This is what Ben meant by one of his other well-known phrases: “No burn; no earn.” This is what Cheng Man-ch’ing meant when he wrote “Do not fear bitter work.” And the work is not easy, especially at the beginning when it can feel like very bitter work indeed.

But it is not all bitterness. We earn benefits when we learn to relax, to accept where we are rather than where we wish to be, to let go of our preconceptions and spend time investing in Tai Chi, accepting that it is work but not wasted work. Doing this, we can reap benefits without resorting to frustration and anger to cope and evade. And that is perhaps the most important lesson of all.

† If you have questions about Chinese terms used, you may find About Chinese Terms helpful.

This is part of Thoughts on Tai Chi, a collection of writings exploring various aspects of Tai Chi. If you know someone who would enjoy reading it, please forward it to them.

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