Learning to Unlearn

Learning to UnlearnHere, at this late stage of life, I have come to realize I have been incorrectly taught at times, and I have improperly learned at others. Most often, we assume we learn incorrectly. We lay the blame on ourselves. However, even our instructors are human, and they suffer the same foibles as ourselves.

It is a common practice for instructors to find key phrases; consolidated thoughts to help a concept to stick. There is nothing wrong with this as a whole. The Wing Chun Kuen Kuit is that – concise words of wisdom as it relates to the practice of the art. The better phrases point to central concepts. When phrases point to small facets, they should be critically examined.

Sometimes a phrase is generated for a specific moment. If the phrase is well conceived, it sticks. However, the thought may be applicable only for that moment, though the stickiness of the phrase causes some people to apply it in general – as an overall philosophy or rule. I am quite guilty of this, both in terms of hanging onto erroneous phrases taught to me and of repeating these phrases, and generating new ones that should apply only to a specific situation, and should not be applied to the practice as a whole.

My thoughts have been floating around this problem for some time. However, I did not have anything firm to grasp hold of in order to solidify these concerns. Recently – finding myself in a more free learning state – I have been asked a few questions which have brought these thoughts into clearer focus.

A student asked (thank you Zach), “should you block with two hands?” Quickly I said, “Sure”. However, I recognized this was in direct conflict with a phrase I had been taught and used myself a thousand times, “Two hands touching one is a Wing Chun violation”. I learned that idea, and stuck to it like glue. I have passed on that thought with the full authority of instructor. The phrase is completely in error.

Think of Siu Nim Tao. The 5th and 6th movements of the Sau Bo (opening) are Seung Gon Sau and Seung Tahn Sau – double crossing Gon, double crossing Tahn. These are valid blocking techniques. They are some of the first moves taught to Wing Chun practitioners. Because they are in the opening movements, they may become downplayed, as if they are part of ceremony rather than practice. However, nothing is Siu Nim Tao is wasted. Every move counts for something.

I have been taught that weapons, such as the Baat Cham Do, are extensions of the hands; that what applies to one applies to the other. However, an edged blade can slash and cut, a hand cannot. It is, after all, the “8 Slash Way”. While many techniques may be similar, they cannot all be the same. Hand techniques seek the center or central lines – the body. It would be perfectly valid to slash off your opponent’s thumb, making that hand useless. What Wing Chun hand technique targets the thumb? Perhaps a Sot Sao if the thumb is extended, but we are generally taught to think about the body not the hand, so you have to admit there is a significant difference in the thinking process. As such, teaching that weapons are only extensions of our hands almost removes the advantage of the weapon, and moreover, plants that same thought in students to be perpetuated into perpetuity.

We apply great power to our instructors. They are only humans. The old adage, “Question Authority” should always be applied. That does not mean belittle or ridicule your instructor. It means ask questions about things do not seem to jive. Give the instructor the opportunity to determine where earlier teachings may be in conflict. Allow them to see the pattern they have created, and to adjust. A teacher is a guide, not an absolute. It is often said the student is the best teacher. Their mind does not have the erroneous phrases and stories locked in. They shed light on where the teacher was taught incorrectly or learned inappropriately. The teacher does, or should, know the techniques, though they may have also learned misleading phrases and teaching patterns. Question them. Get them to clarify. You will learn more, and the instructor will become a better teacher.

Sifu Keith Mosher

About Sifu Keith Mosher

My new book, "Astro Boy, Sensei, and Me" is available now, as is my Sci-Fi joy ride, "On a Sphere's Edge". I have a Bachelor of Media Arts degree from USC. I have been an Audio Producer / Engineer, a Law Office Manager, and I am currently an Author and a Martial Arts Instructor.
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