Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Freedom To Be The Worst

This blog only makes sense if you know that I was always at the top of my class. From kindergarten on I was a driven little over-achiever- straight A's, perfect test scores, homework complete, all assignments on time. Oh eventually there were less than perfect projects and tests, and I learned that life did not end and I would not annihilated if I made a mistake. Still, I preferred to do well at everything, just in case- which meant of course, that I wasn't too keen to try things at which I did not naturally excel.

So, I am thrilled to announce that I have joined a class where I am (and will no doubt remain for quite some time) the worst student. It's a Tai Chi sword class.

I've wanted to take this class for awhile, primarily because one of the characters in my novel is an expert swordswoman. I figured I should at least get a feel for moving with a sword if I am going to describe her experience. Oh, I admit, I have had some not-so-secret fantasies of moving like the women in the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (the only martial arts movie I've ever seen) but I have enough sense to know they are just that- fantasies.

The class has about twenty participants. Most have clearly done a lot of Tai Chi and Kung Fu. I took three Tai Chi classes twenty-five years ago. Some of the folks in the class know the sword form itself, which is good because I can watch and follow them, albeit without much finesse and often too slowly not to be a menace to the people around me. Happily the swords are wood and the others seem to have an excellent spatial sense so I have neither been hit by anyone else nor accidentally swiped anyone myself.

I didn't see the notice for the class until two of the seven sessions had taken place. It's probably just as well. Starting late dissolved all hopes I no doubt would have had about "keeping up." I did two private sessions with the instructor so I wouldn't be completely lost, and those further helped me accept my novice status.

I don't remember being particularly bad at physical or athletic activities when I was a child. Until I hit puberty. At thirteen I grew to my current height of five feet nine inches and became all uncoordinated knees and elbows, a source of a great deal of amusement for my family. It was a happy day when I could drop PhysEd.

The sword classes are a workout, mentally and physically. (I am discovering muscles I apparently do not use very often.) In the midst of going through the movements again and again, I occasionally feel like my head will explode as I try to focus on the present moment form and move smoothly into the next move which I may or may not remember.

The other night, as I was moving through the class, working hard to remember which leg should be forward, I thought, "Wow, I would not have been able to do this twenty years ago, would never have been willing to look this bad at something." And suddenly, I was grinning as I moved from "Dragon Touches the Water" to "Big Chief Star." And I thought, "I am the worst in the class, and I'm okay with that!"

Being willing to be bad at something, to struggle with learning something, gives us incredible freedom that we do not have if we must always do well and/or look like we are doing well. It is, I believe, what stopped me from learning a second language when I was younger- there's just no way to do it without stumbling and getting it wrong in ways that are apparent to others.

Of course, I have to be careful not to get too attached to being the worst in the class. If I keep going- and I plan to- at some point, someone newer will come along and I will be neither the worst nor the best, will be what we are most of the time- someone muddling along in the middle, having moments when it all comes together, and moments when it all falls apart (sometimes because we have stopped being present and are busy congratulating ourselves on the brilliance of that grace-given moment where it all flowed so well.)

Learning to use a sword is broadening my ability to love it all: the effort sometimes required to learn and the grace of moments when the flow carries us; times that are the worst, the best, and the overwhelming number of moments somewhere inbetween.

Oriah (c) 2013


  1. Oriah, I, too was an over-achiever (okay, I still am!) -- so I understand fully. For me, the 'worst in class' moment came when I started taking Zumba. From Zumba, I have learned that I can humiliate myself in public on a regular basis and not die of embarrassment. I've also learned, from our wonderful Brazilian firecracker of an instructor, that it is okay to let yourself shine -- to be the best you can be and not worry that others might be thinking 'show-off!'

    Now to find out if sword t'ai chi is offered in our area -- it sounds fascinating!

    1. Love this- the freedom to be it all- the worst, the best or even. . . (dare I say it) mediocre! :-)

  2. So true… I remember taking a meditation course in which I was the worst person in the class. It didn’t matter whether it was Hindu or Buddhist, on-focus or mantra focus, I either fell asleep or made lists of what I needed to do after meditation was over.

    It was such a useful class I didn’t learn to meditate, but I understood the feeling of being the worst student in the class, and that helped my teaching develop deeper levels of empathy. I’d never the been the worst before…and it was a wonderful experience!

    1. Peter, for anyone who teaches this experience is invaluable- and benefits our students. And, I admit I have learned more from doing that which does not come easily- which is not to say I am wedded to learning things the hard way- only that I appreciate the awareness it requires and conjures. :-)

  3. Thank you Orion, I was a student of Aikido for several years and found myself jealous of the newcomer, of losing my ability to comfortably own the mistakes I made. Thinking I should now be an example to them, I could lose the joy of exploration.

    I a new instructor at a local community college and have had several days of disappointment with myself. I was told I needed to be “the expert” in the classroom, and falling short of this, my voice has shook, I have cried, and I have doubted my self-worth. A few weeks ago in need of inspiration I put up the words from your poem The Invitation, “…I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine…”, and today will make a painting honoring the pain of this experience and inviting myself to be with it, so I am ready to experience the next moment. The “expert” shoe does not fit, but I can still be the best I can be today. So much of my life has been dedicated to posturing, I don’t want to feel guilty about not being the “expert”. I have worked to be authentic and honest, thank you for reminding me of the value in that discipline, accepting my failure to meet expectations, and widening my circle of compassion.

    1. Melinda- it strikes me that there is more than one way to teach a class, and that you may be finding your way- and in this case, it is not by taking on the role of "expert." On the other hand you clearly must have some level of expertise or you would not be teaching. Sometimes hard to find our own way with these things- but it sounds like you will find what fits in as classes proceed.