Albert Einstein graffiti

Make it New: The Art of Unlearning (taiji)

‘Make It New’ is a slogan widely attributed to Ezra Pound and assumed to be one he used to lead the charge for the modernist literary movement of which he was a champion. But the phrase is very old:

There is nothing new under the sun.’

Ecclesiastes 1:9

‘Behold, I make all things new.’ 

Revelation 21:5

So, let’s renovate taiji! 

Dr Chi told his students to practice taiji 24/7 – and this for me means unlearning and relearning how I do everything: eating, sleeping, walking, talking, brushing my teeth, tying my shoes, digging at the allotment… Everything! 

There are seven learning styles: 

  • Visual (Spatial)
  • Aural (Auditory-Musical)
  • Verbal (Linguistic)
  • Physical (Kinesthetic)
  • Logical (Mathematical)
  • Social (Interpersonal)
  • Solitary (Intrapersonal)

How do you learn?

One of the most important forms of growth is unlearning. All learning we do, in a sense, involves unlearning. The more we can unlearn, the more likely we are to experience the sense of growth and progress we so desire. Much of our learning has happened almost subconsciously through repetition until habits form. Some of our habits we may want to keep and some we may need to change. A few of our habits cause problems so deeply rooted they are resistant to change:

‘You cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that created it.’

Albert Einstein

Like Einstein, I have a learning disability – dyslexia – and didn’t learn to read until I was eighteen. Before learning to read, I had to unlearn a plethora of attitudes and assumptions I had picked up from my parents and teachers:


Like a baby bird in the nest,
 I was fed the lie Mother knows best.

 Daddy had some persuasion too.
 I'd do whatever he wanted me to.

 When I'd learned more than they both knew,
 I looked to my teachers for what was true.

 Their favourite words were Don't and No,
 so how could I tell which way to go?

 I asked friends and enemies, loved and loathed.
 Not one shed light on the right road.

 That task was mine and mine alone,
 a skill I was never taught how to hone.

 Now I practise Yes, Do, and Try.
 Sometimes I fall, but sometimes I can fly.

Linda France 
from You are Her (2010)

Maybe I’m still playing catch-up trying to re-learn what I never learned as a child.  I keep failing more or less, even though in my head I know that less is more.  For years I’ve been trying to learn and practice the precept: Be More Do Less.  

The problem with having learned taiji from so many different teachers has been the problem of unlearning with each new teacher. The only way I know to make it new is to make it my own. Unlearning taiji or any other skill or game or craft or habit is like the metaphor of the raft.  You need the raft to cross the stream, but you don’t need to pick it and carry it with you once you’ve arrived on the other shore.

Things I Learned Last Week*

A man from Palo Alto knows
 how to smile for a camera.

 My son only wants to be
 with his girlfriend.

 Pigs don’t eat lemon and orange peel,
 broccoli nor chocolate.

 When Autumn Equinox and Jewish new year
 happen together
 light and dark are in balance and I perform Tashlich
 the ritual of tossing stale bread in a stream
 while saying what I leave behind from last year.

 The familiar language of pigs
 is easy to understand.

 Some of us believe
 that to leave a toilet seat up
 when not in use will drain energy
 and lose you money.

* title of a poem by William Stafford

What did you learn last week?  I learned that if you want to stay sharp, stand up every 15 minutes. I found this statement in a book called Staying Sharp which gives ‘9 Keys for a youthful brain … ’:

‘A strong memory and a healthy brain aren’t as difficult to maintain as one might think; combining the latest neuroscience research with age-old wisdom about resilience, mindfulness, and stress reduction, Drs Henry Emmons and David Alter show that vibrant aging is within reach. Together they demonstrate how to blend the best of modern science and Eastern holistic medicine come together to form a powerful drug-free program to maintain a youthful mind and a happy life.’

One of the best ways to learn or unlearn comes from the Samuel Beckett’s famous edict: 

fail fail again fail better

William Stafford – former American poet laureate – wrote a poem every day for over fifty years. When interviewed and asked how he managed that feat he replied simply: ‘Some days I lowered my standards.’ Combining Stafford with Beckett I wrote this:


After William Stafford and Samuel Beckett

try then fail
try again
fail again
now lower your standards
then try again
fail better
try again harder
fail safer
try one more time
fail much better
now lower your standards
even further

My last film offering for these CLANGERS is called TeSlagi. That’s probably not how you spell it. I learned this form from the EHAMA people. Once learned, I made it my own by slowing the movements to the pace of a natural breath – rising on the in-breath and lowering on the out-breath – making TeSlagi a qigong exercise as well as a mini vision quest for the day. When I perform this ritual which I do most days at the end of a period of taiji practice, one of my intentions is to learn something new today. Try it. Change it. Make it your own.

Today I’m going to learn a little more about White Supremacy & Me

Larry Butler

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