#14: Two steps forward – One step back

Anyone who has attempted to master Tai Chi, an instrument, a sport, or their life has experienced the phenomenon known as ‘Two steps forward – One step back’. This can be very discouraging, as we somehow expect consistent progress. We feel that we should never lose ground physically, emotionally, or spiritually when the facts continually indicate otherwise.

A Mathematical Model

Below is a graph of a 4th Order Root Being. With each iteration (repetition, practice session) he gets closer and closer to his goal, which is the fourth root of some number (towards the right on the horizontal X-axis). Note that the progress, while continuous, is very erratic. As such this journey mimics the Quest for Mastery. Let’s see what we can learn from the Root Being.

Our Root Being, which we will personify as a he, is proceeding towards 0 (nothing, emptiness, the Void). This is the difference between his approximated value and the real root – the actual and the idealized value. Note that he will never get there, although he can get very close (as the vertical Y axis is logarithmic with each consecutive level an order of magnitude smaller than the previous – 1/10, 1/100, 1/1000, etc.). In terms of the mathematical metaphor we can approach perfection, mastery, or the void, but we will never get there.

The Inevitability of Regression

Note that regression inevitably follows progress. Some of the deep insights take the Root Being nearly two orders of magnitude closer to his goal, but then he immediately falls back. How discouraging! – even though he is closer than he had been before the leap forward. While loving the ‘Two steps forward’, we hate the ‘One step back’.

Why is it natural to progress irregularly? With more effective or perfect practice is it possible to move continuously forward – perhaps even retaining the tremendous leaps forward? Let’s further explore the innate nature of our True Root Being. (Note that there are an infinite number of True Root Beings that behave similarly. [Pictures of other True Root Beings]. However there are infinitely more Bogus and False Root Beings that seem to approach perfection, but get stuck, veer off, or oscillate erratically, depending upon circumstances – the vagaries of day-to-day life.[Pictures of Bogus Root Beings])

Balancing Multiple Factors

Under closer examination (revealed in Science Notebook #23) the 4th Order Root Being must balance 4 factors in order to progress – for instance hand position, feet position, continuous motion and relaxation in Tai Chi – rhythm, technical precision, phrasing and music with the mastery of an instrument – or ego destruction, body work, opening the heart, and social involvement in our quest for Self-Actualization. The ultimate goal is to integrate each of these factors more and more completely with each practice session (although never reaching perfection).

Differentiation Precedes Integration

However prior to the integration of Water comes the differentiation of Fire. Each of the elements must be focused on individually before it’s possible to combine them in the One. Indeed if any of the five elements are corrupted the One is also corrupted. Hence to reach the One it is essential to focus on the individual factors until they are incorporated in the Body – occurring naturally – perhaps due to moving it from the frontal cortex, which must be constantly refreshed, to the cerebellum, which is automatic.

Some Factors Improve, as Others Degenerate

Anyway due to the fact that we can only focus on one task at a time we must allow the rest of the constantly changing factors to degenerate, as we work on the component that has captured our attention. This means that everything else will regress to allow the crucial factor to progress – Sacrifice for the good of the Whole. In music or Tai Chi this means that it is appropriate and necessary to tackle a new piece or new form, while expecting that the precision of the prior forms will erode. To think otherwise is fool oneself. This is why it is necessary to constantly refresh the forms with personal attention or instruction.

The Spiral of Fire and Water

This is the one of the points of the following dialogue. (June 9, 2002 Transmission)

Master Ni: “Counting hard. Waste much energy.” Gesturing with his hand that the energy goes up from his stomach and out his mouth.

Me: “Counting important for students.”

Ni: “Important for Teacher, too.”

Me: “The square in the circle.”

Ni: “Square is interrupt.”

Me: “Very difficult.”

Ni: “Interrupt is hard for me, too. But important for Beginners.”

Me: “Important for advanced students too.”

Ni: “Also teacher.”

Me: “Keeps the advanced students honest.”

Ni: “Keeps teacher honest, too.”

Me: “Difficult to be honest.”

Ni, now with fire in his eyes: “Honesty is the most difficult - for the father, the student, the teacher, the politician. They take money.”


Although it seems that the Master has perfected the forms, they are constantly degenerating. This is why it is necessary to constantly review and refresh the forms to keep the students and the teacher on track. In the above example it means to break down the form into its components again. From integration to deconstruction and back again – the spiral of Water and Fire – the consecutive application of one and then the other to move ever closer to mastery.

Embrace Regression as the only Way

This natural process is inexorable. There is no need to fight, resist or beat ourselves up over the regression. It will only waste valuable time and energy, which will take us further from the goal. Something never leads to Emptiness. Regression is the only way. Avoidance leads to stagnation.

It is the hope that these few predictions about the Quest for Mastery might be helpful to those on the Path. This includes anyone who is attempting to perfect a talent or themselves. Either will take the purification of mind and body through self-reflection and physical practice.


Home  Tai Chi Page  Tai Chi Excerpts  Chinese Alchemy  Tao of China