My teacher says you need three things to learn:
1. A teacher
You know, a teacher whose knowledge you have faith in. A teacher you stay in contact with. Someone you really consider to be your teacher. It's possible to have more than one of these, but at least one is needed for in-depth learning.
The written preservation of knowledge. When my teacher says texts, he is talking about old texts. When we talk about old texts in relation to Thai medicine, I should note that traditionally one way that knowledge was passed on and maintained, was that students would copy, by hand, their teacher's texts. This served a dual purpose; students would deepen their learning, and in a tropical climate that eats books (parchment, palm leaves etc.), it was a way of always renewing the text. Because of this, the words in Thai medical texts are often much older than the paper by which historians may date their age. I've done my best with my books to present information as taught in the old texts, because I know that most of my western Thai massage community does not have the ability to read the old Thai medical texts.
3. Personal experience and the revelation it leads to.
In other words, practice practice practice. There is a level of understanding when our teacher shows us something. Then there is a level of understanding as we mimic it. At this point, we often think we know the thing. But then with practice comes the new understanding, the subtle knowing, the shifting revelation.
My teacher says there is a prescribed way of being a good student:
First, you must listen to what your teacher is teaching. At this point, you do not ask questions.
Next, you think about what your teacher taught you, perhaps you practice too; you try it out.
After thinking and trying, if you still have questions, then you go to your teacher and ask your questions.
Then you listen again. Think and ponder and practice again. Return with questions again.
Things I say to my students about learning Thai medicine:
• When you enter a classroom, leave your prior training at the door with your shoes. Not just your Thai massage training, but your Chinese medicine training, your Ayurvedic medicine training, your culturally infused western biomedical understanding; leave it all there by the door with your shoes. It will be there for you to pick up again on the way out. For now, clear your mind and come listen.
• When you are with one teacher, be with that teacher. Don't sit around with other students having conversations in front of your teacher about studying with other teachers. Especially if the teacher you are with is a Thai teacher in Thailand; recommending other teachers inside of another teacher's classroom is considered extremely rude. It is also taking everyone away from being present with the learning at hand.
• Do not challenge, undermine, or try to one up your teacher. This isn't only for the sake of politeness, although of course that is a factor. It is because when you do this, you injure the other student's experience. Faith in a teacher is important for learning, so if you deliberately weaken a teacher, you do not only undermine that teacher, but you undermine the other student's ability to learn and benefit from the class. I am not saying that you shouldn't have a critical mind, and I am not saying that we should have blind faith in every teacher we encounter. Not by a long shot. But ask your questions mindfully. Test the information mindfully. Wear your student hat, even if you yourself, are sometimes a teacher.
• Books, in Thailand, are considered sacred objects. This is because they contain words, and words are sacred. If you are in a Thai classroom in Thailand, or studying in the west with a teacher who has spent enough time in Thailand to develop some Thai sensitivities, do not step over books. Try to keep them off the floor, but if they are there, treat them as sacred. On a side note, your mouth is also a sacred place, because words come out of there. Knowing this gives me pause about what words I choose to speak.
• In the beginning, when you are new to Thai bodywork, you will learn dozens of new techniques in each class you take. Then, as you become more experienced, there will be less new "moves" to learn in each class, and you will move on to a different level of learning, in which you seek quality more than quantity. When I take a class now, if I walk away with ONE new piece of information that will become a part of my healing arts repertoire, that will help to alleviate suffering in those I encounter - even if it alleviates the suffering of only one person, then I consider that class a success. Keep this in mind as you move through the world of Thai healing arts training - ultimately it's not about dozens of fancy acrobatics and tricky body dances. It's about anything that alleviates suffering; for that is what our practice is about.
• If you are a teacher, as many of my students are, then every class you take becomes a double class. Every class is both a class on the curriculum subject, but also a class on teaching. As teachers we learn from one another. Even the worst class is a fantastic learning ground for a teacher. I have avoided at least some teacher pit falls because I watched other teachers fall into them in front of me, and I took notes thinking "be careful of this". I am equally indebted to those teachers as I am to the ones who inspired and taught me great things about teaching. Perhaps I am even more indebted to the ones who fell in front of me, as theirs were the harder lessons to teach. I can only hope that if I have fallen in front of you, it was an excellent learning moment.
• Do not cling to knowledge. We are always learning. And the subject that we study in particular is one that is still brand new to the western world. We have so much more to learn, and much to unlearn. It can be particularly difficult to let go of understanding once we have written about it or taught others, but fluidity is necessary in this field because so much has been unknown, so much guessed at, and so much lies before us in the evolution of revelation.
• Be kind to one another. This one goes especially to the Thai massage teachers. There is so much meanness in the Thai massage teaching community, fueled by competition. So much undermining and one upping of one another in public spaces like Facebook. It's often disguised as "friendly debate" or sharing of information, but if you look closely, it's usually teachers hurting one another. Remember the Buddhist precept of using your words harmoniously. Remember that people are keeping roofs over their heads, food in their children's bellies, and caring for their aging parents; do nothing to hurt someone else's businesses, for in doing so we are not being in the healing arts; instead we are creating suffering. Remember that ultimately we are a family - somewhere along the line, your teacher's teacher's teacher's teacher, is the same person. Somewhere along the lineage connect the dots, we become lineage siblings.
• And, to everyone new to learning something, as we all are from time to time, I tell this story:
When I was in my late teens, I was struggling to learn something and feeling frustrated. A man who was known in my town as being slightly crazy, but friendly and harmless, saw me and said to me "relish your novicehood; you only have it once". I think this every time I am struggling to learn something (which is most of the time really). Relish your novicehood.