Sunday, April 10, 2011

The How and Now of It All

I am a dog. No more no less.
I eat when I’m hungry. I sleep when I’m tired.
I know how to sit. I know how to wait.
When I must, I walk on a leash.
When I can, I race through the fields.
When I am hurt, I lick my wounds.
When I die, I will wander alone into the woods.
I love my people faithfully. Especially the child.
I am the child’s teacher. I teach by example.
I am a canine Zen Buddhist master.
I am absolutely me
(Dog, John Heider)

In grad school, once per semester, we clinicians-in-training were ‘compelled’ to take ancillary courses from parallel areas of psychology (always arcane, in our practical, young minds and invariably taught by the ‘rat-runners’) that would ensure that we popped out the other end well rounded practitioners. Cognitive Processes was one such course. As the title might imply, the course’s emphasis was more on how our thinking process worked; than on what we might use our wonderful brain for. Our professor, an eccentric and seasoned field researcher, had before him the formidable task of convincing this cynical and cocky group that something else in the study of human behaviour mattered besides diagnosing and treating the aberrations of our species. His opening gambit was the telling of his time spent with a remote Inuit community in his early research of linguistics and the influences that affect the development of language. He describes handing a sophisticated, but broken camera (obviously from the era of mechanical, not digital technology) to a few of the elders conveying only that it wasn’t working properly. Without benefit of having seen such a device previously or indeed even sure what its purpose might be, the men carefully proceeded to dismantle the camera and eventually identified the malfunctioning components. The story, truth or urban legend (how else was he to get and hold our attention?) has remained with me a wonderful illustration of the importance of process over purpose. In the cliché, the value of the journey over the destination.

As a gentle reminder of this long-ago learned lesson, I had lunch this week with a friend with a passion for ‘creating something unique’ and hence charged with the sole choice of ‘doing things from scratch (think Martha Stewart with an accounting degree – want eggs over easy for breakfast; buy a chicken ranch). Conversation turned to a canoe-building project, now several months in, and its most recent ‘phase’ – the seat and cross-member structure and design. Greg described in detail the sketching out of various colour combinations for the seat webbing (‘just to see what the visuals would be’); then carefully measuring (and re-measuring) the lengths to order. He recounted his attendant frustration when, the seats partly woven, he discovered ‘too much of one; not enough of the other’ – and his awareness that he’d inadvertently reversed his order and would ‘now have to live with the inverted pattern’. He detailed the steps involved in shaping the yolk so that it would conform to his own shoulders, ground and ultimately carved and sanded smooth from laminated blocks of wood. And finally, his plan to create a unique ‘pin-striping’ motif running the length of the canoe’s outer surface; and consisting of inlaid contrasting cedar and ebony woods configured as an elongated sine wave. Throughout his account, there seemed to be a subtext of what I could only interpret as sadness, despite the obvious satisfaction and enthusiasm associated with the project itself. Its source – a comment from his wife (who incidentally is awaiting the completion of a ‘from scratch’ bathroom): “Not sure why all the effort – you probably won’t even use it when it’s done; too afraid of getting a scratch on it!” And the clincher: “What do you think we could sell it for?”

Represented in the above exchange are two polarities: one invested in the process, the creation of a unique piece of art, the acts of conceiving, designing, and constructing becoming ends in themselves. The second, and sadly the dominant perspective in our culture: the product; focusing on the functional item that ‘pops out the other end’ – a vessel, useful only to the extent that it floats, is capable of carrying us from point A to point B, and, in this case, possesses ‘value’ – the intervening time and care between project’s inception and product’s emergence measured with impatience, time to be minimized and care to be cost-effective.

Insight meditation has as one of its essential parameters a repeated return to ‘the present moment’ – in essence, an engaging of process and what’s going on right now! This is not to say that goal setting, having a destination in mind, or planning one’s day are activities to be discouraged. They do, however, contain the seeds of distraction and ought not to displace our investment in the immediate, the now. Inevitably questions that are framed in terms of ‘what’ and ‘why’ tend to be associated with a product / outcome approach. What is this thing (a camera); why waste so much time building (a canoe) when Canadian Tire has a perfectly good aluminium one that will float and is cheaper and can be had today. Our dog, our Inuit elders, our canoe builder are not particularly concerned with purpose. What something is for, what it will get us, why we’re engaged in something are of secondary importance to the activity itself – even if it’s sitting around with one’s eyes closed and focusing on one’s breath. Right down to building a better tea cozy – but that’s another story.

1 comment:

Wilf said...

I agree with your points, David.
If only I could be satisfied with the process of giving and living well rather than what others thought about my choices, I would be a much happier and balanced ( more humble) person.