Sunday, January 29, 2012

Patience, Perfection, and an Excellent Cuppa

Let's make tea. A mug, a bag, some (sorta) hot water. Pour last into first and drag the middle one thru' it. Or. 'Hot the pot'; discard (water, not pot); place bag(s) in warmed pot and cover with freshly boiled water; wait a short while; then top up with appropriate quantity of boiled water; wait five minutes (or so), allowing a steeping, an infusion of; remove bag(s) and cover pot with cozy. What's the diff? Well, it depends. Tea is tea (well, even that's not a true statement). What it can and may become, however, is a function of the process, timing, intention, and . . . patience.

My waking conversation with my wife today (she'd been up for a few hours already!) began with an invitation to 'read this sentence': as it turns out, a rather long, grammatically complicated (but still quite precise and seemingly complete) comparison of terms for musical scale relationships; and how, despite the detail, each failed to specify the form of the scale so described. (Not unlike the sentence you just successfully navigated -- possibly.) There followed a re-reading, a pause, and then a three-word response: 'None articulates form'. 'Well, if that's all he's saying, why didn't he just say it!', came her somewhat exasperated retort. I couldn't answer that one. But it did remind me of my process -- in this instance, how I read. . . and a wealth of other awarenesses that tumbled out as the conversation continued.

As a middle school student, I'd been identified as a 'slow reader'. This pronouncement was attended by much parental hand-wringing, enrollment in speed-reading courses, psychological assessment, and angst and envy on the part of the young student. In particular I envied my friend who could 'read a book a night'; and wondered how this was possible. (He also earned much lower grades than I did -- but I think may have had a better social life.) He confided at one point that he 'skimmed', aka, read down the centre of a page and skipped dialogue, picking up the 'gist' of the page, chapter, and evidently, book. I, by significant contrast, read each sentence, complete with punctuation and sometimes just marveled at the elegance of the construction. Two very different strategies, approaches -- with quite different outcomes (both favourable and less so).

My fondness for mathematical logic and Latin seemed to spring from similar seed. A quirk of the latter's 'normal' sentence structure is the placement of the main verb (which also contains the implied subject of the sentence) at the very end of the sentence. Far be it from me to speculate that Roman orators were passive-aggressively trying to slow people down a bit and compel them to listen to the whole sentence -- right to the very end -- but it is one possibility! Maybe I was just born 2000 years too late.

But back to my wife's morning studies. The broader topic, once we got past the convoluted language, was a comparison of different styles of practice. (Hmm, some possible overlap with tea and textbooks?) The pro's and con's of 'sight-reading' music were under examination, the particular author describing, this time very clearly, the seductive appeal of sitting down at the keyboard, cracking open a previously unseen score, and in 'no time at all', tickling the ivories in a good approximation of the tangle of notes on the page. His cautions were framed in terms of some familiar, mindfulness-based concepts: breadth of awareness of and attention to the present moment, discipline, and an internalizing of and more complete appreciation and learning of what, in this case, is being practiced or 'studied' -- achieved only by a 'sitting with' and allowing the material 'to steep'.

He lauds the proficient sight reader for his unique skill. But there are significant 'downsides', if you will. He is always 'one step ahead of himself' (of necessity playing one bar or measure while attending to the next). He is committing a good amount of his energy to on-the-fly decisions about what to leave in, and what he can 'safely' leave out (and accordingly, figuring how to cover up those, truth be told, flaws in the performance). And he is completely foregoing the hallmark of building a piece into one's repertoire -- transferring the piece, not just into the momentary 'performance', but into 'muscle memory', able to be pulled out days, weeks, years later, often without benefit of the score before him. Sounds a whole lot like my friend's 'reading' of books, the quickie cuppa that passes for tea -- but misses the essence. I am reminded of the student who crams for an exam, successfully earns his 'A', then moves on, quickly tiring of 'that old stuff', yesterday's news; and craving ever 'new and interesting' material to sate the appetite for novelty -- impatient, easily bored, restless.

A last word on the 'other side of the mountain'. Like any good cup of tea (ruined if the bags are left in too long), any thorough reading of a book (themes and metaphor lost to obsessing over analysis, detail), the specter of perfection lurks at the other end of the road, threatening to paralyze and block progress of any kind. If the speed/sight reader flies over material, missing its nuances and subtleties, the perfectionist lingers too long, worries things to death, experiencing what the economists are so fond of calling 'diminished returns'. I find patience, excellence are often most constructively thought about as being plotted along a curving path rather than a straight line (that steadily rises, the more time and energy spent). At one end we have the 'faking of', the approximation; at the other the fixation of the stuck perfectionist. In the middle, we have excellence with performance and practice peaking midway between the two.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Perfect Mistake

The self-contradictory title of this piece is a reworking of a book title that's been floating around the house for the past few months, an important addition to Nicola's library of musical reference material: The Perfect Wrong Note (and subtitled, Learning to Trust Your Musical Self). Intrigued, I'd turned to the chapter entitled A Guide to Healthy Practicing -- and was not a little surprised to find cited an old favourite of mine, Fritz Perls. Perls, variously considered as the father of Gestalt psychology, had a great deal to say about awareness and attending to the present moment. One of his many contentions is that our direction 'from here' (that is, from where we happen to be right now! ) is best determined by what's going on, again, right now; that the 'best' pathway is a fluid, shifting, entity; and not something that remains fixed, once determined. Ignoring the most current information about our present position is done at our peril.

Confronted with a set of steps, we intuitively raise our leading foot to accommodate the change in topography -- a self-evident adjustment that, executed seconds earlier, while crossing a flat floor would, at the very least look pretty weird. Pouring a beverage from its container is always a more successful endeavour if we've first placed a glass under the spout. What's going on right now, determines, at these rudimentary levels the success or failure of our decisions. So why abandon these instinctive truths in more complicated circumstances? Good question!

This being 'awake' to the present moment is sometimes referred to as the continuum of awareness; and may be defined as 'a flowing, nonjudgmental openness to events, . . an acceptance of how things really are (regardless of prior intentions)' (p. 77, Westney, Perfect Wrong Note). Bears a striking resemblance to Kabat-Zinn's definition of mindfulness practice: paying attention (in a particular way), in the present moment, non-judgmentally.

So what happens when we 'make a mistake', depart from the expected, hoped-for path, or, in Perl's or K-Z's terms, stop paying attention? I suppose it depends on the situation. A minor slip or trip and we 'wake up' pretty quickly, hopefully correct our balance (maybe look around to see if anyone noticed) and carry on, likely a bit more mindful of the unevenness of the terrain. A little more serious (say, if the balance doesn't get restored and we actually hit the deck) and the 'awakening' may take a bit longer, the resolve a bit more lasting. (I still recall, years afterward, taking a flyer off the top step of a concrete flight of stairs, having slipped on ice, landing very heavily on my backside -- ever so grateful to have it my gluteus maximus that took the impact rather than the back of my skull.)

But these are the physical manifestations. What might our responses look like if this was a 'mental slip'? Regaining our 'balance' becomes a bit more complicated -- but no less reactive or automatic. What happens when we're trying to concentrate or perform a task in a particular, desired way -- and have a distracted thought intrude, lose our concentration, or 'make a mistake'? We might become frustrated, feel disappointment. Perhaps rationalize ('well I am tired') or blame the situation, the surroundings, even our companions. We might launch into interpretation (the why's of the mistake) or analysis (not always a bad thing when determining where to go from here -- but one that does take us pretty quickly away from the present moment!). We might evaluate, judge (too often ourselves -- sliding into self-derogation, -criticism); depending on the perceived pressures and importance attached to the task, we might even panic. In one way or another, these are all automatic, reflexive responses -- and all ones that distance us from the 'data', compelling us to stop paying attention to what just happened. How novel would it be to ask the question: 'what's that about?' To, as the old saying goes, learn from our mistake. And just maybe foregoing in the process, the anxiety, anger, avoidance, confusion, distraction, or personalizing that too often accompanies unwelcome events, accidents -- mistakes!

Trusting the process, the maxim of Human Potentialists, a school of thought closely aligned with Gestalt, maintains that not only are these events, these mistakes, needing to be noticed -- but that they frequently represent the 'most important unfinished business' of the moment, surfacing to give us the opportunity to deal with them. And moreover, that failure to address this 'data' merely adds to our baggage, the thousands of unfinished, unresolved, unaddressed things that will re-visit until appropriately attended to. So why not now? 'Gitter done', in bumper sticker lingo! While we're engaged in any of the bolded responses (above) -- the 'that was so stupid' or the 'what's wrong with me, I know better' -- this internalized chatter moves us out of the present, into past rumination, future anxiety, freely associating our way right out of the here and now.

So the 'things happen for a reason' needlepoint on the wall is not necessarily an invitation to embark on a journey to find that reason. Finding the source of the Nile may have been an exciting and illuminating adventure -- but it didn't change the water as it flowed into Mediterranean. It may just be a cue to stay here, accepting and allowing what is . . . paying attention to the data, the 'perfect (and timely) mistake'.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sitting in a Group. . .in Silence

We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the centre hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we value.

Tao te Ching, 11.

Pay attention to the silence.
What's happening when nothing is happening in a group?
This is the group field.

Thirteen (or 30) people sit in a circle,
but it is the climate, the spirit in the centre of the circle where nothing is happening
that determines the nature of the group field.

People's speech determines the content.
But it is the silence, the empty space
that reveals the group's essential energy
Tao of Leadership, 11.

The second of these quotes was written twenty-five years ago by my longtime friend, John Heider. The first, by Lao Tzu, 2500 years ago! Truths endure. For twenty years I would happily make the trek to meet with my friend, once, occasionally twice a year, to participate in his ongoing groups. These travels took me to California, Florida, and more recently and enduringly, Kansas. And the question occurred more than once (even to me!): what's the magic that would take me thousand's of kilometers to sit for three, sometimes five or even seven days, in a circle of a dozen or so folks -- mostly in silence, just listening?

During our short feedback session, wrapping up Saturday's silent retreat of a few weeks ago, and hearing about the experiences of many of the participants, I was reminded once again that, indeed there is something very special about the group space. One can sit, eyes closed, breathing -- anywhere. One can walk slowly back and forth or round in circles -- anywhere. Or stretch. . . or balance. But something is different in the circle.

'Alone . . . but not alone' was the way in which one of us described her experience. Sitting in one's own, 'protected' space -- but surrounded by like-mindedness, experiencing a shared purpose, focus. Coming into a group, particularly a large and unfamiliar gathering, it's typically the uncertainties, the anxieties that dominate. One often feels alone . . . and most distinctly cut off from the other people. Perhaps this is projection -- but I don't think so. I frequently find myself, 'taking the temperature' of the assemblage, seeing where I fit in, wondering how I measure up, if I'll be accepted (or, in the catastrophic, ignored, even shunned). All distractions, usually contrived in my own apprehension; and certainly detracting from the experience. Being welcomed merely for walking into the room and sitting down is a unique experience.

Close beside this observation were various comments on the shift in the 'social climate' that many noticed. The ease of not talking leveled the playing field for some. Coming into a group, knowing few if any, often applies a particular and peculiar social pressure, amplifying one's natural style, temperament. The shy may become more withdrawn, awkward, uncomfortable; the gregarious, more ebullient, engaging, launching into hyper-social mode. We, in short become caricatures of ourselves, displaying only those extremes of our personality that, in more familiar conditions, have the 'corners rounded off' a bit. When 'small talk' becomes 'no talk', these extremes too are muted; the need, compulsion, reflex to participate thru' speech -- be it witty, sage, self-conscious, or forced (or, God forbid, boring!) -- is removed. And we can let go of the 'dance' that preoccupies and steals our attention.

Many commented on the 'life lessons' -- more life reminders -- arising from walking the labyrinth. Even the luxury that walking in silence affords, of noticing one's thoughts, feelings, sensations (good and bad -- if I'm allowed an evaluative comment) around the simplest of experience, proved to be something of a revelation for some. Impatience, frustration, a (social) sensitivity to 'holding things up' (and the ever in the wings, ever so Canadian apology for same); the urgency to finish, the delay in start, the 'should I pass or slow down' -- all were noticed. . . and quietly resolved or considered or just allowed. Action becomes reflection. 'Fixing', addressing becomes tolerance (maybe!). And we 'sit with' (or in this instance, walk with) a situation, waiting for it to evolve and change (as it most certainly will), released from the compulsion to act on it or even against it.

Metaphors presented to some. Observing the 'illusion' of being behind -- or ahead -- of another, as the labyrinth's track circled back on itself, changed direction, became more central or more peripheral. And applying that observation to the often 'competitive' value we take into life situations; the measuring of how I'm doing in a comparative way ("if I'm ahead of so and so, I must be OK, right?"); instead of the intra-individual (the within self) perspective. The luxury of going at one's own pace.

And finally, trust. Consider the last time you sat in a group of twenty-nine other people, awake and alert -- with your eyes closed, no need or expectation to explain or account for one's behaviour or choices.

I think I know why I found John's groups so compelling, such a pull. These values and others all lived in the 'hole at the centre', in the group field.

Monday, January 9, 2012

ADD? Just Maybe

So aren't we all just a little ADD (Attention Deficit Disordered)? Don't we all get distracted a little too easily and too often?

Let's just have a quick look at what the big, burgundy book (aka, the psychiatric, diagnostic manual, the DSM-IV, in polite professional company) has to say:

1. fails to pay close attention to details.
2. has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks.
3. doesn't seem to listen when spoken to.
4. doesn't follow thru' on instructions / fails to finish chores.
5. has difficulty organizing activities.
6. avoids or is reluctant to undertake tasks that require sustained effort.
7. often loses things necessary for tasks or activities.
8. is easily distracted by extraneous stimuli.
9. is often forgetful in daily activities.

Now, according to the Book, six or more of the above and you make the cut -- as it were. Let me just think back (if I could only remember) to my last meditation session. Planned a workshop for tomorrow, thought about when the timer was going to sound, ignored the dog barking (then was irritated by the dog barking), reminded self to remind self to take back the soup pot before I went to pick up granola at the Slow Food Market -- now was it this week they move to, oh, where was that new location . . . Hmm. Oh yeah -- breathe! I just may qualify!

The aforementioned workshop turns out to be a short chat about the benefits of a mindfulness practice with a group of teachers on their first day back after Christmas (is that OK to say?) break. As I began tossing around educator-relevant takes on my theme, a few things floated up during this morning's sit (in between returning to the breath, of course). Likely they're mostly new to the practice. So I needed a framework to orient my audience to this vast, varied, and largely misunderstood body of material. Glimmers of early creative writing tuition began to coalesce: Who, what, where, when, and why -- the critical elements of any good story.

What is mindfulness? Well my old standby, Jon Kabat-Zinn says it most succinctly: Paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Almost sounds like the flip side, the polar opposite of the 'accident waiting to happen' (aka, our ADD-afflicted candidate; namely, ME). To dissect Jon's definition a bit, the paying attention references the breath, the home base of most mindfulness practices. Something that's always with us, always available. All we need do is attend to it, notice it.

In a particular way: through a regular, mindfulness practice. The cultivation of the 'meditative habit' -- building in, as part of our daily routine, the room to sit quietly with the sole purpose of holding a focus -- and, as will happen time after time after time, gently ushering ourselves back to that focus once we wandered away. Each time we're distracted by some 'extraneous stimulus' (lest we forget number 8), noticing, observing that we've slipped away into some historic regret or some future fret, heard the dog bark, relived the emotional encounter with the 'goof tailgating us', felt the twinge in the lower back; and returning to our anchor, the breath. On purpose refers to the intention that we bring to a practice. Developing, enhancing our awareness of just how 'automatically' we typically go through our day -- reacting rather than choosing. Learning to relegate the automatic pilot to Air Canada and taking explicit hold of the controls. More the purposeful traveller, less the 'accidental tourist'.

And finally, in the present moment, without judgment. How much of our time is spent 'somewhere else' than where we are right now. And how eager we are to evaluate every experience, every encounter, to apply value label (good / bad, desirable / repugnant, appropriate / unsuitable).

Where, When. Largely your choice. In a quiet room, waiting at a traffic light, pulling weeds, doing the dishes; as a way to start your day or a contemplative period at the end of day's 'sentence'. In a group (lovely energy) or enjoying the solitude of time to oneself. No one right way, time, or place!

How (that would be the acronymic form of Who -- a little creative license). In a more formal practice, adopting a relaxed and alert posture; sitting on a straight-backed chair, a zafu (don't you just love that word: aka, a meditation cushion), cross-legged in a full lotus (long gone for this ADD soul!) Head, neck, back aligned to open the chest and facilitate breathing. Generally eyes closed (just less 'distracting'), adopting a mindset of acceptance and allowing of whatever is going on around us and in us -- physical sensation, emotional content, thoughts -- and taking our attention to the breath and where we most notice it.

And then the Why. The (hopelessly) glib response is 'just because'. One often begins with a 'reason for meditating' -- stress, poor sleep, mood or anxiety issues, nagging or chronic pain, a scattered mind, addiction -- but soon discovers that mindfulness is less a 'tool' and more a process, a habit. Meditating with a purpose, an identified end in mind is rather like exercising only to lose weight. Only when the means (sitting regularly) becomes the end, does the end become accessible -- more a side effect, a consequence of the practice than a goal to be attained.

But I've gotten off track -- distracted, one might say. It occurred to me, as I sat this morning, that there just might be some benefits to the charges of the teachers with whom I was going to be chatting. That just maybe, with ADD being identified with alarming frequency (not to mention the plethora of other challenging childhood issues in need of addressing before one can actually get down to the business of teaching -- the bullying, the poor self-esteem, the flagging self-discipline, the stress of being a child, to name a few), there may be some benefit in having 'my students' do what they are naturally trained to do: teach. No better way to develop one's own skill set than by passing the knowledge along. 'Learning by doing' an old mentor of mine used to call it -- and doing is what mindfulness is all about!

At risk of providing yet another catalogue, the benefits of mindfulness in a young population (as they are for adults as well) are legion:

- Physical relaxation
- Improved concentration
- Increased control over thoughts. Observing and letting go vs. participating and being caught up in.
- Acceptance and tolerance of unpopular, distressing emotions vs. being victimized, 'directed' by them
- Increased compassion, tolerance, patience
- Improved self-understanding, self-awareness, self-acceptance
- Increased creativity
- Improved memory function
- Cultivation of the spirit (not limiting the education process to 'mind' and 'body')

These are not goals, parts of a curriculum to be taught and completed. These are the side effects of a mindfulness practice -- regardless of age.

So indeed we all might be just a little ADD -- and a little angry, a little fragmented, a little stressed, a little sore, a little depressed. This is a description, in one way or another, of a 'normal day' for most of us -- including our kids. It is the life condition. It is what is. A regular practice doesn't take away these naturally occurring states. What it does do is provide us the means to address them -- not through avoidance, opposition, attachment, obsession. But through peaceful co-existence with the 'full catastrophe'.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Full Catastrophe Living

At this time of year (aka, the Holiday Season -- and we are still in it 'til Jan. 6, aside trees at the curb and 'festive lights' a-dimmed), there's precious little acknowledgment of -- I might even say, tolerance for -- anything but 'good cheer'. Why then is it that, for some, almost nothing could be farther from what is being experienced? The season's professed zeitgeist is one of celebration, bon vivant, eager anticipation, hand-shaking, and smiling, merry this and happy that. The politically incorrect stance is, sadly (and I use the word advisedly) one of mounting stress, urgency, and, perhaps most tellingly, exclusion.

I had occasion to be chatting with my stepson recently as he was preparing his music for the upcoming advent / Christmas services. He made casual mention of the Blue Christmas mass and the challenge of finding music that he felt would reflect the intention of the gathering Although anyone can (and perhaps, should) attend, it's held for those folk who, for a variety of very good reasons, feel less than engaged in the season (somewhat reminiscent, if I allow a jaundiced thought, of those colonies of pariahs, outcasts, if you will) and finding some comfort in an assemblage of like minds and moods. Ultimately, he was careful to choose music that he felt set a quiet, contemplative tone. As we talked, I couldn't avoid recalling (probably because the lyrics are etched into my unconscious by sheer volume of exposure) the maudlin lyrics of 'Blue Christmas' that serve to underscore the very 'us and them' polarizing that happens around this time of year:

"You'll be doin all right, with your Christmas of white...
But I'll have a blue, blue, blue Christmas."
(Thanks, Elvis!)

My personal grump seems to have been a little more contained this year than in the few decades immediately past -- but still around (sufficient to invite the query from Nicola: 'did they beat you or something on Christmas Eve?'). No specific triggers (well, the Boxing Week feeding frenzy doesn't help, hard on the heels of mountains of now emptied boxes and bows cast aside, their sometime contents barely remembered these few days after) -- but surfacing nonetheless. Reduced daylight coincident with the season -- perhaps. The shortage of cash coupled with the 'need' to spend -- possibly. The excess, be it food, drink, or loot -- good candidates. The loss of the spiritual connection, the meaning of the celebration -- we've all heard that one to death.

But I think not sufficient perpetrators. What appears to be hugely amplified and accentuated is the gap, the disconnect between the surface demands of, expectations for the season (conviviality, hale-fellow well-met demeanour) and the logical, near-unavoidable consequences of the stressors that inevitably attend it (urgency, deadlines, hyper-socializing) -- a collision of what 'needs to be' and 'what is' -- underscored with each 'are you ready for Christmas yet?' before the date; the 'did you have a good Christmas?' for the week or so following. Welcome to Hotel California (such a lovely place, where you can check out anytime you like -- but you can never leave!) from which there is no apparent escape.

I'd encountered this Christmas card many years ago (back in the days when I still had a Rotty and just one West Highland Terrier) and it spoke to me. The rest of the card included a cat, sitting on the inside of the window, warm, content, and comfortable beside a fully-laden Christmas tree -- probably significant that I'd cropped that part out! How better to allegorically capture the poignant sense of separation, alienation than one species gazing at another, with a glass wall between; one on the outside looking in, the other caught up in, embraced by the 'prescribed surroundings', oblivious to its fellow creatures.

So what to do? Withdraw into anger, sadness, further isolating. Hunker down and wait it out. Alternately, suit up with the majority and participate -- authentically or not. The personal search has been for a less polarized place, less a 'hold my nose and jump' versus a pull back into sullen reticence. In the context of mindfulness practice, Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his introduction to his seminal book, offers a clue to what this spot might look like: Full Catastrophe Living. He describes seeking a concise title that would capture the unique approach that living mindfully represents, borrowing a line ultimately from the film Zorba the Greek. Asked if he'd ever been married, Zorba responds that of course he had, then adds: 'wife, kids, house, everything. . .the full catastrophe'. The reference, as Kabat-Zinn explains, is not that life had been so awful -- but that it embodies a full range of experience, the good with the ill, -- and most particularly that we don't get to cherry pick. The 'dance' is with the fullness of it all -- not just leap-frogging from one 'happy time' to the next.

Where this season is concerned, the dance unquestionably involves the individual's adoption of this more equanimous posture. Not necessarily 'selling out' to the pervasive (and just possibly contrived and forced) 'good cheer'; but allowing oneself into it, as possible and authentic. More than this, however, the culture itself is in need of an attitude adjustment. Inclusiveness requires that we embrace the 'other pole' -- not just the North, with all its presents, elves, and sugar plums; but the South, with its, just possibly sadness, sense of loss, alienation, and quiet reflection on what's been. The full catastrophe.