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'.

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