Monday, January 14, 2013

Back to Basics

Recently a regular member of our weekly mindfulness group had made mention of the commonly observed phenomenon of 'getting dumber' as we get older. A now retired teacher, this was not her comment at all on the typical aged-related diminishment of cognitive skills. Rather she was referring to the certainty with which her former adolescent charges would pronounce on near any topic of interest; and how the 'older folk' were really just not up to it anymore. It brought to mind the old chestnut: a little knowledge is a dangerous thing!  And it's corollary: too soon we get old, too late smart.

Her comment dovetailed nicely with an article my wife was reading, in preparation for an upcoming piano examination. Her teacher had commented on the precision with which she played; but had suggested adding 'some colour'. Understanding the 'concept', but not really being too clear on what this might look like in application, she went a-Googling; happening on a blog by Jeffrey Chappell who likened colour, and a number of other 'intangibles' in playing to freedom:

'Freedom means that as you play music, you do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it. It means that you drive the music,  not the other way around. . . At an early phase of study, the musicians job (however) is to be right: to identify what is on the page and to render it accurately. Feeling right is inner and subjective; it is about you. Being right is outer and objective; it is about what is on the page. Having one without the otherit feels right but it isnt right, it is right but it doesnt feel rightcreates an unsatisfying experience.'

Both of the above seemed to be getting at a few similar, underlying issues. Essentially don't run until you're pretty good at putting one foot in front of the other -- often called 'walking'. And to 'walk' means spending a goodly amount of time and effort exploring the basics of whatever the focus might be. Drill, repetition, study, questioning . . . and perhaps above all else, listening -- which, as most of us realize, requires keeping one's mouth shut; ears open and brain available for new information.

A portion of this past Sunday's Tapestry episode (, an interview with Carlos Fraenkel, philosophy professor at McGill, applied an interesting spin to this same challenge. Fraenkel considers engaging in philosophical discussion as essential to the development of the critical thinking process; as well as maintaining an open, self-questioning opportunity to deepen, understand, and revise one's own belief and value structure. His personal and professional experience in a wide variety of teaching environments and in conversation with people from an equally diverse set of religious and spiritual backgrounds, has only strengthened his view that to simply 'swallow whole' a liturgy, value system, political posture, etc. is to truncate one's personal growth and to abdicate one's responsibility to question and to foster accountability.

In Dr. Fraenkel's view, this 'conversation' is, in fact, ongoing, open-ended. In the context adopted above by Mr. Chappell, the only way to 'get it right' is to maintain contact with the 'basics' -- be they in music, spiritual investigation, practice of any sort.

He (Fraenkel) adds one additional caveat. A condition to which we all fall potential 'victim' is that of being born into a particular culture with attendant tenets and belief systems. In short, we 'automatically' absorb those parameters that direct the family, social and work networks, spiritual systems, etc. that predominate in our environment. To 'operate', unquestioningly from those pervasive, even ubiquitous values is to lose touch with 'the notes on the page'. We assume truths -- because they surround us -- which can only be fully understood and empowered when challenged by another (possibly competing, at least different) set of beliefs. Through a willingness to engage this conversation do we 'earn the freedom to improvise' (in Chappell's lexicon); do we fully develop a basis to make healthy and informed choices.

1 comment:

NONCENTS said...

Are you suggesting that, as we age, we are more likely to be inside than outside the box?