Thursday, March 13, 2003

My first real blog. This is great! In keeping with my transparency theme, this is me, unfettered by convention, appearance or job description…. In cyberspace who needs it… we can interact with just ideas. Don’t feel funny at the lack of points of reference. You’ll get used to it.

But since I have no shape or history in cyberspace, just my words, a disclaimer is needed. Mine will take the form of a recollected conversation I had with a friend that asked me why oriental thought sometimes seemed so elliptical, why sometimes it seemed to contradict itself. (He was learning a martial art at the time, and referring to Lao Tzu’s teachings). This has bearing on my work, because it deals with the ephemeral and ever changing quality of the written or spoken word.

I started by saying that words can be confusing, and sometimes misleading. They pass through our filters as we speak, and enter through your filters as you listen. But the best way to learn is to do it, whatever you are learning, yourself. So in the end, you are your own best teacher. Others are there to help guide you, but you must do the work of learning and experiencing it yourself.

Why are words so helpful and yet so elusive? I remember an exercise I had in a creative writing course. The teacher asked me to write down how to tie my shoe. As I started, I realized that tying my shoe was something I did every day, but had never put it into words. After attacking the problem for an hour, I came up with what seemed a good description of the process to me. But then the Teacher asked me to give my paper to the girl on my right and accept her paper and read it. I could not have tied my shoe with her instructions, and neither could she with mine. And I could see how hard it was to explain an everyday part of life in writing. So. Lesson number one: putting things into words is hard to do. And I was only trying to explain tying a shoe. Imagine how much harder it would be if I were trying to explain a bigger or more important act!

The teacher brought in a foreign student, who did not speak English, into the class. We were asked to explain to her how to tie a shoe, with just words. And here we hit a wall. And we learned the second lesson: It is hard to speak with others of the same language, but exponentially harder if you don’t have the same language. Here the importance of language was highlighted (being able to communicate), as well as its pitfalls (not having all the tools to communicate successfully). So. Use words reverently, respectfully and lovingly. Listen to feedback to make sure you are getting your point across. And accept that you may not be able to communicate some things. You may have to rely on your listener’s own experience to fill in the blanks.

You learn by doing. What do I mean? I remember when I first started learning piano. During the first few years, it was no fun to learn the chords, practice all those repetitive exercises, and learn to read notes on a piece of paper. But after a while, my eyes became accustomed to the task and my hands began to know the positions. At first it took me forever to learn a new piece, note by note, but as time progressed I developed a sense memory for each piece, to the point where I could play it in the dark. And my hands were moving as if by themselves. And I learned progressively more difficult pieces, which were ever more satisfying to play.

But there was always that point in which the playing became second nature to me, I was no longer concerned with the technique, so much as with expressing an emotion through my actions. This is the point old masters refer to as doing but not doing, for you are actually playing the piano, but you are no longer conscious of playing the piano. In martial arts, you get to a point where your body has learned the motions so well, you do it automatically. Look at anything by Bruce Lee (or now, Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, Jet Li or any other renown martial artist) and you will see how effortless he makes it look. But don’t let that deceive you. It took him years of practice to become the athlete he was.

I remember sitting on a plane, going back to school, where I was to give a recital, and taking down the tray and playing the piece through. I even caught myself making mistakes, and having to start over and do it right. All without a piano: the sound was in my head!! I remember thinking “this must be how Beethoven felt in the end, when he could no longer hear!!” I did not think anything of this, until years later, when Amy Irving, in the movie The Competition, did the same thing, and I realized that this must be common to other musicians. How cool is that?

I no longer play the piano, but have found that typing on my keyboard is similar. I can now do it in total darkness, and almost always know when I have made a mistake before seeing it on my monitor.

So. A large part of learning has to do with physically learning the actions it takes to do what you want to do. It does not include words, necessarily. Ergo, the oriental emphasis on practice, exercise, and obedience. You don’t have to know exactly what you are doing to learn. The “Eureka” moment will come if you just keep at it.

But why be oblique about it? Why make it sound as an oracle that can be construed in more than one way? The third important factor is experience, the passage of time doing the work. That can’t be put into words either. With time you learn perspective. You accumulate knowledge and you can adapt to new situations. There is always another level of depth or complexity that you can reach. So what seems to be a riddle to a newcomer expresses the entirety of the thought to an experience practitioner.

It is only then after you have gone through the process of learning and experiencing things that you can write about them. And if you are good, and if there is a portion of the population that can relate to your experience, then you will be able to communicate well with them.

So. This is my disclaimer. Although words can sometimes confuse and obfuscate, I will reverently try to express my thoughts and feelings here. And I count on your indulgence and understanding to complete the circle of communication.

I know, I know, I am sending out this message into the ether, with no expectation of receiving an answer. But I choose to talk to you, the one reading this, and hopefully I will get through.