Lyle Sanford just added a wonderful quote from Daniel Goleman’s Vital Lies, Simple Truths to my last post:
The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.
It’s wonderful because it gets at the heart of what it is we want from music, art, learning, love, religion, philosophy, sports — pretty much everything worthwhile we do — which is personal transformation. And it suggests why that transformation (“change”) is so difficult.
Actually, calling it “personal” is a bit wrong, because the most powerful experiences of art, love, etc., tend to be unitive: they tend towards the subject’s total immersion and identification with the object (self with music, self with the beloved, self with the divine), such that the distinction between subject and object disappears. (I’ve written about one particular kind of unitive experience before.) But getting to that experience, to say nothing about integrating it into one’s normal life (so it’s not just like a theme park ride or something, a momentary trippy diversion, but something that changes the way you hear music, relate to your spouse, etc.), demands something very hard: we have to change the way we sense and think about the world around us. We have to break old cognitive habits, which (as Goleman notes) is especially hard because we don’t even know they’re habits.
So how do we break our cognitive habits? How do we notice what we fail to notice? I’ve gotten interested in the idea of doing . . . well, I don’t quite know what to call them. “Existential exercises,” maybe, or “experiential exercises” — EE for short. (Works either way.) Meditation is one kind of EE: it’s a practice where you pay attention to how your body and mind are tuned, how the total organism is working in its environment, what you’re thinking about, how you feel. Yoga is a similar sort of thing — it looks like what we usually mean by exercise (you move your body and get stronger), but it’s also a way of paying attention to the body’s functioning more generally. (Your mind is a part of your body, too.) And there are other things — playing the piano, doing judo, etc. — that can function in similar ways. Sooner or later these practices will all converge on the same discipline: an awareness of how we pay attention, or don’t, what we pay attention to, and how well we sustain our concentration.
At a certain point when I was getting really serious about piano playing I realized that I was getting stuck, not because I couldn’t physically move my fingers in certain ways, but because I didn’t know how to focus my mind the right way to train my hands to make those movements. I learned one of my great enduring truths of piano playing: learning to play means learning to practice. You have to figure out what you’re paying attention to, how you pay attention to it, how your consciousness is organized when you’re concentrating (are you self-conscious? what does that feel like? what does it feel like to let go of self-consciousness?), how long you can concentrate, what it feels like to lose focus, and so on. And this is something that is actually very good for one’s general happiness and health. When you get good at this meta kind of self-monitoring in your chosen practice, you get better at it all around. You notice things. The world becomes a more beautiful and mysterious place.
But not everyone plays the piano, so what are they supposed to do? I remember going to a Michael Colgrass workshop about 20 years ago where he did all these exercises in . . . I don’t know exactly what the name for it is, but his exercises pertained to that habitual and largely hidden meta level where we structure the various things we do every day. These are what I’m calling EE. (I don’t remember what Colgrass called them.) Anyone can do them.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, which I found at an esotericist site I stumbled on:
1. List all of those habits that you maintain that have no benefit beyond the experience itself;
2. Stop doing them for a period of two weeks (you can always start again after this period of time, so you won’t be losing those things you really can’t live without forever);
3. At the end of the two weeks, compare the old habits from step 1 with the new habits that have formed over the last two weeks.
4. Now choose who you are.
Interesting. Here’s a more musical EE, which takes the form of a composition that uses an “event score” (i.e., a set of verbal instructions for a performed act). My cultural studies class just did a week on John Cage and the post-Cagean avant garde and read Liz Kotz’s badass article on George Brecht’s event scores, which I recommend for anyone wanting to go deeper into this phenomenon. Anyway, here’s the score of Pauline Oliveros’s “Tuning Meditation,” which I often use in classes when I want to illustrate the concerns of the American post-1950s avant garde. (I heartily recommend doing this, by the way.)
Begin by taking a deep breath and letting it all the way out with air sound.
Listen with your mind’s ear for a tone.
On the next breath using any vowel sound, sing the tone that you have silently perceived on one comfortable breath.
Listen to the whole field of sound the group is making.
Select a voice distant from you and tune as exactly as possible to the tone you are hearing from that voice.
Listen again to the whole field of sound the group is making.
Contribute by singing a new tone that no one else is singing.
Continue by listening then singing a tone of your own or tuning to the tone of another voice alternately.
Always keep the same tone for any single breath. Change to a new tone on another breath.
Listen for distant partners for tuning.
Sound your new tone so that it may be heard distantly.
Communicate with as many difference voices as possible.
OK, so I made an event score of my own, which I tried out yesterday as I was walking across campus after getting my flu shot. Call it the “moving soundscape meditation.”
Go for a walk by yourself. As you walk, pay attention to every sound that comes to your ears.
Listen to how each sound in your environment arises and passes away. Pay special attention to the beginnings of sounds.
Listen to the sounds of your own body — your breathing, your heartbeat, your footsteps, and so on.
Treat all sounds as equally important.
You will find it surprisingly difficult to notice when sounds begin. Often you will be following how one sound dies away and won’t notice another sound beginning to enter your field of hearing. Or you might get distracted by something you see, or start thinking about something else. When you notice this happening, redirect your attention back to the sounds in your immediate environment. Pay attention to how often you need to refocus your attention.
Pay enough attention to your surroundings that you remain physically safe. You should walk with your eyes open, though if visual stimuli are too distracting you may focus your gaze on the ground in front of you.
The composition is over when you reach your destination. Take a bow.