I want to pick up on an aspect of the master’s path I wrote about last week, and that’s the role of memory. Or rather, how difficult it is to form certain types of memory, particularly muscle memory and that automaticity that can go along with being in “flow.”

Tonight I was again getting back on the path of reviving my musical interests (somewhere between the paths of hacking and mastery) while my partner was playing on the computer. As I was winding down she joked “how about some Stairway to Heaven?”  The funny thing is, I could immediately play a jazzy improv version of StH, followed by a bluegrassy version, followed by the straight version. It was probably the cleanest piece I played all night. I swear I haven’t played any of those in years, and even then just once in a blue moon while goofing around. Stairway to Heaven was one of the first “real” guitar pieces I learned when I picked up the instrument in high school (and who in my generation didn’t learn that as part of their repertoire?), and I remember drilling away at it all summer, hours on end.

Most of us have probably heard the “10,000 hour rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers, based on research by Anders Ericsson. Without picking apart the details, Ericsson claims that one needs about 10,000 hours of focused practice to acquire a skill to the point the rest of us would recognize as “master level.”  I should go back and read Ericsson’s original writings on expertise rather than popular interpretations of his ideas – I’d like to understand more about the, well, recalcitrance (if that’s the right word) of the human brain/nervous system to ingrain new patterns.

Huh. I realize my memory of some basic educational psychology has faded over the years since graduate school (somehow, I can’t recall classic readings on demand the way I can pop up with Stairway to Heaven).  But I remember a more-or-less evolutionary argument for why our systems are biased toward a certain conservatism.  With notable exceptions (e.g., the single trial learning that occurs the first time one encounters a hungry tiger), humans are creatures of habit.  A major section of Alva Noe’s book Out of Our Heads: Why you are not your brain and other lessons from the biology of consciousness dealt with habit, and how we probably couldn’t get through the day without most of our activities being automated, a function of subconscious habit. We simply can’t handle that much complexity in real time without “off-loading” the processing to other, more automatic parts of our brain/bodies. Imagine, to use a really dumb example, what would happen if you had to consciously remember to draw each breath!  Then coordinate – as a toddler – swinging one leg forward, transferring your weight, swinging the next leg forward… and don’t forget to breathe!  Oh, and look ahead!

Hmmm… it’s late and I don’t have a lot of mojo for writing (still on the once-a-week kick, though!), so perhaps I’ll come back to this mid-week.  Mainly, though, I’m seeing that the path of mastery (lots of persistence and focused practice) is rooted deeply in our physiology. Cursing and wishing it wasn’t so… well, that expresses some frustration, and then it’s back to practice.

I do want to hang out with this idea of practice.  There’s an idea from Aristotle that goes roughly “we become that which we practice being.”  I’m particularly interested in the non-school activities of kids nowadays, and what they “practice” throughout the day, both in semi-formal settings (sports teams, after-school clubs, street gangs) and in less well-structured settings. More on that later.

Metaphors of effort

We have a small meditation group at work that meets Monday and Friday over lunch, and somebody usually sends around a quote to ponder as we sit.  This week the quote (attributed to Buddha) was

Your work is to discover your world and then with all your heart give yourself to it.

*nods head* Seems simple enough. Discovering my world – both inner and outer – that’s what meditation/therapy/research/exploration is all about, so I get that, I think.  Then there’s the call to action:  “with all your heart give yourself to it.”  That one stopped me in my tracks, when I realized that I had no idea how to do that.

During the post-meditation discussion I brought this point up.  I know how to apply myself to some goals.  Improve my time riding up Old La Honda? A combination of good preparation (training) and knowing when to “kick it” and when to back off cruising up the hills. I know what it feels like to “pour on the effort.”  But how does one “pour it on” when giving oneself to the world?

A colleague reminded me that perhaps the metaphor of “leaning in” or “pouring on” wasn’t quite right. What if we adopted the practice of “opening up the heart?”  Ah!  That brought back memories. I’d started practicing Aikido when I first moved to California, and trained regularly for 4 or 5 years until I started graduate school. One of the basic principles – and one that has to be internalized to the core – is this dual idea of being grounded/centered and being open/receptive. Grounding/centering while being open/receptive allows immense energy (or “ki”) to flow – it’s a feeling of intense aliveness or vitality when one is “in the zone.”

I found this video on YouTube – someone testing for a 4th degree black belt going through the “randori” exercise (defending against a multiple person grappling attack, sort of like being pursued by zombies on speed).

As one can imagine, the energy gets intense when multiple people are coming at you. The examinee has to keep moving, using one attacker to block another, inserting himself decisively when there’s an opening, giving ground when needing to dissipate energy. But if you watch carefully, even on his knees he’s firmly centered, both allowing and controlling the action around him. This is an extreme example of “giving one’s heart to it” without “leaning into it”  (in fact, “leaning into it” is really bad form in Aikido, and is usually an aspect of an attack that’s most readily exploited).

So perhaps “giving one’s heart” isn’t about trying harder or applying oneself more diligently in the classic sense of putting one’s shoulder to the boulder. As I mentioned in the end of my last blog entry, Ecclesiastes suggests that most of the efforts of man are “vanity and chasing after wind.” I’m grateful to be reminded of an alternative way of being fully present and alive – to be centered, grounded, and open-hearted.  That too takes effort, but it’s a very different flavor of effort. For one, it’s non-directional, and non goal oriented.  As I continue to practice and observe perhaps I’ll find better ways to write about it. Personally, the memories of Aikido practice are the touchstone, but other people will have different experiences that resonate.

As for the “discover your world” part of the mission… I’m not sure that’s as obvious as I’d made it out to be, either. I’ll have to keep sitting with that one (which I think is part of the point).



Slow, steady progress on the dining table. Glued up some more thick stock (the last of it, I think, for now), and laid out the template for the feet. After work tomorrow I’ll have an excuse to go by my favorite place to spend money and pick up a longer, high quality template routing bit.

For tonight’s pen turning I used a scrap of Rosewood I picked up at the lumber shop. Rosewood comes in many varieties, and I don’t know which one this is. It’s rare and on most “endangered” lists of wood, but this was a scrap offcut they were selling out of a bin, so I didn’t feel like I was driving demand by re-using what was otherwise scrap. Gosh it’s beautiful, though! I usually finish my pens with “friction polish”, a combination of shellac and hard wax. For wood with interesting grain I’ll start with a swipe of boiled linseed oil, and rub it down to dry pretty quickly. The top pen used BLO as an undercoat, the bottom didn’t. You might not see the difference well in that photo, but the top pen’s darker lines are a lot deeper – BLO essentially turns up the contrast on the grain. I generally don’t use it on the bloodwood pens as I don’t see the same gain (bloodwood has a pretty smooth, uniform grain), but I may try the contrast experiment on bloodwood next time I do a pair.

OK, more ruminations on my unquiet little mind… I read the classic work “Flow: the psychology of optimal experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a few years back in graduate school. It fits with a lot of other texts – both in literature and psychology – that try to characterize that “zone” one gets in when activity is joyful and natural. When I practiced Aikido we trained to be in that “flow” space under stress.

Where am I going with this… I’ve been playing with the differences between dwelling on whatever’s bothering me, “distracting” myself with activities, and being in “flow.” After my last blog my little conditioned self-hating voice (a term Cheri Huber uses) was giving me a hard time for “distracting” myself by turning pens when I was feeling bad. Shouldn’t I really be digging deep down to understand what was bothering me? Well, I have a pretty good sense of what was bothering me, and I didn’t feel like introspection was going to do much about it (“or,” the little voice is telling me now, “were you just chickening out from dealing with it?”) Argh! Welcome to my brain.

But then I get into a “flow” state and darn it, it feels good! I relax and feel like a functional human being. More importantly, ego and self-hate take a back seat. OK, as I write this I can see Cheri or any other half-intelligent person looking at me and saying “and the problem is… ?” Hmmm.. I felt bad, I did something healthy, and felt better. Different than hitting the bottle or doing something destructive.

Yet that voice nags. Is the best way to “solve” a problem, particularly an old tape that’s creaking through its reels yet again, to sit and think hard about it? That seems to often just spiral me down. Yet “the unexamined life is not worth living” rings through my mind, too. I do note that when I’m in a good space, the “problems” just don’t look that imporant any more. So maybe it’s not that I’m “ignoring” the issues, it’s just that they aren’t as powerful or bad as they seem when I’m feeling like a fully functioning human being. And I do get to still work on these issues, but not on their schedule! I can reflect on them when I’ve got the wherewithall to have some perspective.

Of course, the meditation folks would say sit and come back to the breath. Not “focus” on the problem that’s bugging me, but just sit quietly and observe the drama unfolding within. That seems more “proper” somehow, but my impulse of late hasn’t been to sit quietly, it’s been to “putter” in the shop.

Enough rambling for now… I’m sure this will come up again, as my time in the wood shop is also time to get thinking (or non-thinking) done.