The Secret. . .

The answer lies within. Right up there with other ‘deep cliches’ and tuppence wisdom: haste makes waste or one man’s meat . . . As with so many aphorisms, however, that find their way into the vernacular, there’s a strong element of truth beneath the predictable and over-used surface — we just don’t think about it. Some little neural pathway gets twigged — and out it comes. (And, as often as not, if you’re resident in my home county, generously blended with near neighbours: as easy as falling off a piece of cake; or burning the midnight oil at both ends — but that’s another kettle of fish, umm, story.)

A few conversations this past week reminded me of just how eagerly we embrace the external solution, the next big (or hopeful) thing — the most recent and discarded ‘thing’ having failed to satisfy, to meet expectation; how expectantly we sit, waiting to be led or impressed or educated — when most times we hold the key(s) within. We just haven’t looked or perhaps don’t trust our resident wisdom.

My wife has, these past four months, recommenced a long-delayed project having resurrected her musical training. For a variety of carefully considered reasons, she has chosen to study with a teacher with whom she has not been previously acquainted; and in a venue sufficiently distant that it necessitates a commitment of a full day for her weekly, one-hour lesson. As time with her mentor has unfolded and the two have begun to know each other, the relationship has blossomed. Although one has forty years of experience developing curricula and teaching at a very high level, the other an interest truncated in early adulthood, their association has, not without some surprise and satisfaction on both ends, proven quite mutual.

I suspect this happy and shared benefit has evolved for a few reasons. First, of course, has been an openness on both sides to ‘hear’ what the respective other ‘has to say’. An almost eerie overlap in adjacent interests and demographics, equally, hasn’t hurt the process, as talk of the arts in general, gardening, styles of learning, and commitment to any project worth undertaking have surfaced in conversation.

At core, however, has been a highly beneficial and increasingly ‘blurred’ view of just who the teacher is — at any given point in time. Both principals in this partnership bring a hugely rich skill set to their association. “J” (let’s just call her that for short) has a lifetime in music and affiliation with a storied institution. My wife, an accountant by training and practice, brings a single-mindedness, commitment, capacity for organizing, structuring, and sequencing tasks, time-management history, a penchant for lateral or horizontal and inclusive thinking, and a twenty-year mindfulness practice — all elements that have informed her most recent project and been both shared with and welcomed by her teacher. Mutual respect, and perhaps most particularly, courage are key: to not only set aside the ‘traditional roles’ of teacher and student, but to trust one’s instincts and innate abilities and to take responsibility for one’s own direction and evolution. Looking inside for the ‘answer’.

A second conversation transpired with an acquaintance of some thirty years and highlights a quite different facet of the ‘internal answer’ paradox. In this case, personal growth and ‘moving on’ have been the elusive grails for this individual: quite possibly because she has been ‘looking in all the wrong places’. ‘Paralysis’ has been in part due to a relentless and persistent belief that the key to her prison lies outside the walls of her cell. A procession of gurus, strategies, courses and classes, self-help manuals have, in some measure been empowered and entrusted with her deliverance. I had occasion to ‘read her the riot act’ (note to self: work on compassionate presentation!) as part of this conversation, reminding her of what has ever been true: to charge the teacher (be it man or manuscript) with all responsibility is to give away one’s own power, to betray an essential distrust we have in our own resources, and to set oneself up for Sisyphesian disappointment — as the rock of hope rolls down the other side of the hill, only to be pushed upward again.

Mindfulness practice affords us three essentials as we ‘adjust our view’ (from looking out to looking in). First, the capacity to accept ‘what is’ — being content, without needing things to be different than they are in this moment (confident that things will ever change and evolve). Secondly, the time and space to be fully with ourselves — the opportunity to reflect on and contemplate what lies within us — for that half hour each day. And thirdly, a practice that emphasizes process over product or outcome — cultivating an appreciation for the journey over the destination (to cite another rather shopworn, but truthful cliche); recognizing that meditation is not for anything and that by engaging the activity, we actually ‘solve’ our issues. [For what it’s worth, a lovely illustration of the third ‘gift’ is explored in the recent film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The movie chronicles the search by a young Aspergers boy for a lock that fits a key he’s found; and the opening of which he believes will ‘solve’ the riddle of his father’s untimely death. The exhaustive and compulsive search affords him opportunities to deal, unknowingly, with most all of his fears and avoidances — and serves as his redemptive ‘journey’.]

So What’s Wrong with a Choir?

So who amongst us has never experienced a ‘brain-storming session’? The ubiquitous newsprint flip chart, the magic markers (usually a full palate of colours — for emphasis!), and the facilitator’s caveat of ‘don’t hold back, just throw out those suggestions; there are no bad ideas’. The (as it turns out) illusory presumption is that quantity is preferred to quality (if we need to make a choice) and that assessing the merit of a particular idea will suppress the creative flow. Put a group of chimpanzees in a room with full access to (it used to be) typewriters and, with enough time, they’ll re-create the Bard of Avon’s canon — it’ll just take a lifetime of editing to find it! And so it is with the hallmark technique of Madison Avenue, company board rooms, and a whole host of other groups in search of an idea — any idea.

To rescue the baby as the bath water swirls down the drain, there is apparent benefit in this process — but it’s not what the originators of the brain-storming protocol thought it was. Evidently it’s the group itself that provides the real creative juice; and not the liberty to free associate endlessly without fear of having to justify or defend one’s thoughts. So being in community is superior to working (and thinking) in isolation. But it’s how we’re in community. Apparently we need to grate on each other a bit for the process to be optimally productive.

Charlan Nemeth (U. of California at Berkeley) is quoted in a recent article in The New Yorker: ‘(Although) authentic dissent can be difficult, it’s always invigorating’. The article’s author, Jonah Lehrer, elaborates: ‘criticism allows people to dig below the surface of imagination and come up with collective ideas that aren’t predictable’. Reading this, I recalled a hiring protocol attributed to Nissan which they christened ‘creative abrasion’. When interviewing middle management candidates, the company generally attempted to hire pairs of individuals whose perspectives were often in opposition one from the other. The rationale was that the dyads would challenge each other and foster accountability — rather than just automatically validate and endorse what their partner had proposed.

The article goes on to examine the particular type(s) of group interaction that most fosters creativity. It turns out that (surprise, surprise), Steve Jobs’ vision of creating a working environment that promotes (mandates, in his rather dictatorial style) a ‘benign collision’ of individuals from different departments with different focuses is a ‘best way’ of achieving this end (increased creative energy). The prototype for this model was evidently created, quite by accident, in the latter years of World War II at a research facility at MIT (somewhat anonymously labelled ‘Building 20’); charged with the responsibility of perfecting radar technology. The dilapidated physical home to this critical research, scheduled for demolition immediately post-war — but lasting decades longer — has its longevity attributed to the phenomenal string of ground-breaking inventions that continued to emanate from within its drafty walls. The reason for this unique contribution: a host of thoughtful, curious, and critical thinkers from any number of different scientific backgrounds, regularly getting lost (the floor and office numbering apparently grew up with no identifiable logic to it) and stumbling into rarely encountered colleagues, co-tenants. Curiosity being what it is, ideas were shared and ‘critiqued’ over coffee — along with directions provided back to one’s own work space! In the process, perspectives were given a quarter turn and gently helped ‘outside the box’ long enough to foster an abundance of ‘aha moments’.

On reflection, a few aspects of this process resonated with me. When this blog began, it was intended as a forum to stimulate discussion. The blog site, Hinc Videndum, translates from the Latin (rather generously) as ‘The view from here’; and was intended to convey ‘one person’s thoughts on . . .’ — but inviting comment, expansion, and most particularly, challenge. One of our regular group members, on selecting his seat opposite me a few weeks ago, joked (but not entirely) that he was choosing the ‘devil’s advocate chair’ — a role he regularly and enthusiastically takes on; and happily so from my perspective! Several writers and teachers of meditation and mindfulness draw connections across the boundaries of different ‘brands’ of practice, showing how each is enriched by the contributions and traditions of the other(s). When we sit in isolation (or ‘sing with the choir’), we risk stifling our creativity, limiting our exposure to challenge (and by extension, the stimulus that gives our practice that quarter turn); we become less vital and more complacent.

Even in mindfulness practice, feedback, questions, and authentic dissent are essential.