Friday, November 28, 2008

Cookies Without Perfection

When my parents met, they were both accountants. This probably explains my fondness for putting ideas into tidy tables or charts. When I was little, my father used to tell me there was no room in this world for mistakes. I believed him. For the most part I still believe him. I wonder if there are parents out there who teach their children at an early age that the purpose of life is to make mistakes, to keep on trying out things until they create something really marvelous.

I keep on wondering how I can have two bookshelves full of self-help books and my life be in such a mess. To my way of thinking, my life should be as tidy as a well-maintained spread sheet. I read the books. I understood the concepts. I even tried to apply them now and then.

I think the problem is that in each book the procedure worked well for that person and maybe their students, but it is only one way of going about solving a problem or living a life. In fact, many of the books I have contradict one another. Each time I read a new book, I am starting from scratch, assuming that whatever I have read up until that time was wrong. After all, don’t many of the books actually refer to other philosophies and say just that.

Years ago I became fascinated by the Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies Recipe. It seemed to me that it was the basis for so much excitement. Every few weeks I would add new ingredients or change something in the recipe. I had many happy surprises, and only a few not so happy ones. I thought about that a few days ago when I was hankering for some white chocolate chip cranberry cookies. Would it really be so hard to try to make some without an official recipe? I am a little out of practice making cookies, but the thought is appealing. I wish I could feel that way about making changes in my life. I wish I felt up for a grand experiment rather than needing to have something perfectly spelled out in a book. Why is it so easy to do that with cookies and so terrifying to do that with the other parts of my life?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Knowing What I Don't Know

One of my favorite experiences is the feeling of knowing what I don’t know. I can almost see and feel a space opening up in what formerly felt like pure chaos. A question or an intention appears. In Liuhebafa, I don’t know the transition between “the crouching tiger listens to the wind” and “feint to the east but attack to the west.” I am unsure about the weight changes in “rein in the horse.”

A lot of learning needs to take place before I can begin to know what I don’t know. In the beginning, the form is just a roiling blur, just so much chaos. When I am practicing at home, I begin to be able to put together a few movements, many of which are wrong. I still am not sure where to focus my attention when I get back to class on Saturday. But finally in the beginning movements of the form, I am able to know where to focus my attention. I am able to fill in the gaps of my ignorance.

In Tai Chi, I am also struggling to identify what I don’t know. Here, I am primarily my own teacher since I am not officially taking a class this fall. I find myself sleepwalking through the form when I practice at home. I know that I need to focus on sinking my weight, but haven’t I been telling myself this for a long time? But then there is that delicious moment when I again know what I don’t know. I don’t know what it feels like in my upper legs when I sink my weight when I do “cloud hands.” Now, I can begin to experiment with that.

This feeling of knowing what I don't know goes beyond Tai Chi and Liuhebafa. Usually, whenever I learn anything new, I begin with reading everything I can get my hands on. I plunge into the murky lake of ideas. Usually I find this great fun. Once in awhile this stage lasts too long. I also like the feeling of having a direction or three or a whole spider web of directions. I like a rhythm between chaos and direction.

I like people who know what they don’t know. I feel more confident in their abilities when I know they are searching in a particular direction. I like to know that they are asking for advice or seeking out information. I mistrust people who think they themselves have all the answers.