What is it all about?

This blog post isn’t about the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, but let’s stay with him for a little while.

If you decide to read Stevenson’s biography on Wikipedia, you’ll marvel at what an interesting, bizarre, and marvelous life Stevenson had. Among his great achievements, Stevenson wrote Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a novella about a man with a split personality, Dr Jekyll the kind physician and Mr Hyde the psychotic murderer, health and disease inhabiting the same person. The novella is also known as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or simply Jekyll & Hyde. Movies, plays, adaptations, translations, and suchlike have kept Jekyll & Hyde alive and well since its publication in 1886.

Jekyll & Hyde speaks to us because it speaks about us. Inside all of us there’s a pull between two personality complexes, one aggressive and the other loving, one tidy and the other incoherent, one hopeful and the other desperate, one celebrating life and the other pointing toward death. You’re calm and intelligent as you pursue some little task at your desk, when you accidentally drop some coffee on your computer. And, ka-boom! You’re crazed with anger and resentment, and ready to murder someone.

This blog post isn’t about the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Born in Romania in 1876, Brancusi spent most of his working life in France, where he died in 1957. His long and creative life is hard to encapsulate in a few words, but we’ll say he was a pioneer of abstract sculpture. Instead of depicting generals riding their war horses, he depicted . . . whoa! Brancusi just arose from the grave and got mad at me.

There are idiots who define my work as abstract; yet what they call "abstract" is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things.

If you’d like to spend an hour in Brancusi’s company, watch this YouTube video.

But if you only have a second, here’s one of his beautiful works.

Brancusi once said this:

Things are not difficult to make; what is difficult is putting ourselves in the state of mind to make them.

When Stevenson heard this, he smiled and agreed. This is what he said:

Things aren’t difficult to make; what is difficult is to keep your inner Hyde at bay and let your inner Jekyll help you take care of business.

The business might be learning a skill, filing your taxes, passing an exam, making dinner, or crossing the street. Hyde runs into traffic, or doesn’t see the bicycle coming at him, or trips an old lady, or rushes into a pothole and twists his ankle, and gets really pissed off about it. Jekyll crosses the street, and that’s that. It’s a whole other approach.

Let's watch the transformation in reverse: Hyde becoming Jekyll. It takes a tremendous effort of the conscious will.

Make a distinction between “the thing” and “the thing before the thing,” or between the task and the frame of mind, or between results and processes. For instance, you don’t learn a foreign language; instead, you “learn how to learn a foreign language.” It’s relatively difficult to learn how to learn a foreign language, but once you’ve done that, learning a foreign language or three is easy!

What triggers your inner Hyde? Judgment, expectations, assumptions, suppositions, guilt and shame, “should” and “should not,” voices that you hear in your head.

What allows you to access your inner Jekyll? The absence of “should” and “should not,” be they whispered or shouted.

And this blog post isn’t about Georges Braque, the great painter who—among other accomplishments—developed Cubism with Pablo Picasso. Braque heard us talk about Stevenson and Brancusi, and he got excited.

I have made a great discovery. I no longer believe in anything. Objects don’t exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself. When one reaches this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence. . . .  Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry.

What on earth does this mean? Empty your mind; silence the voices; then you’ll be in a state where you can make things, do things, learn things, enjoy things, love things. Ah, and people, too; you’ll love people.

(This blog post is about love. End of story!)

 

 

The double-helix staircase

Look at this wonderful photo of a wonderful object. It’s the DNA Tower in Kings Park, Western Australia, celebrating life in the form of the double-spiral arrangement of our DNA structure. Some people would prefer to call this a “double-helix” staircase, considering that a spiral is two-dimensional and a helix, three-dimensional. But we won’t get bogged down in words. Instead, we’ll admire the object’s structure and construction, and we’ll respond to its symbolic power.

Two fellows stand atop the tower. To get there, they each took one of the helical paths that intertwine to make the double-helix staircase. Racing upward, they crossed paths at every landing, laughing and cursing, one trying to trip up the other. But they reached the summit safely, and now they are “in seventh heaven.” That’s the story I like telling, anyway.

Opposing energies live inside us. We can call them intuition and intellect, masculine and feminine principles, private and public behaviors, yin and yang . . . the list is long. Integration depends on these opposites getting along and complementing one another. The double-helix staircase stands as a symbol of the travel that each of us must undertake to achieve integration.

Intuition is free-ranging, uncontrolled, unhinged. The word “intellect” comes from “intelligence,” which comes from a root meaning “to choose.” Intuition creates, intellect edits; intuition expands your mind, intellect organizes your insights. Intuition rises up along one of the helices, while intellect rises up on the opposite one. They meet at the landing, and there “they make love.” Then, they resume their path upward, seemingly as separate entities but ever connected each to the other, thanks to the double helix.

Your private self is known to no one, but you. It’s made of dreams, memories, aspirations, hopes, pains, images, and a thousand facets that you polish by yourself—alone in the house, sometimes asleep, sometimes at the computer, sometimes in the company of other people and yet reserved and hidden. Your public self is seen, heard, touched, and smelled by the world at large. It’s the embodiment of communication, the root of which comes from “to share.” You stew private thoughts and insights for a while, then you make them public: you share them. Your private self rises up along one of the helices, while your private self rises up along the opposite one. But at the landing, they meet and interact; they help each other, they inform each other. Your private experiences feed your public ones, and vice-versa. It’s essential for everyone to know how to be alone, and to know how to be with others; to know “how to keep” and to know “how to share.”

I’m lying in bed in the afternoon, having idle thoughts, feeling sleepy . . . After a while I get up, shower and shave, put a clean shirt on, and go out to give a performance. Then I go back home, lie in bed, and digest the performance, whether I’m asleep or awake all night long. My private self is inevitably shaken, stirred, and stimulated by the public exposure. And my next public event will be inevitably informed by the shaken and stirred private self.

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At a studio space that I rent, I talk to myself, sing a few notes, test an idea regarding the voice or the breath or the vowels or . . . something. I weave a narrative about my vocal idea, then I stand in front of a camera and “talk and sing to the camera,” which is very different from talking and singing to myself. Later on, I edit whatever I recorded into a five-minute clip, and I’ll put it on the Internet, where total strangers will watch me and listen to me and respond to me in unfathomable ways. And I go back to the studio space and resume talking to myself, or pacing the room in silence, or just sitting in the semi-dark, by myself, alone, privately.

Or I practice the cello for hours or days on end, then I share a technique or insight with a student, then I write a few paragraphs about the insight. After many intermediate steps, I publish a book about it all. (“To publish” is “to make public.”) My book THE INTEGRATED STRING PLAYER will come out later in 2017, exposing my innermost feelings about the cello to the scrutiny of friends, colleagues, strangers, critics, and humanity at large. And the fact of going public with these innermost feelings will inform and guide my private experiences for years to come.

  • Intuition, intellect, intuition, intellect, forever climbing up and meeting at the landing.
  • Private, public, private, public, forever climbing up that double-helix staircase.
  • Solo, in a team, solo, in a team, forever climbing up and reinforcing each other.
  • Masculine, feminine, masculine, feminine, forever.
  • Yin, yang . . .

The idea, then, is to nourish each opposite and get them to collaborate. Put your shoes on -- and take your shoes off! -- and go climb up those stairs.

©2017, Pedro de Alcantara

 

 

 

 

Practice

Isn’t it strange that you can practice law, practice the piano, have a spiritual practice, and practice for your wedding?

Maybe it’s just a play on words. Or maybe the word “practice” itself is rich in meaning, and therefore useful to us. It comes to us from Greek, via Latin.

Greek praktikos "fit for action, fit for business; business-like, practical; active, effective, vigorous," from praktos "done; to be done," verbal adjective of prassein, prattein "to do, act, effect, accomplish."

To act, to accomplish; effective, vigorous. And “not theory.” Not in your head, not in a book, not a dogma, not dead. Practice must be a doing, even if you practice it in a Zen-like non-doing manner.

For our purposes, we’ll define it as something that you do regularly, in a committed and organized manner, leading to an increase in awareness and presence. It exists in a thousand forms, including the professional set of skills learned and performed with a particular frame of mind (to practice law), the creative set of skills borne of exercising specific gestures over weeks, months, and years (to practice the piano), and the quest for connection with the ineffable through prayer, meditation, song, and sacrifice (to have a spiritual practice).

How to practice practice, so to speak? Walking works beautifully for many people. Decide to walk every day—perhaps to and from work. Or perhaps as a break from work: a walk in the park, or pacing the rooftop terrace of your office building and thinking about life over a hundred rounds of a very short walk, back and forth, back and forth. Walking the dog is a practice.

You can get serious and take the Road to Santiago, the pilgrimage first established in the 9th century. Walk from somewhere in Western Europe all the way to Santiago de Compostella in northwestern Spain.

Or decide to walk barefoot, full-time or part-time. My friend John does it full-time, and he’s, like, oh man, so alive! Inspired by John, I started walking barefoot part-time three years ago. There have been whole days in which I stayed barefoot, including in winter, out in the rain, or riding public transportation. It’s an exercise in awareness and in not-worrying-about-what-people-would-say. And it happens to be extremely pleasurable.

Another practice is committing to a time and a place, and going there on a regular basis. It could be the street market every Sunday, for instance. Plan your meals, interact with the fruit sellers, watch people, taste fresh foods, enjoy life.

Or go to Starbucks frequently and use it as an office, for creative work or for office work. You can go to the same café many times in a row, or to a different café each time. Both have merits. The main thing is to go and be there, doing something again and again over weeks and months. You’ll meet people at your Starbucks office, make friends, become attached to the place and its neighborhood. And you’ll get your work done. How different is it from going to a corporate job and sitting in a cubicle looking at a computer screen? Perhaps it’s the same thing; or perhaps the cubicle can become the same thing—that is, a practice—provided that you find the attitude that transforms a constraint, imposed by circumstances, into a commitment you choose to make, with the result of your becoming alert and present.

Spiritual practice takes a thousand shapes. Here’s one: going to church every week, or perhaps most days, or perhaps every day, or perhaps twice a day. One of my devout friends calls the institution of the church a vessel for his spirituality.

My friend considers that there is no spirituality without a vessel. Dwelling in the vessel is a practice, whether the vessel is material (a building) or symbolic (a paradigm and an institution). Perhaps it’s the practice that matters, rather than the vessel. Or perhaps the vessel counts for something. All I know is that entering temples, cathedrals, chapels, and basilicas, in Paris and in my travels, is always transformative. I wonder what would happen if I did it every day, without exception.

A lifetime commitment to the church is, of course, a very formal and deep practice. Other spiritual practices are more informal. Some formalists pooh-pooh the informalists. But that's OK; the informalists pooh-pooh the pooh-pooh.

You can practice a simple exercise, returning to it often and over a span of years. In sports there are many such exercises: the golf swing, the free throw in basketball, the rope skipping of a boxer. Here’s a kind of warm-up stretch. Sit on the floor, with legs bent; bring the soles of your feet together, and hold your feet with your hands; try to lower your knees until they touch the floor; now lean your trunk forward. Do it once or twice, and it comes across as an uncomfortable and possibly useless exercise. But do this one stretch every day for twenty-five years, and you might discover all sorts of dimensions, to the exercise and to yourself as you respond to the exercise.

The form of your practice—yoga, Tai Chi, tango—might be very important . . . or not. After all, every form has its enlightened practitioners and its zombies. Shadow boxing could be as integrative as an ancestral martial art. Air guitar? You bet. “Star Wars” lightsaber play-acting? Of course. The main thing is to commit to the practice and to do it with all your heart.

And then there’s the practice of a creative skill, whether you do it professionally or for pleasure alone. A drawing a day, for instance—fast or slow, as you wish; take thirty seconds or thirty minutes. Choosing pencils, sharpening them, leafing through a sketchbook, translating the swirling images of a street corner into arm and hand gestures that make marks on paper . . . if you think about it, the act is by no means banal. It’s transformative in many ways. Do it steadily over days and months, and something will get reorganized inside yourself: the way you look at the world, the way you absorb and interpret information, the way you pay attention.

The practice is primary, the skill secondary; or, to put it differently, it’s only by practicing that you gain the skill. You might want to say, “But I don’t know how to draw!” Sure, sure. That’s why you practice, you dummkopf!

A smartphone and an Instagram account, and—hey, presto! You can practice photography. Publish crappy photos of pizza slices if that’s your thing. Or develop the art of perceiving, thinking, and deciding. Photography is the reason or excuse (or vessel) to open up your mind and heart.

Walking, going to the market, stopping at Starbucks, visiting a monument, taking photos with your smartphone . . . Is there any difference between practice and life?

Nah. Life is an Integrated Practice.

© 2016, Pedro de Alcantara

The Spinning Stool

On a recent trip to New York City, I visited the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Museum Design, up on Fifth Avenue along Central Park. The museum is a compact place featuring many delights for anyone interested in design, engineering, architecture, visual arts, communication, and information.

I started on the third (and top) floor, where I saw a temporary exhibition celebrating the creative accomplishments of Heatherwick Studio, a London-based design and architecture firm. Then I went to the second floor, the highlight of which was the Immersion Room, a sort of wraparound, room-size toolbox in which you can design and digitally display your own wallpaper. Then I descended to the first floor, where another temporary exhibition led you through a series of brilliant posters from decades past, showing you how poster artists use “principles of composition, perception and storytelling to convey ideas and construct experiences” (in the museum’s words).

By then I had already had any number of uplifting and enlightening experiences, but the basement remained to be explored. There I found a strange object, a cross between a stool and a spinning top made of hard plastic (or, to get technical, “rotationally molded polyethylene”). Created by those accomplished fellows from the Heatherwick Studio, this “spinning stool,” so to speak, is wobbly by design. You sit on it quite low, with your butt and most of your back cocooned against the stool’s inner curves. Then you lift your feet off the floor and . . . and the thing starts wobbling, with you in it. Meaning, YOU start wobbling in space, seemingly out of control, seemingly in danger of falling off and breaking your neck.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the famous five stages of loss and grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What’s interesting about these stages is how dynamic they are; they imply change, movement, and finally growth.

Riding the wobbly spinning stool, I felt myself passing through four stages. They weren’t similar to the actual stages of loss and grieving, but they were certainly dynamic—and, like the stages of loss and grieving, they involved strong emotions.

First stage: “I don’t wanna do this. It looks unsafe. I was never any good at sports. I’ll fall, people will laugh, everyone will know I’m a pathetic old fool.”

Second stage: “Okay, I’m doing it. How does it work? Wow, it’s so low. And if I take my feet off the floor . . .? Ohmigod, ohmigod, ohmigod! Someone, stop this! Pleeease, let me out!”

Third stage: “Hey, it’s kinda nifty. It kinda feels nice. You can kinda control it with just a little sway of the hips. Hmmm . . .  groovy . . . hmmm . . . it reminds me of Woody Allen having sex with the Orb in ‘Sleeper’ . . . hmmm . . ."

“Hmmm . . . was it the Orb or the Orgasmatron? Hmmm . . .”

When I stood up from the Orgasmatron—I mean, the wobbly spinning stool—I noticed that my whole body felt loose and energized, as if I had just had a session with a skilful sacrocranial osteopath. In fact, the spinning stool had healed me from the feelings I had before I sat on it—my feelings of fear and inadequacy.

Fourth stage: “I love the spinning stool. Let me wobble again. I could wobble all day. I’m good at it, and it’s good to me! I’m so full of love I could kiss that guard standing by the door over there!”

Two Japanese women entered the room while I was enjoying my spin. One of them sat cautiously on another stool. It wobbled a little bit, and she panicked big time. She let out a heartbreaking yelp, and her friend helped her get off the stool. That was it for the two of them. Let’s get the heck out of this spinning room! Sayonara, Cooper-Hewitt!

I felt for them.

We all have our blocks, our fears, our habits and compensations, our pains, our preconceived ideas . . . our hatreds. A new tool (or a person or an idea) enters our lives. Our first perception of the tool is that it’s a threat, a danger, a horror. Then we employ the tool with our habitual fears, we respond awkwardly to the situation, and the tool seemingly confirms our perception of its dangers: it hurts us, it humiliates us, it . . . it makes us wobble uncontrollably.

When handling the tool (or person or idea) that carries potential solutions to our problems, we tend to get stuck in the first stage, where we’re so deeply triggered by our habits that we don’t even see the tool. Instead, we see in it a projection of our fears.

And yet, this tool (or person or idea) happens to be the solution to our problems; it heals our fears and dissipates our hurts, and it makes us feel really, really good.

Let’s call the four stages fear, exploration, practice, and love. The passage from one to the other requires courage and determination. Along the way, there are many possibilities for things to go not to your liking—that is, for things to go wrong according to your subjective assessment, perhaps so wrong that you’ll feel justified in quitting. But if you stick it out . . . you’ll want to kiss the guard.

Symbolically speaking, of course.

Or literally speaking. It’s your call!