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!

The Void

The Void

An excerpt from my work-in-progress The Integrated Writer

Your little child is running outside. She trips, falls, hits her face against a stone step, hurts herself badly. After a few seconds of suffocated silence, she starts screaming. She may have broken her jaw.

What do you do?

Some years ago I witnessed this very scenario. I was at Les Halles, a busy shopping mall in the heart of Paris. Inside the complex there’s a small courtyard, with stone steps leading to a terrace. The girl was about two years old. She was running at full tilt with unbound excitement, and when she rushed onto the steps she fell face down, hitting her jaw on the stone. The sound her jaw made against the stone was horrifying and indescribable.

Her father was standing right next to her. Immediately after she fell, he exclaimed, loudly enough for all to hear: “I told you not to run like that!”

We can’t know for sure what was going on through his mind. Is he that much of an insensitive father, a control freak, a monstrous disciplinarian? Perhaps; there certainly exist guys like that. Was he concerned with other people’s assessment of his ability to “educate” his child? It’s possible, but we can’t know for sure. Was he just freaking out, and voicing the dread that his beloved daughter was badly hurt? That’s possible, too.

We can’t know any of that. But we can be almost sure that his reaction did nothing to solve the problem at hand, and most likely aggravated it.

Before we deal too harshly with this hapless parent, let’s accept that when faced with many of life’s problems, big and small, we all have the potential to act pretty much the way he did. We want the problem to disappear. We want the problem never to have existed. We want to blame other people for the problem. Or we find fault with ourselves, even when we are blameless. We feel angry, frustrated, and afraid. And we don’t want those emotions to stay inside us. We vent. We rant and rave. Or we act and do something.

More often than not, this makes the problem worse. Conflicts escalate. Our ability to think through the problem and its possible solutions gets clouded. The problem itself escapes us; we lose sight of what the problem actually is.

And that becomes the problem.

The father of my example put himself in a state. As long as he stayed there, he’d be unable to do anything constructive to solve that other, more pressing, problem: his endangered child, overwhelmed and helpless.

The father’s first duty toward her daughter (and in truth also toward himself) is to do nothing that aggravates the problem. And to make sure he doesn’t aggravate the problem, he must do nothing, period—perhaps for a microsecond, perhaps longer. The void (that is, doing nothing) provides room for all good things in the world to come in; but once the void is filled with something, all other possibilities are excluded, at least until room is made for them by the creation of another void. And the void is preferable to anything negative or destructive that occupies it.

The father does absolutely nothing for a moment that may be extremely short. During the moment of doing nothing, he gets a grip on himself; check his fear, his desire to act out on the fear, his impulse to have his child be the recipient of his fear. And then he picks up his child and calls for the ambulance.

Let’s open a parenthesis and look at a less urgent situation.

We take roller coaster riders and watch horror movies and smoke dope just so we can lose our balance, our sense of habitual safety. We like it, as long as we know our balance will be restored. Children do the same thing: they turn and turn and turn until they’re so dizzy they fall on the ground, laughing all the while. A child might trip and fall accidentally, in the playground or at the beach. She might decide the fall is no big deal. She’ll get up and resume her running, as happy as only a child knows how to be. Or she might ponder the situation for a brief moment. While pondering it, she hears her mother’s voice: “Ohmigod! Are you okay? Are you okay?” The mother certainly behaves as if she herself thinks the child is in danger. The child hears it, loud and clear: “Mommy is upset. That can only mean one thing: a bad thing has just happened. I . . . I did a bad thing. I’m hurt. I’ll be punished. Bwaaaah!”

Your fear? Yes, your child reacts to it.

Anger? You bet.

Scorn and mockery? Yep.

Well-meaning concern? Of course. The child reacts to every emotion. And a parent’s well-meaning concern is a potential burden for the child to carry. I think the parent serves the child best by a tender attitude that says, “I’ll help you if you want my help. I’ll leave you alone if you want to be left alone. Cry if you want to, suppress your crying if you want to. I’ll wait for you until you’re ready.” This is different from saying, “Cry, baby, cry.” Or “Don’t cry, baby, you’re all right.”

Now we go back to our example of a child badly hurt.

Who is the ideal ambulance driver? Someone cool and collected, in full possession of his driving skills, his sense of direction, his capacity to ask for a police escort or warn an ER of his impending arrival. The ambulance driver is neutral, alert, and intelligent.

Let’s say you get your daughter to the hospital. Let’s say she has fractured her jaw and needs facial surgery. Throughout the entire ordeal—accident, ER, surgery, intensive care, recovery at home—the child reacts to your thoughts and emotions. Your duty, then, is to put yourself in the ambulance-driver state: neutral, alert, and intelligent. Your child hurts? You’re neutral, alert, and intelligent. Your child is in intensive care? You’re neutral, alert, and intelligent. Your child arrives home with her mouth wired shut? You’re neutral, alert, and intelligent, at her service in whatever capacity she requires you to be.

The human potential for self-regeneration is remarkable. I used to see a doctor who would hear my complaints, then say, “Call me again in three months if it persists.” Often the complaints dissipated, and I wouldn’t need to call the doctor back. Time helps; attitudes and their energies help, too. If you keep focusing on the problem, you’ll think “accident, pain, fear, danger, hurt, frustration, anger, guilt.” This very thought spins negative and unhealthy energies. To solve the problem, then, you have to stop thinking of it, and turn your attention instead to the solution: the intermediate steps, the indirect procedures, the side trips and tangents that eventually lead to the problem’s dissolution.

You’re going to entertain the child, keep her company, give her small gifts. But if she wants to be left alone, you’ll do that, too. She has her own powers of self-regeneration, and by doing too much for her you may be sabotaging her recovery. It’s no good to keep telling her, “You’re strong, you’ll recover; you’re strong, you’ll recover.” If she’s strong, she doesn’t need to be told it; if she needs to be told it, she isn’t strong; if you keep telling her she’s strong, she’ll suss out that you’re saying, “You’re not strong enough to recover without my telling you again and again that you’re strong.” And she’ll behave accordingly.

Give her time, space, the possibility of her taking initiatives even if some of her initiatives carry risks and dangers—as do all initiatives, without exception. Haven’t you been telling the child how she strong she is? Let her be.

The solution for every problem in your life starts with your doing nothing—every last problem, including stage fright, writer’s block, a twisted ankle, a troubled sibling, an exam, a lawsuit, anything. Within yourself, create a void: a neutral, alert, and intelligent state in which you’ll be able to stop focusing on the problem and start focusing on the solution. And don’t wait until you have a problem. Embody the void, now and always. Thanks to you, many potential problems will be preventively “voided.”

©2015, Pedro de Alcantara