Friday, February 4, 2011

Around and Around and Around

Item: When I received my black belt, I was delighted to be invited to the special “black belts only” class. In that class, we worked on 3 of the basic techniques from our “beginner” kata, “heian shodan.”

Item: About to challenge for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world, the contender was asked what he’d been doing to prepare for the fight. He announced, as if revealing a secret weapon, that he’d been working on his jab – the most basic punch in boxing and the first one you learn.

Item: I once dated a brilliant cellist who began her daily practice early --- VERY early -- every morning by playing the major and minor scales.

Many people conceive of mastery as a long path from point a to point b. “The journey of a million miles,” as they say. There’s a notion that as you learn, more “advanced” stuff replaces the “basic” stuff. Even that the “basic” stuff is what you have to grit your teeth and suffer through in order to get to the “good” stuff.

I suppose this is part of the “inoculation” theory of education found in academia that says once you “take” a course you don’t ever have to “take” it again. You have the antibodies.

Let me offer you a different model.

Imagine a great stone tower. The kind your mother used to make – if she was a Norman lord. It’s round, more or less, and 4 or 5 stories high. Maybe higher.

Inside there’s a staircase that spirals around, from bottom to top. At each floor along the way there are narrow arrow-port windows, north, south, east and west, and points between.

Let’s say you enter the north gate and start your ascent. To reach each higher floor requires one full turn around the spiral, and you can look out the windows as you go, north, west, south, east….

At the bottom level you can see the front mass of the attacking army, a wall of shields and swords.

Around you go and up a floor.

When you get to the north side again, you see the mass of the attacking army, but from your new higher perspective, you can also see that it appears to be 8 ranks deep.

Around you go again and up another floor…

When you get to the north side this time, you can see a rank of archers a short distance behind the front lines.

Around again….

Now, at a higher level, looking north you can make out squads of cavalry gathering behind the archers…

Around and around to the top.

From the top of the tower you can see for miles. Beyond the ranks of the opposing army, you can see men building siege engines at the edge of the forest; beyond the forest, farmers in distant fields plowing with oxen, oblivious to the battle; beyond that, distant hills, growing dark under the gathering clouds of an approaching storm….

Learning is a lot like this.

Your journey of a million miles isn’t linear; it’s circular.

Each time you come “back to where you started from” you’re at a higher level, with a different perspective, which gives you a better understanding of what you saw before – or what you couldn’t see from your previous level, even though it was always there.

Things that were obscure at a lower level are in plain sight at higher one.

Whether it’s working on your jab, or playing a major scale, one thing that masters know is that everything important is there right at the beginning. The most vital things are contained in the most elementary techniques. What is true is true of everything, in all times, in all places, for all people, in all situations.

Even if you can’t see it from the level you’re on right now.

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