Friday, October 19, 2007

TGIF …Once again it is Friday and my day to compete with the Chinese. So I have been sanding small boxes (something that could be a near-mindless activity) and reflecting on the unconscious nature of the hands. As I’ve quoted before from Jean Jacques Rousseau, “Put a young man in a wood shop, his hands will work to the benefit of his brain, he will become a philosopher, while thinking himself only a craftsman.” (Don’t look for this quote in English translations of Emile, as you won’t find it exactly as quoted here. It has to go from French to Swedish to English to arrive at this understanding). I want to explain a few things about the hands and how they work, and how they open the mind to exploration of philosophy.

At first, as the hands learn a skill, a great deal of mind and attention are required for their control. There is a constant back and forth feedback loop between the senses and controlling structure in the hands and the processing power in the brain. As the control of the hand activity becomes more clearly established, some of the feedback loop moves from the foreground of thought to an unconscious realm. This liberates the processing power in the brain to engage in mind wandering activity. Anyone who has paid the slightest attention to the workings of their own consciousness can see the truth in this, and a classic example is driving a car. Once you have mastered steering with your hands your processing power is made available to carefully observe of the road, plan your destination, and even allow your mind to wander to things completely unrelated to driving the car.

Every act of making, whether in wood, metal, cloth or clay is a moral act, shaped by thought, belief and desire. Decisions are made in making that reflect values, and in the act of making, those values are placed on the line as an expression of the character and quality of the maker that can be read and understood by others by examining the usefulness, beauty and quality of the object made. So what about the processing power of mind that is liberated when the hand’s work is mastered? That is the space in which philosophy is mastered as well… that opening of mind that lies well beyond the idle, detached-from-reality speculations of traditional philosophy.

In that space between the direct attentions that are required to complete the object, and the proficiency that grows to allow the wandering exploration of mind exists the potential for the development and expression of the human spirit.

A friend of mine had called it dual awareness. In the relationship between the hands mind and materials, there is a rhythmic expansion and contraction of required attention in relation to the object. By observing how our attention is balanced between the object being made and the normal tendencies for the mind to wander into other places and scenarios, a sense of our dual nature is attained. The maker is given a choice… either follow the wandering mind until difficulties arise in the making of the object, forcing attention to return, or choose to hold focus directly on the object, instilling a vital force of attention into the psychic structure of the object itself. The maker can take either the easy pathway of escape into fantasy until called back to reality by the materials being crafted, or the maker can apply his or her attention continuously to the making of the thing. The first is the path of least resistance, the second is the path of the peaceful-warrior/maker. The first describes the making of objects of practiced beauty. The second describes the making of objects with inexplicable radiance, and yet, how many do you think can dwell in that perfect state?

And so we come to the philosopher in the wood shop. He becomes a student of his hands and his attentions, and from that foundation explores the very nature of life and perception. When his mind wanders, he pulls it back from whirling thoughts of common life, to the task at hand, or failing that, onto the subjects of quality, beauty and mindfulness and to the people with whom he would share his work. Having heard of the peaceful-warrior/maker and having once seen her work, he is reluctant to squander his attentions on the mundane.

So, today, I am sanding boxes. My mind wanders. I try to place it more firmly in the moment, and from what I see and feel in my own hands and from the attentions I apply in the making of these few things, I have a hope that a few things in the world might change in the guidance of my own hands.

The photo above is of boxes being sanded.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Otto Salomon, Swedish educator and the international proponent of Educational Sloyd said that while the value of the carpenter's work is in the usefulness of the object, the value of the child's work is in the child.

Many years ago, I was a member of a meditation group, the purpose of which was to lift the understanding of its members to a broader, higher, and more encompassing perspective. The leader of that group offered an exercise in which the students were to look at an orange, first in contemplation of its form, its spherical shape, then in contemplation of its qualities as expressed by surface texture and color, and then move to the question, "who thought it up?"

We are surrounded in our lives by objects, either natural or man-made, and in naming them we feel a sense of relationship and mastery, and yet, the story told by the most simple object is well beyond the human range of perfect understanding. What we might feel as relationship and mastery don't come close to an understanding of complex reality.

The students at Clear Spring School can hardly wait to take home the objects they make in wood shop. "Can I take this home today?" they ask. There is so much excitement in holding and sharing with others the objects we have made. I know, because I see it every day and I feel the same things myself, about my own work.

It is a true challenge in this day and age to look up from our idle naming of things to see their intrinsic qualities, and much harder still to comprehend the incredible stories those objects tell. The best stories are those human ones, of obstacles overcome, of challenge, learning, discovery, and growth. The students at Clear Spring and their parents know that the objects they bring home are much more than just simple things.

Years ago, I sat with the meditation group during the exercise with the orange. A woman gasped audibly at step 3. The orange, she said, "disappeared for a moment in a blaze of light." Perhaps there is more to things than meets the eye. Perhaps there are things that meet the heart as well. There are doors of perception that when closed narrow our vision to the naming of things. Those doors open, reveal wonder, mystery and intense inexplicably profound relationship. And we get to choose.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Lessons from a broken cup... from Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Compiled by Paul Reps.

Ikkyu, the Zen master, was clever even as a boy. His teacher had a precious teacup, a rare antique. Ikkyu happened to break this cup and was greatly perplexed. Hearing the footsteps of his teacher, he held the pieces of the cup behind him. When the master appeared, Ikkyu asked "Why do people have to die?"

"This is natural," explained the older man. "Everything has to die and has just so long to live.

"Ikkyu, producing the shattered cup, added: "It was time for your cup to die."

A wise shopper sees the end as well as the beginning. He or she knows that in the acquisition of the object is the responsibility of its disposal. Every large truck arriving at the big box store has its partner, noisy with a gross odor due to the spoiled, infected nature of its contents, that carries away the no-longer-wanted, worn out and wasted stuff for burial in huge mounds or holes from which vile effluent spreads through the groundwaters of our nation to poison our communities.

A wise craftsman sees the end as well as the beginnings of his or her own work. There are lessons from the broken cup. We invest what we can of ourselves in the object, to insure its strength and ability to serve. We design things to be useful so they may serve and strong so that they may last. We make things beautiful so that others will care for them and know what is in our hearts. We know the things we make will not last forever. Some things we make will join the objects from the big box store, hauled away in stinky trucks. Some, however, may last and inspire others to make and to care. The wise craftsman knows that his or her time is short. Even the most nimble and creative fingers will grow tired and inept. At that time we will visit young friends in their homes, find the things we have made displayed as treasures, and when the time comes to join the broken cup, we will go in peace.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

From Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
And that door leads to Sarah's office. Sarah! Now it comes down! She came trotting by with her watering pot between those two doors, going from the corridor to her office, and she said, "I hope you are teaching Quality to your students." This is a la-de-da, singsong voice of a lady in her final year before retirement about to water her plants. That was the moment it all started. That was the seed crystal.

Quality... you know what it is, yet you don't know what it is. But that's self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There's nothing to talk about. But if you can't say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn't exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others... but what's the betterness?... So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?
So Google it. It won't help. Put quotes around it, "teaching quality" and you will find that everyone is concerned about the quality of teaching, but few care about the teaching of "quality." Putting wood in the hands of students, demonstrating how they can attain quality in their work, noticing when they do, and giving them the chance to do it again and again... it becomes a habit that grows beyond the woodshop.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The following is from Joe Barry:
There is a philosophical concept from the Zen mystic Takuan that basically refers to "the sword that takes life and the sword that gives life" Like most Zen koans it is paradoxical. Basically, you can choose to practice swordsmanship as just a way of killing an opponent. The more enlightened practitioner uses the practice of swordsmanship to improve himself thus "giving life".

With our hands we have choices whether to "give life" or "take life". It is tragic when we choose to misuse our gifts and take life rather than create beauty with our hands.
Thanks Joe!

I went to the hardware store after school today and they had the television on, watching the coverage of the tragedy. I mentioned the role of the hands in maintaining mental and emotional well-being and balance. Rudy, who is capable of fixing nearly anything, and Carolyn who is an artist as well as a part-time hardware store clerk knew even without thinking it over that my hypothesis is correct. There are those who have common sense, learned in life, and there are those with academic sense, learned in books. I realize that people would take my hypothesis more seriously if I had a Phd. in Psychology to back it up. I urge those of you who share common sense to arise in defense of our children. Turn off the televisions, trash the games, put tools in the hands of children and teach them to create.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Today, Joe Barry offered the following observation/question:
...a lot of people re-assessed their lives after 9/11. You may have seen the same influx into your rural area after a number of people left the city and the corporate rat race. Oddly enough, there was no influx into the crafts of those people. I guess the Vietnam war along with the counter cultural movement of the 60's is what sent so many of us looking for meaning in what we do. I wonder what it would take to swing our society away from all the cheaply made Chinese Walmart junk to a Swedish aesthetic of only buying well made and long lasting goods?
I can't say we had many come to our community specifically as a result of 9/11. Land and home prices are significantly lower in the Ozarks than in California or the east coast, and the internet is allowing some corporate people to work at home... virtually anywhere. They've been moving here for years, but they aren't artists or makers. They just want to be some place pretty where there is less crime and better lifestyle. The internet has allowed them to bring their work along on the move.

They're doing what I would have done if I had moved to the mountains with money, but in my move to the Ozarks, I had to make a living. I actually moved here knowing I wanted to work with wood, but as they say in Zen, "Poverty is your greatest treasure, never trade it for an easy life." I had to be a craftsman or wait tables, and making things was my preference. It also captivated me. To see an object created from start to finish in my own hands and from my own imagination was a powerful incentive to keep going. But without poverty to drive my effort and productivity, I doubt whether I would have found any success.

I remember having cousins visit from out east, and I could see that they were clearly shocked by my living standards and conditions. They were relative high-rollers at the edge of the computer boom, and they looked at my life as a self-employed craftsman as something either from Mars or the 17th century. But they could see I was following a dream and never expressed anything but admiration and respect. At the time, I lived alone in a one room basement apartment with the woodshop in the one car attached garage. The open flame gas heat made the apartment a torture chamber for finished work, allowing me to quickly learn the nature of the materials, its expansion and contraction from changes in humidity.

That Zen saying explains a lot. We can be lazy. We have to run for awhile before the endorphins kick in and we find pleasure in the run. We have to be driven by hunger and made hungry by failure before we find the motivation to succeed. We live in a time in which parents attempt to shelter their children from the disappointment opportunities they need most. So, your question, about how to swing us away from cheap stuff? A bit of voluntary poverty might help, and a better understanding of the real needs of our children.

I have a couple zen-like sayings of my own making, just to keep me rolling through hard times.
Confusion is the source of subsequent enlightenment.
When what you make and what you spend are exactly the same, you are in harmony with the universe.

I couldn't resist sharing one more view of Leon's basket. Since you can't hold it, you might as well get a close-up view. What you see is a section about 1 1/2 inches wide x 2 1/2 inches high.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The woodshop and afterschool meetings wore me out today, so I'm going to avoid the subject of zen except to mention that the empty cup referred to in yesterday's post is exactly the same thing as "undifferentiated consciousness." Most religious leaders would like to shape and mold your world view, filling your cup with beliefs to match their own rather than allowing you to see things clearly with your own eyes. Of course you are free to disagree, and hopefully you will explore on your own rather than accept my authority. I hope you will do the same in the exploration of your hands. Don't take what I say for gospel. Study your own hands and their relationship to your learning. If you arrive at the same conclusions I've reached there will be at least two of us. Most important, we will have arrived at authority based on experience rather than dogma.

The photos above were taken today in the Clear Spring Woodshop. Brian finished his model of the solar system along with others in the 3rd and 4th grade study of space. An item of the disappointment of most students, in the planning of the project we chose to ignore Pluto. The second photo is of Clear Spring High School senior Ike Doss turning a curly maple bowl on the lathe.

Monday, February 19, 2007

One more little zen thing before I move on. You may know the story of the zen master who, while pouring tea, kept pouring into the student's cup until it was overflowing on the floor. The lesson was that in order to receive the teaching, an empty cup was required.

Psychologists coined the term, “undifferentiated consciousness” to describe the state of both the newborn infant and the student of meditation. The state of undifferentiated consciousness is one in which no beliefs expressed in the form of internal dialog intrude to frame and control the experience of reality. The infant stares at the light, without an interpretive foundation to hide or distort its meaning. The student of Zen strives to attain that state, but most often while in safe retreat from society where there is no opportunity for truth to intrude.

To see truth for oneself requires the suspension of belief and a constant vigil to avoid illusion and self-deception. There are those whose meddlesome concerns about your beliefs you may find disconcerting. There are those who believe belief to be more important that acts or attitudes. Suspend belief, look freely at all, and act with love. You may learn to see the world, its mysteries and miracles with the wide-eyed wonder of a child.

There is a great deal more to tell about all this, which I will probably reserve for a Saw Zen blog which is in the works. I love the photo of Lucy shown above, so I just had to share it again. Wide eyes, open hands and heart full.
I always stick my neck out and then wonder afterwards why I've done it. It is the same with writing as with woodworking. Now, I've stated I would talk about Saw Zen, but it is such a deep committment. I am going to change my mind and offer it a bit at a time, rather than over several days. So, if you are interested, you will have to read between the lines and look more closely for it. It will be described over the course of months rather than days.

For the moment, I'll offer one thing. The sound of one hand clapping. Place your left hand in your lap. Hold your right hand out to your side. Move your right hand in quickly to a stopping point right in front of your chest. Were you listening? Do it again, and this time listen more closely. Can you hear it? It is far less mysterious than you imagined.

Most of what we believe is based on what we have been told. Most of what we see is based on what we believe. You have to go deeper into things to have real knowledge. It comes from the hand. Now that you know the sound of one hand clapping, we will go into something much more important. It is called, "the sound of one hand sawing." It is the start of a movement. It leads to many hands sawing and hammering, stepping outside comfort zones to make, create and serve. I call it the wisdom of the hands. The photo above is Arlo at work.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

I know that if you have been a regular reader of this blog, you may be suspicious that I've gone off the deep end. "Hey, Doug's talking about religion! He wants to go into zen!" But, I'm not really interested in religion here, but in how the hands shape belief. Are our beliefs shaped by experience in our own hands or are they implanted or imposed through the will, direction and insistence of others? There is an interesting text from the zen tradition called the Hsin Hsin Ming that I have found influential in my own thoughts. An often quoted line is as follows:

The Great Way is neither easy nor difficult for those who have no preferences. When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised. Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.

To state things more simply, "the devil is in the details." We take a thing apart for intellectual examination and promptly forget the whole of it and its greater significance. The worst of it comes when "heaven and earth" or the worlds of practicality and spirit are seen as divergent and separate from each other as is seemingly agreed upon by many modern religions.

There is another line in the Hsin Hsin Ming in which the reader is given a prescription for making the world whole.

To come directly into harmony with this reality just simply say when doubt arises, 'Not two.'
In this 'not two' nothing is separate, nothing is excluded.
No matter when or where, enlightenment means entering this truth.

Here, I am attempting in my own feeble way to explain the difference between zazen and saw zen. Zazen is built upon withdrawal from the world, retreat into spiritual meditation as distinct from the practical qualities of life. Saw zen is built upon the direct engagement in the world through the use of the hands in creating, making and serving. I know there are those who would point out that what I am describing are the two distinct yet traditional forms of Buddhism. If you are reading and want to interject, please feel free to leave a comment.

As I suggested in yesterday's post, this may be a slow process. Even one that will drive you from this blog for a short time. Don't forget to come back later. The table shown above is one I made of walnut in 1979 or 1980. It was made with through-wedged mortise and tenon joints and was designed to reflect my own interest in Japanese culture.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Saw zen...I want to spend a few days exploring a concept I call "saw zen". This may be a bit much for some of you, so you may want to check out for about a week or so and spend your time reading other things. Before I got so involved in exploring the Wisdom of the Hands concept through teaching at Clear Spring School, I was working on a book proposal I called "Saw-Zen, A Craftsman's Guide to Practicality and Spirit." Perhaps at some point, given time, I will be able to complete it and have it published. For now, it is enough to share a few of the concepts as they relate to the hands, woodworking, learning and growth.

A number of readers of sidebar materials in my how-to books and students in my classes have noted a similarity between my approach to woodworking and their understanding of Zen Buddist meditation. There is a concept in Zen called "zazen" which can be found in any number of internet sites through a Google search or in the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

Before I spend a few days outlining what is meant by "saw zen," I would like to point out that while "zazen" is practiced as sitting meditation, in withdrawal from practical affairs, "saw zen" is practiced while in full 100 percent immersion in the practical and creative affairs of daily life.

I plan to go slowly with this, so either check in for more or check out for awhile depending on your interests. The image above is of zazen. If you want to know what saw zen looks like, you will see evidence of it in nearly every other photograph in this blog. Believe me, the two are not to be confused or mistaken for each other.