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.