Saturday, January 3, 2009

Where does the mind go when the hand is at work?

Things move in patterns and waves. As you stand on the beach each wave will seem just like another. And yet each is distinct. It brings in new things. There is a renewal of interest in self-sufficiency and do it yourself that seems to be arising in many age groups. We notice it in our home, with our daughter Lucy taking a strong interest in cooking. Last night while I made bread, Lucy and Jean made a corn casserole, a dinner we shared with my aging mother.

In a way, the renewed wave of self-sufficiency is misnamed. It is about doing things ourselves, most often with others in mind. There at the heart of self-sufficiency, is the idea that something can be shared or offered in service to others. Scrapwood Bob is reading Build Your Own Earth Oven, Simple Sourdough Bread; Perfect Loaves by Kiko Denzer and Hannah Field. He plans to use scrap wood from the woodshop as his source of fuel. What fun! Reduce the growing pile of scrap and make bread at the same time. I hope to see photos.

There are two things that happen when we are creatively engaged in the making of things, making a meal, building an oven, or finely crafting an object from wood. On the one hand we shape the material present in our own lives to new form and we change the shape our own souls. We serve others through the things we make and we stretch ourselves in confidence and competency, moving from complacency to active participants in creation.

Early educators warned that we take on a mechanical nature through the repetition of acts. We do something and develop skill in the doing and then as the skill takes root in the hand, its function becomes automatic, no longer requiring the attention of the mind and thereby losing its educational value in shaping character and thought. I am curious about this. And ask, "What happens when we are fully aware of the implications of our actions?" What would happen if our schools became not just places where our children were to learn, but places in which they might serve as well, seeing the actions of their hands providing benefit to others?

I have this idea that when use use both the power of the trained hand to create, and the power of the mind to connect active hands-on service to higher thoughts and principles, the object made might become more powerful in its beauty, transmitting an energy that provides greater nourishment than would be found in objects thoughtlessly made or grown.

For this to happen requires training of both the hand and mind. As we learn skill in the hands and the attention of the mind is no longer required for the success of its actions, what do we do with the mind? As it becomes free to wander, where does it go? What do we choose for it's pasture? We can choose greater creativity, asking the question "what's next?" Or we can contemplate greater direction and more meaningful life. We can fantasize our own success. Or we can choose to indulge in fears and suspicions of each other. There is clearly a choice between dark indulgences and longing for better things, either for ourselves or others.

And yet, there is a third choice, the Zen choice. What if one were to choose to be fully present. Rather than allowing the mind to wander from the moment as though no moment mattered, what if we chose to pay greater attention to each grasp of the hand in kneading the dough, or each pass of the plane shaving an edge of a plank as though such things were so real and so important there is no reason for escape? There is an idea in Zen that it is about freedom, but perhaps freedom is not about escape.

So, these are just questions, about where we are led by our quest for self-sufficiency, about the baking of bread and the nurturing of human culture.

1 comment:

Barry Blessing said...

Perfectly said, Doug. Excellent books as well Doug - I appreciate your writing. From a different perspective on the same topic, in our "services-oriented" economy in this nation, without hands-on craftsmanship of material things, some of us have been reduced to a number in a database, a series of transactions, a stack of "loyalty" cards, our income and outgo on the bank statement, our financial ratios, mass marketed and produced things, egos that are defined by how many "friends" one has on Facebook, the assessed value of our house, the year of manufacture on our car, and the color and sheen of our credit card. It seems we are no longer human, but computers ourselves, a worrisome boast in a calculated age. Once proud producers, consumption has beset us.

Just because we can do something, doesn't mean we should. The need for understanding of manual labor, of crafting things, of the use of hands alongside the marvelous mind, ethics, of cause and effect, of history, of human memory, of the word "reputation", of long-term value, of heritage and legacy -- the need for understanding of all these concepts is great, from the youngest to the oldest among us. These understandings tie us to our realities, and anchor us in honesty, good relationships, positive self-esteem, good health, and a productive life. Thank you for your inspirations Doug.