Friday, June 15, 2012

Eating the Menu

A friend said to me the other day how they had heard the expression (from their Buddhist teacher) "... the map is not the territory, the menu is the not the meal, the money is not the wealth."

Hearing this mix of multiple wisdoms I wondered about the source of the quote. On looking, I was pleased to see the beloved Alan Watts there in the midst of the contemporary recapturings of this saying. The quote that comes closest is where Watts says:

"Intellectualisation creates a gap or lack of rapport between you and your life. You think about things so much that you get into the state where you are eating the menu instead of the dinner, where you value money more than wealth, and are generally confusing the map with the territory." (Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life: Collected Talks) (p.115) 

Alan Watts, with great respect, quotes his own source for this quote, when describing how the wisdom of sages is not in their teachings, as otherwise anybody may become enlightened by simply a reading of their text. He says in The Spirit of Zen (1958):

As it is, one may study these books for a lifetime without being any the wiser, for to seek Enlightenment in words and ideas (to borrow a phrase from Dr Trigant Burrow) is like expecting "the sight of a menu-card to reach and satisfy the inner processes of a hungry man." Nothing, however, is easier than to confuse the wisdom of a sage with his doctrine, ..." (p. 15)  

Dr Trigant Burrow (1875-1950), was a psychoanalyst, one of the founders of group therapy and the author of The Neurosis of Man (1949). The quote actually comes from his preface to William Galt's discourse on Phyloanalysis (1933). He describes how the 'outer symptomatology' is of no avail in reaching the 'physiological process resident within the organism of man' (p. 8-9). This search of the hungry person for a satisfying meal was a theme that recurred for Watts in his own exposition of Zen and spiritual wisdom. The conversation has turned away from the dinner, to our hunger and dissatisfaction. Ken Wilber, points this out with an evaluative eye, noting how the newer paradigms learn and recite the recipes, but forgot to perform the injunctions, to actually go and cook; to taste the results.

In drawing from this premise, in The Way of Zen (1957) Alan Watts compares the path of the menu, being the academic study of Zen, and the way of the diner, being the closed cloisters of practice without reflection or engagement, and finds both lacking. Perhaps, even in Zen, there is a middle-way. Yet the problem is not with balance, between sitting in contemplation and receiving direct instruction in the art of seeking. Each is needed, for conjunction, in great benefit. The problem really, it seems, is in the mistake of the attempt to escape from the dining table (or Zazen mat) into the abstraction of distraction.

From Does it Matter?: Essays on Man's Relation to Materiality (1971) Watts gets to the heart of things and talks about the problem of 'abstraction'. This is the human capacity for doing something quite remarkable (and doing that same thing remarkably badly). The human mind has the ability to move beyond the form to the essence of the thing, to be able to consider its symbolic reference, without losing the object of experience. We also have the distinct ability to miss the essence and take a shadow of the quality, making instead an abstract representation as its faint reflection mistaken as reality. To use Watts words: "'But you can always have too much of a good thing. You can easily confuse the measurement with what you are measuring."

To illustrate this, Watts draws a parallel between wealth and money. In wealth we have great riches, in money we have only the promise of what it can obtain. The menu contains anticipation and the dinner requires digestion. In a way, we actually prefer the description to the experience. As he describes: "The customer wants anticipation; he has no capacity for fulfilment." (p. 34). When offered the wealth of the lived embodied experience, or the money of prospective unquantified happiness, the choice it seems leads us to want what is always just beyond our grasp.

In the Tao of Philosophy (1995), Watts explains:

"... the abstract system takes over from the physical, organic situation. As a result, we have run into a cultural situation where we have confused the symbol with the physical reality, the money with the wealth, the menu with the dinner, and as a result we are starving from eating menus." 

Which brings us to the essence of the dinner (and to truly fine dining).  Alan Watts explains that the aim in early Zen practice (or any contemplative practice really) is to move from a discussion of the experience to the direct experience, to become 'part of the landscape, and to get into relationship with what is, distinct from ideas about what is'. In the intimacy of the experience of 'suchness', of 'isness', of 'Buddha-nature',  of 'Christ-consciousness', of 'Nature~mystic' or 'time-transcendent', we then might find that ...

... the quality of mind, the idea of an idea, the consciousness of consciousness,

is as 'real as rocks' ~ and has in its symbolism, an intimacy that is without distance,

... in the abstraction of its ever-just-there-now enduring essence.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Back to Bass-ics

As I near completion of my PhD Thesis write up I realised I needed a distraction from the mental ardour and daily grind. A form of relaxation that was not stagnation, so I thought I might do something manual - a different type of craftsmanship.

Being an amateur jazz musician and playing an eclectic mix of instruments from around the world, I decided that I would build an upright electric bass. Having played saxophone in quintets, I naturally hear bass lines in jazz - always listening for the melodic rhythm and the signal to the next shift. In signalling to myself for the next shift - it made sense that I would like to make a bass to lead that.

I thought this a reasonably easy task - and this is where the parallels with my PhD writing come in. We begin with a fairly innocent idea that does not look too difficult - and find a myriad of twists and turns. I chose to do this simply for the fun of the exercise and to play 'with' the idea (i.e. not being a bass player) and the task became quickly very interesting.

The construction of my upright electric bass (i.e. as opposed to an electric upright bass -  being a much harder task) began with a length of wood donated from a colleague, lovingly salvaged from a protected forest property in Victoria. This piece of milled timber was rough with bandsaw marks, too short for a length of floorboard, with unworkable knots and termite and borer holes grooved throughout. A saved treasure usually discarded. To me it held great potential.

I found there is something honest in working in old wood by hand. A square lump becomes shaped by eye, following lines of grain that resist becoming what is not there already. Like a PhD thesis, the truth emerges as one continues to scrape away, becoming ever more familiar with how the work wants to be - sanding, finding, refining, listening.

That is how it is sometimes. The truth of a work is in the removal of the obscurations to find the truth within. It is there and cannot be ignored without artifice, addition and contrivance. Eventually it is better to simply submit and listen to what is being revealed.

My physical process for producing this instrument, I found, ended up being the same as my mental process in the thesis research. Yours would be different. I'd argue though the level of comparison between any two would be similar.

I personally like to begin with an end picture of the finished product, not exact, but simply representing some key criteria. I wanted a fret-less bass that was as much about the art as the sound. It would need to actually work and be practical (i.e. transportable). As with my thesis, these specifications are exact, yet open. There are certain things it had to be useful for - to work to a certain level.

Then, like my PhD process, I began with a breakdown of many parts and an overall layout. I usually like to work with what is already available, building on from the discarded to find value in the overlooked. For the bass, I stripped down an old EKS Technology Cyclone five-string from a local pawn broker shop. Naively, I had thought 'how complex can this be'? I mean 5 strings, 5 machine heads, a bridge, two pickups. Easy. Apparently, from my inventory there are 163 parts in my electric bass (excluding the body and the strings). Until you do something, you never know how much there is to do. The whole is more than (but not less than) the parts - and none can be omitted.

Again, as a parallel with the thesis - there are always more parts to the whole than appears on a first glance. Fortunately, they fall into groupings and there are repetitions in assembly. Seeing these patterns makes composition an art in observation. Once we do once, we learn for the next time.

Also like my thesis, I began with a mock up. I literally took the dimensions of the set up and attached the bass pickups and bridge to the lump of potential wood and strung it up to see if the concept would even work. The wood might split under tension. There might be vibration resonance through the neck. The parts might fail. The wood might be too short, or thick, or warped. A million things might not work - and so better to find out sooner than later. Much was learned and especially that a worthwhile sound could be had without much modification. I like to have proof of concept before I begin. Then, there is the confidence to pull all that assembly work asunder and begin again from the pile of parts to re-assemble from first principles, this time with just a little more knowing.

Then came the long hours of repetition and refinement. The carving out of the insets for the pickups, jack and sound knobs, the scraping down of the square block into a human flowing form, the multiples of coarse and then fine sandings. It was with a sense of sufficiency that I began with the first coat of the twelve final layers of varnish. Like the thesis, we begin with the essential form and refine, trim, work and polish until the surface reflects back the self clearly and with brilliance.

I learned by this meditation in relaxation that the process by which we navigate and interact with our physical world is reciprocated and played out in how we navigate and interact with our mental world.

I have my bass finished now. I find it still a relaxation from the days editing of the thesis. This time, its in the playing. The bulky form  refined down to become an elegance of uniqueness. The intention is clear, yet the form is from its own following of what it originally always was.

And perhaps that is our role as artisans of thought and form ... we arrive with intention, work with integrity, with what we are given, and find in the obstacles to our virtue, a personal truth, arrived at only by the doing in something remarkably resonant ...

that sings in ways we could not have ever imagined.