Philosophy Tuesday

I want to talk tonight about the process of making art.  Because it is just that:  a process.

Rarely (if ever) does something come into our heads fully formed, gifted from the muses with perfection.  No, even in the best of circumstances we may have a vision, but it still needs to be rendered tangible so that it can be refined, then reviewed, then refined again.

More often, we begin with merely an inkling, or perhaps a smattering of them.  And then we need to, once again, render then tangible so we can see them, massage them, reflect on them and see what arises, then follow those paths, massaging and reflecting and following again, until we get to multitudinous cycles of refinement.

All to reach that ‘final’ product… which in actuality is really just the point where we stopped because if we kept going we (and others*) could see new things and we could elevate the work even more.

Fortunately, the works of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation provide excellent windows into this truth about process.  They have been remarkably generous in sharing the stories and histories of creation on a movie, from the earliest notions and sketches to the final product often five years later.  That there alone might be enough to have us grasp how much of a process it is, for five years is quite a long time to labour on something.  But it becomes even more palpable when we see just how different the early concepts and visions are to what ends up on the screen.  (Sometimes it feels like there’s no connection between the two at all!)  There’s tonnes of directions and ideas and themes that didn’t work, or didn’t work as well as another, or had their own pitfalls, or didn’t fit.  Along the way, whole scenes are discarded, whole elements excised.  At the most extreme, the entire last third of the movie, or even the whole movie, was tossed in order to rework and rewrite them towards awesomeness.  They’re not shy about this (clearly not, since they’re telling us about it).  I doubt its easy, but it’s part of the artistic process.

So why do we think this isn’t the case?  Why do we often hold a notion that true art somehow should come in a flash, perfectly formed, and if there’s even a bit of struggle there must be something wrong?  I’d postulate this: because, in the end, if the work has been refined and elevated enough then the final result feels inevitable.  Everything fits and sings and it seems like it couldn’t be any other way.

Here’s the takeaways that I wanted to create…

For one, an invitation to not be harsh or dismissive when we hear a work is taking a long time or is going through a lot of rewrites or editing or reshoots or whatever, depending on the medium.  That’s a part of the process.  The thing is not necessarily in trouble.  It’s doing what it needs to do. **

For two, a reminder to not be harsh or despondent towards ourselves and our creative endeavours.  Especially when they’re HARD.  And when they need wrangling, changes, shifts, refinement, refinement, and refinement.  It’s part of the process.

And lastly, to gather this all up and apply it to our lives and the grand art we all practice, that of the art of living.  For it is no different; it too is a process.  And as such we can be kinder and gentler with ourselves, and with others, and dance in the truth that it ongoingly requires great amounts of reflection, wrangling, changes, shifts, refinement, refinement, and forevermore refinement.

It is a neverending path towards increasing beauty.

 

* Because through this all we needn’t be alone in this – quite the contrary it’s much better to bring along a posse.  As noted before, “ya gotta pin your work up on the wall.

** I’d get more worried if there were no changes being made.  Maybe it’s the perfect conception!  But odds are not…

Philosophy Tuesday

I’ve shared before my love of the film Ratatouille, especially the bits of it that are wonderfully philosophical.  (See this post, this post, and this post.)

But there’s one bit in Ratatouille, right near the end, that I’ve come to realize that I’d been kinda ignoring to some degree, but even more so I have been willingly misinterpreting it.  Because to take it straight pretty much undermines the main theme of the whole film.

It’s this bit from Ego, during his review:

“In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”

It’s that last sentence.  For one, it seems to be at odds with the simplest readings of the motto to instead say: “Anyone can cook / but not really.  (Though hey, maybe that person can, and they don’t know it, so let them try).”  For two, it could be trying to create some strange distinction between cooking and capital-A art: “Sure, anyone can cook, but there’s cooking and then there’s Art Cooking (and most certainly not everyone can do the latter).”  Which leads to three, which is that this really seems to be trying hard to make a case that some people got it, and some (most) just don’t.  A few are blessed, while the rest are ordained to be ordinary.

This whole thing reads as though Ego is fully endorsing the Tyranny of Talent.

Which is a big NOPE! for me.  We are not squeezed out into this world being a genius or being a dunce; being a cook or being a GREAT CHEF ARTIST (or, equally, being totally food incompetent).  I do not subscribe to this kind of genetic essentialism.  We have so many influences, so many avenues, and, most of all, we can shape ourselves, grow, learn, and develop.  With enough time and patience and practice and clarity, we can elevate our skills to ridiculous levels.

Which, it turns out, is how I have been (again, willfully and intentionally) misinterpreting that line from Ego for all of these years.  I’d twisted it to be expressing this: “Not everyone _will_ become a great artist (because not everyone will have the time or choose the time or have the opportunities or the support systems or the luck or the desire or any of those), but we all have the capacity to do so, and thus anyone, from anywhere, could become a great artist, no matter where they came from or where they are right now.”

Which is much more in line with the theme and with Gusteau’s own motto.  We can all develop our craft.  We can all express ourselves and create something delicious.  And even if we never reach the idealized world of Great Art, who cares – it can still be damn good.  Let’s eat.

Philosophy Tuesday

Language is great. I mean, blogs would be pretty weird without language! Putting the bad jokes aside, though, language is so crucial to us as humans in that it frames just about everything, from our perceptions to our thinking to our experience of life and what life even is.

You know that great feeling of amazement we get when we hear a word that oh so perfectly encapsulates something that we’d been having trouble explaining or expressing? Or when the word is so illuminating that we become aware of something we had been totally blind to until that point? Language, and words, can be limiting, but it can also be amazingly empowering.

That’s why I love learning that in Japanese there are a pair of words that have the same English translation: “muzukashii” (むずかしい) and “taihen” (たい|へん). *

In English, both of these words translate to “difficult.” However, they are not the same: “muzukashii” refers to difficulty from complexity, whereas “taihen” gets its difficulty from an overwhelming scale. So, for example, for a math test a muzukashii would be a hard differential calculus problem, while a taihen would be four thousand simple addition and subtraction questions.

Which is very cool, because when we experience those kind of situations they are quite distinct. As are our reactions to them, or the efforts we may need to take to get through it, or how we might go about solving them, and a whole host of things. And when we talk about the obstacles that lie before us (both as individuals and as communities and more), it makes a difference to know what kind of difficulty it may be to take it on… or even if it may be different groups of difficulties, some relating to complexity, some relating to scope. Otherwise, it’s easy to collapse it all into a complex morass of epic proportions, leading us to dejection before we even start.

I’m keen on being mindful and taking this new distinction forward to see how it alters my perceptions of things and, from that, what new avenues of agency and empowerment it opens.

 

* I do hope I got the writing correct… I came across this distinction in a comment by glilimith on this Folding Ideas video.

Philosophy Tuesday

In life, when something (usually unexpected) pops up, there’s two ways we can proceed:  we can react, or we can respond.

They may sound the same, but they are different.  A reaction is an automatic impulse that usually is aimed directly back at the incoming force.  It, at best, resets the situation.  At worse, our automatic flailing further mires us or even might make things worse.

To respond, however, is to take what’s coming in and move it where we want it.   We listen, we engage, we reflect, we direct, and we bring it to a place of resolution.  In responding we have both agency and flexibility.

Perhaps the best way I got to experience this difference – and thus learn to distinguish them for myself – was through Sifu, especially through our push hands exercises.  With an incoming force, to react is to resist and push back.  Again, at best this might stop the incoming force, resetting the situation and allowing things to start anew.  More often than that, however, reacting causes us to stiffen or to overreach, leaving us spent, off balance, and open for an exploit.  And against someone with good sensitivity (ie, someone who is trained in responding), our reactive energy can even be used against us.

But when we learn to respond, an incoming force is not a crisis.  It is just an incoming force.  We can feel it, sense it, know its direction, know its intent, recognize what could be done, and then guide it to a place of safety – or beyond, harnessing it for our advantage.

No surprise, so too it goes in our lives.  With mindfulness and practice* we gain access to the beauty of responding.  A world of equanimity opens up, and with it the ability to create outcomes that empower and enliven ourselves, those around us, and the community at large.

 

* Especially in dealing with and doing the work to remove our “buttons” and worries and concerns and etc that have us freak out or get defensive, things that very much almost force us to react forcibly…

Philosophy Tuesday

The word competition comes from the Latin, competere, which means (according to etymology online) to “strive in common, strive after something in company with or together,” or, in the classical Latin, “to meet or come together; agree or coincide; to be qualified.”

And… wow.  That seems so much more expansive than how that word is normally used these days.  To strive together.  It isn’t an individual thing, and the outcome isn’t intended to be just an individual thing.  It’s about us all pulling together to attain new heights.

There’s no better reminder of this, in a very literal way, than perhaps the feel-good moment of 2021 when Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi shared the gold medal at the Olympics:

What’s even better is that they are good friends.  They’ve been competing for years.  Striving together, pushing themselves and those around them to aim high and see what they can do.  Sometimes one did better than the other, and vice versa.  They had fun with it.  They were competing to get fit together.  And you can hear in the interviews above how excited they were for how well the entire field was jumping.

All culminating to that moment where they gifted to us such unbridled expressions of joy.

Philosophy Tuesday

In the world of being, power is not synonymous with force.

Quite the contrary:  force is what is present when power is not.

Being truly powerful is when we are achieving our intentions without force or struggle, without browbeating or controlling those around you, without a tight grip or cudgels.  It is when things resolve themselves productively and with velocity.

Actual power is effortless.

 

(Now, it is true that we collapse the idea of someone forceful as being powerful all the time – which is especially nasty in the context of leadership, though that’s another conversation – but if we think about it, someone who was actually powerful wouldn’t have to use force at all.  If they’re using force it’s because they have to, well, force people to do their bidding.

On the other hand, when we’re open and authentic and related and fair and liked, we move and inspire others such that we can create together and, even more so, often they’ll even take it on themselves to realize it, and they’ll be fully empowered in/while doing so!

When we truly honour our word as ourselves and operate with integrity (not morality, but integrity), we needn’t fight ourselves or spend effort hiding.  And when those around us know we operate with integrity, great alignment, and thus great power, becomes possible.)

Philosophy Tuesday

I mention the middle path quite often… OK, I mention it a lot.  It’s such a fundamental principle that applies to nearly all aspects of our lives, the relationships we are in, the systems we create and live under, the functioning of our societies, and so many more areas beyond.  No matter how meandering or far reaching the philosophical conversations I have with someone are, they always seem to return to the middle path, either directly or easily relatable to it.  It’s so good.

So, here’s a common phrase that can help get a sense of what the middle path is as a concept: the sweet spot.  And while the middle path is both broader and more of a process than a single spot, the essence between them is still quite similar.   If trying to find the middle path is proving a bit perplexing, approaching it as trying to find the sweet spot might provide a great launching off point.

(And here this is a true point:  a point of departure.  It’s our first thought, and from there we can remain mindful and well-grounded in what’s so, adjusting as our understanding grows and as situations change, until we are truly walking the full width of the middle path.)

Philosophy Tuesday

I’m not sure of the best way to present this, so I’ll just dive in here by saying… it can be downright fruitful to look at our holes.

In that I mean that often many of our ways of being, and thus our actions, are in an effort to fill a hole.  Not a real hole in space and time, but one’s dug deep within our views of ourselves.  Holes created in times of stress from our past, holes created when we felt, in that moment, a failure to be enough.  Holes that we have dug deeper and deeper for ourselves over time.  Holes that we are so familiar with that either a) we are sure they are a fundamental part of us, etched into our soul the moment we were squeezed out into the world, or b) they are so omnipresent that, like a foul odor after some time, we don’t even notice them at all anymore.  They’re just us, and that’s just how life is.

We have these holes of all different types, sizes, and depths: Holes of not being good enough, holes of disconnection, holes of concern we’ll be seen as weak, holes of inability, holes of shame, holes of “I’ll never let that happen again”, holes of “If they knew this about me they’d”, holes of lacking and longing and upset and rage and so on.

And with those we go about and be our certain, fixed, ways of being, continually trapped in a straitjacket to produce the results we “know” will help to fill at least one of those holes.

Except that, when we truly get present to it, we have to face a certain and bitter truth: we can try to fill, and fill, and fill, and fill those holes some more, but it’s never enough.  Even though we long for the day where we overcome it and finally get relief, the hole remains.  Our acts of hole filling provide, if we’re lucky, on a fleeting moment of satisfaction and a feeling of agency – and that last one even turns out to be of the false variety.  Every time, we fill, and we return to the same.  Fill, and return to the same.  We cannot fill our holes.

The game, then, is to instead remove the hole.  To realize that the hole isn’t there by some hardcoded structure of the universe, no… we created it.  In that moment of stress, in that moment of feeling failure, we decided something and BAM!  The hole was created.  And, in perhaps the grandest of ironies, each time we tried to fill the hole we reinforced its existence.  Hilariously*, we’ve been digging it deeper.  Gah!

But when we return to the primordial and do the work to transform our relation to that moment in time, we can have the hole not be filled, or changed, but simply disappear.  We remove the hole by simply not digging it.  Our hole transforms and returns to whole.

And with that, like that, all those fixed ways of being, unproductive actions, franticness, stress, and pain dissipate, leaving us free, alive, and bursting out to live wholeheartedly.

 

* Hilarious in the kind of cosmic-laughter-after-it-pisses-us-off-and-oh-my-aren’t-we-humans-just-so-downright-fascinating-and-funny-creatures-and-full-of-foibles?