Monday, 11 June 2012

the daily practice

A central idea in Paul Oertel's Discipline of Freedom workshop was the idea of the daily practice. I first learnt about this from Kath Burlinson, but I wasn't really able to understand it very well at the stage that she introduced me to it. Once again, I want to stress that anything I write about this is my own creation; I have no idea at all if my personal use of the idea bears any relation to anyone else's.

A daily practice can be five minutes, or five hours. What's important about it is that it happens every day, in the same way that cleaning your teeth happens, or eating happens. There's no discussion about it (though some people apparently work a banking system, where they move the practice around their week in chunks, according to how busy they are).

The practice can have the same structure every single day, or it can have a varied structure, or both. Its content reflects the way that Paul and Kath work in their workshops, in the sense that it's multi-modal. A person's main area of artistry may focus mainly on one thing (ie. painting, acting, storytelling etc), but their practice can weave in and out of many different media. It might start with a piece of text, which could be read, or performed, or responded to with paint or music or writing or the body. It might then move into a musical section, which again, could be followed or responded to any number of different ways. Or it might start with a physical response to music, followed by some kind of numerical framing (I'm going to write two lines, then dance again, then write two more lines...).

The overall idea seems to be to move you out of your analytical head (so, here I am starting my painting/writing, how will I begin, do I like what I did yesterday? I wonder if I should work on  my scales before I go back to the piece....). and into your feeling body.

After some time of working with bodily or vocal responses to text or music, my own experience, both in workshops and in my practice, is that the mind seems to clear, to quieten, to recede. When I eventually pick up my violin, or start to paint, what comes out is quite different to what would come out if I walked into the room and started the play or paint 'cold'.

This makes me think of Martha Graham's idea  about 'the channel':

There is a vitality,
a life force,
an energy,
a quickening 
that is translated through you into action
and because there is only one you in all of time,
this expression is unique.

And if you block it,
it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.
The world will not have it.

The way that my work is changing since experiencing the workshop, and more recently since doing a daily practice, makes it a little clearer to me that I have indeed been blocking something. My mind - my wanting and trying and hoping and trying to see - has been chomping up what has been emerging into my channel almost as soon as it manages to get out there, even though it knows well that it's doing this, and is at the same time trying to stop itself.

The 'container' of the daily practice is starting to sabotage this endless mind-created destruction. Why should this be? I'm finding it irresistible to think about this in terms of complexity theory... ;-)

Complexity theory is not, as commonly understood, a theory (...a bunch of theories, and interpretations of theories, actually...) which says 'it's all so complex, look how everything is joined up to everything else'. It's actually a theory about entities; about open, dynamic systems, which, like the idea of ecology in relation to the planet, exist as 'things' at the same time as being both open and completely embedded in lots of other 'things', both smaller and larger than themselves.

For example, a group of people who meet regularly to achieve a particular end, who have norms and patterns and a sense of identity, might be thought of as an open dynamic system. The system is composed of smaller systems (the individual people themselves) and is also part of much larger systems (perhaps various communities they're part of, or cultural norms which might govern behaviour, or belief systems). Each individual person is themselves linked into lots of other dynamic systems which are nothing to do with the group, and all of these different systems that they're linked to are also contained within the much larger dynamic of community, culture and language.

Biological versions of dynamic systems (ant colony, beehive, ecosystems, the planet...) are programmed for survival, and to this end are constantly processing things in and out of themselves, and reading signals all around which result in changes aimed at maximising this survival.  Any adaptive survival strategies that appear however, don't come from a central heart/brain/queen bee - the whole thing is managed in a distributed way, rather than being directed by anything in the centre. Changes that benefit the system emerge  in a way that can't be tracked back in a step-by-step way to any particular cause or action, often quite suddenly. So what has this to do with the daily practice?

Key conditions for emergence are: 1) the system is open to and constantly interacting with its environment, 2) it's joined up to multiple other systems by innumerable feedback loops, which are constantly modifying each other in unpredictable ways, 3) these multiple connected interactions have been going on through time - they have a history, 4) the interactions are taking place within a set of constraints (ie. the system has a boundary, albeit permeable).

A human being is a dynamic system, a biological entity that meets all the above criteria. It's also more complicated than many other dynamic systems in nature because it has consciousness; it can see and analyse and deliberately affect things such as its connections, or aspects of its dynamics. This also has limits - the human mind can try to affect things only to find itself sabotaged again and again by aspects of itself which are invisible to consciousness; unseen physical and emotional forces.

As an artist who had no daily practice, I was doing my best to 'get out of my own way'; to notice evidence of self-sabotage, to be disciplined in my work etc etc. One of the really difficult paradoxes of doing creative work seems to be precisely that you're trying to get out of the things that have constrained you for so long (the history of your discipline, your training, the limitations and assumptions of prevalent artistic culture etc). But many people find that facing a blank page every day is far, far harder than someone saying, 'here's your blank page, here's your essay title, you have until this time next week to finish'.  We're desperate to go beyond all of the constraints we've been brought up on, and but at the same time, we quite quickly come to learn that trying to create in a vast open space is extremely difficult.

I'm wondering if that's why up to now this has been so difficult for me. I've finally, more or less, achieved the space and freedom that I've been aching for all my life. And since I've been in it, I've been as lost as an abandoned puppy.

The daily practice provides me with a very clear set of self-chosen constraints. I work for one hour, and one hour only. Whether I feel like it or not (I always do, so far), whether I have an idea or not, whether I know where I'm going or not. I don't work 'on painting' or 'practice my violin'. I work on a lot of things, different every day, as they emerge and lead into each other. It doesn't feel difficult. It feels like a release.

Within a couple of days, something quite different started appearing in my work. Nothing that I felt pleased to show people (no work on flickr at the moment, as I no longer need it to try to see where I've been and what the hell I think I'm doing). Nothing radical, in terms of any onlooker. But something which integrated a number of things which are a large part of my interest history; most particularly, a lifelong interest in Indian Art and philosophy (which I studied for my first degree). Where had all that GONE? It had tried to come out, quite recently, and my mind had squashed it and called it strange (actually, not 'strange', but 'bonkers', until a friend suggested to me that sabotaging the results of my creativity in that way was perhaps unhelpful....). Within a week of starting my practice, I was weaving in and out of something completely new. Something that was joined up, somehow. Something which felt like it knew itself, had been waiting in the wings. Something that brought many disparate things together...

Which reminds me of a quote I read recently about making images in the Indian tradition, which seems to support beautifully the Discipline of Freedom way of working with multiple modalities:

The knowledge of iconography depends upon the correct understanding of the rules of both sculpture and painting; a true mastery in the latter is unattainable without a knowledge of the art of dancing, which is again supplementary to one's full acquaintance with the science of music.

Shukla, II, 1958:26

I have no idea what's going on with my work at the moment really, but it feels like a relief, instead of a strain. And I've remembered a kind of creativity that I had more or less forgotten, a creativity that arises, easily and consistently, like a gently bubbling spring - as opposed to my recent years of wanting, and trying, and hoping.

Without the constraint of the daily practice, there wasn't much emergence. Everything was too open, too wide, and I was blocking off essential parts of my historical, emotional and physical system with my mind.

But with a daily practice providing the constraints which a dynamic system needs, in order to contain the multiple reactions which are going on within it and passing through it, suddenly there's emergence.

Emergence is creativity, and it largely bypasses the mind.

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