Monday, 11 November 2013

the daily practice, take 2

The daily practice is a very specific aspect of Paul Oertel's Discipline of Freedom work.

A daily practice is not 'practising your scales'. It's not that thing you do where you discipline yourself to sit down at a certain time, or for a certain length of time, and repetitively work on small corners of technique, over and over again. Of course, this kind of technique work has to be done, but it's not my understanding of 'the daily practice' in the DoF context.

I've written about this before. I wrote about it a couple of times after my first DoF workshop in May 2012. I'm not going to look back at that now, though, I just want to try to articulate what I think it is now.

In a daily practice, you don't practice technique, you set off on a exploration. You give yourself permission to shut out all the 'shoulds' and 'oughts'; either in the rest of your life, or in relation to your art form. You decide what form you want it to take, and you can change it whenever you need to.

It might be quite free, or it might have a structure that you've decided on. Some people work with something like 'three bits of movement, two songs, two sonnets, and then a painting'. Some people only do it for five minutes a day, some do it twice a week. An important aspect of this is that the structure you choose, and the length and frequency of the practice, has to be something that you are committed to doing, regardless of anything else that's happening in your life.

I remember when I came back from the workshop last year sticking to an hour a day for quite a while, and some quite different work started to happen. All the Indian dancers came out of that time. After a while, though, although in theory I really could have kept it up, something about the length of time, and the formal structuring of the practice, started to get fixed, to feel like a thing I had to do. Which doesn't work at all for me. I over-disciplined myself in a very rigid and will-driven way for decades, and these days my body and my whole being go into revolt if I start to do anything that feels forced or rigid (which is one of the reasons that all of this structuring of creative work is so difficult for me).

Because of this old habit of over-disciplining, sometimes I've been forced to see that my practice for the day actually has to be not doing the practice - releasing myself from that sense of fixed obligation. If I'm tired, or stressed, or wound up, my practice sometimes has to be  to just STOP, and not do a damn thing. Which frustrates the hell out of me because my default is to want to do this kind of work all the time. Interestingly, though, when this happens, it turns out to be exactly the right thing - when I do stop, I suddenly see that I've been busy and running and not in myself properly at all; all in my head, following lists and intentions and 'have to's. So the practice of not practising is as effective as the practice of doing the practice, if it's judged correctly.

In the end, though, I lost sight of what was a practice and what wasn't. I realised that the practice was a whole lot more complicated than I had thought.

I came away from the DoF workshop this time with a different understanding of what this was all about. For a start, I had tended to see it as a block of time, and one that had to be 'made space for' in the midst of the changing complexities of daily life. Finding that full hour was sometimes pretty difficult. Also, in that conceptualisation, there was a kind of 'in the practice' 'out of the practice' thing, despite the fact that Paul had made a joke on the first workshop about Nancy sending him out to the freezer to get something and him having written a sonnet by the time he came back....

When I got back this time, I suddenly realised that I had missed a lot of musical opportunities at the workshop, where there had been more musicians than ever before. I'd gone with such a fixed idea of my intentions around voice and art, that I'd hardly noticed that my music channel was completely blocked up. I realised on the workshop that my movement channel - which I always assume is the one that comes so easily to me - was also all stuffed up. I could do the movement work, but it felt wrong, disconnected. I was moving my body, I realised, through the moves I used to make last year - a kind of knee-jerk habit that I was no longer fully connected to, something that could  happen in the witnessed space, but that didn't feel entirely honest. It was coming from a body memory, instead of from being connected to myself in that moment.

So now I see that one of the points of the daily practice is to KEEP EVERY CHANNEL OPEN. Because I had been singing every day, and painting every day, I was able to properly work in these channels both with others, and when being witnessed. But I couldn't just pick up one of my three instruments with ease, despite all the glorious musical things that were happening.

It's easy to tell myself that I can't play easily in that situation because I don't have the years of  training and practice that others have. But actually, though I could do with a whole load more technique (which I'll never get because 'practising' things that are designed to improve me kills all my joy stone dead...) this isn't point. With my limited technical skills, I can play just fine with people who have more training and experience than me, IF I'm open in that channel; if there has been a relationship with the instrument through time, and it doesn't feel like a stranger.

I've found it very hard to 'stay focussed' on movement, violin/viola/mandolin, voice/piano, and painting, equally. One always seems to get the upper hand, in terms of my day to day work. It's as if I can only concentrate on one thing at a time, in a way that I don't fully understand. Perhaps it will always be this way, in terms of things like preparing for a show, or whatever it is that demands most of my attention. But I see now that the practice of all four, in order to keep them all open, is essential to me. I don't think it has to be a a lot of time on any of them, it just has to be that all four are connected with, in some way, every day.

I currently have a commitment one song/voice piece, on movement piece, one painting and one violin/viola sounding a day. It doesn't have to be  in  specific daily practice time, or for a particular length of time. This seems to have been one of my main problems. It's not, 'go into the practice' and 'come out again', it's 'be in a state of creative awareness off and on throughout the day'. So, draw a bit here, sound or sing in the kitchen, move, if necessary, in a public toilet, or as I go up the stairs (differently!), play a bit of viola while listening to some recorded music.

In other words, STAY AWAKE, in a creative sense, as much of the time as possible....

The reason that this is important is not only so that I can develop my work, allow it to move more freely, encourage different things to relate to each other and produce new forms of emergence....

It seems to be important in relation to what I was writing before about creative energy. If my creative energy, which I see as my actual, biological and physical life force, is not moving through me freely, I don't feel right.

I don't feel right physically, I don't feel right emotionally, I don't feel right psychologically, I don't feel right in relationship, and I don't feel right alone. This practice holds the key to my life.


  1. Dearest Tamsin - just to say that in my understanding a practice has never been "something that you absolutely can do, every day, without fail." I have NEVER managed this! True, I did 6 or so days a week of 12 mins breath practice for 6 months (my first ever practice), but since then, if my practice became that much of a discipline at the expense of my freedom I know I would begin to find it a chore and not want to do it! In my experience, the practice needs to suit the person, at that time in their life and art. It could be once a week. Or every day, or every 3 days, it could be 5 or 50 minutes or have no time frame. It could be anything that works specifically for that person. And it can change. And it could be to free/open a channel. It could be to meet myself. It could be to experience sticking to a form. It might not be called a practice at all, but something else, such as 'research' (but probably not for us ex-academics!). It is so personal to each of us - unique beings that we are. And yes it could be that today the best thing I can do is not practice. For those of us who find discipline relatively easy (such as you and I, though not everyone), sometimes it's good to let ourselves off the hook and see how it feels to abandon a practice. Above all, for me, most mornings my practice is an opportunity to connect with myself, before I hit the 'to do' list. And I have found that the more I do this (and run AA workshops etc), the more I live in the world of the practice itself, so there is far less of a dichotomy between the psychophysical world of the practice and my daily life. They are merging. An instance of this was when I was doing my accounts, not so long ago, and suddenly found myself inspired to write a poem as I contemplated how receipts evoked specific memories. The poem 'Accounting for Myself' swiftly followed. It was outside my formal practice. It was inside my life. xxxxx

  2. Kath, you're right, I actually contradict myself in this post. I first of all say that some people do it twice a week, and then I say that you have to do it every day! I think what I meant was that you make a commitment to yourself to do whatever frequency you've decided on (and that you can change it). Thanks so much for engaging with this, it's brilliant to hear what it means to you, how you see it, feel it.

    I think when I wrote about the practice before I put on a disclaimer about it just being my view - I'm very aware that my understanding of this idea is developing all the time, and for sure what I think it is won't be what it is for someone else. I should probably make this clearer....

    But I'm glad that I didn't because it means we got to hear from you! Thanks. xx

  3. I love your example of how your 'Accounting for Myself' poem came. This is a another thing that often confuses me, actually - the idea of the practice and non-practice in relation to creating things. I don't only make art during the time that I'm doing the practice. I paint, or play, or write, at all times of the day and night, just when it comes. So how is that different from 'the practice'....? Well, sometimes I suppose it isn't different at all. But for me there's something special about the practice time, it's not quite the same as the time when I'm doing stuff in the rest of the day. There's something about putting a specific time aside to explore, I guess, and to consciously or unconsciously move across different forms - that's one of the things that I find most amazing and exciting about it.

    Without a practice, I would paint for a while, and later I would sing. I might at some point invent something I thought I was trying to do, or ought to be doing, in either of these forms. But in the practice I'm free to completely play, and it usually surprises me. I end up playing my viola at the same time as dancing, or painting something I would never 'think' of painting! I love that!



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