There is much misinformation about what a koan is for- it is never meant to be 'solved'. It is designed to build awareness of incongruity, of a disconnect, of living with contradiction. They were originally used in a quick fire fashion and quickly forgotten or passed on from or handed around in a neutral fashion- otherwise obsession would develop. The only remnant of this is the vague knowledge that a lot of laughing is usually involved- this is the remains of what was used to neutralise obsession. The teacher never required a response from the student- the whole point was for the student to become of aware of ALL his responses.
Micromastery - learn small, learn fast and find the hidden path to happiness will be published by Penguin books (UK) in May 2017. It will be published in China, Taiwan, USA, Germany and South Korea in the months after that.
People clamour for exercises. It's no good in a martial art telling folk it's all about stance- they want exercises. So they get them. Exercises exist to build awareness. The exerise may look like something else- an attack, a punch, a throw- and it may 'work'- but it exists to build awareness- so that you may become your own teacher. A teacher is someone who helps build awareness. They direct you to activities that shift you up the neural ladder- by this I mean you become aware of greater subtleties, broader connections. When you become your own teacher- you already are- this is more about a shift in emphasis, in dependency, you actively seek out that which increases awareness. You might even invent your own exercises.
In many mystical traditions they also have exercises. These have several functions including providing a teaching matrix in a culture which outlaws the verbal expression of certain ideas. But if people get verbal about exercises they miss the chance it offers- to build awareness. You can also easily become obsessed by certain exercises- yoga offers plenty of examples of that. Because the body and mind are so interlinked physical exercises are a convenient way of shifting one's attention. Becoming aware of this, of both the body and the mind and the ability to shift attention, is the important thing- not the mental 'experience' of calm or feeling good. Talk of centres is a way of shifting attention and building awareness. Centres tend to coincide with places with the most nerve endings - making the acquisition of subtler circuitry easier- but you could have a centre in your big toe if you wanted.
Thick skinned people are good at business. They don't take no for an answer and they keep soldiering on. Little things don't bother them or throw them off course. They are tough, and lacking imagination, find it easy to accept the importance of courage. Thin skinned people are more sensitive- to everything. Which is why they have the best ideas, see things coming sooner than anyone else, and are much more creative all round. But being thin sknned they get easily spooked and thrown off course. Thick skinned people cannot see any reason to grow a thinner skin- they lack the sensitivity to know that it has many advantages in improving awareness. Thin skinned people can't bear the idea of growing a thicker skin. They see it as becoming less human. In fact both operations are possible. Many successful enterprises are the result of a happy mix of thick and thin skinned people- both accepting the other's qualities- as long as everyone is prospering. There's a saying- 'through thick and thin'- which could be said to sum up this kind of partnership. Of course there are natural proclivities which get exaggerated by living, but most people can alter the thickness of their skin by shifting where they chose to put their attention. The hard part is to decide to start choosing.
The great literary agent Bruce Hunter had one piece of advice to struggling authors; Just Keep Typing.
It's what you do if you're a writer. If you find you can't, get a better typer, a new keyboard, a new computer- whatever it takes to get you back in the slot- typing.
Stop complaining: you chose it. You could have been a fireman, a doctor, an artist a composer- but you had to chose being a writer didn't you?
So shut up and just keep typing.
I used to dislike the word composition. We did essays at school when I was quite young called compositions. I quite liked them but they were very mechanical. Whenever I read the word later, where it was associated with art, I thought of the academy, of young ladies trying to draw; it was no use to me. Later, doing photography I met people I respected who talked about composition and ‘good composition’. It had no meaning for me beyond getting some interesting elements in the frame in a harmonious way, probably a bit cheesy looking. I mean some of Cartier-Bresson’s shots are only an inch away from cheese and some of his Indian shots are cheesy- and he was the master of composition. I preferred the seeming chaos of New World photographers Friedlander and Winogrand. And all of this was because I had the wrong association with the word composition. But I kept the word in mind. It rattled around, homeless, no meaning, no use, but hopeful, ready at hand if a use could be found for it. And after a year or two I started all of a sudden, taking more care in the framing of my shots- not in a 2D way but in my point of view, my angle of attack- a combination of where I stood, the angle of the camera, how everything balanced up in three dimensions not two. Suddenly I got this whole composition thing. Before I had a 2-D sort of graphic design idea of simply moving stuff around in the frame. But instead of thinking about that think of circumnavigating your subject looking for the right slant, the right way in, the right balance. And not just a planetary circumnavigation, zooming in and out as you circle it too. Zooming by moving bodily I mean rather than using a camera zoom which puts you back in the 2 D world I feel. I used to think light was everything, now I think composition is everything- I’ll recover.
The French foreign legion provides a ready made identity to men wanting a tough adventurous life. The purpose of the identity is to keep you on course. You look at yourself in the mirror and go ‘yeah, I’m a soldier/sailor/tinker/tailor and this is what I do’. The identity gets you through the days. With an identity you can persist and achieve something worthwhile. Identity is like a suit if clothes. Imagine having to do a job in public stark naked- you’d keep having to fend off people’s stupid comments. Well those comments come from your inner critic when you have no identity. Simply being clothed lets you get on with it.
The reason identity is a big deal is that your identity gives you assignments. If you are a ‘writer’ telling yourself to write a novel is no big deal- it’s what writers do. But if you are in ‘tinker’ mode you’ll be full of self doubt. Also the identity includes an off the shelf set of behaviours that help you achieve what people with that identity usually do. It’s like getting the overalls and toolkit of a plumber and so, when you turn up to fix the tap you are halfway there already…which reminds me, a friend who is a builder told me that everyone now has workwear and proper tools whereas in his day you just wore your old clothes. People have a stronger need for identity these days- traditional identities are seen as compromised or even repugnant- the St George’s cross of England is identified by some as signifying far right sympathies. The ‘working class’- originally a strong identity becomes diffuse with the creation of a welfare state and free universal education. Without strong ‘off the peg’ identities people have to work hard to create their own. Hence the American habit of spieling out your lifestory/mission purpose whenever you meet someone new- this is your identity.
If you are unable to give yourself big assignments, or big enough assignments; or you can’t take such assignments seriously, then you need to tweak or change your identity. The easiest way is to hang out with people who already have that identity. Just as an actor can ‘catch’ a character by hanging out with someone, so, too, can an identity be caught. Strangely enough, when you know all the mannerisms and details of an identity the bulky mid part of actually doing what the identity does is relatively straightforward (easy or not).
Identity is the very devil wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein- and it is! When we have a strong identity we find our motivation is clear. We know what we have to do. I know writers who complain bitterly about doing PR talks on the radio and at bookshops and festivals ‘I only want to write’ they complain. But they do it, because all that PR is now part of the identity ‘writer’. You see how identity ‘creep’ begins. Eventually an identity can have nothing to do with its original activity. This doesn’t seem to matter, unless, perhaps, you want to pursue that original activity…sometimes the only way to do that is to adopt an ‘outsider’ identity. Outsider artists are able to dispense with many of the silly attributes of modern artistic practice (commercialism, publicity, academicism) and just get on with being super productive. It gets even more confusing when insiders mimic being an outsider artist…
The way to cut the Gordian knot of identity is to ask the simple question- is it using me or am I using it? If you have to spend twenty years in the army doing the dirty work of politicians in order to feel tough then I suspect you’ve been used.
There is nothing magic about an identity. Think of it as being like a cartoon. You can have the barest outline and get the character immediately. Or you can have a very lifelike drawing that lacks verve and movement, seems dead in fact. You could go to all the trouble of joining the army only to find you have a desk job. You have the externals but not the inner reality. So the essence of identity is having the bare minimum to get the job done. How much ‘baker’ identity do you need to bake a decent loaf.
The essence of character lies in details. Why do army uniforms have all those fiddly bits on them, all those tassels and braid? Because these details constitute a distinct identity. One key to identity is it being distinct and prominent- it should be burnt into the cells of the brain. This is either done through repetition of an activity or through it being memorable…the important thing is to have just enough identity to get the motivation to do what you want to do. Going on a course is often a good way to get a new identity- often more important than what they teach you on the course.
For a long while I didn’t tell people I was a writer even though I did a fair bit of writing in my spare time. Then I decided I would, it helped me complete and publish my first book, it added a bit of steel to my purpose. If you’re an ordinary bod getting a book published is a big deal, but if you’re a writer it’s normal. Anxiety levels drop.
Maybe that is the key. Anxiety is the big killer of successful attempts at things. We get anxious and we fail. I’m not talking about the slight tightening and tuning that comes with being stretched, I’m talking about dithering and losing confidence and going to pieces. Your identity, like the soldiers uniform, helps you to avoid this. You have a new normal. Of course, identity is no guarantee of succeeding in any enterprise, it is just one more tool that may be of help. The main thing is to have just enough detail to con your chattering brain you can do the job...
We live in a success oriented culture- the trick is to have access to as many forms of success as you can. Some allow themselves to be trapped by the money version of success, the fame version or the longevity version. But we should try to come up with more, many more. One sort of success I've been looking at recently is simply improving your environment. Your absolute proximate living space. Incrementally make it better, keep improving it - not in a big sweep but by taking small bites. Entropy wears things down over time so to balance it you need to keep an improving state of mind rather than a steady state.
Improving your environment connects easily to what I've thought of as 'bulking up'. Gather together all that you have done of something- be it creative, memories, written material. File it. Print it. Publish it even. Be proud of it. Don't let your personal archive be treated disrespectfully.
There is a kind of fake humility which masquerades as humility but is really a giving up, a sort of nihilistic impulse.