I have just been struck by something I’d never realised before, but which is immediately so blindingly obvious that it’s already hard to remember why it felt like a realisation.
At the same time, like so many realisations, which can be ‘thought’ and understood in a tiny fraction of a second, they turn out to be much more complicated when you try to write them down, so please bear with me. I’m going to start by talking about practising and performing music.
A musician faced with a new piece of music for the first time will often play it through perfectly, and then find that they can’t play it anywhere near as well when they try again. This is something like beginner’s luck but – like beginner’s luck – it’s more than luck. The same will happen when practising a piece that you know fairly well. The best effort is often the first go through, and you will often falter in the tricky parts on subsequent attempts. The same will also happen when you don’t play a piece for years and then revisit it.
Why does this happen? Ask any musician and they’ll tell you that it’s because on the first go through you aren’t thinking about or analysing what you’re doing. As soon as you start to think, the brain gets in the way, and you ‘forget’ how to play things that you know how to play.
In the process of learning and then performing Western music, it’s absolutely necessary to think about what you’re playing, and about how you’re playing it. Analysis of the tone, style, technique and so on are fundamental to our musical tradition and you can’t improve as a performer within that framework without thinking about what you’re doing, looking for weaknesses, and finding better ways of achieving your intended interpretation. But the fact remains that you really can’t play reliably well while you’re thinking, so the thought and analysis has to be part of a preparatory process the end result of which is the achievement of knowledge that has been embedded beyond active thought and into innate or intuitive behaviour – wisdom, perhaps. At this point you can trust yourself to perform a piece of music, because you can switch your brain off and allow your body and your intuition to do the rest.
And now we start to get to the nub of the matter. As this musical metaphor hopefully shows, thought about and analysis of any aspect of how we live our lives are essentially useless in any real context, unless they have been processed into wisdom and intuition. Why? Because when you’re faced with decisions, you don’t have time to think. Thought is clumsy. It will paralyse you, make you make mistakes, or make you act in a manner that isn’t self-consistent. We only act fluently and in a way that is true to ourselves when we aren’t thinking about it.
Which leads to the conclusion that if we don’t like the way we behave when we aren’t thinking about it, there aren’t any short-cuts. We need to analyse our lives, think about it deeply, and transform ourselves until the thought turns into wisdom and the wisdom turns into intuition and we start to act in ways that we are happy with.
I don’t think there’s anything terribly surprising there, when focussing on each of us as individuals, but what about when we consider society as a whole?
Going back to the musical world again, it’s important to point out that not all musical traditions work the same way and Western music didn’t either until relatively recently – it’s really only over the last few centuries that thought and analysis have been so deeply embedded to its composition and so critical to its performance, and perhaps unsurprisingly I think it is safe to say that the same is true of life in the West. We have only been seriously analysing the way we each live our lives as individuals, and the way we treat others both as individuals and as a society for a very short period of time.
But what about if we don’t want to or can’t analyse and transform ourselves?
The way we act when we aren’t thinking is the result of the wisdom and intuition of our culture, which we have been immersed in since birth. (The pieces of music we already know how to play fluently.)
We throw away that intuitive way of being at our peril.
But as individuals and especially as societies we must be very careful to balance ‘practice’ and ‘performance’ in our lives. If we spend too much of our time analysing and thinking, and practising new ways of being in our day to day activities, we will fail to act with any fluency and accuracy, we will start to act in manners that are not self-consistent, we will confuse each other, and we will descend into chaos.
The abstracted minds of philosophers and psychiatrists and sociologists and their ilk explore the boundaries of the ideas that make up our intuitive beliefs and our collective wisdom.
When we are analysing and thinking about things, we temporarily forget the wisdom and intuition which is our starting point. It’s necessary to do that, otherwise progress would be impossible.
(You also can’t succeed as a composer without exploring the boundaries of accepted practice and questioning the framework.)
It is the job of the composer to push the boundaries.
It is the job of the performers to judge whether to play the new music, and in so doing to gradually embed it into our intuitive understanding, or to discard it as not helpful, not positive, not deserving of recognition.
If we learn and then perform a composer’s music that we don’t like, you’d be amazed how quickly you can learn to like it. But is that to our benefit?
attempt to compose a new piece of music for us to play. , we can begin to understand why the world is in such chaos.
But many people really aren’t that motivated towards self-analysis, and even if they are they tend to have been alive for a few decades before they get around to it. So how should people behave while they lack their own hard-earned individual wisdom and intuition?