What got me into thinking in a new way about the relationship between me and the subject of unfolding-vs. control was a conversation with someone for whom the relationship was clearly quite different.
Mara and I first “met” when she called into a radio show I was doing, but we only discovered this after we’d met socially. She and April had met through a third woman whom April knew because of their mutual interest in La Leche and whom Mara knew from their common involvement in a network of homeschooling families.
April and I shared with Mara and her husband a commitment to our children, and to the quest for a world in which the important things received more caring attention. But philosophically we were coming from very different directions. The homeschooling crowd included our La Leche friend, but the preponderance of the families were approaching the instruction of their children in a much more conservative spirit. Politically conservative, to be sure, but especially religiously conservative. When I met Mara, she was fairly new to the area, and it was only a political conservatism that was evident. She and her husband had both been career Army people before settling down and having their family, and she saw the world in much more hierarchical terms than we did.
As the years went by, the group of families with whom she was in frequent contact had added a strong biblical dimension to her conservatism. Her complaints about the public schools started to include mentions of how the textbooks treat the biological theory evolution as if it were true instead of “just a theory,” a line that I instantly recognized as reflective of her new subculture.
On the particular occasion that played a role in this project, it was she who made the move to join an issue. And it concerned the question of how we should bring up our children.
“I almost called your show the other day,” Mara said. “It was that show you did with that woman minister from Minnesota– on whether parents should see their role as being to help their children become what they already are (or some such thing), or should guide them toward the parents’ image of what they should become.”
“Yeah. I called the show ‘Parents’ Agendas, Kids’ Desires,'” I replied. “What would you have said if you’d called?”
“I’d have come down strongly on the ‘Parents’ Agendas’ side of the argument,” Mara answered. “Actually, I’d not so much have argued a point as described what, as a mother, I do on that score.”
“I’d be interested in hearing what you’ve got to say, if you’re still up for it.”
“When I tell the kids what I want them to do, I don’t expect –I don’t want– a lot of questioning. They should trust me –and I think I’ve earned that trust– to know what’s good for them. And they should follow what I tell them.”
Mara and I explored this some. I expressed my belief that among the most important things I ever do as a parent is to engage with my kids over the very kind of questioning that she said she didn’t want. “I really like the negotiation process,” I indicated. In response to this Mara conceded that, wanting her children to understand well the values that underlie her guidance of them, she does keep the door open for some exchange. At the same time, Mara maintained, it was important that her children respect her authority to shape them according to the moral structure she provides. They’ll be free to go forth into the world and make their own decisions –after she’s raised them.
Mara glanced at me with a look in her eye indicating that she was ready to stand her ground against the heretical liberal notions she anticipated I’d shortly be advocating in contrast to hers. But I found myself disinclined to meet those expectations. I’ve learned that Mara’s positions have an “and that settles it” quality to them, and that the conversation unfolds in more helpful ways if I think in terms of learning from her rather than teaching her. Consequently, rather than challenging or even exploring her views, I felt drawn to explore how her way of parenting related to how her character was formed in her own upbringing. Some vague recollection about her childhood was tickling the back of my mind, suggesting this might be a fruitful place to explore.
“This structure you’re providing to your children, did you come by it the same way that they’re getting it?”
“I wish I could have. How much I wanted it! But my childhood environment was chaotic. It was confusing. I didn’t have two parents, and the parent I had –my mother– never seemed able to put her own life in order. She’d been pretty much the slave to her impulses –that’s how I came along– and when I was growing up with her she was hardly in a position to give me much guidance.
“In my early years, I think, I was on my way to becoming something like her. In school I wasn’t doing terribly well, not showing the discipline and determination that it takes to get anywhere. But even then, I recall, I felt discontented with that way of being. I longed for the tools to make something of myself.
“Thank God I got shipped off –at least for a few years– to live with my grandmother who was able to teach me something about right and wrong. Though I loved my mother, it was only my grandmother who seemed to have her own act together well enough for me to respect her.
“I took what my grandmother gave me and, when I had to come back to live with my mother, I worked as hard as I could to build upon that structure. Then, when I was old enough, I joined the Army. There I was able to finish the job of getting myself disciplined enough that I could become the kind of person I felt I needed to be– particularly that I needed to be before I could be a good mother to children of my own.”
The conversation with Mara left me with a lot to think about. What stood out for me was the starkness of the contrast between her situation of origin and mine and correspondingly, between ways she and I have understood our respective challenges in life.
I was raised in a home that was as stable and orderly as Mara’s evidently was chaotic. Both my parents were highly disciplined people who could set life-goals for themselves and achieve them whatever the effort it required. Their morality was clear and firm, and they were both dedicated to conveying it to their children. My memory of myself goes back to about the age of three, and even at that point I see myself as mirroring the tightly disciplined qualities of my parents. I strove for achievement in a dedicated way– practicing my skills for hours (throwing a tennis ball against a wall, or kicking a football over a telephone wire, or writing out numbers on page after page). In terms of morality, the concern with doing always the right thing was always intense, so that I remember still vividly the one lie I told in my first eight or nine years (claiming, at age four, that I’d had permission to pick the little bouquet of flowers I brought my mother when in fact I’d never approached the owner of the flowers).
It was while I was contemplating these contrasts between Mara’s and my original circumstances that it occurred to me: when Mara and I disagree –as we very often do– about what is needed in the world around us, we are reflecting a difference in our own internal experience of what it is that’s problematic and what can be taken for granted. She is always arguing for the need for authority, discipline, strictly enforced rules, etc. I am as consistently leaning toward the importance of spontaneity, freedom, a respect for that which is below in the hierarchy. That dichotomy between us goes for the issue of prayer in the schools, how much to let our children choose their own reading material, whether human sexuality should be allowed to take a multiplicity of forms or just the one sanctioned by the Bible, and so on. What struck me is how much that ideological difference corresponds to what it is that each of us has had to strive for in our own lives, trying to be whole people.
In Mara’s life, the impulsive and unstructured energies of the creature could be taken for granted, and the dangers of their being unchecked by any structure were constantly before her eyes. In my life, the structures and disciplines were always powerfully in place and, being always there, seemed just part of the nature of things. For me it was the free flow of the natural stuff that needed to be strengthened, and that felt like a blessing when it could happen.
That’s when an idea hit me about the whole unfolding project. Yes, I could trust that there was a good reason why, for me, a positive aura surronded the idea of “letting things unfold.” Flow, in the course of my life, has been something I’ve had to learn how to allow; it’s been the problematic ingredient in my realizing my best potential.
So for Mara, the structures appeared touched with the divine, while flow would be derided as threatening chaos. And for me, the control dimensions threaten strangulation, while it is the flow of the unfolding process that giveth life.
And maybe this captured also some of the major schisms in our culture. On the one side those who fear chaos, on the other those who fear oppression. One group that sees God in the Commandments, the other that sees the Sacred in the life-force. One a culture of saltpeter, the other of the aphrodisiac. All depending on which side of the divide can be taken for granted and which side must be achieved, which side is experienced as the less equal partner in the dance of integration that –it began to appear to me– is the challenge of human life.
It was that image –the dance of integration –that I now imagined that my project might be about.
So I now had a new hypothesis about my impulse to celebrate the unfolding. Like pregnant women needing calcium and experiencing a craving to eat chalk, people –like me– overly endowed with the element of structure, with its controls, hunger especially for the animating free flows of spirit.
It occurred to me that I could at least informally test my hypothesis, checking how well it fit the other unfolding-celebrators of my acquaintance. In an internal mental review of these people, the hypothesis seemed to fare pretty well. One or two of the larger group seemed to be on the “flaky” side, meaning that they at least appeared from the outside to be a bit light on the dimensions of control, internal order, discipline, etc. But a clear majority of those who had responded most favorably to my idea about celebrating the notion of unfolding were people who, like me, were highly disciplined and structured.
I then took the inquiry to the next stage, and emailed out to this little group. In my message, I asked them to characterize themselves as they were as adolescents. Compared with others of their age group, had they been more or less: governed by moral ideas; analytic and logical in their thinking; disciplined in approaching their work; reliable and dependable in interpersonal dealings; measured rather than spontaneous, etc. As a nod to the scientific method, I also mailed out an inquiry to a few other people of my acquaintance who were more of Mara’s structure-loving bent.
Overall, the results bore out my hypothesis. The unfolding-lovers were almost all people who had come into adulthood highly structured, and had been working ever since to loosen up their cages. The “controls” seemed to have been wilder as adolescents.
It’s true that further informal inquiries in the weeks to come produced some complicating examples. Just as the unfolders included some flaky people who seemed never to have been very tightly put together and who continued to love the loose, so also on the other side there were some people who’d been tight at the outset and who continued to give their unflagging allegiance to the construction and maintenance of structure.
Even so –even while recognizing that a simple dichotomy was not going to capture all the paths we humans might take– I felt that I was on to something, and I continued to explore how this perspective might help me discover what was most worth saying about flow and control.
How much, for example, was my own perspective influenced by that blind spot, by my presumably taking the elements of control for granted? I thought, for example, of how part of my love of the way of unfolding derived from the workings of my own creative process. I’d long celebrated the apparent miracle that I did not always have to be “working” on a problem in order to make progress on it. But had I misinterpreted this subterranean creativity –my little elves who made shoes while I slept? Did it perhaps work for me because I’ve internalized so much of the task-orientation of my upbringing that my unconscious (rather than some generic human unconscious) keeps plugging away at a task even when, consciously, I’ve set it aside?
I recalled, for example, the way my taking a break from my intellectual work had been the occasion of the graven images piece coming together in my mind. My inclination had been to see this as part of the miracle of the unfolding process. The “natural organism” just naturally creates good order– that’s the unfolding-celebrator’s way of looking at this. No need to push the river, it will carry you to your proper destination. But I considered now the possibility that, taking my tight structures more or less for granted, perhaps I was blind to the ways these learned structures permeated even what I took as my natural being.
Thinking that made me chuckle, recalling an earlier analogous perception on my part. When I had the breakthrough realization that led to my writing The Parable of the Tribes –a work that celebrates the sacredness of our heritage from the realm of nature, and deplores what civilization has inflicted upon nature in its power-driven evolution– I was in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. At the moment of my epiphany, the gardens of that park stood in my mind for the beauties of nature. But of course, a garden is not nature itself, but is rather a marriage of the organic unfoldings of nature with the guiding hand of the human gardener. At one level, I doubtless knew that the Japanese Tea Garden and the Sybring (?) Arboretum are not purely natural, but at another level, I believe, having spent most of my years in urbanized environments, I took for granted the gardeners’ work in shaping nature into such beautiful forms, seeing just Nature Herself.
Might I likewise have misperceived my own nature? If there are times when I must keep a tablet next to my bed to harvest the ideas that arise, does this perhaps reflect my mind’s having been domesticated for the task of cultivating such flowers? Getting out of harness is, for me, an important part of getting the field plowed. But many people spend all their lives out of harness, without its necessarily yielding any harvest from their inner gifts.
Again, I thought, perhaps what brings the sacred forth from us is not just one element or the other, but some marriage of the two: unfolding entwined with task-orientation, flow with control.
Out of this way of thinking about the unfolding and the controlling, a new image was arising in my mind: the sacred dance between two very different, complementary partners. Whereas the previous image had been one of balance –as though the issue could be captured in terms of pure proportion, of how much of this and how much of that– I began thinking now of the various ways that the two different elements of the human process might interact.
Mara and I might conceivably be combining the two elements in similar proportions. But the dance looked very different in her life than in mine. The person, like Mara, for whom the (unruly?) impulse can be taken for granted, and who struggles to bring order to its expression, will enact a dance that brings control to the front of the stage. By contrast, the person, like me, for whom the orderliness of structure is firmly established, and who must learn to open up the dams and cages to let the natural run forth, will enact a dance that accentuates vitality and that subdues structure.
Was one dance inherently any better than the other? I couldn’t judge, but the dances seem significantly different– both in the living of them, and in the contributions they make to the world around them. I made a note to explore those differences at some point.
Meanwhile, I continued to consider how perhaps the human challenge is to achieve artistry in the ways we combine flow and control in our lives.
Looking at the problem through this prism helped bring into focus a notion that recurred in writings about the creative process. Not only Anne Lamott but other commentators also advocate strategies to by-pass what is assumed to be an excessive tendency for the internal judge and censor to over-power the creative impulse. The idea of getting the judge out of the way –letting him return only later to judge what’s worth keeping and what should be pitched– reflects the assumption that among the internal forces the censor is mightier than the creative demiurge.
Perhaps this recurrent theme, I mused, supports my previous thesis that our culture is indeed out of balance in the direction of too much control. I pondered this a bit and then realized that the domain of creativity was not fair ground for judging the balance of the culture as a whole: there of all places, I imagined, is where the side of unfolding would enjoy home field advantage. Creativity, after all, is about unfolding. Or is it? Perhaps my notions about creativity had been distorted by that blindspot of mine. Perhaps when I’d gained a more integrated understanding of my own “dance,” I’d also want to revise my image of the dominance of the unfolding element in the creative process.
Back to this new idea about artistry in the dance between the elements.
New idea? There it was again, this tendency to discover as if new some understanding that, in some form, had been there all along. Even in some of the earlier “celebrations” of unfolding, I had noted the artistry that truly constructive and creative unfolding required.
One clear example concerned the unfolding of honest and compassionate communication, as taught by the school of Non-Violent Communication and as practiced by my friend Tina, for example on the radio show we’d done together. I’d recognized the care and discipline that went in to making such openness work. I’d spoken of the deftness of the “Tina-moves” with which she’d frame a difficult situation so as to help the reality between people to unfold in a constructive direction.
What I’d called “unfolding” in that situation was not just letting any old thing happen, not just a matter of people saying the first thing that popped into their heads. The process required an acute awareness to enable one to discern beneath the surface feelings and thoughts the underlying needs. Another ingredient in that “unfolding” was the discipline of separating out one’s own experiential space from that of the other party, and of granting the other the full rights one wants to enjoy oneself, including the right to need what one needs, want what one wants, feel what one feels. This practice of the Golden Rule –which I’d seen as organically connected with the ethic of NVC– I’d understood to be a kind of discipline, though I’d not used that language, really, nor focused on that dimension of the process.
Other examples surfaced of how artistry figured into some of the various “mansions” I’d celebrated. There is the case of science, which combines a complete openness to following the truth about nature wherever it might lead with extreme rigor in its procedures for coaxing the answers out of nature. Another example might be the artistry required in the challenge I faced in formulating my radio show, trying to devise questions that would delve through some body of thought with the deftness of Chuang Tzu’s butcher with his ox carcass.
But the example of artistry that seemed the most promising to explore was that of NVC, especially because in Tina I had such an expert for a friend, whose deft “Tina-moves” so often impressed me, and because it was a defined movement with its own system of beliefs and, I had heard, a newly emerging text written by the movement’s founder, Marshall Rosenberg.
So I decided to email Tina to see if I might explore with her how the dance of integrating the unfolding elements with the controlling worked in the realm of NVC.
A Mind to Blow
In the meanwhile, on an intuitive impulse, I had already sent a message to my friend, Mort, the fellow who’d written me not long before about the oppressive nature of the American system of injustice and incarceration. “It strikes me, Mort,” I’d written him in a brief note, “that my view of things has been distorted by something of much gravity, as we Einsteinians would put it. At the heart of this grave matter is that my own controlling structures are so well-dug into my very being that I take them for granted and fail to recognize their role in all I do. This lack of awareness, I now suspect, has led me to underestimate the value of the controlling element and to direct too much of my applause to the freely flowing. I wanted to run this idea past you for your response. ANDY”
“Now let me get this straight” Mort wrote back. “You’re talking about something being grave, and then you talk about it’s being well-dug. Now, is it a grave or is it a well? I guess perhaps that uncertainty captures the issue, doesn’t it. Well, I can dig it.
“Seriousness aside, what comes up for me as a response is to report my immediate associative link. I’d rather give you that than try to engage the argument in a structured way.”
As soon as I’d read that, I felt confident that my intuition about writing Mort had been correct, and that I’d hit some sort of paydirt.
“As you know, over the years I’ve made occasional use of –well, how shall I say?– a well-known mind-altering herb. (True, it ain’t the 1960s no more, but it is the 1990s, and the paranoids are still after me. Hence I’ll speak from the crypt, knowing that your well-dug structure will decode my grave message.) The fact that the mainstream culture would regard me as a criminal for doing so, and treat me as such if it laid its bony hands on me, has prompted me to give a lot of thought to what is wise policy for me to practice concerning the use of this friendly plant– both for me and for people generally.
“From my reflections, here’s a notion relevant to your question. I am convinced that what I do is wise for me. But I’m not sure I’d advocate its widespread practice in this society.
“I am particularly concerned about the use of my esteemed herbal teacher by the young. How would I counsel a teenager contemplating the use of this mind-rearranging leaf? (And let’s set aside the issue of legality. Kids, after all, not only smoke my mentor, they also drink alcohol, which is likewise illegal for them.) What I would counsel is, ‘Steer clear for now, come back when your mind has developed a richer structure.’
“In other words, I’m all for blowing one’s mind. But only when one has a mind to blow. Kids who use this stuff before they are well formed are introducing a disordering element where –generally– there’s not enough order yet in place. And in our society, of course, even adulthood is no guarantee that there will be enough of a mind to make it wise to engage in any periodic blowing of it.
“For me, however, the occasional administration of disorder into my all-too-tightly ordered mental universe has an enormously creative impact. My mind, left to its own, I have likened to a tightly coopered barrel. This tightness has its pros and cons: the contents don’t leak from something such a tight container but they can get stagnant. So it is a blessing for me to be able, on occasion, to loosen the tight bands and let the river flow on through. (Well, perhaps this metaphor is sinking fast and ought to be scuttled at sea.)
“But you get the point. The effect of the stuff is to interrupt the habits of my thinking, enabling me to see new connections and new patterns.
“My impression from many of the youth I’ve known who’ve gotten into the stuff is that its effect on them is rather different. In a mind still not much structured, the effects of loosening are often to weaken the engine of motivation, to confuse the uncertain compass of direction, to retard the consolidation of some meaningful image of the world. (That’s especially the case when the young person, without much mind to blow, also lacks the judgment and discipline to use the stuff right. Young people are probably even more prone to the folly of ‘If some is good, more must be better’ than adults, plenty of whom make that error in their use of alcohol and caffeine and much else in life.)
“But with a too-tight-structure, like mine, the effects of the loosening are creative and enlivening. Much of my very best work has received its initial impetus from my thus breaking open the sluices of my mental dams. The use is sacramental, and thus not habitual: a couple of months will go by and I will watch myself ripen and then, like a woman needing oxytocin to precipitate labor, I will deliver myself of the flowing creativity that –or so I imagine– would occur on their own if I were more ideally put together.
“So, Andy, this is what comes to my mind in support of your notion of how your celebration of unfolding reflects your own need to rebalance your consciousness between the competing elements.
“Hope this helps. MORT”
Manifestations of the Controlling Dimension
“Yes, I follow you, but I’m finding it difficult to keep in focus what you mean when you speak of ‘control.'” This was Carrey, who’d dropped by for another walk. I’d felt gimpy from having strained my hip lifting some heavy stones –“Been wrestling with an angel,” was my story for Carrey, knowing him to be fond of the Jacob story– and so he settled for having a tame catch with a baseball up on the gravel road above our house, which had the virtue of being level.
“You’re see yourself and this Mara woman as both combining elements of flow and control, but doing it in different ways. OK. But then you use the example of your getting up in the middle of the night to write down some notes and you’re conjecturing that your controlling parts played a covert role in generating your nighttime harvest of insights. Now, I see how control figures in Mara’s dance, as you put it– she apparently runs a pretty tight ship. But how does ‘control’ figure in those spontaneous thoughts that come to you in your sleep?”
“Good, Carrey. It’s a tough notion– the kind of tough I’ve been coming up against throughout this whole project. On the one hand, I feel a strong intuitive sense that the dichotomy between flow and control is an important one, a real one. On the other hand, the categories are hard to keep clear in my mind. Let me see what I can do –or maybe, what we can do– with your question.
“The idea of celebrating unfolding might be put something like this. ‘There’s something that you can trust, just fall back on, allow to take over and carry you along without your having to struggle. It just flows as it is supposed to, without your having to apply your will.’ It’s a nice thought. I’ve found it beautiful and appealing enough to embark on this project intending to celebrate it.
“But now I’m thinking that it’s not so simple. It isn’t just ‘Relax and you shall receive.’ Receptivity is important, I am still persuaded of that and that it is underappreciated in our culture. But as I tried to convey with the image of the ‘entwining in the dance,’ the active element of shaping is there as well, in ways that I think I’d overlooked.
“So, take that awakening in the night. My first take on it was to see the magic of the shoemaker-elves of my nature, who just did the job while ‘I‘ had to do nothing but to get out of their way and go for a snooze. What I’m now suggesting is that I have not really gotten altogether out of the way.”
“So how are you seeing this happening, and how does it constitute control?” Carrey asked.
“What I suspect is that my habitual tendency to channel my energies to achieve my tasks has not –just because I am asleep– simply disappeared. The assignment is still there, and my intention is still engaged, even if –while I’m sleeping or gardening–it’s not at a conscious level. In fact, upon reflection, I can feel that I’m still at work. The very times when I’m most likely to wake up with ideas –when I’m in the throes of a creative task– are also the times my body itself is most likely to be tight. Even my body-worker can tell when I’m ‘holding’ that kind of problem-solving energy.
“That holding, I’m suggesting, is just the outward sign of the inward fact that the controlling process is still ongoing. And by controlling what I mean is that the river is not just flowing unimpeded –whatever we might take that to mean– but is being channeled by my will exerting itself to achieve my purposes.
“Does that make sense to you?”
Carrey was thoughtful and silent, holding up his bare hand to signal that I should let him think. When I also did not throw the ball, he signaled again –this time with the glove hand– to keep the catch going. For a couple of minutes, we were silent except for the smack of leather upon leather every several seconds. Then Carrey spoke.
“Yeah, something subtle here. I like it. And I think, like you, I’ve given short shrift to the role of some of this controlling dimension. Like in my photography. I usually think of myself as being purely receptive, letting the world show itself to me. And when I see something worth recording, I just record it with my camera. But it isn’t that simple. What I was thinking just now is how deeply ingrained in my whole way of seeing is a highly trained judgment. It’s an aesthetic sense of form and meaning that I started developing –when?– at least as far back as twelve, and maybe when I was younger still. I just take it for granted that I’m continually sifting, and composing, and interpreting– and I just look at it as me being receptive. But I now see that –even setting aside the actual work of how I deal with the camera between ‘seeing the picture’ and snapping the shutter– I’ve been deeply involved in channeling the river, employing my discipline to find ways of saying what I think is worth saying.
“Yes, control is a more subtle thing than I’ve realized.”
“It’s easy to see how the Army Corps of Engineers employs control when it attacks a river,” I said, “building canals and dams. But even a whitewater rafter is using control in his dance with the river. He doesn’t remake the river in a comprehensive way, like the Corps. When he puts his paddle into the water, he’s just pushing a bit of water in one direction to apply an opposite force to his craft. A tiny and fleeting and local effect, as far as the river is concerned. But for the rafter, there’s a big difference between including that element of his will and purpose and judgment and simply allowing things to flow. It’s the difference between what happens when an expert shoots the rapids and what would happen if he just sat in the boat passively like a dead man– which he might soon be if he tried the experiment.”
Carrey laughed at that, which gratified me. Carrey has a good aesthetic judgment, and I find my batting average with my witticisms and other creative ventures with him is, while high enough not to be discouraging, low enough so that I really like it when he appreciates my efforts.
After Carrey had left, I went and checked my email, finding there a message from Tina. Tina had written: “I don’t think that I’ll be the best person for you to discuss this ‘artistry of NVC’ question with. For one thing, I don’t really go for your formulation, suggesting that NVC is a practice of great sophistication, requiring the sophisticated exercise of judgment. I see the NVC method as a natural way of expressing ourselves. And this is the kind of issue that, as we’ve learned from our history together, is not too much fun for us to discuss. Whenever we get into those conversations about basic matters of my faith, and you bring in all your questions and analytic ways of getting at what you call the truth, I find it unfruitful and upsetting. Our connection seems to get lost, and I’d rather that we not do that now. In addition to which, I’m really overwhelmed these days with things I’ve got to do– my chapter critiquing Weber is not coming easily, and I’m also having to deal with contractors all the time in this never-ending construction process on the house.
“So what I’ve done is to talk with an NVC friend of mine, who’s even more deeply involved in the work than I am and who is also a wonderful, sweet person. I told him about your interest in exploring NVC with someone, and he says he’d be delighted. His name is Eric Marklin, and he can be reached at the email address below. Good luck. TINA”
The Art of Knowing and Forgetting
It was several days later, and my hip felt well-enough recovered that I accepted the invitation from my son, Nathaniel, to go up to our sports complex –a little level spot of hard ground with a basketball hoop on one side– and play some b-ball. After we played a game of horse, Nat asked me to feed him making cuts to the hoop for lay-ups.
When he’d missed the first one, made the second, and missed the third, I stopped to talk with him about his technique. He was twisting in some nifty-looking way, like an NBA-player snaking through heavy traffic in the lane, and laying it up underhanded. I said I took his request that I work with him as an invitation to coach him. At which point I raised my eyebrows to form a facial question-mark. When he assented, I told him I wanted him to do his lay-ups by coming in straight at the angle I gestured, and to push the ball up into the backboard by extending his right hand from near his head up to a full extension at the top of his jump. Which I proceeded to demonstrate, using the conventional Bob Cousy style in which I’d been trained in the 1950s.
“But Dad,” Nat complained, “what I’m doing is just like what the pros do. Except, of course, I can’t stuff it like they can.”
“Nat, those guys are not only the most gifted athletes around, they’ve also spent more time on the basketball court than you’ve spent on the planet,” I said, perhaps exaggerating slightly. “When you’ve mastered the basics, like they have, then you can try any unconventional moves you like. Meanwhile, get the basics down cold. Like chest-passes, and these lay-ups. You don’t want to be like Josh, I don’t suppose.”
I was referring to a kid on his “under 12” team, a kid who always seemed to be impersonating some cool pro ballplayer, who had lots of attitude and fancy style, and who –as Nat often bitterly complained– was anything but an asset to his team, what with his fancy footwork that got him called regularly for traveling, and his taking long Glen-Rice-type shots that never went in.
My use of his despised liability of a teammate seemed to persuade Nat, and he started taking my bounce-passes in for lay-ups using the form I’d recommended.
I then found myself wondering if what I’d implied to Nat about the NBA stars –that they had mastered the conventional style before they’d moved on to the fancy stuff– was entirely true. I’d played a fair amount of ball with kids in black neighborhood-games, and the music and dance of that game was already different at that far-less-than-professional level. Maybe Michael Jordan had never played in the old Cousy style, I thought. But, I decided, one or way or another, those players had mastered the fundamentals on their way to becoming the great improvisational players they now show themselves to be on TV.
Which got me into thinking about a couple of other arenas where something similar goes on. I recalled a couple of famous artists whose work I’d found unintelligible and unbeautiful upon first encounter in my adolescence but whom I’d felt compelled to give the benefit of the doubt to when I learned that, before embarking upon their new and avant-garde work, they’d demonstrated mastery of conventional style. In music, Arnold Schoenberg was one example: I could barely tolerate his atonal music, but then I heard some early composition that proved that whatever his reason for writing the dissonant stuff I found unpleasant, it wasn’t because he didn’t know any better. Likewise with the painter Picasso, whose terribly famous abstract works made me wonder if the Emperor had no clothes. Then I saw early work that showed Picasso to be quite accomplished as a draftsman rendering his figures in regular representational form. Evidently, even if I didn’t know what Picasso was doing, he did.
From there my mind leapt across some associational bridge to an email conversation I’d been having with my brother, Ed, about what light his work as a psychotherapist might be able to shed on my questions about unfolding.
Ed is someone whose counsel I seek in almost all my endeavors– particularly if they bear upon things spiritual or things personal. This project qualified in both respects, so of course I sought him out from the beginning. Another reason for doing so is that, of the two of us, Ed is the one whose approach to knowledge is the more intuitive. So I expected that he’d be sympathetic to my present efforts. And indeed he was.
“That’s pretty much how I do my work,” had been his immediate response, one night on the phone, when I’d said only a few sentences worth about how I conceived of this project. When asked to elaborate on what he meant by “that’s,” Ed replied, “I generally don’t go into a session with any preconception about where things are supposed to go. Mostly, what I do is to tune in deeply to the energy that’s there and follow that wherever it seems to want to go.”
When, that night, I began to explore this with him further, something going on at his place or mine had forced us to cut the conversation short. I’d made a note to get back to Ed some time to try to flesh out what he meant by “tuning in deeply to the energy.” It sounded like an idea that could help me develop my understanding of several themes I was developing, like “trust the process” and “letting reality speak.” But in the following weeks, our interactions had been taken up with other matters, some of them concerning family, and the “unfolding” conversation remained on hold.
Except that I emailed Ed occasional notes about new ideas I was having, new directions I was taking. And just in the past couple of days, I’d received a message back from Ed– terse as his e-mails usually are.
“Thought came to me today,” Ed wrote. “Seemed to connect with your unfolding project. Here it is: Doing psychotherapy, I get paid for doing nothing.”
I’d written him back: “Does that mean you’re a fraud?”
To which he had responded: “There’s a difference between the way I do nothing, and the way somebody who doesn’t know how to do nothing does nothing.”
And so it had stayed for the past day and a half, till now, after my basketball with Nat, having crossed that now-lost associational bridge, I went down to my computer to ask Ed: “Swat’s the difference?”
And he replied: “Thought you’d never ask. ED” And that seemed to be the whole message, until I noticed by the rectangle on the side of the message that there was more to the message than I could see on my screen. I scrolled down and found the more there was.
“A fellow named Don Price defined psychotherapy as ‘waiting for a mouse.’ For one thing, the way you wait will help determine whether the mouse ever shows up. For another thing, there is the question of recognizing the mouse when it appears. Finally, there’s catching it.”
“Doesn’t sound exactly like doing nothing,” I replied. “Oh, Ed. One more thing that seems somehow connected here. Between you’re being a big, highly-trained professional, with heavy-duty sophisticated knowledge on the one hand, and your being, on the other, this guy who does some kind of almost-nothing, waiting for a mouse, just where does the practice of your art or your profession fit into the scheme of things in terms of ‘mastery-of-discipline’ versus ‘follow-the-energy’?”
It was later that evening when I got his reply, evidently the break in his schedule into which I’d luckily fallen during the afternoon having closed up. “I see it this way. First, I had to get immersed in the sophistication, get my head all structured, full of ‘professional expertise.’ Then, to become a healer, I had to let go of everything I know. Mastery came first. Eventually, simplicity became possible.”
I recognized this idea. Was it the same, in another form, as my understanding of how my ‘elves’ advance my writing during my sleep? And I had a vague memory of someone speaking similarly about become a master in one of the arts? Oh yes, in my readings about creativity, I’d come across an Italian who said: Impara l’arte, e mettila da parte (learn the craft, and then set it aside).  An idea similar to Ed’s, and one that seemed worth exploring. In order to do so, I shared Ed’s little paragraph, via email, with a couple of my creative friends, and the next morning I harvested the fruits.
“You’ve studied creativity, I know, Andy,” wrote Phil, my buddy with whom I’d done that radio show about creativity. “So you must have come across –more than once, I’d wager– a famous line from Pasteur: ‘Chance favors only the prepared mind.’  That’s what your brother’s remarks brought to my only partially prepared mind.
“The ‘chance’ to which Pasteur is referring is, I assume, the kind of chance that leads to creative scientific breakthroughs. Darwin happens to be in the Galapagos, and while there happens to observe the variety of adaptations of different species of finches –or at least so the story goes– and poof! the idea of natural selection begins to evolve. But of course, even before he set out on the Beagle, Darwin’s mind was well prepared to see such evidence through some sort of evolutionary lens. The history of science is full of fortuitous accidents, like the discovery of vulcanized rubber and other blessed occurrences of best-laid plans going fortunately astray. But Pasteur is saying that accident leads to discovery only when someone starts out with some secure footing from which to make the leap.
“Your brother, in the ‘simplicity’ he brings to his therapy sessions, likewise depends upon his prepared footing,” Phil continued. “I’m imagining –from all you’ve told me about your brother over the years– that Ed’s work as a therapist is enormously flexible, quite open to the ‘accidents’ that happen when they’re allowed to unfold organically. And the art for him, comes in being able to perceive those ‘accidents’ through the unobtrusive lens of his prepared mind, and to respond in a way not dictated by ‘rules’ but still somehow aligned with the grain such rules of the craft strive to delineate. So I imagine.
“I enjoy my imagination. PHIL”
I’ve always enjoyed Phil’s imagination, too.
The other response came in later in the morning. It was from Maurice, a fellow I’d just met not long before when I gave a talk in St. Louis. Maurice was a counselor who worked with university students in some way that bore upon both their intellectual progress and their emotional health.
“Reminds me of a line I came across recently,” began Maurice’s message. “It goes: ‘Technique is what you use until the therapist arrives.’  What I understand this to mean is that knowledge gets you only so far. At a certain point, something more fundamental kicks in– it’s the healing that occurs through the interaction between the therapist and the person who has come for help.
“Actually, come to think of it, this line has different implications from what your brother said, and I would sooner go with your brother’s formulation. My ‘technique’ line seems to suggest that the knowledge aspect just provides a way of marking time till the real thing occurs, as if perhaps one could have done without the technique altogether. My experience tells me that it’s more like putting a satellite up into space. ‘The booster rocket is what you use until you’re in a position to put the satellite into orbit.’ It certainly is true, though, that the real miracle –the real high, if you’ll forgive the pun– comes when you get into orbit, i.e., when, in the sense of technical expertise, you no longer ‘know’ what you’re doing, when you let something inarticulate, even somewhat ineffable, start to flow in the interaction.
“Maybe I’m coming to some still different position here. On one level, it may be true that even that ineffable stage works only because there is the technical understanding underpinning the flight. But at another level, I also feel that at those times, there’s something else that gets expressed. Every true healer knows that the true healer is Someone other than himself. MAURICE”
I was really enjoying seeing these various ways the beauties of unfolding make use of the laying down of the channels of structure and discipline. This image of the flow and the control combining in a variety of dances seemed to open an enriching dimension to the whole subject, I thought– potentially a more solid approach than the more partisan one with which I began. I was still feeling my way, but I was heartened that I did not feel stuck.
At this point, I got back an email from Tina’s NVC friend Eric Marklin, whom she had contacted in my behalf. “I’d really be delighted to engage with you in an email conversation, or any other kind of conversation you’d like. Your appreciation of Non-Violent Communication certainly gives us some common ground. But I’d welcome a chance to discuss these ideas even if that common ground were lacking. For example, I have some reservations about some of the premises of those questions of yours that Tina has conveyed to me– like your characterization of the NVC approach to communication as being an ‘achievement of some sophistication,’ or ‘requiring real artistry,’ to take a couple of phrases that Tina pasted from your message to her. Whatever your questions about NVC, whatever the ideas you have you’d like to bounce off me, I look forward to it. ERIC”
I emailed Eric back immediately, inquiring about those reservations he had about those ways I’d characterized NVC. And the exchange thus begun proved to be part of the next phase of my adventure: the discovery that my looking at things in terms of the “dance of integration” –entwining the elements—put me in a position (a kind of no-man’s land) between a couple of camps whose members did not think in terms of a beautiful combining of flow and control but had chosen sides between those elements, in favor of one and against the other.
 See for example, Nachmanovitch, Stephen, Free Play, p. and in Prince, ……
Quoted in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity, p. 90.
Quoted in Cameron, Julia, The Artist’s Way, p. 64.
 Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, p. 5.