I took a long solitary bike ride around the perimeter of San Francisco today that was delightful, delicious and de-lovely. Solitude and I are old friends, though often we are joined by folks like Langston Hughes as I tried to re-call and remember and re-recite his epic poem “Let America Be America Again.” He missed a few opportunities for the kind of repetition necessary for recitation, but the meaning is profound and just right for the upcoming Martin Luther King Day.
But before the ride was over, night fell and I found myself at the famous SF bike route known as The Wiggle. (No, you don’t have to stand up and shake your booty while riding, it refers to the various turns on the streets.) Suddenly, I was in company with some 15 other bikers with red lights flashing on the back. I felt like a lone eagle who had reunited with his flock, an errant fish swept back up into the school. And why a “school” of fish? Is it because group learning offers something to us social creatures that solitary pursuits can’t quite reach?
I immediately noticed a difference riding with a group— a group of strangers, but a group nonetheless. I felt a surge of energy, a few measures more of safety, a subtle sense of teamwork and a short-lived but nevertheless palpable sense of belonging. All pretty basic human needs and drives. So by re-arranging the order, I decided anew what I’ve long known— that group learning is the B.E.S.T!
B for belonging. In the midst of the red lights, I achieved an instant identity as a biker separate from a pedestrian or auto driver. Granted, it’s superficial and five minutes later, I might be walking or driving and cursing those damn cyclists! And it’s the kind of belonging when you’re traveling in Timbuktu and meet someone from California who you would never ordinarily talk to, but suddenly, you’re so thrilled to meet each other. What Kurt Vonnegut called a “granfalloon” in his book “Cat’s Cradle.” But hey, you take belonging where you find it and for as long as it lasts. It feels good. It’s why we go to professional conferences or join select Facebook groups. And my field of music is a great binder of instant belonging, as you sing, dance and play together with others.
E is for energy. As mentioned, I felt swept along by the pack of flashing lights and probably rode faster than usual to keep up. I’ve sat meditation alone for decades, but five minutes at the Zen Center and I’m drawn up into a larger energy of people with common focus. Has a lot to do with the physics of entrainment, entering the orbits of other energies and having it increase your own.
S is for safety, or at least the illusion of safety as we rode together in defiance of large gas-guzzling large-framed vehicles. I recently discovered that the etymology of the word “community” joined the prefix “com,” which means “with, together,” with “munis,” derived from the Latin “munire” which means to “fortify, strengthen or defend.” So one of the root meanings of community is people banding together to insure each other’s safety from a common enemy. Not my choice definition, but pretty interesting in this context.
T is for teamwork. Compared to playing basketball or being in a jazz band, the teamwork from a group of random cyclists is pretty low key. But it does take an awareness of the other and a kind of dance filling in all the spaces in which one can move ahead, fall behind or curve into.
The Orff music class has long been big on group learning, with the circle of students, the Orff instrument ensemble and small group creative work at the center, a very different sensibility from the Conservatory solitary practice room. Music is learned in conversation with the other, with constant teamwork, with the safety of leaning on others for your part and not having to jump in and solo right away, with the constant energy of group music-making and the sense of belonging (to many different groups) that such work invites.
And at my school, at least, much of learning in the classroom is organized the same way.
There is a time and place for solitude and solitary practice and dreaming alone, but the greater part of the dynamic learning community is in community. It’s the B.E.S.T.!