If you’re the same as you were yesterday, what’s tomorrow for? – Jewish saying
You are perfect as you are. But we could all stand a little improvement. —Suzuki Roshi
I left off yesterday with the questions, “How can we aspire to do yet better than ‘the best we can.’? How can we embrace our essential nature and still strive to improve? What actually helps us move the next inch down the road?”
There are as many strategies as there are people to invent them and each one is unique, must fit the particular way we’re put together. No one size that fits all. But of course, many practices and helpful hints— meditation, art, reading, walks in the woods, all the tried-and-true ways to get off the merry-go-round of distraction, consumption, addiction, mere mindless repetition of less-than-good ideas, feelings, habits that others have handed down, that society lures us into for someone else’s profit. But even if we have the good sense to go to the meditation retreat or sign up for the art class, none of it will “save” us. It is our effort, our discipline, our choice of what to read and how to interpret it, our struggle with the medium of artistic expression that has called us, our particular way of walking through the world and noticing the things that call out to us in a different way from anyone else. All of this is in company with some internal guide that knows when we’ve fallen into grace, when we're off-kilter, a sense as reliable as knowing when we’re hungry, knowing when we’re full.
And parallel with that is our engagement with the world and the world’s response to us. We all need some kind of outside affirmation, some encouragement from others along the way. We need the constant reminder to try just a bit harder, do just a bit better, avoid the trap of self-complacency. There is nothing more frightening—and more dangerous—than a person doing harm in the world who doesn’t see it, doesn’t care to see it, refuses to make an effort. Likewise, the part of ourselves that refuses the call and takes the easy road of Popeye’s advice; “I yam what I yam.” Yes, but don’t forget Suzuki Roshi’s clause— “But you could stand a little improvement.”
For me, that help comes in two forms. The pat on the shoulder that lets me know I stumbled into the words that brought insight or solace, the actions that brought happiness to others, the response that was just right for the call. As a teacher, I have my drawerful of such affirmations from kids and adults I’ve taught, friends and family, awaiting me for a rainy day when the spirit needs some uplift.
But just as important—and probably more so— is the kick in the butt. The example of someone else who dares the vulnerability I might shy away from, the courage beyond what I’ve managed, the insight deeper than my surface thoughts, the love and compassion fuller than I’ve allowed myself. Mostly, this ass-whipping comes not from direct confrontation, but simply the model offered to the alert seeker. If I go to a workshop, a poetry class, a concert, I want both. Some sense that I’m on the right track and then whap!!! Damn! I have so much work to do! Like right at this moment, I’ve been multitasking a bit watching a fabulous duo perform online—John Clayton on bass and his son, Gerald on piano. I’ve stopped many times with mouth open listening to the flow of musical ideas, impeccable technique, perfect timbre and wonderful communication. Kicking my butt!! You can bet your life I’ll be playing the piano for a long time tomorrow.
And therein lies my final advice, nothing new or startling, but all of this is simply reminders of what we already know. So remember: surround yourself by beings higher up on the evolutionary path. Those at the bottom get on the news, but pass them by. Hang out— live or through books/ recordings/ videos—with those who help your being.
And finally, amidst all the small triumphs and many failures, remember Thelonious Monk’s advice:
“Keep on tryin’!”