Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The power of stillness

One of the lessons I have learned from dance is the importance of stillness.  Beginning dancers often assume that one must be continuously in motion -- keep moving, keep moving, fill up the music.  But constant motion is wearying to watch and gives the viewer no time to rest.  Of course, pauses do more than just give the audience a breather.  Stillness provides a frame for motion.  When the dancer stops moving, it serves to accent the previous move -- it lets the viewer know that something important just happened.  Even the most spectacular move will not be appreciated by the audience unless they are given time to absorb it and the pause that lets them know how amazing it was (think of the "ta-da!" moment, for example).  Dance also needs stillness for structure, just as language uses punctuation to break the continuous stream of words into meaningful units.  Similarly, we use pauses and changing tempos to create phrasing in dance. 

But these moments of stillness are challenging.  As one of those people who can become uncomfortable with silence, I tend to want to fill up every moment with sound and action.  Pauses create anxiety in many dancers, because they worry that the audience will get bored.  We tend to think of stillness as an absence -- without movement, nothing is going on.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  When executed well, the pause is filled with meaning: with the memory of movement and the anticipation of movement, with the persona of the performer, with the connection between performer and audience.  The quiet moments require that we have confidence in ourselves -- confidence that we alone, without the distraction of movement, have a strong enough presence to compel the viewer's interest.  In this way, stillness requires that we make ourselves vulnerable; stripping off the cloak of our dance technique and putting aside our bag of tricks, we expose our self, the self we embody for performance, to the audience. 

This excerpt from George Balanchine's ballet, Apollo, uses moments of stillness to create tension and heighten emotion, as well as to highlight beautiful poses.

In this piece by the spectacular dance company Momix, stillness is essential for the illusion of defying gravity.  Tension is created as we wonder whether the dancers will be able to hold their position.  We are able to focus on the one dancer who is moving because all of the other dancers are immobile.  Notice, too, the moment at about 1:30 when the dancers hold a new position for a long moment, and the audience applauds.  This is the the "ta-da!" moment I mentioned earlier.  Later in the piece, moments of stillness highlight particular poses and shapes created by the dancers. 

In life, as in dance, I want to keep moving, striving, doing.  I don't like to just sit still and do nothing.  But I'm coming to realize that we all have (or should have) pauses in life, when we are not doing, but merely being.  While they may feel unproductive, these moments give us a chance to reflect on the past and envision the future, as well as to fully experience the present.  Of course, just as in dance, there are more and less effective uses of stillness -- we need to fill these pauses with meaning, not just hang around doing nothing.  If you find your life overfull of activity, perhaps it is time to cultivate moments of quietude.  If you find yourself in a prolonged pause, make it a meaningful one and recognize that sometimes it is all right just to be, suspended between moments of doing.  I suspect I will always enjoy action best, but I'm learning to appreciate the value of purposeful inactivity.  Perhaps someday I can learn to live as comfortably in stillness as I do in motion, even if only for a moment, when I am my only audience.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Cease and desist

Dear Brain,

I hope this letter finds you well.  I would like to begin by thanking you for the excellent service you have thus far provided.  I have had little cause for dissatisfaction over these many years and have come to rely on you for everything from motor control to memory (although I must say your performance in the memory department has been rather spotty at times).  Whenever I have needed you, you were there. 

It is, therefore, with a heavy heart that I must register my current complaint.  It must seem to you a rather trivial matter, given your otherwise exemplary performance.  Indeed, I have tried my utmost to simply ignore the problem and hoped that you would resolve it spontaneously.  But my patience has been stretched to its breaking point.  I have reached the limits of my goodwill and cannot turn a blind eye to such egregious behavior on your part. 

I have endured more than a month of near-constant replay of the same tune.  It is more than I can bear.  True, there have been moments, even whole days, during which I was not plagued by the endlessly repeating musical loop.  But just when I think it is over, when I hope to be truly free of this torture, I find myself whistling the refrain under my breath.  I have done everything I know to end this cycle.  I can find nothing -- no other music, no mental trick  -- to successfully expunge this earworm.  I even attempted to replace one song loop with another to no avail.  I must, therefore, respectfully ask you to take immediate action to end your musical barrage.

It wouldn't be so bad if the music were more complex or varied.  There are some songs I could happily listen to every day.  Frankly, what bothers me most is the sheer inanity of your choice.  I ask you, honestly, who wouldn't be irritated by incessant replay of the theme song from I Dream of Jeannie -- a show I haven't seen for at least a decade, and one which at best is silly and might more accurately be described as puerile.  I mean, really -- I'm not asking for high-brow classical music, but this is just embarrassing. What are you trying to communicate to me?  Am I supposed to dress up in chiffon and live in a bottle, devote myself to servile submission to my "master" -- or are you just encouraging me to watch more television?  I cannot decode the message, if any, that is being conveyed, and I have had enough. 

As of receipt of this letter, I demand that you cease and desist your musical assault.  Prompt action on your part will ensure that no punitive action will be taken against you.  Should you fail to respond in a timely manner, I am prepared to settle this matter formally in court.  I deeply regret the necessity of this letter, but you have left me little recourse.  I hope that we can resolve this amicably and return to the mutually satisfactory relationship we have had in the past. 


Deborah C. Stearns, Ph.D.

Friday, August 6, 2010

When is it enough? Searching for meaning

Eye by M. C. Escher (1946)

When you look back on your life and contemplate what you have accomplished, will it be enough?  Will you have achieved enough, done enough, been enough?  What is enough? 

These are the questions that plague me.  I have always struggled with the question of sufficiency (or what I might call "enoughness").  Am I smart enough?  Am I attractive enough?  Is my work good enough?  I sought evidence, some kind of standard against which I could determine my quality.  Unfortunately, there is no clear standard for "enoughness," because it depends on what one means by enough.  Enough for what, exactly?  Is my work good enough to pass the class is a different question from whether it is good enough to get the top grade.  The questions never get resolved for me because I don't know what I mean by enough.  I don't have some concrete goal or clear comparison that will provide a definitive answer for the question.  Essentially, this stands in for the existential question of my worth:  Am I good enough to justify my existence?

In Notre Dame des Neiges (Montreal)
By what metric do we judge the quality of a person's life?  This requires that we identify the purpose of life, a thorny question to be sure.  One of my colleagues believes that the meaning of our lives is to be found in the quality of our relationships with others -- we live to love and be loved.  Some have argued that we are meant to seek happiness: 
“I believe that the very purpose of life is to be happy” --  Dalai Lama
Or perhaps not:  
"The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them.”  -- Dalai Lama
Maybe we are meant to fulfill our potential: 
"When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me.'"  -- Erma Bombeck
Or perhaps we should savor our life and seek diverse experiences:
"The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience." -- Eleanor Roosevelt
Maybe it doesn't matter exactly what we pursue, as long as we have some goal: 

"The purpose of life is a life of purpose." -- Robert Byrne
But whatever life's purpose, whether love, happiness, service or savoring, we are still left with the question of what constitutes enough.  If you follow Erma Bombeck's guidance, how do you know if you have fully met your potential?  Did you produce your best work?  Were you your best self, or could you have been better? For Emerson, how much of a difference do we need to make to have lived well?  If we make a slight difference in only one person's life, is that sufficient?  Can Eleanor Roosevelt be sure that she has tasted her experience to the utmost?  Maybe she could have savored life more fully. 

I can list my achievements and contributions, but I don't know if they are enough.  Couldn't I have done more?  Surely I wasted time that could have been better spent.  Perhaps I should have spent more time with my students -- or maybe less time at work and more time with my family and friends.  Maybe I should have focused more on one pursuit, rather than trying to do so many different things.  How do I know if I have done enough?  I'm searching for a sense of inner certainty that would indicate that I am on the right track, but I find only doubt.  My only certainty arises from knowing that some accomplishment is definitely not enough.  Without the feeling of certainty, I search for some external metric that could answer the question.  I look to awards, accolades, affection, any of which might indicate success, but none of which tell me if I have done enough

Courtesy of Mark's Weblog
Maybe I'm not supposed to have the answer.  Maybe it's engaging with the question that matters.  After all, the open question could inspire further effort -- if I knew that I had done enough, I might get complacent and rest on my laurels.  My lingering doubt provides a driving sense of anxiety -- you're not done yet, do more, try harder, keep going -- the dire threat of failure, of a meaningless and unfulfilled life, lurking at every moment.   True, this worry is unpleasant, but perhaps it is useful.  I believe in the importance of  living an examined life, and unresolved questions keep the examination process ongoing.  

But perhaps the anxiety is merely a distraction.  Rather than being a goad to greater achievement, one could argue that these worries leach energy from my life's work.  I spend time dithering about whether I've done enough instead of just getting on with it.  What could I have gotten done with this time I've spent rambling on about my existential angst, for example?  If I could come to some zen-like peace with the question of my worth, would I really stop working, or would I be even more productive?   

It's a moot point, as I simply don't know how to dismiss the existential questions; I have no answers and I can't make the questions go away.  The existentialist and humanistic psychologists would argue that we all confront these issues -- we must face the inevitability of our death and the threat of meaninglessness as part of psychological growth.  It may be too much to ask for a definitive answer, but I could wish for a tentative one, some ballpark estimate of my life's cumulative worth as a crumb of comfort in the face of my mortality.  Instead I simply ride out the ebb and flow of doubt, presuming that I am doing things right (all the while fearing that I am not).  And I hope that, when I am at the end of my days, I will be satisfied with what I have made of of my life.  I suspect, though, that at least some degree of doubt will follow me always, as I cannot imagine myself disentangled from the uncertainty that permeates my existence. 

How about you?  How do you establish whether you have done enough?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Summer days

An afternoon splashing in the pool at my father's house with my brother and his kids

Watching butterflies and dragonflies flutter and dance

Surrounded by colorful flowers

I come home smelling of chlorine and memory.