Monday, 29 October 2012

Enjoying Practice: An Autumn Flute Journey

"Moonlit Night
as I wander aimlessly under a frozen moon
a flute pours its beauty from a nearby tower .
Then morning breezes begin to rise and gust —
the river already a carpet of scattered white blossoms."
- Kum Hsiu (832-912 ), A Drifting Boat: An Anthology of Chinese Zen Poetry (1994), p77.
"At first you will have various problems, and it is necessary for you to make some effort to continue our practice.[...] When you do something, just to do it should be your purpose". - Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p43.
Spring Moonlight on the Flowers by the River (春江花月夜) - one of the most famous Chinese traditional music works (here rendered as a painting).
When practicing various disciplines, it seems we can often put a lot of pressure on ourselves to reach lofty ideals. We can easily think that these ideal behaviours or results are the only kind of acceptable achievements - the only positive outcomes of our practices. This kind of perfectionism often becomes a disease which kills off enthusiasm for practice. As Japanese Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki says, in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p57:
"If an artist becomes too idealistic, he will commit suicide, because between his ideal and his actual ability there is a great gap. Because there is no bridge long enough to go across the gap, he will begin to despair. That is the usual spiritual way.".
Regarding mindful practices, directly after the above quote, Suzuki goes on to say:
"But our spiritual way is not so idealistic. In some sense we should be idealistic; at least we should be interested in making bread [or whatever thing one is creating] which tastes and looks good! Actual practice is repeating over and over again until you find out how to become bread. There is no secret in our way. Just to practice zazen [seated meditation] and put ourselves into the oven is our way."
If one can drop the ideals and remain mindful while peacefully enjoying the pleasant features of whatever one is practicing, then one's skill and expression will apparently grow naturally by itself. Just beholding the beautiful instruments of practice and interacting with them can be a simple joy, and that joy can apparently open one up to growth and 'gain' without one having any kind of 'gaining idea'.

A mindful calligraphy piece by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
My TaiJi teacher in the UK once told me that one must practice what one enjoys within a certain discipline in order to keep some form of enthusiasm and skill alive - even if what one is practicing will not bring one effectively closer to an ideal. This is so that in the event of richer resources arriving one can make the most of them. If one does not enjoy one's practices, even though one logically knows they are healthy and necessary for a happier life, then one will drop them soon enough.

The writing accompanying the following picture roughly translates to: "Enjoy Life, Live in a Tea Pot", and is from the San Yan Er Pai collection of Chinese Folklore:

The man in the painting loved tea so much he decided to live in a teapot, and the story suggests to others that they should also do what they enjoy in life, no matter the ideal. At least this man in a teapot will be happy and receptive to any new potentially positive development in his life, and have emotional resources to dedicate to the 'breaking of the eggshell of his understanding' at that time.

Recently I have been practicing playing a xiao bamboo flute melody which is part of a piece which has been translated as 'Rain Goddess Law Song'. I really like this short melody and I often pick up my flute just to play it. The tune sounds like a little story in itself and my relaxed enjoyment of it encourages me to lessen the  effort I put into blowing, so that I can appreciate the 'journey' it takes me on. This situation pushed me to hone more skill to produce the sounds, and my ability has improved since posting my last flute videos. Here is a video of myself playing the tune:

I don't see myself anywhere near the ideal of a flute player, and yet I have faith in the process of enjoying the small pleasures the practice of flute playing brings me. If I had not focussed on this small tune so much, and sought to enjoy it's particular melody, I may have not realised that I was adding so much extra effort to my playing than was necessary.
Sao Ch’ing Niang Niang (掃晴娘娘) the Chinese Goddess of Weather

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