Posts Tagged ‘habits’

Amish_-_On_the_way_to_school_by_Gadjoboy-cropIn his poignant essay “The Old Order,” the Irish-American writer James Silas Rogers recalls his conversation on an Amtrak train with a young Amish man named Johann, who was crossing Wisconsin with his extended family. Curious about Amish faith and belief, Rogers inquired as to the significance of Johann’s distinctive attire: his plain shirt, suspenders, and broadfall trousers. “People ask us,” Johann replied, “if we think that wearing these clothes will get us into heaven. We absolutely do not. . . . But I do know that if I wear these clothes, it will keep me out of places where I should not go.”*

Reading Johann’s explanation, I was reminded of formal Zen practice, which also employs special clothes to remind practitioners of their moral commitments. In Japanese Zen, one of the most conspicuous of those clothes is the rakusu, a bib-like garment worn (and often hand-sewn) by those who have “taken the precepts,” which is to say, have publicly affirmed a set of ethical guidelines. Known as the “jukai precepts,” those guidelines differ from sect to sect, but in essence they enjoin the Zen disciple to refrain from harmful behaviors, particularly killing, stealing, engaging in false or injurious speech, using sexuality in hurtful ways, and abusing intoxicants. The unadorned rakusu, viewed as a miniature monastic robe and inscribed on the back with its wearer’s “dharma name,” signifies a commitment to that fundamental code of conduct. (more…)

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It’s a Saturday morning, and Jack and Ian are playing catch in their backyard. Jack is twelve, his brother ten.  After they have tossed a softball back and forth for a while, Jack announces that he’s going for a ride on his bike. Without waiting for a response, Jack mounts his bike and pedals off. “Wait up!” cries Ian, his older brother already far ahead.

Although Ian is probably unaware of it, he has just used a phrasal verb. In contrast to simple verbs, phrasal verbs contain two or more words, which function as a single semantic unit. “Wait up” differs in tone and meaning from “wait,” and it also differs from “wait around” or “wait out.” Phrasal verbs are a challenge for non-English speakers, who sometimes leave out the “particle”—the second word—or get it wrong. “I take my hat to you,” a Japanese acquaintance once wrote to me, intending to offer a compliment but instead evoking an image of a vigorous assault. (more…)

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“El Noi de la Mare” (“The Son of Mary”) is a traditional Catalan folksong. Originally a Christmas carol, this anonymous, sixteenth-century melody was arranged for guitar by Miguel Llobet (1878–1938) and brought to prominence by the great twentieth-century guitarist Andres Segovia. Since then, generations of classical guitarists have played it as an encore.

I first heard “El Noi de la Mare” some thirty years ago. Recently, I chanced to hear it again and decided to add it to my repertoire. After working out the technical problems of the piece (its simple, arch-shaped phrases belie complex fingerings and challenging position-changes), I recorded it, hoping to gain some insight.  To my chagrin, I discovered that I had unintentionally arpeggiated many chords, which is to say, I had broken them into successions of notes.  I was reminded of a comment by the concert guitarist Alice Artzt, for whom I once played a movement from Bach’s first cello suite. “You have Segovia’s disease,” she wryly noted, having listened to me break chords that should never have been broken.

To arpeggiate a chord is not in itself a technical flaw. Properly executed and appropriately placed, arpeggios can impart a harp-like feeling to a phrase or cadence. Played on the guitar, arpeggios may also add a dreamy Spanish flavor, evoking afternoons in Madrid or nights in Barcelona. Andres Segovia made frequent use of arpeggios, even in the Baroque music he transcribed for guitar, and at times they seemed strangely at odds with the music he was playing. In my youth I listened avidly to Segovia. And as I learned in recording “El Noi de la Mare,” I have carried his manner with me to this day.

In his memoir Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music, the classical guitarist Glenn Kurtz describes musical performance as a “battleground between your habits and your ideal.” Recalling his struggle to play a study by Fernando Sor, he elaborates the point:

Technique, like the body’s memory, is gloriously reliable and stubbornly resistant to change. Try to alter the way you hold a fork, or the way you face your spouse when angry. If you really concentrate, then it isn’t hard to do. But the moment you are distracted—the moment you begin to rely on your habits, your technique—you slip back into established patterns. Fixing mistakes is easy. Correcting your technique means undoing all your previous practice. You have to replace one habit with another, better one.

And just as specific habits must be addressed, so must one’s habitual attitude toward one’s instrument. In Kurtz’s words, “it’s not just this one passage, this one movement that I need to change, but a whole lifetime of movement, my whole history.”*

Digital recording provides an immediate, accurate, and unforgiving means by which a musician can become aware of unconscious habits. And the same might be said of Zen meditation, which brings real-time awareness to our habitual responses. Habits of mind, we sometimes call them, but they are also habits of feeling, perception, and moral judgment. The way we face our spouse (or partner or parent or child) may well be habitual, and so may the cast of mind we bring to that encounter. What the satirist Jonathan Swift called the prejudices of our education and Zen calls our conditioning often determines what we see and how we see it. And rather than erode, our mental ruts tend to deepen as we grow older.

Yet it is possible to “take the backward step that illuminates the self,” as the thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen advised us to do, and to become aware of our mental habits even as they are arising. Should we do that, we may find that we are firmly attached to our habitual responses. As the meditation teacher Pema Chodron puts it, we wear them like clothes, and we don’t want to take them off, lest we be “too exposed, naked in front of everyone.”**  Through diligent attention, however, we can weaken the hold of habits in our lives. We can come to see them clearly. And over time, we may also learn how to drop them, clearing the way for a fresh response.

According to one report, the sheet music for “El Noi de la Mare” was open on Andres Segovia’s music stand on the day he died. It may well have been the last piece he played. What better tribute to his memory—and to the music itself—than to play the piece with as much freshness as one can muster, adding arpeggios only when indicated or when the music itself invites them? And what better way to honor our everyday experience than to respond as openly as we can manage, unimpeded by our longstanding habits of mind?


*Glenn Kurtz, Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music (Knopf, 2007), 76.

**Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears (Shambhala,2009), 9.

Andres Segovia’s rendition of “El Noi de la Mare” may be heard on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pb1MNUoJg6c&feature=related.

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