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The Key to Reinvention: Repetition +Expression

Spend Too Much Time in the Tavern and You’ll Have a Hangover!

McCabe's:  All About Guitars
On a week bookended by a beginning guitar class at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Santa Monica and a painting retreat at the Community Center of Encino, I was buffeted by a key challenge of the reinventing Boomer.  The guitar classes are held in a room that does triple duty as concert hall, classroom, and showroom.  It is filled with all manner of stringed instruments ranging from ukulele to classic Fender electric guitars to handmade mandolins, much as the classes which are packed with instruction on technique and practice drills.  At Master Rassouli’s painting retreat, the opposite approach is taken, no technique--nada, his role is to inspire free expression.   The cavernous, multi-purpose, bare room fits this role perfectly.  On one hand, I was challenged beyond my capacities to absorb the chord changes, fingering, and timing of the guitar and getting more and more frustrated by the minute.  It hit a head when I just shut down and stared at the sheet music, unable to move my hands.  On the other hand, fully prepared to paint another masterpiece with new canvas, new brushes, and resupplied acrylics, I spent the day bobbing around like a castaway’s bottle in the sea.  Between these polar opposites is the sweet spot of growth with creativity.  Between the poles is a tension that can be beneficial for rebirth and fully orbed happiness for the next chapter.

Skill development in the arts offers the satisfaction of pursuing a dream postponed til there was enough time.  It may be playing a musical instrument, learning to draw or paint, writing a novel, learning to dance, etc.  We are often called to the arts as a way of expressing ourselves and as a way to grow and enhance enjoyment of life.  The big elephant in the room is the reality of learning the craft is tedious, slow, and often discouraging.  Joe Robinson (the author of the breakthrough book, ‘Don’t Miss Your Life reminds us in a recent blog, ‘It Don’t Come Easy.’ When you have no natural talent for the field but always thought it would be cool to play piano (or guitar or draw portraits or tango), it takes major motivation to continue on past the unavoidable beginners’ stage.  This has a corollary in meditation practice, where a popular maxim is ‘zen mind, beginner mind.’  In that cosmology the highest place to be is as a babe, a beginner.  A beginner is clear and fresh and open fully to his/ her powers and aware of  the moment. 

Artistic pursuits are often seen to be outlets for the inner soul to express.  Indeed, I have experienced great liberation from simple expressing.  I had an art show a couple years ago called, Expression as Liberation.  It works but only so far.  True awakening is not just on the mountain top but ‘making the oatmeal’  enlightenment, being awake in the day to day aspects of life.  The rush from expressing oneself is liberating and fun, but it is also fleeting.   You always come down.  Kind of like an intoxication that wears off the next day (if we are lucky enough to not have a hangover).  To sustain the high or the liberation one must keep taking more of the intoxicant, but in artistic pursuits the high fades overtime without craft, without skill.   What is missing is the satisfaction of achievement.

Instructors of creativity such as Rassouli, open a door to the self that liberates the soul.  What is usually missing in that approach is the follow up that provides long term satisfaction and deep fulfillment.  I recall my first long meditation retreat with noted American Buddhist meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein.  Our consciousness was so fresh and clear from ten days of meditation, he closed by warning us that meditation at home is often not fun, but filled with discursive thoughts and irritations that may keep one off the cushion (meditating).  His advice?  “Just do it.”  The practice rewards but there are often spells that often are not liberating or fun.

What does this have to do with artistic expression?  In art, the ‘high’ of flow in the moment is exciting but to keep getting that high one must slog through the rough terrain of building skills through drills.  An outstanding spoken word artist, Adwin David Brown says it this way, “repetition, repetition, repetition, and then flow.’  The bliss of engaging performance or creation comes after many hours on the free throw line at the gym, drilling forehands with a practice partner, and swinging in the batting cage.  Miles Davis, the master improviser, said he practiced the scales every day. 

When we enter our first adulthood we are fresh and open to learn new stuff and the long hours of repetition are not so daunting.  Brain scientists have determined that the human brain is not fully formed until around 28.  After we have filled in the spaces of our brain patterns (science reports that we do use most of our brain, contrary to pop psychology).  Recognition of this is important for refiring Boomers who want to learn new skills in the arts or you name it.  Deep satisfaction or flourishing (as positive psychologist Martin Seligman calls it) from achievement is possible with patience and a carefully designed plan for sustaining the growth.  When it is done for the quick high, it is as ephemeral as last night’s drunk.  My personal mantra on climbing this mountain in the second adulthood is:  Show up, be mindful and ‘just do it,’ (over and over and over again).


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