My mother was this Buddhist-Christian hybrid. Although she was a believer in the bible, its lessons and historical perspective, she despised organized religion (the institution) the hypocrites there in, and was always quoting Buddhist maxims. If only I listened to her then or was smart enough to absorb her wisdom – I would be light years beyond where I am today as a musician. However, it seems that throughout my life I have been continually learning from those lessons so all was not lost.
I am going to share some of that innate wisdom but not necessarily to teach anyone. The purpose of this posting is to instead help others to have their own eureka moments so that they too may realize that they already possess some of this innate wisdom but didn’t know they had it. For those on the cusp of this wisdom, maybe it will be enough to leverage them to the next precipice of awareness. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t discard it. Take it with you and keep it on the forefront of your back burners. One day you too may have a eureka moment and be better for it.
I always knew, or thought, that I was stronger than my peers. I always thought it was because I was a January baby (read “The Outliers”). I could lift and move things that my peers couldn’t. Despite being able to lift, endure or see things they didn’t, I was still regarded as weak. Sure, a ten year old girl could probably beat me at arm wrestling but I could do things she couldn’t do without using brute strength.
I volunteer at a TV studio and last week one of the other volunteers asked me how I could lift and move the flats across the room so effortlessly. They are about twenty feet in both height and width and they are made of wood and very heavy. If I were to stand in front of one and try to lift it with my arms alone, I would not be able to do it. I have watched the other volunteer lift them and he continually struggles to lift, balance and carry each flat across the room.
Well, we all know to lift with the knees (I hope), but it is not just about the knees. If you were to lift only with your knees, you would hurt your knees. If you used only your arms, you would hurt your arms. If you lifted with you back, you would hurt your back. The key is to employ everything, not just the knees. There is also an added component: gravity and going with it.
I know a police officer who tried to catch an intoxicated motorist and as the drunk began to fall and my cop friend tried to catch him, my friend used only his back. The result was devastating. My friend, the officer, permanently became disabled and it changed his life forever. The drunk was fine.
A doctor friend of mine once tried to catch a patient who passed out. My friend’s error was trying to catch the patient with one arm. The weight of the falling patient tore several muscles, ligaments and tendons in my friend’s arm. Being a musician also, this was devastating to him emotionally. He became addicted to pain killers, almost lost his practice and spent many months in rehab. It wasn’t until he enrolled in a month long, $1,000 per day equine program that he was able to control his addiction and depression. In the program, they taught him to become one with the horse in every aspect of care and riding and, those lessons helped him to kick his habit and accept what life was now like for him.
When I was a kid, my mother taught me to “un-weigh” myself (more on that later). When I lift the flat at the TV studio, I use its weight and the elasticity of my muscles to un-weigh the flat and I am then able to effortlessly lift it and, with my whole body, skeleton and muscles, I am able to balance the flat, making it one with my body.
When I am balancing the flat with my whole body, any adjustment of any muscle in my body affects the flat, its motion and its balance. The slightest shift can transfer tremendous energy into the flat. Because it is one with me and engaged with my whole body, I can effortlessly move it about and don’t need any isolated muscle to do all of the work. It is like wearing a sweater. I don’t have to control it when I wear it. It is one with my body and moves where my body moves. Carrying a flat is much the same once you can become one with it’s weight and find a combined balance.
How many of us know muscular people who can bench press hundreds of pounds yet they don’t have the strength to do every day tasks or they lack simple endurance? It is because they have trained themselves to do one task and that is to bench press. They strengthened isolated muscles rather than learning to to be able to engage the whole body to do one task. Lifting isn’t about isolated brute force, it is about using the whole body to do one task and using gravity and momentum to your benefit.
Have you ever seen cowardly people rappel down a cliff face or building facade? They are timid and clumsy as they try to cling to the rope or the cliff face, trying to both climb down and rappel. It is both humorous and frustrating to watch them.
When we see someone effortlessly rappel down a cliff face we might think that they can do it because they are brave. Maybe. More likely they can do it because they are one with the rope, one with the cliff and one with gravity. When they are one with all three, they can control themselves, gravity, the rope and the cliff face, all effortlessly at the same time and courage has little to do with it. It is more a matter of control and trust in that control.
What does it mean to be at one with something? There are many examples. I am considered an advanced intermediate skier by ski resort teachers. Eh, maybe. I know when I put on boots and skis, the skis are an extension of my legs. I can feel all the edges of the ski, I can feel the tips and the tails. When I ski, I can feel the texture of the snow and its effect on my edges and the effect of my weight on the skis and in the snow.
Part of that concept is being able to un-weigh myself. I become one with gravity so that I can use gravity to control my skis and feel the snow. A fatal flaw many skiers make is that either they are too timid or they try to control the snow. We’ve all seen people “snowplow” down a mountain where they try very hard to control their skis, gravity and the snow. It is both a struggle for them and comical for the viewer.
When I ski, both of my legs are doing one thing only, they are together and unified as one. Together they are moving both of my skis as one. Because I am one with gravity I am at one with the snow thus, I can ski effortlessly. The moment I isolate and try to control gravity, the snow or my skis, I risk catching an edge and falling.
The same is true with powder skiing. When an inexperienced skier first attempts skiing in powder, if they try to control the skis or the powder, they too will fail because the powder is in contact with all their edges and even their boots. If the skier is one with everything, if their legs are one, if they are one with their skis and they are one with gravity and can un-weigh themselves, powder skiing is effortless.
Controlling gravity is much like a boxer who can absorb a punch by going with the punch rather then facing it head on. You can press on a concrete wall and it isn’t going to go anywhere but you will get tired quickly. If you punch it you will hurt your hand because it isn’t going to go anywhere. If you were to just lean on it and become one with it, your action will be effortless.
If someone were to attack you by moving forward toward you, and you stood your ground, they would overtake and probably subdue you. But, if you grabbed them and went with their motion, direction and energy, you would control both your and their energy and be able to deflect, topple or subdue them.
Defense classes teach this all the time. Don’t oppose force, be one with it, go with it, control it. If someone comes up behind you and choke holds or bear hugs you, pulling away from them will be useless because they probably already control their and your gravity. Instead, be one with them, find their gravity and go with it and you will be able to control them, their gravity and catch them off guard. It is easy to subdue someone but if they control both their own gravity and yours, you will stand little chance, regardless of either of your sizes and strengths.
Think of it this way, if you are in a car traveling 40 mph and another car is coming at you going 40 mph and you hit head on, that is a combined force of 80 mph and the result will be devastating. However, if a car is coming at you going 40 mph and you are in reverse going 30 mph, when the other car hits you it will only be a 10 mph impact. That is what it is like to “go with gravity.”
Our emotions and attitudes can be affected by being at one, too. Maybe we have walked into a room and felt like everyone was looking at us or were afraid to be noticed so we slink in, gravitate toward a wall or try to get lost in a crowd thinking we won’t be noticed yet, we still feel like we stick out. Alternatively, maybe we walk into the room and feel at one with it, like we are it, like we own it and everyone in it. We will then be at one with everyone and not feel isolated. In both instances, the room and the people in it don’t change, we do. See Schrodinger’s cat.
When some organists sit at an organ, they are timid of the sound, instrument and space. If they pulled out all the stops, they can sometimes be insecure and afraid of the sonorous bombast which will trumpet forth. That timidness will come through in their playing, too. When I sit at a console, I feel like I am at one and own the whole piece of furniture, the bench, the keys and the stops. When I drop my hands, I own and feel the air rushing through the pipes. When the air rushes through the pipes, I am at one with the sound. As the sound fills the space, I am one with the space. As the rumble of sound causes the floor and walls to vibrate, I am at one with the vibrations. The room, the sound, the space, they are all one and I am not just a conduit between them, but I and the space exist as one. If there are people in the pews, I envelop them with my sound in a zen-like oneness.
My father taught me to drive and he marked the steering wheel and passenger side door with tape. When he taught me to parallel park, he had a mathematical formula for turning the steering wheel, lining up the tapes with the parallel car’s bumper and mirror and with that formula I was able to parallel park perfectly every time. However, it was my mother’s lesson which made me one with my car, the space and the car I was trying to park behind.
Her parking lesson started and ended in the driveway and it started with water, soap and a sponge. She never took me out to practice parking but she wanted to instill in me a knowledge of every inch of the car, to be one with it. Indeed, after washing it several times I had an innate sense of the length, width and height of my car. To this day, when I parallel park, it is not my father’s perfect formula which I use, it is the sense of being at one with my car, feeling every inch of it and knowing its size, mass and space which helps me to park perfectly most every time.
As a pianist, I know that my arm can only go in one direction at a time. Consequently my fingers can only go in one direction at a time. Since I have five fingers which do have the ability to go in different directions at a time, if I were to play with isolated fingers, they would have an invisible pull on my arm and hand which would hinder and interrupt my technique. When a pianist learns that all five fingers can only go in one direction at a time, it will free up their hand and technique. Likewise, they need to be at one with gravity. The keys are to be pressed down but the pianist doesn’t have to press the keys down, but only allow gravity to let the arm depress a key to the point of sound then un-weigh the arm so it can play the next note or set of notes. If a pianist were to press into a key, first, they will eventually injure themselves because like the aforementioned wall, the key bed isn’t going anywhere. However, all their motion will be going down and then they can’t go up to get to the next note without causing fatigue and muscle strain because they are trying to go in two directions at the same time. A tell tale sign of this is a pianist (or typist or game player or texter) who needs to shake the tension our of his hands. That is a sign that he is using two opposing muscles at the same time. It just can’t be done. Well, it can but shouldn’t be.
Stand up. You are not pressing into the ground, you are effortlessly standing there. You don’t have to do anything. Gravity is holding you there with no more or less weight than is present. Now stand on one leg. The raised leg is now free and effortlessly hanging, waiting to go in any direction. You can do that because the leg you are standing on is doing only one thing, going with gravity. If you try hopping on that one leg, your free leg will most likely tense up.
Many pianist can’t tremolo or trill because they are trying to control the instrument, their hands, individual fingers and gravity by pressing into the keybed. They need only to employ enough arm weight to depress a key, then rotate their forearm as a single and unified part. The arm is only going in one direction at a time while the forearm rotation does the rest. There is a little more to it but that is for another lesson.
Consider a drummer who takes his stick and plays a tinkle of wind chimes. His stick effortlessly glides from right to left down the rank of chimes and he plays them all with equal timing and intensity. While he is playing each chime, he is not playing each chime individually. His arm is one with the stick, the stick is one with the chimes and with one movement he creates the sound of a unified tinkle. Uncontrolled yet, controlled.
Water is a force which goes with gravity. There is nothing that won’t eventually fail to the unyielding power of water and gravity. Still waters run deep because at one time the water was a frothing torrent which eventually entrenched itself in the landscape. Although, it could have been a slow drip, too. My mother had a unique ritual for watering plants. She had a few dozen buckets which she poked small holes in at the bottom. She placed them next to a shrub or plant and filled them from the garden hose. During the course of the day, the bucket would empty from a slow leak. You see, if she poured the water out at once, much of is would spill in all directions and would only seep about one inch into the soil. She wanted her plants to develop deep roots rather than shallow ones. So, if the water slowly leaked in one spot, it would eventually seep deep into the ground forcing and encouraging the plant’s roots to grow deeply into the ground making it stronger and healthier. This is evident when strong winds topple huge trees and you can see that most of the roots are shallow and all on the surface. That was another of my mother’s lessons; With struggle, persistence, austerity and adaptation, comes strength. The dumping of vast amounts of water all at once onto a plant may seem satisfactory to the impatient gardener but, slow and steady wins the race. Trees with deep roots don’t topple.
Here is a fun lesson at being at one with gravity; go outside with a friend who is armed with water balloons. Have him toss the balloons to you and you try to catch them without breaking them. If you meet each balloon with opposing force, you will get wet. If you absorb its gravitational energy and momentum by going with the gravity of of the balloon, you will dryly succeed. Don’t forget to toss them back.
Go with gravity and be at one with the universe. Resistance is futile.