What better image is there for spontaneity and structure than the birds?
Students often ask me about my practice, about what a day looks like. Last February I posted my Ten Principles for Teaching. This morning I will talk about my Six Principles for Daily Practice.
There is much talk about the muse, about how to get inspired, and not enough about the structure that is required to make a place for her.
People think spontaneity and improvisation, even talent, spring out of nowhere. These qualities rise out of structure and practice. Freedom and play also emerge from structure.
There is too much emphasis on waiting for this "first" kind of Muse, the muse of inspiration. There is not something "out there" that will get us where we need to be.
This has me thinking about the second kind of muse, the one that prepares us for inspiration by providing structure.
Wendell Berry speaks of the second muse as the Muse of Realization. This muse counters the popular idea that what we desire is within easy reach. It steadies our short attention spans that want quick results. The Muse of Realization demands action and movement in a background of stillness. She is the muse of structure, ritual and form.
She requires a place designated for focus and uninterrupted time. Without this, there is no meaningful manifestation.
This place does not need to be big or fancy, it only needs to be yours. Set up your place with tools– e.g. paper and something to make marks or color with. Form is strengthened by a simple ritual to begin and end your time. I begin by bringing in a clear glass of fresh water and ringing a bell. I end with ringing the bell, and the next morning I fill the glass with fresh water again. Create a ritual that makes sense to you, and marks the beginning and end of your practice. This is a natural way to pause and deepen your experience.
The Muse of Realization asks this of you: create form by making a pre-arrangement with yourself:
e.g. I will go to my "studio" each day at ten each morning, and see what happens. The pre-arrangement needs to be something that you can easily manage, or it is a setup for failure. Make it easy to say yes to, and build up from there. Arrange your appointments with yourself as if you are meeting an important client– and you are.
The commitment to structure requires trust and persistence. If you catch yourself saying "I need to wait until...." then it is time to banish all excuses. There is the paradox of having faith that something will happen persisting in spite of the obstacles– including not knowing what you are doing or where you are going.
Here is Wendell Berry speaking about the Muse of Realization, the creator of form:
The form can be fulfilled only by a kind of abandonment to hope and to possibility, to unexpected gifts. The argument for freedom is not an argument against form. Form, like topsoil (which is intricately formal), empowers time to do good.
It is the willingness to hear the second muse that keeps us cheerful in our work. To hear only the first is to live in the bitterness of disappointment. – Wendell Berry
The Muse of Inspiration and the Muse of Realization give us a structure for the conversation between what is intangible (inspiration) and what is concrete (form). It is the cross-pollination of these two elements that engenders meaningful manifestation.
Here is the structure for my days– the first three remain consistent even when I am away from home.
Six Principles for Daily Practice:
1. Wake up slowly: The liminal times– between waking and sleeping, night and day, before and after– are rich with possibility. This is often where my "ahas" come from. See if you can catch a tendril from your dream, or any detail from the night. Keep pencil and paper by your bed. I resist the temptation to leap out of bed and begin on my list- my mind wanting to race ahead into the day. My phone and any other interrupters are off. Find the rhythm that works best for you. For me, it is the early morning hours that are most productive, so I am often up by five. (I also notice that my dream life is more vivid when I go to sleep slowly, with a book instead of screens).
2. Meditation/ Prayer: Set a kitchen timer (or I have a twenty minute sand timer) and sit quietly for a designated period of time. All you need is to be comfortable, feet on the ground, good posture. You can keep a pencil and paper close by for thoughts or inspirations or worries. Notice your thoughts as feathers falling. Notice the space the noticeer creates. Are you aware that you are aware?
3. Sacred Reading: Read something each morning that inspires you, that returns you to your best self. It is good to be around people, in person and in books, that you admire, that make you want to reach beyond yourself. Reading a poem or a paragraph can banish a bad mood and re-orient your inner compass.
4. Writing practice: You don't need to be a writer to benefit from finding out more about where you are by the physical act of writing with a pen and paper, for five or ten minutes. As William Stafford said to his students: you discover things you would not otherwise know in the physical act of putting pen to paper.
5. Studio Time: Anything you do everyday at a designated time will eventually flower. This is what Joseph Campbell meant when he said show up in your temenos, your sacred space, each day. At first, nothing happens. Perhaps for a long time, nothing happens. Eventually, something happens. This works even if you only have five minutes in a day- as long as you show up.
One big obstacle to work in the studio is thinking you must do something spectacular. This will sabotage your efforts every time. At the risk of sounding trite, I think of Mr. Rogers*, and his insistence that you don't have to do anything sensational for people to love you. It's you I like, just the way you are. This sounds easy enough, but how often do you practice kindness toward yourself? The only authentic place to begin is right where you are.
6. Movement: Some form of exercise, of getting outside, is good for the mind as well as the body. I memorize poetry while I am walking. New ideas filter in. Keep a pencil and paper handy if you are walking, and try going without your watch or phone. Find something you enjoy and you will do it more often. I alternate between Pilates, walking, swimming and bicycling. Find excuses to have your screens off and not on your body.
These mornings I have been watching a pair of eastern bluebirds. They have made a nest in the simple house I made. This is the structure for their work, for the future of their species. The sunrise and sunset is the structure for their day. All the birds disappear into their homes in the heavy rains, and at sunset. This morning they seem to be looking into the house at the young, but no longer feeding them. Have they already fledged? The male perches on the side of the house and peaks in, sometimes disappears inside, and then hops on top and points his beak upward, and sings! Now, this afternoon, I see the female ground-sallying. (This is when a bluebird briefly lands on a perch and then snatches prey from the ground).
But now she is gathering the pine mulch from our garden instead of insects, and carrying it to the nest– jumping inside and pulling in long strands behind her. It was almost 100 degrees, and after the last strand disappeared into their house, her little head would pop out of the opening, beak open, panting. Panting for a long while.
Pauses are an underestimated part of structure. Here is a quote from a book I am reading this week by Michael Pollan:
whatever you're doing
now and then
and not doing at all.
– Michael Pollan, How to Change Your Mind.
Most of us are removed from the structure of the natural world, but still have a pattern for sleeping and waking, eating and working. Like the bluebirds.
What kind of structure do you create for yourself, and what helps you follow it? I'd love to hear from you.
*Friends abroad may not have heard of our American hero for public broadcasting and for children, Fred Rogers. He convinced a skeptical congress to give six million dollars to save public TV in his six minute talk– singing the same song he sang for the children: