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Arthur Rosenfeld

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Paying Attention to the Space Between Life's Notes

Posted: 10/09/10 10:20 AM ET

When learning a new composition, beginning violin, guitar, and piano students focus on which fingers go where and in what order. Later, once the basic techniques are mastered, the teacher introduces the concept of making the notes sound like music by playing them to a certain tempo or time. In essence, tempo and time are concerned with the space between the notes, the duration during which there is either a mere harmonic echo of the note just played, or total silence. Of course, there is anticipation, too, as the listener's brain leaps to the next note automatically or, if he or she doesn't know what that note will be, experiences a delicious period of pure expectation that is sometimes rewarded with something unexpected and sublime.

In common woodworking or even the making of fine furniture, the adage "measure twice, cut once" applies. There is, nonetheless, an experience of contemplation between each phase of the project. After each component is formed, there is a subconscious consideration of how well its manufacture was accomplished, and of how well it will dovetail with the next piece in the production line. There is also an ongoing evaluation -- at least when a master craftsman's hands are involved -- of the overall balance and line of the piece, and whether it will be satisfactory in the end. More than one woodworking project has been scrapped as a result of the mental process that takes place between stages of physical work.

Scientists struggling with intractable problems and mathematicians wrestling with difficult equations often report that a solution -- Kekulé's dream of a snake biting its own tail to reveal the shape of the benzene molecule is a famous example -- reveals itself during down time. Writers, too, rely on the spaces between the notes. They may craft as they go, but just as often produce a work whole, like burping up an egg, as a result of the subconscious cogitation that goes on before actually sitting down to write. In a good novel, the writer may even have the experience of a character taking on a life of his or her own as a result of the growth that happens when the writer is not at the page. Twists and turns of plots, even surprise endings that fly in the face of the logical sequence of a book's outline, often emerge during a writer's quiet times, hours or days spent away from a manuscript.

In the mind/body practice called tai chi, learning happens not only during practice, but during reconsideration, planning and sharing too. Tai chi consists of a series of movements strung together like pearls on a string, the intervals between those movements, however brief, are consummately important. Not only do they conspire with the motions to create the overall melody, they provide fodder for the subconscious mind to fully integrate the required body mechanics, and also to make subtle adjustments that facilitate the next movement in line. Since tai chi is a practice that requires movement, it is the transition that defines the practice: a motionless statue lacks the dynamic essence of tai chi.

All of this talk about the space between the notes, the pauses between the cuts and the transitions between postures shows that it is action as well as inaction that define our work and our world. Taoist philosophy expresses this in terms of yin and yang, the classical Chinese terms for opposing forces acting in creative harmony. Think empty and full, quiet and loud, time and space, male and female, night and day, light and dark, up and down, and fast and slow. Action and inaction are also yang and yin. During yang times we think rationally. During yin times, intuition rises. The traditional Chinese meaning of the phrase "tai chi" is precisely the whole that encompasses both yang and yin. The well known tai chi diagram (you may know it as the yin/yang symbol) suggests that there is a piece of yin in yang (a black eye to the white "fish") and a bit of yang in yin (a white eye in the black one).

Don't let the speed and greed of modern culture drive you to misconstrue the spaces as wasted time. Instead, try to think of better ways to better appreciate the space between the notes of your life. What about the way you use the downtime between projects, or the way you sleep, relax, or enjoy restful pastimes and hobbies? Have you been giving those quiet times their due and allowing your intuition free reign? Do you even notice the changes in rhythm that signify inaction and action?

Consider that it might be an idea to have a bit of quiet in your action and a bit of action in your quiet time. Can you bring yourself to mindful awareness when fully engaged in something? Can you bring yourself to relaxed, intuitive, contemplative action when all is quiet? Embrace your quiet times rather than suffering through them. Allow your rich, wise and wonderful intuitive mind to flower and you may even reach enlightenment, which is just a term for understanding all that you have previously seen, but in a whole new way. At very least, paying attention to the space between your notes will give you a fresh understanding of cycles and how best to take advantage of them.

 
 
 

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