Doesn't it ever get it any easier?

Short answer: No, not if you're doing it right.

As, for example, here, where I am trying to explain an insight that came to me at the tournament this past weekend while I was thinking about whether I should just quit trying to fence épée as a second weapon and stick to foil.  I've been competing in épée off and on, I now realize, for going on something like three or so years.  And yet, I am nowhere nearly as strong in épée now as I was when I had been competing in foil for the same amount of time.  By the time I had been competing in foil as long as I have been competing in épée, I was a D.  I'm not even an E in épée at the moment, nor is it likely that I will be any time soon.

So why is that?  Well, I don't really get to practice épée much now that our club moved and most of the fencers that I practice with only do foil.  But that isn't all of it.  I could say that it's because I haven't been working hard enough at it, but that isn't quite it either.  (There's a post about "trying softer" lurking behind this one, but I need to say this first.)  It's because--and this is very important, so listen carefully--I haven't been as willing to put myself at risk in épée.  I simply can't face the learning curve.  It's too steep.

Ah.  Right.  That--I realized on Monday as I was working this out--that is why it's not just about trying harder.  Trying harder is simply a matter of endurance, gutting it out, pushing oneself to do the same thing over and over and over again to the point of exhaustion and counting on that to push one's game to the next level.  But sometimes (okay, so maybe this is the post about "trying softer," too), perhaps even most of the time, "trying harder" will never get one's game to the next level because what's missing is not muscular effort, but understanding.  (I'm thinking here of the image that Simone Weil gives of her students clenching up when she asked them to pay attention.  Contracting one's muscles, however tiring, is not attention; it is only contracting one's muscles.)  It's not that I am not in good enough physical shape (although I could still be better) in order to fence the other women my age; it's that I don't know what to do in a given situation where they do.

And, yes, I hate that.  "Why," you've heard me exclaim if you've ever spent any time with me on the strip, "why doesn't it ever get any easier?  Why don't I know what to do?  Why can't I see it? Why?  Why?  Why?"  And then maybe I pound my head (most of the time metaphorically) on the ground, hoping perhaps to beat the understanding of what to do into my brain physically if I can't get it there any other way.  And why is it so frustrating for me to feel like I don't know what to do?  Because--and this was the next realization that I had on Monday, although again it's something I've recognized for awhile--I truly believe (or have) that being good at something meant that eventually it would feel effortless and that as long as I felt like I had to struggle at it, I was doing something wrong.

Wrong!  Wrong! WRONG!  (Can you hear the insight clanging in my head?)  Wrong.  All these years (all my life, in fact) I have had it exactly backwards.  Being good at something does not mean finding it easy.  Being good at something does not mean constantly feeling oneself in a state of flow.  Quite the reverse.  Rather, being good at something means being willing to forgo the experience of flow.  It means (and I'm sure you've heard this, but think about it carefully) being willing to step out of one's comfort zone ALL THE TIME.

Gasp.  Yes, okay, that's a bit rough, but think about it.  Think about what it means to find oneself in one's comfort zone, one's abilities perfectly matched to the challenge at hand.  Previously, I had always taken this as a signal to relax: "Look, I can do this!"  Now I realize, sweet as it is, it's a trap.  Conversely, I had always taken the feeling of frustration ("I'll never be able to do this!") as a signal that I was supposed to quit.  ("Maybe you just don't have the talent for it," the demon would whisper, seductively, tempting me to want to return to my comfort zone where nothing felt awkward and everything made sense.)

Have I said this yet?  Wrong!!!!  Frustration, the feeling of being out on a limb not knowing what to do, is the best friend you have!  It's a sign that you are working on something that you don't yet know how to do--and that's all.  It is not a signal of failure or lack of talent.  It's a sign that you are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing: trying something new.  And that's it.  I'll say it again.  The feeling of frustration is your friend.  Comfort, the zone, the feeling of effortless ability--all fine, all lovely experiences.  But if you are doing it (whatever "it" is) right, they are transient.  And they are supposed to be!

More importantly (I have now realized), flow, the feeling of effortless competence, is not the goal.  Nor is it even that difficult to achieve.  Rather, it is simply the by-product of paying attention.  Perfect, absolute, unshakable attention, to be sure.  But it is not this elusive Zen-state that only the most gifted can achieve.  It is simply a matter of practice.  It's hard (or it feels hard) because paying attention when one is feeling frustrated is hard.  And the Ego (I think I understand this now) hates feeling frustrated.  It wants everything easy, the easier the better, because that makes it feel big.  But paying attention is not a function of the Ego; in fact, the Ego hates it because (get a hold of this one, Simone Weil said it, too) paying attention is an act of humility.  It means, quite literally, emptying the Ego, the Self of itself, and allowing something else the center, yes, of attention.  (Can you sense my Ego trying to get a word in here?  N.B. all the parenthetical comments.  Ego wants you to know, "I thought of this! Me! Me! Me!"  Don't pay her any attention.)

This is why the feeling of frustration is your friend: it is the Ego's effort to get you to turn away, stop paying attention to something other than itself.  It is a signal, in other words, that you are pushing yourself to attend to something that the Ego doesn't want you to because it feels threatened.  It knows that if you allow yourself to pay attention, you will forget about it.  You will no longer care whether what you are doing is right or wrong, you will simply be asking yourself, "What is this?  What is it trying to teach me?  What do I need to learn from it?"  But the Ego will fight.  As Simone Weil puts it, "Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue."  Frustration is the soul's repugnance for true attention.  That's why it is always telling you to quit.  The Ego wants your attention back on itself.  So what then?  Ignore it, and try to see what it is that the Ego doesn't want you to see.

(Ah, I can feel my Ego wanting to wander at this point.  To pull me away from paying attention to what I am trying to say.  It wants to go check my email, look at my messages on Facebook, anything other than sitting here concentrating on something other than its whims.  Because I can't think what to say next, and I'm feeling a little bit frustrated.  See?)

Ironically, allowing oneself to feel frustrated is the first step on the way to experiencing flow.  Because (see above) flow is a by-product of surrendering oneself (one's Ego) to something else.  And as long as one is paying attention to that Other (whether it be one's opponent's actions or one's writing or one's neighbor or God) without allowing the demon Frustration to pull oneself away, it doesn't really matter how well one is doing something (judging one's performance is a matter for the Ego or the Critic); one is simply caught up in the doing.  And, yes, then it is easier--but it doesn't matter anymore because the Ego is no longer in the way to make it hard.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this--wonderful! That fear in starting something, or discomfort, or frustration, being afraid to let go, is so familiar, and has often built up to a pretty hefty block on activity for me. I appreciate somebody thinking it out in public.

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  2. I am so happy to hear that my reflections helped! Thanks for letting me know!

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