The Art of the Impossible; Being at Home in an Uncertain World
Perhaps all things that really matter to us seem impossible. When I am improvising in a piano concert or giving a leadership talk or facilitating a group I sometimes think… this is impossible.
Celebrated opera singer Susan Graham, in conversation with Globe and Mail writer Robert Everett- Green says; ” The reason I went into opera in the first place was that it seemed impossible to me. You have to learn languages, master 400 years of musical style, create characters who may have lived hundreds of years ago. How could anyone do that, and memorize all that, and sing for three hours and not collapse.” ( Globe and Mail, Toronto, September 22, 2011)
And it is impossible if we believe it must come from my own will alone. Something needs to come out of a place we don’t know about and have little or no control over.
It is this ‘something’ that transforms moments of effort into hours of free play.
In this essay I explore how we may tap into this unknown place as we engage the art of the impossible and learn to be at home in an uncertain world.
As I watch the maple leaves outside the window turn a fiery red and the days shorten, I also turn to writing again. Thanks for responding with your many heartfelt thoughts, stories and reflections to these blogs. I hope you enjoy this one and, as always, I look forward to hearing from you.
All things that really matter to us are impossible. You know they say that (poetry) translation is impossible. Sure it is. We do it because it’s necessary, not because it is possible.
Poet WS Merwin Poet Laureate
These words from recently appointed Poet Laureate WS Merwin brought to mind a conversation with David, a senior leader as well as a consulting client, colleague and aspiring pianist.
“When you sit at the piano- how do you play?” He asked
His question seemed impossible to answer – like a centipede being asked how it walks!
“When I try to play the piano…” David continued, “ I need to know which chord I am playing and which chord comes next. I feel very slow and awkward.”
As David spoke I recalled my own struggles transforming a few seconds of spontaneous flow into minutes and perhaps hours of free play. What I enjoyed most was weaving back and forth between composed music to freely created spontaneous improvisations that flowed through my hands in ways that seemed both easy and complex at the same time.
“How am I doing this?” I would ask myself. And of course as soon as I thought it – this experience of spontaneous free play came to an abrupt stop.
“It is not caution but a wise blindness” that enables us to tap into this deep current of free – flowing spontaneous expression –German Poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote.
But it is difficult to embrace this ‘wise blindness’ when each musical note is deliberate and thought out in advance.
With Rilke’s words in mind, I invited David to join me on the piano bench.
“Lets play together for a few moments”. I said. My words had hardly left my mouth when I felt David tense his shoulders and arms.
“This is not a performance and there is no need for caution” I reminded him. “This is an experiment… there are no wrong notes… it is just a work in progress.”
Then I asked him to play, emphasizing that he not try to do anything special. His shoulders dropped a little. But I could tell by the way his fingers stiffly contacted the keys that this was not an easy thing for him to do.
He played from memory, his eyes focused in front of him as if there was music on the stand. The complicated musical structures he worked with did restrict his movement. Ideally the structures we work with should support rather than impeded the natural and organic flow of energy at the instrument… or with anything else we may do.
If I had one gift to offer David that evening, perhaps it would be to help him feel the music instead of thinking about it.
As Poet DH Lawrence once wrote;
“We live in an excessively conscious age, we know so much, we feel so little.”
So as I considered how to share this gift with David, I also considered how this worked for me.
Being at Home in an Uncertain World.
From a young age I discovered that to feel the music and sustain its spontaneity involved being attentive to what felt most alive and most engaged my imagination while I played. This involved learning to be at home with the uncertainties within myself and within my immediate world. To achieve this also involved a certain forgetting of oneself – that is, of stepping out of my own way so that the inner music could flow unimpeded by my conscious and deliberate thought processes. And this occurred very naturally when the aliveness I felt caused me to become completely absorbed in what I was doing.
This aliveness could lead me creating a bold new musical idea or something as simple as the subtle beauty of discovering a new turn of phrase within a familiar theme. Whatever it was, my work was to receive and accept it with humility, and learn to create as best I could with the materials close at hand.
This complete absorption in the work itself helped me realize that so much of what we create, in whatever we are doing – leadership, teaching, living or art – comes from a place unknown to us. It is natural to feel uncertain because the insights we need are not always visible to the rational mind. To discover them we must trust our own innate sense of aliveness. And our aliveness comes when we accept a certain humility with regards to what we know and can control and what we cannot.
Trusting What We Feel
And this may also be the key to engaging the art of impossibility. That is, to be open not only to what we know, but to what we feel. In the same vein we may ask ourselves what called us to leadership or to teaching or to art in the first place. This first flame of attraction connects us to something deep and visceral inside – something that is saying to us- I am doing this not because it is possible but because it is necessary – this is what I came for – this is what I am here to do.
To help David reconnect with this first call of attraction I suggested that he close his eyes and imagine he was re – discovering the piano keys for the first time. Just go with the feeling of this – and let the sounds and music take the lead. David hesitated for a moment as he experienced what Rilke described as the “exhilaration and terror of that first moments’ surrender” and then David really started to play. His transformation was a joy to watch.
When our primary reference is sight then our attention tends to go out to things that are external to our experience – that is we see our world, including notes and chords, as separate and discrete. When we play from feeling, our ears listen and take in all of our surroundings all at the same time. So as David closed his eyes his point of reference shifted from the parts to the primacy of the whole of the experience – something in which he could feel and hear the flow of the music unfolding all at once.
I noticed it in his face first. The lines in his forehead relaxed, then his jaw dropped. Then I also noticed how lightly his fingers were moving across the keys. His music which had been so calculated and measured before, was now filled with subtly and expression.
It was some time before David brought his music to a natural conclusion – it was as if he did not want stop. When he finished he just sat there for a time. And when he did look in my direction his eyes were bright and sparkling – “ That was impossible!” he said. Then he asked; “Could I do the same thing again?
“ Not exactly the same” I replied. As the great composer Gustav Mahler once said;
“we cannot repeat a state of mind”
When we engage the art of impossibility we draw our authority not from a body of content and expertise from past memory but from a living process of thinking and feeling as it is made in the moment – that is from an inner process that includes our doubts, perplexities questions aspirations and fears. The exhilaration and fear we experience is a natural response to the realization that what we are creating is not from our own will alone but from a living process of feeling and experience as it is made in the moment – a process in which new insights come forth afresh in our speaking, leading teaching and playing as we need it from a source unknown to us – and not a moment before.
This is the challenge for everyone now – with the great uncertainties that lie before us – we need to dig deep for a fresh response. This includes the willingness to act even when we don’t know what our actions may be. The performance we see ahead does seem impossible. Improvising at the piano is impossible, speaking out of the moment, facilitating a group dialogue is impossible, leading a team or an organization is impossible.
And if it is done in a way that is reliant solely on the script of notes and chords and how things have gone before then, yes it is impossible. But if we listen for the feeling of the moment and do what is uniquely ours to do, to do = then we may access that place that is usually invisible to us. That is our work….
To master the art of the impossible and – in so doing – to achieve what we did not think it possible to do.
Poet WS Merwin in conversation with editor Sarah van elder in Yes Magazine August, 2011 Page 12f