Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Squirrel and the Tumor: testing theory through practice

"99% practice, 1% theory"
-Pattabhi Jois

I'll begin by identifying theory as what we believe should or will happen based on personal belief systems.

For the sake of the greater population, it might be okay to apply a little more than one percent theory to actual living- for a beginner (such as myself), I think 25% seems reasonable. Political view points, religion, diet, science- any facts derived from those things are based in theory, yet where would we be without them? Yes, we living on the material earthly plane need theory to make choices.

The important thing is not to identify too strongly with our theories.
As said by Isaac Asimov:
"Never let your sense of morals get in the way of doing what's right."
Morals, being rules are just theories shrouded in dogma. Maybe. That doesn't mean morals are useless. Remember that one percent.

My teacher Richard (Freeman) told this story illustrating why being a strict theorist can be disastrous.

Lets say you need a surgeon because you found out you have tumor- You are going to need a good surgeon (note the word "good"). You find a surgeon and he says, "Yes, you have a tumor" and thus decides to perform the necessary surgery. There you are in surgery and this surgeon you picked (because he was local we'll say) starts cutting you open. There you are all cut open with your guts exposed and instead of a tumor, what you really have in your stomach is a squirrel! The surgeon being hung up on the theory that you have a tumor states "Whoa! That tumor looks just like a squirrel!" Fine for you that you don't have a tumor, but are you sure you want this guy cutting into you?

Anyone would be surprised by something so improbable. I think the real experience for this particular surgeon might be fear. Fear that what was thought to be the truth is not true at all. Fear causes blindness. I can comment on that because I have plenty of experience with those things. When and if the illusions surrounding ones beliefs dissolves, the disillusionment itself feels a little blinding. Things like realizing I don't really know someone I thought I knew well. Things like when life feels stable and the bottom falls out and you have no where to live and no money. Things like angering someone you thought could never be angry at you. Also things like realizing that the church you go to is full of crazy people. That church experience screwed me up for like 20 years. I was really invested in that church saving me from myself. It didn't work.

We get so invested in what we theorize about it that it gives us a false sense of being anchored to a world that we really cannot pin down. Then something surprising happens and our theories fall apart and we find ourselves floating in space, possibly in a total panic. Like the theorist surgeon who deep down thinks he's going nuts because his theory that you had a tumor was all wrong. So he's totally freaked and blinds himself to his own misconception. It's like suddenly finding yourself dangling from your feet by a thin wire over a river of lava. Very precarious. Very dangerous to our sense of who we think we are. It just might- if you go deep, feel like a threat to your very existence. Like "Hey, if this isn't true, then maybe I'm not really who I think I am!"

Back to the squirrel. A good surgeon on the other hand- one who is not hung up on theories will automatically recognize that you have a squirrel instead of a tumor. Instead of carrying on cutting up your insides, he (or she- hello!) will encourage the little fellow to run back into the woods while she stitches you back up. In the end, it's good news for you too! I mean, hey- it was just a squirrel!

Everyone will probably be really perplexed for some time. Maybe even forever.
But isn't that what everything has the potential to do? To perplex us with the truth? And how interesting is it that better news; "Hey it's just a squirrel!" but news that is confusing;"Oh my God, it's a squirrel!" is scarier (at least to the doctor) than a common, well known tumor? Nobody expects the squirrels.

We are perplexed with truth, making an effort to grasp what cannot be grasped. We remain attached to our theories of what things are so that we can feel safe, grounded- all knowing perhaps?

What about the 99% practice? What is that? What does it mean to practice? I can say for myself that I just have to experiment. There is a lot of intuition involved. Everyone has intuition at their disposal, but we can be so attached to what we think the outcome of every situation should or will be that intuition is ignored. We disbelieve in the ability of the moment to unfold on its own. We can be so caught up in a past disaster or pleasure- a hope for the future, that the potential for the blossoming this infinitely petaled flower of life is misunderstood.

In that well intentioned effort we deliberately attempt to make the petals of this flower unfold a certain way, maybe pull the petals off seeking the center of the flower. And though many flowers require cultivation, this one requires a different kind of attention in the form of simple observation.

My theory however, is that this flower is forgiving, resilient and immortal in its ability to bloom over and over again. That is one way to experience God. To theorize, to force theory, to experience the discomfort of what is forced is a part learning to practice. We can only "practice" something that has a foundation of beliefs and set practices, yoga for instance. But to elevate what we are doing to true art, which everything has the potential to become, we must both remember the rules of our theories and then throw them completely out the window in order to witness the blooming of life that our theories germinate.

Theories are easy to talk about. Practice is another realm entirely. Maybe you are practicing getting really high Tetris scores, I don't know. It seems to me that when practice is experienced by the individual, it is recognized by others. Real practice is an abstract thing that we cannot contain, and yet boundaries keep us from floating away from the rest of humanity. Practice is not some willy-nilly floundering act where there are no rules. As a truly good artist knows good technique and applies it, truly good art is embedded with an element beyond technique. It transcends our ability to communicate in the traditional sense, try as we may. That is where theory feeds practice and practice has the most freedom.

At the moment I am theorizing that this blog post will get lots of hits. And honestly I am truly a bit attached to that theory. If I am right I will be happy. But for now, just sharing these thoughts is my practice. If I am disappointed, I will practice getting over myself. Maybe through ice cream.


  1. GREAT post. Love it. And I love that it came back to ice cream for comfort. =)

    A huge part of what I learned in college is what my dad said he learned. How much you DON'T know. And how much you'll NEVER know, no matter how many books you read. The world is infinitely complex, we understand only a tiny percentage of it, and that's just the way it is.

    I constantly formulate theories, frequently based on observations, perceived patterns, other theories. But through the years, at least re: my observations of the natural world, I've learned to hold those theories lightly. Took me a while.

    I also studied human behavior based on the theory of natural selection, which was a VERY interesting, enlightening experience. But even with what I think is a great and useful theory, you can only predict what influences MOST people, but that tells you nothing about what people will do in an evolutionarily novel environment (e.g. where refined narcotics are available), and tells you NOTHING about what a particular individual will do.

    That was also from statistics. You can learn about what maybe 75 percent of the population will do or have or show, but that tells you nothing about an individual. You have no idea.

    It was trippy to learn, and I'm so glad I did.

    Initially it can be unnerving, but like Richard Feynman said (in so many words) I'd rather not know, than "know" something that is factually wrong. He talks about how comfortable he is with uncertainty. Prefers it to holding a belief that is false. I LOVE that.

    Lovin' your writing and thoughts. xoxo

  2. ps (pardon SUCH a long comment) was raised from 5th - 12 grade by my dad, an atheist, so grew up in an environment where you kinda have to figure stuff out for yourself/using observation. Can't look up all the answers to life's questions in any book.

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  4. Yep.
    1. There is so much we don't know and never will know.
    That can be scary, but we just have to accept it.
    2. What's worse is not knowing, or being able to tell, how much of what we do "know" is actually wrong. Both the big picture science stuff and the personal issues you address here, Jen.
    That can be scarier - especially when what you thought was a nice happy life turns out to not be the case...

    - Paul