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The Experience of Rhythm

by William McGaughey

Rhythm is produced by a kind of creative activity associated with genius. Some god-like creator has produced it from the unfathomable depths of mind. If that is the case, there can be no knowledge of producing rhythm: None but the inscrutable genius knows how to create it. This book takes the opposite point of view. One can indeed learn how to bring on this condition in which one, trance-like, produces perfect works.

Rhythmic performance has three requirements. First, one must admit that creative talent may have a genetic component. Part of a person’s ability to produce rhythm is hard-wired into his nervous system. Some persons are born with abilities in a certain area; others are not. Nothing further can be said of this aspect for it is basically uncontrollable. The second component, then, has to do with the development of habits that will sustain a smooth performance of skills. These habits are developed through regular practice of the proper techniques for an art. Personal dedication and discipline are needed to satisfy this aspect of cultivating rhythm. People see a beautiful exercise of rhythmic skills and think it is a matter of talent. Some talent is involved; but, as the pianist Paderewski told Queen Victoria who had complimented him on his “genius”: “Before I was a genius, I was a drudge.” Accomplished artists and musicians practice the same exercises again and again. The third component is the mental attitude that performers have when doing their best work. This is what brings properly developed habit up to a peak of performance when it counts. It is going the last mile mentally and physically to squeeze rhythm out of one’s existing set of skills.

developed habits

Plato viewed life as if it were solid as stone. Ideas were indestructible and so human purposes ought to be. The mind, filled with ideas, embraced eternity. Mind is, however, the idea of an organ of consciousness housed in a corporeal brain. Since the brain mediates between ideas and the world, human thought is subject to the frailties of its medium. In theory, the mind might absorb information perfectly and completely. Like a computer, it might learn in a flash and never forget what it has learned. In reality, mind cannot escape its physical limitations. One does not remember everything exactly the first time through. Few persons have “photographic memories” which would allow them to take in knowledge on the first exposure. Fortunately, there is a way to strengthen the medium of mind. If the mind does not retain a certain message, let the message be repeated. If a concept is repeated once or twice, it is more likely to be remembered. Only with some difficulty does mind receive new concepts; it delights in familiar things. A certain concession must be made to the weakness of the brain.

Plato quoted Socrates in the Philebus: “I think there is a lot in the proverb about the need of repeating a good thing once and twice and once again.” Here is a concession to weakness of the flesh. To repeat an action once or several times will start to form a habit. Habit is a means of solidifying behavioral patterns so that they can reliably be repeated. However, we have become used to disparaging this element within ourselves. “Dumb habit” or “blind habit”, we say. Habit, in fact, is not blind or dumb; it is the body’s own intelligence. The mechanism of habit allows mind to impose its design upon behavior with some degree of permanence. Habit is a means of stiffening the weak medium of body so that it will retain an impression stamped upon it by experience or, in the case of the brain, its remembered knowledge. Therefore, while the Greek philosophers tended to regard habit as belonging to man’s lower nature, they also recognized that this part of the psyche was needed to hold a rational design. It was a way of giving ideas a more durable presence in the world.

Habit describes the way that mind works: by chains of associated acts and ideas. One thought is linked to another; and this to still another thought. The particular linkage may be determined by an element common to the thoughts or by a chance association which has developed from past experiences. For example, a man hears a noise, looks out the window of his home, and sees an automobile coming up the driveway. The next time that he hears a similar noise, he may look out the window and think of this automobile. The association between the noise and the sight of the automobile is implanted in the mind with a single occurrence. The next time that these events occur in the same sequence, the association becomes stronger. The same is true of physical motions. A child pulls up his shoe laces, wraps one over the other and pulls the end through, forms two loops, makes a similar wrapping and pulling motion, and finally pulls tight on the ends of the loops to create a secure knot. He has learned to tie his shoes. If this series of actions is performed enough times, a habit is formed. Once the sequential associations have solidified to that degree, the initial awareness sets off a chain of mental impulses bringing the rest of the routine. No further thought is necessary.

It should be pointed out that initially habits were established by conscious thoughts. Habit and reason (or active intellect) are not opposites, as it is often supposed. Rather, habit is intellect in past tense. The conscious mind works on problems when they first appear. After the solution is found and is repeated several times, habit takes over. Thoughts which were previously connected with the process of a solution no longer rise to the level of consciousness. Unless new difficulties arise, their habitual remnant is able to carry the activity along to completion. Unconscious psychic mechanisms handle the process automatically. This dichotomy between reason and habit can be compared with bark growing on a tree. The bark is the live part of the tree. Each year that bark grows on the outside of the trunk, it deposits another layer of wood. The wood, towards the interior, is the dead part of the tree though it also provides its main structure of support. The tree is harvested for the sake of the wood, not the bark. Similarly, dead habits are created by the onward development of live intellect. These habits comprise the substance of our knowledge, skills, and personality.

Aristotle regarded habit, and indeed all bodily functions, as “passions” which needed to be brought under control. It was the function of reason to subdue the passions. Upon second thought, however, one recognizes that the passions (or habits) are not completely separate from reason. They may be remnants of thoughts one had as a child. Consider this example of passionate behavior: A person insults you to your face. Flushed with anger, you clench your fist and prepare to strike the other person. Then your “better judgment” takes control and you simmer down. This angry passion is a residual habit of childhood. When children become angry, they do often physically assault each other. Adult society will not tolerate this, so children are taught to resist the temptation to strike back physically. They are instead encouraged to respond to a provocation with words. Adults never completely outgrow their childish tendencies, though. Upon being insulted, our first impulse is to want to use our fists. Reason, through will, must oppose that urge, substituting its “adult” practice for the habitual pattern inherited from childhood.

In order to “break habit”, reason imposes a substitute pattern of behavior so that the previous pattern is disrupted. It often must practice this over and over again so that a new habit is formed in place of the old one. In the early days of cigarette retailing, the manufacturer of “Lucky Strike” cigarettes advertised: “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” This message appealed to all the fat men and women of that era who ate candy. Smoking cigarettes came across as more stylish. Today, people are more concerned about the threat of lung cancer. Numerous Americans are engaged in a fierce struggle to resist the urge to “light up” during the day. When tempted to reach for a cigarette, they try to engage in a substitute practice or defeat their cigarette habit through sheer will power. They are attempting to establish “good habits” in place of harmful ones.

Good habits are important. Will power can take a person only so far. Then its effort collapses unless supported by the right structure of habit. Habits represent the means to ends which will has chosen to pursue. When one develops a habit, one no longer has to keep in mind all the separate movements that would normally need to be handled during a performance. One has merely to think of the process as a whole and habit will do the rest. Naturally, as a person gains experience, the habitual solutions come more easily. Awkward improvisation gives way to smooth performance of a routine. Individuals acquire more confident personalities. They take each problem in stride. This would seem to be an ideal state of affairs: People are able to achieve an effortless perfection in what they do. They are living up to their potential, fully engaged in the world. The movement of their perfected habits emits vibrations of beauty and strength. An aura of radiant energy surrounds the one whose habits have advanced to a rhythmic state.

some characteristics of rhythm

The phenomenon of rhythm is something which, though experienced often enough, is little understood. That is because it arises through habit rather than reason. Its type of experience involves a series of repeating motions that move toward a more harmonious state. Through gentle cultivation, these motions progress toward an ideal perceived by mind. The mind cannot quite achieve this state of perfection. It emerges unexpectedly from a person’s complex of habits. The perfection arrives, one might say, in a moment of “ripeness”. In contemporary jargon, this is when someone has finally “got it all together” or “something clicks”. There is a resonance to the occasion that cannot be produced; it just appears. The ideal of rhythm differs from the ideals enunciated by the Greek philosophers. Rhythm is repetitive and dynamic, not a fixed state of being. Its achievements are not reached through constant exercise of will. Instead, one moves in and out of the rhythm, following the flow.

To understand rhythm, one should first understand that there are many experiences that are not rhythm. There are dull moments among the excitement. Have you ever read a newspaper column which is totally lacking in inspiration? The columnist has been writing the same type of column for thirty years. He needs to fill up a certain space each day whether or not he has anything interesting to say. His writings would never be confused with rhythm. And how about the practice of “making conversation”? Two people are thrown together in an empty room. Politeness forces them to say something to each other. From the expression on their faces, it’s obvious that they would rather be elsewhere. They lack the “right chemistry”.

The concept of rhythm applies to many situations: musical, artistic, athletic, occupational, social, personal. Each has its own dynamic. Each person is aware of moments of intense concentration when he feels energetic and alert, and is able to accomplish many wonderful things. As well, each is aware of times of feeling completely exhausted and settling into a deep sleep. This experience of sleep is not so unlike the more energetic experience. Both have an intensity about them which is rhythmic. The same is true of sexual orgasm. Whatever its manifestation, there is a powerful yet effortless quality about rhythm which one recognizes the moment it appears. Rhythm is the difference between the wave in the ocean which really takes hold and comes crashing into shore and all the other dissipating, feebler waves.

To discern its nature, one might mention the quality of cohesion. Its well-shaped structure allows it to hold together in various circumstances; hence, the capacity to repeat. The element of repetition is present, building up to a resonant state. Persons whose habits are better developed experience rhythm more often. On one hand, their recurrent habits pose the potential to act in a certain way. On the other hand, the outside world brings forth a flow of novel experiences. The trick is to relate the novelty to the recurrence. In rhythm, a successful synthesis is achieved between these two elements. The repeating habits carry the motion forward, but it is the innovative part which attracts more attention. People’s eyes are fixed on the parts that are changing. So, in music, a theme emerges from the background of recurring passages; a melody, from the series of notes. We tend to notice the direction in which events are headed more than the present situation. Still, without recurrence, change would be lost in myriad confusing events.

Rhythm demonstrates the process of working out interior purposes into actuality. Personal tendencies, established by training or accident or choice, give rhythm its specific content. A person recognizes how to unleash certain aspects of personality. Delicate possibilities become real. After awkward attempts to act through half-formed tendencies, the process begins to gel. One learns to coordinate and perform all the separate motions, so that they can be executed quickly and effortlessly and without ragged edges. This is not done with mechanical exactness. In creating rhythm, one is personally filled with its spirit. Being moved by this, one disgorges the experience in ways that cause others similarly to be moved.

Rhythm cannot be entered cold. Its performance often requires an introductory routine to get things started. The routine may consist of a personal ritual which connects the present situation to the person’s underlying structure of habits. Its mechanical motions serve to create a familiar mood that brings the rest along. The swing of a baseball batter, for instance, is a precise rhythm that requires split-second timing. I remember that when Tony Oliva, three-time American League batting champion, stepped to the plate, he customarily went through a ritual of “chicken scratching” with his back foot, adjusting his cap, and touching the bat to the plate several times as the waiting pitcher looked on. Evidently, this habit helped Oliva prepare himself mentally for the moment of rhythmic delivery when he swung at the ball crossing the plate. There are preliminary rituals to most social occasions. Even in bars and night clubs, where love transpires between complete strangers, some introduction is required. Small talk may seem a waste of time, but among strangers it is comforting to have common ground. If you walk up to a strange dog and attempt to pat it on the head, the dog will likely bark at you and run away. On the other hand, if you stand there calmly for awhile, the dog may come up to you wagging its tail.

In the normal course of events, you start out slowly, gently, unpretentiously, and then build up to a more ambitious state of rhythm. Persons who are socially awkward or mentally ill have difficulty grasping this point. Observe this situation: The neurotic one stands outside rhythm, as a spectator. The others are all laughing, and talking, and enjoying themselves. He wants ever so much to participate in their circle. Uninvited, he walks up to the group and begins to make furious conversation. Putting all his wits on the line, he attempts to perform at once all the rhythms of conversation and personal charm that he sees in these people. He pretends to be like them. The other people see through his act. Someone makes an unkind remark. Someone else does not respond to a question. Soon people in that group start to walk away. He is left standing there by himself. It is easy to recommend to that person that he start with more modest expectations, but the beginning steps seem unimportant. If only he could be persuaded to begin at the inglorious beginning and regard each step forward, however small, as a victory. Eventually rhythm will come.

The rhythm itself is inaccessible. You may not seek it directly. Rhythm is habit, and habits must be formed over a period of time. Beyond this, rhythm requires full attention to the elements of a situation. For example, to produce the rhythm of music requires that one concentrate on the notes of the score, the strings or keys of an instrument, or other elements that are interior to the performance, rather than on the rhythmic sound itself. The same is true of social rhythms. To make friends, you must have interests that you can share with other people. You must be interested in something else besides just making friends. You must busy yourself with all those unimportant little thoughts and concerns which people have. Thinking about things rather than people will steer you in a direction towards people as a rhythm develops from your common experiences. Rhythm is a result of focusing on the interior elements of a situation and acquiring the appropriate habits. To focus on rhythm itself would be a mistake.

If rhythm is lost, the best thing to do is not to become too anxious. Redoubled efforts to recover lost ground are usually counterproductive. Therefore, settle back. Do something else for awhile. If you are tired or worn out, rhythm will not come except maybe the rhythm of sleep. Therefore, if nothing is going right, put things aside. You can take them up again later when rhythm returns. And, have confidence in yourself that it will return. The temptation is to “bite off more than you can chew” and, consequently, to become run down and ineffective. Therefore, when things become disorganized, retrench. Resist the temptation to seize immediate big results. Each activity must move at the right pace. To start rhythm’s flow, you need to be mentally on top of the situation. Some people want to speed things up to finish them sooner. That way, everything comes out in a smudge. To summon rhythm, you must draw the activity out gracefully. Let each moment bear a tolerable weight. Do not force; things are allowed to happen. Once rhythm is flowing, the momentum will carry it along on a smaller input. To cultivate rhythm is, indeed, like sailing on a lake. You need to wait for the sails to fill up with wind before the boat will move. Therefore, let those “sails” of the mind become full of vigorous thoughts and rhythm will follow.

There is no such thing as a permanent high. A philosophy which tells people never to let up, always to do their best, and systematically and consistently to “pursue excellence” is platitudinous at best. The good man may be consistently good, but rhythm is another matter. It requires a certain ebb and flow in one’s state of readiness. There is room in this life both for good and bad, appearing in rhythmic alternation. Solomon understood:

“For everything its season, and for every
activity under Heaven its time;
A time to be born and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to uproot ...”

Walt Whitman wrote:

“Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fail, battles are lost
in the same spirit in which they are won ...”

The practice of rhythm alternates between tension and relaxation. Life’s rhythm includes periods of daily work and play: disciplined effort followed by a time of enjoyment and ease. Music shows this pattern: tight, passionate moments followed by quiet, repetitive ones. The energetic phase, bringing intense motions, is situated within a broader pattern which also includes passive times. All is not rhythm; that would be impossible. Rhythm’s more intense beauty is set against the coarse backdrop of ordinary life. Rhythm proceeds in a perfected pattern of motions. One observes a pattern of self-assured movement, whatever the activity at hand. There is precision, but not the kind achieved in mathematics. That kind of perfection is too brittle. Rhythm is playful and experimental. It is not an atmosphere in which one would be afraid to make a mistake.

Error is more livable than perfection. Perfection in someone else makes a person feel inferior. At a cocktail party, no one wants definitive statements or brilliant explanations: that would stop the conversation. The purpose of such gatherings is not to convey information but to be amused. The people are like kittens playing on the floor with a piece of yarn. Therefore, at certain social events, people will tolerate, even encourage, wildly mistaken behavior so that they get to know each other better. The prize for the evening goes not to the person who can solve all the problems but to the one who can blow things up into a fluff and breathe some life into the situation. While sipping their alcoholic beverages, people are trying to get themselves into the same spirit. They want spontaneous, uninhibited excitement. Of course, the party could become a bit too loose and wild. In that case, the rhythm would have gone sour; it would be time to go home.

Humor provides some of the looseness that intelligence needs in a serious world. When children play and adults joke, they are learning about life’s experiences in a safe way. They can pretend that certain things are happening without suffering the consequences that would come in the real case. Humor can be harmless play or it can have serious implications. For instance, when a man jokes with a woman in a lustful way, it signals to him that she might want to proceed further if she flirts back. If, on the other hand, she spurns his advance, then he was “only joking”. Hiding behind ambiguity, humor is a socially approved way of venturing into forbidden territories so that the loose part of our natures can be exercised. (Sexual-harassment laws may have changed this.) Of course, some situations lend themselves to playful rhythms more than others. Serious business must be conducted by rational means no matter how boring and stiff this may seem. Even so, “serious” enterprises grow stale without rhythmic diversions. “An army without culture is a dull-witted army, and a dull-witted army cannot defeat the enemy,” Chairman Mao once said.

There are two kinds of persuasion: One kind appeals to reason in marshaling facts and information to make a case. The other kind appeals to the emotions. It presents an irresistible rhythm of personality which makes a person want to join in. In the early days of print advertising, the first type of persuasion was favored. Today, with an emphasis upon radio and television advertising, customers are persuaded to buy by the second method. Commercial advertising follows the principle: Sell the sizzle, not the steak. As presented on television, the products seem to belong to an attractive lifestyle which the viewer wishes to imitate. Rhythmic persuasion sets up an appealing chain of movements which, like a beautiful song, invites participation. Each person who is persuaded finds a place for himself within its dancing patterns. .. ong athletes, the discus hurler Al Oerter

energetic vibrations

Speeches, sermons, and other devices of rational communication also include rhythmic elements. A gifted orator or preacher unleashes a torrent of statements which vibrate with powerful waves of authority. Each communicator cultivates his own type of audience. Through individual selection, members of the audience respond to this message as if tuned to a radio broadcast. The human mind receives messages which vibrate at the same frequency as its own habits of thought. Religious persons will be attuned to the thoughts which preachers of the Gospel are delivering. Socialists will be stirred by speeches made by other socialists. The same message is available to other persons as well but they will not notice the details or shades of meaning in what is said. To vibrate freely with the rhythm is to hold a particular point of view.

By repetition, rhythm builds up to increasing levels of energy. It’s like twirling an object on the end of a rope round and round in widening circles and then releasing it to fly off in one direction. Habits which are practiced long enough gain a powerful momentum. Appearing to be effortless, they pack an immense energy. In a resonant state, rhythm would seem to be an invincible force in this world. Rhythm is like a bird which is carried motionless upon strong currents of wind. With a slight twist of its body, the bird moves into one of those currents and soars off into vast spaces. We, too, can move into those powerful currents of habit. In an instant, we can swing into a particular chain of habitual motions and be pulled along in that direction. The experience of rhythm is to allow ourselves to be swept up through the chain with utter assurance as a soaring bird is taken up in the currents of air.

Rhythm is like an infectious spirit that moves from one person to another; or a fire which spreads to combustible material nearby. It may be that rhythmic inspiration, once experienced, can never be extinguished. Even with the passage of years, there is a spark of the original inspiration, though the flame has long turned to ashes. The vision of its truth lives on in unexpected places and, at times, reignites.

The poet Wordsworth wrote in the Preludes:

“Attention springs, and comprehensiveness and memory flow,
From early converse with the works of God,
Among all regions; chiefly where appear
Most obviously simplicity and power.”

There are times and places in human history when the inspiration ignites into a huge conflagration. Shared rhythms bind people in energetic circles of friendship or love. Why is it that so many of the world’s great works are associated with groups of great persons? We have the Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, in an unbroken chain. We have the founders of Christianity, Jesus, John the Baptist, St. Peter, and St. Paul. The “founding fathers” of the United States of America included these great individuals: Franklin, Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison. A generation later came the English Romantic poets, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats; and then, in America, such literary talents as Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Whitman. With trembling excitement, some may ask: If worldly power can multiply, why not the noblest ideals of humanity? Let revolutionaries conspire, not to seize power, but to spread harmony and joy throughout the earth. Yet, though rhythm may unleash awesome forces of inspiration, one understands that its energy can be directed in several ways. In an Adolf Hitler, the rhythmic energies may be loosed for destruction. In a Gandhi, loving vibrations may be spread. As glass is shattered by a certain pitch, so resonant rhythms exert a powerful influence for good or ill.

There may be an art to assembling those rhythmic powers. Marie Tempest, an American prima donna of the 1890s, argued that, to be supremely successful in her field, the singer had to “work hard and faithfully under skilled instructors. She must devote many long hours to patient study and practice. She must take herself seriously ... Regularity and simplicity of daily life, plain food, plenty of sleep, quiet habits - upon these depend health, and through health the voice ... Too many singing mariners, sailing the operatic seas, are wrecked upon the reefs of late dinners, champagne suppers, balls, and other nocturnal routs ... Take care to keep the vocal chords in perfect condition. All singers should avoid warping, straining, or roughening these chords ... Trapeze performance with the voice is the height of folly. Vocal excellence is not conquered in a single battle. High notes are not captured by assault, but by siege. Like a locomotive, the voice should be sent regularly to the repair shop. Seven months is the limit of time that the average voice can be used continuously with safety. Then should follow five months of rest, during the first month of which the voice should not be used at all, not even to practice.”

the different approaches of form and rhythm to their ideal

Rhythmic performances such as operatic singing differ from productions relating to form. Form is eternal. Existing in frozen time, it presents a model for beings in the physical world to emulate. For instance, the mind perceives the unchanging ideal of goodness and adapts personal behavior to it. Once a person has entered into a state of goodness, he is expected to remain there forever. The ethical man is always, not sometimes, good. So Greek philosophy envisions a constancy of character in accordance with its ideals. Rhythm, on the other hand, assumes that an expression or act proceeds in linear time. The expressive elements, such as musical notes, are arranged within the span of time allotted for the performance. These expressions involve an uncertain effort to create perfection. The ethic of rhythm, if it may be called that, does not involve constancy of character but the delivery of peak performance at a time when it counts. The opera singer wants to be at her best when audiences pack the hall. The comedian wants to sparkle with wit when the television cameras are recording his routine. Once the cameras are turned off, he can be a complete dullard. Performers of rhythmic exercises thus learn to modulate their behavior to achieve maximum performance at certain times and at other times not. Only certain times count.

The requirement that the good man stay that way forever posed a challenge to Greek philosophy; for that is not human nature. Plato believed that reason would recognize the superior quality of goodness and convince a man that he ought to be good. Reason would not merely have to convince him intellectually but keep the conviction strong at each point in his life. Plato was realistic enough to recognize that reason was not strong enough by itself to withstand pleasure-seeking temptations. It need help from other psychic faculties. If a person practiced good works to the point that they became a habit, then he would reliably do good. But how does one develop good habits? There are times of moral choice when one must decide, quite consciously, to practice this kind of behavior instead of something else. Even after good habits are formed, there may be times when worldly temptations lure one away from those practices and one lapses into bad behavior. At such times, reason needs an extra boost of decision-making power, will, to reinforce habit. Will power is able to tip behavior in the right direction.

Form exerts control from the top down. As the head is top of the body, so reason is superior to other psychic faculties. The rest of the body has to obey reason. A hierarchical relationship exists between parts of the psyche. Reason would be at the top, physical appetites would be at the bottom, and a faculty called “thumos” or “the principle of high spirit” would stand in the middle. Predictably, reason would be in conflict with the physical appetites; it would take this middle faculty to decide the matter. Analogously, Plato envisioned a three-part scheme of society. The “guardians”, like a head, would provide rational control of society. The inferior element would consist of the lower or working class. The class in the middle, called “auxiliaries”, would be persons who would help the guardians maintain control over the “base rabble”. In reality, they were soldiers. “In noble souls,” wrote Plato, “this principle of high spirit, which is the helper of reason by nature unless it is corrupted by evil nurture ... endures and wins the victory and will not let go until it achieves its purpose ... or, as a dog is called back by a shepherd, it is called back by the reason within and calmed.” As, in personal life, it would “belong to the rational part to rule .. in behalf of the entire soul”, so in society “it is better for everyone to be governed by the divine and intelligent, preferably indwelling and his own, but in default of that imposed from without.”

“Imposed” is the operative word. Although the dictates of reason ought to be obeyed, the physical appetites (and masses of people) sometimes pull in a different direction. If it is impossible that reason should give way, then the lower part of the psyche (or of society) would have to give way. That lower part should be forced to obey reason if necessary. In theory, consent to the philosophers’ (or reason’s) rule might be gained voluntarily. It might be gained, for instance, by the conjunction of philosophy and political power in the same person - Plato’s so-called “philosopher-king”. The historian Arnold Toynbee observed, however, that “while Plato is at pains to give his philosopher-king’s government the benefit of the consent of the governed, it is evident that there would be no purpose in the philosopher’s surprising personal union with the potentate who is to be an absolute monarch unless the despot’s power of physical coercion is to be held in readiness for use in case of necessity ... If the philosopher-king finds that he cannot get his way by charm, he will throw away his philosophy and take to the sword.”

It seems that, whenever reason is elevated to a position of absolute power, some element of coercion is necessary. Plato’s auxiliaries were a class of soldiers trained to obey the society’s leaders without wavering. Their particular virtue, wrote Plato, was “possession ... of a quality that under all conditions will preserve the conviction that things to be feared are precisely those which ... the lawgiver inculcated in their education.” This was a “kind of conservation” or persistence in carrying out a command which entailed unquestioning obedience to instructions given from above. Violence might be employed to make sure that those instructions were obeyed. Likewise, will power carries with it the idea of forcibly reaching a decision. Through personal determination and grit, the dictates of reason prevail over more comfortable choices. Will power tells the body that it must forgo smoking when one is craving a cigarette. It tells a husband, “no, you are married”, when an attractive female walks by. It keeps a hungry, overweight person faithful to a diet. Will, not reason, occupies the critical position in deciding that something should be put into effect.

Rhythm is different. Here reason lacks the power (even through will) to impose its pattern on a performance. The old culture of book learning promotes a coercive approach to creative enterprise. One follows certain instructions. The only barrier between knowledge and the performance would be one’s diligence and effort in carrying out the prescribed actions. Presumably, the harder one tries to do something, the more likely one will achieve the desired result. In the new culture of rhythm, on the other hand, good results come naturally, if at all. No amount of effort can achieve by force what the performer cannot accomplish with ease. No amount of knowledge can overcome the difficulties.

A principle underlying rhythmic culture is expressed in a Country and Western song by Tanya Tucker:

“If it don’t come easy,
better let it go;
‘cause, when it don’t come easy,
there’s no natural flow.”

Tanya Tucker was referring to problems experienced in love. She was suggesting that, if a relationship between a man and woman did not develop in an easy and natural way, it may have been doomed from the start and should be abandoned. Determined attempts to hold on to the relationship and make it work would be futile. That is not how love works. In the culture of pop music, the word “cool” is used to describe an attitude or approach to life. To be “cool” means to be laid back. One calmly accepts life’s little irritations instead of becoming “hot under the collar.” Anger is the way that intellectuals deal with problems. Coolness is how the culturally advanced, beautiful people would approach the same situation. Instead of becoming worked up, one remains emotionally detached and at ease. One lets things happen and does not try to push. The “cool” personality moves gracefully through life, letting each event flow smoothly into the next. That is the rhythmic lifestyle.

Champion athletes frequently have this feeling when they are playing their best games. In Superbowl XI, when the Oakland Raiders beat the Minnesota Vikings, the Raider’s quarterback, Ken Stabler, told a television interviewer after the game that his team’s strategy had been to “try to stay loose”. Staying loose is the opposite of trying to achieve by force. It requires the mind to stay open during a performance and keep one’s mental antennae in readiness to pick up vibrations of unexpected events. The 1989 Masters golf tournament went into a sudden-death playoff between Scott Hoch and Nick Faldo, the eventual winner. Hoch, with a clear opportunity to win, missed a putt of less than two feet from the pin after studying the shot, as a sports columnist wrote, “for an inordinately long time and from all angles.” In other words, he was thinking too hard. After the tournament, Hoch told reporters: “Between my hands and my brain, the signals got crisscrossed.” Faldo, on the other hand, won the tournament by sinking a 25-foot putt on the following hole. “I thought, just stay loose on the putt, and it went into the hole. I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

The religious poet Kabir spoke of perceptions in a twilight zone of the mind: “Between the conscious and unconscious, the mind has put up a swing.” The German mystic Jakob Boehme put it even more plainly: “He who can make his will stand still shall see God.” This ability, Stallknecht and Brumbaugh explained, “may be brought about ..(in the form of) ... the bemused state of mind following an intense aesthetic experience and the relaxation after sustained intellectual concentration ... In either case, the mind has freed itself from all distraction by concentrated attention upon one object or upon one problem. When this concentration is relinquished, there may be a moment when the ‘will stands still’, before the world and its business once more claims the soul.” The hard discipline of prayer and meditation can also lead to a mystical experience. Alcoholic Anonymous rejects the idea that sufficient will power can end addiction to alcohol. Once the alcoholic admits that he or she is powerless in the face of this addiction and turns the problem over to a “higher power”, the possibility for recovery begins. There is a saying in Zen Buddhism: “Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”.

Josef Pieper wrote a book, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which described this phenomenon in philosophical terms. Discussing the opposition between work (effort, willful activity) and leisure (a passive state of mind), he wrote: “Leisure is not the attitude of those who actively intervene, but of those who are open to everything; not of those who grab and grab hold, but of those who leave the reins loose and who are free and easy themselves - almost like falling asleep, for one can only fall asleep by ‘letting oneself go’. Sleeplessness and the incapacity for leisure are really related to one another in a special sense.” Pieper observed that “in leisure ... the truly human values are preserved and saved ... not as a result of any violent effort to reach out, but as in an ecstasy (the ecstasy is indeed more ‘difficult’ than the most violent exertion, more ‘difficult’ because not invariably at our beck and call, a state of extreme tension is more easily induced than a state of relaxation and ease although the latter is effortless.)”

Rhythm is the ideal which is effortless and easy. It requires the mind to relax before any real achievement can take place. That is because rhythm comes out of the fabric of habit and habit consists of automatic motions. Therefore, the way to get rhythm is to go on “automatic pilot” mentally and let habit take over as much as possible. Once habits are in motion, they draw out the activity with beauty and grace. There is no need for coercion; one allows things to happen. Now, of course, it is not so easy in real life when a professional performer or someone else must have rhythm on a certain occasion. Then he or she must try to coax rhythm out - to be forceful and gentle at the same time - which is quite a trick. And sometimes the rhythm never comes. Marie Tempest observed that “no cultivation can turn the thistle into the rose.” Yet, she, among others, was made to be a prima donna from a chorus girl. As we will see in the next chapter, there are some techniques to bring out the best rhythms in athletics despite the uncertainties.

Note: This is Chapter 5 of the book, Rhythm and Self-Consciousness, by William McGaughey, which Thistlerose Publications published in 2001.

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