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Self-Consciousness and Rhythmic Concentration

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Among athletes, the discus hurler Al Oerter stood out as he prepared to compete in the 1980 Olympics. He had won gold medals for the United States in the discus event in 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1968. After an eight-year retirement from this sport, he had bettered his own record by more than seven feet while preparing for the Moscow games. Oerter was not a particularly brawny athlete, and in none of the previous contests was he favored to win. In fact, on each of the last three occasions he was suffering from a physical injury such as a torn thigh muscle or slipped disc. Yet, when the time came to throw the discus, he managed to throw it farther than any of his Olympic competitors. Oerter had, one might say, a knack for delivering rhythm. While his prospects in the 1980 Olympics looked good, we will never know how well he might have performed there because the United States boycotted the 1980 summer games in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Even so, Al Oerter can be taken as a model of rhythmic perfection. His workouts were the very picture of concentration.

An article in Parade magazine described Oerter’s training routine: “Holding a 4.67-pound discus, he swings himself back and forth, goes into a spin and becomes pure motion. His body whirls once, twice, as he gives out a grunt from his depths, an arm flies up and he lets the metal discus sail.” Oerter himself described the experience: “The progress comes only inches at a time. Move ahead four, move back two. No miracles, just work. After awhile, I lose myself. I get involved in the technique and in the intensity itself, and I push harder and harder. I can feel the fresh air outside and the tremendous flow of energy inside. Then I’ll snap out of it and realize two hours went by. I tend to think of it as a private madness. We all have ‘em, don’t we?”

From this description of the event, both from the outside and inside, we can make several observations about rhythm. First, there is an intense mental and physical strain upon the athlete which, in this case, reached a peak in the moment when the discus left Oerter’s hand. The tension was relieved by a snap of the arm and “a grunt from his depths” at the climax of each throw. Second, to bring himself up to the required level of physical performance, the athlete must practice the same motions over and over again to develop stronger and more regular habits. There is usually not much difference between one toss of the discus and the next, so that the experience seems boring. Finally, the athlete’s concentration is so intense that he loses himself in the process. He does not know where he is or what he is doing, but becomes involved “in the technique and in the intensity itself.” He experiences a blankness of mind which Oerter called “a private madness”. Still, he is aware of an all-encompassing sensation, “the fresh air outside and the tremendous flow of energy inside”, which remains present throughout the exercise.

personal concentration

It would serve no purpose here to repeat the discussion covered in the last chapter. Our focus is upon Oerter’s remarkable concentration. Concentration is the key to successful production of rhythm; but what does this mean? How does one achieve or improve concentration? It is a personal state of mind. Externally, one would notice such features as the athlete’s glazed eyes and vacant stare. Internally, we have Oerter’s own testimony of the experience as being “a private madness”. The peak-performing athlete is lost in his own exertions, oblivious to time or place. He is unable to describe what he is thinking and doing. The activity itself takes up all his mental capacity. It is said that, during concentration, the mind “loses itself”. It has no sense of self awareness but only the sense of immediate experience. Blankness of mind, rather than intelligent thoughts, fills a person’s consciousness during an experience of intense rhythm.

Sports are a metaphor for the rhythmic life that includes, as well, many other pursuits. One might say that the purpose of life is to get into a state of rhythm and then stay there for as long as possible. That does not mean maintaining one’s psychic tension at a permanently high level but managing one’s life in a smooth and effortless way, reminiscent of the rhythmic arts. It means coordinating life’s various activities in a way that gives full rein to them separately and together. One goes about one’s daily business in various roles, submerging oneself in their rhythms. An individual shifts from the one to the other becoming, successively, the self-reliant husband, the friendly commuter, the office worker, the jovial father, the evening partygoer, or whatever. All is taken in stride. Each situation elicits a particular set of habits and thoughts by which to handle things smoothly. One’s whole consciousness is absorbed in this variegated life as one has an active curiosity about things and finds each situation interesting.

Throughout history there have been famous men and women who had an unusual ability to concentrate. A photograph of Thomas Edison shows the great inventor staring blankly into space, his weary head perched on an arm atop a table, presumably after many hours of inventing. Edison was able to fall asleep immediately whenever he needed to take a short nap in his laboratory. He thought people should be able to get by on two hours’ sleep each night. In Scotland, the story is told of how Adam Smith, author of Wealth of Nations, stepped out the front door of his home in Edinburgh and, lost in thought, walked seven miles before he realized that he was wearing only his bedroom slippers and a night gown. He, too, knew how to concentrate. Napoleon was another person with such a gift. His highly organized mind divided the different types of items needing attention into separate compartments. Napoleon’s approach to business was like opening a drawer and confining himself to its contents before moving on to the next set of concerns. This cool ability to concentrate gave him an advantage over other generals on the battlefield.

Concentration implies concentrating on something. Mind has an object of thought. The sensuous appearance of a physical object will cause a person to think of the object if he puts his attention upon it. To hear a word spoken will stimulate thought of the idea behind the word. These are natural reflexes of the mind during concentration. We are suggesting, further, that the mind can control its own process of paying attention to particular objects and can, if necessary, prolong or intensify the attentive state. The ability to concentrate may be reduced to certain principles of knowledge. David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, once said: “Knowing the laws of thought will not change the processes of thinking.” Yet, there may be certain aspects of thinking which can be controlled. Al Oerter, for instance, was able to put himself into a deep concentration by performing intense physical exercise. Although we cannot mimic his thought processes, we can perhaps put ourselves into a similar condition of mind by performing similar physical exercises. Even at a lower level of concentration, human consciousness does, to a degree, control its own content. We can make up our minds to pay attention to certain things while ignoring others. We can notice what we want to notice and even hold that attention for a certain time. Less successfully, we can control the degree to which we concentrate on something by simple willful effort.

Intuitively, we know that concentrating on a task is essential to its achievement. When the mind is absorbed in a particular undertaking, rapid progress is made towards its end. But the mind may entertain extraneous thoughts about what it is doing and concentration is lost. It would be good for mind to achieve complete harmony between itself and certain things in the world - to become so objectified or completely attuned to external purposes - that mind forgets itself and carries on its activities without further thought. That kind of attention is natural, not forced. The mind cannot afford to let any self-controlled effort or self-image interfere with the processes of free thought which would automatically bring the best focus to a given situation. Attempts to improve one’s technique of thinking would be counterproductive since rhythmic performance requires nearly full attention to the matter at hand.

If the mind instead pays attention to its own operation, it may start to wander off into uncharted territories. In that case, the rhythmic motions might become neglected and slip out of control. Once a person becomes distracted by thoughts other than the ones required in concentration, it may be difficult to regain the right mental focus. To combat distractions, tennis instructors urge players to concentrate on the ball. How to go about that is not always clear. Vic Braden has written: “You may not give much thought to concentration until you realize you’re playing poorly or carelessly, at which point you may begin banging your racket against your body while admonishing yourself, ‘Concentrate, dummy, concentrate!’ You may assume the trick to better strokes is simply to apply yourself to thinking hard about the task - but then all you’re doing is concentrating on concentration, which is actually distracting.”

We in western society find it hard to deal with processes required for effective concentration. Plato used the metaphor of sleep to describe ignorance while associating knowledge with the waking state. However, concentration more nearly resembles sleep than wakefulness. There is a seeming paradox in that better results are often achieved when the mind is empty than full. The first U.S. poet laureate, Robert Penn Warren, said of his own creative process: “I walk around the (Connecticut) woods for half a day at a time, my mind goes blank, and something comes to fill it. Cultivate blankness and see what happens to your mind.” But how does one make the mind grow blank? Can this condition be willed? In the case of sleep, insomniacs know how frustrating it is to lie awake in the middle of the night when one is desperate to fall asleep. The sleepless person tosses and turns, lies completely still or perhaps arises for a few minutes to walk around the room; no amount of effort or ingenuity will produce the desired state of mind. Maybe a complete lack of effort would work. But how does one initiate “a complete lack of effort”?

Sleep clinicians make certain recommendations to clients. They may prescribe pills. Because most people sleep less well in an unfamiliar environment, they may also recommend sleeping in the same bed. They may recommend dealing with one’s anxieties as much as possible or shutting out loud noises. If one had spent the whole day doing back-breaking labor, it would probably be easy to sleep. Apart from this, to apply positive exertions to the act of relaxation would seem counterproductive. All one can do, if one wishes to sleep, is try to create conditions that invite the habits of sleeping. Active concentration is like sleep. One concentrates by surrendering conscious control to the natural processes of attention. The act of concentration involves relaxed effort. The mind is not totally relaxed; part of it may, in fact, be under a severe strain. Without strain in that part, however, the other parts might not be so relaxed. For example, Al Oerter’s mental blankness would not have occurred had not his body and mind been engaged in such agonizing labors.

self-conscious perception

Mind had to be filled with something to allow this displacement of thought. We are speaking here not of a single mind - for mind cannot be full and empty at the same time - but of at least two. If mind is full, it functions metaphorically as a kind of container. We say that thoughts are in the mind. Something is happening inside the brain that creates a thought. What was it in Al Oerter’s case? By his own account, there was a certain sensuous content: He was feeling his aching muscles, seeing the green grass around him, he was smelling or feeling the fresh air. Oerter was surely of technique - mostly habit but with a conscious component. He was aware that he was throwing poorly or well. Oerter’s sensory awareness while hurling the discus was combined with a rational perception of strategy. On a level above that, Oerter had a general sense of control. There was an ego at the center of the activity. By his own account, however, that awareness was abnormally small. It had shrunk to the point that he did not realize that two hours had passed during the practice session. The other sensuous, habitual, and rational awarenesses inside the mind had crowded out mind’s sense of itself as a center of control.

Of the mind’s two parts, I call “consciousness” that which presents sensory experience or, if the thoughts are abstract, the experience of reason as well, provided that it refers to external events. Aristotle wrote: “When the mind is actively aware of anything it is necessarily aware of it with an image.” Conscious thoughts must have sensory objects or abstract objects (words) with a sensory image. “Self-consciousness”, the other part, would be mind’s perception of itself. It would be mind’s sense of coordination and control. Self-consciousness is an internal experience. Mind is aware of its own thoughts rather than of objects in the world. Another element, habit, is also found in the human psyche; however, we do not say that habit is in the mind since its operation is subconscious.

At any moment, a person can stop and think about what is in his mind. Perhaps he is looking at a pencil. That would be a sensory experience. Perhaps he remembers that, moments ago, he was remembering the words of a popular song. In that case, the mind would contain a nonsensory element, a series of words with musical notes attached to them. Both are phantasms of sensory experience. We vocalize the words with the music or hear them mentally as if in an echo chamber. If we think to ourselves thoughts like “Where did I put my wallet?”, they, too, tend to be expressed in words internally vocalized. Some people, cruder types, vocalize by mumbling to themselves. The abstract word of which mind is aware appears in the form of a subliminal sound. Whatever the mind’s content, we will call it an “interior element” of mind if it appears inside consciousness as mind looks down upon it, so to speak. Mind’s self-awareness would not be such an element.

Rhythmic performance becomes possible when mind is focused on its “interior elements”. A person is concentrating on some undertaking, whether it be an athletic or musical performance or another enterprise. That person generates rhythm while paying attention to things related to the activity and letting habit kick in to furnish the particular motions. While mind is filled with its “interior elements”, it is actively doing something. The activity generally goes well so long as mind focuses on those elements. But suppose the mind starts paying attention to itself, wondering how it is doing or trying to identify its own elements? Mind then would be filled with self-conscious thoughts. Since rhythm required another focus of attention, the rhythm would tend to disappear.

Rhythm is like riding a bicycle. Body and mind must be focused on riding the bicycle - steering it and pushing the pedals around - for the bicycle to move forward and remain upright. If, for some reason, the cyclist becomes more interested in examining the bicycle or its operation, then presumably he would stop pedaling, the forward motion would stop, and the bicycle would tip over. Once the bicycle was stationary, then the person could examine it at his leisure as a piece of equipment. But he would not then see the bicycle in a functioning mode: its forward movement as the wheels go round. Similarly, a person cannot see rhythm while it is in motion. One can later recall rhythm to get a sense of its experience, but that is not the same as seeing it underway. Such a sight is impossible since mind must be occupied with its interior elements for rhythm to occur in the first place.

In ancient China there lived a certain lathe operator who claimed that none of the knowledge contained in books was worth knowing. The only useful thing that he knew - how to operate a lathe - could not be communicated. So this man doubted that any of the knowledge which could be communicated could help to do anything useful. The theoretical principles of operating a lathe can, of course, be communicated, but not the “know how” that comes from experience. Such rhythm-like skills are acquired through personal practice. Their knowledge is beyond communicating to others. This perception accords with the Taoist view of life. Lao-tze said: “He who knows (the Way) does not speak about it; he who speaks about it does not know it. He (who knows it) will keep his mouth shut and close the portals of his nostrils.” In reference to writing, the Sage said: “I would make the people return to the use of knotted cords.”

During a performance of rhythm, mind focuses upon its interior elements, though not with full attention. They are held in the mind with what George Leonard would call “a soft focus”. For example, a concert pianist would be aware of the notes printed on a sheet of music but would not devote much thought to any of them. If he did, it would take too long to play the piece. Instead, during rhythm, the many elements of an experience flash by on a lower, subliminal level. Another set of thoughts takes place on a higher level. Embodying the performer’s self-image, they involve a process of control. These higher thoughts experienced in rhythm are like the thoughts one has while falling asleep: We never get a good look at them. If we did, they would keep us awake. We are vaguely aware of those thoughts but our perceptions furnish little information about them. So it is a delicate task to create rhythm. The controlling thoughts are thin, like air atop a tall mountain. The mind must reserve for itself a quiet place where those influences can be felt as it nudges toward a faintly seen ideal. As an expert marksman pointing his rifle at a target waits for all to become still before pulling the trigger, so rhythm is spun in the calmness of thought as the world’s myriad elements stream by.

Let me give an example of this consciousness. One day when I was throwing darts, I noticed that I made some of my best shots when my thoughts lapsed into a condition of semi-awareness. I made little attempt to guide the darts consciously but engaged in a series of lazy motions in which my mind imagined the darts penetrating the target near the center. I let my arm movements become automatic. The habit of the technique took over as I lost myself in this process of throwing darts. I did not think particularly of what I was doing except that, in the back of my mind, there was a thought that I was throwing well. It was a peculiar kind of thought, not one which appeared in the full glare of consciousness but which was seen obliquely. I knew that I could not afford to think too long about this thought or my concentration would be lost. It was just a lucky feeling that I was regularly connecting to the bull’s eye.

In team sports, there is a rhythm at a group level. In basketball, for instance, a player is aware of various situations during the game. His mind is busy internally processing information about the location and velocity of the basketball, the positions of teammates and opposing players, the angle and distance of shots to the basket, and so on. All this information must be taken in by the senses and be assessed for the player to know what to do next. But the player and his teammates also have a more general idea of what is happening. On this higher level of awareness, the players pursue strategies and rally themselves to play more effectively. What does it take to win a game of professional basketball? The Chicago Bulls’ superstar Michael Jordan took Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves under his wing and shared some personal insights. “He told me a lot of key things that you’d think you would know,” Garnett recalled. “Killer instinct stuff ... Be aggressive and, if the team’s not following you, you have to be that leader to push the team over the hump. Taking that challenge.” Pushing anything over the hump requires extra effort now but, once the crest is reached, it becomes easier to keep going. This is a good image to have in mind when two basketball teams are locked in difficult combat.

Behind rhythm or, indeed, any conscious experience, there is a perception of self. It is the second part of a double image. One of the images includes awareness of external, sensory experiences. The other is mind’s pattern of self-perception. The flow of external awarenesses would have no point if it were not for that second awareness, lurking behind the first, which allowed mind to relate those fleeting perceptions of the world to itself. The experience of self is seen obliquely. Sartre wrote that in such an experience ego looks at itself “out of the corner of the eye.” During a performance of rhythm, neither kind of awareness is allowed to become fully conscious. Mind cannot take the time for that or the rhythmic flow would be lost. Mind instead enters into a state of increasing tension in which perceptions of worldly experience become more fleeting and mind’s self-awareness grows ever more rarefied. Ordinary thoughts are crushed by the great pressure. During rhythmic concentration, mind’s uppermost thoughts are steady and dim, like light from a distant star.

This self-conscious part of the mind supervises the flow of rhythm. It guides habit’s development toward perfected forms. Not all habits are rhythmic, just those whose motions approach an ideal. The upper mind has a picture of that ideal. While practicing rhythm, the it initiates and controls certain motions. Mind then perceives the result and issues instructions to correct deviations from the ideal. The cycle is repeated several times: first the motions, then consciousness of the motions, and then conscious adjustments aiming to bring the motions closer to the ideal. Each time the cycle is repeated, the motions become more deeply ingrained in habit. Eventually they become quite automatic. At this point, the self-conscious mind is making only small adjustments to refine the motions. When things have progressed to that point, one might say that rhythm has been achieved.

self-consciousness as a habit

The danger in allowing the self-conscious part of the mind to become too large a part in the thought process is that its operation detracts from the business at hand. Rhythm requires a high degree of concentration. There is a risk that the self-conscious mind will become more interested in its own workings and let attention wander from its focus upon those elements at the center of rhythmic concentration. Then the psychic gyro will begin to wobble and steer off course. Still more dangerous, the practice of self-conscious thinking might become a habit. For, each action or thought which is consciously exercised is not only an event in itself but sets a precedent for future events. When rhythm is exercised, this strengthens rhythm’s habit; but, when the mind is engaged in self-conscious thinking, the habit of thinking self-consciously may begin to develop. Self-consciousness, kept under control, is not such a problem, just when it grows top-heavy. Self-consciousness of the rhythm can be a problem. When things are going well, the mind revels in its own performance saying: “Oh, how great this is!” Alternatively, it may sense a lack of rhythm and begin to despair. Either way, the judgment of its own performance distracts from mind’s main object. Rhythm needs nearly undivided attention for it to be maintained.

In rhythm, mind focuses on a single object. That is the essence of concentration. The opposite situation is to focus on the parts or become analytical. Self-conscious thinking, when aroused, pays attention to the mechanism of a performance. The problem, of course, is that rhythmic performances need their motions to be performed in a highly coordinated way. There can be no such coordination if the mind is busy analyzing and changing each part. Reason is much too clumsy and slow. In rhythm, the habitual mechanism carries the main part of the load. Through blankness of mind, one summons all the required habits in the right order. Habits, worked out in practice, assemble the motions correctly, freeing the mind to handle adjustments or unexpected events. The self-conscious part of the mind remains in a loose or semi-conscious state. There is not enough time to run through all the separate thoughts that control rhythmic motion. One must be willing to let habit assume that role.

The enemy of rhythm is distraction. Distractions are of two kinds: Some are extrinsic to the situation. For example, a motorcycle roars down the street while a man sits in his living room reading a book. He looks up from the book, momentarily distracted by the noise. This extrinsic distraction has broken his concentration on the printed message in the book. However, there is also another kind of distraction which is intrinsic. Suppose that the man has taken a speed-reading course and wants to practice what he has been taught. In that case, while reading, he may have other thoughts than those in comprehending the book’s message. His main interest may lie in developing speed-reading technique. He would then want to see how well he was doing in that regard. The book’s message, normally the main interest, would then be of secondary concern. That would be an example of an intrinsic distraction. Other examples might be if the man thought to himself that he was becoming tired, or he wondered how many pages were left in the chapter, or he thought that the book was unusually boring or interesting. All these thoughts would be intrinsic distractions that could interfere with the process of reading.

Self-consciousness is a type of intrinsic distraction. The distraction is that of its own thought process. Self-consciousness is thought thought of. It were as if the experience of thinking had itself become an object of thought. Mind first notices that it is thinking. Then it stands back from that process observing what has happened. Mind’s attention shifts from external objects to an internal perception. Thus distraction is built into the very process of thinking self-consciously. For the mind to function initially, it must be paying attention to particular elements of worldly experience. The thinking would take place naturally. For the mind to be self-conscious, it pays attention to its own thoughts. The two kinds of thinking cannot take place at the same time. Either the mind focuses externally and forms a conscious thought or it focuses internally and forms another kind of thought, a self-conscious one, which distracts from the previous kind of thinking. Having a different object of attention, it goes in another direction. So self-conscious thinking distracts from and disrupts the type of consciousness that would accompany rhythm.

Through concentrated attention, mind brings its activities into a state of rhythm. Self-consciousness is able to disrupt that rhythm by calling attention to elements in the supporting structure of habit. Undisturbed, habit performs faultlessly. But when mind becomes conscious of habit, that attention reopens the habit and unsettles its previous arrangement. The mind is obliged to take the habitual element into consideration in a certain way. Either it can change the habit in response to the new thought or try to preserve it. To make habit an explicit factor in consciousness not only opens the door to an initially more awkward and potentially worse alternative, but it puts attention on the wrong object at a time when concentration is most needed. The story is told of how Ben Hogan once won a golf tournament with a psychological trick. The tournament had gone into a “sudden death” playoff. As they stepped up to the first tee, Hogan told the opponent that he had always admired his swing but was wondering about one thing: Did he inhale or exhale on the downswing? According to the story, the opponent lined his very next drive out of bounds and Hogan won the tournament.

Among professional athletes, it is recognized that paying too much attention to technique can destroy one’s effectiveness on the playing field. The player who takes the time to think of what he is doing loses the rhythm of smooth habits needed to perform at a high level of skill. Vic Braden, the tennis coach, has said that “thinking too much out on the court ... is a trap to avoid. I’ve found that the pros do very little intellectualizing during a tennis match because they want to be totally free to concentrate on hitting the ball. ‘When I start to think too much on the tennis court,’ Rod Laver once told me, ‘that’s when I know I’m going to lose.’” Yogi Berra, of baseball fame, put it this way: “You can’t think and hit at the same time.” The batter’s thoughts cannot be focused on particular aspects of the swing or developing better technique: all that should have been worked out in practice. Rather, Berra suggested, successful hitting is a matter of subconscious execution. The batter needs to get into the right frame of mind and just do it; he cannot think any more about how the hitting should be done. There is, indeed, a time to think and a time to act.

finding that little trick

What happens, though, if the batter becomes hopelessly self-conscious as he stands at the plate? Let’s say, it is in the ninth inning in the seventh game of the World Series, with two outs and the tying run on second. Eighty-thousand spectators are cheering in the stands, and the batter’s knees start to shake. His chances of making a hit are not good in that frame of mind. So the batter must try to “psych” himself up to overcome the fear. If he is religious, he might say a short prayer. He might mutter to himself, “Come on now, you can do it, you can do it.” Maybe in such emergencies the batter has a little trick for quenching his fears - some thought, word or mental image that he can use to bolster self-confidence. To execute rhythm successfully, he must have confidence in his ability to perform. That inner confidence, or lack of self-conscious fear, must be with him at the moment when he swings the bat.

Adolf Hitler claimed to have an unshakeable faith in himself at all times. “I walk with the assurance of a somnambulist,” he told a 1936 radio audience, conveying an eerie sense of calm amid terrifying circumstances. The rest of us have occasional or frequent doubts about ourselves in various situations. Panic strikes even seasoned professionals as they wait backstage to perform. Edward R. Murrow used to sweat profusely before doing his famous radio broadcasts. Eric Sevareid described an experience he had as a young man: “Shortly before air time, I was informed that what I was about to say was going to go all over the world. That scared the hell out of me.” Some performers take a quick drink. Some do deep-breathing exercises. Scott Hansen, a Minneapolis comedian, said that, to steady his nerves, he often walks back and forth to the bathroom, maybe six or seven times, before stepping out on stage. Once performing, however, the performer finds that the stage fright disappears as his attention shifts to elements of the routine. “You get up there, on the stage, and you’re scared. Then that magic click in, and time flies. You take chances, you roll. And, man, it’s all worth it. It was worth all that pacing and sweating,” said a comedian, Joe Minjares, of such experiences.

Stage fright can either stimulate the adrenalin to help perform better, or it can incapacitate. When nervousness threatens to ruin a performance, the performer must summon whatever tricks he might know to start the rhythm flowing. He needs to keep the mind off himself. One way to do that is to find a substitute object on which the mind can settle. Such active exertion might bring on the necessary relaxation of thinking which rhythm requires. The trick is to find a way to keep the rational part of the mind occupied. Positive thinking also works because it averts the need to make changes in one’s current procedure. It is like a green light which says: “Go ahead, keep on doing what you are doing now. All is well.” The “red light” of negativity and self-doubt, on the other hand, says: “Stop! You may be doing something wrong. You need to review your actions and make changes before proceeding further.” The positive attitude, quenching self-doubt, gives permission to “open the valves” of creative flow. Relaxing criticism, it encourages the performer to go ahead at full speed in a particular direction.

There is a role for criticism, or negative thinking, in rhythmic endeavors. It has to do with the process of forming correct habits. Someone must be aware of technique to make sure that the right techniques are being used. It falls to the self-conscious part of the mind to make that determination. Since it is dangerous in sports to bring self-consciousness too much to the fore, a curious division of labor has developed. One person, the coach, assumes the responsibility for thinking self-consciously about technique or other matters while another person, the athlete, simply performs. The coach, whose performing years may be in the past, has the leisure to study each aspect of an athlete’s performance, recommend changes, and check progress. From the athlete’s point of view, there is strength in being told what to do because that allays self-doubt. Having faith in the coach personally, he can practice technique without having to worry whether it is the right one. That another person who is respected believes it is right creates a stronger conviction than if the athlete had to decide these things himself. It is sometimes better to have two minds: one to handle the self-conscious functions and the other the conscious performance. Such specialization takes care of the discipline needed to maintain balance between the two functions.

Another way to stimulate the flow of rhythmic habits is to force it to come by mechanical means. The mechanism may be obvious as when soldiers march to the sound of martial music. The mind is fixed on those audible rhythms while the body executes vigorous motions. There is no room to think of one’s physical discomfort while such presence is felt. In other cases, the physical accompaniment may be privately symbolic of rhythm. Each of us has habits that we use for that purpose. We may scratch our nose before answering a question or tap a pencil nervously on the top of a desk. In moments of crisis, when we must act sure-footedly, we have physical “crutches” to get us through the difficult period and put us in the right frame of mind for action. It may be that one reason (besides the chemical addiction) that cigarette smoking has remained popular despite its proven threat to health is that millions of people depend on it for emotional stability; its rhythms of breathing smoke have become embedded in habit. In any event, people develop their own idiosyncratic ways of triggering rhythmic performance when it must come without fail.

Abstract rhythms of thought are generally too hard for mind to handle without a physical structure. To conceive and express such thoughts, one needs concrete points of reference to refresh habitual memory. As habit brings on a subliminal train of awareness, mind travels back to these psychic anchors and is reminded of what to do next. Written or spoken words may be the physical anchors for abstract thoughts. As we begin a conversation, the aroused habits of tongue, mouth, and vocal chords stimulate our thinking and soon we are rolling through uncharted territories. Straining to express a difficult concept, we use hand gestures, facial expressions, and other bodily movements to squeeze out the meaning. There must always be something concrete for the mind, some germ around which conscious habits and thoughts can crystallize, for mind to create the higher rhythms.

The world contains countless devices to stamp out self-consciousness. A sense of duty is one. The moment that a person begins to wonder why he is burdening himself in some behalf, the question is answered by the thought that it is his duty. Religious convictions reassure believers that an ethical course must be followed. Courage and will are regarded as important components of character. Courage involves a certain deadening of self-conscious fears or an ability to ignore thoughts which tell a person that he is unequal to a task and might fail; it is a sluggishness of spirit or, in Plato’s words, an “endurance of the soul”, which carries a person through a dangerous course. Will is a deep power within the soul that decides to persist in a rationally chosen course. It may involve mental keenness and bodily strength In common, these devices would seem to comprise the very core of mental toughness and steadfastness. They protect rhythm by eliminating incipient distractions before they get out of hand.

Actually, the simplest way to kill self-consciousness is to stay busy. Be interested in something. Let your work, or a project or hobby, keep you so occupied that there is no time to think about anything else. The mental discipline and attention required for rhythm will come in response to the need to handle a fast-paced routine. A woman who had once managed a Walgreen’s cafeteria told me that at lunch time, when the cafeteria was crowded with patrons, she often felt a sense of heightened ability as each part of the work routine fell into place. For her, it was a sense of “moving with the flow”, letting habits take over, and not thinking about much. For some, this unselfconscious experience can take less constructive form of “drowning oneself in one’s sorrows”, abusing alcohol or drugs, or throwing oneself into a binge of late-night partying. Tempestuous, troubled teenagers are known to listen to loud music for hours on end. While life may seem to be lived more intensely by such activities, these may be attempts to escape from the pain of self-conscious memories rather than a way to resolve them.

One of the more interesting way that self-consciousness is suppressed came to light in an article in True magazine concerning the fact that a number of major golf tournaments had been won by ill golfers. The article offered several explanations. “’My theory about ailing golfers,’ (Jack) Nicklaus says, ‘is that when something is wrong with you, it takes your mind a little off the normal pressure of the tournament. You’re trying to protect whatever it is that’s wrong with you.’ ... Many other players, including Arnold Palmer, believe that an ailing golfer compensates for his physical problem with deeper concentration. A doctor who worked with the players during tournaments ventured the opinion that “’when a golfer isn’t feeling well, all he’s thinking about is how he’s going to get around the course. He’s not swinging the club; it’s swinging itself subconsciously.’ ... As a result, he (the doctor) says, an ailing golfer is ‘focusing his attention on something relatively unimportant - his ailment - and he’s letting his subconscious do the job of swinging the club head.’”

In reference to the question what thoughts a person has during rhythmic concentration, the answer then would be: any thoughts except for those which call attention to the motions being performed. Ironically, self-conscious truths can kill rhythm while ignorant or trivial thoughts would let it continue. The important thing is not thought’s content but its effect upon the mind. Hard, perceptive thoughts suggesting a course of action demand too much of the mind while lazy opinions would leave mind free for its rhythmic exertions. The rhythm itself should not become self-conscious or it would risk being lost. Thinking about oneself or the result of past effort can bring a lack of attention to immediate facts. Therefore, the function of perceiving and describing the quality of a rhythmic performance is best left to the critics. For, all too often, the actor who thinks about acting can’t act. The poet who turns to philosophizing about poetry has lost the knack of writing poems.

The thoughts which accompany a performance of rhythm can be thoughts of pleasure or pain. They can be bars of popular music, inaudible hummed. They can be a color, a name, or a phrase that keeps coming to mind. These rhythm-inducing thoughts can be trivial or important, saintly or obscene, abstract or sensuous. It does not matter what they are. What does matter is that they hold steady. For, the physical constancy of habit has a mental counterpart in the steadiness of these thoughts. Whenever the mind starts to wander, it encounters a stable element which causes it to rebound back into the pattern. The mind must be fixed on something steady, though not forcibly, as life’s elements pass by. The guiding thoughts may change. They may drift away or break suddenly into a new direction. With rhythm, it is not always possible to work your way straight to the destination. Not infrequently, something else is on your mind while you are going there. That something helps to absorb distractions; it could be your “secret” of rhythmic concentration.

Note: This is Chapter 7 of the book, Rhythm and Self-Consciousness, by William McGaughey, which Thistlerose Publications published in 2001.

 

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