Think Now, Do Later: Mind Like Water

I’ve been practicing guitar almost daily since April, and here’s an epiphany.

Sudo says it very well in his Zen guitar book (see the previous post), but I had to experience it myself to begin to get it. (Like a lot of wisdom). His running metaphor is to compare the journey of learning to make music to the growth in Zen or martial techniques. Martial artists (okay, Japanese martial artists, don’t tell seifu) have an expression “mind like water”. I totally didn’t get that. Sudo explains that while playing, a musician can achieve a state where playing is spontaneous, in-the-moment, free of distraction, perfectly suited to the situation. I sort of got that as some distant ideal. (The author explains it much better, if you want more.)

That’s been happening just a bit the last few days. It’s fun. In fact, it’s a beautiful state of mind and richly rewarding. That’s not the epiphany.

The other side of practicing guitar is work. I’m not particularly skilled or advanced, though playing better than last month (a success!). Each time I learn a new chord, I struggle to make my fingers move to the correct frets. I have to think about strumming patterns to find the rhythm. Then I practice another chord, and switch back and forth. A lot. C to G7 C to G7C to G7C to G7C to G7CtoG7CtoG7CtoG7CtoG7 over and over again. Concentrating on the tiny details, flubbing, and sometimes getting frustrated. It’s usually fun because of the challenge and the success of getting Bb to Eb right in time. There’s nothing Zen about it.

To reach that Zen state of being so in the moment that the music just happens takes practicing so much that my hands know what to do without me. Sensei talked about that happening in the martial art I’ve practiced, that the moves become ingrained and spontaneous. And here’s the epiphany: All the time I’m practicing, thinking, studying, and fretting, I’m storing up the potential for that mind-like-water play in the moment even though I don’t feel like I am. That’s the secret to true adeptness. There is no shortcut. You may already know all this, or you may have to discover this. So if you’re fretting with getting the details right, hang in there, because those Zen moments of adeptness are so worth it, and you’ll do an awesome job when it counts.

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