Every So Often

The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art” — Eugen Herrigel 

Back when I was bowling competitively, I was pretty good all the time, and really good some of the time. But even at my best, there would be one shot every so often that was so exactly right, I could feel a strike while the ball was still in my hand. Didn’t have to look, didn’t have to wonder about the carry… ten in the pit, guaranteed. It was those rare, miraculous shots, one or two a week out of forty games, that were the drug, the sensation that drew me back and made the game worthwhile.

As a pool player, I get a shot like that every so often. As a writer, I get a sentence like that every so often. If I write for four or five hours in a day, I’ll get one sentence that comes as a gift; all the rest I have to work for.

Teaching can be like that, too. Every so often, you’ll get a group of people who can do miracles. I don’t think you can make it happen. You can pull together all the conditions for it to happen, you can bring together all the materials and all the preparation to make it happen, but those things are all necessary without being sufficient. When it’s worked… and it’s only been a few times that it’s really worked… there’ve been a few things that have all been true:

  • I’ve been enthused to teach whatever the course is about, wanted to learn something more about the ideas myself
  • I’ve built some sense of trust early on, that I won’t make fun of people or demean them for any honest effort
  • More than half of my students have been willing to think out loud, to say things they weren’t a hundred-percent sure of and see where it took us
  • More than half of my students were able to really listen to each other, and to be surprised at what one another had to say

Enthusiasm, trust, openness, and curiosity. When those things have all been present, the semesters have been astonishing, and every student in the room knew it.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve watched from a physical and electronic distance as my friend Aimee leads a group of college students through a four-week papermaking course. And it looks to me like she’s got that mix this time, that she and her students have arrived at that blessed place where every second is learning, where the ideas come like breath, with full focus and no intention.

They’ll all remember it forever.