The booby prize Print E-mail
News - Final Word
Thursday, 27 February 2014 23:41
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In 1943 Agnes de Mille was hired to choreograph the musical show ‘Oklahoma’. She thought that the job she did was only fairly good and was surprised by the show’s unexpected success. This after years of silence about work she thought was much better.

She was bewildered and worried that her entire scale of values was untrustworthy. So, Agnes sought the advice of the legendary Martha Graham, whose influence on dance has been compared to Picasso’s on art.

The answer that Martha gave Agnes has sort of stayed with me. She said: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.”

She said that it is not your business to determine how good it is or how valuable or how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly.

Before you think I’m implying that the kind of expression Martha spoke about only applies to dancers, actors, singers, painters, potters, sculptors or artists of any other kind, I’m not. It applies to everyone.

See, 71 years after Agnes had asked her question, someone in a very different field asked a similar question to a mentor. Medical doctor Lissa Rankin has been trying to explain spontaneous remissions. She’s been trying to do this the rational, scientific way and then suddenly her biggest insights came in an inexplicable, almost magical sort of way. Why?

She asked the question to Rachel Naomi Remen, founder and director of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness at Commonweal. Rachel’s answer was that “perhaps understanding how and why is the booby prize”.

Understanding on a cognitive level is not the be-all and end-all. Rachel said that we each have a part of ourselves that we trust – our frontrunner – and when we’re faced with an unfamiliar situation, we send out the frontrunner to check out the scene. Of course a cognitive person will send out a cognitive frontrunner.

But, even people with a heart frontrunner send out the cognitive one when uncertain what to do. It’s actually something that originates in childhood. Whenever we don’t feel safe, we go cognitive and that makes us feel as if we have some control over the world.

“In our culture, we trade off mystery for mastery, but in doing so, we choose deadness over aliveness. What stops the world is our quest for certainty. To the cognitive mind, everything has to be complete. What you’re looking for is something that is not growing, something that is not changing. We swap certainty for aliveness,” Rachel said.

To want to search for this ‘aliveness’, we have to develop the eyes to see it and the ears to hear it. It is “Not known, because not looked for But heard, half-heard, in the stillness Between two waves of the sea” as poet TS Eliot writes in ‘The Little Gidding’, published in 1942, close to the time Oklahoma’s Agnes asked her question to Martha.

Rachel said that our habitual way of seeing things can blind us to the meaning of even the simplest of our daily interactions. What you need to do is take deliberate steps to see things differently. And according to Rachel, you do it like this:

Take 10-15 minutes, same time, same place, every day. Slowly review your day backwards, starting from the present moment. Then ask yourself three questions: What surprised me today? What touched my heart today? What inspired me today?

Often when people first start this they find the same answer to all three questions: Nothing. Do not despair, girlfriend. Eventually you may notice that you might not have been surprised, touched or inspired as you lived through your day, but only become so when you reflect and do this exercise.

Many of us can only really see our life when we’re looking backwards. To paraphrase TS Eliot: The end of all your exploring will be to arrive where you started and know the place for the first time.

Isn’t it time to start becoming surprised and touched and inspired in the very moment your life is actually happening to you?


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