Last January (2021), it dawned on me that I haven’t practiced a sophisticated physical skill for a long time. I exercise a lot, but I mean something beyond “exercise for the sake of exercise” physical activities over the past couple of decades; walking/hiking, lifting weights, hitting the heavy bag. Something where I actually move through physical space using a level of skill that takes at least a few years of steady practice to reach even an “intermediate” level, maybe even not ever truly mastering.
Of late, all of my regularly practiced “high-end” skills are purely intellectual. In my case that means stuff related to software development – coding, math, business, etc. Surely much of the software output from projects I participate in affects physical things in the world in sophisticated ways – but not my own body.
Actually, I very much enjoy my daily walks and hikes. It’s the best way to sneak in daily exercise while still thinking through Zen and software puzzles that require mindfulness. Lifting weights and hitting the heavy bag requires some attention to avoid pulled muscles and broken hands.
Judo and karate used to fill that role of high-skill activity long ago. It’s hard to think of a better form of physical and intellectual, full-immersion Zen practice than martial arts. But I haven’t practiced judo or karate on a formal and consistent basis for decades.
The circumstances of my adult life doesn’t mix well with black eyes, sore backs, broken hands, and sessions starting about the time I normally go to bed. To paraphrase Sensei Terry Silver, “If a man can’t type, a man can’t program”. It’s OK. My exposure to judo as a child began my life-long trek on the Zen road. That Zen training took a sharp turn after high school in the sedentary form of software development, which has served me well.
So last January, as I thought about my lack of a sophisticated physical skill of late, I happened to glance at my old Les Paul Custom and SG placed on a stand Mrs. Hanamoku bought me many years ago, in the hope I would some day pick them up. I did finally pick up the SG after all those years. I did my best to tune it as I remembered from 30 years ago, clumsily strummed a couple of cowboy chords I barely remembered. And it was fun!
More Productive than Stop and Go Traffic
I repurposed my door to door commute time (of course, freed due to Covid-19) of about 45 minutes each way to become practice time. I originally used that freed time (March 2020-Decemember 2020) towards the battle of keeping up with the ever-changing software landscape. That hour and a half did help, yielding an Azure Data Engineer certification, and about 80% of the way towards feeling comfortable about sitting for the Snowflake and Databricks certifications.
However, although the effort related to Snowflake and Databricks enabled me to actually work with those products more this past year, I never did take those two exams. That’s because I remembered that brains evolved long ago to navigate the space of the physical world. The job of brains was to provide enough compute/logic to flee from a bigger creature and not trip over rocks along the way, and recognize good things to eat. Our human sapience is overkill for those original purposes. And so is the arduous task of prepping for yet another technical certification, as opposed to actually using that time creating something.
We are physical beings that are supposed to interact with other physical things. But our sapience has lead many of us to lives where we spend too much energy inside the virtual world of our heads, consuming virtual video games and social media, and yielding to the puppet mastery of virtually all media – which exploits our tendency to base the quality of our lives on our perceptions of the lives of others.
For most of us, I would venture that hearing is the 2nd most dominant of our senses after sight. Conscious communication for most animals started as a series of sounds of varying pitches and length. Our spoken languages are still mostly just that, except that it encodes a whole lot more symbols than something like “bear coming”. My point is that taking up a musical instrument restored a sophisticated physical skill as well as expanding the use of my sense of sound.
The relatively deep sense of rhythm I used to have waned over the decades since I stopped regular judo practice. It’s replaced by intellectual mathematical patterns. The Universe is all about rhythms, interacting patterns. Of course, practicing music is fundamentally about rhythm.
My Taylor GS-Mini
I chose the Taylor GS-Mini pictured above because I wanted something less bulky, something I could easily leave on the couch. In hindsight, I should have purchased the Taylor GT which is still a small guitar, but doesn’t seem to have this hatred for barre chords like my GS-Mini. I watched videos talking about how Taylor went with a longer neck for the GT that results in the strings not as tense on the shorter Mini’s neck.
However, I still love my GS-Mini. And I’m actually glad that it fights me, as it keeps me honest. Periodically, I pick up my old Les Paul and it is indeed easier to play – but it’s so heavy it feels like I strapped on a piano.
My guitar practice materially reminds me that you need to put the work in for great rewards. There aren’t any shortcuts for learning a musical instrument. That’s a realization that quickly atrophies during these times of short-sighted goals and instant gratification.
I have clear, immediate feedback from my GS-Mini – thankfully, not my neighbor. I practice every single day for 15 minutes to an hour, which probably adds up to about 200 hours over the past ten months. I think my progress is around what I’d expect with that moderate level of dedication.
I’m beyond “cowboy chords”, but not quite ready for even campfire singalongs. Come to think of it, I haven’t learned to play Kumbaya. The GS-Mini is a “travel guitar”, so maybe my first “public” recital could be for the desert animals at the mesa where I’ve chosen this year’s Bodhi Day, coming up in a few weeks (December 8, 2021). I’m sure the mountain lions and rabbits won’t troll me too much.
I actually knew the “cowboy chords” from that prior attempt with the guitar about 30 years ago. I’ve learned many more beyond those cowboy chords over the past ten months as well as putting effort into music theory. My learning is much more productive this time around, mostly thanks to YouTube. Shout outs to: Guitar Goddess, Marty Schwartz, Andy Crowley, Rick Beato, Justin Guitar, and Lauren Bateman.
Guitar practice physically reminded that the transition between chords is where most of the effort lies. The intellectual version of that for me in my software world is that the relationship between objects is more interesting than the objects themselves. There is a fun element of creativity towards finding the best way to transition between chords. That’s my goal for this first year of practice – no fingerstyle, no lead – “strictly rhythm” as the Dire Straits song goes. For next year, I’ll add fingerstyle, but still no desire or delusions about making my GS-Mini “cry or scream”.
Lastly, the “old-man-rock” (for me, late 60s through mid 80s) I’ve become sick of listening to for the past 25 years is renewed. I got to rediscover those songs I grew up with in a completely different way. Actually, having heard those old songs hundreds of times made it that much easier to learn.
Shining Jewel Throughout Time
If nothing else, Zen is about freeing us to explore with unbridled enthusiasm the World in which our sapience finds itself immersed. Why? It’s not too “crackpot” to consider that the richer our experience in life, the more our awareness will shine like a gem through space and time – before and after the chunk in which we are alive on Earth.
What does that matter? Well, there is practically eternity for something to happen with that jewel. Perhaps some ten-dimensional beings sometime between now and forever are searching for a highly-sophisticated awareness – that culmination of our life of exploration – similar to how we would seek out a really good lower-dimensional movie on Netflix.
Of course, that’s all easy for me to say since I get to witness The Eternal Fishnu bounce in and out of existence. Whether you can consider such things or not, in the Stoic and Buddhist traditions, live in full immersion of this very short and precious life. What else would you do? But you must have the faith and patience to stick with it for the lessons to embed itself into your soul.
So, get on down to your local Guitar Center and tell them Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku sent you … hahaha!
Faith and Patience,
Reverend Dukkha Hanamoku