Power, Effort, Discipline and Restraint

MUSCLEIn my last post, The Paradox of Desire, I talked about how we tend to get in our own way when we really want something. This time we’ll look at the paradox from another angle, and see if we can find a way to resolve it.

The second theme of this series is gevurah – translated as might, power, or discipline. If the first element, chesed, is an outpouring, gevurah balances and channels that outpouring by imposing limits and control. But gevurah carries its own paradoxes with it as well.

More Will = Less Skill

Think back for a moment to a time when you put your all into achieving something. You worked hard, you struggled. At times your goal might have seemed unachievable, but you persevered, and at some point you could feel things getting easier. You could congratulate yourself that your discipline paid off, and allowed you to realize your desires.

But here’s an interesting thing: can you have any memory of a moment when things got easier? Chances are that the sense of ease began — paradoxically it might seem — in a moment when you actually weren’t trying all that hard. Discipline, it seems, is necessary, but even discipline can be overdone; the discipline itself needs to be tempered with discipline.

Trying our hardest, we tighten muscles that aren’t necessary for the task, needlessly wearing ourselves out and getting in our own way. We get the feeling of power, but much of that power is wasted, and we don’t benefit from it. When we’re good at something, it is easy, even effortless; we only end up trying hard when we don’t know what we’re doing.

Learning to channel effort

I recently worked with a guitarist who was struggling with the problem of power. He liked to ‘get into’ the music. But the more loudly, powerfully or quickly he tried to play, the more he would contract his entire body, with the result that he had very little power to deliver into the music itself. Needless to say his hands and back also hurt, so he could only play for short amounts of time before needing to rest.

I observed that, in putting his whole self into his music, he was leaning forward and over the instrument every time he strummed downward with his hand. I helped him feel the power of moving freely from his pelvis, and of allowing his belly and chest to expand as he stroked his arm downward across the strings. Now he could raise himself up and away from his instrument with each powerful stroke. With much less effort, he got a much larger and more open sound and, of course, his hands didn’t hurt him either.

Discover it yourself!

You can easily feel what I’m talking about in your own movements with this short experiment:

  1. Reach up high, like you’re trying to put something on a high shelf or change a light-bulb (if you’d like to take a few moments to experiment with doing this well, follow the directions from my recent post on spirals). Have some way of measuring how high you’re reaching. A witness is a good way to go, or note a reference point on a wall or bookcase.
  2. Now do the same thing, but this time try with all your might.  S-t-r-a-i-n to reach. What do you do with your face? With your breath? With your mouth and belly, your leg muscles? Do you reach much higher? Maybe you won’t even reach as high.
  3. OK, give up now. Sit down or at least shift your weight a bit or take a few lazy steps around the room. Feel your breath come back to normal.  Take note of the places that were straining as you reached.
  4. When you’re rested, come back to it, but this time don’t try. Just see what it’s like to reach a little bit to here, a little bit to there…. Experiment with turning or twisting. Don’t worry about how far you go, or whether you do it right or well, just so long as it feels good to you. Notice how you don’t have to hold your breath, or tighten any of the places you were tightening before.
  5. At some point in this exploration idly reach up a few times, with this same attitude. Have your witness tell you what they see, or observe your objective marker. Did you reach higher?

Musicians and other artists — give this same process a try with your art, and let us know in the comments how it went!

Over the course of the next few days, let’s all think about what we’re striving for, and whether we can detect the unnecessary (and therefore counter-productive) effort that goes into that striving. How aware of it can you be? What happens when you become aware?

One thought on “Power, Effort, Discipline and Restraint

  1. Pingback: What's holding you back as a musician?

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