Was too tired last night and decided to rest instead of writing. Been sleeping late because of this journaling and it messes up the morning and subsequent routine.
Went for shufa (Chinese Calligraphy) class last evening and got a hint of what might be, how to be, hardworking but relaxed. I seldom talk about my calligraphy classes on Wednesday nights but i’ve been attending it quite consistently for the past 10 years barring two half year breaks in between. I’m not even the longest attending student in a way. Most of them are not in the “arts”, by their profession, but their interests in learning it is also not quite casual is it? Almost every Wednesday for the past numbers of years. Commitment is cumulative and not professed.
Anyway, my teacher told me not to practice the characters many times, unmindfully - that will detract me from learning the intricacies of the brushwork, and that I should be paying attention to. I was stubborn in a way for the past few weeks and then yesterday I stopped it and wake up my idea and listened to her advice and then limited myself to practice each character only three times. Because I only have three chances to get it right, I really wrote more slowly and attentively to the brushwork. Because I only have three chances to get it right, it mattered more, and so my brushwork improved. And so, the lessons are:
don’t just work hard, work mindfully.
time and opportunities - these are limited, so spend them mindfully.
I always risk sounding like I’m writing some airy fairy bullshit when I put them like that. But maybe these kind of things also have to be experienced and known. Knowing something is more than just understanding it logically. knowing is knowing and understanding is sometimes a step towards knowing. Another piece of airy-fairy bullshit.
But let’s put it this way. You know what’s your name right? You know how the sky is blue how clouds in the sky looks like. You understand how clouds are formed - all that evaporation, condensation thing - but knowing is like you can feel it with your mind and heart and even the tense ball of muscle knots on your right shoulder. Understanding is a cognitive thing. Alright maybe knowing and understanding is not the right words to use either. But the important thing I’m getting at is the difference in the levels of getting something. You may not understand my rambling bullshit here, but I trust that you know what I’m getting at here, if you know such things.
Anyway, all these relates to how it’s often said by people who learn calligraphy that you can’t just learn it without a teacher guiding you. This is controversial if we consider it according to the discussions of Ivan Illich and Jacques Ranciere and all that emancipation talk, but then again, not really controversial if we review historical records and art history etc etc. This ancient art form is has always been practiced by people who had teachers. That’s why the idea of lineage can be quite important.
Don’t come arguing that it’s such an archaic Chinese thing, or a boring issue related to craftsmanship etc etc. Would you tell me it’s unimportant in western academia? How much more impressive or esteemed is it for one to have a degree from a prestigious Harvard or Cambridge or Princeton or whatever? How “important” is it for people to have impressive or esteemed supervisors for their PhD theses whatever? Let’s be honest, this idea of “lineage” is as old and relevant as ones family name okay. This is relevant to the discussions in my masters’ course as well, with the lecturers.
But lineage is not the only thing that’s important. The thing is, people often have the believe that the Chinese or craftsman way is very unquestioning. I had a discussion with C, a pretty senior artist, on this matter some time before, and he reminded me that it’s always important to be critical, and to reflect if my teachers encourage me to be critical of them.
I thought about it seriously and I got back to him sometime later that yeah. Actually all my teachers know that I have an independent mind, although I don’t always show it overtly, and I don’t always talk back in class, and when I do, it may frustrate them, as is natural and human, so I don’t always talk back. But they know it in my action or inaction. They say do this and that and I do it or not, and continue to do it or not, by my choice. Test it for myself.
That’s also what my meditation teacher say, don’t just follow instructions, challenge them and test them for yourself, then decide for yourself. But don’t challenge without testing because then I won’t be fair, or follow without challenging because then I won’t be fair either.
So they’re frustrated by my contrarian ways, does that mean they stultify me? I’ve discussed this with my teachers as well, and I told them and discussed with them this analogy, that teachers are like books, reference books or what, one just consult with them, and then get some idea to go here and there, and then the choice is still one’s own to follow or not.
Viewed this way, emancipation or stultification or not is not the choice of the teacher or the matter of teaching method or whatever, but the matter and choice of the student. It’s always been this way.
The problem comes when the student is tired and susceptible and trusts the teacher and allows themselves to be stultified.
Coming back to the issue of Chinese calligraphy and the popular saying that this is something that “cannot be self-taught”. In the past month and yesterday, I begin to understand why as well, because a teacher is a mirror and a compass. Sure you can climb mount Everest without a guide, or a sherpa, or even without a map or a compass. But it doesn’t mean that you definitely can conquer mount Everest with ten guides, ten sherpas, hundreds of maps or two hundred compasses, either, and so one’s role and effort must not be neglected. But we must imagine that one’s chances of climbing Everest improves significantly with a couple of good guides and good sherpas who are experienced etc etc.
Some of us are lucky to meet good teachers, what are good teachers? a good teacher for me may not be a good teacher for you. This is quite completely subjective, given our background, our preferences, our learning mode, and range of “frequency”. Gotta find teachers that kind of match our frequency, but at the same time, expand it. Anyway, I’ve come across quite a few good teachers in life, so I’m very very fortunate in this sense, and they’ve encouraged my love for studying, self-studying, and accelerated my self-development.
I’ve also come across some bad teachers, who I say bad, because of my subjective criteria and assessment of their methods - which is fodder for another day - but they’ve also taught me something.
Happy teachers’ day.