Thursday, October 14, 2021

Effortlessly Cultivating Tiny Miracles

Every day I make masala chai, and it's always way better than last time. I always use the same ingredients and the same recipe. No clever new moves, no tweaks. And, frankly, the procedure is not difficult. Zero learning curve. Yet the improvement is hyperbolic.

I've always known, of course, that "practice makes perfect", but that's a notoriously bumpy ride. Many people spend their lives making chai or cookies or violin concertos or other things, always yielding more or less the same-old. If practice always made perfect, McDonald's filet of fish would be a work of art by now.

Many elements of my life have not blossomed with practice. Some have even degraded. But every masala chai is WAY better. Same with my cooking, and a few other things. My insatiable curiosity compels me to try to understand what's going on, and the underpinnings have begun to tie together.

Ten years ago, I made a video about a guy named Von, locally renowned for his unimaginably great oatmeal cookies. He couldn't understand the fuss, as he wasn't a good cook and he used the most standard possible recipe. Yet he had to admit that when other people made the same cookies from the same ingredients and recipe, they never turned out nearly as good.

I used the video to explore the central mystery of cooking; of creativity; of humanity itself. It had been pondered by Aristotle, and we still haven't pinned it down: why is the whole sometimes greater than the sum of its parts?
Why are certain brownies delicious, certain song performances moving, certain poems illuminating?
What the heck, here's the video, embedded:

My Guatemalan superstar contractor has a fatal flaw. He can't estimate jobs. A pragmatic man, his head swims with potential snags. And if an unanticipated problem absorbs extra time, he might find himself below the weekly income he needs to feed his kids (and the kids of his workers). That outcome terrifies him, so he estimates crazy high (most customers just pay him by the hour). Here's how I advised him:
Whenever you start a job, flash a number in your head of what you think the job will cost the customer. Don't try hard! Don't mull it over, or get out your calculator. Just let a number frivolously, stupidly float into your mind. A two second operation, if that.

Then, when the job's complete, see how close you came. Don't try to learn from your mistakes. Don't analyze short/longfall. Just note the disparity, shrug playfully, and move on. And keep doing this, over and over and over. In way less time than you'd imagine - weeks or months, not years - you'll find your guesses getting more and more accurate until you’re eventually nailing the exact figure every time. All without even trying! Hey, trying hard never worked, anyhow, right?
This is something our spidey-sense recognizes as possible, because we brush against this mysterious facility from time to time. For example, many people claim the superpower of always knowing the precise time when they wake up. They've guessed it many times, as a mere playful caprice (more on that essential part in a moment), and gotten incrementally better and better at it. After a few hundred iterations, one becomes weirdly infallible. It's like a magic trick no one ever really examined.
The Slog is my longstanding effort to examine facilities we normally relegate to spidey-sense.
I don't try particularly hard with my masala chai. I approach it like a playful caprice, much as I urged my contractor to be off-handed with his practice estimations. Hard trying and industrious thinking are counterproductive to this strangely light-and-breezy process.

No one stresses while guessing the time when they wake up. It's light playfulness; a breezy childish guessing game. And that's the proper framing. If you can conjure up that perspective, opting out of effort and needfulness, results will become semi-miraculous over time, so long as you stick with it (the way children stick with whatever they’re currently playfully working on).

Most likely, you'll mess it up. If you stand at your kitchen counter with $4000 worth of fancy tea-making equipment and special water, grimacing in your effort to craft Great Tea by rigidly controlling the procedure to GET IT ALL RIGHT, you'll struggle endlessly. You're getting in the way of a natural process! It's not a process you can consciously own, so trying to force it is like pushing a string.

Don't turn it into some Big Thing. Don't derail the mysterious - and innately natural - process of forging a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The calculating, narrating, highly critical mind is useful for certain tasks, but it loves to co-opt processes better left undisturbed - especially this fantastically useful one.

Paradoxically, you actually do need to do one thing with your mind. One small thing!

If repetitive processes always improved, your mother would have been crafting absolutely scrumptious peanut butter and jelly sandwiches by fourth grade. I don't know about you, but my Mom's sandwiches were crap the whole way. And that's because she didn't care. She lacked even a scintilla of interest in sandwich deliciousness. The notion never occured to her. And you do need to care.

But it must be a certain sort of caring. Not squinching up your face and praying to baby Jesus and making a big display about your deep caring. Don't fill your mind with Improvement Thoughts, or tell yourself stories about it, or judge yourself, or any of the other absurd things humans do to tie themselves in knots. Don't watch yourself on a mental movie screen - the super diligent soul who cares soooo much. Don't pose as Mr. or Ms. Mindfulness. Don't do any of that poseur stuff.

Let yourself deflate to a state of detatched blasé, but still give like a half a fuck...and steadily maintain that part. Don't ratchet up the intensity, but don't let go of the intention; the perspective; the framing. That's the move, and it's small. A half fuck of caring applied consistently over a few hundred iterations is the golden ticket. The bottled lightning. The key to the kingdom.
Don’t self-consciously watch yourself care. Just do it. A little! A little caring, smeared consistently over a long haul of banal repetition. That’s it.
You can think about baseball while you do it. You can go ahead and be grudging and distracted and assholic. You needn't "avoid negativity" or follow any of the other sappy self-help platitudes. It's not a moral enterprise, nor some lofty quest. Don't try to seem caring. Just care...some! Control your perspective (locked and loaded on light fuck-giving) while letting go of self-consciousness ("Me, the great fuck-giver!").

If you raise the caring level (while remaining playful and stupid) that would work faster. But for most people, increasing the caring provokes stress, ego, needfulness and gobs of self-conscious mental narrative - all crashing in like a mob of rowdy vandals. So better to stay light. You can get to infinity with light iteration, so why risk summoning the vandals?
FYI, I’m translating ancient wisdom into pragmatic modern idiom and shifting the perspective, aka reframing. Making a notoriously hard thing easy. Showing you how to bottle lightning.
If you're a wake-up-time-guesser, you already know how to do this! You're already doing it! The keys are right there, in your jacket pocket! Time-guessing is certainly not something you stress over, or weightily consider. It's not a grown-up thing. It’s totally flippant (aside from the light spritz of sustained fuck-giving). Just peel your pushy mind away from dominating the innate process of effortlessly cultivating tiny miracles (great cookies, great chai, precise carpentry estimations, and always knowing your wake-up time).

So let's rethink "practice makes perfect." How about this: "Light fuck-giving, flippantly applied over many iterations, delivers miracles." The best part is you don't need to try. No effort or stress. In fact, it's best if you don't try! This is an innate ability, like a forgotten smart phone feature, and it's fantastic. Just let the process unfold. Lightly give half a fuck while otherwise relinquishing control. Then just look on with delight.

Hey, what time is it right now? Don't look at your phone! Just play a cool guessing game with your pal Jimmy! Fun! Pretend it's important, just like pretending you're cowboys or indians. Pretend hard, but remember you're just a kid, so none of it truly matters!
I've often noted that adults are so poor at learning because of their reluctance to learn the way kids do - even though kids naturally perform dazzling miracles of learning. Grown-ups formalize and proceduralize and stress themselves and APPLY DISCIPLINE, bracing like for root canal. So many unnecessary, unpleasant, counterproductive moves!

Learn playfully - without ego, in a state of bemused delight, like a toddler mastering the art of whistling - and you can learn and grow with the offhanded voraciousness of a child. The masala chai gets weirdly better and better.
The ending of this post, which is brief, was posted separately, here.

Three lagniappes:
1. This explains Zen archery, and other Zen "arts". Again, I’m radically revamping and integrating old wisdom for a new century (must keep baking fresh!)

2. Like nearly every epiphany that's come my way, I find myself realizing it's a lesson I'd learned before, but failed to bear in mind. "Don't forget to also hit a bullseye" is another way of saying “Lightly/persistently give half a fuck!”

3. Sorry I've been writing "fuck" so much. I don't often curse in my speech, but my mind has a tendency to echo, and I'm still working off the jubilation of my home fry posting, "Blessed Are the Fuck-Givers".

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