A treatise on an empty cup.
This article originally appeared on the Firearm User Network on 12/13/11. I like John so much that I give him my stuff before I put it on my own site.
Do you ever go to the range to work on something that you don’t quite have down? Me too. Have you noticed that when you’re really focusing, approaching practice the intent to solve a specific shooting problem, sometimes things will just click? After that, have you noticed that when you try to replicate what you learned and do it again the same way you just did it, you lose whatever it was that you briefly gained? Me too.
I was previously a rifle marksmanship instructor in a program that has a very set way of doing things. In correspondence with a friend still in that program, I told him that the more I learned as a rifle shooter, the more inauthentic I felt as an instructor. I was giving students answers as the truth when I felt I should be encouraging an inquiry.
You’re wondering now whether I have a point, or am I going to just keep stringing paragraphs together until the post looks full? Hang with me for a minute.
My conversation today gave me a bit of an epiphany. Progress is made during periods of inquiry. When we approach something with curiosity and openness, we can make progress, sometimes amazing progress. When we try to cement things into the known, into a routine, into something we no longer have a tactile interface with, the progress turns into something fleeting, like looking in our hands after trying to grab smoke.
It’s a general trait of people that we want to learn things, then have hard knowledge that is “finished” and then leave it and move on. It keeps things easy. But does it work?
Let’s say that boxing is your game. You’ve practiced three combinations that you’re good at, and that you think will be the most effective. It’s the big fight night. You decide to use a predetermined sequence of the combinations you practiced and figure that it has to work. Can you see that would be an asinine approach to dealing with another human being? Does any plan survive first contact with the enemy?
The better boxer will read his opponent. He will see subtle things happen and respond to them faster than some would believe possible. He is constantly seeking input to form his actions and his strategy. He will make his opponent a riddle to be solved. To paraphrase martial artist Peter Ralston, “Let your opponent mold his own defeat while you are free to be molded.”
The easy road is to make it to a predetermined point and call yourself an expert. Congratulations, you qualified. This absolves you from ever being troubled to learn anything more, to ever feel inadequate again, to update your skills, to go through any significant effort, or to even consider what lies beyond. We all know people like this, the self-regarded experts.
It’s a natural tendency to want to be regarded as an expert. It’s a just reward for our efforts. We also have a natural tendency to want to feel important. We all grew up in a time when celebrities were worshiped by the masses as demigods. Do those things really work?
The hard road is to always question what you’re doing and to approach life with humility. The reality is that you will never reach a point where you no longer have to give 100% of your attention. You will never be able to separate yourself (attention/mind/body) from your environment and still excel. I’m talking about the state when there is nothing in your mind to distract you, nothing to interfere with your senses, no sense of distinction between yourself and what you are doing, or to be more clear, no sense of self at all. That takes a lot of work.
You may feel that you deserve to relax and bask in your achievements. You may well deserve that. But to quote Clint Eastwood, “Deserves got nothin’ to do with it.” The concept of “deserves” is totally irrelevant to real life. It’s a marketing concept created so you can justify laying down a big chunk of money (borrowed money/credit/slavery) to get something you desire.
Most of us have been trained to try to think of the glass as full, or at least half full. Of course we all know that it makes us pessimistic to think of the glass as half empty. Would it be obscene to think of the glass as completely empty? Consider the following: A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's overfull! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "You are like this cup," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup."
You might think I’m advocating self-doubt. I’m not. It’s a really fine distinction. We all know that confidence wins. You can still be confident, or even cocky, so long as you have the ability to sustain enough curiosity/intent/will/enthusiasm to commit yourself fully into what you’re doing.
Most of us ask questions to find the answer, assuming that when we find it, we can add it to our knowledge and move on to the next thing, or just relax and bask. What I’m finding out is that the answer is at best meaningless, and at worst a trap. It’s the quality and tenacity of the inquiry that actually bears fruit.
Never be satisfied. Never stop learning. Always remember the way you approached learning when you were a beginner.