I live in a rich world, even though I’m poor. I’ve got water to spare, more food than I know what to do with, and only work a few hours each day. I’ve got a roof to sleep under, a cozy bed, pets, tools and materials to make anything I want. I can’t buy a new TV and a car is just a dream, but I’m doing pretty good…even if I can’t have or do most of the things my peers consider normal. I’m certainly richer in time than anyone I know. You can hear the “but” coming, can’t you?
I have all that, but I still feel harried and rushed for time, as much as I did when I averaged a work-week of sixty hours and brought home a hefty pay-check. This is a problem for me, because I can’t write without a clear mind. A peaceful mind that has the leisure to just be with itself. A mind at leisure is a powerful thing. XKCD had it right when he pointed out our constant tendency to look the past as a better time, because people cared more and put more effort into things. We implicitly understand that quality comes from care, and care requires time and attention, a certain leisure to focus on the task at hand.
When I think about my life today, it seems busy. I’ve got to think about work, I’ve got a giant list of projects to work on, responsibilities to fulfill. All around me is a massive and busy world, and it’s reflected in the myriad forms of electronic gewgaws demanding that they be allowed to entertain me. If I’m not juggling all that, if I’m not somehow involved in the online world at every moment, I’m being somehow lazy. Obviously, if I lived in the past, in the land of horse and buggy and gaslight, in the gentle country world, I would not have all this yammering at me and I would have the leisure I needed to be the creative force I want to be.
Which is, of course, bullshit. There is no force in the world, no money, no person, no incredible technology, that can gift you with real leisure. Ever feel like you’ve just wasted a weekend away doing nothing? Or a whole vacation? You get all antsy in the last few hours, trying to fight the feeling that if you could just roll back the clock and start all over again, you would do it differently. No one makes you feel that way. No one makes you waste the time, you are just so used to feeling like you have to do something that you fill up your free time fighting that desire. You get lost in something…reading or drinking or watching tv, that you never just spend some time alone with your brain. That kind of laziness just feels criminal.
I watch a lot of fighters come through my class, and I’ve watched hundreds, if not thousands, more in the past. I’ve seen some real shining stars…but I’ve seen more that could have been shining stars. The could have beens are the ones that have excellent physical and mental skills, but come with a head full of shoulds. They train with the future in mind. They focus on what they should be doing, how they should be performing. They want to do the right thing, in the right way, with as much effort as they can.
If I taught cabinet making, they would be the ones who wanted to wanted to master the complex skills. They would want to know all the woods and all their properties, all the detail plans of the known masterworks. They would want to talk smartly about the best cabinets, and being able to make perfect copies of finest works…and they would waste hours of their lives in that pursuit. At the end of it all, they would make good cabinets, and wonder why they weren’t masters.
The sculptor says his art is simple…he looks at the marble and chips away everything that doesn’t belong to the finished piece. People laugh, thinking that they get the joke…knowing that it is so much more than that, that it is never that simple. But it is. It’s the plainest truth there is. You can’t create unless you know that truth right down at the heart of you.
The student who wants to be the master needs to take some time with bits of wood. He needs to hold them, run his hands over them. The scent of the wood needs to live inside him. He needs to know what lies between them and himself, and find out what it is that’s in his heart to create. Every step of the process needs to reaffirm that desire with an understanding of what’s happening in the moment. We never think of a master without thinking of leisure, and touch, and a sublime calm knowledge of the process. We want that for ourselves, but we are terrified of granting ourselves the indulgence of lazy awareness.
The good fencer who burns herself out, who works so hard only to coast and never improve despite all the sweat, is the fencer who never takes the time to just savour her own art. She never relaxes with sword in hand, never thinks about what her and the sword wish to be. There is no conversation between the blade and the heart, only the mind looking ever forward with more and more techniques to be mastered. The journey is an effort, a testament to endurance and hardship and dedication. Without leisure though, without taking the lazy time to understand what she really wants out of her time with the sword, there will be no real masterwork.
No one can ever gift you that time. No magic will ever make it appear for you, yet everyone spends a lifetime waiting for it to be given to them. They always look for the thing that will allow them to take the time they need, but it doesn’t exist. You have to make the decision for yourself, just decide to give yourself that time. I have the free time in the morning, but I still have to make myself take that leisure time. I have to allow it of myself.
Mastery will come when I finally allow myself enough leisure.