Last week I went to a meditation group called Cloud Refuge, led by Joyce Kornblatt in Blackheath. The theme of the session was kindness, and to give each person space to talk about their understanding and experience of kindness and what stops us from being kind, Joyce produced a little wooden stick with a ball on one end – in searching for an image of it on google, the closest I've come is a Zulu knobstick.
This was handed around the circle, each person waiting until they had possession of the stick to speak. The idea was that while a person was holding this smooth, agreeable object, no one else would speak, but instead would concentrate on listening, giving the speaker the space to express themself, for as long as they chose.
As Joyce observed at the end of the meeting, this is in itself a powerful act of kindness – the act of listening without interruption or judgment. She suggested that it is a form of kindness that people are “hungry” for, something that is not so easily come by in contemporary life, with its busy-ness and short concentration spans. She also commented that in ordinary conversation, we often perform for one another, rather than really listening, or speaking authentically, and that this can be very stressful and tiring.
While I appreciated the points Joyce was making, I had some doubts about the idea that the knobstick worked to discourage the habit of using speech to perform for others. The first time I came to Cloud Refuge, I came away thinking that it provided an interesting opportunity for practicing improvisational performance. To me, holding the stick felt like holding a little microphone, facing an audience whose silent and attentive attitude was very much like that of an engaged lecture or theatre audience, albeit a very small, non-threatening one. The challenge was not to “prepare” while others were speaking, but to really listen to them, so that when it came to my turn, my “performance” would truly be improvised, and might also resonate with what they had been saying.
The ability to speak spontaneously like this, but still to produce a talk that is structured and rich – a bit like a jazz solo - is a capacity cultivated by monks in the Thai tradition. For several years, I’ve been impressed by Bhante Sujato’s performances in this genre, and aspired to replace or at least supplement my own more “classical,” written lecture style with something more spontaneous and energizing, both for me and my audience. Given that I had seized upon Joyce’s stick as the perfect device to help me practice this, it came as a bit of a shock to hear her declare that it was intended to remove the impulse to perform!
Thinking about this later, it occurred to me that social performance can be imagined as stretching along a spectrum between two poles. At one end is performance which is anxiously designed to meet social expectations or pressures. In this kind of performance, we try to hide or change ourselves to suit what we believe will please our audience – we say what we think they want to hear, and often we review and worry about our performance later. This is typically very tiring, and tends to keep us stuck in old patterns – I imagine this is what Joyce was thinking of when she suggested that a lot of conversation is a stressful form of performance.
At the other pole is performance that is spontaneous, and draws upon the resources available in the moment to create something new, or give old knowledge fresh expression. Here we share what we are and know with others, and may be transformed in the process, but without worrying about the result. We can feel immediately when it’s working, we don’t need to go over it obsessively later. There is a generosity in this kind of creativity – it is for others, as well as for ourselves, so it is still performance, but here the divide between self and others tends to drop away; it doesn’t matter in the way it does at the other end of the spectrum. Maybe this is why this kind of performance is not tiring or stressful, but is typically energizing, and can even be exhilarating, for everyone involved. Like the best kind of intimate conversation, it is a practice of fearlessness.
The knobstick of fearlessness… I think Joyce would be pretty happy with that.