Seeing those things that cannot be seen

Why can’t you see the forest for the trees? Because the forest isn’t the trees. The forest is the space BETWEEN the trees. The trees GROW in the forest. In order to see the forest, you have to perceive negative space, something that we’re not really programmed to do. The martial art of Aikido is all about seeing the space between–that is (in my mind) the great treasure of randori training. Jazz is what happens between the notes. Poetry is what happens between the words. And so it goes.

Samuel R. Delany wrote a book of literary criticism and writing instruction called, I think, THE JEWEL HINGED JAW. In it, there is a great essay about writing, in which he states that every word must be chosen not for what it means, but for the mental processes that it will trigger in the reader–in other words, where the reader’s mind goes as she attempts to interpret the word. For instance:
THE (alright, we are talking about a person, place, or thing.)
BOY (ah. A human being. Male. Young.)
RAN (a verb. A picture forms in the mind.)
AWAY (a threat? A game?)
WITH (carrying something? Does the boy have a specific attitude or expression?)
ALL (a totality. A grouping)
HIS (possessions? Relationships?)
TOYS (visualizations of drums, stuffed bears. But is he happy? Crying? Angry…?)

Each word is chosen for where the reader’s mind goes IN BETWEEN the words. The invisible space is what controls the emotional content. The specific words we can react to, and filter our response. But we can’t really filter our responses to the spaces “in-between”–and that is where we can nuke the readers.

The same thing is true in martial arts. Movement “off the beat” is harder to react to, because we are motor-set to continue the motion. Using broken rhythm, therefore, is a way of beating someone who is actually faster than you.

In human relationships, you HAVE to read between the lines. You are dead in the water if you don’t. When you date a man or woman, as the saying goes, you are actually dealing with every person that person ever dated. I remember being crazy infatuated with a beautiful dancer we’ll call Rachel. Rachel was the sexiest woman I’d ever met, let alone slept with. But the nicer I was to her, the more distant and nervous she became. Eventually, I realized that her personal dating history included an assortment of real predators, men who came off “nice” at first, and then devolved into true assholery. The way I was coming on triggered her caution response–and some other things as well. Like most of us, she’d done some things in relationship she wasn’t proud of, and on a deep level didn’t believe she was deserving of a good, loving, simple relationship. And more: since in her experience everyone wears a mask, whatever I presented myself as, underneath I had to be something different, right? (Wrong. I’m pretty much the same underneath as I am on the surface. If you don’t like me at first meeting, chances are you won’t like me if you get to know me better. And if you do, chances are you will. I’m pretty transparent.) All of this complication was driving me nuts until I learned to let her behaviors create my picture of her internal representations–and I saw how complicated and confused they were. I remember telling her when we started our relationship that I didn’t think she had permission to be happy. And then, dazzled by her beauty and sexuality and promises, I let myself forget my instinctive hit. How had I known? Simply by taking a look at her relationship history. A long series of disasters. Look at the shadow. Look at the space between the trees. Trust your intuition. The small, quiet voice in your head is rarely wrong. The loud urgent voice in your pants, however…

Once again, it is by engaging with life on all levels that you begin to sense the patterns that go beyond the obvious. Pay attention. You’ll save yourself a world of hurt.

-Steve Barnes


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