Today's Reading

The rub-pat barrier is where this kind of contradiction is most heightened. It's the highest hurdle you'll have to leap when learning something new. If you can clear it, you're more than halfway home. Isolating the countervailing skills is a very useful exercise. It takes the mystery and scariness out of learning something new. It allows you to break a new subject down into manageable chunks.

In any attempt to learn something worthwhile you'll hit rub-pat skill barriers: this task of coordinating different pathways in the brain. But being able to shift focus isn't always easy: often the task overwhelms us and we panic and give up. "I just don't get it!" we plead. Fast learners unconsciously focus on each element in turn when they learn new things that seem hard. It can make them seem a little pedantic, but you cannot build awareness if you hurry. You need to be "outside time." (I find if I allow two hours for any learning session I quickly forget about time and things start to
flow. But if I assign less time I begin to rush.) The entry trick also helps here—it lessens the impact of conflict of skills and assists in balancing them.

Just knowing that this barrier exists will make it easier to conquer the micromastery. It will focus your efforts.

Back to the Zen circle. The rub-pat barrier here is not too bad—though it stumps some people who have been convinced (or convinced themselves) they "can't draw." The two elements that vie with each other and need to be balanced are the slow pace required to make a detailed and careful line versus the speed and flair needed to make a good curve. Slow down too much and your circle will look like an amoeba. Speed up too much and you'll get an egg-shaped flourish with sticking out ends like the hair on a cartoon character's head.

Some micromasteries have low rub-pat barriers. They are quite easy to get started on. In stone balancing, once you know the entry trick and have a good supply of stones, the rub-pat barrier becomes apparent only when you realize that the crazier the balance, the harder it is to build on. You need to coordinate spotting tiny bumps and balance spots with visualizing an entire tower of stones. A really good balance spot for three stones may throw a five-stone tower out of kilter. Moving the stones back and forth, so that you have a sub-unit that balances, before making that balance on top of another stone really is like rubbing your stomach and patting your head.

For others, the rub-pat barrier is the main obstacle to doing the thing at all. Juggling has an obviously high rub-pat barrier. You need to be able to throw and catch with each hand pretty much at the same time. The trick is to focus on throwing for a while, then focus on catching. By separating and building the skills you grow the neural pathways involved so that you are better able to operate on autopilot. If you like, assign a score to how much you are focusing
on one rather than the other, or your competence level at each skill. Maybe you are a "9" on throwing and only "2" on catching. Numbering the inner elements of a skill (worked out at length in Timothy Gallwey's excellent Inner Game series of books) is a great way to take the pressure off trying harder at both skills at once. When we try too hard to crack the rub-pat barrier it usually just results in frustration. Better to keep coming back to it and continually revising the numbers assigned to each countervailing skill.

The Eskimo roll, the technique used by paddlers to right a capsized kayak while remaining inside it, may look scary at first. But the rub-pat barrier of using the hips to flip up the boat in conjunction with the hands can be easily separated. You can rock the boat up against a dock while holding on to the firm surface and practice using the hips in this controlled way. By identifying the rub-pat barrier in advance you can offset a lot of its terror.

Going to the level higher than you want ultimately to achieve is connected to an aikido training skill called hajime training. In hajime (which means "begin" in Japanese) you simply do each technique as fast as possible. It doesn't matter how badly you do it as long as you go at top speed. This forces you into a flow state and makes conscious thinking impossible. You then alternate this with doing the technique as slowly as possible. The variation builds awareness and loads the basic countervailing skill deep into the brain.

Performing countervailing skills means using two parts of your brain at once. The brain likes to do one thing at a time if you insist on being conscious about it, but if you can let go of thinking, you'll find you can master very complex skills that require using multiple parts of the brain simultaneously. Thinking—by which I mean verbalizing in your head and following these instructions—is a sure-fire way to look like a dummy. The faster you can get a feel for something and just do it, the better.

Guidelines can be useful, of course. When you learn to drive, instructors sometimes put marks on the car's back window which you can line up with the edge of the curb in order to parallel park perfectly every time. After a while, though, you get to sense exactly where you are. You can do it by eye. This always seems amazing to newcomers to an art, but actually we are excellent at doing things by eye. In the nineteenth century wheelwrights would make perfect wheels not by measuring, but by using their highly attuned sense of natural measurement alone. Doing it by eye means
trusting our own ability to use a countervailing skill.

This excerpt ends on page 22 of the paperback edition.
...

What our readers think...