Friday, March 17, 2017

--- Appreciation and mindfulness ---

Many people have taken art appreciation classes and many more have been through music appreciation classes. I, personally, having taken both, have never been in a class that explained what "appreciation" was. Mostly people learn names and dates, techniques and composition elements, types of art objects, etc. Is that supposed to help you appreciate the art or is that, in some mystical way, an act of appreciation?

In fact, appreciation is a mode of perceiving. There are several ways to appreciate art, and that can be visual art, music, drama, dance, a fine meal, or a sporting event.

For a while, as a vocational evaluator, my office was isolated in a building in back of the main facility building, so, when I had no client, I could have music playing as much and as loudly as I wanted and my tastes are very broad. The result is that, now, just about all music is background music. That is one mode of perception in which the perceiver is barely even conscious of an art object. It's just there as sort of a pleasant element of the environment.

Another form of art perception is pure entertainment. Art is art because it's beautiful in some way. I have only been to one concert (barring all the gospel music concerts I've been to, but seeing as I am a retired gospel musician, that goes without saying) and that was a Jethro Tull concert in Atlanta, Georgia. I went for no other reason than to hear the band. Jethro Tull puts on a very entertaining concert.

An art historian may visit a traveling exhibition for a very different reason and you may see them standing in front of one piece making copious notes. One out of a hundred people may view that piece of art in the same way as the historian.

Appreciation, whether it is of painting, or music, wines or football, is simply another way of appreciating art. It could be called immersion. And, indeed, what is being perceived doesn't even have to be art. Mathematicians can approach math as an object of appreciation. A chemist may very likely appreciate the chemical reaction that is happening in their laboratory. Appreciation implies a certain amount of passion.

An act of appreciation is prefixed by preparation. That is why there are so many names, dates, and technical terms in an art appreciation class. There is an attempt to understand the background of art objects. In 1802, Beethoven wrote his Second Symphony, a spry and jaunty piece full of musical jokes that irritated many of his critics. One wrote that it was a "hideously writhing, wounded dragon that refused to die, but writhing in its last agonies and, in the fourth movement, bleeding to death." To modern ears, the symphony sounds great and perhaps even joyful. It adds something of spice to the listener to realize that Beethoven has placed his severe gastric problems to music in that last movement.

The only way I can enjoy a football game (I am not a devotee of spectator sports), is to read histories of the players, understand the rivalries, and go into the experience as a social psychologist observing a conflict between two very serious teams of stakeholders. In a similar way, I can no longer enjoy any music fully without this "total immersion" process.

Another approach to art that is not mutually exclusive to appreciation is mindfulness. Despite the Buddhist history of mindfulness, it is a very natural "process" (or, maybe more accurately, "state"). The way Temple Grandin describes the mental processes of animals (in Animals in Translation), many people with autism, and, in my own observations, many Weres, mindfulness is very natural in nature. Briefly, I think in pictures and if I have nothing particularly interesting on my mind, I'm not consciously thinking at all. In other words, I let my environment happen to me, perceptually.

Followers of Buddhist and other contemplative disciplines often work hard many years to achieve this state of mind. Why?

Well, C. S Lewis often wrote that trying to be good could easily distract a person from actually being good. In the same way, listening to a piece of music actively can often destroy the joy of just listening to the music.

I compose and, so, I am painfully aware of what goes into music - its composition and its performance. I catch every glitch and, if it's a tape of one of my own performances, I am doubly aware of the horrible assaults I make on the musical sensibilities of my audience (whether they are conscious of them or not!). I am incapable of listening to a recording of myself without picking it apart.

But I usually, very pointedly, set the evaluative part of my brain aside when in the presence of others' artistic productions.

Most people have an internal dialog that just.will.not.stop. This is the very antithesis of mindfulness. In the mindful state, as I said above, you let the environment happen to you. You simply shut your brain's internal dialog up and let what's going on around you guide your perceptions. The result is that, without all that internal noise, you perceive and remember subtle details of your environment much better.

I had a friend send me the theme music of two anime saying that they struck him as very similar but he couldn't figure out why. When I listened to them, I could practically see that the main theme of one was the base theme of the other. When I told him, he couldn't hear the two pieces without recognizing the one in the other. A characteristic of mindfulness is that the whole mind seems to be involved in the perceiving.

And what does all this have to do with adventuring?

I propose that the ideal mindset for adventuring for the purpose of lifelong learning is a combination of appreciation and mindfulness. Learn everything that might be relevant on your adventure before you begin and then stop talking to yourself when you hit the trail. Your preparation will make you sensitive to the topic you are persuing and your mind will log all the relevant details without all the distractions involved in trying to learn.

That said, I can recommend a lecture series by The Teaching Company called Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation, presented by Mark W. Muesse ( ). It's a pretty good introduction to how to do mindfulness. As for appreciating nature? Well, that's what this blog is all about.

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