What Is Zen Fasting?

Legal Disclaimer: In this article I mention physical fasting as a metaphor for restraint from excess in life. This is not in any way shape or form an endorsement of therapeutic fasting or going without food for any length of time. No one should ever engage in food fasting… at all, ever… without consulting several medical professionals, including your family doctor. Controlled fasting is neither risk free nor healthy for every person, and thus must be practiced only when it is a medically recommended or approved activity based on your individual medical/physiological needs. Thus, no one should view the following as medical or physiological advice, and I am not 100% NOT responsible for any/all injury that occurs from any individual foolishly deciding to implement or act on the following post in terms of going without food or regular nourishment.

While living in various Shingon and Zen temples in Japan or South Korea in the late 90s, it was common for me to eat very small, vegetarian meals several hours apart, sometimes only two a day if I was enthusiastically engaged in chant or a particular meditation session. As daily chores are also part of a Zen novice’s day, the end result was that I was essentially engaged in what is known outside of the temple as therapeutic fasting: the controlled, medicinal use of food, rather than “eating”, or “having a meal”. I call it Zen fasting, as it was what you might call “inadvertent fasting” through being engaged in Zen activities that didn’t involve food. It is also known in non-Zen circles as therapeutic fasting, which has many supporters and detractors.

“Zen fasting”, as I physically practice it, is basically going without food for specific amounts of time while always drinking water and taking the various pills (vitamins, minerals, and/or medicines) necessary for daily health. It is not designed for weight loss, or starving oneself. Rather, it is the strictly controlled timing of eating and not eating, for carefully considered, medically sound health and emotional reasons. I have developed an approach to this form of not eating (that I still practice to this day) that is specifically tailored to my family and personal health history, weight, height, lifestyle, career, personality, spirituality, and general psychology. It is not just “not eating” but rather a very measured, carefully implemented part of my lifestyle, carefully monitored and measured at every stage. The reason I do it is because it is so carefully constructed and designed, by myself and my musician, doctor, psychiatrist, monk, and artist friends who also have their own methods of Zen fasting, which we discuss and share with each other. No two Zen fast regimens are alike and thus we all learn from each other as to what is safe and what we all should avoid.

After consulting with my judo coach, several doctors, a couple of psychiatrists, multiple nurses, and a few Son and Soto Zen monks, I found a process of “not eating for certain amounts of time” that has provided health benefits. And the beauty of my lifestyle is that it is flexible, and so very practical. “Fasting” just means not having food, so everyone “fasts” at least a couple of times a day (the spaces between meals). If I have lunch at noon then supper at 5, I have “fasted” for several hours. So the human body is used to periods of digestion and metabolic activity (converting food into fuel) wherein food is not being consumed. Thus, when a person decides to use “not eating” in a controlled, therapeutic way, the body is already used to the idea. Athletes eat in controlled ways to maximize power, stamina, and rejuvenation. One can also not eat for health benefits: better gastrointestinal health, lower blood sugar, reduction of the effects of chronic diseases, more robust immune system, stress reduction, fewer headaches, and so on. These are all possibilities, especially since fasting while drinking water allows the body to get rid of the various chemicals in processed foods that hinder our maximum health. Zen fasting is also not a magical fix that will cure disease or give you extraordinary physical/mental powers. And anyone that sells incessant fasting as such is a liar and fraud who should be ignored and, in many cases, jailed for promoting such unhealthy, physiologically dangerous (potentially lethal) nonsense, e.g. the various forms of Breatharianism.

The key to my style of Zen fasting, once it was proven and approved of as a safe method of living for me, was its (slow) development as a lifestyle, that I developed slowwwwwwly over time into a Zen faster. Studying nutrition, psychology, medicine, and such intensively for a long period helped me transform my entire being into one suitable for Zen fasting. This is neither an overnight process, nor an easy-fix fad that I tried in order to gain some magical benefit without hard work. Like one trains to be a judo athlete, I trained my mind and body to be prepared for such a lifestyle before I even began any fasting of any length. Living in Japan, for example, means extreme heat in the summers. Thus, it would be extremely stupid to just start fasting without taking into consideration my physical needs during the extended (often weeks long) periods of 100°F heat. Thus, judo training and hydration concerns were first and foremost, while my temple stays required nutrition adjustments and similar hydration concerns.

But as I slowwwwwly got used to a more vegetarian diet and higher levels of necessary hydration, I discovered safe methods of living and working that maximized the nutritional meals of my meals while reducing portion sizes. The key was making every spoonful or chopstick-ful count, maximizing vitamin/mineral content and reducing empty calorie content. So if I ate anything, I had carefully considered exactly how even a single mouthful of food was going to impact my existence. This careful “going without” eventually seeped into my artistic and social behaviour; spending time refreshing my sensibilities through various types of emotional and spiritual fasts (silence, meditation, neuro-linguistic approaches to being more positive, etc., which I will discuss later.

As for my particular Zen fasting, I don’t always do it, but when I am feeling like a good psycho-spiritual renewal is in order, I will occasionally fast two days out of a seven day week, or if I have prepared properly, food fast for two days straight before slowly reintroducing soft foods back into my diet. As I have very, very carefully planned and prepared for it, including carefully preparing to break the fast if I need to, I can engage in a two day fast comfortably and joyously, as I anticipate the process. When it is done right (at the right time), it is an uplifting experience, as you are not “starving” your body but rather gently emptying it. A carefully prepared fasting body does not feel shock or denial, but rather the gentle pull of one’s metabolism shifting from burning food to burning fat. Once the body is used to making this switch without pain or distress, it becomes a relatively comfortable process, and any hunger (stomach emptiness) one feels is gentle and manageable. It also retrains the body to eat when it needs nutrition, rather than for psychological reasons like stress relief or emotional eating. Even as I write this I am over 34 hours into a two-day food fast, and feel totally fine, due to the medically sound, closely controlled, and carefully implemented process of how I entered and will exit this 48-hour period. In fact, I am about to eat a very small vegetarian salad this morning to reload on vitamin A and C, as well as make sure I have at least at little dietary fiber and fat in my system as I progress. So as you can see, I am not depriving myself of food, but rather managing my health in a food-restricted manner. I could go without all food for two full days, but it would not serve my best interests, considering my work/travel schedule in the next week. Plus, it send the wrong message if I fasted just to demonstrate some sort of “strength”, like I am doing something that makes me “better” than other people. 

Another aspect of Zen fasting is the opportunity it provides for contemplation. A person will naturally increasingly lack energy as they progress, so incorporating this fact into my activities provided the opportunity to reflect on my lifestyle in terms of meditation, flexibility, weight issues, cardiovascular health, and so on. For example, later stage fasting (end of day, or middle to end of second day) is a golden opportunity for me to engage in easy, meditative forms of tai chi and yoga, making sure I do easy, slow motions and breathe deeply during all actions. This also alleviates any hunger I may be feeling. Though yoga can be used in many ways, I find it most helpful as a form of meditation, a way to relax rather than exercise. And when I am without food, it helps put me in the mindset I seek by fasting in the first place: contemplative, mindful behavior as go about my day. It is also why various religions have fasting traditions, as it is hard to be vain when your stomach is empty. Lacking food will also (hopefully) make me feel compassion for those around the world that regularly lack food against their will via poverty, war, sickness, etc.

This ties into my previously mentioned idea in regards to Zen fasting: that it is a great metaphor for emotional and spiritual approaches to our career, emotional life, and so on. Buddhists of all sorts commonly refer to food as “medicine”, like every morsel consumed is an act of healing the body. Physically fasting is good for my body in many ways when done properly and teaches me spiritual compassion (medicine for the soul). Emotionally fasting from negativity is medicine for the mind, while “fasting” from jealousy and envy is medicine for society (due to our reduced negative social behavior).

The ways we humans can emotionally and spiritually fast act like various types of existential medicine.

Taking this concept further, I also fast creatively and technologically, rather than calling it “spending time alone” or “spending a day without technology”. It is the same act, but the mentality and psychology behind calling it a “laptop fast” or a “not writing today” fast I find more uplifting and beneficial. Not eating in a certain manner is like medicine for my particular gastro-intestinal system, and my psychological status. A holiday spent on the beach for me is Zen-fasting, refraining from working too hard: allowing my body to refresh itself with sun and sand and joy. Not listening to music for a couple of days I find to be a great Zen-fast for my ears, which makes me return to analytical listening refreshed and creatively inspired. In fact, the best way to improve one’s saxophone playing and drumming is to practice intensely (and safely) for three weeks, then take an entire week off, not touching the instrument at all. Once I return, I inevitably have improved and play with much better feel and timing, as I have given my mind and body time to absorb and embody the training of he previous weeks.

So as a concept, Zen-fasting is an excellent metaphor for considering how you go about your lifestyle as a writer, musician, or artist: the act of approaching all action and no-action as potentially healing ways: spiritually medicinal ways of Being.

Zen fasting is really just existential fasting: simplicity, release, softness, stillness, patience, moderation, relaxation meditation, and silence…. A life lived free from the poison of excess.

Ω

Writer’s Block Doesn’t Exist: 第2部

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In my last post I discussed how what we commonly call “writer’s block” does not in fact exist. While stuck trying to find the right word to finish a poem, we can always write a quick text message to a friend saying “I have writer’s block!” which proves that we can write at least something while we imagine we can’t write anything. This is because none of us have ever had writer’s block… we have actually had “inspired writing” block, or “this isn’t good enough” block instead, what we all actually mean when we say writer’s block. In fact, having said that, the better a writer you are, the more you suffer from “this isn’t good enough-block”: TIGEB as I like to refer to it. So today’s post, which builds on the advice I laid out in Part One, is about practical ways to start writing again, once we understand the psychology behind TIGEB: two particular techniques that I like to use when I feel TIGEB, that I am not writing up to the standards I set for myself, a cheat code for getting around my own momentary psychological hang up over writing.

The first technique is using what is known as recursion to build a series of sentences, usually nonsensical, to get my creative thinking reengaged and reinvigorated. Recursion in language is its flexibility, how we can build longer and longer sentences out of a single sentence, sometimes putting sentences inside of sentences with quotes, and so on. Thus, in English for example, we can make super-long sentences using commas, colons, semi-colons, and so on:

  • I am Daniel Schnee.
  • I am the guy who just wrote, “I am Daniel Schnee”.
  • I am pretty sure that you believe that I am Daniel Schnee: the same guy who just wrote, “I am Daniel Schnee”.
  • Of course, there is always the possibility that Robert Okaji e-mailed me a moment ago and wrote that he was Daniel Schnee, and that I corrected him by saying that I was Daniel Schnee because I just wrote on my blog a moment ago that I am Daniel Schnee.
  • Then again, I am pretty sure I wrote “I am Daniel Schnee” a moment ago before Robert Ojkaji e-mailed me about writing “I am Daniel Schnee”… although I left my computer unattended for a moment, and the cat was sitting nearby watching me intently (meaning she might have snuck over to my laptop and with her cute little paws mashed out “I am Daniel Schnee”).

Using what we might call creative recursion, you can write your way back into the kind of creative word flow that produces usable material for you poems, essays, and so on. The creative recursion is also a great way to plumb your psyche for ideas that you might not have thought of by just “thinking” about ideas. Having ideas and thinking about ideas are different, Great writers don’t think up things, they have ideas that arise because their minds are always looking for connections and oddities in the world.

Novelist Stephen King worked as a night janitor at a high school when he was young, and was fascinated the first time he cleaned out the women’s locker room. As he had never been in one, he noticed two things he had never seen before: (1). metal containers for sanitary feminine products, and (2) the fact that the shower room was made up of separate stalls so the girls could shower in semi-privacy, unlike a men’s shower room with multiple shower heads and no privacy. Contemplating these two “discoveries” he went home and began his first novel that would catapult him into international fame, Carrie. In the book, the titular protagonist is a sheltered religious girl who is an outcast at school. Having her first period in the shower one day, she is both confused and frightened, and cruelly bullied by the surrounding girls. This plot point sets off the tone and ultimate ending of the book, Carrie’s nascent puberty also being the arrival of her violent psychopathic telekinesis, which she unleashes on her school in murderous vengeance. King’s mindset, one of observance and contemplation, did not have to “think up” Carrie, or “write” Carrie. The initial idea basically wrote itself, and King went off and captured on paper the torrent of words rapidly flowing through his mind. If we are not in a situation where such concepts are there to be discovered in the real world, we can make them happen on an empty page via creative recursion.

The second technique is not a new one, but still a very practical one if we allow our minds to truly let go of all expectations. I am referring to what is known as stream-of-consciousness writing, literally writing anything and everything that comes to mind at any given moment no matter how little sense it makes as either part of a sentence or a complete sentence itself. It’s very nature is to not be sensible, but strangely enough, more often than not, little moments of fascinating clarity occur, order in the chaos, little Zen-like bits of thought and nuance that seem kind of profound or at least oddly creative. It also is a LOT of fun to play with, and this fun aspect is what will get you or I out of “writer’s block” or TIGEB, as it does not matter at all if any of it is “good enough”. It will just be what it is, and being freed of rules and standards we can write without fear. Often times we will end up writing something rather personal that shocks us or makes us think about our values, sexuality, race, nationality, gender, etc., which is even more useful as a writing tool/personality study (as you can always delete or shred what you wish to keep secret). Steam-of-consciousness writing may not follow sensible grammar rules, but it can really speak in powerful ways from our subconscious life. For example, I just wrote the following without editing it:

It won’t even I don’t know why is it when there was always a guy I am drinking Pepsi, what? Why would it not be what (ha!) baseball, why do I watch it, almost never oh look the cat behind my drums I like Zildjian cymbals the dark tones…

It says almost literally nothing; follows no rules, and means nothing. It is just a bunch of words if we try to measure its value as poetry or an essay on Pepsi or an e-mail to a friend. In these circumstances it is literary waste. But, if we look at it, we can begin to see possible extensions and corrections, hints of ideas, or subliminal suggestions of something else we might write. I am not saying it always “works”, but like gold mining, I have found stream-of-consciousness writing eventually produces ideas and phrases that inspire and provoke new creative directions and ideas. In fact, in the zuihitsu I wrote while living in Japan, I wrote an entire “short story” called “In The Aftermath of Cleopatra” in a stream-of-conscious manner, then edited it to make a story-like thing.

If you really want to have some fun, combine recursion and stream – of – consciousness writing and create some wild sentences with joyous abandon. There is nothing like fun to prove that “writer’s block” doesn’t exist. I can almost completely guarantee no one has TIGEB when they are happy.

I am the guy.
I am the guy who what the hell is with that other guy?
Wait, am I that other guy when the other guy is speaking?
Where did my wallet go and has it had lunch yet, that was f**king stupid…

The previous sentences are artless nonsense. But they do work to move one forward, getting the words flowing so that better ones may come along. Writer’s Block and TIGEB will be permanently a thing of the past through the techniques mentioned in these two posts. So good luck and have fun!

Writer’s Block Doesn’t Exist: 第1部

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As I mentioned in my New Year’s post, I once again drew from the Japanese language for my yearly theme. Last year I dedicated 2016 to making bold little steps every day towards my goals, making strategic moves forward via overcoming petty fears and doubts. This year has been about assessing what being bold in 2016 achieved, and how I can improve on the results. This of course means understanding failures, correcting mistakes and re-strategizing successful ventures to be even more successful by making changes to my lifestyle and behavior. Thus, my new word for 2017 has been henkou (変更): change, or alteration.

As you all know, or at least many of you know, I have written a lot. 50+ articles for Canadian Musician magazine, a PhD dissertation (350 pages), program notes, newspaper articles, reviews for academic journals, poetry, an encyclopedia entry, blog posts, conference papers, lecture and speech notes, and so on. I am certainly neither a great writer nor have won any (big) prizes for writing. I am just a saxophonist who has also spent a lot of time writing things down. But I can I think I can at least claim to be a “person who has written some reasonably good, publishable sentences”. Having said that I am now going to make a rather bold (yet factual) claim: I have never had writer’s block. Ever.

Now that may seem like boldfaced bragging, an exaggeration, or an outright lie. But I assure you it is none of these. I have never had writer’s block ergo sat in front of an empty page or laptop screen and found it hard/couldn’t come up with any words. I will admit though that I have had passing momentary instances (5 to 10 minutes) where I found it hard to (nigh impossible) write even a single word when woring on a specific article, etc. “But, isn’t that “writer’s block?” you may well ask.

It isn’t.

This is because “writer’s” block does not exist. I have sat in front of my laptop momentarily unable to write about a specific topic with any philosophical insight, passion, or accuracy. BUT, if asked, I could have written a couple of paragraphs about the flavors I don’t like (mint, anise, etc.). I could have even written a full single spaced page about a person I dislike, or several hundred lust-filled pages about how my girlfriend looks in an Issey Miyake pleated dress! 

miyake drees

The truth is none of us have ever had writer’s block… we all have had “inspired writing” block, or “this isn’t good enough” block, which is actually what we all mean when we say writer’s block. In fact, having said that, the better a writer you are, the more you suffer from “this isn’t good enough-block”: T.I.G.E.B as I like to refer to it. So today’s henkou post is about TIGEB and how we don’t have to suffer from it, at all, anymore. The key is found in the psychology behind how and when humans make both minor and major changes in their life.

All authentic (aka lasting) changes that humans make in their lives essentially happen in four stages: anticipation and regression, then a breakthrough, which is followed by consolidation.

First, any creative act initiates and develops some sort of anticipation: the desire to reveal to the world something you value: songs, paintings, words, dance, and so on. We anticipate the feeling of finishing and displaying the creative activities we love. But then we lose the passion (regression) can’t seem to find the right words, notes, colors, etc., that will keep the work going and we stop anticipating the end we seek, often anticipating that this final result will take much longer to be realized or achieved. Thus, we sit and stare at the blank page, feeling the empty minutes as pain, like we have “done nothing” when we “should have done” something we feel passionate about. Even if we write a few lines, we still see ourselves as having “done nothing” because what we did was not “something”: passionate, valuable, creative, worthwhile, “good”, etc. We don’t have writer’s block, we have TIGEB: “values” block, “measuring up” block, “others are better than me” block.

The breakthrough comes though when we once again start creating what we value as “something”: good, creative, passionate, real, poignant, and so on. We begin to feel we can “write” again when it happens in a way that makes us FEEL like we are writing something good or worthwhile. The word “feel” is important, because there are a lot of unskilled writers who think they are the next Robert Okaji, and geniuses (like Robert Okaji!) who feel they are always outside of truth, never living up to the highest ideals of their craft (which they inevitably do 95% of the time). Then we arrive at consolidation, when the benefits of our changes of attitude or increased skill becomes commonplace, and we get so used to the new level of skill, we will eventually go through another four stage cycle, not realizing that our new four stage cycle is of a higher quality. Where “writer’s block” always occurs is in Stage 2: Regression, and especially, in its relationship with time.

This regressive phase is also where plans and goals fail in any desired change, in art or in Life itself. We quit a job we hate, and then get all excited about becoming self-employed: buying books on starting a small business, learning about branding and marketing, buying the classic books on salesmanship and positive thinking, buy some new clothes, turn our living room into a home office, and so on. This is very fun, as it makes us FEEL like we are really moving ahead. But the truth is, this is meaningless when the inevitable occurs, when we hit the regressive stage of self-employment: not making as much money as we expected, spending more on our business than we earn (anywhere from a few weeks to months), the creeping doubts about the future of our business, fear of failure as bills mount, which means having little to no fun, losing our initial excitement and drive. In this regression lies the moment where most people give up: believing that the regressive stage is permanent and that we should have not left the old job., as now we “probably” will end up with a failed business, unemployed, in debt, unhappy, and so on, which is a terror-inducing state because it feels like a permanent situation is occurring, or at least beginning to occur.

This is “writer’s block”: some form of inability to move forward due to our thought processes. Once again, I could write a book about how much I love rock bands like Genesis, RUSH or the music of Frank Zappa, etc., but can allow myself to experience “writer’s block” in writing about these people if I am in a certain mindset: if I feel I am not writing “good enough” about them, or other people have written “better” things about them than I feel I can or will. “Writer’s block” = “feelings block”.

Here is the solution.

1). Just f**king write. Anything. Write… just write a series of nonsense words on the page to get in the habit of just writing without judgment. Try to write a paragraph of the “stupidest”, “worst”, or “not good enough-est” writing you can on purpose, just to do it. Then, write slightly less stupid or not-good-enough writing and erase it. Then write not very stupid, and “almost good enough” writing and erase it. But, as you are writing and erasing, if (and usually when) you see something that seems kind of interesting don’t erase it. Keep it on the page, and play around with it, once again, without calling it “good” or “bad”. No matter how useless and stupid all of it is, at east it is the act of writing. It is better than not writing a single word, what you now will have formerly called writer’s block. Writing anything is a better use of time than writing nothing, and it makes time seem less oppressive or much less of an “obstacle”. 

It is like mining. Gold mining is the act of digging around and looking for gold. But it doesn’t mean that all the not-gold (dirt, rocks) aren’t valuable for other reasons and uses. Gold would lose pretty much all its value if it was more commonplace than granite. But since there is less gold it retains a value that humans assign it! Without all the “regular” dirt and minerals plants could not grow and thus we would not be able to grow crops and stay alive. In the greater scheme of Life, a carrot or a glass of water is priceless, comparatively. So writing is merely digging, and writers use both gold and dirt. Make sure you don’t throw out your water because you want a crown

2). Writers never, ever write “brilliant” things. They write a lot of words and in the process what can be called “brilliance” comes into being. It takes some writers less time to write and edit something “brilliant”, others longer. Brilliance also most often occurs after at least two or three revisions of a sentence or paragraph, etc. Your favorite novels, stories, poems, autobiographies, etc., were edited. This sentence I am typing right now was edited! It doesn’t mean it is good, but it is better than the first time I wrote it. And I wrote it instead of just sitting there staring at my laptop trying to think up a “great” sentence.

3) All writing is evolutionary. When you have “writer’s block” you are a fish that has discovered you need lungs and moisture retaining skin in order to enjoy a day lounging on the beach. Instead of trying to change the beach, you must change yourself first. There is NOTHING blocking your writing. There is only you telling yourself “I don’t feel like I can write anything {good, worthwhile, brilliant, relevant, poignant, etc.]”. Thus, the regressive stage in your writing in that moment is not a block but a decision to not write. It is a decision that you can only write when you feel X. Like I said, it is feelings block, the normal regression of initial passion. So write without feeling or purpose, just write stuff, and allow what inspires you to return in the process of filling the page. Not “being able” to write (“writer’s block”) is a choice. Writing is merely moving a pen or fingers on your keyboard. A monkey pressing keys on a laptop is making the same motions you are when you are writing on your laptop. So there is nothing blocking you from writing except your idea of writing.

4). In the comments below, the great writer/photographer Daniel Paul Marshall makes a perfect point about “writer’s block” when he says, “…if you have what is commonly referred to as writer’s block, then you probably aren’t up to the job, so get reading & thinking…”. This is completely spot on. If we write without doing our homework, we certainly are not up for any job, let alone writing. So following Marshall’s advice we definitely must fill ourselves up with more information, education, contemplation, and inspiration. Reading and thinking as much as possible = writing lots of stuff…. more and better stuff the more we do it.

(I will still post a Part Two to this series but after reading Daniel’s  advice, you certainly have all you need now to write as much and as often as you want!). 

Writer’s block is merely a change in mental status, easily remedied by just writing. But how can we just write and be free of TIGEB? In Part Two of this post, I will reveal my method on how to write without restraint, fear, doubt, and/or anything else that gives us TIGEB or any other writing block.

The Exhilarant Bassoon Incident of 1982..

bassoon.jpg

バズーン冒険!

As I mentioned in my New Year’s post, I once again drew from the Japanese language for my yearly theme. Last year I dedicated 2016 to making bold little steps every day towards my goals, making strategic moves forward via overcoming petty fears and doubts. This year has been about assessing what being bold in 2016 achieved, and how I can improve on the results. This of course means understanding failures, correcting mistakes and re-strategizing successful ventures to be even more successful by making changes to my lifestyle and behavior. Thus, my new word for 2017 has been henkou (変更): change, or alteration. The most profound alteration in one’s life however, is that first moment of real truth when one encounters their future; foreshadowing the arc of their destiny.

Though this is not universally true of all musicians, it is almost invariably the story of lifelong dedicated musicians tell of their first encounter with their favorite instrument. For example, the first time legendary rock guitarist Steve Vai saw a guitar (at 5 years old) he felt an almost supernatural thrill, all of his senses heightened and alive with passionate youthful wonder. He was altered by just seeing a guitar; his destiny revealing itself to him whether he understood it or not. It was the same for me; the first time I picked up a saxophone and played a note I discovered my existence was saxophone shaped, there was something about the feel, weight, smell, and fit of the saxophone in my hands and its place in my soul. For others it can also be a similar yet slower process, becoming deep and true with each passing month or year. But no matter how one arrives at their destiny, hidden in the fabric of life is alteration (revelation), the seeds of time either being planted or blossoming. Thus we come to The Exhilarant Bassoon Incident of 1982.

Though I played saxophone when I was young, I was assigned the bassoon one year in junior high school band. Having no interest in it I complained to the teacher, but she was adamant. I was playing bassoon because it is was a much harder instrument to master and since I had already learnt the saxophone, I was the most qualified in class to learn the bassoon well enough for our eventual year end concert. So I took it home and started to fiddle around with it. Now if you have never heard a bassoon being played for the first time by someone who has never played it, imagine the sound of two ducks trying to strangle each other… while two other ducks nearby also attempt to strangle each other. But after a couple of weeks of practice I got my bassoon to sound more like a single duck with laryngitis, so I was off to a good start.

The real problem though was that I was, and still am, the worst sight-reader on the planet. Reading music on the fly and getting it right the first time is my Kryptonite, the skill I will never have to any level of excellence, nor do I desire the skill. Mathematics, sight-reading, and getting good tone on a bassoon: my eternal nemeses. But I kept on soldiering on for a couple of weeks until I secretly stopped caring and would only play bassoon in band class, stashing it away in my closet the rest of the week. So neither my bassoon or sight-reading skills were moving forward, meaning I was also not learning the necessary musical skills and memorization necessary to pass the class and eventually perform the annual year-end concert.

But as I grew adept at evading my “bassoonic responsibilities” I was having a lot of fun. Since I was in no hurry to do the right thing, I found myself spending more time just “bassooning”: fooling around, making animal noises, seeing what it would sound like if I invented my own fingerings, and playing along with pop songs on the radio, which sounded extremely silly and highly amusing to my 11 year old mind. Thus we arrive at The Exhilarant Bassoon Incident.

One day in class in the Spring, for the first time all year, our teacher wanted to hear us to play our parts individually in one particularly challenging song, to gauge how we were progressing towards the year end concert. As each kid played his or her part I grew increasingly terrified, as I had NO idea what I was doing. I could not read the music, I was still not sure of which fingerings went with which note, and so on, about as unprepared as one can get! It was clear I had no idea how to play the bassoon. Finally we arrived at my turn to play my part in the song and., suppressing my terror, I took a deep breath and improvised what I thought the music maybe, possibly, potentially, could, might sort of sound like! Though I tried my best, I am pretty sure what my teacher heard was the worst sounding bassoon she had ever heard…playing the music so wrong it might as well have been engine noise for all of its empty bluster. I’ll never forget the look on her face: a very fascinating mix of horror, rage, and incredulity. The game was up, my secret was out, I had been making up my parts all year and playing quietly enough that I could “hide” in the sound of the band without the teacher hearing that I was improvising my parts to avoid actual bassoon study. For almost a full school year I had been playing the bassoon but never studied it at all. I sat there red faced and ready for the inevitable scolding and possible eviction from the class to the principal’s office. This meant the inevitable phone call to my parents, and the highly likely scolding for such a massive failing in my scholastic responsibilities.

But then something completely shocking and unexpected happened. My teacher then looked at me with what I can only describe as a kind of dejected and/or resigned respect, said nothing, and continued on with the class! As our class continued I sat there stunned, once again faking my parts quietly, and walked out of the class afterwards with no interaction from the teacher. What the hell had happened? She had caught me red handed, a robber in the headlights of a cop car caught sneaking off with the diamonds. I was fully expected to get the band class equivalent of a Scared Straight talk. Later that evening I realized what had really happened, and this realization had an amazing effect on my life, it altered how I saw myself and changed how I thought about music and possibility: a major henkou in my life.

I had realized that the teacher had heard what I did and let it go… because what I actually played, the part I improvised instead of reading from the music had ‘worked”, it sounded good enough that the teacher, knowing she was not going to get what was required out of me before the day of our class concert, let me continue on with my free form improvising, let me make up my part and play it, as no one would notice it was not the “right” part written on my page! I realized in that moment that I could make up things on the bassoon (and thus on the saxophone also) that “worked”, which functioned as actual music people would accept. I had spent an entire year playing “free jazz” on my bassoon and I had done it well enough to pass the class… and I was barely a teenager at the time!

The Infamous Bassoon Incident of 1982 was a foreshadowing of my now almost 40 years of improvising on the saxophone and percussion as a professional musician: the continuous self-inculcation of that process in both my private and professional studies, as well as live performance, public speaking, and multi-media work. I had accidentally learnt that the passionate pursuit of improvisation, in this case to avoid work (!), ended up being the seed of my most passionate work itself. The key was the passion: exploration, self-amusement, curiosity, and fun – once put in service to fooling my Gr. 7 band teacher – could be implemented in service of personal growth, creative development, and self-fulfillment. I improvised for a full school year on the bassoon, unconsciously building valuable creative skills, and passionately exploring self-discovery via a musical instrument. From that point on my path was set, and I was able to get a PhD and travel all around the world, and play with famous people, and have fun and so on because I discovered my true gifts (improvisation, creativity studies) on a bassoon in Gr. 7!

So if you are a non-musician who longs to play the guitar, or studying an instrument but want to have some fun with it outside of your official lessons, or indeed any other kind of musician, then take heart, you don’t have to do things the regular way to have fun and learn at the same time. What music lessons CANNOT teach you is the joy and value of exploration, that it is 100% ACCEPTABLE to fool around with a guitar and do nothing else with it, if that is what you enjoy. If you want to be a world-class musician, you must study something. But NO world class musician ONLY studies. They do many other things to become unique, creative performers, and having silly, pointless fun on their instrument is a sure fire way to discover new worlds and new ideas without boundaries.

We do not live in a world now where a 12 year old could secretly play free jazz bassoon for a year in school and “get away with it”. My Exhilarant Bassoon Incident is a priceless treasure in my life, an unbelievable gift and accidental achievement. And you can have the same experience too, by throwing out the idea that you have to practice your guitar.

So I encourage you all to throw away the rulebook sometimes and just be silly and funny and happy on your drums, oboe, bass, saxophone, kazoo, or whatever else you want to cut loose with. Musical abandonment in service of bliss has its own rewards.

 

The Algebra of Indian Music

音楽の代数

Though there are hundreds of articles on the various types of music in India available to musicians, few discuss how to apply their conceptual aspects to practical scale studies. This is unfortunate, as merely running up and down a melodic pattern (raga) in different keys does not provide the student with the most valuable lesson: how to fully grasp and utilize the intellectual and/or structural power of Indian rhythm in one’s studies. And a key ingredient often missing in such study is the mathematical underpinnings of Indian music, and how they can be applied to practical scale practice. Thankfully, one does not have to be good at math to understand the system and begin exploring it, but if you get still get a little confused by the terminology, try out the exercises further along in the lost and you will be able to hear/feel what I am talking about. First though, we must know a little about the principles of rhythm in the various Hindustani (Northern) and Carnatic (Southern) styles of music.

(Note: Having studied both North and South Indian styles of classical music, I often intermingle the Tamil and Hindi names for various rhythms and concepts, so if you see such a mix it is habitual. Also, many Tamil and Hindi words are both singular and plural, so for the sake of ease of understanding in English I will use words like talam/talams or jati/jatis separately as singular and plural.).

These principles (in Carnatic music) are called the Dasa Prana, the 10 vital elements of rhythm. Among the ideas discussed are the various modes of indicating rhythm, subdivision, tempo, classification, and the idea of “time” in general. The beat cycles in South Indian music (talams) are considered to have developed over time from Sanskrit poetry, and out of this system five basic lengths of time (jati) developed: chatusra (4), tisra (3), misra (7), khanda (5), and sankirna (9). Groupings of beats and notes can be arranged quite creatively using the Dasa Prana, and thus I will discuss them in terms of how you can begin to use such groupings to your advantage in jazz improvisation.

Basic jatis, and how you group them within a talam, are a major part of the incredible creative science of Indian musics. And the key to understanding the power of jatis lies in understanding structure. For example, Chatusra Jati is a grouping of four notes or beats, and so a talam based on it will contain various groupings of four. This is extremely important to know, as talams are algebraic: they can be expressed as symbols which when memorized give an improvising musician an advanced level of control in both melodic and rhythmic improvisation. For example, the talam known as Dhruva contains the form X+Y+X+X, or XYXX. Thus if we assign both X and Y numbers, the form stays the same but the length changes. So Dhruva Talam, when based on Chatusra Jati, is 4 + 2 + 4 + 4, a 14 beat cycle. But if Dhruva is based on groupings of three (Tisra Jati) it becomes an 11 beat talam (3 + 2 + 3 + 3). In fact, one of my favourite talams is Dhruva when it is based on Misra Jati (7), which produces a flowing 23 beat cycle (7 + 2 + 7 + 7).

Taking this into consideration we can then analyze the various talams as algebra, and memorize/utilize this information for improvisational or compositional purposes. For example, Matthya Talam can be expressed as XYX, so Matthya is a 10 beat cycle using Chatusra (4 + 2 + 4), an 8 beat cycle using Trisra (3 + 2 + 3), a 16 beat cycle in Misra (7 + 2 + 7) and so on. Another talam (Triputa) can be expressed as XYY, and thus can become an 8 beat Chatusra cycle (4 + 2 + 2), a 7 beat Tisra cycle (3 + 2 + 2), a 9 beat Khanda cycle (5 + 2 + 2), and so on. This means we can also adapt the alphabetical symbols in such a way as to make memorization easier for our particular style of learning. Some people are better visual learners, so memorizing XYXX as images might make the process easier, imagining pieces of fruit (apple/banana/apple/apple), colorful shapes, emojis, or even the faces of Star Wars characters, whichever way makes learning the patterns fun and personal.

The next step is applying these algebraic patterns to our practice regimen. There are many ways to do this, but the most effective way to start is using the C major scale as our primary set of notes. So if we want to study Dhruva Talam using Chatusra Jati, we can practice scales in straight eighth notes: CDEF – ED – CDED – CDEF, then DEFG – FE – DEFE – DEFG, and so on (giving us the scale step pattern: 1234 – 32 – 1232 – 1234, 2345 – 43 – 2343 – 2345, etc.). Once you have moved from the bottom to the top of your horn and back down again, then you can move on to do the same in the remaining eleven keys. This approach is an extremely effective way of practicing scales in different keys while getting used to the flow of Carnatic rhythm, developing two different skills two at once. If we want to then move on to another talam using Chatusra Jati (Aja Talam for example: XXYY or 4 + 4 + 2 + 2) we can utilize the same concept: CDEF – CDEF – GG – GG, DEFG – DEFG – AA – AA, and so on (1234 – 1234 – 55 – 55, 2345 – 2345 – 66 – 66, etc.).

A really powerful use of this approach is in the study of the chromatic “scale”, all twelve the notes of the Western pitch system. Playing every single note from the bottom to the top of your horn is called “the” chromatic scale, and since there is technically only “one”, few people study it as intensively. But breaking up the chromatic scale into segments using talams and jati reveals the power of chromatic patterns, and provides for you very advanced technical control and flexibility on your instrument. For example, if you can run through Dhruva Talam using chromatic Chatusra Jati (CC#DE♭ – DC# – CC#DE♭ – CC#DE♭, C#DE♭E – E♭E – C#DE♭E – C#DE♭E, etc.), all the way up and down your horn in eighth notes evenly with a metronome (e.g. ♩ = 200 bpm), all other scales will seem like child’s play, at any tempo. But remember, it is not speed that makes this skill powerful, it is creative flexibility and control over your horn that is vital, so practice slowly and carefully, focusing on making music and expanding your mind.

The algebra of classical East Indian music is a true treasure and gift to the world, so I encourage you to explore it deeply and thoughtfully. Good Luck!

 

Review: Robert Okaji’s “From Every Moment A Second”.

Okaji Image

FROM EVERY MOMENT A SECOND
Robert Okaji
Finishing Line Press
2017

★★★★★

From Every Moment A Second, the latest chapbook by American poet Robert Okaji, is yet another meticulously crafted collection of observations, private austerities and hesitancies spelt out in verse. A small collection of twenty poems, each feels “warm”, like a cozy winter Sunday on your living room couch – to paraphrase Junichiro Tanizaki – lost in contemplation of flavours to come.

What makes it a five star collection is each poem is clear in its vision, each unambiguously a part of the greater gist of the book. Each line shows where lesser works ‘tell’, and thus this collection feels like a series of tiny one act plays. Part of this is how each line and stanza feels like it has been put exactly in its proper place, that any further edits would remove a character or vital plot point in the narrative. Plus, each poem evokes the feeling of the grammatical negative, asking shall we not see things as such? as opposed to “such are things”, revealing how uniquely he has allowed his Teutonic and Japanese heritage to play upon his creative sensibilities (for more analysis of Okaji’s creative approach click here).

In reading this new collection I was also reminded of how thoroughly non-Romantic it is; how it is neither speaking to how things might or ought to be, nor offering ideal certainty on what we ourselves must become. Through this Imagism – poetry that is so close to prose it might as well be – it is as if Okaji covertly weaves into his work the logic of Parmenides: hinting that Existence is the thing that exists.

I am also happy to report that this new collection remains true to the Okaji style: great restraint in metaphorical language, whose opposite in my mind is the bane of poetry (the sun buttering the clouds like popcorn, the rain falling like tears, etc.).  Okaji goes straight to the point and saves us all from common poetic abandon… thank god! It is in this fashion that he is either subconsciously or unconsciously a lodger in novelist Kurt Vonnegut’s sensibilities. Admittedly, this description may only be speculation on my part: moving from book review to random essay on what I imagine goes on in Robert’s head. But, after repeated readings of each poem, I am struck by what at least seems to be a covert analysis of the gulf between subjectivity and objectivity similar to Vonnegut’s narrative voice.

Through the work, and indeed Okaji’s general output, he both can and cannot explain what it is like to be Robert Okaji: like trying to understand the world by holding a mirror out through a window. But he never falls prey to the intrinsicism or fideism of a mystic; he does not just sit there and imagine whatever pops into his head is illuminating, true, reasoned, or even poetry itself! Thus in doing so he evokes the creative spirit of Zen monk Ryōkan Taigu, who stated: “who says my poems are poems? My poems are not poems. Thus, after you know my poems are not poems, then we can begin to discuss poetry”.

So Okaji writes in this place of objective things (birds, leaves, water) without opinion, having what philosopher Thomas Nagel calls a “view from nowhere”, and yet, his “not poems” create some rather powerful statements on existing. Having not fallen prey to attempting “great poetic meaning”, he existentially sidesteps poetry and does not get lost in words to the point where, as Wittgenstein put it, “one would like just to emit an inarticulate sound”, giving up on it entirely. Instead he exposes and makes real the contents of being Robert Okaji while never asserting that what is in his mind at any given time is inherently sufficient for our greater understanding, or our aesthetic entertainment. Thus, in “Mayflies”, he points out the fact that the eponymous insects have no functioning mouth, never knowing the pleasures of Italian white wine and such as he has, adding “who’s to say which life burns brighter; even knowing these facts, still I dream of flight”. In another instance (“Latitude”) he offers up the idea that “sometimes it’s enough to know that a chicken preceded this egg…”.

The best example though is in “If Ahead I See” in which he writes, “the house finch sings as if all air will expire at song’s end”. But if all air will expire when the song concludes, why would the finch sing in the first place? But the house finch sings, ergo acts in a way that makes the air as full of life (music) as possible, makes an effort in the face of potential finality. This is straight up Sartrean existentialism seeping through Okaji’s finch into our perception: life is how we act; giving purpose or utility to what inherently has none. The finch can do something, has choice, and with her breath, wastes no time and effort. Okaji’s finch exposes an undercurrent of a kind of pragmatic existentialism that, while tinged with a certain ill-fated austerity, ends in song, in action. And like his finch, Okaji writes as if all words will expire at poesy’s end. So why would Okaji, like the finch, sing in the first place?

The answer occurred to me while reading the poem The Resonance of No. As the narrator (Okaji himself) washes some dishes, a spider, Miles Davis, a guitar, a potato peeler, ale, and a John Coltrane saxophone solo all pass through his thoughts. Breaking through his soapy reverie though is the sudden slicing of his palm by a food processor blade, which brings him back to the present, ending in a meditation on the emptiness of words in the face of an upcoming visit to a loved one’s grave. Okaji moves from aesthetics to grounded Being in the space of a cut, a rending of flesh… and spirit. In Japanese swordsmanship this is the weapon of the highest order, the dokumyōken: the great “sword to cut oneself with”. This is the internal slash against the real villain: one’s own doubt and uncertainty, overcoming self in order to overcome what lies outside of self.

But instead… Okaji lays down the dokumyōken! The uncertainties remain; his words continue to be speculation rather than expression: what is “Robert Okaji” is not yet a certainty. The words (before and after the cut of the processor blade) remain as they are: the dokumyōken sits unused in Okaji’s heart. But he immediately acts, continues to write, to express that he can’t express, singing like the finch, though he is still not sure there is even any air to carry his song. Thus, we are left with a few dozen pages of shadows, remnants, vacant shelves, and half opened boxes of words; carefully expressed improvisations on contingencies. Without directly saying as such, Okaji’s poetry is aporetic: various purportings of doubt, as if each poem comes to some sort of impasse, like writing itself is undermining his attempts to write. But it is not catharsis either, as we are not left feeling incomplete, or that Okaji is particularly self-conscious (as Ryōkan himself put it, “the water of the valley stream never shouts ‘purify yourself!’ but naturally, as it is, shows how it is done”).

Thus, we learn how it feels to not know as Okaji does not know, and I can hardly think of a more profoundly poetic act, set in two-dozen pages of great American poetry. To order a copy click here.

Ω

How To Become Fluent in Japanese (日本語).

kyoto

日本語熟練

For both students of one’s native language and students studying a second language like Japanese, moving from conversational to progressively more advanced analytical language can seem rather intimidating or, in some cases, feel downright impossible. Japanese is a great example of this. The amount of material you need to memorize and understand seems to increase exponentially with each step towards fluency! But thankfully you don’t have to try and do it alone, as there are many great methods out there for organizing your studies more efficiently toward your goals. One such method is using the basic steps of critical thinking to truly understand what one reads and/or is attempting to explain in higher levels of conversation.

(Note: Various forms of Buddhism have been, and continue to be, highly influential in Japan and thus a running knowledge of Buddhist history and doctrine in Japan is essential to understanding local and national colloquialisms, and beyond. Thus, I will be referring to Buddhism often. Also, my system of pedagogy or self-study is compatible with all stages of the Canadian Language Benchmarks laid out by Citizenship And Immigration Canada. Thus, the content may be Asia themed but the standards set are CLB positive).

With each step comes a much greater understanding of your subject and you begin to really start saying things that are significant to yourself and others at a higher level: you’re able to get to the heart of a matter, or the point of a sophisticated film, for example. This ability clearly lifts you up to speaking to a level that will be much more personally significant as well, as you will have no doubt gotten tired of just being able to say, “How’s the weather?” or, “I ate noodles yesterday. They were delicious.”

(Note: these steps are designed to help someone who already speaks conversational Japanese move to advanced Japanese. If you are just starting out, your first step is to memorize some words and a couple of sentence structures like “where is it?” or “My name is…” before taking on the daunting task of grammar studies and writing, etc. The following steps may be too daunting for the beginner, so if you speak a few words of Japanese, ignore them for now). 

So the first step is finding information on the various things you would like to talk about; you must become a fact-gather, rather than merely a word memorizer. Memorizing words like onpu, or senritsu does not prepare you to discuss Japanese music let alone speak Japanese. You must have some reason for having these words in your vocabulary, and thus you must organize the information you gather. Can you explain which artists had an influence (eikyou) on the music of your favorite J-pop singer? Can you explain the difference between the (three) definitions of eikyou to someone who does not speak Japanese? You must gather a lot of information on even a single word, rather than just memorize words without context. You don’t need a context for basic words like blue or cat, but you certainly will need to gather information on abstract nouns, or intransitive verbs, in order to use them intelligently.

Then you must be able to effectively analyze the facts/material you gather. This means you must begin identifying patterns, themes, and interrelationships occurring in what you are analyzing. Can you organize and label in your mind the various ‘parts’ of the whole? If the weather is nice, can you relate that information to the overall weather that week? Can you explain to a friend “it is unusually rainy for this time of year, although the summer has only just begun?” This ability to see the weather as part of a whole trend or pattern, and express it as such, is what makes people truly fluent in a second language. It may be hard to learn at first, but it is absolutely necessary if one is going to truly be able to say they are fluent. It is also why many university students in particular taking Japanese give up after taking Japanese 101; the reason why many take 101, but significantly fewer and fewer students take 201 and 301. You have to stop talking about food and start talking about the physiological (internal) difference between a raccoon and a badger. It is not easy if you are not committed to ever increasing levels of hard work. It is not as much fun to study the necessary daily calcium intake of a badger, as it is to tell someone “I love anime.” But you do need the skill to do so.

To begin doing so you obviously must compare things, show how they are alike or different. Comparing things is an act of engaged thought, as similarity and difference are no always as easy as merely saying a tree is not the same as a giraffe. A conversation a student might have with a Shingon Buddhist priest about the goma ritual is going to be radically different from issatsu, the student/teacher exchange in Rinzai Zen Buddhism that can be a very vigorous testing of the student’s knowledge (and interpretation) of scripture and doctrine. The comparison of the two must include the difference between the Shingon and Rinzai worldviews, and how Vajrayana Buddhism differs from Mahayana Buddhism.

This means you must now be able to classify what you are discussing. You must now be able to sort objects, and ideas into sets of features, attribute, and/or effects. This also means you must be able to explain how and why you classified the material. If, for example, you sort the books Jude The Obscure (1895) by Thomas Hardy and Last Exit To Brooklyn (1964) by Hubert Selby Jr. into a set, people may not understand your choice – until you classify them as books that were considered by some to be obscene when they were first published. Classification will also help others make sense of your choice if you also include Japanese books that have controversial, “obscene” social relationships with their author, such as Decay Of The Angel, and Yukio Mishima’s death by ritual suicide.

I bring up Decay Of The Angel, because in order to properly explain the novel, you must known where the idea of an angel that ‘decays’ comes from. Decaying angels (tenbu), in Japanese Buddhism, are angelic beings with a lifespan, thus mortal. One can tell tenbu apart from immortal angels by various signs of decaying: sweaty armpits, dirty clothes, their bodies cease to give off light, etc. Thus, one must be able to classify tenbu, and this kind of language requires a running knowledge of Buddhism, Buddhist history in Japan, and a variety of religious words – requires a lot more study and analysis than merely memorizing the word ‘Buddhism,’ or ‘angel.’

Classifying things leads to value judgements, determining the quality of what you now know. Are the things you know up-to-date? Are they the latest known facts about an issue? Or are there also a variety of sources that contradict what you now know? If you have read a book on Japanese culture, and memorize much of its main assertions, it is very important to also know what year the book was written. Books written about Japan before 1980 will not contain some rather vital knowledge about Japan one needs to know, as well as books written before the 21st century and the shinjinrui coming into positions of power and influence. To not know who the (1970s) shinjinrui are will definitely hinder your ability to discuss the future of Japan with any degree of excellence, let alone its past. Was it good for the 70s shinjinrui to grow up not knowing first hand of the effects of World War Two? Was it bad or good that they sought a life relatively more material than past generations, and looked to move beyond the much more devoted life to company and nation of their parents or grand parents? That is something you can only discuss if you know Japanese history. Through assessing the shinjinrui you will also discover what is appropriate to discuss, as Japanese people still continue to see potentially controversial political conversation as something one doesn’t engage in often in public, even amongst friends.

If you then have evaluated information – and looked at various ideas related to it – you then interpret them and deduce other facts or potential facts from them. This also can mean making an educated guess as well, one that will at least be as factual as possible, given the evidence available. Interpreting information in your second language is hard, very hard the further you go. There will never be a time when you are completely comfortable interpreting information at the highest level until you achieve higher than native fluency – a position interpreting at the United Nations, for example. But until that time, it is OK to feel a little lost sometimes. Keep in mind, no one is completely fluent in any language, even in their native tongue when compared to a famous professor of language like Noam Chomsky, or existential philosopher Keiji Nishitani. Nuclear physicists speak a very select, complex mathematical language when gathering at their most prestigious conferences, so no one out side of that world would be expected to be fluent in it, or more importantly, need to be.

This also means you must now solve much more complicated problems of logic or reasoning, as you must now explain your interpretations in a meaningful way. If you have seen a NHK special on Japanese youth, and think you now have a potential answer to low unemployment among them, you must have at some level determined a process by which they can survive and compete economically. Just saying ‘they should work harder” or “not be lazy” is in itself a lazy thing to say. It is neither a meaningful or particularly helpful conclusion, and you will be almost literally saying nothing. Language fluency is also intellectual fluency, so it is up to you to think quality thoughts, even if they are theoretical.

To solve something means to now have the means to describe your conclusions and persuade others of their veracity.At this point it is vital to make sure that you and your audience or conversation partner knows the difference between fact and opinion. You must be clear whether you are (a) speaking figuratively, or (b) literally, as one is factual while the other is open to further interpretation.

Unfortunately, it is extremely common to see people and corporations run with suggestion or opinion and use it as fact. This occurs all too often with any scientific study that “suggests” something – like eating bananas “may” slow the growth rate of certain cancers. Thus, almost within minutes seemingly, several new diet pills based on banana extract will appear being hailed as the “cure the government doesn’t want you to know about,” or someone will want you to go to their website to check out “this one weird trick for reducing your weight (with bananas)…” The words SUGGEST and MAY clearly state that this is not even close to a conclusion or fact, nor is it even a meaningful statement about bananas or cancer. Very often, too, another study within weeks will come out suggesting that NOT eating bananas may slow the growth rate of certain cancers; neither study has made any definitive or authoritative statement on bananas or cancer, or anything related. But then you see yet another round of misinformation and commercial interest connected to this new non-event, and hundreds if not thousands of people are duped into buying more useless crap from con artists disguised as health practitioners. It is easy to know the truth about these fake claims, but it can be very hard to persuade some people to acknowledge the truth. Thus you must be very well prepared for debate or outright resistance.

The final level of fluency rests in your ability to integrate what you have learnt and your analysis of it into a coherent whole, making clear the difference between what is known and what you personally are now adding to the world of language and facts. You know exactly which are your opinions about what you have learnt, which are reasoned, factual arguments about it, and which of these arguments are authentically your own (and not stolen/plagiarized from others). Being able to integrate the previous eight steps into a language whole means you are definitely, without question, fluent in your new language. It also means you will have the ability to do the same in your native tongue, making you a better student, doctor, lawyer, musician, sales associate, mother, brother, etc.

It is a hard, lengthy process. But it is 100% guaranteed to work.

頑張れ!!