Repeating In the Name of…?
The possible value of doing things over and over
I watched some interviews of Marco Pierre White — the Man himself, earlier this week. I hadn’t heard such a detailed biographical account of his life before. It got me thinking. It got me thinking of a number of things, really. Including but not limited to: what a different world it must’ve been in his youth, what’s in the English class system, about feelings of belonging. All kinds of interesting topics, as you can see. Fruitful ground for future writings, and likely much more enticing than today’s topic. But how can you have your pudding, if you don’t eat your meat? There’s a proper order to these things, and what I’m writing right now feels more foundational to the arc of this project, whatever it is. I couldn’t tell you why this is so, besides that it arrived off the back of an inspiration following a rather delicious cinnamon bun and a hot cup of my second or third preferred intoxicant. In the business this kind of a story might be called “spin”. A bullshit rationalisation to avoid writing about serious, important topics that really matter. Clearly. Yet, here we are.
I digress, let’s return to the phrase above. “A proper order to these things”. If there is one idea that encapsulates an “old world” scene in my mind, this is it. Whether to do with learning, social life, work, whatever. And this really struck me about M.P.W. He embodies it, in absolutely everything. All the way from how he enters the speaker’s table, from the greeting kisses on the cheek to his determination to know the name of anyone asking him a question. His manners are exceptional and exacting. I know a few of these characters in real life, too. Embodying this proper of an attitude unquestionably demands respect. It doesn’t shout, though. Perhaps it would be best said that it invites respect. As we know, a man who must say “I am the king” is no true king.
I’m not sure, in M.P.W.’s case, if achieving this has required something to be beaten into him, or out of him. Perhaps both, though almost certainly not neither, now knowing the world he comes from… Regardless of the ins-and-outs, his background probably has something to do with it. Even if it doesn’t, it makes for a good bar story anyway. As he tells, he comes from a distinctly working class background. How much this tells you will depend on exposure. Even I, for one, can tell that it matter. Having lived and studied there for a degree’s worth, and having listened to Englishmen talk about it, I can confidently state the obvious: England (and by extension the UK) is a class society. Probably not much less today than it was in the 60s. The more nuanced implications of this aside, even the term itself can’t avoid creating an association. “Working class” paints a mental picture, want it or not. The important point here, though, is his addendum: however working class his roots, the people he grew up around had self-esteem. They “knew their position”; front yards always tended. How illustrative! He mentions he was brought up to better himself, and he does not recognise that world anymore. Seems to be something humanising about the yard, however silly that seems. What does a front lawn have to do with with bettering yourself, let alone improving your social situation? Perhaps it even seems a silly mismanagement of time. Cutting grass, instead of hustling for upwards social mobility… I think “cope” is the contemporary term that’s thrown around. Well, depending on how ingrained you are to the internet, this world probably is unrecognisable, on a deep level.
Well, perhaps we can assume it’s about respect instead. Towards others, yes, but ultimately it does seem to boil down to self-respect. And aren’t all manners like this at their core? To claim otherwise would feel sanctimonious. To me at least. This provokes a further discussion into the benefits of self-regard (as well as its sufficient limits), which we will leave aside for now. What’s important is that we start gaining an understanding — if not of “the proper order of things”, at least of why such a thing might demand existence.
At this state of our World, the parts I’ve observed at least, we shun regimentation. Structure is avoided, or more aptly its meaning is downplayed. This is ultimately to our detriment. Make no mistake: structure and stuckness are not the same, even if they are often melded into one mass. And this illuminates what I meant with reference to “old world” earlier. It is not to say that hierarchies are a solution to everything. Only that they can have a purpose, and a good one at that. We’re not talking a new idea by any means. A rephrase of an ancient one, actually. Many such cases, and it is fundamentally about balance, isn’t it.
Whatever the proper order should be based on, in M.P.W.’s world, it is driven by experience. Not the worst of all possible worlds, but experience without an accompanying growth in awareness will not lead to much good. Especially if any form of responsibility for other people is involved.
Now, what is experience if not repetition? On the surface it seems that repetition is all that it is. Not much else to it, is there? Well… but what’s the point of repetition? Practice does not make perfect, after all. Practice only makes permanent. Supposedly, perfect practice makes perfect, but getting there might take a while, and require a whole load of time wasting. And as we often see, due to the nature of commercial life or whatever it is, the functional point of repetitions often boils down to causing yet more repetitions. Chop wood, carry water — before as well as after, as the saying goes… But what if the activity in question is not the kind where we simply wish to repeat in order to repeat? Should we really repeat anything for the sake of repetition? As M.P.W. says, it took him over 20 years to realise his dream, only to realise it wasn’t his to begin with. Though he only discovered it through walking through, this thought terrifies me, and I don’t know why. It’s not that he’s had that bad of a life, despite sacrificing half of his corporeal existence for something he discovered he did not want, to begin with.
So what’s the point? Because even from the way M.P.W. carries himself, it is evident that there is one. There can be. And I already alluded to it before. Repetition can be a vehicle for increased awareness. Awareness of what? -Nothing, really. Perhaps in the profoundest sense of the word. Though “enlightenment” is not a word to be thrown around lightly, because it means something rather more than language encompasses, perhaps this is a good worldly approximation of it.
Particularly from one lineage I’ve come into contact with in my life, I have been familiarised with a Japanese concept: “Shuhari”. The word signifies a traditional training’s progression. It comprises of three syllables, which correspond to three stages of practice. “Shu” or “protect and obey”, “Ha” or “open, rip, and burst”, and “Ri” or “leave, release, and set free”. This is the traditional progression, where a student first copies and little by little starts finding a personal voice. No need to go deep into these, as others wiser and more qualified have done it before me, many times over. Just pay attention to the words and the overarching story. It’s about degrees of freedom.
Repetition for the sake of repetition is just repetition. Repetition for the sake of awareness is something else entirely. Fundamentally it is freedom. From what, I hear a voice in my head asking? Nothing, once again. You’re just following a form, after all, even as a beginner. What power does that have to limit you, other than what is given? Though perhaps there is nothing you can do outside of the form as a newcomer, even if you wanted to…
Technical mastery for the sake of technical mastery is what I’d like to call ‘machine learning’, though I’ve been lead to believe that too means something else now. The conceptual point still stands. Mindless repetition is fundamentally not a human endeavour, and if anything, the existence of “machine learning proper” cements this further. Now it’s evidently clear that the sufficient conditions for mastery in certain subjects are reaching inhuman levels. In that it’d take several lifetimes to achieve what a machine can do in a few days or weeks. Perhaps even in less time. I admit, this thought is a bit of an abstraction, and I don’t wish to include any discussion of Singularity here, but if the only reason for repetition is more repetition, it makes the whole structure seem like a bit of a Ponzi. I believe “machine learning” in human terms is the kind of repetition that makes you no more of a human. Only a faster machine, if that. Perhaps there is a place for it at the beginning of an endeavour, to push through some initial learning curve, to get you to stand on your own two feet. Not much beyond it though.
This is something built in to “Shuhari”, and also something I believe to have been implicitly present in M.P.W.’s life and training. It certainly seems like he realised it through a gruelling number of repetitions that make a lot of us look like little babies in comparison. Technical mastery should really be an afterthought of sorts. This I believe to be the essence of the “old school” way. And I don’t think it was much questioned. Perhaps in part because it didn’t need to be.
The more modern bastardisation of this is the closely related, but crucially different “technical mastery for its own sake”. The computer says: no. Close, but no cigar. This is called autism, as defined by the internet, not by neurophysiological annals. As pleasantly directionless and creative as it is, it is not fundamentally freeing, in any important sense. There is no increased awareness in this. Experience only leads to more experience. Only a descent further into the technical labyrinth. Can be fun, I admit. In small doses from time to time, but at least carry yarn with you, if you plan on embarking. What I now consider to be the better understanding is that technical mastery is achieved as if by accident, on the way to freedom, only because repetition just happens to be the vehicle.
It’s just that freedom isn’t exactly for the faint of heart (and there is no shortage of that). How could you even know beforehand if you can even handle it? Nothing is there to support you, ultimately. Besides perhaps your faith and the determination of your will. Perhaps they are the qualities that are forged through repetition then. Faith and determination… before freedom graciously shows itself, to you. From the outside, learning for the sake of learning often looks no different to learning for the sake of freedom. The intention is different, though. And this is ultimately what paves the road, much more than the action itself. It’s never about the action, really. Insofar as the action is performed correctly. Be it chopping onions or wood, or carrying water, or whatever.
“Correctness is subjective”, I again hear some goblin screaming from the rafters. Again, wrong. Just because there isn’t one way to do things, does not imply there aren’t wrong ways of doing them. And when an action is performed correctly, it ceases to matter, and more important qualities are allowed to come forth. These are the intangibles that everyone seeks. That which makes the whole more than the sum of its parts. Difficult to define and even to notice, because it is literally in the nature of this unnamable quality.
Did we digress again? So, what was freedom, once again? Nothing much, probably. Not that my words of it make a difference on it.
For your health,
Olli A. Ruotsalainen
P.S. The link for the mentioned interview: