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  • Writer's picturePhilip Bergman

"Stay Within Yourself"

This is a phrase I’ve heard a lot in my life, especially from athletes and coaches. I’ve even repeated it a bit with a tenuous grasp on what it actually means to me. My thought was that it had something to do with working with what you know and limiting ambition, but it has taken on a new meaning recently. This new meaning is also related to a concept I really like thinking and talking about.

I’m always intrigued by the question, “where do experience your being?” This can be phrased in a lot of ways because we “are” in a lot of different ways. What part of your body is primarily responsible for thinking? For feeling? For sensing? For acting? Are all of these actions limited to your physical body? Or is there some way that you can exist outside your physical self? For example, when you see an object, does that object exist outside your body, and you experience it inside your body? Or is it possible that your experience extends outside your physical body to include this object you are sensing? (This, I think I’ve discussed before, but I’m gonna go a little further this time).

I tend toward experiencing actions as my head instructing the rest of my body what to do, and there is some truth to that, obviously. This truth can be useful. For example, it explains why when I’m able to free up the areas around my brain (my neck, jaw, temples), my thinking and acting become clearer. But I’m quickly (re-)discovering the utility of inhabiting the acting portions of my body. Instead of treating my shoulder as something external to my acting self, as something I act upon, why can’t I inhabit my shoulder while “it” (I) move(s)? Instead of “moving my shoulder,” why can’t I “move as my shoulder?” This is beginning to be my definition of staying within myself. Is this entirely what baseball coaches mean when they tell struggling batters to “stay within themselves?” Probably not. Could it be part of what some of them mean? I think so.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is something I’ve repeatedly preached to students, especially middle-school-age students. If I’m bored playing music, it’s my own fault. I had never run into this problem before, and it actually used to be something I didn’t think I was capable of. The problem for me usually isn’t as much wrapped up in apathy and laziness as it is in distraction and haziness. As I return to focusing on presence and preparation, the possibility of distraction is decreasing. In order to prepare each action, I have to focus so much on straddling the present and future that I don’t have time for the past. In order to create something elegant I have to focus so much on straddling the physical and the metaphysical that I don’t have space for the hypothetical. And in order to improve my playing I have to focus so much on straddling tone quality, intonation, rhythm, shape, color, and articulation, that I develop too much curiosity to abet complacency.

One more thing that hit me like a Mack truck today: everyone always talks about fear of failure, but I’ve been accused a few times of fear of success. This has always had a ring of truth to it, but I’ve never been able to pin it down. The realization came today that the two feed each other. If I allow myself to change to a more successful way of being, or even to another, equally successful way of being, it forces me to admit that I have been living in a flawed way. Of course there is a moderately humble, apathetic middle-ground whereby we say, “yes, the way I do things is flawed, but it works well enough. It’s fine.” This is a way of insulating oneself, and is an incredibly comfortable space for me. I allow myself to let go of this mentality most easily when I acknowledge that I am infinitely flawed, that there is no more pain in exploration than there is in protection, and that the only thing standing in the way of personal change is a more flexible mind. This is how I’m able to temporarily put aside the flawed known for an equally flawed but potentially useful unknown. In the words I have read aloud in unison with many of my blog’s readers: “the old has passed away. Behold! Everything has become new.”

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