Could you use the other lip?

Yesterday’s New York Times provides another example of a master performer who seems to accomplish everything by not doing anything.  Previously we discussed mezzo-soprano Dolores Zajick’s explanation to Terry Gross of how she learned to open her mouth to sing without consciously opening her mouth.  In his Times article, Jason Zinoman tells us how Bob Newhart “earns laughs by doing nearly nothing.”

“Mr. Newhart’s stillness gives his every blink, cough and head turn an illusion of meaning. By not accenting his reactions, he actually makes his movements more vivid and colorful, yet still mysterious.”  In his 1970s series, Newhart plays the character of a Chicago psychologist, Robert Hartley.  In one episode Hartley’s wife begs him to smile in anticipation of a surprise party that he has found out about. “I  am smiling,” he says.  She reposts, “Could you use the other lip?”

In addition to explaining how she learned to relax her tongue by just letting her mouth fall open, Dolores Zajick describes how a master weightlifter does not strain the way an amateur does because the master uses only the few muscles actually required to get the job done.  Some people object to calling this approach “not-doing” (wú wéi 無 為).  They object either on the previously discussed grounds that some tasks will never get done if you do nothing, or on the grounds that the term “not-doing” is misleading because we really are active.  Dolores Zajick is singing.  The master is lifting very heavy weights.  Bob Newhart is performing.  As Zinoman puts it, he seems like the straight man, but he’s just as much the active joker.

Even in the example I use as the name for this blog, driving with no hands, I don’t take my hands completely off the wheel.  True.  But only when I stopped clenching the wheel so hard, when I let go, did I learn how to relax in moments of danger. As I explained in the example from taiji push-hands, I learned how to stay standing despite the efforts of someone to push me over by learning not to push back.  At least at this point in our study of wú wéi we can best understand not-doing more as a way to learn how to excel comfortably, than as a description or even analysis of what’s actually going on.

Before leaving the subject of Bob Newhart’s humor, I would like to draw attention to three aspects of his character “Robert Hartley” because they illustrate themes we will also be exploring as we look into living, dying, and practicing wú wéi.

First, as Zinoman notes, Robert Harley, Ph.D., is a “boring man” in “a contented but dull marriage,” who can put his wife “to sleep by talking about himself.” Not-doing can make life seem banal, bland,  As might be expected, traditional Chinese thought presents the bland (dàn 淡) as an important criterion, aesthetic and otherwise in living.  (See François Juillen’s study In Praise of Blandness.) This theme, however, is not a reach into exotic thinking.  Living and dying go on everyday.  If nothing else, the banal is the everyday.  One of Laura’s favorite phrases from her study of 19th Century Spanish novels, was la run-run de la vida (the humdrum of living), which she contrasted with the operatic melodrama of their stories. Laura’s illness and dying were not melodramas.  In many ways, despite their ups and downs, each of these days blandly proceeded to the next.  When he was first diagnosed with cancer, the Jewish Biblical scholar James Kugel became aware of another aspect of this side of living, which he called the “stark” in his book In the Valley of the Shadow.  We will explore the everyday—the banal, the bland, and the stark—in this blog.

Secondly, Robert Harley, psychologist, is a man “clearly in pain,”  someone unable “to experience pleasure,” and unable to talk about it.  “Most of the plots revolve around a mild humiliation that he suffers with a stone face.”  When I read this, I realized that for all that I’ve thought about and written about pain since Laura died, it has never occurred to me to look at the connection between pain and humor, to ask why Robert Hartley’s pain makes me laugh, why the slapstick humor of Laurel and Hardy leaves me in stitches, no matter how many times I’ve seen that plank whack Oliver Hardy in the face.  All that I’ve written so far in this blog about imagining and pain will remain incomplete without addressing the humor of imagining someone else’s pain.  Against the high-minded and holier-than-thou, I’ve already said that I plan to celebrate the happy fault that we have bodies.  Yet the pleasure I found in my body was being able to cry.  What about laughter?  Perhaps even more than crying, with laughing we engage our bodies in some of the highest intellectual activities of which we are capable, which may not even be very emotional … until the moment when we “get it.”  Then, the only thing we can do is laugh.  Like wú wéi if someone has to explain the joke, it doesn’t work.

Thirdly, Zinoman notes that Bob Hartley cannot “give voice to his problems.”  One important clarification of not-doing to be developed will be to distinguish between Bob Newhart’s art and this character he creates with his art.  Not-doing is not the typical male lack of awareness of himself and others, not the usual inability to express how he feels.  In fact, we will see that wú wéi both requires and develops shén (神), being aware, attending, paying attention.  The same taiji teacher who put me through two years of the pushing exercise used a Chinese phrase to describe what our bodies were learning.  This phrase summarizes the phases of action—awareness-intention-energy-act (shén yì qì jìn 神 意 氣 勁).  To learn not-doing one must stop focusing on intention and first become more aware.  I’m getting ahead of myself here.  These ideas will be explored more under the last two sections of this blog—Driving under the Influence of Dunkin’ Donuts and Open-Close-Open.  But I will be using this phrase to organize the closing posts about pain under the Three Kiss-Offs.


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