on the refrain & 座禅

It’s ironic, writes Brad Warner in The Other Side of Nothing: The Zen Ethics of Time, Space and Being, 2022, which gives you an idea of the context, It’s ironic how much effort is involved in establishing a state of effortlessness. But we can relate it back to music again. For a skilled musician, playing complex pieces is comparatively effortless. But it’s effortless because the musician has put in hours of practice.

You’ll have probably heard this said of meditation and that is the context, but then Warner says, The problem in meditation is almost the reverse, … We don’t notice it, but the way most of us view reality is the result of many years of effort and practice.

No, I didn’t expect him to go in that direction but in the direction of reinforcing the effort zazen requires so as to experience effortlessness in meditation. It’s like learning to play a difficult melody. Once the skill is acquired it’s only a matter of being in the zone, letting the muscles do their work, letting the memory relax and being in the moment, the musical moment. This is the refrain.

While the second refrain recalls Deleuze and Guattari’s, the first calls Bergson to mind. He talks of letting the ego live which in meditation would be letting it go. Which is the better image?

The concept of the past gets talked about more than duration, more than either the present or what for Bergson might constitute the future. All of the past exists. It exists as memory. It might be called material memory, the memory of matter residing in its duration, and all matter might be understood to be suffused with memory.

The material ego is memory in its most contracted form. Contracted can be contrasted with relaxed. Like a muscle the ego contracts in effort. It expends effort in acting in and in staying in the present. Relaxed it releases itself from the demands of the present, from the demands of action and rests somewhere between complete release, the dispersion of its energies and their maximal concentration in attentiveness. The present being the point or focus of attention, and memory like a diffuse field, between the two matter and memory are confused, the outlines of matter more or less indistinct and the contents of memory more or less shifting.

The past as it exists in itself added to the present gives us the concept of duration. The future arises out of present actions. It comes from the interests of the present. The path the future takes is not in direct succession. It does not go past, present, future. It’s more likely to go by way of the past than the present.

Again the contraction or relaxation of this muscle, memory, might be invoked. In a relaxed state, when the ego is not being called on to act, the hesitation opens out onto duration, while in a contracted state of being called on to act, the future swiftly follows the present. It takes the path of utility.

This path is set by habit. It’s said of its acquisition that a habit is also contracted, and this goes to the contraction whereby there is no hesitation in action. It is effortless but, as Warner says, this is only because of the effort that has gone in before to acquire the habit of reality. Relaxed the muscle memory responds as it would if contracted but the example of music fills up the whole duration. It in itself constitutes a hesitation.

A melody is the example Bergson uses to press home the point he makes about duration, about letting the ego live, that living duration is neither divisible nor measurable, that it involves qualities. Any changes made for example to the duration of a note in a melody supports a change in the quality of the whole duration. A musical passage rather than taking the path of utility takes the sort of path I said the future does. Its arrival is delayed as it contacts the whole past looking for recognition, for patterns that will set off habits of response.

The new comes as the sort of shock we might expect to cause spasm, the sudden contraction of memory, except that memory does not work like that. Contraction is actually due to an effort to repel the new. It is resistance. Then isn’t this the same for the muscles of the body? and the habits of reality that Warner is dealing with? aren’t they acquired with effort and don’t they need an equal effort to shift?

Then there’s the refrain of Deleuze and Guattari. It’s introduced in A Thousand Plateaus, although the refrain appears Deleuze’s work without being thematised, where it is linked to Proust, Vinteuil’s little phrase triggering a tumult of emotion for Swann. And there has been some discussion about whether it were better called a ritornello.

What the refrain does is produce a territory. It is a reality that it makes like a bird out of the air.