Jay Michaelson

1.     The fox

I generally think of myself as undisciplined. This often surprises my friends, who see that I edit a magazine, write for a newspaper, teach Kabbalah, have written four books, and, oh right, also work as general counsel for a software company I founded a few years ago. But I see these multiple activities as evidence, not refutation. Together, they are proof that I'm still not able to rein myself in, that I still haven't really chosen the one thing that I'm going to do in my life, and, at this point, I've essentially given up on trying.

Being an intellectual, I've invented several models and rationalizations for why "reining in" shouldn't really be necessary anyway. Why, after all, focus on one thing? Why not live as widely and richly as circumstances allow? Here's what Isaiah Berlin has to say on the subject, from his 1953 essay, "The Hedgehog and the Fox." Although it's a long paragraph, I'll quote it in its entirety because it's such acute observation:

There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'. Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel-a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance-and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes.

Berlin himself was a "fox," and no doubt involved in the same sort of self-explanation as I am, albeit in a more refined way. Certainly, I fear that reading of Archilochus which holds that you can't really do more than one thing really well; that, while it's fine to have hobbies and side-projects, specialization is a prerequisite for excellence. Naturally, there are exceptions to this commonplace observation, but I've seen in my own experience the qualitative difference between work that was, at least for its duration, the primary focus of my attention, occupying my waking hours in a way that no single project has done in quite some time, and work which was put together with care, but amidst thirty other items on the to-do list.

So why not focus? Lack of discipline. Not merely in the simple sense of turning off the TV to get back to the writing, but in the larger sense of letting go of choices foregone. I'm good at deciding to do things, but awful at deciding what not to do. I so often find myself looking for the angle in which I don't have to let go of anything -- in which I can be a lawyer and a writer, live in the city and the country, be religious, in my way, and also say yes to the material world. When it comes to the big questions, I don't want to answer them. Or rather, I'll answer -- but always with a yes.

This is fundamentally a lack of discipline -- an inability to say no, relinquish, and focus. But what is discipline, essentially? How does it operate? How does it feel? And why can't I have more of it?

2.     Yoking, caging, taming

All of us are familiar with discipline on the "micro" level: staying focused, working diligently, restraining those impulses which might take us astray or cause us to act carelessly, unskillfully, or unkindly. Ordinary discipline shows up, for me, particularly in the case of writing. This semester, for example, I'm an adjunct faculty member at City College in New York, and find myself writing the same comment over and over, as I grade my students' exams: Check every sentence. See if it follows from the one preceding, and leads to the one that follows. I just want them to see clearly, to think clearly, and to write clearly -- is that so much to ask?

It may be. Kerouac ("first thought, best thought") notwithstanding, discipline is not nearly so straightforward as the metaphor of "clearly" would indicate -- whether in writing, or work, or life in general. In spiritual practice, those who practice meditation learn early on that clarity is actually a subtractive property. The essential basis of meditation practice is that what we take for granted in our perception is actually clouded by thousands of thoughts, judgments, and assumptions. In the metaphor I frequently use, it's like a radio station that we can barely hear through the static. Removing that static in order to hear clearly is the essence of contemplative practice.

Sometimes this work is described as "just sitting" or "when washing the dishes, just wash the dishes." But that is misleading. In practice, it actually involves a very disciplined attention to and auditing of a myriad habits, thoughts, and emotions. It's neither simple nor easy, and, like good editing, it takes far more work than is readily discernible from the "clear" result. Indeed, it's fair to say that the more thorough the work is, the more invisible it becomes.

Building concentration, in a contemplative context, takes discipline of a very pronounced sort. Not only does one renounce speech and the usual worldly interactions, but even within the semi-monastic context of a retreat environment, renunciation is a continual process. Each time the mind is brought back to the object of attention, there is a flavor of discipline -- bringing it back from its pleasant daydreams, saying no to the thoughts that beg to be thought. Just getting up and going to the meditation sits takes discipline, too, especially when it's cold and the sun hasn't yet risen. There were times, on my recent retreat, that felt like reform school.

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Top image: Eric Zener (at Gallery Henoch), Man Returning
Lower image: Eric Zener, Refuge 1

April 2005

Neurotic Visionaries & Paranoid Jews
April 7, 2005

Jews on Stage
Dan Friedman

Out of Bounds
Angela Himsel

Masoretic Orgasm
Hayyim Obadyah

Messianic Troublemakers: Jewish Anarchism
Jesse Cohn

The Hasidim
Hila Ratzabi

Jay Michaelson

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From previous issues:

Two Incidents at the Cafe Kamienica
Gordon Haber

Whatever It Takes
Aaron Hamburger

Jews, Goddesses, and the Zohar
Jill Hammer

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