Fresh Ideas: Time to skin the monkey
April 10, 2018
"The monkey is tied. Now let's skin it," once said Bo Diddley, a famous blues musician. Out of context it's hard to imagine what he meant, or that a phrase like that could be the panacea to our political divisiveness, but I believe it is.
These days there's much advice on how to solve our discord — refrain from identity politics, be on watch for smugness and on the alert to fake news. Of course, these behaviors would help, but unless we go beyond the mindset that created the discord, this advice might be short-term at best. As Einstein once said, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." I don't know about you, but my mind seems to think if I don't have a strong opinion, nothing will change; if I don't come out swinging, nothing will get done. Needless to say, the attitude of "I've got an opinion and I'm sticking to it" is the root cause of our divisiveness. Maybe a musician's mindset can offer us a different perspective.
Stephen Asma, a blues musician and the author of "Was Bo Diddley a Buddha?" (New York Times, April 10, 2017), recalls his experience on his first gig with Bo. Weeks prior to the performance, Stephen had rehearsed intensely only to have Bo arrive five minutes before show time offering no clues as to the songs, keys or chord changes to expect. After their first song, when Bo realized Stephen could follow along, that was when Bo cryptically shouted the above quote. As Stephen says in his article, "Bo and the other greats I played with often worked this way, and it was hair-raising on-the-job education. These musicians never told me what was coming next, partly because they didn't know themselves. They were masters of the art of improvisation."
As many musicians know, the key to successful improvisation is in getting your "self" out of the way. Usually the self or ego tries to coordinate everything. But good improvisers dial down the ego and let the wisdom of the unconscious respond. Improvising in music then should be no different than improvising in our political lives and we should look to where our ego is shutting us down. When we respond to the national conversation of "I am right and you are wrong" and don't take 100 percent ownership of our own mindset, we're the ones getting in our own way, not the other party. There must be a magical sweet spot between having an opinion and in not identifying with it; in letting the mind take a few positions but in not letting it have too many positions.
Consider a great musician: he or she puts in thousands of hours of practice into fingering techniques, feeling the groove, reading other musicians' body language, studying music theory and listening to other master musicians, but ultimately he or she's great because they're adaptive and expressive. Perhaps a great citizen is one who has put in many hours researching, reflecting on and articulating their opinions, but one who participates in a national conversation with more wonder than with the need to be right.
Clearly, like a musician needs knowledge of musical theory and their instrument, we need our reasoning mind and opinions, but at a certain point we must move beyond them. To move past political divisiveness, we need to participate in a national conversation in a more embodied way, where we are observing, listening and responding, not as individuals, but from a place of shared humanity. Like a musician, we've got to write and play our own songs, but when it's time to collectively compose, we've got to let our expectations go. Maybe that's what Bo Diddley meant when he said, "The monkey is tied, now let's skin it" — our monkey mind can get us so far, but to really make music you got to open up to what's underneath.
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Kathy Walters is the mother of a teenage boy. She works for Kirkwood Mountain Realty and lives in Gardnerville.