Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Trampolining and PhD are related activities

Had a moment of conviction that I love trampolining and studying for a PhD in similar ways. The feeling hasn’t passed, so I’ll try and write something about it here, though as I begin this I’m not sure yet what it is that I’m trying to say, if anything.

Being good

Maybe it’s something to do with choosing not to be engaged with the idea of being ‘good’. Good, as in, already accomplished or demonstrating skill. Already knowing what success looks like. Because both activities I’ve undertaken recently in spite of the fact that I’m pretty unsure whether I will succeed in them – I’ve never demonstrated a particular aptitude for academic study, and definitely never excelled at sport.

Or maybe a better way of putting it is that I don’t feel a need to be ‘good’ at either activity, in the sense of succeeding, accomplishing, reaching somewhere. In both those spaces, I am learning and paying attention, and curious about what emerges. In both those spaces, I am attempting activities that feel impossible to me. I’m a beginner. I’ve begun something, not in order to reach somewhere that defines me according to an outside register of success*, but in order to engage with something that takes me beyond where I am right now – something that challenges and shifts the frame within which I entered those activities.

Not being good any more

I guess I’m particularly aware of this because it sits in contrast with many of the qualities that defined my previous practice as a ‘professional artist’ or ‘career artist’. Inevitably, as a professional artist, ‘good’ and ‘successful’ felt almost completely defined by outside sources:

an artist who makes a living

an artist who receives funding

an artist whose work people want to see


an artist who has integrity

an artist who is open to change

an artist who can be engaged in the activity of making art, and not just describing that making process, either through some form of publicity or documentation

I can’t help but notice that in past years, and especially professionally, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with the idea of  finding out what I am ‘good’ at and trying to prove this fact. And only now, having laid down the idea of having a career as a touring performance maker, can I maybe find out. Because not only was I trying to be ‘good’, I was constantly looking for evidence of success. Looking for evidence that other people thought I was good. And now that I take a little time to reflect on that, it’s quite a waste of a life to be investing so much energy on – basically - worrying about looking good!

Process, Practice

So, to come back to the (slightly tenuous, you say?) comparison between trampolining and doing a PhD. Both are opportunities to be in a mode of practising, in a way that feels not dissimilar to that of Vipassana meditation. Curious, observing what happens, but not expecting an outcome. In fact, whilst in both cases there are outcomes and evidence of progress, and whilst the PhD is very specifically about producing a piece of work, I’m wondering whether both activities have allowed me to have a new kind of focus in the present – and this comes about precisely because, without the advance skill/knowing/ without being sure I can do them, I can only succeed by paying absolute attention to the present – to what I need to do right now.


Which brings me back to one of my favourite topics – listening. The idea that maybe what I find in common between these very different activities is that they force me to be engaged in an act of deep listening, and each in a very different way.

When I’m trampolining (and bear in mind that I’m almost 40 and I’ve never trampolined before) it’s actually physically dangerous to get distracted by thoughts or concerns – I have to learn to trust a completely different kind of intelligence in my body, and to engage in physical acts that I can’t imagine doing before I’ve attempted them. I have to learn a new way of listening, and I have to suspend an old way of holding onto knowledge. And there’s a kind of certainty, a kind of trust inherent in the physical activity of literally jumping into the unknown. It’s a commitment. I have to commit to the act and then follow through each time I jump, without knowing anything about what will occur from that jump.

And in the process of the PhD, it’s also about not letting fear get in the way. I was going to say that it’s a different kind of fear, or a different kind of getting out of the way that I need to perform. But actually it’s almost the same thing: if I think too much about whether I’ll fit into the world of academia (in this case, bear in mind that I haven’t studied since my fairly un-encouraging experience of being an undergraduate many years ago) I am paralysed. If I think about how I am going to make this thing happen, I won’t be able to do it. In each act of writing, and each act of practice that forms part of the PhD project, I have to commit and follow through, trusting in a process of thought that doesn’t already hold the answers. I have to commit to a series of encounters that might leave me changed, and trust that I will emerge from those encounters able to reflect with a new and different kind of relationship to them.

* I realise this might seem a little strange in relation to the PhD thesis, but I’m claiming it as a space where one makes enquiry and reaches for new connections rather than something that needs to be passed. I have no goal beyond the PhD itself. I’m not doing it in order to teach or to gain status as a professional artist, for example.