I recently had the privilege to dance in Palm Desert, California. Even if for a weekend, the prospect of taking a break from New York’s premature winter was almost more exciting than performing in a large proscenium theatre rather than the usual NYC black-box. I knew how temperature patterns worked in desert regions, but experiencing it was something else. The California sun goes through a spectral journey, commencing mildly in the morning, revving up to a sweltering dry blaze by mid-day, only to cool back almost chillier than where it began, as if to apologize for going too far. This and major jetlag were enough to completely throw off my sense of placement in time and space; in the same respect it got me wondering: Between a day in the west, jam-packed with temperatures that never stand still, and a day in the east, where it is overwhelming if the high and low aren’t more than twenty degrees apart, which experience of a single day feels more complete?
Of everything that happened that weekend, it seems like a strange thing to ponder, but the stranger notion of completion has been surfacing elsewhere for me. I’ve always fancied myself as a completionist. When I started collecting music, I felt I could only experience a piece if I did so fully. If I only cared for one movement of a large symphony, I still needed the whole recording. I was even happier if my Broadway soundtracks contained scene-change music and snippets of dialogue. Something about not only experiencing the big picture, but possessing it, too, made me feel safe and contextualized, as if my responsibility could be lifted and I could let my discoveries work their magic around me. I adopted this method with my planning as well. Registering for high school classes as a freshman, I went through the entire course selection, handpicked what interested me, and arranged it among four years. It wasn’t until I spoke with my advisor that I thought this unusual. It was my idea of practicality. Actually completing my obstacle course would be the accomplishment.
This has not been so easy in higher education. After finishing my BFA last May, I decided to stick around NYU to complete a fourth year of my own independent study, after high hopes of being able to take on a double major were dashed early on. As with my high school self, I planned out everything, thinking the success of my master plan would simply be a matter of showing up; but after many back-and-forth’s with the financial aid office, I was soon facing the prospect of having to quit school entirely by the end of the fall semester if I didn’t downsize. Abstract technicalities had never seemed so pointedly vicious. Unwilling to sacrifice my classes, yet (somewhat melodramatically) unable to imagine living having not finished something I had started, I managed to reduce my course of study to the barest essentials. I had to accept fragmentation as a form of completion – and I’m still working on it.
There is no moment without an experiencer. Societies are full of notions of moments of completion that are arbitrary, if not utterly false. Rites of passage, certifications, and, yes, even graduations take life’s whirling spiral, flatten it out, and section it off with thick concrete notches that are impossible to move. We then come to equate accomplishment with merely our finish lines; however, the finish line cannot exist without some stretch of road before it.
These moments of completion represent a kind of hoarding of time. They represent not one moment, but a sum of many moments, bound together in a culmination that feels good. We see this desire reflected in the traditions of our art – exposition that leads to some sort of climax that comes as a result of intense development, after which the only place to go is the end. The more moments comprising a moment of completion, the more valuable that particular moment is, yet when one alone is creating an entire world, that person is responsible for making sure the pre-climactic moments are just as thoroughly considered. It is not enough to desire with artifice. It is a simulation for which one must diligently work.
When you reach the end of a TV series you’ve been binge-watching on Netflix, have you contributed to its completion or has it contributed to yours? If the series is available for online streaming, chances are it’s already finished. Rather than the segmented flat line, I like to think of our timelines of experience as a free-form game of Jenga – a mass of movable parts with the potential to always grow or remain. Each activity is a new block, inserted somewhere in our own personal construction, from which you can take any two seemingly unrelated pieces at any distance and find some sort of connective pathway within the whole structure.
There may be a rule-book-prescribed shape in mind, but there is no predetermined frame to fill in. Even if you create that magnificent cubic rectangle, the way you insert each block is unlikely to be geometrically precise. What tells you you’re done becomes not something external, but highly internal – whether it be a stopping point that feels right, the gut-wrenching panic and acceptance of defeat upon seeing your tower collapse, or simply the need to do something else. Because there is no end form – only addition – the structure is technically complete at any point in time. This Thanksgiving season I move to turn away from any moments of completion in all their polished veneer, and instead, in a nuanced practice of aparigraha, turn towards examining the inherent completeness of each moment – of each stage of our experience.
It’s a fun thing to say, but it doesn’t mean I’ve gone off on my merry way, falling back on the inherent completeness of each moment when I feel blue or reluctant to work. Indeed, this kind of—perhaps equally arbitrary—viewpoint requires an active and energetic noticing in order to function.
I love the early work of the minimalist composers for this very reason. In the sixties, traditional arcs of musical development were being disassembled into ones built on gradual process and repetitive structures. Steve Reich took one phrase, and phased it in and out of itself, finding every combination of the phrase’s parts with its own parts. Meanwhile, Philip Glass would take one phrase, or even a segment of a phrase, and express it in every possible rhythmic coordination before moving on to something else – the thing was that, by virtue of such an exploration, he already had.
In taking something that’s already complete – a melody, or an empty measure shaped by a potential organization of beats – and filling it with every permutation of what a choice could be, you see not so much a piece, but a layered roadmap of options. You realize that what you might experience as complete was but one route through the attack of something much larger.
Naturally, maintaining such vigilance for everyday life can be pretty tiring. What, then, enlivens this idea is how our need to connect with others is essentially a prerequisite. Few labs are as ideal for exercising the interpersonal assistance of active noticing than the mat. Like a minimalist composition, the yoga practice is something in which we exist through repetition and slow developments, and, like our free-for-all Jenga, whatever blocks we take and add to ourselves, we work fully insofar as we are honest with what we need – taking that child’s pose while the class moves on, trying that bind, or perhaps using the blocks on a higher height one day, only to push forward toward the next day’s edge.
Class discussions of an asana create a rich bank of subjective experiences through which we can understand ourselves, others, and the many pathways that take us to that which we commonly choose to practice. That we often fight against what we need, or are not aware of something simpler we can offer ourselves until a teacher recommends it makes for so much richer an experience than knowing it all. It proves we are not islands, but cities with borders that are always being redrawn. We are complete through our bridges, rivers, and tributaries, in any and all combinations.
It is only fitting that it was a teacher of mine who, unbeknownst to him, explained this idea most concisely to me. In my aural comprehension class, between learning to hear and synthesize increasingly difficult components of music, we always return to the simple exercise of identifying solfege syllable by blindly striking keys on a piano and labeling their scale degree in the key of C as quickly and confidently as possible. We are never graded on it – instead, my professor puts us on our own spectrum, letting us know how far we still have to go. Rather than getting an immutable A, those who do well are told that, in that skill, they are “fully trained.” It leaves room for the subtlest refinements, reminds us that that status must be actively maintained, and ultimately that our journey, being journeys, are never complete. It goes without saying his class is not one that I’ll be dropping from the remainder of my academic trek.
The self-placement of each block is not only a collection of something that has passed; it is an opportunity propelling us into the future. Our limits are not the concrete notches sectioning off our timelines, but our companions, surrounding us in a relentless embrace. They can’t be demolished; they are endlessly flexible and generous, always there growing with us, but only if we first grow within them.
As for that sun, how better to realize twenty-four hours have passed than with a little temperate mischief?