For many years I have found inspiration in the writings of Henri Bergson (my Zen philosopher of the West!) not least in his wonderful Introduction to Metaphysics, an essay published in 1903, where he speaks in detail about the meaning of ‘intuition’. At the outset, Bergson differentiates between two different ways of knowing. On the one hand, there is relative knowledge, which depends on external factors: the point of view from which we examine the thing we are interested in and the symbols we use to articulate and describe the understandings we reach. On the other, there is absolute knowledge, which depends not on external perspectives and symbolic language, but on a sense of oneness – and merging – with the object we are investigating.
The difference is between indirect, learned, conceptual knowledge, born of duality, and a direct, non-symbolic form of immediate understanding: a non-dual intuition. The eureka moment of intuited understanding is surely a treasured feature of all intellectual investigation, but Bergson’s approach to intuition is, I think, utterly invaluable for creative artists. He himself gives the example of reading about a character in a novel. All of the descriptions and explanations are as nothing compared to the ‘simple and indivisible feeling’ of knowing that character as one might know a person in real life … or indeed being the actual character oneself.
When we listen to or perform music of any kind, we can enter this space of direct understanding or non-dual intuition when we become fully present to the moment – not, mind you, to be mistaken for an impulsive reaction to the moment born of habit. Such a free flow of intuitive understanding – or rather, experiencing – is a wonderful moment of grace. In order to open ourselves more and more to the arising of such moments, it helps tremendously for practising musicians to nurture the conceptual understanding Bergson calls relative. Whether we are performing or listening to heavy metal, hip hop, Bach or Beethoven, we draw – consciously or unconsciously – on our knowledge of form, content and context, to dive deeper into a direct, personal and intuitive sense of oneness with the sounds.
The challenge for musicians and creative artists is to negotiate these two spheres of knowledge. Too great a focus on the purely cognitive will frustrate the free flow, while an overzealous attachment to intuitive moments is in danger of blinding us both to overarching connections and meanings, and habitual impulse. It requires a special kind of choreography in which two skilled partners respond to each other’s movements in a graceful dance of give and take.
This choreography of creative learning, which I think is at the core of a rounded education, is expressed as an ongoing effort to ground cognitive and intellectual rigour in the direct knowing of embodied experience: to know but not to be is not to know fully.