Don’t think


I like to keep particular books near me when I’m working. I find their presence comforting even when I don’t open them for months at a time.

As they often do, one of these books jumped out at me yesterday: Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience, by James P. Carse.  In the opening essay, Carse tells the story of the Victory Luncheonette; the essence of the story is in these excerpts (from pp. 1-4):

“For nearly thirty years, the Victory Luncheonette filled a cramped, overlooked space on a block of industrial buildings in Manhattan’s East Village. Its founder, proprietor, and staff were all one person: Ernie.

Unaware that he was one-legged, I was momentarily caught by Ernie’s odd but graceful movements as he worked the narrow space between grill and counter. Like a Sufi dervish, he was bobbing and sweeping in long, slow circles, cutting a bagel here, popping the toaster there, opening the coffee spigots on two cups at once, buttering a bagel with a single sweep, scrambling an egg in what looked like a dented aluminum helmet, brushing litter from the counter, cutting another bagel, flicking back the coffee spigots at the last possible moment – all the while contributing abbreviated comments to conversations with half a dozen customers.

The cooking equipment of the luncheonette had been so arranged that Ernie could reach every part of it by pivoting on a single foot. Two huge coffeemakers were against the wall; the sinks, cutting board, and toaster were tucked under the counter. Although he could get to either end of the counter with a single giant step, he delivered most of the food by spinning it along the counter, dangerously skirting open stacks of jelly donuts and corn muffins.

Over the years his actions had been reduced to their minimum. Cutting and buttering a roll was a matter of a few effortless moves. There was no one hidden in it, doing it, as it were, from a distance. Tao-like, no was doing anything and yet nothing remained to be done. The Victory had become what Ernie did without doing it. There was a center to all this activity; it was a still center. It’s no wonder that we overlooked it. We overlooked it because there was nothing to see.

It was the nothing that made it mystical.”

Every time I read those passages they inspire me. I want my teaching, in class and on the page, to have the same spirit as Ernie working in the Victory, the sense that “no one was doing anything and yet nothing remained to be done.”

The other story in the essay is about Carse’s experience as a high school wrestler. He spent his junior year season pointed towards a single match, with Growler Greshevski. Carse’s coach emphasized, over and over and over and over, “don’t think. Thinking is for philosophy.” The idea, Carse later realized, was to train so thoroughly that his wrestling moves came to him as if by instinct in reaction to various situations in a match.

This training paid off when Carse pinned Growler in the first period of the match. Here’s how he describes it (pp. 7-11):

Growler stepped back, crouched, and came at me in a long, soaring arc. My memory of what happened in the next three or four seconds is frozen into a series of photographic stills. Growler is airborne, about six feet above the mat. My hands are on his shoulders. I am falling backward with his momentum but my feet are still square on the mat. His body does not resist the rotating pressure of my hands; it turns like a loose propeller. My feet leave the mat. He is now under me, my chest square on his. I ride him to the earth. When we hit he takes my full weight on his rib cage. There is an inhuman sound as all the air blows out of his lungs. The referee’s face is inches away as he tries to see whether Growler’s back is pressed to the mat. The referee slams down his hand. There is a resounding crack. The match is over. Someone is lifting me by the shoulder

‘Let’s get out of here,’ Coach Weaver said.

Later during the ride home, after not saying anything since the match,

I finally looked over at the coach and asked, ‘Well, I did win, didn’t I?’

Without taking his eyes off the road, he said in a tired and solemn voice, ‘Don’t think, boy. Don’t think win, don’t think lose. Just don’t think. Thinking’s for philosophy.

How can I teach the same way that Ernie ran the Victory? In part, by doing and not thinking. I know my stuff so I try to let it flow in the same way that Carse knew exactly what to do when Growler charged at him, in the same way that Ernie didn’t need to think when someone ordered a bagel, toasted and buttered.

More doing and less thinking.