The love song of head, heart and hands

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At my son’s grade school, there was a conscious engagement of head, heart and hands. Using them together requires a dynamic balance between intuition, reason, and action. These tools of the body enable us to interact with and make our mark on the world.

In a balanced person, the heart and hands have an equal role to play, not only to implement plans that the head comes up with, but in deciding what to do in the world and how to do it.

Of the three, I spent most of my life up in my head, relying on rational, analytical thought more than any other. This is neither surprising nor unusual; as far back as Plato, our culture has located the center of consciousness and thought in the head, thereby downgrading heart and hands to worker-bee status. Education has, typically, emphasized rote learning and memorization of facts over developing our capacities for innovation and empathy.

Einstein warned us that our worship of reason wasn’t serving us:

“Intuition is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

I imagine the heart as the seat of intuition. The poet Rumi spoke of listening with the ears of the heart, which is a beautiful way of opening to the world. Insights, ideas and visions come to us in relaxed moments or through the pages of a journal, or in our dreams.

Artists and poets know many ways to court and serve this heart-listening, which is variously known as the Muse, creative genius, inspiration, or Universal Intelligence. When Joseph Campbell advised, “Follow your bliss,” he was speaking of the heart’s stirrings. If all of us followed the guidance of our hearts, imagine what kind of world we would create.

Hands are for making. I’ve noticed that, when I’m feeling down or having a bad day, I can do something with my hands and be cheered. It doesn’t matter what; it can range from tinkering, tidying or cleaning, to something productive like cooking or painting. It’s plain enjoyable, a sensual experience to put hands on raw materials and fashion them into something new. We’re designed to create, to work with our hands, and part of the distress of modern life is that we don’t do enough of it.

Making our mark goes back millennia; think of the handprints in cave paintings. At the same time we yearn to make our mark on the world, the world is making its mark on us. The work of our hands is one way we experience and revel in this reciprocity.

There’s a nostalgia nowadays about locally made things that show the craft. The Japanese revere handmade roughness, greatly preferring it to machine manufactured items. The art theorist, painter and social thinker, John Ruskin, was a great advocate of craft:

“When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.”

Mass production severed the intimacy of heart and hands. A machine may be able to match or exceed workmanship, but it can never approximate love. In Ruskin’s time, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, to great enthusiasm of some and horrible suffering of others. The move back to handcraft was a reaction against dehumanizing machines and mass production.

When I was in architecture school, we drew everything by hand. I used a computer in grad school to write my thesis, but nobody used them for design or drawing. I was in the work world for several years before computers showed up in the drafting room. Consequently, in my early days of practice, we designed and drew buildings by hand, including perspective views, and used trigonometry to calculate roof pitches.

Computer drawings are prose to the poetry of hand drawings. As with writing, the language and syntax have a profound affect on what is being expressed. Using a computer affects the process — the thinking and drawing — and by extension the places that are created. Drawing by hand has long been seen as anachronistic, impractical, slow, and old-fashioned, which is too bad because it’s a very pleasurable act.

“The highest reward for a man’s toil is not what he gets for it but what he becomes by it.” ~ John Ruskin

When I put my hands on a material and transform it into something useful, I am acting from a deep relationship with it. If I can sense and appreciate a material’s inherent qualities with my heart and imagination, I may be able to enhance it further and make something of beauty, a useful object that can be shared with others.

Upon one of Gauguin’s best-known paintings he wrote three questions: who are we, where do we come from, where are we going? Those are questions for the ages. That we will never have definitive answers must not discourage us from asking, for it is through our imagination (head), intuition (heart) and making (hands) that our culture evolves and is renewed.

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