The dance

I do a lot of intellectual collaboration at work, and it’s helping me grasp something important about group dynamics: deep teaching and learning are often accomplished in the background unnoticed, while facts and explicit methodology are exchanged in the foreground – and mistaken for the totality of the shared knowledge.

The background can be characterized as the subjective and practical dimension of the sharing, or what I have been calling “attunement”. (I picked up the word from Heidegger, but I am using it differently, to mean an inter-subjective sharing of practice and perspective.)

Attunement can be compared with either learning to dance or inventing a dance with another. The learning is not objective, though it does involve facts. It is learning subjective “moves”, imitating another’s intellectual motions until the motions become one’s own; the new motion becomes second-nature. Then the dance can proceed semi-consciously with partners in response to the total situation, including the other subjects and the objects. The shared consciousness is unselfconsciously absorbed in its objects, until it chooses to self-reflect. The goal, however, is not bound up in the self-reflection. It is bound up in a new way to see and think and act and often also to feel.

(When I was 14 I read a book on tennis. It offered an underhanded trick for destroying your opponent’s serve. Ask your opponent to explain his serve to you. The fluid naturalness of unselfconscious practice gets entangled in self-reflection and broken into discrete pieces. Or think about learning to play a song; or learning to read a new author and hear his natural voice.)


The books I have always loved to read are the books in which the author dances. (The author can never be dead to me. I read because nobody is more alive and present to me than the authors I love.) Years ago I was confused and unnerved by the fact that I was rarely able to give summaries of the content of the books I’d read. It looked like I’d retained nothing, but I knew I’d retained something perfectly – I could not articulate it. I knew I’d learned it, though, because when I needed it, there it was, perfectly available for application. Now I would explain it this way: after I learn a dance I can do the dance spontaneously, but the instructions are not immediately available to recall. I have to figure them out each time. Half of my memory is amazing. The other half is nearly nonexistent.

(This bizarre quality of my memory is a major vulnerability. People regularly assume I can do things I cannot do at all, such as providing simple sequential instructions or recounting events that just happened. My normal state of mind appears to be completely different from what is considered normal. I am literally “differently abled” – handicapped, but with peculiar compensatory abilities that I’m learning to make valuable in the business world. I will never feel at home anywhere until the people around me understand and accept the fact of my inabilities and provide me the protection I need. I’ve been anxious my entire life, and I am really, really tired of feeling that way.)

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