09 September 2009

Look! Look Again!

This week I had the occasion to revisit a much anthologized essay by Samuel Scudder, sometimes titled "In the Laboratory with Agassiz" or "Take This Fish and Look at It." In the essay, Scudder describes his experience studying a preserved specimen of a fish as a lab assignment for a course he was taking in ichthyology. The only instruction the esteemed Professor Agassiz gave Scudder was "Take this fish and look at it." The teacher disappeared from the lab for hours at a time, leaving the student to see whatever he might see. "In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish," Scudder says.

Professor Agassiz was nowhere to be found, so Scudder dutifully continued to look, finding the fish "loathsome." "I turned it over and around; looked it in the face --ghastly; from behind, beneath, above, sideways at three-quarters view--just as ghastly." Then he began to count the scales, feel the teeth, and eventually decided to draw the fish. As he drew, Scudder says,"with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the Professor returned." Professor Agassiz praised his student's efforts, saying "a pencil is one of the best of eyes." Thinking his work for the day was done, Scudder was astounded when his teacher, instead of dismissing him, instructed him to "look again, look again!" And again, the more Scudder looked, the more he discovered about his fish. He declares that Agassiz's lesson in looking was "a legacy...of inestimable value which we could not buy, with which we cannot part."

Agassiz taught Scudder to approach his learning with beginner's mind, with patience, with a humility that prevents us from assuming we can know a subject at first glance. He taught Scudder to take responsibility for his own learning.

Each day when I return to yoga practice, I too must learn to keep beginner's mind, to be patient, humble, to allow what I thought I knew about my practice to change and grow. I need to look at Adho Mukha Svanasana again and again. Each moment the asana is the same; each moment the asana is different. And while my teachers can offer me sage advice about my practice, it is up to me to get myself to the mat and to look, look, look again!