Engaged Focus

John Brown had a unique shop habit that caught the attention of anyone who entered as he worked on his chairs: At one end of the workbench, he kept a lit candle. Now, as anyone who has done a reasonable amount of handplaning can attest, the curly waste products so produced do not mix well with open flames. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that they mix all too well – a spark or drip of flaming wax into a pile of shavings creates an almost instant conflagration. But Brown used the candle as a device, a means, to promote focus. Counterintuitively, he introduced this new element of risk as a way to actively prevent mishap.

He explained: “The candle reminds me to concentrate, like tying a knot in your handkerchief as a ‘remembrancer.’ If I don’t concentrate, sawcuts go awry, gouge marks appear in the wrong place; in fact, lack of concentration lets the gremlins out of the cage.” The candle kept him in a mindful state. In much the same way, traditional Japanese carpenters stood barefoot atop the timbers they were hewing with their razor-sharp axes, or held boards with their feet as they adzed the surfaces. Engaging the work to that degree – directly feeling the log with the sensitive soles of the feet and guiding every blow of the axe with full knowledge of the repercussions of a mistake – hones the worker’s focus to a razor edge, sharper even than the axe. This approach only works with hand tools: proponents of a theory called “embodied cognition” tell us that when working quietly by hand, our senses can actually extend to the edges of our tools.

–Michael Updegraff, excerpt from “Risk & Reward: Skill as a Safety Net,” in Issue Twelve


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