Also known as How to Write the University of Chicago Application Essay: Prompt 2 (The Wild-and-Crazy Prompt). This post discusses writing about prompts in general as well as writing about specific quotes used on the University of Chicago essays.
Here are two of the numerous prompts from Chicago that use a quote:
“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.“—Miles Davis (1926–91)
—Inspired by Jack Reeves
“Mind that does not stick.”
—Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)
Let me begin by saying that Master of Jazz Miles Davis is being pretty zen in his quote here. In fact, Davis is basically presenting a koan to “explain” his art. But Zen Master Shoitsu is being pretty jazzy–he is, in fact, suggesting what it takes to be Miles Davis improvising on his horn. (Note: I know Mr. Davis played the trumpet. See this if you have any questions: The Man With the Horn.)
In a recent post, I talked about looking into the background of prompts. My statements here relate to the deeper story that each quote tells–to their background. Knowing about both of them–about something the Tao of Davis and the Way of Shoitsu–allowed me to connect them. Your essay does not need to connect them, of course, though Chicago does like a little improv, and they do offer you the opportunity to make up your own prompt, which could involve combining these two. But to do that, you would have to know some things.
Of course, you could just riff on either quote without even knowing, for example, what instrument Miles Davis played, or even what jazz is, and if the essay is good, who needs background? Whatever great thing rises up without the interference of the stuck mind is fine with the University of Chicago, and with the universe as well.
But here is the thing: that is hard to do. It’s hard to improvise without knowing what you are improvising from or about or for. And while you need and are searching for a starting point for a college application essay, your mind is already stuck, and filled with noise, due to your desire to get into college, but also due to what you have been taught an essay is and should do, by all the essays you have written for school, which have done little to help you deal with these two prompts.
It’s kind of a zen experiment in itself: The fact that you are writing to an elite and highly selective college suggests that you are already in a race for achievement. You are trapped by the past and by your fears of the future. Which creates a Mind that Sticks.
The purpose of the college application essay makes students get stuck in trying to write about not being stuck as they show off how flexible and yet full their minds are. These students talk about how they were studying or working on A, then started reading B, then lost themselves in C. They go on to list all the great things they have learned by being an autodidact or by simply being constantly distracted by curiosity, claiming that this is what it means to have an unstuck mind. But they end up with a blatant list of activities and things they have likely not really read all of, or read at all. Trying to separate themselves from the crowd by showing how much they know, how far they’ll go.
It’s almost a koan: Bragging while not bragging about it! Very Zen!
Not. This is a stuck mind. And a laundry list of activities doth not make a good essay on Mind that Does not Stick. Mind that does not stick is relaxed and flowing, not worried about outcomes.
What to do? Think about what makes you flow. Look at the two prompts I selected. Ask this: what is Miles Davis thinking when he is playing? He is thinking, but he is also . . . in the music, moving with it while shaping it. Not thinking in the normal sense of wondering what will be for dinner (or breakfast–late nights for musicians and all). He is not wondering if he left his oven on. He is not checking the clock to see if class is over.
No, he would mess up his playing if he started thinking in that sense. So would you. One way to hear what is not there is by not being trapped by thought and expectation. In this case, what should be played next is not what Miles Davis played. But once he played the next note, it was right (Okay not all the time, but most of the time). He was absorbed in the moment, one with the music.
Likely you have had similar experiences, in which you lose track of time, are one with your activity. Which means that you, too, have experienced an aspect of unstuck mind. Maybe that is your topic. What makes you lose yourself. What makes you lose expectations to hear what others do not hear. Very . . . Zen
Speaking of Zen, let’s take a look at it and at Zen master, Shoitsu. (Warning: This is dangerous. Many people talk about Zen, but almost nobody knows what they are talking about. Because, first of all, you cannot really talk about it to get it. You have to experience it. Which is obviously a problem for anybody, but especially for you, because, well, you are just trying to write a college essay and that has a deadline that is in a few months, unlike enlightenment. But this prompt caught your eye. So we will try).
Here goes: It is common to oversimplify so-called Asian philosophy and religion, particularly in making broad generalizations that stand in contrast to what is supposedly the Western style of thinking. But there are some aspects of Zen which are broadly shared with other traditions, and knowing something about them can help you understand where Master Shoitsu is coming from.
In Zen, and in aspects of other eastern meditative traditions, like Taoism, the thinking mind is not really the thing. In fact, it is fundamentally an illusion. Here is why: We look out at the world from a particular perspective, shaped by experience and by desire, but most of what we do is: not see. This is true for a range of reasons, mostly involved with wanting things and suffering–and we suffer mostly because we want things we cannot have or do not have at the moment. And in this process, as we think, we constantly judge what we see in order to try to avoid what we do not like or want and to get what we do like or want. Desire, then, drives us and blinds us.
That’s pretty much it. But this is also pretty hard to know. You just read what I wrote above, but you cannot know without experiencing the loss of that thinking or ego self. Which is where the meditative tradition of a guy like Master Shoitsu comes in. These
Zen guys were and are hard core–sit there and breathe (and do a bunch of other work with total concentration and other stuff, like giving up things you do not need, etc, et al) and eventually insight and maybe even enlightenment might happen. Through a full-on confrontation with the ego over a long time. Check out Bodhidharma, for how hard-core zen practice is. (Note: one story has Bodhidharma staring a hole in the side of the cave during that nine [or ten] year meditation described in the linked page).
So Zen Master Shoitsu is pointing out that your mind is basically a kind of construct, a filter gone rigid over time as it sorts events into categories such as like and dislike to the point that it is always stuck (Yes, that subtext is aimed at social media categorizing. Wait, Zen Mind vs. Social media? A topic? Could be . . . ). The mind is not really seeing reality because it is too busy processing, seeking advantage, driven by emotions like anger that are the product of habit–notice when you have “knee jerk” reactions of anger due to old experiences. That, my friends is stuck.
Yes it is also a deep part of the mechanisms that keep you alive, but there you are: wanting.
Wow, that went deep, fast. For more background on Master Shoitsu and Zen emptiness, check these links out:
What do Buddhists mean when they talk about emptiness?
Instructions of Master Shoitsu
For Miles Davis hearing what others do not, try this: Miles Beyond
And for your essay, if nothing else works , but you like these quotes, and you want to go with the spirit of either quote, you want to think about what absorbs you utterly, what makes you flow with whatever you are doing.
Or just riff on one. Have fun and ignore all my advice on using background. Give it a whirl, as I did here, just goofing an introduction to see what would happen–
Zen Master Shoitsu’s words on being unstuck fascinate me as a physics problem. In a similar way, some time back, I was trying to work out the problem posed by that famous koan, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
I embarked on a series of physical experiments to explore this question, but all I ended up doing was getting cramps from squeezing my hand a lot–though at one point I did slap myself as well. That definitely made a sound, but my findings on clapping one hand were inconclusive.
However, this is the spirit I try to bring to every question that me: rigorous but joyous experimentation. Full on engagement.
This started at a young age as I attempted to build Leonardo’s Flying Machine in my garage, but was apprehended by my dad as I tried to haul it up the ladder to the roof. It has continued as I . . . . . etc etc etc. Etc.
Notice the way I use an interesting intro to set up a discussion that would follow the etc etc to show things about you that need emphasis. Notice also that humor is a good thing, or it can be if it us handled well. And since U Chicago wants edgy, feed that desire . . .
Time to wrap this post up. If you were looking for a lot more clear explanation about what to put and where to put it in an essay, you are kind of missing the point of both quotes. Try some essay experiments, without being attached to them, and see what happens.
And follow my blog as I continue to post on essay prompts and related topics . . . Or if you need help from a Zen Master of Editing, Contact Me.