Sunday, January 10, 2016

Not Zen 179: Attention

"I have a healing rope," announced the magician. Between his hands, he lifted a golden cord for the audience to see. It was as thick as his thumb. "It automatically repairs itself whenever I cut it."

The strand wasn't long, no more than the length of his forearm. The ends looked neatly cut. The magician flipped the rope in the air, let it fall into his left palm, flipped it again, caught it, and bent it in the middle. With an elaborate gesture, he produced a pair of steel scissors in his right hand. He pressed the blades together to cut the strand. He grunted. The scissor blades closed with a loud clack.

"Very nice," said a middle aged man in the audience.

"He did something with his other hand," said his six-year-old niece. Her fingers intertwined with his. She tugged on him, imploring him to agree.

"Oh?" The man was a lama, a master of his temple. 

"When he got out the scissors," she whispered.

The lama instructed the most serious, dedicated initiates in the valley. He considered himself a student of religious arts and physical sciences. There always seemed to be more to learn about the human spirt and the human mind. There always seemed to be room to improve his devotional practice. Even as a child, he'd worked hard to refine his meditations. As a young man, due to his dedication, he'd been offered the post of lama despite the availability of more senior monks. He'd served as his temple's master for twenty years but his body was still strong. His mind was sharp.

He'd thought that his powers of observation were better than most. Yet he hadn't noticed the oddness that his niece had seen.

In front of him, the stage performer lay the two sections of golden rope together in his open palm. He closed his fingers over them to make a fist, shook the rope, and flipped it into the air. He captured it in his other hand by one end. Clearly, the rope was in a single piece as if it had healed.

The fellow tossed and caught his prop a few more times to make his point.

"I know what you're thinking," he told the audience. That raised the lama's eyebrows. He'd been asked for his religious opinion on allowing magic acts to come to town. He'd offered to review this one. The magician, who the lama had known when they were both children, had promised not to pretend to contact the afterlife. In fact, the man had offered to drop his mentalist act from the show entirely in deference to the temple's wishes.

"You're wondering, 'what good is a self-healing rope?'" He twirled his golden strand with a smirk. "What if I could tie knots in the rope but no one else could cut them? What if I could escape from being tied up by cutting a rope that heals up later?"

"Wow!" said a little boy in the front row.

"I'll tie a knot in my self-healing rope." He looped the strand in his fingers. He used elaborate gestures that were hard to follow. "Then I'll cut it again."

"Let me!" screamed a teenaged boy three rows from the stage.

Using both hands, the magician wound up a large knot. It looked like a ball in the middle of his golden cord.

"Let me do the cutting!" This time the teenager stood up. He hopped on his toes and shook his fist. He raised his arm higher and made cutting motions with his fingers.

The magician had seemed annoyed a few seconds earlier. After the second round of pleading, he slumped. It was a theatrical gesture. The lama was sure that his old school friend had decided to let the teenager come up on stage. Why else make such a reluctant show?

Sure enough, after a moment the magician nodded. He motioned to the stage guards. He made the teenager promise to be good then allowed the guards to guide the young fellow onto a set of stairs beside the stage. Unfortunately, the lama knew this particular young man. He was the son of a local furniture merchant. In the past year, his parents had five times consulted the temple about their child's defiance of their authority. Today he'd come to the show in an orange t-shirt with a military symbols emblazoned on it, the sort of clothes of which his parents did not approve.

The lama worried for the magician. His rope trick had to be a delicate thing and the teen seemed unlikely to cooperate. The magician, not much taller than the teen, had a sense of the problem. He crouched close to confer. Then he backed away a few steps and teased the boy about his shirt and bright shoes in front of the audience. 

"You look like a rebel. Can you follow my directions?" he asked. 

Of course, the boy agreed that he would behave. In return, the magician made the steel scissors appear and handed them over. Then he asked for them back. Reluctantly, the boy returned them as a scowl deepened on his brow.

"Ta da!" announced the magician. The audience laughed and clapped. The adults in the seats, at least, thought that making the teenager follow directions was a good trick. The lama joined in the applause. He noticed that his niece was frowning, though.

"You'll cut the knot once, right?" the magician said.

"Yes," replied the boy.

"How many times?"

The magician gave the boy the scissors again. He asked for them back. He showed the boy how to cut. They went over it several times. The boy kept nodding and growing more impatient.

"Aren't you ready yet?" the boy said.

"All right." The magician presented the rope. The boy raised the scissors. The magician took back the rope back before the boy could cut it, which produced laughter from the audience. Then, as if giving in to good sportsmanship, the magician presented the rope again. This time, there was a loop in the knot that stuck out from the rest.

"Cut the rope in any part of the knot. It's looser now, so I know you can do it. Just cut once. I'll still be able to put the ends back together."

"Hah!" The boy avoided the loose loop of the knot. Instead, he worried the scissor blades into the middle of the rope tangle. He pressed in hard and jostled the stage magician off balance before he succeeded in digging between the layers of cord. Scissors blades shredded through strands with a clack. He opened them again and shifted. The shears gave another snap. "And hah!"

The teenager had made a second cut. The audience gasped. A stage hand strolled in from the left and put his hand on the teenager's shoulder. With a smirk on his face, the teen handed over the scissors not to the magician but to the authority figure. That figure led the boy to a spot offstage rather than back into the audience. Apparently, the youth had been kicked out of the show.

"Well, what good would a magic rope be if it couldn't heal from two cuts?" the magician said as the teenager strolled away. He turned to the audience and lifted the ruined knot for them to see. "This is harder. But the rope can do it. At least, I think it can. I won't find out for sure, of course, until I undo the knot."

The magician pushed on his rope. The balled-up part moved a bit, turning slightly as it went. It looked as if the fellow were going to push the tangle right to one end. However, after a couple more pushes, the knot seemed to tighten and proved unable to move further. Very theatrically, magician shook the rope. He dangled it for a few seconds and shook it again. The knot loosened. Finally, he wiggled and shook some more. What apparently had been a slipknot unraveled. The rope swung loose. The lama could see there were no rips or tears. The cord remained whole.

The lama applauded along with the rest of the audience. He leaned to his niece. 

"I didn't see how he did it," he admitted to her. "Did you?"

"No," she shook her head. "But the knot was funny."

He nodded. She was his favorite relative but it bothered him that she'd noticed something that he hadn't.

He wondered about the nature of sleight of hand tricks and of his own powers of observation through the rest of the act. At the end of the performance, the stage magician vanished in a flash of gunpowder and smoke. The lights of the theatre rose to full. The audience filed out of the auditorium. As had been arranged beforehand, several theatre staff approached the lama to offer him an escort to the back of the stage. He had been scheduled to meet with the magician and deliver his review of the act.

In the wings, a member of the theatre staff presented him with a promotional poster. The lama bent to examine it. He knew it wasn't a present for his niece but part of the act to be reviewed. He saw immediately that the references to mind reading had been eliminated.

"The temple has no problem with this advertisement," he announced. "The magician does not claim to contact the afterlife. He does not use religious garb or symbols in the act. This poster says 'magic act' and 'tricks to amaze' but the performer does not claim to have special powers. You have our gratitude."

"The temple approves?"


"Many thanks, lama," said the stage manager. "Can you give us general guidance for the future so that we don't have to re-print posters next time?"

"Of course. If the temple perceives ethical problems with stage magic, our issues will arise from the claims made. A mind reader who admits that he is playing tricks is allowable. One who seeks money with false claims of contacting the afterlife is not."

"Thank you again, lama," said the manager. He bowed his head.

"Where is the star of the show, my old schoolmate?"  He turned around slowly as he gazed at the darkened wings, the curtains, props, lights, and backdrops.

"Hah!" The magician gave a shout from behind a white curtain. The curtain billowed. A few seconds later, a hand emerged from the right side and swept the cloth barrier aside. The lama's old acquaintence emerged from his changing area while wiping his face with a rag.

The lama saw that his friend had worn makeup. Sweating under the stage lights had partly removed it. Now he finished the cleanup. His handkerchief looked like one of those he'd used on stage, which the lama found amusing. Apparently there was nothing special about it. His jacket looked shabbier in ordinary light. He'd doffed it, too, and tossed it over one shoulder. However, doing so revealed sweat stains on his white shirt. 

He bowed to the lama. The lama, in remembrance of their time together at school, stepped forward and embraced him. They smiled like the children they'd been. The lama's niece dashed forward to grab them both around the knees. The lama introduced her.

"You look bright-eyed," the magician observed with a smile.

"She's smart and observant. She noticed things you did that escaped everyone else." The lama sighed. "That includes me. Everyone else fell for your tricks. For instance, I did not see how my old friend healed the rope."

"And you figured out how it was done, dear?" He wiped his brow again. His smile seemed to put the girl at ease.

"While you made the magic scissors." Like the teenaged boy had done earlier, she made a cutting motion with her fingers. "That was when the other hand did something."

"How interesting." With a nod, he stuffed the handkerchief in his pocket.

"Old friend," the lama said. "I have a question about this. I am renowned for my careful attention. Yet I could not see the trick. Did you perform it in plain sight as my niece thinks?"

"I did." The magician gave the girl a smile. "It is a good test, in its way. The trick relies on people seeing what they expect to see. You anticipated. Your niece did not."

"I find this upsetting."

"It is the way of humanity. Don't trouble yourself. We're alone." He glanced at the theatre staff carting away props. "Close enough, anyway. I'll tell you what I did. For the first trick, I pretended to cut the rope in the middle but I actually cut it close to the end."

"But then a piece of the rope must be missing."

"Yes. The rope is about a half-finger shorter. No one notices. People see what they expect."

The lama put a hand to his forehead. He, too, had failed to observe that.

"What about the second rope healing?"

"For the, ah, problem teenager?" The fellow gave an amused grin. 


"That was different." His eyes narrowed as he thought about it. "Doing the second trick takes more skill. In it, you see, I first attach a knot made from a different length of rope."

His niece laughed and clapped. 

"When it's cut in two places it doesn't matter?" she asked.

"The way it was done made me worry about dropping one of the pieces. But I was pretty sure that boy would disobey and cut twice. Boys like him do."

"But you shook out the knot," the lama objected.

"Shaking out the knot is not the illusion." With a flip of his left hand, the magician made the cord appear. It looked less golden than it had under a yellow-filtered light. He twisted it in his fingers. "At first, I make the knot with a different length of cord. When I push on it to make it smaller and then push again, on the second push I take away the separate rope that's knotted and replace it with a real slipknot in the rope. I've trained myself to make a slipknot one-handed. Even so, I have to keep moving the rope. If I held still, you would see that the knot is not the same."

"They're not similar?"  The lama scowled at what that meant about human attention.

"Not as much as I'd like." He shook his head. "That's why I push on the first knot to make sure I change the shape. The second time it changes, no one thinks it's so odd. Plus no one gets a good look."

"I feel upset that I didn't notice what you were doing." 

"Because it reveals your expectations?"


"My esteemed friend, I will perform the first healing rope trick again for you only. You will see that it is your expectation of the cause that makes you fail to see the true cause. This time, don't trust my words so much even though I'm your old friend. Let us see if you set aside your preconceptions."

Quickly, the fellow tossed the rope, caught it, and began. When he produced the scissors, the lama's niece squealed with delight. She bounced on her toes.

"Look, look," she screamed. "He did it again! With his other hand."

The lama slumped. "I did not see."

"Oh, my honorable friend." The magician halted. He stuffed the rope and scissors into his pockets and strode forward to take the lama in his arms. The lama returned his embrace for a moment. Then the magician stood back to arm's length, hand on the lama's shoulder. "You are a great man to care about this. But you are human."

"If I, who have striven to remove preconceptions, cannot understand what I see, what hope has anyone in this valley? Do we see criminals where we expect them? Do we fail to find the true culprits because of our biases? We must doubt our own witnessing of our lives."

The magician frowned. Then, slowly, he nodded.


  1. Thanks, Adam! This one was surprisingly difficult but fun - especially describing the magic tricks.