Monday, September 3, 2018

Music and Meaning


When we lost Aretha Franklin, we lost an American icon, a towering genius of musical prowess. But in an important way, her beauty never left – it lives within us, and when we listen to her music, all of the power and magic is fully present. Music doesn’t die. Nothing real ever does. There’s a timeless essence hidden just beneath the surface of the waves of impermanence. Music reveals that eternal realm and draws us into accord with it.
            When words, doctrines, and explanations fail us, songs salve our wounds and bind our broken places. As Beethoven said, “Music is a higher truth than philosophy.”
            At the heart of every great wisdom tradition lies one core idea: ineffability. The ultimate source or ground of being is beyond words and thoughts. We cannot name it or describe it. We cannot even think it. Language and conceptual thought are wonderful tools, but they only get you so far. There’s a glass ceiling even they cannot penetrate. But what lies beyond that glass ceiling can be apprehended, experienced, and felt. And music is a powerful catalyst for that apprehension.
            In the weave of melody, in the dance of chords, in the breath and beat of rhythm there is an alchemy that binds the threads of our souls into the web of being around us. Of course we can’t talk about it. But the tears in our eyes don’t lie.
            Who hasn’t driven home, turned off the car, and sat in the garage unable to tear yourself away from a beautiful piece of music? This is home now.
            In Plato’s masterpiece The Republic, he argues that knowledge has four levels. The lowest level consists of images, say, the image of a tiger in your mind. The next level, slightly more real, is seeing an actual tiger. The third level is the rational level, beyond the sensory realm. Here, real knowledge begins to take shape, utilizing logic, evidence, and rational discourse. But even this isn’t the highest level of knowledge. There is a fourth level called noesis – intuitive grasping or awareness. At this level we no longer use logic, language, or concepts – just pure, formless, concept-free awareness. Plato, like mystics the world over, says that the highest truths and realities elude the grasp of the conceptual mind. We know them only when we transcend linear thought.
            In Buddhist philosophy, Nagarjuna makes a similar claim. For him there are two levels of knowledge: ordinary knowledge and transcendent knowledge, or prajna. Ordinary knowledge is comprised of concepts, analogies, logic, and categorization. Then there is a higher form of knowledge called prajna which has little to do with conceptual thought or language. It is direct seeing into the nature of things, without conceptualization. In Buddhism this is sometimes likened to “awakening” or “enlightenment,” although those are just analogies, and as we have seen, analogical thinking exists at the level of ordinary knowledge.
            In the ancient Chinese wisdom tradition of Daoism, Laozi begins his magnum opus The Daodejing with the famous line, “The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao.” With this warning, Laozi emphasizes the gulf between conceptual thought and reality. Our concepts, no matter how subtle, sophisticated, and well-wrought are pictures of a plum, never the plum itself.
            Zhaungzi, another Daoist teacher who lived a few hundred years after Laozi put it this way: “A fish trap is for catching fish. When the fish is caught, the trap is forgotten. A rabbit snare is for catching rabbits. When the rabbit is caught, the snare is forgotten. Words are for capturing ideas. When the idea is caught, the words are forgotten.” Like Laozi before him, Zhuangzi delights in the playful use of provocative language, but never as an endpoint – only as a starting point. Words and concepts are tools that help us construct a bridge to meaning. But they can never be the meaning itself.
            In a famous Zen story, one day the Buddha gathered his whole company together to deliver a talk. On this day, instead of saying a word he simply held up a flower. Only one man, Kashyapa, signaled with his eyes that he understood what was being said. For Zen Buddhists this is the origin story of their tradition – the origin of the wordless transmission: that wisdom or prajna is conveyed directly, not at the level of language and concepts, but at the level of experience. No scriptures or rituals needed. Just open hearts and deep surrender to what is.
            This is why music, and all art for that matter, is so powerfully effective at opening us to the cosmic mystery that we are. It administers to our whole being, not just our intellect. As wave after wave of powerful, beautiful music pours through our mind-body literally altering our energy patterns, it becomes us and we become it. The fortuitous energies of music make us over in their image, and this disappearance is exactly what our soul has been asking for. Art, especially music, disarms us and fosters that surrender.
            Lori and I were just in Paris, and like many visitors we stood slack-jawed before the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral. But nothing could’ve prepared us for what happened inside. Here was a cavernous space where architecture, engineering, stained glass, sculpture, theology, liturgy, devotion, mysticism, civic identity, and human achievement comingle into a tour de force that overwhelms you. And as synchronicity would have it, a mixed men’s and boys’ choir was performing. The sound of their harmonious voices reverberating throughout the towering 12th century hall, washed in the divine light streaming through stained glass, was the very definition of ethereal.
One song came to an end. When the conductor spread his arms like wings, the choir began to sing a choral arrangement of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” As Barber’s mournful ascension began, something broke open inside of me – a resistance, a practiced façade, an artifice. I can never describe the wave after wave of knowing that rushed through me in those timeless moments – it was dumbfounding. The hairs on my arms stood up.
As the music bathed the room, another sound rose up through the strains of music, an all too human sound, the sound of scores of people around me weeping. We were all drowning in a sea of beauty and nobody wanted to be saved.
            This is how music works. It strips away all of your worldly cleverness and leaves you washed clean, innocent, newborn, and free; back in the Garden of Eden before it all went wrong. Music doesn’t explain itself. It doesn’t have any answers. But it lifts you past the place where the questions have power, where finally everything seems right with the world. Music heals. Music restores. Music transcends and liberates. Music sets us aloft in the space between heaven and earth, where we taste the eternal right here in the realm of embodied forms. Aretha could do that. And she still can.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Veil of Perception


At the height of the Renaissance, as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Da Vinci were crafting their masterpieces, the prevailing theory of perception was that light emanated from the eyes, not the other way around. We can laugh now about their error. But then you wonder – what beliefs do we cling to today that will one day appear as folly?
            Many of us walk around assuming that our eyes are cameras faithfully recording a real world of objects. Um, you better sit down. You aren’t going to like this.
            Turns out perception is not a passive act of apprehending objective reality – instead, it’s a highly interpretative act that transmutes raw data into recognizable shapes formed largely within our own imagination.
            There’s a word for this phenomenon in Sanskrit – maya. In their philosophical investigations the ancient Hindus realized that the perceptual field – the world as presented to us by our five senses – was maya, an ephemeral realm of thought-forms one step removed from the energy field that generated them. In other words, what you and I call “the world” or “reality” is a creative, collaborative act built on a delicate dance between perceived and perceiver.
            In the end, the world of maya – all of these shapes, colors, sounds, sensations and the ideas we build upon them – acts as a veil that ultimately hides true reality from us. And what is that true reality? It is Brahman, the sacred formless ground of being from which all forms emerge and to which all forms return. In a word, God.
            For example, let’s examine the so-called solidity of the material world. My senses tell me that I live in a world of solid, relatively stable objects. This desk is just as it was yesterday, as is this room, and this house. But at the atomic level, so-called solid matter is 99.99999% empty space. I don’t know about you, but when I see five nines after a decimal point, I round up. It turns out that the allegedly solid world is 100% empty space, a fact my sensory apparatus are too crude to perceive.
            As Einstein and others showed us in the last century, at the atomic level, the old Newtonian duality between energy and matter disappears – there is only energy. What you and I call matter is energy. All of this is only Brahman. My body, this coffee mug, the Empire State Building, everything, is a vibrational apparition. The mistaken belief that there actually is a substantive world of distinct objects is called by Deepak Chopra “the superstition of materialism.”
            Every wisdom tradition reminds us of the transitory nature of all forms. This heartbreakingly beautiful world is a shifting cloud. But behind the veil of maya lies an immutable realm beyond perception and beyond thought. We can’t touch it, see it, or understand it. But we can experience it. 
             Spiritual teachings offer maps and methods for this shift. Study, prayer, sacred service, and meditation are the most common. But it might even be simpler than that. Embrace the method of no-method. Take a walk through your neighborhood. Watch the sky. Listen to the sounds of the city. Hear the songs of birds. Feel your own heart beating. Let go. Slip beneath the thought-stream, a shift not so much achieved as allowed. If everything is Brahman, not one of your steps leads away from it. How can you seek what was never lost? How can you become what you already are?

[This piece first appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the September/October 2018 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Heart of Being


We live in the Psychological Age. Every modern malady is traced back to psychological roots. Another mass shooting? Mental health problem. Homelessness? Mental health problem. Depression and anxiety? Mental health problem. What is the deal with Donald Trump anyway? Mental health problem.

            There’s no doubt that psychological healing modalities – talk therapy, wisely applied pharmaceuticals – have healed families and saved countless lives. But by ascribing nearly every form of human suffering to mental health imbalances we might be missing out on a deeper, even more foundational dimension.

            Western psychology is after all only a hundred years old. With roots in the groundbreaking work of Sigmund Freud and William James, psychology was born largely out of the medical sciences. Some maladies could simply not be traced to physiological causes. They seemed to rise up out of the uncharted depths of the mind. And if we wanted to do anything about it we needed to chart those depths.

            In the twentieth century psychological knowledge grew by leaps and bounds. Mistakes were made, as in any endeavor, but great gains were realized. As James taught us, we ought to judge the value of any practice by its pragmatic value, that is, by whether or not it works. Are there measurable positive benefits? Good. Then we’re moving in the right direction.

            But what if the psychological approach alone is not enough?

            What did people do before the invention of psychology? To whom did they turn when suffering from debilitating sadness, alienation, anxiety, or worse – suicidal fantasies, psychosis, and violence? They turned to the tribal healer, a multi-faceted practitioner knowledgeable not only in botanical medicine, but also in divination, shamanism, and ritualized spirituality.

            In other words, what we now call psychological problems were for 99% of human history known as spiritual problems. Maybe it’s time to reacquaint ourselves with this perspective.      

Throughout the world’s mythologies and religions there is a unifying archetype – the idea that the sensory world is a foreground behind which lies a hidden background beyond the reach of sensory or even conceptual awareness. And that this unseen background is superior to and in fact the source of the foreground. Most cultures conceptualize and personify this hidden background as gods or goddesses, or as the one true God. Others understand it to be a non-conceptual, impersonal force like Dao, Brahman, or Being. But the fact remains – everything in the seen world is rooted in the unseen world, (and in the end both are simply dimensions of one singular reality). When we lose our original relationship to our sacred source, by whatever name you call it, we feel lost, alone, frightened, and deeply unwell, as if we’d been hollowed out. For indeed we have.

            Spiritual practices then are designed to bridge the two worlds so that the infinite wisdom and creative energy of the unseen world can imbue the seen world with its restorative powers. This is why we pray, worship, study, meditate, chant, walk the labyrinth, serve, and perform all manner of sacred acts. Throughout time and across cultures an unshakable realization has taken hold – our lives are an expression of that unseen source, and the closer we stay in touch with it the closer we stay in touch with our own essential nature.

            Organized religions began with the best of intentions. But for many of us, their attempt to codify these insights into narrowly define doctrines and practices did as much harm as good. It is the sad history of all institutions that their original intentions are eventually and inevitably drowned in a sea of self-preservation. Soon it is not the teachings of the founder that matter – it is the maintenance of the institution that matters. Many of us still participate in the faith traditions that have meaning for us, while at the same time maintaining somewhat embarrassed distance from the most regrettable aspects of our tradition’s teachings. It is often the case that those who most stridently claim to speak for God have the least to say of any value or consequence. As Laozi put it, “Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know.”

            That is why more Americans than ever before are defining themselves as spiritual, not religious.

            It would be foolish to advocate for the abandonment of the psychological model in favor of the spiritual. For me, it’s never either/or but always both/and. I see both psychology and spirituality playing crucial roles in the maintenance of our sanity both individually and collectively. I have benefited greatly from periods of psychotherapy in my life, and I have been woven back together again and again by spiritual practices. I see absolutely no reason not to use every tool in the box.

            So what now? What drove me to a study of philosophy and religion in the first place many years ago was my own alienation and depression, coupled paradoxically with a nearly ecstatic conviction that the universe was a holy place. I could feel it. I felt it just on the other side of the sadness, on the other side of the curtain – that infinite healing, ungraspable beauty, the mesmerizing thrum of the sublime. I didn’t have words for it, but it called me into its heart. The closer I got to it, the more I came home to myself.

            For me, philosophy, religion, and spirituality are healing modalities, like talk therapy, surgery, and pharmacology. And when I look out at the world, and within myself, I see an endless need for healing. That’s what drives me to this work.

            For 27 years I’ve been teaching philosophy and religious studies in academic settings. And for the last ten years I’ve ventured further and further off campus to bring the life-changing insights of the world’s wisdom traditions to audiences far and wide. For the last four years I’ve been leading meditation workshops teaching and encouraging others to deepen into the wisdom welling up through the cracks of their own suffering. And through it all my guitar was always close at hand – I keep writing and performing songs from this same place – the longing for healing and connection.

            And all of that work is coming to a head on Saturday, September 8 when I’ll be facilitating an all-day retreat at The Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California called “The Heart of Being.” My partnership with The Chopra Center, one of the world’s premier spiritual healing institutes, is a wonderful synchronicity – we were bound to cross paths one of these days. And when we did we both agreed that what we wanted to create was an all-day immersive experience where all of these different elements were woven together into an integrated whole – guided meditation, philosophical inquiry, spiritual practice, meaningful dialogue, interactive engagement, musical performance, and more.

            What’s at stake? Everything. As Ramana Maharshi said, “Your own Self-Realization is the greatest service you can render the world.” After our day-long retreat we will return to our messy and wonderful everyday lives renewed, realigned, and restored to our rightful place in the centered wholeness of the Heart of Being.