Friday, December 19, 2014

Classical Music



In  the specialized knowledge of professional musicologists the term “classical music” has a very specific meaning. It refers to European music written between 1750-1830, usually in the form of symphony, concerto, or sonata. It could be solo piano, a small quartet, or a huge symphony orchestra with full choir. But for the rest of us, classical music means anything ranging from medieval Gregorian chant right on up to the latest John Williams score for whatever gory bombast is playing at the multiplex this weekend.
Either way, classical music has had a long and lasting hold on our collective imagination.
In the technical language of music scholarship Mozart is classical, Beethoven is not – he’s a Romantic. Haydn is classical, Debussy is not – he’s an Impressionist. Technical distinctions aside, the fact remains, instrumental symphonic music and its related iterations continue to lure us into its lush interior – a strange and wonderful landscape of icy mountains, dark forests, and idyllic glades where dreams and reveries interlace with passion and intellect so that you don’t know where one ends and the other begins.
By an accident of birth I was born into a classical music home. My mom and dad were Dutch immigrants. European music – Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin – threaded through my home like DNA strands weaving and forming my young consciousness, while connecting us all to the beauty and depth of European culture. As the youngest of three boys, I quickly realized that music is just what the Bollands do – especially classical music. We all took piano lessons and learned to play. When Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” comes through your own fingers, you are changed. But it wasn’t an easy apprenticeship. I remember being dragged to symphony concerts on Sunday afternoons at the local community college theater. I didn’t want to go, and of course I was bored to death. Yet by osmosis, this haunting, soulful music became part of me.
My oldest brother Eric switched to guitar, and I soon followed. It was the sixties after all and folk music was bleeding over into the rock world. To not play guitar was just, well, un-American. But my middle brother John stuck with clarinet. We shared a room, and his daily practice schedule meant that the clear and mournful cry of the clarinet became the soundtrack of my young life.
While the jangly beat of rock and country grabbed most of my attention, I developed a permanent soft spot for classical music. I not only grew to love it – I grew to need it.
I made mix tapes of my favorite classical pieces. As a teenager, on a long cross-country trip with my parents to visit the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Mt. Rushmore, somewhere in the Black Hills of South Dakota we pulled over to rest. My mom and dad took folding chairs out in the middle of a meadow surrounded by a ring of trees and distant mountains. The air was warm and the stillness was vibrant and alive. I opened the doors of our Ford Econoline camper and popped in one of my classical mix tapes. Transcendent music began drifting through the meadow, not intrusively, but soothingly, like the steady breathing of a loved one asleep. The music and the meadow became one thing. Many years later, at the end of his life, my dad told me that despite decades of travel and too many golden moments to count, that was one of his favorite travel memories of all, sitting in that meadow, his back turned to the road, that beautiful music coming out of the very air he breathed, lifting him like a wave.
When I went away to college at UC Santa Barbara in 1978 and set up an apartment in Isla Vista, the central feature was the stereo. A turntable, a tuner, an amp, big speakers, and a vast collection of vinyl formed the core of every college apartment, and mine was no different. The records that got played the most were Led Zepplin, Neil Young, Talking Heads, Emmylou Harris, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. But on those long, cold, melancholy afternoons after an arduous morning deciphering texts and writing papers, it was time for tea and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” I wore that record out. It got me through a lot of sad and lonely afternoons. Something about its order, its clarity, its discipline, its bracing optimism, and its celebration of the cosmic cycle of generation, decay, and regeneration made a silent, wordless understanding take shape in my mind – that no matter how low and empty you get, there is always beauty in the heart of everything. You only have to slow down enough to hear it, to see it, and feel it. Even the darkness holds bright, heartening secrets.
Years later, on the night of our engagement, Lori and I went to hear a performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” We cut out at intermission. It was too much. We were brimming with joy at the prospect of our new life together, and half a Messiah is pretty much all you can take when you’re already about to burst.
So what is it about European classical music that makes it so alluring, so evocative, and so restorative?
For one thing, it’s complicated. You don’t just learn three chords, sit down, and bang it out like folk music. Many years of arduous apprenticeship precede admission into even the most mediocre of orchestras. The top orchestras are made up of master musicians who have sacrificed their entire lives to this art form. Classical music isn’t a job, it’s a mission.
And its complexity extends to the audience as well. It takes time to learn to appreciate classical music. Like Shakespeare, existentialism, or the poetry of T. S. Eliot, one needs an introduction at least, or even better, a long, protracted course of study under the tutelage of a master interpreter. In this age of instant gratification, who’s got the time? But when you crack the code, learn the language, and penetrate the signs and symbols, a world of unimaginable beauty opens up before you and takes your breath away. You immediately want to run and tell everyone you know about this new joy you’ve found, but you can’t. There are no words.
Classical music is unapologetic in its embrace and celebration of mastery. High-level expertise is required to perform it, and its audience must be in on the secret. This leaves classical music open to the tired cry of “elitism!” So be it. Denigrating excellence is a favorite pastime of the herd which apparently hears as an indictment of its own mediocrity any example of disciplined, refined accomplishment.
Because it is primarily instrumental (opera and classical song is a topic for another day) classical music wields melody, harmony, style, structure, arrangement, and rhythm to craft worlds beyond the pale of language. Underneath much of European classical music there’s an unflinching willingness to evoke vast philosophical, theological, mystical, and transcendent themes – nothing less than the very mystery of existence itself. Its sheer audacity emboldens us.
Classical music is the most humane of art forms because it dares to grapple with the entire range of human experience and does so with a concerted application of all that is best in us – our intellect, our discipline, our passion, our skill, and our willingness to give ourselves over to something bigger than ourselves. We rightly celebrate the best of classical music because, even in the depths of our unconsciousness, we know that classical music celebrates the best in us.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Practicing Gratitude



No matter how urbanized, technologized, and commodified we’ve become, we still feel in our ancient, primordial bones the gratitude of the harvest season. We come from farmers. We are hard-wired to the celestial cycle. Autumn comes and the wandering days of summer give way to hearth and home. We start nesting. We take stock and store up for winter. We plainly see how flush our lives are with abundance. We grow thankful.
We may not have everything we want. But we know we have everything we need.
Half of the world’s population, 3.6 billion people, lives on less than $2.00 a day. That’s an annual income of $712. From that meager amount they have to pay for housing, food, clothing, water, healthcare, education, and fuel. 20% of the world lives on less than $1.00 a day. 40% of the people on earth do not have indoor plumbing. In developing countries, 90% of sewage is untreated and discharged directly into lakes, rivers, and streams. 95% of the people on earth do not own a car. If you own a car, you are in the world's wealthiest 5%. The United States makes up only 5% of the world's population, but we own 35% of the world's cars. 5% of the people on earth own a computer. 20% own a smart phone.
If you own a car, have indoor plumbing, have a computer in your home, and have a smart phone, you are obscenely wealthy by global standards.
Yet no matter how much empirical evidence you amass, that nagging feeling never seems to leave us – we don’t have enough.
It seems we need more and more just to stay in the same place.
Psychologists and marketing analysts have a name for this. It’s called the hedonic treadmill. As on a treadmill where one must remain in motion to stay in the same place, our appetites and cravings keep reaching for the next thing despite the obvious abundance of our lives. Even lottery winners, after the shock, thrill, and flush wears off, return to their previous happiness set point. This is also known as hedonic adaptation – we simply and unconsciously adjust to the new material reality. But inside, nothing’s changed.
In other words, happiness cannot come from rearranging the outer conditions of our lives. Happiness is an inside job.
This is why it’s essential to shift our thinking about gratitude. In our normal way of thinking, gratitude comes after a need or a desire is fulfilled – it is an endpoint arising only when just the right outer conditions come into existence. What if instead we began thinking of gratitude as a starting point, a decision we make here and now, regardless of external conditions. In one sense it isn’t hard to do for most of us. Look around. By world standards we have everything we need. All that’s left is to change our thinking.
“Gratitude,” Cicero wrote, “is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Courage, compassion, serenity, wisdom – all of these human excellences begin to develop only after we come out of the self-centered consciousness of scarcity and recognize our abundance. And when we recognize our abundance, we recognize our interconnectedness and the extent to which we co-create each other. None of us does any of this alone. We all carry each other. And we are supported by an infinite, conscious universe. When we start with the warm glow of humility and thankfulness, we experience an inner alignment and availability to our other higher functions. Gratitude opens the door to greatness.
How many times have we convinced ourselves that when we get that new car, that new guitar, that new job, that new lover we will finally be satisfied and happy? How many times have we fallen under the same old spell? You’d think we would have learned by now.
And pouring gasoline on the fire is the relentless marketing machinery of our capitalistic economic system which requires ceaseless and ever-expanding consumption. If a business’s income stays the same year after year, it is by the curious standards of capitalism failing. The job of corporate advertising is to create ever-knew “solutions” to the problem of human dissatisfaction. This car, that vacation, another pair of jeans. This furniture, that beer, another diamond pendant. Whatever we have, advertising says, isn’t enough. You need this thing too. And this thing. And another. And the coup de grace is to surreptitiously align their product with our nameless emotion longing. They craft beautifully produced mini films called commercials to peel back our rational defensiveness and cut right to the heart. Owning this kind of car proves your fatherly wisdom. Buying this kind of mayonnaise proves your worthiness as a mother. We already mistakenly believe that our happiness comes from external objects. And we bear so many wounds, labor beneath so much self-doubt, and harbor so many insecurities. Show us a pathway out of our pain. We aren’t that hard to sell to.
The favorite word of mercantilism is “new.” Like Pavlov’s bell, it sets off immediate salivation in the maw of the American consumer.
But the fact remains, we need each other, and we need each other’s goods and services. Our interrelationship is an economic one to be sure. In the struggle to survive, we’re all selling something – our ability, our talent, our service, our product. We are not debating the worthiness of one economic system over another. We are on a deeper hunt. We are looking for our freedom from delusion. There must be a way to honor our creativity, our profession, our work product, and still help each other awaken from the nightmare of, as some have dubbed it, affluenza – the disease of more, more, more.
It begins with choosing new thoughts. Start with the empirical evidence. Have an old, undesirable car? You’re in the wealthiest 5% on earth. Have a plumbing problem? Four out of ten people on earth don’t even have plumbing. They get their water from a creek – a creek that also serves as the village sewer. Struggling with a glitchy, old computer? 95% of the people on earth don’t own a computer. Then, after you take a cold hard look at the facts, begin to shift from the consciousness of scarcity to the consciousness of gratitude. This transformation isn’t a one-time thing. It takes time to replace old habits with new ones. Begin a gratitude journal. Gratitude is a verb, not a noun. Chronicle your emerging gratitude day by day. After a year you’ll be a different person. Change your thoughts, change your life.
It is not an impoverished austerity we’re after. Asceticism is just another form of self-indulgence. The final goal is generosity, abundance of spirit, and the real and unapologetic enjoyment of life. We can enjoy our things and be at play in the field of forms without pathological attachment to any of them. We can create solutions, manufacture tools, master skills, and serve the needs of others without buying into the lie that happiness is measured by the pound. We can choose quality over quantity. We can do more with less. And we can fall in love with our lives just the way they are. It begins with practicing gratitude.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Welcome to the Show



“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” – William Shakespeare

We stand in line, pay a pretty penny, and cram into sweltering rooms.  We sit on uncomfortable chairs or stand for hours – all for that moment, that moment of transcendence when the performer on stage digs deep and rips away the dull fa├žade that hides from us the explosive vitality of our own lives. The veil falls away and for an instant we see into the heart of the mystery.
Then we file out into the night, drive home, and drift off to sleep still humming the chorus, feeling the beat of our hearts, drifting through the shimmers of insight and elation that broke through our indifference like shafts of light through a forest canopy. We love show business, even with all its absurdity, arrogance, bombast, and schmaltz. There’s something about it. Musicians, actors, directors, designers, producers, engineers, when they’re good, are as good as gods who create a world, draw you in, and set the crown upon your head. In the best art, we are all king or queen for a day, flush with power, ripe with wisdom, overflowing with love. We get it. The world, with all its possibilities, is ours.
Sometimes it even happens in front of the TV. I was five years old in February, 1964 when the Beatles first played on the Ed Sullivan Show. I was dumbfounded. How could four lads with guitars and drums drive hordes of strangers into ecstasy? What strange magic was this?
Is there a connection, a relation, between stagecraft and so-called ordinary life? Is there something about the artistry of performance that holds a mirror up to the various roles we play in our own lives?
As I grew up I began to notice a discrepancy. I noticed it first in others. Then I discovered it in myself. We are one person in private, and another in public. In the solitude of our inner lives we roam freely down the canyons of consciousness following thought-streams wherever they lead. We stare into space because that’s where we’re going, and it’s smart to keep your eyes on the road. But when other people are around you have to pay attention. They might say something. They might shift in their seat in some meaningful way. Was that a sigh or was that a sigh? There are a hundred non-verbal cues to process, not to mention the vagaries of vibe. It’s exhausting. Maybe that’s just my introversion talking. But to some extent, this is true for all of us, introvert and extrovert alike. When we’re together there’s a certain amount of play acting involved. No longer autonomous, you consciously and unconsciously mirror the speech and behavior of others. The monologue’s over. It’s time for dialogue.
I don’t mean to say that we’re all a bunch of phonies. This observation isn’t born in despair. Good things arise in relationship. We absolutely need it. It’s just that initially anyway, dialogue calls for a little mimicry and play acting.
We play many roles in our lives – the good son, the loving daughter, the ardent bride, the faithful husband, the nurturing mother, the stalwart father, the trusted colleague, the insightful mentor, and loyal friend. When we get it right, we lose ourselves in those roles and use them as opportunities to be of service to the good, for it is through the aggregate actions of our individual lives that the collective good is realized. The danger, of course, is identifying too completely with any of those masks and dehumanizing ourselves by become merely actors, cogs in a machine devoid of sensitivity, empathy, and compassion. The goal of the hero in any hero’s tale is to sacrifice their comfort in service of others, and thereby fully realize their previously submerged authentic selves. It’s ironic. We become who we really are by playing a part, for it is only in the field of action that our inauthenticity is burned away. And it is through our selfless service that the world is healed.
That is why we are drawn so powerfully toward art, especially the art of performance. As we vicariously live through the character, the song, or the agonizing dilemma, we feel the truth of the depiction in the depths of our own soul. If our imagination is keen enough, and if we surrender our disbelief and fall under the spell, it is as if we live through the events on the stage ourselves – so clear is the mirror great art holds up to our own lives. Great performance gives us to ourselves in a way we are incapable of achieving in solitude. It happens in the space between the performer and the audience. We’re just built that way.
I played a solo show at Java Joe’s in San Diego a few weeks ago. It was a hot Saturday night and the room was full. After Chad Taggart played a wonderful opening set, I buttoned up my vest, put on my guitar, and stepped up to the mike.
It is an exhilarating feeling, looking out at an audience, that pregnant pause, the silence before the first downbeat, the void and formlessness before the creation, that moment when anything’s possible, the love and trust inherent in the deal you’ve made with the audience – you take time out of your busy lives, buy a ticket with your hard-earned money, bring all of your aliveness and passion and trouble into the room and take a seat, and I’ll stand and face you alone, and with my hands draw music from this guitar and with my voice sing stories and poems that hold a mirror up to your sorrow, your joy, your defeat, and your triumph. We will trust the power of music and song to reach deep into us and heal wounds we didn’t even know we had. And on a lucky night, when all the pieces come together, we experience something together that’s bigger than any one of us. A communion, a gathering of animals around a watering hole, a tribal band around an ancient fire beneath a field of stars we haven’t even named yet.
In that moment I was the troubadour, the bard, the oracle, the jester, the priest, and the fool. I played the bread and sang the wine of the Eucharist. I opened myself up for scrutiny. By the shear boldness of performance we are all emboldened. We watch performers very closely because we want to know, if I open myself up to scrutiny, if I come out of hiding, if I let the world see the truth about who and what I am, will they see me, will they know me, will they love me? This longing to be known in our authenticity drives so much of the relationship between performers and audiences. That’s why we leave shows, the good ones, feeling more alive, more courageous, and more willing to revel in our humanity. We forgive ourselves our transgressions and limitations, we love our broken places, and we know in our bones that we walk through a world full of good but wounded people just like us, and that we are safe among them, and as we learn to love them we learn to love ourselves.
          I’m packing up for another show. My guitar is safely stowed; my gig bag is full of gear.  Got the venue address in my phone and a Google map queued up. Soon I’ll set up my stuff in a room I’ve never been to before and step up to the microphone. I’ll look out at the audience, a room full of strangers, and I’ll see in their faces my own face, my own questions, my own joys and sorrows. They will embolden me. And I’ll step up to the mike and I will say, “Welcome to the show.”

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Sounding Joy


[This article first appeared in my A to Zen column in the November/December issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Every day at 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. the bells ring out from the monastery.
Perched on a mesa overlooking Mission Valley, nestled in the quiet San Diego neighborhood of Normal Heights, the Carmelite Monastery is home to the daughters of St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic. The nuns live simple lives of silence and contemplative prayer. Keeping with tradition, the bells are rung by a different nun every day so their rhythm and cadence varies – an aural expression of the unique human hands on the other end of the rope.
These cloistered mystics have little interaction with the outside world, yet the sound of the bells penetrates every fiber of matter in a two mile radius – the homes and bodies of thousands of people. For 82 years, twice a day, nearly 60,000 times, these bells have startled an entire community out of their distracted, busy minds and into the sacred thrum of this present moment; the ringing clarity of the here and now. Sound does that. It gets your attention. It passes unimpeded through every cell of your body and leaves you changed.
The Book of Genesis tells us that in the beginning God spoke the world into being. He could have pointed his mighty finger or simply intended the universe into existence with his divine mind, but instead he chose sound and language as his creative medium – the original spoken word artist. “Let there be light,” he said. And there was light. And it was good.
In an act of alchemy the spoken word transforms intangible thoughts into physical vibrations that travel through the air and alter distant objects, even the fabric of reality itself. Words have power. The well-intentioned nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” turns out to be disingenuous if not downright false. While it is true that no one can shame us without our permission, it is also true that violent hate speech greases the skids to actual violence. Stemming one curtails the other. Words, it turns out, are real things.
This is why the Buddha made Right Speech one of the eight steps of the Noble Eightfold Path. If we are serious about transforming consciousness, then along with increased mindfulness, right action, and meditation, we must learn to use words thoughtfully, compassionately, and truthfully. As Don Miguel Ruiz pointed out in The Four Agreements, our negative self-talk is the first place to start. If the spiritual practice of being impeccable with our word is to bear any fruit, it must begin with self-affirmations strong enough to counteract a lifetime of habitual self-loathing and denigration.
And by the way, in case you were wondering, when a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, it does not make a sound. The impact of the tree makes waves in the air that travel a mile in five seconds, or 767 miles per hour. These waves cannot properly be called “sound” until they are perceived by a hearer. When they hit our eardrum our brain converts these waves of soundless energy into an experience called “sound.” Sound, like color, exists only in the mind of the perceiver, not in the outer world. Perception is an inside job.
So it is that sound connects us to each other and to the outer world in an intimate, symbiotic way. We co-create the perceptual field in concert with the stimuli around us. We are all creators who hear and speak the world into being.
Every time the nuns ring the bells, despite their vows of silence and chastity, they join with us and with the world in a way that transcends the categories of corporeal and spiritual. Sound joins us to each other and to ourselves by avowing our boundless, indefinable nature. The toll of the bell moves through us and shifts us on a molecular level. Throughout world philosophy this truth is affirmed – the soul itself is a musical harmony, and the sound emitted by all things impacts the physical and metaphysical composition of all other things. In this way, we are all one in sound. May we have the ears to hear the needs of others. May we speak the truth, and sing our love. May we choose to create instead of destroy. May we repeat the sounding joy in this and all seasons.