Friday, September 1, 2017

Living With Hate

Imagine waking up every morning knowing that there are people who hate you and want you dead just because you exist. Imagine if the most beloved elements of your family’s culture were held up to ridicule – evidence of your inferiority. Imagine internalizing all of this from the moment of your birth – knowing you were the other, that you don’t belong, that you are less.
            Imagine living with hate.
            As a straight white male, it’s all I can do – imagine it. Through no effort of my own I was granted access to the inner circle. It’s a shameful “achievement” because it isn’t an achievement at all – it’s a genetic accident.
            White, patriarchal supremacy is nothing new. It’s woven into the fabric of the United States of America. Our founding institutions and documents explicitly enshrined racial and sexist hegemony. They were crafted at a time when the ownership and denigration of entire categories of human beings was moral and divinely authorized. The twin Original Sins of Native American genocide and African American slavery have yet to be fully acknowledged, repaired, and atoned for. Even Thomas Jefferson’s beloved Declaration of Independence refers to Native Americans as “savages.”
            To stand on the ground at Monticello, Jefferson’s mountain top home in Virginia, and to walk Mulberry Row where the slave quarters stood, is to feel in your bones the race hatred in the bones of this nation.
            White supremacy is the shadow side of freedom. Proclaiming that whites are superior to others, no matter how repugnant, is protected free speech. But no right is absolute. The law distinguishes between protected free speech and incitement, the latter being illegal. If your speech is explicitly designed to move others to harmful action, your speech is not protected free speech. It’s illegal to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Therefore, a Nazi flag is not protected free speech – it’s incitement. It’s a call to action. It’s a war flag that exhorts all who salute it to discrimination, mass deportation, and genocide. Nazi flags are illegal in Germany and France. In other European countries, hate group insignia face additional restrictions. There are no monuments to Adolf Hitler in Germany or anywhere in Europe – just monuments to his millions of victims.
            What are the causes of racism and wholesale denigration of selected groups? This is where it gets complicated. But we have to talk about it. It’s not enough to mouth platitudes like “racism is bad,” or “don’t be a racist,” or my least favorite, “I don’t see color.”  If racism is the enemy, we cannot defeat it until we understand it.
            It’s popular to hold to the view that racism is learned, not innate. In other words, the thinking goes, we are born as pure non-racists. Then, as children, we are taught to hate. Last month when Heather Heyer was killed by an American Nazi in Charlottesville, Virginia President Obama wrote the most popular Tweet in Twitter history – it was retweeted millions of times. Quoting Nelson Mandela he wrote, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…” Then there’s the classic and oft-cited song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from the musical “South Pacific” – “You’ve got to taught/To hate and fear/You’ve got to be taught/From year to year/It’s got to be drummed/In your dear little ear/You’ve got to be carefully taught…”
            The assertion that racism is a learned trait has merit. Cultural indoctrination is a major influence in the formation of racist consciousness. No one disputes that. And to that same extent, learned racism can be mollified by changing the narrative and teaching people how to think differently. We’re trying to do that. But it isn’t working – at least, not fast enough. But racism has another cause – a cause not enough of us are talking about or even acknowledging.
            A quick survey of evolutionary biology reveals the crucial missing piece. Among all species, humans included, it was evolutionarily advantageous to fear outsiders. Within the tribal clan a certain amount of trust was warranted. But outsiders were eyed warily, especially if they looked different from us. We see this in simian studies, as well as across all species. Why would human animals be any different? In other words, the brain is hard-wired to be biased. Our survival depended on it.
            If part of our fear of others is innate, concretized by millennia of selective adaptation, then it turns out Rogers and Hammerstein, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama are wrong (and you have no idea how much it pains me to say this). Well, they’re only half right anyway.
            Here’s another way to frame it. Racist consciousness is a lower-order cognitive mode that we must unlearn. It is our default setting, and it’s time for a re-set. We have to undo the very structures of thought. In Buddhist terms, we have to awaken from the illusion of separateness. Despite what the processes of evolution and selective adaptation have built into the structures of consciousness, and despite the reinforcement racist consciousness receives via acculturation, it’s time to shine a light on the dark, hidden, unconscious tendencies that drive us and realize instead that we are not defined by the color of our skin, the shapes of our faces, the languages we speak, our religious beliefs, our culture of origin, our sexual orientation, or any of the other differentiations that masks our unity. We have to unlearn this maladaptation before it kills us.
            It’s time to find a middle ground between the naturalist argument (that racism is built in), and the indoctrination argument (that it’s purely taught). It’s never either/or. It’s always both/and.
            The solution begins with an acknowledgement of unconscious bias. If you don’t admit you have it, it owns and controls you. The second step is acknowledging privilege – we all have it in one form or another. You have genetic, inherent, or behavior advantages you did not earn – tallness, an aptitude for language, mathematical ability, gender, ethnicity, youth, right-handedness, heterosexuality, and so on. These “privileges” don’t make you better than anybody else, nor do they make you bad. Simply acknowledge your privilege and begin to wield it in the service of the good. Both of these steps awaken our empathy.  Imagine keenly and deeply what it feels like to wake up every morning knowing that there are legions of people in your community who wish you were dead, who define you as aberrant and inferior, and who quietly and sometimes not so quietly despise you. Until you feel the suffering of others, none of any of this can be repaired. Until we hear the pain, we cannot heal the pain.
            You might wonder how can we live with hate? Well look around. We're doing it. And it isn't working. So many of our wounds are self-inflicted. Life is hard enough. It's time to stop hurting ourselves. It's time to turn instead toward one another, take off our masks, and feel our fears withering in the dawning light of the beloved community.      

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Growing Old

Growth is inherently painful. To grow is to fall apart. New forms arise from the debris of the old. What was must die, so that what is can be. And we are always growing, even when we are growing old. This is why in the First Noble Truth Buddha taught that life is suffering. To be alive means to grow, and growth means change, and change hurts.
            Unless you accept change, embrace it even. Then your pain is transformed into awareness. The Second Noble Truth of Buddhism lays bare this process – that our suffering and dissatisfaction are principally caused by our resistance to what is. We suffer because we refuse to accept that life is not controlled by our arbitrary and self-serving demands. We don’t get what we want. We don’t get to stay young. We don’t get to not die. Once we accept the fundamental impermanence of all forms, including our own, a peaceful serenity illuminates the path ahead. The Buddhists call this nirvana.
            Nirvana is a compound Sanskrit word: nir a negating prefix, and vana meaning air that is moving, like wind or breath. Nirvana, often translated as “to blow out,” as in extinguishing a candle flame, is really just a way of saying stillness. It is a state of consciousness free from the agitation of self-centeredness, craving, and fear. In nirvana we are awash in gratitude, wonder, loving-kindness, and acceptance. Because we want nothing, we receive everything.
            To age consciously means to understand the full cosmic process that coming into being and going out of being entails, not from the perspective of a single organism, but from the God-perspective. Being born is a death sentence. No matter your afterlife belief system of choice, these forms – these awkward, aging bodies – are not long for this world. If you have anything pressing to do, I would get to it now. You don’t know how much longer you have.
            In the Phaedo, Plato’s dialogue about the final hours of Socrates’s life, we see Socrates’s friends gathered around him as he calmly faces execution by means of a long, cool drink of hemlock. As his friends fret, wail, and moan, Socrates remains the model of serenity and acceptance, like the hub of a wheel around which everything spins madly. They ask him how he can be so cool and composed in the face of death. He explains that the philosophic life is “training for dying,” and that in many ways he has been practicing for this his whole life. The lover of wisdom, Socrates argues, works hard to root their existence into something deeper, something truer, something more abiding than these fleeting forms. We don’t really know what happens when we die, he says, and it might be better than this mortal life. How do we know? We don’t. So it’s irrational, he argues, to fear death.
500 years later Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius further amplified the burgeoning Stoic doctrine of acceptance. “Frightened of change?” he asked. “But what can exist without it? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed? Human lives are brief and trivial. Yesterday a blob of semen; tomorrow embalming fluid, ash. So this is how a thoughtful person should await death: not with indifference, not with impatience, not with disdain, but simply viewing it as one of the things that can happen to us. How you anticipate the child’s emergence from its mother’s womb; that’s how you should await the hour when your soul will emerge from its compartment.”
I never really liked that Dylan Thomas poem, the one that says “Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.” I prefer the stance of Buddha, Socrates, and Marcus Aurelius – to welcome aging and death like any other change – an opportunity to practice slipping the noose of attachment and sliding into the vast and boundless space of sacred realization.
[This piece was originally appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the September/October edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Monday, July 31, 2017

When You're Salieri

            The 1984 film “Amadeus” presents a fictionalized biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The movie, and the Peter Shaffer play that preceded it, drives serious Mozart scholars nuts because it’s completely made-up. But who says art has to be true?
            What’s fascinating about “Amadeus” is the relationship between its two adversaries, a young, brash Mozart, and an older composer named Antonio Salieri. In real life, the two were friends, and in many ways Salieri mentored Mozart. But the playwright Shaffer had a different set of issues to explore – in a word, envy. Everyone knows who Mozart is. But Salieri isn’t exactly a household name. Shaffer’s play, and Milos Forman’s film, plunge us into the depths of the despair every artist feels – envy for those more successful than we are.
            As Shaffer tells the story, Salieri was a reasonably successful composer. He wrote very good music. But everyone, especially Salieri, could see that Mozart had something Salieri could never have – a natural, effortless greatness. Even though Mozart was undisciplined and lazy the music he dashed off on the fly far surpassed Salieri’s well-crafted and well, boring compositions. This tortured Salieri. He eventually went mad and plotted to have Mozart killed. As I said, none of this actually happened. But Shaffer’s play and Forman’s film are not interested in historical documentation – they are using the Mozart story to open a wound – a wound every artist knows as well as the back of their hand.
            All of us who paint or write or act or dance or sing or make films or in any other way create art instinctively recognize Salieri’s pain. We simultaneously loathe him for what he did to Mozart, and absolutely understand why he did it. No matter how successful you are as an artist, there’s always someone better. Envy is a dark and chaotic emotion. We all feel it. The trick is to transmute it into action. Rather than wallowing in self-pity when confronted with the genius of your artistic rivals, you simply have to get back to work and dig deeper to try and discover your own genius. Use envy to drive you toward your own excellence.
            Very few artists ever “make it,” whatever that even means. The fact is, most singer-songwriters will never move beyond the relatively small circle of their city’s small and insular music scene. Sure they make a few records. They get a little local radio play. They get some media attention. They open for a few national acts. But then five years slip by, then ten, then twenty, and the realization looms larger and larger – you’ve already peaked. There’s nothing waiting for you up ahead. That fantasy you used to indulge in, of wider acclaim, is never going to happen.
            But a few of you made it out. Some of the singer-songwriters you used to share the scene with are now huge international stars. And you know why. Because you were there thirty years ago in the coffeehouses alongside them. You saw it then. And you felt it. They had chops you didn’t have. They had an energy you didn’t have. Their songs had a clarity yours lacked. It was intrinsic, it was inherent, it was effortless, and it was magical.
You went home and tried to write some new songs, songs that did that. And you couldn’t, because you aren’t them. You can’t be somebody else. The best art is never imitation. Great art never chases someone else’s power – it unfolds its own. So you resolved to be a better you, the best you you could possibly be. And you did that. And it still wasn’t enough.
            What should you do when you realize that you’re Salieri, not Mozart? How do you make peace with the fact that your art is mediocre?
            You have to shift your expectations and transform the very reason you even make art. You have to rediscover that love of playing, singing, and writing you had long before you ever got on stage, before your first open-mic – that pure, for-the-love-of-it enthusiasm. You lost a bit of that when you got in the game, when you competed for bookings, when you scratched the money together to make your first record, and your second, and your fifth, when you brought the awards home and still felt empty, when you didn’t get the cover story or the TV slot, and they did, when you didn’t get national radio play, but they did.
            The damn thing about it is this – when you sit down to write a song, even now, you think big. You believe this could be it, this could be the one that really connects with people, this is as good as anything on the radio, hell better. This is so beautiful. In the midst of any act of creation, you have to believe that, or why bother? You open the floodgates and pour everything you think, everything you feel, and everything you know into it. And in the following days when the dew is off the rose and your manic enthusiasm fades and you hear your song objectively and realize, oh, it’s just another so-so song, like all the others, derivative of its influences, unclear, forgettable, underwhelming. You begin to doubt your judgment. Am I na├»ve? Self-absorbed? Or just stupid?
            It can really eat you up.
            Nearly every song is born a masterpiece and dies as dreck. If you aren’t willing to take that deal, then you don’t get to be a singer-songwriter. That’s the awful bargain. It’s a brutal business, this business of creating art. Making art means making friends with failure.
            Coming to terms with the fact that you’re Salieri and not Mozart takes time. It takes time to let go and transmute your music from career-launching Great Art into middle aged hobby. But it is possible. Hell, just look around. We’re all doing it.
            But here’s the good news – what at first feels like defeat transforms into joyful gratitude. You look back and you have to laugh – the piles of show posters, the unsold boxes of your CDs and band T-shirts, the wall hook with the tangle of backstage lanyards, the music awards trophy shelf, the comradery with your tribe, the 10,000 small victories – you wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. The fact is, if you made art, you made a difference, even if the wider world didn’t notice.
            Salieri went mad, at least in the fictionalized version of the story. But we don’t have to. We can graciously set aside our youthful yearnings. We can mentor other artists coming up. We can tap into our considerable experience and teach voice, guitar, stagecraft, or marketing. We can produce. We can turn lovingly, consciously, gratefully, to whatever’s next. And we can keep playing on the side, on whatever scale we want, unburdened by the ambition that plagued our younger days, just for the sheer joy of it.
            Because when you let go, the joy comes back into your music. But it takes time. It takes time to learn how to no longer feel defeated just at the sight of a guitar.