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 naïve? 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.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Love of Money

         “Money is the root of all evil,” he said, “it’s in the Bible.” I didn’t respond. People don’t like being corrected. Sometimes it’s best just to smile and move on.  
          Actually, I thought to myself, the line is “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil…” (1 Timothy 1:6) It may seem like a small difference, but it matters.  
          Money isn’t the problem – it’s our rapacious craving born from the consciousness of scarcity that causes all of the destruction. “People who want to get rich,” Paul writes, “fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction… Some people, eager for money, have wandered…and pierced themselves with many griefs.”  
          What Paul’s lamenting is not money, but the spiritual poverty that goads us into the mistaken belief that our happiness lies in the meaningless acquisition of things. To fall into the love of money is to be pierced with many griefs. We must instead love the work, without attachment to the results.
           Some voices in traditional Christianity have used these passages to support a dualistic philosophy that denigrates the material world as a treacherous lair of temptation, a trap our godly souls must strive to avoid. This arguably Medieval, life-denying, and otherworldly form of Christianity views the world of embodied forms as a fallen realm to be transcended. But that isn’t the only way to see it.
          Other voices within the Christian family align more closely with their sister faiths Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism in their affirmation of the fundamental goodness of the material world.
          In Hinduism, ultimate reality is known as Brahman, the sacred formless ground of being out of which all forms emerge and to which all forms return. In this non-dualistic view, the world of forms is a sacred reflection of divinity, a realm of infinite value and beauty. Even the creativity and productivity pouring through us is understood as yet another aspect of the one divine unfolding. Our longing to expand, whether spiritually, professionally, or materially, is not a sign of vice or self-obsession – it is simply Brahman giving birth to itself through us. Wanting a more beautiful home isn’t always covetousness – sometimes it’s just growth. Who are we not to create more, have more, and be more – not in the pursuit of self-aggrandizement, but in the spirit of playful enjoyment?
          You’ve also heard it said that money can’t buy happiness. You know who talks like that? People who have money. It’s difficult to be happy if you have no shelter, you don’t feel safe, or you have no access to adequate healthcare. Poverty exerts terrible stress on the poor, akin to the traumatic stress experienced by combat veterans. Not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or worrying about whether or not the thin walls of your section 8 apartment can keep out stray bullets from drive by shootings make happiness a distant dream.
          A raft of recent studies show that money does indeed buy happiness, up to a point. Happiness increases as income increases, up to about $75,000 a year. As income rises above $75,000, the happiness correlation drops off. And by the time you get to $250,000 a year, the correlation disappears. If you’re well into the six figures, money cannot buy more happiness. But below that it can, and it does.
          If all is one, then our participation in the material world is a sacred experience. Doing the work we have been given to do, applying our God-given talents, sensibilities, and initiative to create products, services, and solutions for the needs of the world is everyone’s sacred purpose. When we offer up our best in the consciousness of service, people give us money for it. As we work in our given professions for a world that works for everyone, we honor ourselves, our creator, and each other. Earning money for honest work is a deeply satisfying, honorable pleasure. Using that money to provide for one’s family, enrich one’s experiences, enhance one’s safety, security, and enjoyment, cannot be evil. 

[This piece was originally published in my column "A to Zen" in the July/August 2017 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

We Are Always Traveling

We are traveling 1,000 miles an hour around the center of the earth. The earth is traveling 67,000 miles an hour around the sun – nineteen miles per second. The sun and its solar system are spiraling around the center of the Milky Way galaxy at 550,000 miles an hour. The Milky Way galaxy is flying away from the center of the universe like everything else since the Big Bang, scattering everything outward in all directions.
            Does it feel like you’re hurtling through space at nineteen miles per second? Of course not. Because we were born on the fly. We’re used to it. This is all we’ve ever known. We were born traveling.
            The best DNA and archeological evidence shows that modern humans, Homo sapiens, walked out of Africa 50,000 - 80,000 years ago. Earlier hominid species existed long before that. In fact, just a few miles from my home in San Diego, definitive evidence of human activity dating back 130,000 years was recently discovered, shattering earlier estimates of humanity’s arrival in the New World by a factor of ten. For our entire evolution, humans were never much good at staying put. That distant horizon is far too alluring.
            As we prepare for our summer excursions, a brief reflection on the philosophy of traveling is in order. Why are we called out from our domestic tranquility to rough it on the road? What lures us toward the unknown? And why, as soon as we get home, do we once again begin dreaming of far off lands? Maybe it’s because we are more at home on the road than we are at home. We have always been traveling.
            Before you step out the door, traveling teaches you its first important lesson. It happens during the process of packing – the art of reducing your material life down to a few bags you can sling over your shoulder and drag behind you. When you wake up at home and get dressed, you have all of your clothes to choose from. On the road, you have only what you can carry. Packing reduces your life down to its essentials – it is an exercise in decisiveness and commitment. You don’t need to choose a specific outfit for every day of travel, but you do need to assemble a small number of things that work well together, and are suitable to the elements. You need to know where you’re going and adapt accordingly. Black tie dinner and the opera house? Rainforest camping? Back-pack train hopping through India? As in life, know yourself, know your environment, and know your cultural context. Make a decision and live with it.
            The best trips, like the best lives, are well-balanced endeavors with just the right amount of planning and the just the right amount of spontaneity. Over-planning turns your trip into a chore, death-marching from one fixed appointment to the next. Under-planning creates even more stress as you squander precious vacation time navigating simple arrangements that could’ve been better handled from home. As in life, failing to plan is planning to fail. But nobody likes a task-master either. Leave open, unstructured days sandwiched between your plane tickets and hotel reservations. You never know. You might find yourself passing through a village that barely earned a mention in the guide book. You walk its cobblestoned streets and stop into an empty café at the end of the day. At a window table, sipping the best espresso you have ever had in your life, watching the alpenglow bathe the rooftops in gold, a wordless recognition passes through you even though you have never been here before. You know you can’t leave. Not yet. Not today. You find a room at the local inn. That night a festival in the town square brings out the entire village. You mingle with the crowd, hearing in their voices and seeing in their eyes something familiar, something true, something real. Among these strangers you feel a warmth and belonging that eludes you back home. The strangeness of the world takes off its mask and reveals its oneness. You can’t plan moments like this. Nor can you seek them. They find you only when you aren’t looking, and only if you leave openings. Mystery and beauty cannot enter where there is no space.
Some of us write travel journals. A lot of us take pictures or videos. These are all wonderful ways to interact with your experiences, mold them into art, or at least record your memories for later enjoyment. But those of us who journal or photograph our travels are well aware of the subtle and insidious effect these processes have on the very experiences they supposedly celebrate and enshrine. I call it the camera effect.
            If you love taking pictures as much as I do, you find yourself constantly scanning the environment for the next shot. Standing in the middle of Yosemite Valley, instead of experiencing Yosemite Valley, you’re obsessed with how to best capture an image of Yosemite Valley. Instead of controlling the camera, the camera controls you.
At their best photography and travel journaling connect us to a place and create lasting works of beauty and value. At their worst they rob of us the very experience we traveled so far to enjoy. As a photographer I’m always cognizant of the light – its direction, its texture, and its impact on color saturation. Atmospheric haze, shadow, and a hundred other variables crowd my mind. I’m always scanning for interesting compositions, angles, and juxtapositions. I’m seeking the emblematic image – something that will capture the entire zeitgeist of a place and time. In other words, I’m enfolded in layer after layer of insulating interpretation – stuck in my head essentially – instead of really truly being here now. Sigh.
            Same with journaling. Often in the midst of an experience I think to myself, this is how I’ll describe this tomorrow morning over coffee when I write my journal entry about this, and standing in the middle of Versailles, I’m lost in a descriptive word-cloud about Versailles. What a shame. Zen Buddhism often reminds us of the dangers of getting lost in abstraction, and how the mediation of thought blankets the immediacy of life with numbing distance. As 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho so poignantly put it: “Even in Kyoto/Hearing the cuckoo’s cry/I long for Kyoto.”
              The purpose of travel, and of the well-lived life, is to free us of our complacency, rip away our mooring, and cast us adrift into the wonder of it all. Only when we leave the safety of the shore do we experience the immensity of the sea. The sailboat was not made for the harbor.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017


            I grew up in Ventura, California, a small, sleepy beach town an hour north of Los Angeles. There wasn’t much to do. But there were miles of beautiful, empty beaches. The Pacific Ocean pulled us toward her like iron filings to a magnet.
            Perched out on the horizon were the Channel Islands, uninhabited chunks of California that seemingly broke off the mainland and drifted out to sea. I can’t tell you how many hours I stared at those mysterious alien lands and wondered just how terrifying it must have been for the Chumash to paddle their river reed canoes over the open maw of the sea to fish her coves and sleep exhausted on her sandy leeward beaches.
            All summer long someone’s mom would drop us off at the beach with our Styrofoam boards and small inflated rafts. All day long we’d ride the waves on our bellies, learning how to read the shifting plane of the water, an energy field without beginning or end. The feel of hot sand under bare feet, the smell of Coppertone, and the taste of fifty cent grilled cheese sandwiches from the State Beach snack bar are embedded deep in my amygdala. And the never-the-same-twice shifting face of the sea and sky. I didn’t know it then, but I was learning the lesson of impermanence, and how the beauty of the world lives not in its surface forms, but in the mystery hidden just beneath them.
            At the rocky points and deep water reef breaks we saw the older guys surfing, riding hard boards made of fiberglass and resin, daring to stand as equals with waves as big as houses. Because we loved the sea and knew her so well it was the next logical step – to leave the safety of the shore, to go deeper, and commit completely.
            My mom bought me my first surfboard at a neighborhood garage sale. I immediately broke the fin standing on it on the lawn. She brought home a swath of fiberglass and a can of resin from the hardware store. “There,” she said, “now you can fix it.”
            I spent that summer learning how to stand up on my board, surfing small beach breaks near the pier. Late one August afternoon after the dry Santa Anas softened and the air hung thick and hot, I caught a long left in the evening glass. I rode that wave for what seemed like ages. It just kept rising up to meet me, its concave face reflecting the fiery sunset above, like I were engulfed in flame. My breath caught in my throat. A feeling of belonging swept through me so overwhelming I nearly wept. I felt at once deeply at home in this strange world, and deeply at home in my own skin. For an awkward adolescent this was a revelation – to no longer feel like a stranger in a strange land.
            That Christmas I got my first O’Neil wetsuit. It cost a lot. It was a big sacrifice for my working class mom and dad. They knew I was serious. And the fact that they took me seriously was empowering. It helps when the people who love you believe you are capable of things before you are. It carries you through the difficulties ahead.
            There were many dark mornings paddling out before high school in the freezing winter air. There were big winter swells that churned the water and turned your stomach. But the challenge pulled you forward. You knew this sea, you knew this break, even if each looming wave on the horizon was a treacherous stranger. Facing them, you face yourself.
            Everything changed when we got our own cars. My first car was a 1954 Studebaker Champion station wagon, rescued from Mr. Steinberg’s garage across the street where it had languished abandoned and broken for decades. My oldest brother Eric, ten years my senior, eager for yet another automotive restoration project, hauled that rusted hulk into our family garage and together (o.k., mostly him) we stripped it down and rebuilt it. Once it was operational I mounted surf racks on the roof. Now me and my friends could range much farther up and down the coast, no longer beholden to mom’s ride or the contraption we’d rigged up to haul our boards to the beach behind our bikes.
            My next car was a 1968 Datsun 510 wagon, a far more trustworthy and reliable transport. Teenagers with cars. You know the rest. You know the trouble I got into in that car. The bong hidden under the seat, the girls, parking at the beach at night, but not for the surfing.
            Every chance we got my best friend Steve and I would load our boards onto the roof and head up the coast checking every break between Ventura and Rincon Point. The best days were when the beach breaks broke into perfect, clean lefts and rights and the sun came out from behind the overcast and the water sparkled under your board as you flew up and down laughing, breathing hard, feeling alive and free because the sea does that to you – it strips away everything that’s unessential leaving you awake and aloft in the heart of your own best life.
            Maybe I liked surfing because it was an essentially solitary sport. You paddled out with a friend, but often spent the day out of range of each other, both on your own lonely hunt for the next wave. Unlike most sports, there was no clock – no beginning, no end. No one was keeping score. No one had to lose so that you could win. You simply abandoned yourself to the will of nature, and did what you could to quiet yourself and move into accord with it. You cannot impose your will upon the sea – instead, you must relinquish your will and slip into deep cooperation with her vast and enigmatic design. Surfing teaches you to wait. It teaches you how to align your energies with the energies of the cosmos moving around you. It teaches you to stop interfering and start cooperating.
            When I began studying the world’s wisdom traditions in Professor Barret Culmback’s philosophy classes at Ventura College, I had years of lived experience in the sea to frame and contextualize the insights his lectures and readings afforded. The real revelation came when I read the Daodejing, the 6th century B.C.E. book of Chinese wisdom by Laozi. I immediately understood what Laozi meant by wu wei, or effortless effort – that the best action is natural, spontaneous, creative, and unforced action in harmony with current conditions. When we blindly impose our arbitrary preferences and plans onto the fluid reality around us we fail. When we move with the current, on the other hand, we amplify our effort and achieve more by doing less.
            In the end it isn’t books, lectures, or teachers, no matter how profound, that awaken us to our own best life. It is the lived experience of our days. If we pay attention. It is of course possible to live one’s entire life and never realize a thing. But every life offers a sea of opportunity to awaken to the wisdom we see, feel, and are. If we’re curious, brave, open-minded, open-hearted, and willing to take risks, the waves of life become our teacher.