Thursday, January 1, 2015

Here Be Dragons

Every January I get that same, giddy feeling. Another year full of potential lies before us like uncharted territory. But there could be trouble ahead. As cartographers used to write on unexplored lands – here be dragons.
Will this be the year we finally lose weight? Win the lottery? Have unforeseen surgery? Finally get married? Finally get divorced? Move?
Lose that last, dumb, bad habit? Lose the house in a fire?
It’s exciting when you think about it – so many possibilities, so many potential disasters. Here be dragons indeed.
Maybe this year we’ll go camping. Or volunteer at the after-school literacy program. Or start painting again. Or finally watch the rest of Game of Thrones. Or not.
One thing I’m finally going to do for sure is update all my software, and back up all my files to an external drive and the cloud. Yeah. Sure.
And clean out the garage, and take those dried up paint cans to the recycling place – and the old electronics and computers too. As soon as I download all the documents and folders off of them. Any minute now.
And I’ll finally get my office filing system purged, sorted, and well, filed.
And the photos. Oh God, the photos.
So January is looking pretty busy.
But then I stop and tell myself, wait. Hold on. Why are you doing this again? Why are you creating all these ridiculous scenarios, these bright fantasies of accomplishment? It’s one thing to have aspirations – it’s another to be delusional.
What’s really going to happen is this. On that fine January morning I’m going to get up, have some coffee, read for a bit, then log on and take care of correspondence. A dozen emails to write, website updates to create, performance and speaking schedules to manage. And then there are upcoming writing deadlines to prioritize, and articles, columns, and courses to plan, draft, format, and finalize. By then it’s lunch.
After lunch I notice that the kitchen could use some attention. I’ll empty, then fill the dishwasher. And throw in a load of laundry, or three. Maybe pop over to the store for some food, and get a plan for dinner going.
Then I remember that the car needs gas, and there are a few things at the dry cleaners that need picking up. I’ve forgotten them so long they probably sold them by now.
Pulling back into the driveway I see my neighbor raking the last leaves of winter from beneath her bare trees. We chat for a while about neighborhood stuff and recent travels – hers to London, ours to Sedona – and then I hear the drier buzzer. Time to swap loads.
Coming back into the house with my groceries and dry cleaning I see that the cat has vomited in the hallway. I clean it up.
I put away the groceries and wonder what surprises all those unmarked containers in the freezer hold. They must be something good or I wouldn’t have frozen them. I’ll figure it out later.
Then a cool song I heard in the car by Dawes or Steve Earle or somebody rises up in my head and I grab my guitar to chase whatever comes along. A new song takes shape. I am only vaguely aware that I have anything to do with it – it seems to be writing itself, or simply arriving. I have two verses, a chorus, and part of a bridge when the buzzer sounds again. I take the hot, dry clothes out of the dryer and load in the cold, soggy ones from the washer. I push the buttons.
I see that the mail has arrived. Including those two checks I’ve been waiting for. I sign them and deposit them with the credit union app on my phone.
The phone rings and I talk to a friend for half an hour.
The sun is getting low. Better start dinner.
And fold the laundry.
When Lori gets home from her long day at work, we finish making dinner and eat. Then more dishes.
And now it’s dark. It’s been a long day. Feet up.
Maybe tomorrow I’ll get to that garage clean-up and all the rest of the things on my to-do list. But now, I got a peaceful, easy feeling. The work is done.
Some laughs. Stories. Reconnection. Holding hands as we fall asleep.
What’s the point of having a home if you don’t stop to enjoy it? Your house shouldn’t only be a work site, a place of unending obligations and incomplete tasks. A home should be a refuge, a safe place to hide, a soft place to land. A place to dream dreams.
I’m taking a second look at my January plans.
Maybe this time I’ll just keep it simple. One thing at a time. As I engage in each task, really be present in that task, instead of thinking about the next nine things I have to do as soon as I finish this one. And leave plenty of time between for neighbors, songs, and the beauty of the world pouring in through the windows.
A contemplative mood is one of the special treasures of winter.
January may be a time of starting over. But it’s also a time for looking back. January gets its name from the Roman god Janus, the keeper of keys and doorways. (Janus is also where janitors get their name – they too have the key to every door). Janus has an unusual feature. You’d notice it right away if you ever saw him. He has two faces – one looking back and one looking forward. This gives Janus a breadth of awareness many of us lack. Most of us focus only on our own narrow, immediate interests.
But Janus sees it all. The wisdom he’s gained from his long perspective enables him to correctly assess the value of this present moment. He’s well aware of everything that’s been lost. And he’s also aware that up ahead there be dragons. But it doesn’t stop him from turning the key and opening doors anyway. He doesn’t hide from the past, nor does he fear the future. His is a total and heartfelt acceptance. In his wisdom he knows what to do, and he knows how to do it.
So do we.
The balance we strike between intention and renunciation is the vibrant nexus from which our most authentic creativity comes. Are we willing to show up fully alive in this next now moment, free from the past and heartily accepting of the future? More than any other force, the consciousness we bring into this moment shapes whatever unfolds. When we resolve to live purposefully, deliberately, authentically, and courageously, the doors begin to open. We hold in our hands the keys of Janus. And damn the dragons. “Once you make a decision,” Emerson wrote, “the universe conspires to make it happen.”

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Missing Link

[This piece originally appeared in the column "A to Zen" in the January/February 2015 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

The use of antidepressant medication in America has jumped 400% in the last two decades. One in ten Americans over the age of twelve is taking them. Women are two and a half times more likely to take antidepressants than men, a gap that grows wider in middle age – one in four women between the ages of 40-59 are being treated with antidepressants. And it’s not just depression we’re talking about. Antidepressants are frequently prescribed to treat anxiety as well.
Here, in the most prosperous and comfortable society in human history, millions and millions of us are struggling to cope with deep and abiding feelings of disconnection, fear, sadness, and alienation. Complex problems never have a single solution because no event or condition stems from a single cause – all phenomena are the result of multiple causes. This is what makes fixing anything so difficult. In our current age – the age of psychology – all maladies of consciousness are called “mental illness” and are treated by medical professionals. For most of human history we called them “spiritual problems.”
Psychology, with its modalities of psychiatry and talk-therapy, is about 100 years old. Philosophy and religion are as old as humanity. Throughout our history whenever the world grew dark and began closing in, we turned to the shaman, the priestess, the seer, the sage, or the spiritual healer. Setting a broken bone is one thing. But how do you treat free-floating, debilitating fear or deep, pervasive hopelessness? How do you bring someone back into the fold of their own best life?
The origin of the word “religion” is obscured somewhat by antiquity, but modern scholars believe it comes from the Latin root re-ligare meaning “to bind, to link back or to reconnect.” In our usage, “religion” has come to mean any system of myth and ritual that binds a community together in a shared experience of the ineffable, transcendent divine. In this sense, religions aren’t themselves true or false – they point to the truth, a truth that can only be experienced and verified in the depths of the individual through reverence, prayer, meditation, ecstasy, or ritual. All words, concepts, teachings, doctrines, texts, and traditions are fingers pointing at the moon. They show us where to look. But they are not the moon.
If in this ancient sense religion and philosophy are healing modalities designed to re-integrate those among us who are disintegrating, then job number one is returning our prodigal sons and daughters to the loving embrace of the tribe. But this re-integration goes way beyond a few warm hugs from loved ones. Real and painful existential crises have to be addressed and repaired. Sadly, we cannot love someone well. If it were only that easy.
What the world’s wisdom traditions do offer is this – a vision of the cosmos as an orderly whole in which each of us has purpose and infinite value. But a simple, straight-forward explanation of this concept is insufficient. Replacing old concepts with new ones is a start, but it’s not enough. Being told about delicious food doesn’t quell one’s hunger.
To be linked back, bound, and reconnected to one’s original wholeness requires a direct experience of unity. Medications and psychotherapy are helpful. The spiritual teachings, methods, suggestions, and practices of others are helpful. Any journey benefits from a map. But then the walking begins.
There are many hands to hold us up when we are too weak to stand. There are many voices to speak truth when we have forgotten it. There are many hearts full of kindness. There are many feet that have walked out of the valley of the shadow of death and know the way. None of us does any of this alone. But no one can stand for us, know for us, speak for us, feel for us, or walk for us. If we have the ears to hear, the universe is forever singing us home. It too disintegrated when we unlearned our unity. Its longing is our longing. Begin from where you are. With a word, yes, we can reconnect the sacred cord. Our resolve is the missing link.

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.