Saturday, January 5, 2019

When the Music Fades


I wanted to cry, but I had to laugh. Sitting in a sound proof room at my local Costco, the results of my hearing test in plain view on the computer screen, the evidence was incontrovertible. I need hearing aids.
            It seems that all those years playing in rock and roll bands has finally caught up with me. And all that loud music in my headphones and ear buds. And some staggeringly loud rock concerts, like X at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara, circa 1982, to this day, the loudest concert I have ever attended. And that’s saying something.
            And the fact that I’m 60 years old. That isn’t exactly helping.
            I didn’t notice anything dramatic, just steadily increasing difficulty following conversations in loud places like restaurants, bars, or parties. I found myself reading lips. You do what you have to do. I’m fine one on one in a quiet place. I only play the TV slightly louder than Lori does. And the background music of TV and movies sometimes seems to drown out the dialogue. Uh oh.
            All the little things were adding up. Word discernment, loss of higher frequencies (you know, women’s voices).
            Anything taking my world away from me is going to get a fight. I started reading everything I could find online, even though most of it is written by people trying to sell you hearing aids. Still, I began to realize that this was a much more complicated process than I thought. It wasn’t simply that the world was getting softer. I was hearing it differently, as well as less. When the dialogue in a movie seems too soft in relation to the background music, you know you’ve got more than volume problems. Turns out there are many different kinds of hearing loss. As one of my friends put it, you don’t hear with your ears, you hear with your brain. Your ears are just the microphones. All of the signal processing occurs in the brain.
            So I walked into my local Costco one Tuesday afternoon and talked to the receptionist at the Hearing Aid Center. It just so happened that there was an opening the next morning. So there I was at 10:00 A.M. ready for whatever’s next.
            But I wasn’t. Ready I mean. I started to feel overwhelmed. Would I really need hearing aids? Hearing aids are for old people. Really old people. Is this the beginning of the end? Maybe I was being a little over-dramatic. But still. Once you make the switch to hearing aids, there’s no turning back.
            But I was tired of asking Lori to repeat half of the things she said. Not nearly as tired of it as she was I’m sure. And a conversation I’d had with an old friend, the artist Douglas Schneider, kept ringing in my ears, so to speak. He’d led a life pretty much like mine – hard living and loud music. Too many long nights on stage in the deafening din of rock and roll clubs. That whole invincibility thing. Except it turns out we’re not.
            He paints to music in his studio in Oakland, California creating big, brilliant, beautiful works that fly out of high-end galleries in San Francisco and New York and into the hands of a growing cadre of discerning collectors. Like me, he knows he lives a charmed life – not an easy life, but a charmed life. There’s a difference. And that by grace and love and dumb luck he found his way through the crazy years and into a beautiful middle age. But then the music started fading. He noticed a certain dullness. He went and had his ears checked. When he got hearing aids in an instant the world sparked back to life. The brush work on the cymbals of his Coltrane records suddenly emerged from the dark. It’s not that everything was louder – everything pulled into focus and was restored to its proper proportionality.
            I wanted that.
            So I stepped into the soundproof booth. After a long series of detailed tests my hearing specialist showed me the results. Mild to moderate hearing loss, especially in my left ear, especially in the higher frequency range.
            In the meditative stillness of the hearing test a long-forgotten memory arose. When I was about seven or eight years old a neighbor boy threw a firecracker at me. Not a run of the mill firecracker, an M-80, a small stick of dynamite. I didn’t see it coming. It detonated in the air right next to my left ear. In a flash I was knocked off my bike and everything went silent, except for the ringing. A small trickle of blood came out of my ear. Parents were involved. A doctor visit. It’s blurry.
            Ever since then my left ear hasn’t worked so good. Whenever I strain to hear something I cock my head like a dog, turning my right ear in the direction of the thing I’m trying to hear. Now I remember why.
            So it’s no surprise that the high frequency capacity of my left ear is nearly gone. But even without that incident, the die is cast. I am losing my hearing.
            Hearing loss, like alcoholism, is a regressive disease – it never gets better, it only gets worse. Unless you do something about it.
            And here’s the most interesting part – if you wait too long to get hearing aids, no matter how effective your new devices are at delivering the proper frequencies to your ears, your brain is no longer capable of processing them. A kind of brain apathy sets in. In other words, you still won’t hear. Remember, you hear with your brain, not your ears. The average person waits ten years between the first experience of hearing diminishment and getting hearing aids – far too long. The damage is done.
            This was chilling news, a new, sick twist on use it or lose it. It turns out the brain is not just a machine waiting for the right signals. It is a living, responding, conscious organism that evolves and adapts in conjunction with its environment. Take away the surrounding environment and the brain’s usability fades. This is why hearing specialists strongly recommend getting hearing aids sooner rather than later – to keep the brain’s hearing centers fully engaged and active at all frequencies.
            I don’t have hearing aids yet. I’m going to go see a real audiologist and get tested again. But I’ll probably buy my hearing aids at Costco. Word of mouth is good about their product and service, and as everybody knows, their low cost and return policy set the industry standard. Their main product tucks right behind the ear with a tiny, clear plastic tube into the ear canal – virtually invisible – and goes for about $1,600 a pair. Or you can spend twice that much for even fancier models with all kinds of additional features like full device compatibility. But whatever you do, if you even suspect minor hearing lost, go get a free test. And this is doubly true for all of my professional musician friends. Don’t jeopardize the most important instrument in your quiver, your ears. And don’t jeopardize your relationships either. Those beautiful people you share your life with are really sick of you saying, “What?” all the time.
            There are rustling leaves and lapping waves and the sound of the wind on raven’s wings overhead. We’ll all be gone soon enough. But until then, I don’t want to miss a thing.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Tough Love


Compassion isn’t for wimps. Opening your heart to the suffering of others is dangerous, high-risk business. It could cost you your peace of mind, damage your reputation, and confuse the not-so-innocent bystanders. It might even cost you your life.

            Compassion isn’t soft and fuzzy, it’s bold and tough. It’s the conviction to love no matter what the cost. Compassion sets self-interest aflame, burns down the ego, and sows seeds in the tear-soaked ashes.

            Compassion threatens institutional power, official explanations, hallowed doctrines, and traditional ideologies. Compassion might even threaten our conventional notions of law, morality, and ethics. In fact, compassion threatens all systems, because love is not a system, it’s not a thought, it’s not a concept, and it sure isn’t a doctrine – it’s a living, breathing embodiment of the eternal formless sacred here in the realm of temporal forms. It eludes our grasp, while simultaneously forming the very fabric of our being. We cannot understand compassion. We can only be compassion. In fact, we must.

            The world’s wisdom teachers and traditions have been singing this song since the beginning. The 4th century B.C.E. Chinese philosopher Mencius argued that compassion was one of the “four sprouts,” along with righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. These four virtues are innate potentials, not a fait accompli. The sprout metaphor is a lively one – like young, tender shoots our virtues must be nurtured, cultivated, and strengthened through use.

But even in the least practiced among us, the four sprouts are present. Who among us, Mencius asked, when seeing a child fall into a well, would not rush to save them? Not to gain favor from their parents, or to bolster our standing in the community, or for any other extrinsic motive, but because it is in our nature to feel deeply the suffering of others and to act on those feelings.

            Still, compassion is a tendency, not an inevitability. As Mencius taught, human beings tend toward goodness the way water tends to run downhill, and water can be blocked or diverted. Just because human beings have a benevolent nature does not prevent them from choosing indifference or worse. Far, far worse. 

In Buddhism, compassion is the natural consequence of enlightenment. Awakening from the dream of separateness, moving beyond the limits of conditioned consciousness characterized by craving and fear, the boundaries between all forms become diaphanous. Everything bleeds into one. The suffering of others is finally seen for what is it – our suffering.

            When Jesus counsels us to love our enemies and forgive them for they know not what they do, he is calling us to our compassion – to learn how to see the secret heart of our enemies and find our common humanity there. A tall order, but possible, if we allow our inner light to shine brighter than the darkness of our egotism. Agape, the Greek word the Gospels use for love, is more an act of will than a feeling. We have to choose love, especially when we don’t feel it.

             So which is it? Is compassion spontaneous or an act of the will? The mind gets caught up in the whirlwind between such paradoxes. The answer is never either/or but always both/and. Compassion is inclination, not destiny. We must first feel it, then choose it, again and again and again. And through practice, we strengthen our capacity to feel the suffering of others, thereby tempering the metal of our fiercely loving hearts.
 
[This piece was first published in my A to Zen column in the January/February issue of Unity Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.]