Monday, December 28, 2009

One Twenty Ten

Just as every drop of the ocean carries the taste of the ocean, so does every moment carry the taste of eternity. -- Nisargadatta Maharaj

It’s often said that every ending is a beginning. So it must also be true that every beginning is an ending.

As we celebrate the beginning of the second decade of the 2000s we feel more keenly than ever the loss of what can never be retrieved or relived. The past has a way of doing that, of slipping away without even leaving a note.

Despite our increasingly effective (and intrusive) ways of capturing the sights and sounds that masquerade as our “experience”, there is still one unavoidable fact: no matter how many megabytes of audio and visual data we collect, there is no way to make any of it truly last. Our technology makes us clever archivists, but when it comes to stopping time we’re still knuckle-dragging primitives.

I sometimes wonder what it must have been like to live in a world before photography, film, video and sound recording. How has this relatively recent technology altered the way in which we experience the world?

Back when I used to shoot film, actual film, on my 35 mm cameras, I would carefully choose each shot. Film and prints weren’t cheap, and you only had 24 or 36 on a roll. You had to make each shot count. So you thought a lot about composition, lighting and most importantly, value – was this scene or image worth keeping?

Now that we’re all shooting digital we are no longer bound by these frugal restrictions. We shoot indiscriminately. Later, we’ll see if we got anything good.

But what does all this continual image-gathering actually get us besides the need for bigger and bigger hard drives? As we gain endless files of archived images, what do we lose?

Quantum physics affirms the vexing nature of image-capturing. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, also known as “the observer effect”, shows that the act of observing alters the observed. There is no way to look at something without changing the thing you’re looking at. Early in her career as a young anthropologist on the island of Samoa, Margaret Mead dutifully recorded the self-reported rampant promiscuity of her adolescent female subjects. Many years later the same girls, now old women, told another anthropologist, “we made it all up.” They said it was fun making up stories for the American scientist lady. And, they said, she seemed to eat it up. Mead’s influential work, based on her research in Samoa, touting the alleged harmlessness of casual sex had a profound effect on the twentieth century. The innocent lies of a handful of Samoan girls arguably contributed greatly to a sea change in the sexual mores of the modern world. Mead thought she was recording objective reality. It turns out there’s no such thing.

The act of observing alters the observed. But even more importantly, it alters the observer.

As a boy I used to shoot a lot of super-8 movies. It became an obsession. Everywhere I went, whether I was shooting or not, I noticed great compositions, I framed shots, kept a watchful eye on lighting conditions and logged locations into memory for future projects. My eyes had become mere accessories to my camera. The process took me over. I stopped shooting super-8 film many years ago, and to this day, I still have not purchased a video camera. I’m afraid of what might happen.

I am also in the habit of journaling when I travel. Whenever Lori and I go somewhere, I bring a blank composition book and couple of pens. As I drink my morning coffee I write for an hour or so about the previous day’s events. I love to write, and I love coming home with a detailed account of our time in Manhattan or on Kauai or on the windy moors of Cornwall. There’s just one problem. As we’re walking through Stone Age ruins or standing in front of Van Gogh’s Starry Night at MOMA in New York I’m thinking, hmm, what should I write about this tomorrow morning? Even without a camera around my neck I’m still strangled by the process of encapsulation.

No matter the technology, the fact remains that our attempts to capture reality have captured us.

Recently, I’ve initiated an experiment. What if I just stood in the middle of my life and stopped trying to record the “important” moments? What if I just reveled in the experience of the now? Rather than compose shots, design pan-zoom combinations or draft paragraphs, what if I just stood there and breathed the Navajo prayer, “beauty to the right of me, beauty to the left of me, beauty below me, beauty above me, beauty behind me, beauty before me; I walk the pollen path.”

Wherever we are, we are forever at the center of an ever-changing vortex of sacred transformation. None of it can be captured; none of it can be frozen and put on a shelf for later experience. This is it. Here and now. We are either present to it or not. You can’t have it both ways.

In our obsessive craving to possess everything we overlook the simple truth; we already are everything. This holy moment contains all the grandeur and majesty of the ages. We look incessantly outward, just beyond the grasp of our outstretched hands, blind and numb to the treasure within. “Without going outside, you may know the whole world,” Laozi writes in the Dao De Jing. Every drop of water contains the whole of the ocean and every moment holds the fullness of eternity. We don’t need to capture and cage the heartbreaking poignance of the fleeting moments of our lives. There is nothing to grasp or possess. Time, Plato says, is just the moving image of eternity. The eternal Presence is forever, unavoidably within us.

2009 was a blur. What if we brought a different, more awakened consciousness into the new year? If it’s anything like 2009, 2010 will be over before you know it. It’s already slipping away. Put down your camera and open your eyes. There is only going to be one 2010.

Monday, December 7, 2009

So This is Christmas

So this is Christmas, and what have you done? Another year older, a new one just begun. -- John Lennon

In his immortal song Happy Xmas (War is Over) John Lennon asks an accusatory question, a profound question that cuts through the layers of treacle and tinsel like a chain saw – are you really living the life you want to be living? Really?

Whenever this song comes on the radio as I’m zigzagging across town on my oh-so-important errands I have to pull over. The swirling waltz tempo, the circular, ascending chords, the pendulous melody, the lyrical balance between solemnity and celebration all brought to life by the beloved voice of a long lost friend – has there ever been a more powerful Christmas song? (And the competition is stiff). Like a ghost in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, John Lennon comes back from the grave every Christmas to strum his Gibson, rattle our chains and drag us into an essential, transformative awareness. Are we living authentically, awake to every precious moment and opportunity that comes our way, or are we merely a cog on a wheel in someone else’s machine, going through the motions of our so-called lives like a sleepwalker? He never was one for beating around the bush.

With his opening lines Lennon pulls us into deep self-examination. Knowing that for many of us this a vulnerable time – our emotions are close to the surface – Lennon strikes to the heart with a profoundly powerful question. Here at the end of the year, as we reflect on the passage of time and more importantly, our use of that time, it is a very good time indeed to ponder the cumulative effect of our choices and actions. Our dreams, like ghosts that haunt the shadowed edges of our lives, are ever-present. We want something better than this. We long for love and connection and purpose. There is so much beauty waiting to emerge. Our potential mastery, prosperity and joy are waiting in the wings, waiting for their cue to take their rightful place center stage. All of these potentialities. Another year over, a new one just begun. And what have we done?

Each moment is an end, and each moment is a beginning. The circularity of the seasons reminds us of this. We are ever born anew. Yes, the past is what got us here to this present moment. But we are unbound. History is not destiny. We are not determined by the past. We are forever and infinitely free in this next moment to reemerge from the womb of our incompletion and stand tall as beings of infinite value. Do you dare? That is Lennon’s taunt.

And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun, the near and the dear ones, the old and the young.

But let this not be a solemn process. We do not stand accused. Lennon’s goal is encouragement, not condemnation. Let us also celebrate the joys and gifts of being alive. And the depth of our happiness is only realized in community. We have met the enemy, and it is isolation. As we open our hearts and our arms and drop our fears, prejudices and limitations we find ourselves in the middle of warm, caring communities. Our friends, families, neighbors, colleagues and strangers alike stand ready to take our outstretched hand. Talk to somebody. Hear their story. Give the gift of time and attention. Love is not complicated. It is simply the act of presence, without expectation or demand. Let yourself be amazed.

A merry, merry Christmas and a happy new year, let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.

With the help of the children of the Harlem Community Choir and a bottomless Phil Spector wall-of-sound production, Yoko Ono leads us into the childlike simplicity of the chorus and the central theme of the song: the triumph of optimism over pessimism. It is a master stroke of casting. These utterly disarming voices form the perfect counterpoint to Lennon’s sage presence. For me, the emotional core of the song is the second half of the chorus, with its descending melody and stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks honesty. Rarely does pop music get this naked, this raw, this real. On the surface, a simple hope – at core, a ground breaking affirmation. No matter what lies in the past, there lies before us a sacred opportunity, the opportunity to realize the ancient dream of peace and dignity for all. With childlike innocence we claim the promise of the ages: the end of fear, the dawn of peace and the simple sanity of love.

War is over, if you want it, war is over now.

Underneath it all, woven through the fabric of the song like a golden thread, are the words of John and Yoko’s anti-war campaign. Taken verbatim from the billboards they created and put in major cities all over the world protesting the Vietnam War, this mesmerizing chant moves through the shadows like an unconscious thought. Affirming the infinite power of the collective conscience of humanity, John and Yoko share their boundless optimism that if the people lead, the leaders must follow. But we needn’t see this as just an anti-war song. It goes beyond politics and global conflict. As Gandhi taught, the real war is within. What are we doing to create peace in our minds, in our homes, on the road, in our offices, in our classrooms, in our marriages? What Lennon is really teaching is this, that reality is simply a product of the mind. Our thoughts create our words and our words create our actions and our actions create our habits and our habits construct our character. Our greatest gift this holiday season, or any season, is how we show up in our own lives. Who are you going to be? How does your presence impact others? What kind of world are you co-creating? War is not inevitable. Peace is possible. We are always creating, whether consciously or not. Let’s choose consciousness. Peace is not the destination. Peace is the journey. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

And so this is Christmas, for weak and for strong, the rich and the poor ones, the road is so long.

We have an opportunity. We have a chance at deepening the reach of our own humanity, of broadening the scope of our vision, of expanding our sphere of influence. And Christmas is the right time to begin. All of us are hurting. We’re all struggling. Times are hard. There’s never enough money. There are health issues and relationship strains. Trouble at work, trouble at home. And the future is fraught with danger. But beneath all the waves of woe lies an infinite sea of stillness. Even an atheist like Lennon gets it. There is a sacred source at the core of all of these overlapping spheres of experience. We only need to sink down into the roots of our inner Being, available to us in each moment. We continually drink from the boundless source flowing forever from the center, and as we do, we are strengthened and encouraged to live the lives we have always imagined. Soon we will be another year older, and another, and on and on until the last ragged breath leaves our tired body. Then it will be too late. Now is the time to create the lives we all so richly deserve. You don’t have to fix the world. Don’t turn this vision into yet another egoic achievement. Instead, simply enjoy your life and find the myriad small ways to connect to the people around you through kindness, through song, through the healing touch of a hand. Draw the presence of the Real to the surface with intentional, conscious action. Whenever you get caught up in the harried, hurried pace of the madness of life, stop, take a good look around and sing to yourself, “and so this is Christmas.”