Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Cloud Shadows

[This piece was originally published in my "A to Zen" column in the May/June 2014 issue of Unity Magazine under the title "The Wisdom of Embracing Change," and is reproduced here with permission.]

The ancient Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu lived alone in the mountains. Legend has it that when his wife died, his Confucian friend Hui Tzu made the difficult journey up the mountain to pay his respects. When Hui Tzu reached Chuang Tzu’s hut three days later he found his old friend singing, banging on a kettle, and dancing naked around the fire. Hui Tzu was mortified. This was certainly not proper decorum in the aftermath of such a grievous event, and not befitting a philosopher of such renown.
Hui Tzu stepped into the clearing and chastised the old man.
“Chuang Tzu, how can you behave so outrageously? Proper etiquette demands that with the loss of a spouse one wears black and behaves solemnly for one year. And here you are dancing naked around a fire banging on a kettle and singing at the top of your lungs.”
Chuang Tzu looked at his old friend.
“Three days ago, when my wife died,” he said, “I fell apart. I sank to the ground, curled up into a fetal position and didn’t move for three days. I wept and gasped for air like a fish out of water. Then I realized that it was time to get up. My wife was not my possession, therefore she could not be “lost.” Each of us arises out of the field of pure potentiality and takes form for a while. Then we return to the great field of formlessness. Why mourn?  I did not mourn before she was born, why should I mourn now? Instead, I celebrate the time we had together. Now when my eyes fill with tears they are not tears of sorrow but tears of gratitude for the depth and beauty she brought into my life.”
Behind this apocryphal story lay a very important theme – things change. And wisdom is acceptance of change. Maybe it’s just that simple.
The Buddha taught that impermanence (anitya) was one of the fundamental qualities of reality. Not only does everything change, but everything changes into everything else. Each composite thing is built from bits and pieces of formerly composite things. Therefore everything is part of one, vast, interconnected web of being. Nothing is self-caused. Everything is dependent on everything else. Thich Nhat Hahn calls it “inter-being.” This boundless interdependency links each of us into the whole whether we’re aware of it or not. Forms may come and go, but the whole is intact. Learning to love the whole as much as the parts is the engine of our awakening.
A year ago I had the honor of performing a memorial service for a friend whose son had died of a drug overdose. All funerals are hard, but this one was particularly painful. The deceased was a vibrant, outgoing, talented young man, as well as a recovering opiate addict. He was doing well. Then he slipped and made a dosage error. His mother found him dead in his bed three days before Christmas. I recently spoke to her and asked her how she was doing now that it’s been over a year. She said it was hard. The first six months she could hardly breathe. Then slowly and for no particular reason the suffocating grip of grief began to lift. Nothing would ever be the same, but the strange clarity of peace began to penetrate and illuminate the sorrow. She misses him every day, and it will never be right that he died so young, but in her dawning wisdom she knew – everyone dies, it’s only a matter of when, and we do not measure the value of a life by its length but by its depth.
A cloud casts a shadow that passes swiftly over the surface of the earth, here and then gone. A cloud is just a coalescence of ice crystals and water vapor high in the atmosphere. It isn’t really a thing, but a collection of elements taking momentary form, sometimes even a recognizable form – a feather, a flower, the face of a loved one. Then high winds rend it apart, its form dissolving in the light of the sun. And the shadow vanishes.
As he lay dying the Buddha told his monks, “Remember this, all forms are impermanent.” Suffering, he taught, was the natural result of a cognitive error – the mistaken notion that we own any of this. Everything we have is borrowed, and we must give it all back, sometimes suddenly and without warning. Living in the wisdom of impermanence enables us to be fully present in this now moment, the only moment there ever is. By coming out of the fog of the delusion of permanence, we awaken into reality – a place of love and interconnectedness that the mind and its ego attachments can never access. By saying yes to transition, we say yes to the unambiguous beauty of being alive.

Saturday, May 3, 2014


In 1884 the committee in charge of funding the Statue of Liberty ran out of money. Joseph Pulitzer used his newspaper the New York World to spread the word. More than 125,000 people heard the call and donated over $100,000. Most gave less than a dollar – a small price to pay for bragging rights every time you spied Lady Liberty lording over the New York harbor – “I built that.”
These days, if you want to make a film, record an album, mount a play, or launch any other sort of art project, you’re going to need money – a lot of money. You have some choices. One is to self-fund – drain the household budget dry and somehow scrape together thousands of dollars to fund your project. Or you can find corporate sponsorship – a business partner who sees some commercial benefit in allying with you and your work. Both of those approaches have their benefits and liabilities. But the liabilities loom large. Going broke or permanently hitching your art to a corporate logo leaves something to be desired. Fortunately, there’s a third alternative – crowdfunding.
Crowdfunding isn’t new. But it was slow to catch on. These days there are dozens of crowdfunding services available with Indiegogo, Kickstarter, and GoFundMe leading the pack. Each of these many services has its own boundaries and permutations. Some focus on the arts, others on medical expenses. But they all have one thing in common – they create an opportunity for community-building in ways personal or corporate funding do not.
I started my 30 day Kickstarter campaign on March 18. My goal was to raise $6,000 toward the recording, production, and manufacturing of my new CD Two Pines. There were a lot of decisions to make. How much money? You don’t want to set the target too low because it costs about $10,000 to make an album. And you don’t want to set it too high, because with Kickstarter, if you don’t hit your target in the allotted time, you don’t get a dime and the whole thing goes away. We aimed low hoping to raise at least 60% of the $10,000 we needed. We ended up with $8,833. How long of a campaign? Your first instinct is to let it go a long time, say 90 days, so that there’s ample time to hit your goal. But Kickstarter advises you to choose a 30 day campaign for one simple reason – their research shows that 30 day campaigns successfully fund at a much higher rate than longer campaigns – something about the urgency. So we went with a 30 day campaign. We were fully funded in 20 days.
Then you have to make a video. Since I don’t know anything about making videos I decided on a simple, single camera, direct appeal. I shot three versions of me just talking into the camera, making my pitch on what this project was about, what my goals were, and how you could help. Then I just laid an audio track underneath – the song “Long Way Home” from my last album.
Then I had to decide on the number and amount of reward levels. I looked at a lot of other successful Kickstarter campaigns for ideas, including those by my friends Eve Selis, Grant Langston, and Joe Rathburn. That’s when it occurred to me – crowdfunding is not charity. You’re not just passing the hat and shaking down your friends for cash so you can make your little art project a reality. Turns out it’s nothing like that at all, although that’s certainly the rap it often gets. What really happens is this – you’re giving your fans the rare opportunity to get inside an art project on the ground floor. At the lower dollar levels, $15 and $20, you’re giving them a download or a signed copy of the CD before anyone else gets to hear it. At the $30, $50, $75 and $100 levels you’re offering increasing packages of handwritten, signed and framed lyrics, signed album posters, some or all of the back catalog of Peter Bolland and the Coyote Problem CDs, and the permanent tribute of being listed in the album credits as a contributor.
Then, following the pattern I’d seen on other Kickstarter campaigns, I created a $500 and $1,000 level. At the $500 level you get all previous rewards, plus a solo house concert anywhere within a hundred miles of San Diego as well as the title of associate producer in the album credits. At the $1,000 level you get all that plus a custom song written and recorded just for you and the title of executive producer. And this is where it got amazing. Within two hours after the launch, back on March 18, someone came in at the $500 level. And it wasn’t long before someone came in at the $1,000 level too. In fact, in the final analysis, the seven backers at the $500 and $1,000 level account for 71% of the funding. Another surprise was the twelve backers at the $100 level. When you add the top three tiers together – the $1,000, the $500 and the $100 levels – you get a staggering 85% of the total funding. I did not see that coming.
The real benefit of crowdfunding, besides of course the funding, is the community that forms around your project. Before your album even hits the street there is already broad awareness, piqued interest, and committed support. By creating an opportunity to become a co-creator of a work of art, you are giving people a chance many of them don’t often get. Music is already an inherently communal art form – it exists in the space between performer and audience. It belongs as much to the audience as it does to the artist. It is a profoundly intimate art form. Noises you make with your body – your fingers, hands, mind, soul, heart, and voice – travel through the air as physical vibrations and enter the body of another – their ears, their skin, their mind, their heart. Music is the total immersion of one soul into another. Crowdfunding allows you to expand, celebrate and concretize this inherent symbiosis. By binding together exactly the right people – people who vote with their time, treasure, and talent for the completion of a new body of work – the lines between artist, art patron, and art perceiver blur until you don’t know where one ends and the other begins.
The experience is profound. I am humbled, enlivened, and grateful beyond words. I take the stage now a little differently than I did in the past. Now when I step on stage I stand there confident, authorized, supported, and absolutely convinced that this work has value. That is a gift my fans gave me, and I will strive to repay that debt with every song I sing. I know that even on those days when I don’t feel like singing, those nights when performance feels a little like a job and not so much like play, even then, with the first downbeat it all washes away and I’m caught again by the conviction that this matters, that the beauty of this music is not my own – it’s ours.
I feel it more strongly now than ever – the music not only belongs to all of us, the music is us. It is our heartbeat, our sorrow, our longing, our wit, our wisdom, and our aliveness. Music is a joining together. It only took 66 people to fund my album. Do you think you could get 66 people to co-create your next project? Are you humble enough to ask for help? Do you believe your work deserves wider support? Are you willing to prove it?