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.”

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Consciousness of Gratitude

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” -- Cicero

I was standing at the kitchen sink washing the pots that wouldn’t fit in the dishwasher. My hands were deep in the soapy water, my head in a warm cloud of tea tree and lavender. Dinner was done and the kitchen was clean – as clean as it was going to be tonight.

Then it happened.

It began in my toes, moved up my legs and settled in my chest. It was not a thought, not an idea. It was a knowing.

I was suddenly and inexplicably happy.

Outside the window the last light of day was draining from the sky. The shadows were spreading out from under the trees and joining together in darkness. In the distance the dock lights flickered on the surface of the lake like floating flames.

Dinner was good, but then again, it always is. The view from the window was nice, just like it is every night. So why was this moment special? Why was I suddenly awash in gratitude and deeply in love with everything I saw? Why now did life seem utterly, ordinarily perfect?

The consciousness of gratitude – that deep and abiding feeling of aliveness, well-being, serenity and joy – is a singular pleasure that transcends thought and circumstance. It is not a philosophical tenet or a theological doctrine to be debated and honed by rational discourse. It is not just another good idea to set alongside all the others. It is an experience that wells up from the ground of Being beyond the reach of the mind and its conceptual field. The consciousness of gratitude is not so much a way of thinking as it is a way of being. It is not something we achieve as much as allow. One thing’s for sure. When you get one taste, you want more.

On Thanksgiving Day and throughout the holiday season a familiar ritual is repeated all over America. We go around the table and tell each other what we’re thankful for. Giving thanks for the things we have is a powerful starting point, but there is an even deeper dimension to gratitude our earnest pronouncements sometimes obscure. What if the consciousness of gratitude has nothing to do with what we have here in the outer world of forms? What if the consciousness of gratitude comes before, not after, we count our blessings?

Thanksgiving may be a uniquely American holiday, but its spiritual core, the consciousness of gratitude, is truly global. All of the world’s wisdom traditions share the notion that our consciousness is the field out of which the bounty of our lives emerge. And gratitude, as Cicero says, “is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.”

Underneath all the diversity and complexity of the Indian traditions, often lumped together and called Hinduism in the west, lays one simple claim: there is only one reality and it is God. Brahman, as it is known in Sanskrit, the ancient language of the Vedas and the Upanishads, is the ground of Being from which all thoughts and forms arise. But Brahman itself is beyond all thoughts and forms, beyond all personifications and qualities. While it might be tempting to say that Brahman is present in everything, it would be closer to the truth to say that everything is the presence of Brahman. The goal of Hinduism is the realization of this truth – our complete and utter unity with Brahman. And when we realize our unity with the ground of Being, we realize that we lack absolutely nothing. All thoughts of separation and lack are maya, or illusion.

If all is One then there is no duality, no this and that, no me and mine, no other thing to posses. None of us owns of any of this. You don’t own your children, you don’t own your garden, you don’t even own your possessions any more than you can own a piece of the sky or the air in your lungs. All of these things are expressions of the One, of which we are already an inextricable part. There is nothing to possess because we are already unified with the eternal field of consciousness and all its manifestations. In light of this reality, the only sane stance is profound and continual gratitude.

Like Hinduism, Buddhism also calls us to awaken from the dream of separateness. In unenlightened consciousness we live perpetually in the future and in the past – anywhere but here and now. Our habitual, conditioned thought-stream is characterized by fear and longing. Buddha taught that our attachment to these erroneous thought-forms is the cause of suffering. Our attachment to self-serving portraits of the past and the future imprison us in the consciousness of scarcity and lack – a far cry from gratitude. It is only by awakening to this now moment that we experience release from the cycle of egoic craving and inevitable dissatisfaction. When we practice acceptance of what is, when we awaken to the infinite formlessness of the now, gratitude seeps up through the gaps between our thoughts like groundwater.

We are reminded many times in the first pages of the Hebrew Bible that the world is enough. With each new element of creation, Genesis sounds the refrain, “and it was good.” Judaism forcefully affirms the fundamental goodness of the world. We already have everything we need, only we don’t know it, lost in the anguish of covetousness. As with Hinduism and Buddhism, the problem is never an absence of external possessions. Our unhappiness is always and only the fruit of our own mistaken thinking.

In the 23rd Psalm King David sings out from the depths of his God-consciousness, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, He restores my soul.” But behind David’s resounding manifesto of gratitude is a real-world pragmatism. Life is not a bowl of cherries. There are conflicts. There are challenges. Powerful people are working at cross-purposes with us and with those we love. David is undaunted. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” he writes. “You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” David reminds us that we needn’t be free of all problems in order to experience gratitude. On the contrary, gratitude is the stance with which we must meet our “enemies”, and in that light begin to heal our lives with the balm of our common humanity.

Like David, Jesus speaks of an undaunted intimacy with God. From the depths of his fully realized God-consciousness he calls us to uncover our own, knowing that only from a lived experience of the inner divine presence can we properly order the details of our outer lives. Instead of obsessively worrying about our possessions and circumstances here in the dusty world, Jesus enjoins us to be “born from above.”

“Seek first the kingdom of God,” he tells us in the gospel of Matthew, “and all else will be given to you.” In other words, only in the light of God-consciousness do we experience true abundance and gratitude. The good news is that we don’t have to go anywhere or ask someone else for the kingdom of heaven. It is within us. It is to be realized through the depths of our own loving, and even through the agony of our mistakes. Not one of our steps leads away from it. For both Jesus and Buddha, awakening consciousness is born from the seeds of acceptance and comes to fruition in the consciousness of gratitude.

The consciousness of gratitude is the central element of Islamic belief and practice as well. In fact, according to the Qu’ran, Muslims have only two obligations: gratitude and surrender. Islam teaches that we live in a world of endless abundance and any form of consciousness other than gratitude would be a cognitive error. The consciousness of gratitude is logical and rational as well as devotional. And the only way to experience this depth of wisdom is by surrendering – surrendering the ego with its incessant worry, craving and attachment to its own cleverness. As in the recovery movement, only through the admission of powerlessness do we shift from the impotence of the ego to the omnipotence of Spirit. It’s time to resign from the debating society and let the mystery be.

The world’s religions teach us that if we really knew who and what we were, if we fully realized our essential, authentic selves, we would fall on our knees in amazement. The realization of God-consciousness and the consciousness of gratitude are one in the same thing. In other words, as we practice gratitude, we move closer toward awakening to the divine within us and all things. Only when we cease living in the past or the future, only when we live in the fullness of this now moment, only when we live as the lilies in the field are we in the kingdom of God. The consciousness of anxiety and fear are the mind’s delusional attachment to future scenarios that have no reality. The consciousness of shame and regret are the mind’s attachment to an irretrievable past that no longer has any reality except in our thoughts. In the eternal Present, beyond the mind, shame and fear fade away leaving only the bright light of gratitude, of forgiveness, of wellness, of surrender to what is, of the realization that the kingdom of heaven is lying all around us only we do not see it, not when our eyes are turned to the worrisome future or the mournful past.

Gandhi was asked by a journalist to sum up his philosophy in three words. “Renounce and enjoy,” he said, paraphrasing the Isha Upanishad. To renounce is to surrender all attachments and give up the ego’s need to control everything, allowing the present moment to be as it is. Only then can we truly enjoy the infinite bounty of our lives and be at play in the field of forms without attachment to any of them. We are already one with everything. There’s no need to grasp or cling to any of it. And when we let go, our eyes and our hands and our hearts are filled with an abundance beyond the wildest imaginings of our limited and limiting ego.

In an old Zen story, a young man traveled to a far off monastery to learn about Buddhism. The monks took him in and showed him to his room. One week went by, then two, then three. In frustration the young man finally went to the head monk and said, “I came here to learn about Zen but no one has taught me anything.”

“Have you eaten?” the master asked.


“Then wash your bowl.”

I’m standing in the kitchen again, up to my elbows in soapy water, scrubbing pots that won’t fit in the dishwasher. My stomach is full. Our dog Boone is asleep in the corner by the fire. My wife Lori is paying bills, making sure that what we have keeps flowing in the right directions. Outside a light rain is falling.

I know how to do it now. I know how to let go of the worry, the fear, the regret, the frustration. I simply breathe deeply into the core of my being the realization that I am not my thought-stream, and beneath the waves of worry and fear lay an infinite sea of Being, and I Am That, and I don’t have to be worried or afraid anymore. Everything is as it must be in this moment. Of course I can work for change and cultivate new areas of growth in my life and in the world around me. But tonight, right here at the kitchen sink, I can slip into the peaceful stillness of the consciousness of gratitude.

This article first appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of Unity Magazine

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Winning Means

I used to think poetry contests were totally bogus. Then I won one.

I took third place for one poem and honorable mention for another. Two poems in one contest? What about all the other worthy entries? I felt greedy. Then I felt guilty. Then I felt stupid for feeling greedy and guilty. Then I felt confused.

What does it mean to win an art contest? As a songwriter and musician I’d won a few awards through the years, and now this. It was unnerving. The trophy shelf in my music studio was getting crowded. I had to figure out what was happening. Why was the least competitive guy I knew winning prizes?

Schopenhauer talks about how life, as it is being lived, seems random and chaotic, shaped by one accident after another. It is only in retrospect, looking back, that one sees a pattern, an undeniable order choreographed not by the individual will but by a metaphysical force beyond anyone’s control. All the chance encounters and unsought influences sculpt the course of our lives like a river carves a canyon. I can’t help but wonder along with David Byrne in the Talking Heads classic, well, how did I get here?

Naturally, it began with my family. My brothers and I grew up under the loving guidance of Hilbert and Amy Bolland, Dutch immigrants who brought their European sensibilities to the California shore. Our home was a place of music, conversation and art. Their wide-eyed wonder and belief in the infinite creative power of the American dream extended to their three boys. My parents made it clear that the only limitations we had were the ones we placed on ourselves.

Competitive sports were not a part of the picture, not at home anyway. I can’t remember a football, basketball or baseball game ever being on TV in my house when I was growing up. Not once. Of course we boys became irreversibly Americanized, but for me, sports never quite stuck. The only “sports” I liked were surfing, long meandering bike rides and aimless hikes through the hills, three activities that do not require, upon completion, that there be a loser.

If you were a Bolland, you were a musician. We all played. Cultivating, voluntarily or not, the discipline to master difficult tasks was an everyday activity in my house. But on the other end of all that hard work was something unspeakably beautiful and infinitely valuable. Not a bad deal. I never forgot that.

And I remember the letter writing. On weekends, my dad would sit on the patio and type long letters to his parents and siblings back home in the Netherlands. To this day, the sound of a clacking keyboard makes me feel connected and alive. In loving hands language becomes a fire that turns to ash the constraints of space and time.

And then there were books. When I was very young it was the Hardy Boys. Later it was Ray Bradbury. Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Martian Chronicles convinced me to my core that language was the most potent force in the universe. How could these lines and squiggles on this dry dusty page evoke such heartbreaking majesty, such wretched misery, such endless longing, such transcendent bliss? And then I read The Lord of the Rings – three times. I never looked back. I read everything I could get my hands on.

When I was about twelve I bought my first two poetry books with lawn-mowing money – Charles Bukowski’s Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The earthy grit of Bukowski and the celestial power of Whitman made plain the infinite range of poetry. Who knew that the English language itself could become a musical instrument?

In high school it was Herman Hesse. Me and my bookish friends read everything Hesse wrote. Was it any wonder we looked upon jocks and cheerleaders with such pity? We were peering into the abyss and touching the flames of the mystery of existence. They were chasing a ball around and singing silly songs about it. The condescension and arrogance of youth knows know bounds. Perhaps it was just self-defense for the way they looked at us, or I should say, didn’t look at us. To them, we were invisible while the entire apparatus of the school orbited around the heralded glory of their athletic achievements. We barely noticed, sticking our noses back into our books.

I remember one morning in elementary school the teacher asked for volunteers to read their one page story to the class. Before I realized what had happened, my hand shot up in the air. I’ll never forget that feeling, that feeling of reading my story out loud in front of the class and the way they leaned into it in rapt attention. They laughed at the funny parts and drew hushed breaths at the suspenseful parts. All I remember about the story is that it had something to do with a cow who rode a motorcycle to the top of the Matterhorn in Disneyland. But I do remember as if it were this morning exactly how it felt to wield the conjuring power of language and what it was like to possess, if only for a moment, the ability to mesmerize people with mere words. Experiences like that shape you.

In high school and college I wrote some poetry, most of it awful. Then I got into songwriting. I loved playing cover songs of course. Neil Young, Dylan, Gram Parsons and all the rest. I had great teachers. But I couldn’t stop myself from trying my own hand. I still write songs – it is one of the singular joys of my life. I’ve written about two albums worth of decent material since the last album California. With five albums behind me, it would be nice to keep it going. But these days I’m too busy writing poetry.

Three years ago I enrolled in Steve Kowit’s creative writing class at Southwestern College. I liked it so much I did it again the following year. Maybe it was Professor Kowit’s light touch and deep mind, maybe it was the exercises and deadlines, maybe it was the rich and insightful peer feedback in the weekly workshops – maybe it was all of it. In the alchemy of this humble but electrifying process lead turned into gold. Under the loving lash of Steve’s insistent encouragement, I began to submit poetry to journals for publication. He was right. They were good enough. It worked.

I published three poems this last summer. In the flush of that success I entered a poetry contest. You know the rest.

So what does winning a poetry or a music contest mean? It doesn’t mean you’re the best. It doesn’t mean you’re better than anybody else. It doesn’t mean you’re special or different.

It does mean that you’ve worked hard, learned some things and honed your craft. It does mean that your work has a living, emotional core and is not simply clever or well-made. It does mean that your poems or your songs have caught the attention not just of well-meaning friends and family but of total strangers who have no stake in your success and who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of excellence in their medium and genre.

But it also means this: now the real work begins. Winning awards for your artistic creations is as much a responsibility as a privilege. Getting admitted to the club means that your work will forever be judged against a higher standard. I’m an “award winning poet and singer-songwriter” for gods sakes. Yikes. No more drivel. No more mediocre, derivative treacle. From now on, just the good stuff. Time to get to work. That’s what winning means.

Visit to read the winning contest entries Yosemite and The Last Battle of the Civil War.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Apollo and Dionysus

Music is the result of an unlikely marriage of opposites: planning and spontaneity, control and surrender, structure and fluidity, order and chaos, crystalline clarity and purple haze. At the songwriting stage, the arrangement and instrumentation stage, the recording stage, the performance stage – every moment in the manifestation of music is guided by a mysterious confluence of paradoxical tendencies – the urge to deliberately create and the urge to effortlessly participate in a creation already taking place. In other words, successful artists learn how to marry their inner creative energies with the creative energies of the universe itself. We can’t, and don’t, do it alone. Nor does music make itself.

For the ancient Greeks, Apollo and Dionysus represented these two essential energies. Apollo was the god of music, prophecy and medicine. He was associated with intellect, deliberation, control, order, reason and clarity. Dionysus was the god of wine. He was associated with chaos, spontaneity, emotions and instinct. On the surface, Apollo seems the most admirable. It is our Apollonian tendencies that enable us to lift form out of formlessness, ordering the infinite possibility of this next moment into a concise, well-crafted stroke. Without discipline, deliberation and lots of sometimes tedious practice our creative juices drain away into shapeless puddles. On the other hand, without our Dionysian tendencies, our well-made structures would stand sterile and lifeless, void of the very essence of all great art – that nameless je ne sais quoi that falls forever beyond the well-creased cuff linked reach of Apollo.

Go into Guitar Center on any Saturday and you’ll see hordes of adolescent wannabe rock stars with ripped jeans, wallet chains and studiously tousled hair test driving Stratocasters through Marshall stacks, buying into the notion that their inner Hendrix is only a Visa swipe away. What most of them don’t realize is that before Jimi lit his guitar on fire at Monterrey, figuratively and literally, he spent ten years in his room practicing nine hours a day. The story goes that Hendrix’s seminal performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” early Monday morning on the last day of Woodstock was completely improvised. He had never performed it before. Jimi’s Dionysian side came out to play with a vengeance, yet never before had his Apollonian mastery been so patently obvious.

Before Eddie Van Halen burst out of the Pasadena house party scene to re-invigorate arena rock in the seventies and turn us all into a generation of tappers, he was just a quiet, studious kid. As a boy he took an old 45 r.p.m. single of Cream’s “Crossroads” and slowed it down to 33 r.p.m. so he could fastidiously learn every single note of Eric Clapton’s masterful performance. Patience, control, discipline, commitment – these are qualities Dionysus knows nothing about.

For the more thoughtful ancient Greeks, Apollo and Dionysus were not really gods living on Mount Olympus. They were merely personifications of energies, organizing principles and modes of consciousness found within the human psyche. Each of us comes bearing the gifts of Apollo and Dionysus. Which one do we call on most often? Which one are we suppressing?

Give in to either completely and watch yourself whither away. If you’re too Apollonian you have no passion. In your obsessive need to control everything you end up utterly disconnected from the meat and marrow of life. You live in your own head. Your disdain for the messiness of other people and for life itself locks you away in a dry, dusty closet of loneliness – a very neat closet, but a closet nonetheless. If you’re too Dionysian you’re just as ineffective, only worse. You hurt other people because you don’t even know they’re there. You worship at the throne of your own moods and feelings, trapped under the powerful sway of often destructive emotions – anger, resentment, envy, fear. You turn to drugs and alcohol, first for the sheer fun of it, then eventually as a daily maintenance program to keep from feeling your feelings. How ironic.

Either tendency, the Apollonian or the Dionysian, if embraced in isolation without its ameliorating opposite, becomes a parody of itself, a prison of its own device. Dionysian spontaneity becomes tired and empty ineffectiveness. Sure you can sing a good tune, but you can’t tune your guitar. On the other hand, Apollonian order and control becomes stiff and lifeless – there’s nothing left to control but the control itself, you’ve choked all the life out of life, like polishing furniture in a home no one lives in.

Legend has it that when David Crosby brought his friend Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead into the studio to play pedal steel guitar on “Teach Your Children” during the infamous Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Déjà Vu sessions, Garcia set up his rig and told the engineer to push “play” so he could hear the song for the first time while he played along to get his bearings. Instead, under Crosby’s direction, the engineer pushed “record”. When the song ended, Garcia said, “O.K., I’m ready. Let’s take one.”

“Got it,” replied Crosby from the control room.

“What?” asked Garcia.

“Yeah,” said Crosby, “we’re done.”

Having never heard the song before in his life, Garcia played one of the greatest pedal steel parts ever recorded on a blind first take. Dionysian, right?

Yes and no. Garcia had spent the previous three years learning the pedal steel with great focus and discipline, sitting in with his friends The New Riders of the Purple Stage on countless nights in clubs all around the bay area. Garcia’s success on “Teach Your Children” was no accident. It was the perfect synthesis of Apollo and Dionysus.

Dig out your copy of Déjà Vu and listen to Garcia’s part on “Teach Your Children”. Ask yourself this: will you be ready when your time comes? Have you done your homework? Do you show up prepared? Have you mastered your craft? And then ask yourself this: are you ready to let go? Are you willing to abandon control and surrender to the moment? Are you ready to trust the sacred energy welling up within you and binding you to all things?

Are you willing to strike the right balance between Apollo and Dionysus?

Friday, August 28, 2009

In Common Hours

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will experience a success unimagined in common hours.
-- Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau wrote those words 160 years ago but some things never change. The granddaddy of the self-help movement, Thoreau finds himself quoted by everybody from Wayne Dyer to Deepak Chopra. What makes his words so perennial? Why do we still hear in his voice our own best inner wisdom?

As each generation struggles to re-imagine and redefine the meaning of success the fundamental hunger to improve our lives remains. We want to let drop all that is unessential. We want to uncover our authentic being. Success has little to do with account balances and the approval of the herd. We know that now. But we want to grow. We want to move out of scarcity and into abundance. We want to expand into our highest vision for ourselves. We want to shed all of our limitations and surge up in the world as we were meant to be – genuine, strong, humble, masterful, generous, joyous and free. How on earth are we going to do that?

Thoreau suggests that we first simply advance confidently in the direction of our dreams. Stop waiting for your life to begin. It already did – a while ago. Start moving forward. Do something. You don’t have to know what all the steps are. Just take the next step. And find a way to embody confidence. Stop making excuses like I’m too old, I’m too young, I don’t have enough money, I’m too busy, I don’t have enough time, I will look foolish to others, it’s too late, I’m not qualified, I’ve waited too long, I’m not ready, I’m too disorganized, it won’t work. Stop basing your decisions on meticulous calculations of everything that might go wrong. Cultivate the eyes to see opportunity where others see problems. How do you become confident? You just throw a switch. Simply choose. And get clear about the difference between confidence and arrogance. Confusing the two is fatal. Arrogance is a false sense of entitlement based on an exaggerated sense of self-importance. It is often pathologically competitive and overtly hostile. Confidence is kind. Confidence is simply expecting good things to happen. No one else needs to lose so you can win.

Thoreau is talking about a deeply spiritual and intuitive process. This isn’t about pointless acquisition of material wealth. This isn’t about mindless ladder climbing or Machiavellian power grabs. This isn’t about proving your critics wrong. This is about manifesting and cultivating your highest good and your deepest dream – the dream in which your life is grounded in love, shaped by service, illumined by joy, buoyed by creativity and flowing in boundless abundance – a vision far grander than any fear-based fantasies of wealth and power born in the shadow of scarcity and nurtured by the wounded ego.

To this end, Thoreau then suggests that we endeavor to live the life we have imagined. In other words, move out of the realm of imagination and into the field of action. If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to be more compassionate, practice kindness, especially when you least feel like it. When caught in the grip of fear ask yourself what would a courageous person do and then do that. To endeavor is to move confidently through the unfolding process of intention, action and realization. Want it, do it, be it. If you want to be a singer, sing.

Thoreau was a deeply spiritual man though he had little patience for religion. Thoreau’s theology, if it can even be called that, was a kind of pantheism – the idea that the entire cosmos and everything in it is an expression of divinity. This means that, according to Thoreau, you’re just as likely to access divine wisdom in a snow field as you are in a sacred text. It also means that each of us, in our essential core, is in perpetual partnership with the generative, divine intelligence of the universe. That is why his formula for success works. Your own highest good is already trying to come into being, with or without you, and sometimes in spite of you. We need only cooperate with it by disengaging from our fearful, worried minds and moving forward with optimistic confidence. By embodying the qualities today that we someday hope to have we cheat time and bring into the eternal now the truth and beauty of our highest nature. Be what you are. Let everything else drop. Move calmly and confidently toward your highest vision for yourself. If you do, you will experience success unimagined in common hours.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Breathe Into It

“Breathe into it,” the yoga instructor said, her arms and legs braided like an unbaked pretzel. On rows of rubber mats students strained into the pose with varying degrees of success. The sinuous sounds of Deuter washed over the room like gentle waves of warm green tea.

Breathe into it, I thought, what the hell does that mean? But instead of arguing, I tried it. At the deepest point of my stretch I felt a sharp knot of tightness that told me I had reached my limit. I could go no further. Then I breathed into the tension. I inhaled as if my breath was going directly into and through the tightness. Something mysterious happened. It loosened. With the next exhalation my pose deepened all on its own, beyond where I thought I could go. What I had failed to accomplish with effort was realized effortlessly.

Like anyone else, I was accustomed to the old idea that if I was ever going to accomplish or achieve anything it would be through persistent and strenuous effort. Only a bold and willful decision followed by vigorous and assertive action could move a mountain. If I didn’t do anything, nothing would get done.

Of course intention, will-power and effort all play a part. But until we allow the larger forces already at work (or is it play) to align with and buoy our efforts, no amount of straining is going to move even a molehill.

When we cut our finger the healing begins immediately and without our consent or intention. There are systems in place of which we are only observers. What if we allowed ourselves to slip gently into the realization that we are partners with larger energies around us? The ancient Indians called this energy prana, the life force within us and all living things. Prana is the Sanskrit word for “breath”.

In the second creation story of Genesis, (yes, there are two), God made Adam “from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being.” Like scores of other creation stories, Genesis tells us that human beings are a mysterious combination of inanimate matter and the breath of life, an indefinable force rooted in a vast intelligence far beyond human control let alone comprehension.

Speech and song are made of breath. It is through the power of speech that God called the universe into being when he said, “Let there be light.” The Navajo don’t consider a newborn baby fully human until it has taken its first breath, or better still, made its first sound. And if you’ve ever heard Eve Selis sing, let alone stood on stage with her and looked into the eyes of an audience caught in the grip of her powerful voice, you would know – it is through the power of breath that the beauty of life is made manifest.

Now consider all the difficulties and challenges we face. Many of us are caught in overwhelming financial crises. There are daunting health challenges. Some of our relationships seem damaged beyond repair. Or maybe there are dreams unfulfilled, crushing burdens, towering tasks and impossible obstacles. Perhaps it’s something as simple as a general, vague sense of incompletion, dissatisfaction and sadness. We can’t seem to fix all the things that are broken no matter how hard we try. Despite all our good intentions and best efforts we fall short. It might be time to try another way.

There is an old Chinese parable about a rice farmer who was so eager for his crop to grow that every morning he tugged on each tiny shoot. In the end, he uprooted every plant. He didn’t harvest one single grain of rice that year.

“The world is ruled by letting things take their course,” says Laozi in the Daodejing. “It cannot be ruled by interfering. In the universe the difficult things are done as if they are easy. In the universe great acts are made up of small deeds. The sage does not attempt anything very big, and thus achieves greatness.” Letting things take their natural course and come to fruition in their own time is not only effective, it also creates lasting serenity and joy. If we really understood this perennial principle a deep and vibrant humility would well up in us and heal so much of our dissatisfaction and stiff-necked restlessness. We would become lithe and fluid like water. We would accomplish everything without doing anything. Paradoxically, our softness would become our strength. “A tree that is unbending,” says Laozi, “is easily broken.”

The only thing in the way of this new consciousness of allowance is our old pattern of thinking, the one that says life is nothing but struggle and strife. When Jesus counseled his students to be like the lilies of the field he was clearly teaching this same principle. Whether you subscribe to a personified God or prefer your Source less defined and localized, there is a common thread running through all these teachings. This has little to do with theism or atheism. Leave that debate in the college cafeteria. Our mental machinations and busy bee schemes often do little but interfere with the inherently generative course of nature. Something is always trying to grow through us. Are we interfering or allowing? Are we anxious and constricted or breathing easy?

No matter the difficulty, when all our best intentions and efforts seem ineffective, maybe it’s simply time to surrender. Bring yourself into alignment with the inherent intelligence of the universe. The next time you bump up against a problem, lean forward, let go and breathe into it.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thin Places

If there is one universal theme that runs through the world’s religious and mythological wisdom traditions it is probably this, that there is an invisible plane hidden from us by the visible plane, and that the invisible plane is in fact the source of the visible plane. Some call the invisible plane God and personify it as a conscious being. Others resist personifying it and prefer thinking of the source as Tao or Brahman. For them, it is the hidden order of the world, the logos, natural law, the ground of Being behind the veil of the phenomenal world of forms. As such it is not subject to the vagaries of belief or disbelief. It simply is. No need to argue. Arguing about definitions of ultimate reality is like arguing about driving directions. If I MapQuest directions to Disneyland from my house and you MapQuest directions to Disneyland from your house, we will both have very different sets of instructions. But I’ll see you at Disneyland.

Whatever God is, the mystics tell us, is beyond all concepts and words. Naturally, being thinking animals with a belligerent streak, we construct thoughts about God, then bind our egos to our thoughts arguing with anyone who threatens our precious ideology. But, as Lao Tzu reminds us, “the Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.” And in the tradition of Zen Buddhism, all our thoughts and words are merely “fingers pointing at the moon.” Only an idiot would confuse a finger with the moon. Hungry? “The menu,” as Alan Watts says, “is not the food.”

If there is a reality deeper than the one our senses present to us, and if this deeper reality is in fact the source of the perceptual world, how can we access it? In primal culture, it was the shaman who traveled at will between the two realms. He was gradually replaced by priests and institutionalized religion. Then it was the guy who sold you that little bag of mushrooms at Burning Man.

What if we could make conscious contact with the Real, the source of the phenomenal world, without going to mass or choking down illegal fungi? What if there were places where the two worlds shimmered into one, where in the midst of our everyday, mundane existence the transcendent broke through, even if only for a moment? The ancient Celts called these “thin places.”

Thin places are everywhere. For the Celts they were often found in wilderness – this sacred lake, that rock outcropping, the mountain summit at dawn. In the Carlos Castaneda books, Don Juan called them power spots. We’ve all felt them. Triggered by a fortuitous arrangement of natural shapes, scents, sounds, colors and textures we slipped for a moment out of our busy minds and into the still and quiet stream forever flowing around us – a stream our busy minds block from our everyday awareness – and we experience an expansiveness, an aliveness, a deep and abiding significance far exceeding the beauty of the perceptual field. Although an unrepentant atheist and materialist to the end, even Freud, as a scientist, had to acknowledge this “oceanic feeling.”

It happened to me just the other day in of all places the frozen food section of Costco. What would normally be a somewhat unpleasant situation, a crowded big box store with all the architectural charm of a bomb shelter, suddenly became the stage for an unfolding of unintended and beautiful humanity. I felt what I can only describe as a deep tenderness welling up in me as I looked at the people around me, awash in our abundance, unconsciously kind to one another, bravely living our lives despite the odds. The little retired ladies with their white plastic aprons and hairnets serving chicken fingers and pot stickers to eager children, the slicked back hair guy in the golf shirt talking loudly into his Bluetooth as he crashed his cart into mine, the teenagers from the church camp or maybe the halfway house loading their flatbed cart with enough food to feed a village. In the way they carried themselves I saw their quiet, unsung heroism. Life didn’t turn out the way any of us expected it to. But here we are on a Tuesday, living it as bravely as we can. I saw a woman who the Department of Health would categorize as morbidly obese put her arm around her fourteen year old daughter in a way that taught me, more than any sermon or learned book, about the redemptive power of love, and how it is only in the way we treat others that we ourselves are healed and forgiven for our weaknesses, no matter how glaring or hidden our imperfections. Suddenly there were no strangers here. I knew these people. I was these people. I stopped. There was water in my eyes. I had stumbled into a thin place.

What are you supposed to do when you fall in love with everybody? You close your eyes and you silently vow to try to remember this feeling, to hold onto it, but you never can. Soon you’re back in your worried mind, inventing reasons to be unhappy, caught in the thick of things.

Driving home you realize it has nothing to do with Costco of course, or any place at all. Everyplace is a thin place. If you can get it in the frozen food section of Costco, you can get it anywhere. The 18th century British mystical poet William Blake said that “if the doors of perception were cleansed, man would see things as they truly are, infinite.” What we need is a big Costco-sized barrel of perception cleanser. What aisle is that on?

But life is thick. We’re all so busy. There is so much to worry about. Yet underneath the surface of our glittering lives of achievement and acquisition there is a deep river of beauty. And our toes aren’t even wet.

It is the job of the artist to create thin places. Artists must create arrangements of sight and sound that shine light through the membrane between the worlds and illuminate our own infinite significance. Great art grants us the vision to finally see ourselves as we really are, unlimited.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said that he could not clearly define hard-core pornography, then famously added, “but I know it when I see it.” What makes a great song? I don’t really know, but I know it when I hear it. I call it the hair-on-the-arms test. When the hair on my arms stands up, it’s a good song. It’s that simple. That’s all there is to say. Your soul knows. You can talk about it till dawn, but all your words are just fingers pointing at the moon. Your soul took flight with the opening chord and was in full lunar orbit by the chorus while your mind fell in love with its own cleverness and has been lost in space ever since.

But don’t count on the artists to do all the heavy lifting. Our perception of the world is largely a creation of our own thoughts. Our life, Buddha taught twenty five centuries ago, is a creation of the mind. Choose your thoughts wisely. When you feel the thickness closing in, remember to step out of the stream of your busy mind and sink down into what the poet Mary Oliver calls “the soft animal of your body.” Feel the subtle energy coursing through you. Hear with new ears. See with new eyes. The ground of Being, that source from which we came and to which we will return, is always with us. Even, and perhaps especially, when you are caught by the bustle and thrum of the marketplace, remember where you came from. In the unrelenting march of your life, from time to time, take a side step into the thin places.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

10,000 Hours

“Let yourself be silently drawn by the pull of what you really love.” -- Rumi

Jack Kerouac, literary luminary, Uber-beat and American legend, had a secret. Only one of his famous friends, the poet Philip Whalen, knew. Not Ginsberg, not Burroughs, not Ferlinghetti, not Snyder. Kerouac kept his secret hidden his entire life. In a brand new book published by the Jack Kerouac Archive at the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, author and curator Isaac Gewirtz reveals the truth. All you bookish, skinny-armed English majors better sit down. Ready? Jack Kerouac was a sports fanatic. That’s right, and he went to college on a football scholarship – so much for the carefully nurtured enmity between jocks and the literate crowd. But that’s not the secret part. No one knew a thing about the baseball players, horses and jockeys that really enthralled Kerouac. It was all in his head.

Kerouac created a rich and elaborate alternate reality – a wide world of sports that only he knew about. He went far beyond the fantasy baseball we know of today, a beast of an entirely different stripe. Kerouac invented leagues with fictional teams and full rosters, engaging them in “games” and writing about all of it, play by play, in endless detail. He created baseball cards for his made-up stars. He invented an elaborate symbolic language to record play combinations and statistical analysis. Then he did the same thing with horse racing, analyzing everything from horse-jockey combinations to track conditions. He wrote broadsides, designed charts and illustrated posters. There are boxes full of this stuff. From a very young age Kerouac reveled in the intoxicating power of storytelling.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, “Outliers: The Story of Success” he argues that genius is not innate. Rather, it is simply the product of 10,000 hours of intentional, focused practice. In other words, the Mozarts, Claptons and Kerouacs of the world are not born, they’re made. Our old, apparently erroneous notion of genius has finally been debunked. Of course genes play a role – you should have at least an above average predilection for music or language or sports or whatever it is you want to master, but the rest is all hard work.

According to Gladwell’s calculations, it takes about ten years to get 10,000 hours. That averages out to about three hours a day. If you can only do an hour and a half, give it twenty years. By the time Kerouac sat down to write some of the most defining novels in American literature – “On the Road,” “The Dharma Bums,” and others – his 10,000 hours were long behind him.

Thinking back on my own life, I see a pattern. Very early on I fell in love with storytelling. In fifth grade Mr. Martini would have us write one page stories. Then he’d ask for volunteers to read theirs aloud in front of the class. Like any other nine year old I may have been shy at first, but as the weeks wore on I grew increasingly eager. Soon my hand was the first in the air. I’d step to the front of the class and read my story, suddenly unusually confident. I remember like it was yesterday the silence that fell over the room, the way the other kids leaned forward, their faces playing out the feelings I fed them. They laughed at the jokes, gasped at the surprises and applauded long and hard at the end. I was hooked. At my poetry readings, my musical performances and in front of my philosophy classes, I’m still that awkward nine year old kid, suddenly and inexplicably transformed into a joyfully confident storyteller and solicitor of truths.

Throughout elementary school my best friend Mark Harriman and I were huge Mad magazine fans. So we did what seemed perfectly logical at the time. We created our own humor magazine. We drew cartoons, wrote film and television parodies, had recurring features, agonized over graphics and layout design. We worked with single-minded focus and abandon. We didn’t know we were working. We were just having fun. The hours flew by. We laughed till we cried. We thought we were brilliant.

Also during these early years I began playing piano and guitar. At first it was only because my mom made me. I hated practicing piano. I remember sitting at the piano playing scales with tears streaming down my face while the other kids played outside. Now I realize that it was much harder for my mom than it was for me – the last thing a mother ever wants to see on her son’s face is tears. But she knew that on the other side of my temporary discomfort was an abiding joy. I am endlessly grateful that my mom offered her discipline until I could come up with my own. Once I got over the awkward early flailing and uncovered the joy of music, I never stopped. I fell in love.

Sometimes people ask me, “How did you become a songwriter?” I just smile and say, “I really don’t know.”

In the “Bhagavad Gita” Krishna says that we become what we love. Love creates longing. Longing becomes intention. Intention becomes thought. Thoughts become words. Words become actions. Actions repeated become habits. Habit constructs character. We become what we do. In this way our inner purpose, what Aristotle called our entelechy, conducts the moments and events of our lives just as an orchestra conductor draws the disparate elements before him into a singular work of beauty and grace. The most effective way to construct a joyful and effective life of value and purpose is to become a co-creator, to cooperate and collaborate with your own inner drive. “Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell always told his students, and when you do, the universe begins to collude in unforeseeable ways. When we let ourselves be silently drawn by the pull of what we really love, as Rumi suggests, we can’t help but begin to move in the direction of our dreams. The line between work and play dissolves. Our joy knows what to do. We have only to do it. For at least 10,000 hours.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Why Susan Boyle Matters

By now fifty million of us have seen the viral YouTube video of Susan Boyle’s remarkable performance on the BBC show Britain’s Got Talent. It’s the most widely seen video clip in world history, surpassing previous skyrockets such as “Bush vs. Shoes” and “Tina Fey as Sarah Palin”. The footage is absolutely gripping on many levels because it holds a mirror to contemporary culture revealing what is best and worst in us. But mainly I’m writing about this because every time I watch it I cry and I’m trying to figure out why.

Susan Boyle is an invisible 47 year old woman from a tiny cluster of villages in Scotland. She’s the kind of woman you look right past – frumpy, unkempt, one of the many, not one of the few. In the years since her father died, Susan shared a tiny apartment with her ailing mother. Then her mother died. “I live alone with my cat Pebbles,” she told the show’s hosts. “I’ve never been married, never been kissed.”

“How old are you Susan,” Simon Cowell asked as she stepped on stage.
“Forty seven,” she said. Cowell rolled his eyes.
“O.K.,” he said, barely containing his boredom, “what’s the dream?”
“I’m trying to be a professional singer,” she answered. Cut to a tight shot of a young woman in the audience shaking her head disdainfully and turning to her friend in commiseration.

Then Susan Boyle began to sing. The song was “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables. It is the heartbreaking lament of a wounded-in-love woman whose youth, innocence and trust were repaid with disrespect, disregard and pain. And yet there is a note of defiance, of transcendence, of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. It’s not in the words – which are unremittingly dour – it is in the proud clarity and upturned eyes of Susan Boyle’s magnificence. Looking at her face you can easily imagine – whether it’s autobiographical or not is irrelevant – that the song is about her, so perfectly does she channel its wrenching truth, that the world often mistakes and abuses beauty in its blind pursuit of vanity and insignificance.

Three seconds into her performance the mood in the room powerfully shifts. In one of the most spontaneous and explosive moments I’ve ever seen on television, the audience is swept away by wave after wave of shock and awe. People leap to their feet, their chairs no long able to hold them.

When the song ends, Piers Morgan is the first judge to speak. “Without a doubt, that was the biggest surprise I have had in three years of this show. When you stood there with that cheeky grin and said ‘I want to be like Elaine Page’, everyone was laughing at you. No one is laughing now. That was stunning, an incredible performance. Amazing. I’m reeling from shock…”

Then it was Amanda Holden’s turn. “I’m so thrilled, because I know that everybody was against you. I honestly think that we were all being very cynical, and I think that’s the biggest wake up call ever. And I just want to say, that it was a complete privilege listening to that. It was brilliant.”

Simon Cowell rounded out the panel with his usual panache, ending his remarks by saying, “Susan, you can return to the village with your head held high. That’s three yeses”.

Susan Boyle matters. She is a walking rebuttal to all the bullies who ever walked the earth, preying on the weak, demeaning the different, imposing their arbitrary definition of “cool” on the rest of us. The only people who are really cool, the people who define cool, are the people who are absolutely oblivious to the very concept of “cool” itself. They are so cool they don’t even know what cool is. Even the bullies in the audience were wiping their eyes and rising to their feet in thunderous applause.

The entertainment industry needs Susan Boyle. As record executives scramble to foist upon us the next cookie-cutter Barbie doll pop star, we the people have spoken through the pure democracy of the New Media. And here is what we said: all we really want is the Real. We don’t care what package it shows up in. We just want Truth and Beauty, you know, all that stuff Plato wrote about twenty five centuries ago, “even if in the form of an unlovely husk.”

Susan Boyle empowers and encourages us with her unapologetic presence. She exhibits the perfect combination of fearlessness and humility. She demonstrates that courage and arrogance are wholly unrelated. In fact, arrogance and machismo are usually sure signs of the utter absence of confidence and mastery. Real greatness is humble. She reminds us that it is enough to show up and simply do our best.

Most importantly, Susan’s unintended beauty reminds us in no uncertain terms of our own unrealized beauty. Through her we realize our own magnificence. I’m convinced that’s the real reason her performance breaks us open. Look at the faces of the people in the audience. Look at the lump in Piers’s throat. Look at the wonder in Amanda’s eyes. Look at the warmth, even the love on Simon’s face. We’ve never seen that face on American Idol, never, not even once. Susan’s bold presence triggers something deep inside us, something we have kept well-hidden; a profound and abiding self-acceptance, even self-love. It is a love we have been withholding. Her beauty breaks the anchor chain and we drift into the light of the knowledge that we are beings of infinite value. After all the years of drought, suddenly we are awash in love. This is what Susan has given us. That’s why there are tears. And that’s why Susan Boyle matters.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Around the Block

Normally, I have no problem coming up with topics and concerns to explore in this blog. But this month, I’m stuck. Maybe the two books I’m working on have drained all the words from me. Maybe it’s because I’m getting on a plane tomorrow to play a show in Washington D.C. and all the arrangements for that are eating all available brain waves. Maybe I’m just, for once, speechless.

Writer’s block is a mysterious beast. There are, naturally, numerous websites devoted to helping writers work through this strange malady – something to read while you’re not writing. It’s almost as if the language centers of the brain have collapsed in on themselves, like one of those awful third world high rises after an earthquake, and all the words are stuck inside, dead or dying.

The problem is manifold. Some say its lack of focus or purpose. No clear goal or goals. If you were passionate about your subject, they say, this wouldn’t be happening. There’s probably a metaphor in there for how I should live my life, but I’m too tired to find it.

Or it could be a sudden onset of shyness – you’ve grown weary of revealing your private observations, values and opinions to a vast, faceless legion of strangers. What, suddenly now you’re shy, after all these years of nakedness?

Any kind of creativity has its snags. It’s unrealistic to expect the flow to be perennially vigorous. Rivers and streams have their dry seasons. The trick is to somehow get across the sandbars, through the shallows and down stream to the source. The ocean, thankfully, shows no signs of drying up.

My favorite image of writing will always be my father. My parents emigrated from the Netherlands to America after World War II. There were few opportunities for a young married couple in Holland after the Germans got through with it. They landed in New Jersey and eventually settled in Ventura, California. I grew up without any cousins, aunts, uncles or grandparents. Outside of our little home, every Bolland we knew was far across the Atlantic. Apart from the occasional phone call, the only substantive link was the written word.

My dad would sit in the sun on the patio in our backyard with a portable typewriter on his lap, carefully typing nine page letters to the family back in Holland. He needed two copies, one for his parents and one for my mom’s parents. This was the sixties. There were no copy machines. He’d put a sheet of black, oily looking carbon paper between two sheets of very thin white paper (it was called “onion skin” back then – very thin and light to keep the air mail costs down) and carefully begin typing. No rewrites, no white outs, no mistakes. Total commitment. Just say it and move on.

I’ll never forget his quiet focus, his reverie, his near trance-like state as he hunched over that Olivetti crafting long stories of how us boys were growing up, or what the orange blossoms smelled like, or how the California sun felt on your skin. These accounts were my grandparents’ only link to their far-flung children and grandchildren living half way around the world. This wasn’t mere reporting. This was writing as an act of love.

This went on for years. There must be hundred of pages of this stuff. All four of my grandparents are gone now, and most of my aunts and uncles too. My dad has the letters. What’s most haunting is that they were all written in Dutch, a language I cannot read. My dad and I have often spoken about getting them translated, but it’s such a daunting task. There is just too much material. I feel something slipping away.

Whether it’s songwriting, prose, poetry, fiction or non-fiction, the process seems to be the same – if there is no compelling purpose for writing, no discernable reason to put pen to paper (or cursor to doc), then why bother? Art without hunger is art without truth. No matter how elegant the composition or fortunate the arrangement of elements, if there is no beating heart, no radiance shining through the fabric, no music, then it’s all just sound and fury signifying nothing. The key to overcoming writer’s block is hidden deep within the folds of this insight. It’s almost as if writer’s block is doing you (or your readers) a favor – it’s preventing you from writing a word until you’re in touch with what’s real.

My dad never had writer’s block. That’s because he wasn’t trying to write anything. He was up to something far more primal, more elemental. He was reaching out across the miles and joining lives together. What if we let that goal guide all our art?

We humans are by nature communal creatures. We need to tell each other our stories. I need you to know what I saw, what I heard, what I thought, what I felt. If I clamp it all down and keep quiet, something dies a little inside. And if I ever stop listening to the people around me, if I ever grow dismissive and tone-deaf to their music, a loneliness will well up around me and drown me.

The absurd popularity of social websites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace testify to this incessant need to speak and be heard. Next time you compulsively log onto Facebook or sneak a furtive glance at your Twitter page during an important meeting, take inventory of how it makes you feel. There’s something going on there we haven’t quite grappled with yet. For all its lamentable ills, the interscape, as Jon Stewart calls it, plays a vital role in our communal human experience.

We no longer sit in the sun with portable typewriters on our lap and a sheet of carbon paper sandwiched between two onion skins. But we still utterly rely on the power of language to keep our love alive, whether it’s half way around the world, or half way around the block.

Friday, February 27, 2009

He Played Real Good for Free

He opened his case and took out his violin. He sat on a stool in the metro station and began to play. It was a cold January morning. The good people of Washington D.C. hurried by on their way to catch a train or make an important appointment. Rush hour.

A few people glanced over at the musician. One middle aged man slowed down, pausing for a few seconds before moving on. A minute later a woman dropped a dollar bill into his open violin case without missing a step. Soon another man stopped to lean against a wall. Then he looked at his watch and walked on, late for work.

Children seemed to be the most interested – especially one three year old boy who was being pulled along by his mother. He stopped to listen. His mother yanked him away without even looking. The boy never once took his eyes off the violinist as his mother pulled him on through the crowded train station. This happened again and again. All the parents, without exception, dragged their children away from the music.

The violinist played for 45 minutes. He collected $32.17 from thirty two people. Everyone who gave him money continued walking – they never even slowed down. Out of the 1,097 people who passed by, only seven people stopped to listen. When the music stopped, no one applauded or even noticed. He packed his violin and left.

It had all been an experiment initiated by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten in January 2007. The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played six of the most challenging and beautiful pieces Bach had ever written for the violin. The violin itself was a 1713 Stradivarius worth 3.5 million dollars. A few nights earlier Bell had performed to a sold-out crowd in Boston where the average ticket price was $100. Bell plays over 200 sold-out shows a year.

Weingarten’s and Bell’s experiment shows us many things. Marketing experts have long claimed that packaging is everything, and research bears them out. When you take two identical products and place them side by side, people invariably prefer (and will pay more for) the product in the fancier package. It’s not that people are stupid – it’s just that we’re particularly vulnerable to illusion. We don’t see the “real” world. We see the world our pre-conceived notions show us. Perception is never an objective event – it is profoundly colored by our emotional conditioning. To our enduring embarrassment, we are easily and willingly played, despite all our proud protests to the contrary.

On a deeper level, another truth is revealed. If we don’t stop to hear a free Bach performance by Joshua Bell on a Stradivarius (because the context is wrong), what else are we missing? How much beauty are we walking right on by?

Musicians often talk about these problems because we’ve all had the same experience over and over again. When we charge $5 for a show, seven people show up, and when we charge $15, a hundred people show up. On the surface none of it makes any sense. Obviously there is a dynamic of perceived value at work here. Economists call it the “price point”, that magic number at which you create the heightened allure, the maximum perception of “hey, this costs a lot so it must be good” without tipping over into “hey, I ain’t paying that much for that”. If you charge $5 for CDs you will not sell twice as many as when you charge $10. In fact, you’ll sell fewer. But $20 is just too high these days when people can download your entire album off iTunes for $9.99.

Nevertheless, any artist struggling to reach a wider audience ought to pay close attention to the Joshua Bell experiment. Ask yourself several important questions. How do I present myself, on and off stage? What kind of rooms do I play? What do my photos look like? What am I doing to create a milieu, an environment in which my art can really be seen and appreciated? As artists we need to gently wean ourselves from the unexamined assumption that quality and beauty will be instantly recognized and rewarded by a discerning public and that we needn’t give any thought to packaging or context. You have to do more than write great songs, play brilliantly and sing with power and grace. You have to mount those jewels in the right setting. It’s one thing to be good. But what are you doing to create the perception of quality? The Bell experiment shows us that even the greatest music in the world gets overlooked in the wrong context.

We all know artists who after years of struggle slip deeper and deeper into contempt for the very audience they purport to seduce. Perhaps all this pain can be avoided by gaining appreciation of the subtle and insidious psychological dynamics at play. Artists must be willing to expand their sphere of creativity to include the entire environment in which they ply their art. You’re not just making music. You’re creating a multi-dimensional reality.

And for those of us in the audience, the Joshua Bell experiment raises some equally challenging questions. Perhaps we need to gently wean ourselves from the unexamined assumption that pretty packaging signifies quality content. Let’s meet artists halfway. Be willing to do the foot work. Maybe the best songs aren’t on the radio or at the giant amphitheater. Grow better ears.

Thirty nine years ago in 1970, Joni Mitchell addressed this issue powerfully in her song “For Free” from Ladies of the Canyon. In it she portrays a successful, wealthy musician (a not so subtle self-portrait) who wistfully laments her own apathy as she passes by a brilliant street musician. “Nobody stopped to hear him, though he played so sweet and high. They knew he had never been on their TV so they passed his music by…he played real good for free.”

It’s the catch 22 of the fame game. No one comes to see you unless you’re famous. And you can’t get famous until people come to see you. New artists are forced, initially anyway, to create the illusion of popularity. But these are the very dynamics of celebrity culture so many of us lament – the ubiquitous and dehumanizing blare of tabloid journalism and the subsequent erosion of kindness and depth. Manufactured “stars” who haven’t (yet anyway) created one damn thing of value clog the airwaves and prevent real quality from breaking through. (I won’t name names – a whole list of celebrities is springing to your mind without my help). Yet it is the very world our collective psyche has created. We have each laid a brick of this edifice with our own hands. Our habitual inattention and unexamined consumerism had a baby – and it’s called pop culture.

On that cold January morning in the Washington D.C. metro, only 32 of the 1,097 people who walked past Joshua Bell put money in his case. Only seven people stopped to listen. Only one person recognized him. And he played real good for free.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Life Lessons from the Obama Presidency

On January 20, 2009 Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Reflecting on the significance of this event and the long years that preceded it, ten inescapable truths emerge, truths that have the power to transform our lives.

1. Nothing is Impossible

There is never a shortage of well-intentioned (and not so well-intentioned) people eager to tell you your dream is impossible. Characterizing themselves as sober realists, (and by implication everyone else as drunken dreamers) naysayers take pleasure in their own cleverness and in holding you back. Give them a hug, thank them, and go about the business of accomplishing the impossible. Just a few months ago, let alone two years ago, you couldn’t spit without hitting someone saying “Obama’s great, but he’ll never make it to the White House”.

2. Assume the Best in People and That’s What You’ll Get

Barack Obama won the presidency largely because he reached out to people traditional political operatives counseled him not to bother with. Entire states the Gore and Kerry campaigns skipped over became ripe recruiting grounds for Obama’s operation. Obama and his team believed it was stupid and self-defeating to write off entire regions, as if human consciousness is bound by state lines. Obama lives by this truth: you teach people how to treat you by the way you treat them. His deep respect for the common man and woman is genuine. People feel it, and they respond. It is an unshakable spiritual law that you attract not what you want, but what you are. Obama teaches us that our most pressing and effective task is self-cultivation. His not-so-secret weapon: the only real way to inspire people to their own greatness is to cultivate your own.

3. Hope and Faith Trump Despair and Fear Every Time

Despair and fear seem to be our default setting, the way digital clocks flash 12:00 when you unplug them. Obama’s presidency invites us to plug back in and set our own attitudinal clocks. Despair and fear may be cheap and easy but they create nothing. Nothing was ever built with the consciousness of scarcity and lack. Hope and faith, on the other hand, are the twin engines of transformation both on the personal level and the global level.

4. Our Assumptions are Usually Wrong

In light of these first three truths, it seems clear that we have a problem. Perhaps the problem is not with the world. Perhaps the problem lies within the way we see the world. Our attitudes, biases and assumptions are the biggest barriers to our own success and happiness. Many people assumed Obama had too many obstacles to overcome, namely, that not enough white people would vote for him. In fact, the opposite occurred. White people put him in office. The ascendancy of Barack Obama reminds us that we are more often wrong than right. And this begs the obvious question: what are we wrong about today?

5. There is Deep Wisdom in Common People

Our arrogance and cynicism prevent us from seeing a simple truth: either everyone has the light or no one has it. One of Obama’s strengths is his willingness to look past appearances – the circumstances of his own life taught him that. One of the most challenging and beautiful principles of democracy is the conviction that every single human being is a being of infinite value, a rational agent who if left to their own volition will seek the good. Especially if inspired by the aspirations of those around them. We move forward, lashed together like the logs of a raft, bound by the strength of our convictions and our common fate. Even the least among us adds to our strength.

6. If the Game Seems Rigged, Start a New Game

Early in Obama’s presidential aspiration it became clear that he could not compete with Hillary Clinton’s fundraising machine. As a young unknown he lacked the connections to adequately tap into the traditional streams of political cash flow, streams the Clintons had nurtured for decades. He could not win that game. So he started a new game. He went directly to the American people and bypassed the usual deep pocket sources. By raising five dollars, ten dollars, twenty dollars each from millions of individual Americans who had never contributed a dime to a political campaign, he changed forever the way politicians raise money. The new game put a black man in the White House. If the old game isn’t working in your life, go around it.

7. Hard Work Works

Obama got into Columbia and then Harvard Law School on sheer merit. No one handed him anything. As a boy his mother used to wake him up at 4:00 in the morning to do his homework before school. He would often complain bitterly. “Do you think I want to do this?” his mother asked him. “I don’t like it any more than you do.” Obama learned early on that what you feel like doing and what you should be doing is not often the same thing. Disciplined effort teaches us that despite our appetites to the contrary, we can always choose excellence and craft lives of power, beauty and joy. Hard work works.

8. You Don’t Need a Perfect Past

Nothing before this moment matters. We all come from somewhere. We’ve all been hurt. We all lack things others have. Estranged from his African father, raised by his single, white mother and then his white grandparents – being made painfully aware of his outsider status was just another day for Barack. But he found love and support where others saw enemies. Why do we cling to our story and allow the past to shape this next fluid, formless moment? Why not create something new from the wreckage? What some people call shit, others call fertilizer.

9. Stay Humble, Respect Your Opponents

Power need not be arrogance, mastery need not be condescension, assertion need not be divisive. True greatness is always humble. Great people recognize the light in all people, even their ideological opponents. Because each of us has only partial access to truth, we rely on others, perhaps especially our most vigorous and vocal opponents, to shed light on the corners of truth we had not yet considered. Real wisdom always manifests itself as flexibility and fluidity, traits often misunderstood as weakness by lesser minds who confuse strength with rigid, defensive inflexibility. Like his hero Lincoln, Obama intentionally seeks the counsel of those who disagree with him. Lincoln even appointed his political foes to his cabinet. How, in my own life, can I manifest this untapped inlet of insight?

10. Cultivate a Life of the Mind, but Trust Your Instincts

The presidency of Obama represents the triumph of intellect and reason over fear and irrationality. I’m not making a policy argument – I’m talking about the man himself. Obama’s success proves that cultivating our reasoning skills and learning how to read and write at a high level are perhaps the most liberating forces we can muster. “Emancipate your selves from mental slavery”, Bob Marley sang, “none but ourselves can free our minds.” Reading good books, learning how to use language persuasively and truthfully – these skills are the tools that will liberate us from the private and public prisons to which our better natures have been sentenced. Shedding the light of the mind on these dark times gives the Divine Mind a chance to do its work. We may not have to fix the world ourselves alone, but it sure helps if we show up with clean tools ready to work. As we assess both the hindrances and generative powers of our own lives, we find great cause for celebration. Vow today to not slip back into the lazy chair of despair and hopelessness. Allow the dream to live itself out through the choices and beauties of your own life.