Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Missing Link

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

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

Friday, December 19, 2014

Classical Music

In  the specialized knowledge of professional musicologists the term “classical music” has a very specific meaning. It refers to European music written between 1750-1830, usually in the form of symphony, concerto, or sonata. It could be solo piano, a small quartet, or a huge symphony orchestra with full choir. But for the rest of us, classical music means anything ranging from medieval Gregorian chant right on up to the latest John Williams score for whatever gory bombast is playing at the multiplex this weekend.
Either way, classical music has had a long and lasting hold on our collective imagination.
In the technical language of music scholarship Mozart is classical, Beethoven is not – he’s a Romantic. Haydn is classical, Debussy is not – he’s an Impressionist. Technical distinctions aside, the fact remains, instrumental symphonic music and its related iterations continue to lure us into its lush interior – a strange and wonderful landscape of icy mountains, dark forests, and idyllic glades where dreams and reveries interlace with passion and intellect so that you don’t know where one ends and the other begins.
By an accident of birth I was born into a classical music home. My mom and dad were Dutch immigrants. European music – Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin – threaded through my home like DNA strands weaving and forming my young consciousness, while connecting us all to the beauty and depth of European culture. As the youngest of three boys, I quickly realized that music is just what the Bollands do – especially classical music. We all took piano lessons and learned to play. When Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” comes through your own fingers, you are changed. But it wasn’t an easy apprenticeship. I remember being dragged to symphony concerts on Sunday afternoons at the local community college theater. I didn’t want to go, and of course I was bored to death. Yet by osmosis, this haunting, soulful music became part of me.
My oldest brother Eric switched to guitar, and I soon followed. It was the sixties after all and folk music was bleeding over into the rock world. To not play guitar was just, well, un-American. But my middle brother John stuck with clarinet. We shared a room, and his daily practice schedule meant that the clear and mournful cry of the clarinet became the soundtrack of my young life.
While the jangly beat of rock and country grabbed most of my attention, I developed a permanent soft spot for classical music. I not only grew to love it – I grew to need it.
I made mix tapes of my favorite classical pieces. As a teenager, on a long cross-country trip with my parents to visit the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, and Mt. Rushmore, somewhere in the Black Hills of South Dakota we pulled over to rest. My mom and dad took folding chairs out in the middle of a meadow surrounded by a ring of trees and distant mountains. The air was warm and the stillness was vibrant and alive. I opened the doors of our Ford Econoline camper and popped in one of my classical mix tapes. Transcendent music began drifting through the meadow, not intrusively, but soothingly, like the steady breathing of a loved one asleep. The music and the meadow became one thing. Many years later, at the end of his life, my dad told me that despite decades of travel and too many golden moments to count, that was one of his favorite travel memories of all, sitting in that meadow, his back turned to the road, that beautiful music coming out of the very air he breathed, lifting him like a wave.
When I went away to college at UC Santa Barbara in 1978 and set up an apartment in Isla Vista, the central feature was the stereo. A turntable, a tuner, an amp, big speakers, and a vast collection of vinyl formed the core of every college apartment, and mine was no different. The records that got played the most were Led Zepplin, Neil Young, Talking Heads, Emmylou Harris, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. But on those long, cold, melancholy afternoons after an arduous morning deciphering texts and writing papers, it was time for tea and Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.” I wore that record out. It got me through a lot of sad and lonely afternoons. Something about its order, its clarity, its discipline, its bracing optimism, and its celebration of the cosmic cycle of generation, decay, and regeneration made a silent, wordless understanding take shape in my mind – that no matter how low and empty you get, there is always beauty in the heart of everything. You only have to slow down enough to hear it, to see it, and feel it. Even the darkness holds bright, heartening secrets.
Years later, on the night of our engagement, Lori and I went to hear a performance of Handel’s “Messiah.” We cut out at intermission. It was too much. We were brimming with joy at the prospect of our new life together, and half a Messiah is pretty much all you can take when you’re already about to burst.
So what is it about European classical music that makes it so alluring, so evocative, and so restorative?
For one thing, it’s complicated. You don’t just learn three chords, sit down, and bang it out like folk music. Many years of arduous apprenticeship precede admission into even the most mediocre of orchestras. The top orchestras are made up of master musicians who have sacrificed their entire lives to this art form. Classical music isn’t a job, it’s a mission.
And its complexity extends to the audience as well. It takes time to learn to appreciate classical music. Like Shakespeare, existentialism, or the poetry of T. S. Eliot, one needs an introduction at least, or even better, a long, protracted course of study under the tutelage of a master interpreter. In this age of instant gratification, who’s got the time? But when you crack the code, learn the language, and penetrate the signs and symbols, a world of unimaginable beauty opens up before you and takes your breath away. You immediately want to run and tell everyone you know about this new joy you’ve found, but you can’t. There are no words.
Classical music is unapologetic in its embrace and celebration of mastery. High-level expertise is required to perform it, and its audience must be in on the secret. This leaves classical music open to the tired cry of “elitism!” So be it. Denigrating excellence is a favorite pastime of the herd which apparently hears as an indictment of its own mediocrity any example of disciplined, refined accomplishment.
Because it is primarily instrumental (opera and classical song is a topic for another day) classical music wields melody, harmony, style, structure, arrangement, and rhythm to craft worlds beyond the pale of language. Underneath much of European classical music there’s an unflinching willingness to evoke vast philosophical, theological, mystical, and transcendent themes – nothing less than the very mystery of existence itself. Its sheer audacity emboldens us.
Classical music is the most humane of art forms because it dares to grapple with the entire range of human experience and does so with a concerted application of all that is best in us – our intellect, our discipline, our passion, our skill, and our willingness to give ourselves over to something bigger than ourselves. We rightly celebrate the best of classical music because, even in the depths of our unconsciousness, we know that classical music celebrates the best in us.