Friday, December 30, 2016

A Call to Arts

Never before have the arts mattered so much. As hate crimes escalate across the country the need has never been greater for the artist’s sacred calling: to enlarge our imagination, enflame our empathy, awaken our compassion, and inspire us to action. If you are an artist, you are hereby summoned to ply your craft with renewed passion toward a specific aim: bringing light into a darkening world. 
            This is a call to arts.
            Ultimately this isn’t about politics. It isn’t about who won or lost an election. It’s about moral rectitude and the sacred obligation we have by virtue of our birth. We are human beings first, and members of political parties second, and we owe refuge and solace to one another. When the rightful order of the world is threatened, we must rise to defend it, and when the most vulnerable among us are under attack, we must dig deep and find the audacity to fight back.
            But the last thing we need is pedantic art – art that talks down to us and bosses us around. We don’t need art that scolds us about peace and harmony. No sermon’s please. What we need is art that opens our hearts, quickens our minds, and leads us to the courage of our own convictions. Dear artists: please trust your audience to reach its own conclusions and plot its own path. That is not for you to say. But what you can do is this – wake people up and draw them deeper into the unimpeachable authority of their own inner experience. Tell the little stories that connect us to the big truths. The heart knows what to do – it must simply be provoked out of its slumber.
            Those of us who make art must use every means at our disposal to hold the vision of what is possible. We must both illuminate the dark places as well as the way forward. It is not art’s place to craft legislation, draft policy positions, or establish institutions, but to incite the imagination, because without imagination we cannot have empathy, and without empathy we cannot have morality.
            In his 1821 essay “In Defense of Poetry,” British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the quintessential manifesto on the proper role of the poet:
A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others. The pains and pleasure of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. Poetry enlarges the circumference of the imagination by replenishing it with thoughts of ever new delight, which have the power of attracting and assimilating to their own nature all other thoughts, and which form new intervals and interstices whose void forever craves fresh food. Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.
For Shelley, poetry, and by extension all art, performs an essential function: by exercising and strengthening our imaginations, art increases our capacity to empathize – to feel the feelings of another – and this is the bedrock foundation of compassion and morality. We cannot be good, in other words, if we cannot imagine deeply and powerfully. Dull imaginations cannot empathize – they cannot imagine the suffering of the other. And if the suffering of others isn’t real for you, you are incapable of compassionate action. To those with extinguished imaginations all talk of morality is but the clanging of bells. This then is the importance of art – to heighten the awareness of our deep and unbreakable interrelationship with one another.
            Instead of instruction, the artist must offer pathos. The best art makes us feel more than think – it piques our dreams and floods the parched earth of our once fertile imaginations. Remember being four years old and playing for hours with dust motes suspended in sunbeams pouring through the window? You didn’t need a toy – the world was your toy. Imagination is its own truth.
            Poetry, and indeed all art, is inherently subversive because is slips through the cracks of our rational minds and leaks into the depths beyond thought. Art is an end-run around the official position, the norm, the narrative favored by the elite. That’s why the Nazi’s vilified intellectuals, artists, and the media, and it’s why they burned books and paintings as “degenerate art.” They rightly feared art’s transformative power and the fundamentally ungovernable spirit of free-thought. Tyranny requires order. Art defies order at every turn.
            Woody Guthrie, the archetypal folk singer, understood art’s seditious nature. He painted the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar, and he meant it. In 1950 Guthrie moved into the Beach Haven Apartments in Brooklyn, New York. They were owned by Fred Trump, Donald Trump’s father, who had secured millions of dollars in federal funding to build post-war public housing. Trump, arrested at KKK rallies in his youth, displaced people of color from their neighborhoods and established racial codes that excluded non-whites. Then came the rent gouging. Guthrie moved out two years later and wrote a scathing song called “I Ain’t Got No Home/Old Man Trump.” Here are the last two verses:

Beach Haven ain't my home, I just can't pay the rent
My money's down the drain and my soul is badly spent
Beach Haven is a haven where only white folks roam
No no no old man Trump, Beach Haven ain't my home

As I look around it's mighty plain to see
This world is a wicked and a funny place to be
Gambling man is rich and the working man is poor
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.

What art will you create in the coming months and years? More so than any other form of expression, art is a powerful way of responding to the absurdities in which we find ourselves. Facts, evidence, arguments, and rational discourse have failed. But we still have songs (and novels, short stories, plays, films, photographs, poetry, choreography, painting, sculpture, and mixed media). Art has the uncanny knack of loosening the ties of our despair, turning our attention away from hopelessness, and teaching us to trust ourselves again – that we are enough, and that we, together, can dig deep into our inherent goodness and bring that goodness to bear on a troubled world. Art encourages us, literally. It makes us brave again. No matter how daunting the struggle.

Friday, December 2, 2016

And So This is Christmas

To whom does Christmas belong? Is it a private event or a come-as-you-are potluck?
Although Andy Williams’s dulcet tenor claims that “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” some of us wonder. Still, there’s something sweet and beautiful about Christmas flowing all around us. It would be a shame to get to January and find we’ve missed the whole thing.
But what is Christmas, really?
In mainstream, Christianized culture, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus. But it’s really so much more than that. Over the last two millennia a flood of cultural appropriations have added their unique flavors to the stew. And it continues to evolve. Our modern Christmas is a family tree with roots in Greek, Roman, Germanic, and Norse mythologies, as well as Turkish, Greek, Jewish, Dutch, British, and American culture. Even capitalism and commercialism left their indelible mark on this mutt of a holiday. If it's purity you’re after, better look elsewhere.
We don’t know when Jesus was born, but it wasn’t December 25. Most scholars place it in summer because that’s when shepherds were “watching their flocks by night,” as the Gospel of Luke claims. When Christianity became Romanized in the fourth century, the celebration of Jesus’ birth was placed on December 25 to align with the birth of Mithra, another popular savior in the Roman mélange. Mithra was a Persian god who, like Jesus, was born miraculously, had twelve disciples, healed people, raised the dead, then died and resurrected. To the Romans, Jesus and Mithra were a perfect pair.
            Christianity had been illegal in the Roman Empire until 312 when Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan legalizing it. For the first time, Christians could worship in the open. They made up for lost time. Within a hundred years the Bible was finalized, ritual and liturgy were codified, and a holiday calendar took shape. But Roman Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas the way we do, if at all, even though many of the pieces of what would become Christmas were laying all around in plain sight.
            In honor of the god Saturn, Romans set aside the last seven days of the year for the Festival of Saturnalia. Norms and laws were suspended, the courts were closed, and ribald mayhem ensued. Everyday Romans decorated their homes with lanterns and evergreen boughs, held lavish drunken parties, increased charitable donations to the poor, went singing door to door, and closed out the week with a gift exchange. Sound familiar? Early Christians found these pagan practices so repugnant that they avoided them for years. But by the 6th century, they had adopted them all.  
            Then Christmas moved north.
            Many of the elements of our modern Christmas celebration come from Norse and Germanic paganism. The now ubiquitous Christmas tree was adopted from pre-Christian Germanic nature worship, then popularized in Victorian England. As the obelisks of ancient Egpyt (and the Washington Monument) represent the earth god Geb’s longing for his sky goddess wife Nut, the Yule tree represents Odin’s, um, shall we say, perpetual readiness. And Santa Claus with his flowing white beard seems a lot like the Norse god Odin who soared through the sky on his eight-legged horse. The eight reindeer would come later.
            In Dutch culture, an obscure Turkish or maybe Greek saint called Nicholas was raised into prominence as Sinterklass. Known for his love of children and his generosity to the poor, Sinterklass was a gift-giving god of sorts, dressed in red and accompanied by his Moorish attendant Zwarte Piet or Black Peter. As Sinterklass spread abroad to the UK as Father Christmas and America as Santa Claus, his black “attendant” was ditched. Um, awkward.
            But it was from the mind of an American poet that the rest of the Santa Claus legend took shape. Clement Clark Moore was the son of Benjamin Moore, the bishop who presided over the inauguration of George Washington. The younger Moore penned a poem in 1823 that would blend and concretize all of the details swirling around the story of Santa Claus. “T’was the Night Before Christmas” established a number of elements we now take for granted: the sleigh, the eight reindeer (complete with names), and the bit about Santa landing his sleigh on the roof and sliding down the chimney. This was new. And we loved it.
            In a 1931 ad campaign Coca Cola papered over America with its new corporate mascot – a jolly old Santa Claus with rosy cheeks, a generous smile, and an irrepressible twinkle in his eye. The image of the American Santa Claus was fixed forevermore.
            In 1939 ad writer Robert May was working on a coloring book insert for the Montgomery Ward catalog. Thinking back to the exclusion and bullying of his own lonely childhood May created a ninth reindeer named Rudolf whose oddity, an illumined red nose, would turn out to be a tremendous asset to the boss in a pinch. Then May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote a song called “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.” When the singing cowboy Gene Autry recorded it in 1949 it went to number one, and remained the best-selling record of all time until 1980. From bullied nerd to celebrated hero – an archetypal tale of the emergence of our latent excellence through the cracks of our imperfection. It is because of our uniqueness that we are best able to serve.
            From the very beginning, Christmas belonged to all of us. It is not the sole property of any one religion or culture. Christmas is a metaphor for the international diversity of our messy human family – bits and pieces from everywhere blended into one glorious celebration. Christmas is collaborative community theater and the world is our stage. We all make Christmas. It’s folk art and no one’s in charge. It’s an alchemy of high-brow and low-brow, sacred and profane, silly and sublime, elegant and tacky. In our modern Christmas celebration there is room at the table for everyone – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, pagans – anyone willing to wear an ugly sweater, lift a cup, break bread, and celebrate the coming of the light into the darkness. Santa Claus is the embodiment of the abundance of the universe, and every time you wrap a present you participate in the ritual of generosity and embody the truth that love is always hidden right beneath the surface of everything.
            Let’s make Christmas a holiday for everyone, not yet another opportunity to divide our human family into warring tribes. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary were aliens in a strange city. There was no room at the inn. From the humblest of people, and in the humblest of places, the light still comes into this darkening world. That’s the real meaning of Christmas – that the Divine Light shows up as the most vulnerable of creatures, an infant, and draws us into the one love that emanates from every heart, heals every wound, and lifts all eyes to the brightening days ahead. At this darkest time of the year, may we be a light to one another.
            Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hang my Saturnalia lights and erect the Odin tree.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Three Breaths

I woke up, again, at 3:30 in the morning. Outside in the Eucalyptus trees a pair of Great Horned Owls called across the chaparral. The stillness wrapped the world like a blanket. But inside my mind there was anything but stillness.
            It’s not that I wasn’t exhausted – it’d been another tough week, and I was only halfway through it. Deadlines, challenges, and a thousand expectations loomed ahead in the darkness. How was little old me going to meet all those lofty goals? Was I even the right guy for the job? Who did I think I was anyway?
Hoo, hoo, hoo?
The Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes and teaches about the importance of mindful breathing. In his work he often focuses on the deceptively simple act of breathing in and breathing out, and turning that natural function into a focal point of meaningful transformation. Lying in my bed in the dark, I began to practice a version of his mindful breathing technique – three deep, intentional breaths, each with its own affirmation: letting go, being here, and opening up.
            With the first breath, inhale, paying attention to the way your body instinctively draws in air. As you exhale, silently say the words “letting go,” allowing your exhalation to empty you out. Inhale again, noticing that this inhalation is a little longer, a little deeper than the first. As you exhale, silently say the words “being here,” coming out of your mind and into this present moment. Inhale a third time, feeling the way your body is enlivened by the vital breath the cosmos so willingly provides. Exhale in the consciousness of gratitude, silently saying the words “opening up,” allowing the doors and windows of your small sense of self to swing wide. Feel yourself becoming diaphanous, borderless, unified.
            Letting go. Being here. Opening up. Feel the stillness spread throughout your mind-body system the way ink spreads in water. Witness yourself growing calm as the thoughts that plagued you dissipate like clouds in a clear desert sky. Emptiness. Spaciousness. Boundless awareness.
Letting Go
            When you practice letting go, you are relinquishing the illusion of control. You simply drop the pretense that you’re in charge. You affirm the fact that everything is transitory, and that we don’t really own anything – it’s all borrowed, and we have to give it all back, sometimes suddenly and without warning. As we let go we shift from fear and covetousness to love and gratitude – gratitude that we even got to touch, enjoy, or experience any of it. As we let go, we feel a deep sense of freedom and joy welling up from within. We know that our being, our essence, is not defined or supported by outer forms – the things we own, our houses, our cars, or our job titles and reputations. Even the dear loved ones who fill our days and nights with love, laughter, creativity, and surprise don’t belong to us. We walk alongside each other for a while, then we part ways, one by one, until we stand alone again at the precipice. We’re born alone, and we die alone. These sweet lives we’ve been given are a fleeting gift of infinite value, but they are not our private possession. The great paradox: only when we let go do we truly receive. Grasping, clinging, craving, and attachment produce only suffering.

Being Here
            When we mindfully decide to be here now, a great transformation begins. Moving into present moment awareness is a simple shift, but it requires on-going recommitment and affirmation, so tenacious is the old habit of living in the past or living in the future. One of the things we let go with the first breath was our story, that long and laborious narrative we drag around with us where all of our so-called disadvantages and all of the wounds inflicted on us are replayed ad nauseam. We think we need our story, because it is an archive where we store the evidence used to prove our unworthiness. All of the messages we ever received from harried, distracted teachers who didn’t notice us, emotionally distant parents whose self-absorption kept us at arm’s length, or the lovers who retaliated against us, not realizing that the pain they felt was self-inflicted – when we come into this now moment those old messages lose their meaning and power. We are free. And when we let go of fantasies of the future, whether worried anxiousness or utopian escapism, we put both feet in the here and now, the only place there really is.
The past doesn’t exist. What we call the past is a thought that occurs only in the present moment. The future is even less real than the past. There are no memories in the future to cling to, only imaginary projections. Like the past, all future-thoughts occur only in this present moment. Returning to the now moment of pure awareness, we feel a certain groundedness and immediacy, something you just can’t get in the thought-realm. The present moment isn’t a thought, it’s a vibrant, lived experience prior to thought. The present moment is the only place where you stand a chance of coming out of the ethereal world of the thought-stream and into the real world of experiential awareness. Only here can you experience real freedom, real love, and on your best days, glimpses of bliss.

Opening Up
            When we let go and enter fully into the present moment we feel a great unfolding, an opening up. No longer girded like a warrior in battle, we show up vulnerable, full in our faith that the universe is a nurturing, supportive, abundant, and generative place. We are not strangers here – that was part of the illusion we released – we are part and parcel of the totality that arises from its own infinite intelligence. When we open up we commit the final act of absolution. We know that there is nothing left to seek, nothing left to defend, nothing apart from anything else. We are home right where we are, in this skin, in this house, in this town, in this beautiful, miraculous world. We are divested of all notions of hierarchy. We are humbled and proud all at the same time – paradox like that no longer has any hold on us. We see past duality and conflict to a spacious peacefulness and loving-kindness. We know that all work is service, and we show up earnest and cheerful and do the work that is ours to do.
            Three breaths. Letting go. Being here. Opening up. It’s a practice you can carry with you anywhere you go. It works at the office, in traffic, on the tarmac, at the awkward family gathering, or in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep. Wherever you are, take the opportunity to move into the freedom of your own essential nature. You don’t have to seek it, create it, or understand it; you have only to allow it. And breathe.