Monday, July 31, 2017

When You're Salieri

            The 1984 film “Amadeus” presents a fictionalized biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The movie, and the Peter Shaffer play that preceded it, drives serious Mozart scholars nuts because it’s completely made-up. But who says art has to be true?
            What’s fascinating about “Amadeus” is the relationship between its two adversaries, a young, brash Mozart, and an older composer named Antonio Salieri. In real life, the two were friends, and in many ways Salieri mentored Mozart. But the playwright Shaffer had a different set of issues to explore – in a word, envy. Everyone knows who Mozart is. But Salieri isn’t exactly a household name. Shaffer’s play, and Milos Forman’s film, plunge us into the depths of the despair every artist feels – envy for those more successful than we are.
            As Shaffer tells the story, Salieri was a reasonably successful composer. He wrote very good music. But everyone, especially Salieri, could see that Mozart had something Salieri could never have – a natural, effortless greatness. Even though Mozart was undisciplined and lazy the music he dashed off on the fly far surpassed Salieri’s well-crafted and well, boring compositions. This tortured Salieri. He eventually went mad and plotted to have Mozart killed. As I said, none of this actually happened. But Shaffer’s play and Forman’s film are not interested in historical documentation – they are using the Mozart story to open a wound – a wound every artist knows as well as the back of their hand.
            All of us who paint or write or act or dance or sing or make films or in any other way create art instinctively recognize Salieri’s pain. We simultaneously loathe him for what he did to Mozart, and absolutely understand why he did it. No matter how successful you are as an artist, there’s always someone better. Envy is a dark and chaotic emotion. We all feel it. The trick is to transmute it into action. Rather than wallowing in self-pity when confronted with the genius of your artistic rivals, you simply have to get back to work and dig deeper to try and discover your own genius. Use envy to drive you toward your own excellence.
            Very few artists ever “make it,” whatever that even means. The fact is, most singer-songwriters will never move beyond the relatively small circle of their city’s small and insular music scene. Sure they make a few records. They get a little local radio play. They get some media attention. They open for a few national acts. But then five years slip by, then ten, then twenty, and the realization looms larger and larger – you’ve already peaked. There’s nothing waiting for you up ahead. That fantasy you used to indulge in, of wider acclaim, is never going to happen.
            But a few of you made it out. Some of the singer-songwriters you used to share the scene with are now huge international stars. And you know why. Because you were there thirty years ago in the coffeehouses alongside them. You saw it then. And you felt it. They had chops you didn’t have. They had an energy you didn’t have. Their songs had a clarity yours lacked. It was intrinsic, it was inherent, it was effortless, and it was magical.
You went home and tried to write some new songs, songs that did that. And you couldn’t, because you aren’t them. You can’t be somebody else. The best art is never imitation. Great art never chases someone else’s power – it unfolds its own. So you resolved to be a better you, the best you you could possibly be. And you did that. And it still wasn’t enough.
            What should you do when you realize that you’re Salieri, not Mozart? How do you make peace with the fact that your art is mediocre?
            You have to shift your expectations and transform the very reason you even make art. You have to rediscover that love of playing, singing, and writing you had long before you ever got on stage, before your first open-mic – that pure, for-the-love-of-it enthusiasm. You lost a bit of that when you got in the game, when you competed for bookings, when you scratched the money together to make your first record, and your second, and your fifth, when you brought the awards home and still felt empty, when you didn’t get the cover story or the TV slot, and they did, when you didn’t get national radio play, but they did.
            The damn thing about it is this – when you sit down to write a song, even now, you think big. You believe this could be it, this could be the one that really connects with people, this is as good as anything on the radio, hell better. This is so beautiful. In the midst of any act of creation, you have to believe that, or why bother? You open the floodgates and pour everything you think, everything you feel, and everything you know into it. And in the following days when the dew is off the rose and your manic enthusiasm fades and you hear your song objectively and realize, oh, it’s just another so-so song, like all the others, derivative of its influences, unclear, forgettable, underwhelming. You begin to doubt your judgment. Am I naïve? Self-absorbed? Or just stupid?
            It can really eat you up.
            Nearly every song is born a masterpiece and dies as dreck. If you aren’t willing to take that deal, then you don’t get to be a singer-songwriter. That’s the awful bargain. It’s a brutal business, this business of creating art. Making art means making friends with failure.
            Coming to terms with the fact that you’re Salieri and not Mozart takes time. It takes time to let go and transmute your music from career-launching Great Art into middle aged hobby. But it is possible. Hell, just look around. We’re all doing it.
            But here’s the good news – what at first feels like defeat transforms into joyful gratitude. You look back and you have to laugh – the piles of show posters, the unsold boxes of your CDs and band T-shirts, the wall hook with the tangle of backstage lanyards, the music awards trophy shelf, the comradery with your tribe, the 10,000 small victories – you wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. The fact is, if you made art, you made a difference, even if the wider world didn’t notice.
            Salieri went mad, at least in the fictionalized version of the story. But we don’t have to. We can graciously set aside our youthful yearnings. We can mentor other artists coming up. We can tap into our considerable experience and teach voice, guitar, stagecraft, or marketing. We can produce. We can turn lovingly, consciously, gratefully, to whatever’s next. And we can keep playing on the side, on whatever scale we want, unburdened by the ambition that plagued our younger days, just for the sheer joy of it.
            Because when you let go, the joy comes back into your music. But it takes time. It takes time to learn how to no longer feel defeated just at the sight of a guitar.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Love of Money

         “Money is the root of all evil,” he said, “it’s in the Bible.” I didn’t respond. People don’t like being corrected. Sometimes it’s best just to smile and move on.  
          Actually, I thought to myself, the line is “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil…” (1 Timothy 1:6) It may seem like a small difference, but it matters.  
          Money isn’t the problem – it’s our rapacious craving born from the consciousness of scarcity that causes all of the destruction. “People who want to get rich,” Paul writes, “fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction… Some people, eager for money, have wandered…and pierced themselves with many griefs.”  
          What Paul’s lamenting is not money, but the spiritual poverty that goads us into the mistaken belief that our happiness lies in the meaningless acquisition of things. To fall into the love of money is to be pierced with many griefs. We must instead love the work, without attachment to the results.
           Some voices in traditional Christianity have used these passages to support a dualistic philosophy that denigrates the material world as a treacherous lair of temptation, a trap our godly souls must strive to avoid. This arguably Medieval, life-denying, and otherworldly form of Christianity views the world of embodied forms as a fallen realm to be transcended. But that isn’t the only way to see it.
          Other voices within the Christian family align more closely with their sister faiths Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism in their affirmation of the fundamental goodness of the material world.
          In Hinduism, ultimate reality is known as Brahman, the sacred formless ground of being out of which all forms emerge and to which all forms return. In this non-dualistic view, the world of forms is a sacred reflection of divinity, a realm of infinite value and beauty. Even the creativity and productivity pouring through us is understood as yet another aspect of the one divine unfolding. Our longing to expand, whether spiritually, professionally, or materially, is not a sign of vice or self-obsession – it is simply Brahman giving birth to itself through us. Wanting a more beautiful home isn’t always covetousness – sometimes it’s just growth. Who are we not to create more, have more, and be more – not in the pursuit of self-aggrandizement, but in the spirit of playful enjoyment?
          You’ve also heard it said that money can’t buy happiness. You know who talks like that? People who have money. It’s difficult to be happy if you have no shelter, you don’t feel safe, or you have no access to adequate healthcare. Poverty exerts terrible stress on the poor, akin to the traumatic stress experienced by combat veterans. Not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or worrying about whether or not the thin walls of your section 8 apartment can keep out stray bullets from drive by shootings make happiness a distant dream.
          A raft of recent studies show that money does indeed buy happiness, up to a point. Happiness increases as income increases, up to about $75,000 a year. As income rises above $75,000, the happiness correlation drops off. And by the time you get to $250,000 a year, the correlation disappears. If you’re well into the six figures, money cannot buy more happiness. But below that it can, and it does.
          If all is one, then our participation in the material world is a sacred experience. Doing the work we have been given to do, applying our God-given talents, sensibilities, and initiative to create products, services, and solutions for the needs of the world is everyone’s sacred purpose. When we offer up our best in the consciousness of service, people give us money for it. As we work in our given professions for a world that works for everyone, we honor ourselves, our creator, and each other. Earning money for honest work is a deeply satisfying, honorable pleasure. Using that money to provide for one’s family, enrich one’s experiences, enhance one’s safety, security, and enjoyment, cannot be evil. 

[This piece was originally published in my column "A to Zen" in the July/August 2017 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

We Are Always Traveling

We are traveling 1,000 miles an hour around the center of the earth. The earth is traveling 67,000 miles an hour around the sun – nineteen miles per second. The sun and its solar system are spiraling around the center of the Milky Way galaxy at 550,000 miles an hour. The Milky Way galaxy is flying away from the center of the universe like everything else since the Big Bang, scattering everything outward in all directions.
            Does it feel like you’re hurtling through space at nineteen miles per second? Of course not. Because we were born on the fly. We’re used to it. This is all we’ve ever known. We were born traveling.
            The best DNA and archeological evidence shows that modern humans, Homo sapiens, walked out of Africa 50,000 - 80,000 years ago. Earlier hominid species existed long before that. In fact, just a few miles from my home in San Diego, definitive evidence of human activity dating back 130,000 years was recently discovered, shattering earlier estimates of humanity’s arrival in the New World by a factor of ten. For our entire evolution, humans were never much good at staying put. That distant horizon is far too alluring.
            As we prepare for our summer excursions, a brief reflection on the philosophy of traveling is in order. Why are we called out from our domestic tranquility to rough it on the road? What lures us toward the unknown? And why, as soon as we get home, do we once again begin dreaming of far off lands? Maybe it’s because we are more at home on the road than we are at home. We have always been traveling.
            Before you step out the door, traveling teaches you its first important lesson. It happens during the process of packing – the art of reducing your material life down to a few bags you can sling over your shoulder and drag behind you. When you wake up at home and get dressed, you have all of your clothes to choose from. On the road, you have only what you can carry. Packing reduces your life down to its essentials – it is an exercise in decisiveness and commitment. You don’t need to choose a specific outfit for every day of travel, but you do need to assemble a small number of things that work well together, and are suitable to the elements. You need to know where you’re going and adapt accordingly. Black tie dinner and the opera house? Rainforest camping? Back-pack train hopping through India? As in life, know yourself, know your environment, and know your cultural context. Make a decision and live with it.
            The best trips, like the best lives, are well-balanced endeavors with just the right amount of planning and the just the right amount of spontaneity. Over-planning turns your trip into a chore, death-marching from one fixed appointment to the next. Under-planning creates even more stress as you squander precious vacation time navigating simple arrangements that could’ve been better handled from home. As in life, failing to plan is planning to fail. But nobody likes a task-master either. Leave open, unstructured days sandwiched between your plane tickets and hotel reservations. You never know. You might find yourself passing through a village that barely earned a mention in the guide book. You walk its cobblestoned streets and stop into an empty café at the end of the day. At a window table, sipping the best espresso you have ever had in your life, watching the alpenglow bathe the rooftops in gold, a wordless recognition passes through you even though you have never been here before. You know you can’t leave. Not yet. Not today. You find a room at the local inn. That night a festival in the town square brings out the entire village. You mingle with the crowd, hearing in their voices and seeing in their eyes something familiar, something true, something real. Among these strangers you feel a warmth and belonging that eludes you back home. The strangeness of the world takes off its mask and reveals its oneness. You can’t plan moments like this. Nor can you seek them. They find you only when you aren’t looking, and only if you leave openings. Mystery and beauty cannot enter where there is no space.
Some of us write travel journals. A lot of us take pictures or videos. These are all wonderful ways to interact with your experiences, mold them into art, or at least record your memories for later enjoyment. But those of us who journal or photograph our travels are well aware of the subtle and insidious effect these processes have on the very experiences they supposedly celebrate and enshrine. I call it the camera effect.
            If you love taking pictures as much as I do, you find yourself constantly scanning the environment for the next shot. Standing in the middle of Yosemite Valley, instead of experiencing Yosemite Valley, you’re obsessed with how to best capture an image of Yosemite Valley. Instead of controlling the camera, the camera controls you.
At their best photography and travel journaling connect us to a place and create lasting works of beauty and value. At their worst they rob of us the very experience we traveled so far to enjoy. As a photographer I’m always cognizant of the light – its direction, its texture, and its impact on color saturation. Atmospheric haze, shadow, and a hundred other variables crowd my mind. I’m always scanning for interesting compositions, angles, and juxtapositions. I’m seeking the emblematic image – something that will capture the entire zeitgeist of a place and time. In other words, I’m enfolded in layer after layer of insulating interpretation – stuck in my head essentially – instead of really truly being here now. Sigh.
            Same with journaling. Often in the midst of an experience I think to myself, this is how I’ll describe this tomorrow morning over coffee when I write my journal entry about this, and standing in the middle of Versailles, I’m lost in a descriptive word-cloud about Versailles. What a shame. Zen Buddhism often reminds us of the dangers of getting lost in abstraction, and how the mediation of thought blankets the immediacy of life with numbing distance. As 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho so poignantly put it: “Even in Kyoto/Hearing the cuckoo’s cry/I long for Kyoto.”
              The purpose of travel, and of the well-lived life, is to free us of our complacency, rip away our mooring, and cast us adrift into the wonder of it all. Only when we leave the safety of the shore do we experience the immensity of the sea. The sailboat was not made for the harbor.