Monday, April 30, 2018

Sound and Silence

Like every other folk singer, I’ve played some unusual shows. Stuck in the corner of a restaurant’s empty back patio, playing for no one, while the crowd inside watched football. Set up alongside a marathon route, playing for an endless stream of somewhat preoccupied runners. Performing on a cruise ship’s main stage with a pick-up band as the elegant room tossed and lurched in a violent storm. But of all the countless shows I’ve played, this was the oddest – a concert at a week-long silent retreat at The Chopra Center.
            The Chopra Center for Wellbeing is one of the world’s premier mind-body healing and educational centers. Nestled on the grounds of the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa in Carlsbad, California, the Chopra Center offers a full menu of spiritual and physical healing programs, as well as off-site retreats at Asilomar, Sedona, Costa Rica, and beyond. Built over twenty years ago on the groundbreaking work of Drs. Deepak Chopra and David Simon, the Chopra Center has changed countless lives and cultivated a bevy of teachers and facilitators, and I am honored to call myself one of them. Since I’ve entered into partnership with the Center I’ve offered two events, with two more on the calendar for this summer and fall. Mostly they’re lectures, or all-day retreats. But the one I did last month was different.
            I arrived a few hours early on the afternoon of the concert. I set up and waited. I drank some herbal tea. A palpable quiet permeated the space. As the start time approached, in they came, alone, or in twos and threes. No one said a word. They were coming from massages, Ayurvedic treatments, or meditation sessions. Many were wearing robes. It was their first full day of silence. We greeted each other with eye contact, nods, and welcoming smiles. When everyone was seated, the retreat leader introduced me and I began.
            As Trappist monk Father Thomas Keating said, “Silence is the language of God. All else is a bad translation.” And as any musician knows, music is the art of deciding exactly how to ruin the silence. Still, I was bound to do my best to provide a worthwhile soundscape for these silent retreatants to enjoy. I thought long and hard about the set list. I plotted every tempo flow, key change, and lyric theme. I kept it simple. I kept it clean. I kept it quiet, and I leaned on songs that had a restful glow at the center – nothing too fancy or busy. I played my most soulful and reflective originals, and a lot of great covers with the same broad, expansive, contemplative vibe.
            After my first song they applauded. O.K. good, so they were allowed to clap. That helped – a welcome dose of reciprocity. Then by the third song, something began to open up, like a rose blooming, revealing a hidden beauty and blush. They were leaning into me and I into them. We were holding each other up. To some extent that happens at every show, well, the good ones anyway. But this was different. This was more urgent, hungrier, more penetrating. It’s as if with their power of speech gone, their sense of hearing expanded. I’ve never felt the presence of an audience more deeply. I’ve never felt more heard. They hung on every note, every word. Both of us, on either side of the guitar, were daring vulnerability, and with vulnerability comes intimacy.
            In some ways, this concert at the silent retreat was the natural culmination of the trajectory my musical career had taken for years. I’d played in loud rock and roll bands in college, my Les Paul like a lit fuse in my hands, the din of amps and drums ringing in my ears for days, (and robbing me of a good chunk of my hearing in middle age). Later, folk duos dominated, the tone of unadorned acoustic guitars proving richer and more enthralling than a rack of effects pedals through an amp on eleven. Eventually, I left all that behind to focus on solo performance. Something about emptying out the sound and leaving more space called to me. I’ve noticed that about my songwriting too – my songs keep getting shorter and simpler. Every time I remove an element, the impact increases. Less really is more.
            So when I entered into partnership with The Chopra Center, I jumped at the chance to bring my guitar and perform. It wasn’t even my idea. I pitched myself as a lecturer, a teacher of Asian philosophy, and a meditation facilitator. But I guess they checked out my website and found out about my other life. I was surprised when they asked. And of course I said yes. It made perfect sense.
            On each day of the silent retreat one of the five senses was featured. The first day was sound – that’s where I fit in. The next day was visual – they were painting. The day after that was touch – they were crafting personal altars. And so on. I thought it was brilliant. And I was thrilled to be a small part of it.
            The composer Claude Debussy said that “Music is the silence between the notes.” The best musicians understand that they are always doing two things: playing music, and playing silence. Without the gaps between the notes, music would just be one long, horrible wail. As jazz master Miles Davis put it, “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.” I’ve often noticed this as I’ve collaborated with countless musicians through the years, some truly great, and others still learning. One of the quickest tells of who has experience and who doesn’t is how silent they are. The player who’s always noodling during rehearsal, or who over-plays every song, filling every gap with noise, is the beginner who mistakenly believes that musicianship is synonymous with flash and flurry. The seasoned pro, on the other hand, is as silent as a mouse during rehearsal, and during the song, they disappear into the pocket so deeply that you don’t know where they end and the music begins. A poor musician plays their instrument. A great musician plays the song.
            The same rule applies in public speaking, whether you’re a politician, a preacher, or a professor – all various forms of story teller. And as master storyteller Ira Glass, host of Public Radio’s “This American Life” puts it, “In radio you have two tools. Sound and silence.” The best speakers understand this. If you never stop and take a beat, and instead pummel your audience with a never ending slurry of words, numbness sets in. Your speech, no matter how eloquent, loses its power. If you take a pause, on the other hand, and fill the room with sudden silence, the gravitational field shifts. Everyone in the room looks up and locks eyes with you. What you say next is offered up on a silver platter and savored.
In the right measure, silence and sound work beautifully together. Sound conveys from without while silence draws up from within the treasures of our own insights and awareness that otherwise lay dormant, submerged, and hidden. Sound gives us the gifts of others. Silence gives us the gift of ourselves.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Real Freedom

Enshrined in the Declaration of Independence is the idea that freedom is a core American value. But the question remains – What is freedom? I think there are three stages of freedom, and until we carefully differentiate between them, all of our well-intentioned dialogue about this vital issue is doomed to end in frustration and confusion.
            Let’s call the first and most rudimentary form of freedom adolescent freedom. At this stage of our development freedom simply means doing whatever you feel like doing. As children we are ringed round with authoritarian structures dictating our every move. Adolescents necessarily rebel against these external control-mechanisms as they evolve toward personal autonomy. I think we can all agree that adolescent rebellion is a good thing, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. It’s how people are made. But personal evolution is rarely neat and tidy.
            It turns out that this first stage of freedom isn’t very free. As adolescents we are driven largely by unconscious needs and the forces of peer pressure. We only think we are free. Then we grow a little older and wiser.
          At the second stage of freedom we mature beyond hedonism and learn that our best self-interest is often served by postponing immediate pleasures for larger long-term gains. And on an even deeper level we learn that our best self-interest is entirely interwoven with the interests of others. We learn that there is no me without we – that there is no such thing as private happiness or private freedom. Our freedom and happiness cannot flourish if others are imprisoned and miserable. As Nelson Mandela wrote, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” At this second, mature stage of freedom our separate sense of self grows translucent, transparent even, as our sense of interdependency expands. We begin to see ourselves not merely as individuals, but as a part of a whole. We are evolving toward the third and highest state of freedom – awakened freedom.
            In awakened freedom we drop more and more of our cravings and attachments, we get better at accepting current conditions without resistance or resentment, and we move from reactivity toward acceptance. Spiritual teacher Krishnamurti called this state of consciousness “choiceless awareness” – to experience reality as it is without the neurotic compulsion to have an opinion about everything. Asked once what his secret was, Krishnamurti replied, “I don’t mind what happens.” Imagine how freeing that would feel.
          Awakened freedom means shifting from the consciousness of scarcity to the consciousness of abundance. It does not mean receiving everything I want, but realizing freedom from want.
            Awakened freedom means allowing the ebb and flow of life to rise and fall unabated without taking it personally. Sometimes we feel strong. Sometimes we feel weak. Sometimes we receive joy unbidden, other times a nameless sadness overwhelms us. It’s o.k. In awakened freedom even our sadness becomes a friendly companion. As contemporary teacher Adyashanti puts it, “Real freedom is freedom from the demand to feel good all the time.” We realize that we are deeper than our thoughts, deeper even than our pain. In the boundlessness beneath the thought stream, we are irrevocably free.
            Awakened freedom mean relinquishing the illusion of control, slipping into the unbridled miracle of the present moment, and resolving to walk through this brief, beautiful life awash in wonder and willing to love.

[This piece was originally published in my column "A to Zen" in the May/June 2018 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permision.]

Monday, April 2, 2018

Solvitur Ambulando

Solvitur ambulando is a Latin phrase meaning “it is solved by walking.” According to legend it was first uttered by the Greek philosopher Diogenes. After listening patiently to another philosopher’s ridiculous “proof” that motion was impossible, Diogenes simply got up and walked away, muttering “solvitur ambulando.” If ancient Greeks had mics, that’d be a mic drop.
            Since then, solvitur ambulando has taken on a much wider meaning. Countless poets, essayists, and philosophers have cited the aphorism as proof of the benefit of a robust walk. But its usefulness extends even beyond that.
            Human beings evolved on their feet. For hundreds of thousands of years we walked everywhere, all day, every day. Our bodies were designed to move. And yet in this mechanized age we sit for hours at a time, often all day, walking only to get another cup of coffee, or pee the last one out. And it’s killing us – obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and a host of other problems shorten our lives. After centuries of increasing life-expectancy, we are the first generation in a long, long time to die sooner than our ancestors. As health experts put it, sitting is the new smoking.
            Beyond physical wellness, walking significantly improves our mental health. Depression, anxiety, and other maladies of the mind shrink beneath the grandeur of a wide open sky. There’s something about leaving the confines of your four walls and stepping out onto the path through your village. Whether on a nature trail, a suburban lane, or a downtown street, walking reintroduces you to the community of things – the world that gave birth to you and everything you know, everything you see, everything you feel, and everything you are. Coming out of isolation and sauntering far afield brings you home to yourself.
            Walking through my neighborhood the other day I bumped into a neighbor I hadn’t seen in three years. We had a lot of catching up to do. Thirty minutes later I felt as though I’d read an entire novel rich with pathos, grief, recognition, and laughter – and I’ll wager she felt the same. We need each other. We build each other. We are each other. I felt deeply my own sorrows and joys in hers. The rain-wet sidewalk, the bare winter trees, and the leaden sky felt warm and safe. I was at home in my own skin, and in this beautiful, painful, hopeful world. By coming to know strangers, we are no longer strangers to ourselves.
            And so we come to the deeper meaning of solvitur ambulando – that there is wordless healing in ambulation, that is, movement. We overestimate our intellectual capacity to solve all of our problems at the level of thought. Rational discourse, refined conceptual thinking, and intellectual discernment yield many fruits. But they have limits. When it comes to the really big problems – the meaning of life, death, love, and everything in between – we can’t think our way out of a wet paper bag. When words and thoughts fail us, take to your feet. Move. Feel the problem shift, soften, open, and dissolve all on its own. I don’t know why it works. It just does.
            In an even broader sense, solvitur ambulando conveys the power of embodiment – that wisdom isn’t something you know, it’s something you are. Truth-claims made by others, no matter how compelling, shimmer and fade like ghosts until you test them in the laboratory of your own life. Only through action does the truth take form.           
You don’t understand cooking until you cook. You don’t taste the challenges and joys of marriage until you walk down the aisle. You can’t criticize the creative product of another until you’ve dared to risk offering your own creation on the same stage. Only when we walk the walk do we earn the right to talk.
            Even our moral positions benefit from the deep-tissue empathy of embodiment. Until you have faced an unwanted pregnancy yourself, your position on the legality or morality of abortion falls short, no matter how learned or principled. Good people disagree on the rectitude of terminating pregnancies. But until you live it, your words carry the taint of sanctimony and grandstanding.
            Out beyond the platitudes of the sermon or the pronouncements of the lecture hall there is a messy world of complicated interconnections, wordless realizations, and untraceable sensibilities. We ought to learn how to do better at leaving each other alone to the authority of our own embodied knowing. Life is hard. We make it harder by interfering with the natural pathway wisdom often travels – the inner road of our soul-wanderings.
            As each of us walks through this world, we see what we see, feel what we feel, and come to know what we come to know – by walking. In the alchemy of time, substantive wisdom arises like steam from the cauldron of our suffering. Life is going to hurt. There is no short cut. You have to walk right through the fire.
            Get a dog. The rescue shelters are full of them. Bring one home. Walk her every day, rain or shine, whether you feel like it or not. Let a dog reconnect you to your neighborhood, your neighbors, the natural world, and your own latent joy. There are clouds to trace, fields to cross, and trees to interlace with your meandering. There are shores along the lake or sea that never show themselves the same way twice.   
            In high school I sometimes struggled to pay attention to my teachers. My mind often wandered. (How ironic that I would one day become a teacher myself, my work as a lecturer deeply informed by the lived experience of how boring school can be). One night, while trying to do my homework, I chanced upon a poem by Walt Whitman called “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” I felt as though I’d been hit by lightning.
            When I heard the learn’d astronomer
            When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
            When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
            When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
            How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
            Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
            In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
            Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
            I closed my book, turned off the light, and went for a walk through the silent darkness of my sleepy suburban neighborhood. I never did finish that homework assignment. Whatever problem I was working on remains unsolved, by me anyway. But I have a feeling it solved itself.
            Ultimately, you cannot receive truth second hand. What another proclaims, I must experience myself. So it is that the best advice often falls on deaf ears. Until you have the ears to hear, the most beautiful words are nothing more than clanging cymbals.