Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Wash Your Bowl

There’s a Zen story about a young man who wants to become a monk. He wants to become enlightened.
            The Master accepts the young adept into the monastic order, and another monk leads him to his tiny room. No one says much. They pretty much leave him alone.
            He’s invited to the all-day meditation sessions, and he does his best to keep up with the arduous practice. But no one’s explaining anything to him. He has a lot of questions.
            One week goes by. Then two. Then three. Finally, the young monk can take no more. He storms into his Master’s office. “I came here to learn about Zen. I have been here three weeks and no one has told me anything about Zen!”
            The master gazed at the frustrated adept.
            “Have you eaten?” the Master asked.
            “Then wash your bowl.”
I often return to this story when the complexity of life threatens to overwhelm me. I wonder if I, like that young monk, am generating a lot of agitation by asking too many questions, by trying to channel the immeasurable sea of experience through the tiny intake valves of my own limited and limiting thinking. What if, as Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced?”
            And how best to experience it? The Zen story suggests that when we return to the ordinary activities of our everyday lives, the immediacy of life draws us into a renewed intimacy with its mystery. Instead of chasing that so-called peak experience, instead of spending a lot of time and money on exotic travel or high-end gurus, maybe the portal to our best and most authentic life is right here at our finger tips.
I imagine that young monk standing at the kitchen sink, running his fingers around the inside of the bowl in the warm soapy water, returning it to its pristine state through humble action. An insight beginning to rise up through the suds – that maybe we ought to think less and do more, ask fewer questions and take more chances, trusting that if we walk with integrity, humility, and loving-kindness, the road will rise to meet our feet and the path will follow the swale of the land to a place where wisdom and bliss find us unbidden.
            Religious people call it faith. I think of it as trust. If we let go of the illusion that we have to figure everything out, that we have to have all our questions answered, and that we have to manage life, then something simpler, cleaner, easier, and more beautiful begins to emerge. Life becomes something we receive rather than achieve.
            And it is in the everyday objects all around us that the mystery is made manifest. “No ideas but in things,” wrote the poet William Carlos Williams. His poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” exemplifies this with startling concision: so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow/glazed with rain/water/beside the white/chickens. (Read that slowly, silently to yourself three times and see if something doesn’t begin to stir.) Williams is drawing us down out of the fog of abstraction and into the real world of things here and now – their shape, their shimmer, their texture, their color, their smell, and heft all serve as harbingers of the emerging awareness of our own immediacy, our own significance. The thought-world could never do that for us.
            And wheel barrows, like bowls, are for something. They are utilitarian. They are containers. They help us get what we need. Look at how wheel barrows and bowls transcend paradox, how they manifest a synthesis of somethingness and emptiness, being and non-being. 2,500 years ago Laozi pondered this same polarity in chapter 11 of the Dao De Jing: “We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want…we work with being, but non-being is what we use.” How can I better arrange a beneficial balance between the polarities of my own life, between the paradoxes of empty and full, busy and idle, assertive and withdrawn, deliberate and spontaneous? Noticing how the processes of nature synthesize and transcend paradox yields a wealth of wisdom.
            I recently returned from a two week journey upriver on the Rhine through the heart of the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Switzerland. I took 714 pictures. But my favorite picture took itself. I was fumbling with my iPhone on streets of the old medieval quarter in Strasbourg one afternoon when I accidentally snapped a shot. I only discovered it later that night, back in the room, editing photos. It was an image of the cobblestone street. The roughhewn square stones of many hues and colors, each painstakingly laid in place by a mason centuries ago, spread out before me in an interlacing, mesmerizing fan pattern – pure visual poetry. My imagination opened like a book. The feet that had touched these stones – a crucial errand, a sacred pilgrimage, an aimless saunter. The commerce, the trade, the wealth, the poverty. The wooden wheels of wagons bearing the dead of the Plague, the clattering tracks of Nazi tanks, the tires of air-conditioned motor coaches full of tourists. The nobility and vulgarity, the heroism and cowardice, the centuries of blood and wine and tears and hay and horseshit, all washed away by sheets and sheets of summer rain, and in the morning after the storm, rain-wet and shining in the new light of day. These stones, drawn from the earth and hammered into shape, set by hand in a bed of sand by men on their knees, brought my own journey into focus – the ingenuity of humanity to carve these villages out of these valleys, and the endurance of what remains in the ceaseless flow of ephemera. In this way, a simple thing – a cobblestone – came to stand as a cipher for everything else. Just an ordinary, extraordinary cobblestone. No ideas but in things indeed.

          When life gets to be just a little bit too much, resist the urge to find solutions in the mind. For all its wondrous usefulness, the mind isn’t always our greatest ally for one simple reason – it’s rooted in the past. By its very nature, mentation hovers and orbits in repetitive cycles. Ordinary consciousness consists of habitual patterns, and all too readily imposes those patterns where they don’t belong. And yet this next moment presents us with an arrangement of elements never before seen. If we rely on the mind it will simply hammer this fluid reality into a familiar pattern instead of seeing it for what it really is. It would be far more fruitful to reach out with our hands and simply touch the things right in front of us, meeting them where they are, as they are, without ornamentation or conceptualization. The Zen Buddhists are right. Sleep when we are tired, eat when we are hungry, and wash our bowl. The universe will unfold on its own terms. And we will find our way through it unhurried, and unspeakably beautiful.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

The Evolution of Music

I was five years old in February 1964. The Ed Sullivan Show was a 7:00 p.m. Sunday night ritual in our home, followed by Bonanza at 8:00. There I was sitting cross legged in front of the black and white television, ready for the evening’s entertainment.
            And then it happened.
            The Beatles. The Beatles happened.
            Jangly electric guitars. Ringo’s slap-dash on the drums. The matching suits, the Beatle boots, those innocent, devilish grins. And the faces melting off of every teenage girl in the audience. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was difficult to breath.
            A lot of things came to the surface in that moment, truths I’m still trying to process after all these years. But the clearest truth of all was this – that rock and roll was a community experience – it shattered who you were and dragged you dancing and twitching toward what you were becoming. And we were becoming together. It was tribal. What happened to that?
            Last night I was watching the director’s cut of Michael Wadleigh’s ground-breaking 1970 documentary Woodstock and it all came back – that sixties ethos of music as communal experience. But even more evident was the unmistakable quality of abandon. On the Ed Sullivan show the Beatles exhibited just enough recklessness to make the music seem dangerous and spontaneous, like they were discovering it right along with you. It was anything but canned. But five years later, at Woodstock, the undisciplined, frenzied side of rock and roll was starting to unravel. The performances at Woodstock were notoriously uneven. There were moments of transcendent magic, and if I’m being honest, puddles of pure mediocrity. Those fields weren’t the only things getting muddy. Too much Dionysus and not enough Apollo. Too many drugs and not enough sleep. Trusting the muse to carry you through your performance is one thing. But it helps if you can at least tune your guitar.
            But here’s what really struck me: no matter what was happening on stage, or not happening, the audience was into it 100%. No one had a cell phone – they hadn’t been invented yet. Everyone simply paid attention. To the bands and to each other. Over that three day weekend on Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York a remarkable community sprung from the soil like mushrooms after a spring rain. A community of presence and immediacy. And it was all shockingly uneventful, non-violent, and loving. People took care of each other. Because it’s the right thing to do. And because the music showed them how.
            But back to the abandon – a quality that poured off of every frame of the film, both on stage and off. The frenzied surrender of the music, the limitless faith that no matter how bad I stumble, I will be held aloft by the gods of rock and this band of merry-makers around me. It was almost frightening how raw and authentic the music was. This sense of abandon is a quality that has been completely sanitized out of all contemporary music, at great loss. Everything is so aseptically perfect now. In 1969 there were no click tracks, no tuners (let alone Auto-Tune), and very few effects pedals. It was just raw, primitive amplification and raw, uncaged talent, skittering on the edge of disaster. Nobody does that anymore. Everyone’s so careful. Everything’s so planned. Sure, the results were mixed. Some of the music was a little too rough. That’s what happens when you take chances and play naked without a safety net.
            In the planning stages, Creedence Clearwater Revival was the first big-name band that signed on. Then all the other big bands followed. Because of the reigning chaos CCR ended up playing at 3:00 a.m. Sunday morning. Who knows how it sounded. None of their music made it into the final edit of the film – notorious perfectionist John Fogerty wouldn’t allow it. Jefferson Airplane had so such qualms however, and forgive me Airplane fans, but it shows.
            Fast forward to today. So much has changed. All of the old streams through which music flowed into our lives have run dry. We used to learn about new bands and new songs on the radio, but radio’s abandoned that role. We used to line up at the record store to buy physical albums on the day they were released. Then we’d listen to them over and over in each other’s houses on giant stereos with huge speakers, dissecting every note, learning every lyric, and memorizing the liner notes. Then we’d argue about all of it all day at school. None of that happens anymore.
            Radio has been replaced by digital streaming and subscription services like YouTube, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, and the rest. You build your own private playlists. We all walk around with our ear buds in, lost in our own little world. Music used to bring us together. Now it isolates us.   
Sure, people still go to concerts. But it feels different now. You’re either talking to the people around you, or videotaping the concert on your phone to show all of your social media friends that you’re at the concert without really being at the concert at all. How ironic.
            Every time I go hiking I come across people blaring music out of the tiny speakers on their phones – speakers the size of pencil erasers – music so crushed by compression and so diminished in its dynamic range that I’m pretty sure Marconi himself had higher audio quality on the first radio ever invented. We’re going backwards.
            Those of us who are recording artists are struggling to figure out how to position ourselves in this new reality.  Why record albums anymore? No one buys them. People who listen to my music do so through streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. I get paid pennies for those streams. I hear Apple is doing alright. The CEO of Spotify has a jet.
            It’s no one’s fault. Technology changes. We will always make music, we will always love music, and we will always need music. We’re just not sure how to connect all the dots anymore.
            Digitization, software, and hardware have taken over everything. And we’ve accepted it. Now, people pay top dollar to go to a “concert” where pre-recorded tracks are played over the PA and five or six rappers amble around on stage performing their spoken word pieces. When it’s good I actually love this stuff. But it’s hard to be spontaneous when you’re locked into a prerecorded track. Where’s the danger in that?
            Rock and roll needs to be dangerous. It needs to be bat-shit crazy. It needs to ooze sexuality. Even the practiced ribaldry of Cardi B seems tame – corporatized, commodified, and stripped clean of all its humanity, the essential element of all authentic sexual attraction. Say what you will about the sloppiness of the performances at Woodstock – you knew you were watching actual human beings doing amazing things in real time. You could feel it.   
            I don’t know where music’s headed next. It isn’t for me to say. But whatever it’s doing, and however it’s doing it, I’ll be listening.