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October 2014 Archives -
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October 2014 Posts

I practice, here (or, the importance of the present moment)

Shifting on a low wooden bench, knees tight from the unusual position, my mind wrestles with focus. This is not uncommon, but rather the feel of something ordinary, regular but unnoticed, like the cadence of a subway turnstile in a busy manhattan station.

One thought passes through, a memory from earlier that day. I picture the scene and sift through the critical few moments. The scene is altered, I react differently this time, my mind practicing for the next occurrence.

The flicker of a candle reminds me of where I am and the practice at hand. From somewhere aware I remind myself to let the thought subside, to dwindle out. I first force it away and then calm my attitude, letting it settle out like a candle at the end of it’s wick. It isn’t the result that matters but the action. The goal isn’t an empty mind, but one disciplined to not fixate and focus on the internal world.

Zen is not a practice performed in a group setting, in a room with Asian motifs on every wall. It is, from what I can best ascertain after just two years of experience, a practice of intentional living, the mind trained to be present in each moment. But this does not mean you shouldn’t think of the past or forget what has happened; it means you don’t dwell there.

And this dwelling is the central point and the reason for this writing. When I sit I practice so later I can be more aware of the moment and my place within. Why am I reacting to strongly to the person next to me? Why do I object so strongly to an idea proposed by my wife or a peer? Where am I unintentionally (or even intentionally) deceiving my self or others? Did I even see the new building being built next door?

It will be obvious to most the impact our devices have had on our ability to be present. But this is nothing new. Humanity has seemingly always had books and events and games, among other experiences, distracting us from the moment. Roman leaders would provide food and entertainment to citizens at key moments to distract from the turmoil or gain key political advantage, leading to the expression “bread and circuses”. As long as we are fixated on something more enjoyable we are free from seeing the subtle and nuance, good or bad.

But the now is filled with nuance that is often overlooked. As I write I am looking at a crumpled paper towel. It’s folds and creases unique and original, shadows cast on the side away from the window. Patterns formed in manufacturing create a textured look that could be simply tactile in function or provide for better absorption. In touching the surface in a quiet room a sound is produced, barely audible unless close to my ear. I am reminded of the unmistakable sound of a burning cigarette as an actor in a film takes a long, purposeful draw, its glowing amber reflected in the sound it makes, the volume increased drastically for noticeable effect. I hear the sound of leather shoes on marble flooring (truly one of my very favorite sounds), taking on the rhythmic vocabulary of horse and rider but with the clear and distinct audible aroma of wealth and power.

This moment would have never happened had I been fixated on yesterday, or a recent issue with someone close, my mind plagued and overrun with the memory.

I do not use the word plague lightly. A thought can be truly overwhelming, overtaking all other thoughts and plunging the body into a physiological reaction. As someone with diagnosed OCD, I know this feeling well. Perfectly comfortable in bed at night, lights off, drifting off to sleep, I often get up and check the door again to ensure it is still locked from the last time I checked minutes ago. The thought of insecurity and “what if” permeates and courses through my mind like red dye in a glass of clear water, my body raising my heart rate and releasing cortisol. Until I react I can not go to sleep, I believe. It seems or feels out of my control.

It is difficult to know how we will feel or react to a situation. Sometimes the mind is treated as a separate entity in the way we might refer to our bodies as separate but connected. The mind seems to, well, have a mind of its own. The lion will never be tamed, but it can be trained. This may seem like a limitation, but it is not. In training we might have a full experience, not limited to what ever mental conditioning we have been subjected to that has gone on unchecked for so long it feels natural and normal.

With practice I create space and room to breathe. My emotions and thoughts are expressions, or tenants, rather than owners. I let them come and go. I see the value and benefit to feeling them but I do not let them invade and take over.

The more we see these moments for what they are, our emotions and reactions too, the closer we come to seeing ourselves for who we really are. Who am I?

These are things I notice and am learning as I practice, here.

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The Art and Experience of Music

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The Lone Bellow at the Fillmore Theater

In the deserts of what is now Morocco secret events were once held to showcase musical and dancing abilities. For most occasions the abilities of the artists were profound at best, their abilities on par with the best musicians of their day, their choreographed pieces played with precision and skill.

But occasionally there was a moment where the experience was so profound, so completely consuming for viewers and artists alike, the audience would rock back and forth, hands in the air, proclaiming the name of god. It was said that in these moments it was the finger of god that touched the participants and became the energy, the life force that controlled their every moment. These moments were inspired, a gift.

Last Friday I had the privilege of viewing The Lone Bellow perform at the Fillmore Theater. I went to school with two of its members, in what seems like a different life ago. The Fillmore Theater hosted some of the most important bands of the last 50 years: Jimi Hendrix, The Who, The Doors, Frank Zappa, the Allman Brothers… It is one of the great musical spots in the US and the very wood resinates with the years of sound like a well aged violin.

I have forgotten what it is like to see raw emotion poured out on a stage. In this moment it was there, able to be cut with a knife as though the inspiration for each song was still present, somewhere in the room on view like a curio cabinet or documentary film. Each song sung with intensity, voices throttled to a fever pitch, the audience responding and feeling with the coming and going of each movement.

When I pay for a show I don’t pay to be just entertained. I can entertain my self for hours with a never-ending stream of songs and movies on any number of devices I have on hand every day. I want to be transformed, consumed in the way that only music can do so, caught up in a moment that is not manufactured for shock and awe but wholly real and fully present in that very second by second alone. I want my very being to be picked up and merged with that of another, or that of the room. It is in those strange, ecstatic moments, our experiences entangled with those around us, that we are able to look at our own lives in the way that the artist might: with intensity, honesty, emotion. We borrow these emotions from the artists and take them home for a few days after. We connect the pieces of our own narrative through the music. We see in the stories how our outcomes might play out, with hope or despair. But we get to be present with it, if we are lucky enough to be present with the artist who is also present and not just performing an act.

At least this is how, at times, music effects me. I might begin to differentiate between music, the collection of notes, and Music, the consuming experience of connection brought on by the illicit display of emotion shared with those able and willing to be consumed in kind.

The musician giving all is left with a part of his or her heart unconscious and in recovery. It is no wonder so many musicians and actors wrestle with depression and drug problems. If done right everything is consumed, night after night.

Towards the end of the concert the band moved to the center of the audience. Like the unified rumblings of a religious service, the audience moved as one, controlled by a common string, swaying back and forth, hands in the air, as if in ancient Morocco ready to name the name of god. Perhaps some did, or perhaps some felt the celebration of their own emotional journeys in a culture that prefers the conservative assessment of being as always in control, always professional, never standing out except in acceptable and preordained moments. We may not let our selves go completely, or even know what that is like, but it is the artist we pay to be fully involved on behalf of ourselves. 
 
What does it mean to let ourselves go? We pay for ecstasy whether by drugs, alcohol, religion, movies, events, sex, hot yoga, or many of the hundreds of ways we have to move beyond the now into the other; whatever or wherever that place is. And what is that place? Humans have an innate desire for a shift in consciousness. There is not a culture on the planet that does not have an intoxicant as part of their religious or social experience. This is as normal and common as food, water, family. 
 
I propose that the place we go is the now. With the music drowning out internal checklists and story lines, we become the thing we already are: feeling, sensing, experiencing, human. We get, for a few minutes, to be fully present with a sound in a group of people, like the dancing tribal celebrations in a National Geographic video. 
 
So I applaud The Lone Bellow for the gift of that experience, in that moment in time. In their pouring out and consuming emotion through Music they were able to point the way for others to move aside their day at work, upcoming weekend of errands, and never ending list of do’s and don’ts. We got to be human. We got to be present. 

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