Monday, 31 October 2011

Between the Peaks

My daughter likes the Beach Boys. It might, actually, be more accurate to report that my daughter loves the Beach Boys. “They’re my favorite,” she tells me regularly. “Especially ‘Surfin’ Safari’ and ‘Surfin’ USA’.” It was a no-brainer, then, when I saw a relatively recent greatest hits package available for loan at our local library. I picked it up and brought it home. We’ve been listening to it ever since. I am listening to it right now, in fact, as I write.

The Warmth of the Sun is a 2007 sequel to the 2003 compilation Sounds of Summer. As the second in this series, Warmth does not contain many - any, truth be told - of the songs most people would consider Beach Boys classics. There’s no ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, for example. No ‘Help Me Rhonda’ or ‘Good Vibrations’. In their place one finds titles like ‘Cool, Cool Water’ - not exactly a tune that dances to mind when this group is mentioned.

From one perspective, this fact can be seen as evidence of a horse that has been finally flogged to death. Summer was successful, one might surmise, so they went back to the vault in order to cash in again; whatever was in there became Warmth. Certainly a quick glance at the track list seems to support this - ‘Don’t Go Near the Water’? Really? Listening to this disc again and again, however, I have developed a very different sense of the project.

Some history might be helpful. In broad terms, the Beach Boys’ career arranges itself around two main peaks. The first captures the band as we remember them: California kids who surfed onto the airwaves in the early Sixties and, within five years, had attained the status reserved only for acts like the Beatles. The second peak unexpectedly arose in 1974 with the release of Endless Summer. This two-album retrospective essentially created the Beach Boys as we have known them for the last thirty-plus years: An arena-filling nostalgia act willing to endlessly revisit the formative moments of a glorious past.

Between these peaks exists a valley as dark and tumultuous as any endured by a band of their stature. In 1966, while at work on the group’s rumored masterwork, Brian Wilson suffered a drug-fueled breakdown. Wilson was the band’s visionary, songwriter, and producer. It was by virtue of his delicate sensibilities that we received ‘I Get Around’ and ‘In My Room’. Stripped of their leader, the Beach Boys struggled. For eight years - from the classic Pet Sounds to the above mentioned Endless Summer - each of the other members did what there had formerly been no need for: They wrote songs in an effort to fill the void left by Wilson’s near-complete absence.

This span is amply represented on Warmth of the Sun. Not Brian’s immaculate ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, but Bruce Johnson’s teary-eyed ‘Disney Girls’, Dennis Wilson’s aching ‘Forever’, brother Carl’s wandering ‘Feel Flows’, and Al Jardine’s toe-tappin’ ‘California Saga’. To say this does not present the group that is conjured when we think ‘Beach Boys’ is really an understatement. What the collection does present is something far more shaky, desperate, funny, wounded, uncertain, vulnerable, erratic, bizarre, indulgent, challenging, and daring than anything we are going to hear programmed on feel-good radio stations.

Take, for instance, ‘Til I Die’, a track from 1971’s Surf’s Up. Brian did not completely retreat from the group during these wilderness years. From time to time he would emerge from the shadows with a song or two in hand. ‘Til I Die’ was the result of a night spent on the beach, looking out over the ocean. Feeling small before this vastness, Wilson began to consider “the inconsistencies that dominated my life; the pain, torment, and confusion, and the beautiful music I was able to make.” Why was this the case? he wondered. How long will this go on?

Beginning with the words, “I’m a cork on the ocean”, the song re-creates “the swell of emotions” Wilson felt that night. It gives answer to his questions only while winding toward a conclusion: “These things I’ll be until I die,” is repeated again and again. This is hardly the stuff of which ‘Be True to Your School’ was made. Brutally naked and revealing, it is far more difficult and, to me anyways, much more interesting.

Anyone who has meditated a little likely has some idea of what a ‘good’ practice session is like. Actually, experience is not a necessary prerequisite here. In many of the classes I teach, I often hear absolute beginners reveal deeply entrenched ideas about what ‘good’ practice is. “That didn’t go too well,” someone will confess after our first five minute meditation together. “What do you mean by ‘well’?” I inquire. “I didn’t,” the person answers, “feel very peaceful or anything. I just kept thinking about things.”

Even after years of dedicated engagement with the practice, this perception proves hard to shake. My knee-jerk remains that a ‘good’ meditation session is one in which the mind inexplicably settles and the body suddenly relaxes, and something warm and wonderful opens within. Just writing like this brings longing to my chest. ‘God that was great,’ I think, remembering an afternoon on retreat. ‘That really was great.’

And such moments are great, no doubt about it. Just like those old Beach Boys songs - ‘God Only Knows’, for instance - there is something irresistibly, undeniably wonderful about these times. This, however, does not necessarily mean such sessions are the most instructive or affecting we encounter. Much as I love them, they are certainly not the most instructive or affecting I encounter.

This honor, instead, goes to the weekend I spent gripped by a single thought; the string of days I endured certain the friend sitting to one side actually hated me; the morning of practice here at home through which I feared I would either go crazy or kill myself. These are moments of true discovery. I find a new ‘me’ in such instants - not one limited by what I want or am comfortable with, but one that is much more compulsive, paranoid, and uncertain than I’d like to admit.

It is hard to build any sort of impressive sense of self out of these experiences. Those so-called ‘good’ sessions? After one of these I am more than capable of putting myself above all the others around me. I begin to feel I’m standing atop some sort of peak. ‘Look at me,’ I think, chest puffing with pride, ‘enlightenment is so close at hand.’ Not so with valley sessions. Rather than high on a mountaintop, I feel brought right down to earth by those times in which the practice reveals what I would rather not see. From that place on the ground I can taste the soil beneath me, feel its warmth rising on all sides. Able, from this perspective, to see others in a relatively eye-to-eye way, I realize I am much more like everyone else than I might typically imagine. I struggle and I succeed. I laugh and I cry. I’m crazy and I’m sane. Just like everyone else.

Such meditation experiences challenge me, then, in extremely difficult ways. They yank me out of known terrain and, in doing so, incite change. This is what I hear in The Warmth of the Sun tracks dated 1968-1973, in the music that emerged from the dark span that followed Brian Wilson’s collapse and preceded the Beach Boy’s nostalgic resurgence. I hear a group - a group of men, I should add - that are having a hard time coming to terms with the landscape in which they now find themselves. These are men who, after climbing the dizzying heights of musical possibility, find themselves fallen, dirtied, and often lost.

The music on this disc is not as perfect as the dazzling hits from those heady early days, but in this very lack of perfection I hear so much beauty. Warmth shares with us the sound of people struggling with their humanity, being altered by their humanity, and the effect is moving. It is like looking into the face of someone who has just emerged from a long meditation retreat: The facade has been stripped away from their features and though they might look pale and worn, there is something irresistible in their appearance, something impossibly attractive.

So take a listen to Brian’s ‘Sail On, Sailor’ from 1973’s Holland LP - a wonderful follow-up to the fore mentioned ‘Til I Die’. Spend some time with Carl’s funky ‘It Takes a Mess of Help to Stand Alone’ - and yes, that is ‘the Captain’ on piano - from 1972’s Carl and the Passions - So Tough. And the next time you find yourselves meditating in that place between the peaks, value your stay in that valley and pay close attention. There’s likely a mess of humanity waiting there, ready to help you out in ways you cannot anticipate.


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Friday, 14 October 2011

A Revealing Flash

They numbered in the hundreds at first. Now thousands. They are ball-capped union workers, out of work college grads. They are young people in backpacks and bandanas. Salt and pepper types. Seniors. They are black and white, asian, hispanic. Some seem well off, others not so much. They are urban, suburban, and rural. They are leaving their homes and workplaces, getting out of their cars, off the buses and bicycles in order to walk out onto the street and gather. Come together. Occupy.

Much of the media seems confused by this. “There are no leaders,” more than one report has complained. “There are no demands, no agenda.” But there is, I suggest, something. There is something that links the diverse numbers who have assembled a piecemeal movement, first on Wall Street and now in cities across North America. They are all, every one of them, angry.

Anger has a bad reputation in our culture. Certainly in spiritual circles the emotion can be treated like the black sheep of human experience. It is avoided, derided, dismissed, remedied. We frequently try to marginalize or get rid of it. Quickly. “Him over there?” our attitude warily observes. “That’s anger. Best stay away from him. He’s crazy.”

But anger is an undeniable part of our emotional family. And there are many occasions in which this feeling is an essential member of the human tribe. Allowed to exist on its own terms - without what Chogyam Trungpa calls the “frivolousness” of our “heavy-handed interpretations and judgments” - permitted to exist without these, anger can be invaluable, an exceptionally precise and intelligent force. Like a flash of lightning across a starless landscape, anger can reveal with uncompromising clarity. When it erupts, a burst of rage can show us where there has been a violation and where a wound is in need of attention.

I was reminded of this in conversation recently. The topic was bullying. While our exchange opened quite broadly, it soon narrowed onto a painfully personal focal point. “There were four or five older boys,” I confessed. “Through the last years of grade school, I sometimes feared for my life.” For a long while my companion said nothing. Then, “What would you say to those guys today?”

I was tight in the throat, clenched in the gut. Shallow and quick, my breathing betrayed someone ready - even all these years later - to run. Hearing this question my jaw tightened onto my molars, impacting until even the enamel surfaces hurt. Fire-blue intensity shot through my system.

“I have nothing to say to them,” I blurted. “If they were here my only desire would be - ” I had no idea these would be my next words: “ - to kill them.” The air between us crackled. Both of us, I think, shocked into momentary silence. “You mean you felt like you wanted to harm them back then?” “No,” I popped. My veins pulsed with what felt like rocket fuel - clear, powerful, burning. “I want to kill them right now.”

This is anger naked of the trappings we often dress it in. There was as yet no attempt to push it away as ‘wrong’. Nor, in spite of my statements, was there any intention, any plan to act it out as ‘righteous’. Little in the way of storyline wound its web about the experience. This was anger relatively unadorned; a lightning sharp, sizzling bolt. And beneath its illumination, the violation I had endured, the aching hurt that lingered, a young boy waiting to be healed - to be held in an embrace of acceptance, understanding, and care.

Such is the power of this emotion when allowed to express without our interfering “interpretations”. When allowed to just be.

Right now I suspect this is what we are seeing burst forth on streets all over North America. Of course there are no leaders. Of course there are no coherent demands. Of course there is no recognizable ideology. I have heard talk of taxes and entitlements, for instance. Also of unemployment, homelessness, the yawning gap between rich and poor. But right now the movement is too raw and wild to be defined by such matters. Instead, it is simply about this: people are pissed.

As meditators, we are trained to see this for what it is. This is the technique, after all: to notice when we are adding our “frivolousness” to the mix and come back to bare experience. If we are able to do this here, able in this crucial moment to bring all those hours on the cushion into the stuff of our actual lives, we have an opportunity to witness an expression that is both beautiful and life affirming. There is a widespread sense something has been desecrated - something basic, fundamental. The flames of anger that are shooting up in response are revealing how deeply we are affected by this.

I thought of this after talking with a friend several days ago. He is a financial advisor and a self-described believer in capitalism. Speaking of the Wall Street occupation he surprised me with this: “I would be there if I could get away. Honest to God. If I could get away, I would be there in a second.”

What followed was an eloquent and animated defense of our current system of commerce, and a heated indictment of those who have manipulated it for personal gain. “They have destroyed something beautiful, something that works,” he said, his voice shaking with rage. “And they have hurt people - hurt millions of good, hard working people - in the process.”

I sat transfixed by what this man’s anger was revealing. Indignation, certainly. Passion. Conviction. Hurt. Behind all these, a sense of concern - for the well-being of others, for their right to earn and provide and prosper. This concern was so tender and so fierce it held me there, teetering near disbelief. I was being shown something I had not expected when my friend began what I first thought of as just another furious rant. I was witnessing an outpouring of love.


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Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Death Is Real

Steve Jobs is dead. On one hand, this comes as little surprise. Jobs has been in the news as much for his health as anything else these past years. At the same time, however, I did feel a moment of shock this morning when I saw the following listed on my favorite Bob Dylan website: “Steve Jobs dies at 56.”

Shock, I think, speaks to a strange relationship with death. “Fact of life,” I might shrug over coffee. When it actually comes, though, this rarely seems the tone with which death is received. More often than not, I am taken aback: “Steve Jobs? Really?”

Buddhism has a teaching called ‘The Four Reminders’ which addresses this all too human tendency. The reminders invite us to contemplate four thoughts - each what we might call a ‘fact of life’ - in order to realize a more accurate perception of our situation. Death, understandably, is one of these.

In the early 1970s, Chogyam Trungpa composed a series of short verses as a means of encouraging his students to engage these teachings. Each offers a pithy summary of a particular thought, a specific reminder. After reading of Jobs’ passing this morning, I found the verse pertaining to death and impermanence ringing through my mind.

Death is real

Steve Jobs is dead. I cannot think of single (recently) living figure whose existence has had a more apparent impact upon our lives. Apple Computers recently had a product launch and the event was news. CBC’s afternoon radio show gave the occasion a sizable slice of airtime: about ten minutes; longer than that allocated the latest in politics. iPhone, iPad, iPod - more than just products, these are emissaries of a new relationship with the digital, a relationship which has infiltrated near every corner of our lives. Each of these devices arose out of the vision of one man. Yet all this influence did not spare him; Steve Jobs is dead.

Think of the medical care Jobs had at his disposal, Money, obviously, was not an issue. So one has to assume he got the best of the best. The best treatments. The best practitioners. The latest research, technology, drugs. Yet still...

I remember reading of a conversation between a teacher and his seriously ill student. The first thing that teacher said? “Don’t imagine for even a moment that you are not going to die.” For a long time, I would consider these words and think, ‘What an asshole!’ Lately, though, I have connected with the generosity of the statement. Whether you get better or not, he seemed to be saying, you are still going to die. Talk about a big picture moment when most of us want something much, much smaller!

The reality of death is something we just don’t want to look at, most of us - not head on like this anyway. Like when the first person in my life was diagnosed with cancer. This was a shock on many levels, not the least of these being the sudden proliferation of numbers in my world. “Eighty-five percent of all patients at this stage of disease survive beyond five years,” I remember reading. “Oh my God,” I said to someone. “Fifteen percent of these people die!” “Don’t think of that,” I was told. Don’t think of that.

And comes without warning

I wonder if Jobs knew October 5, 2011 would be the last day of his life. Accounts I’ve read about Jack Layton’s final days paint a very ‘maybe’ picture. Maybe he’ll make it through the weekend, seemed the sense of things. Then again, maybe he won’t. Even when we sense death is near, then, the exact moment of its arrival remains an impenetrable mystery. This certainly was the case with my grandmother. “It won’t be tonight,” a nurse affirmed at nine. Relieved, I went home to bed. The phone woke me up just before dawn.

Something similar with Allen Ginsberg. Those gathered about his deathbed spent the poet’s final hours watching the rise and fall of his breath. Though they knew he was going to die, they watched without knowledge if any particular fall would be the last. There was no sign, I presume, when the final drop did eventually arrive. Just a long exhale and then...

This is something I consider every time I leave home for Colorado. I know many people have a pretty rosy picture of these excursions: weeks away in the high mountains meditating. In lots of ways, however, these retreats are very difficult for me. Saying goodbye to my wife and daughter, for instance, is always excrutiating. I wonder if I will ever see them again. There is no one standing nearby whispering, ‘Make the best of this, it is your last goodbye.’ Death, after all, comes without warning.

This body will be a corpse

But it does come. Of this there is no doubt. Death does come. Death will come. My death will come and this body - presently pleasantly warm at my desk - will become a corpse. Old. Lifeless. Inert.

I practiced in my daughter’s bedroom this morning. I could see her toys, last night’s pajamas crumpled on the floor, her Grade Three photo hanging on the wall as I contemplated this verse. At the final line I burst into tears. In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to be with her forever. To watch her grow and develop, hear her stories, share her triumphs and tears to the end of time. I knew, though - I knew with a deep in the bones kind of knowing - this could not be the case. There will come a moment when I look at her for the last time.

At some point in this process I reached out for a t-shirt that lay in a pile nearby and held it to my face, breathing deep for several long minutes. A father who lost his teenage son once told me of the hours he spent in the boy’s closet, smelling the child’s clothes in order to bring him back. This morning, I understood his ritual in a painfully new way. It didn’t bring my daughter before me, though, just her scent and a flow of memories. For all I knew, she would never stand in front of me again. I might die before seeing her again. She might die. We both will.

So what’s the point of all this? Traditionally it is said that working with the Four Reminders motivates our practice. Seeing the uniqueness of our situation (reminder one - precious human birth), connecting with its impermanence (reminder two - death), understanding how we act has consequences (karma) and that we just can’t ‘get it right’ (samsara), we realize the need to shift our priorities around in order that we might meditate more.

This is the claim, anyway, though it’s never quite worked out this way for me. The Four Reminders - alone or together - simply shake things up in my life. Working with them tenderizes my heart, making me more open and available to the world in which I live, letting this touch me in ways I cannot anticipate.

There’s a story about an interview someone conducted with Jobs. Wanting to record the proceedings, the reporter placed his iPod on the table. The device was sheathed in a protective case, a fact which upset the Apple CEO. Jobs talked about how much time and effort - how much care - had gone into the buffed silver finish of the device. Commenting on the beauty of this finish, he ripped off the cover and proceeded with the interview.

I walked by a coffee shop this afternoon. All the iPhones and iPods, iPads and Powerbooks in the place struck me as I moved to where my bike was locked up. It was as if, for an instant, I was able to see these through their creator’s eyes, able to perceive the beauty Jobs took such pride in. But this only lasted an instant. Then, just like in ‘real life’ Jobs was gone. In his absence my heart ached. For his wife, his kids, his friends, his family. For anyone who knows the loss of a loved one. My eyes welled up.

‘Death is real,’ I thought as I climbed on my bike. Autumn sun warmed my face as I rode. My daughter would be getting out of school soon. I was picking her up, looking forward to our journey home: walking side by side, hand in hand.


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