Monday, 19 March 2012

Emptiness on E Street

“And the poets down here
Don’t write nothing at all,
They just stand back
And let it all be.”

- Bruce Springsteen, 'Jungleland'

On the evening of Friday March 9th, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Arguably the most famous music hall in the United States, the Apollo holds a significant place in the careers of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five, and many more. A teenage Jimi Hendrix won amateur night there. James Brown recorded Live at the Apollo there. Released in 1963, this album is still considered one of the greatest live records ever.

Copping a line from Brown - and honoring the Apollo’s innumerable ghosts - Springsteen introduced himself as the “hardest working white man in show business” as the show opened. The sell out crowd gave this nod a rapturous response. I would guess, however, it wasn’t these ghosts most were interested in.

From the moment Clarence Clemons’ death became public in June of last year, a sizable question mark has hung over E Street. One of the band’s original members, the sax-playing Big Man had been an essential part of Springsteen’s persona for decades. That’s him back to back with Bruce on the cover of Born to Run. It was Clemons who silhouetted with Springsteen at the beginning of their Super Bowl show. On tour, Clarence’s introduction - “The biggest man you’ve ever seen!” - or Springsteen’s shaggy-dog telling of their meeting - “It was a dark and stormy night...“ - invariably sent the crowd into spasms of delight.

Questions, then, understandably arose as news of his passing broke. ‘Will they continue?’ people wondered of the band. ‘Can they?’ As word of a new album and a world tour spread, such inquiries underwent a slight shift: ‘How will they continue? How will they do it?’

The band played a couple slots before March 9th. One song at the Grammys, a small fistful on Jimmy Fallon’s TV show. Neither were full-length concerts, though, so the question marks remained. Their answer, most agreed, would have to await the band’s first ‘regular’ performance since Clemons’ demise - the Apollo.

In Buddhism, the word ‘emptiness’ speaks to experience without concept. We typically layer every moment of our lives beneath ideas, beliefs, opinions - concepts. ‘This is Sally,’ we think. ‘She is a good friend. She likes coffee, but not tea.’ Emptiness points to experience stripped bare of such notions. More precisely, the term points to the fact that experience is inherently empty of designations like ‘Sally’ and ‘good’, ‘coffee’ and ‘tea’.

The Buddha’s most memorable teaching on this subject is ‘The Sutra of the Heart of Transcendent Knowledge’. More commonly known as ‘The Heart Sutra’, this tells us again and again that life has little to do with what we think. “No eye. No ear. No nose. No tongue,” the sutra asserts. Translation? Whatever you think ‘eye’ might be, that’s not it. Whatever you think ‘ear’ is, that’s not it, and so on - just fill in the blank!

To some the notion of life stripped of thought is cold, even desolate. “Depressing,” more than one student has commented. “I mean, what’s left? Nothing? Who wants to live like that?”

But this equation does not offer an accurate rendering of the situation. Life minus all we think about ‘life’ does not equal nothing. When all we think is removed for a moment, something does remain. What is this something? The teaching above tells us. What remains in emptiness is the heart of life. When experience is no longer muddied by the obscuring influence of ideas - when it is empty of this influence - we have an opportunity to be touched by life’s unpredictable, indescribable essence.

After months of speculation, Bruce Springsteen answered all the questions about how the E Street Band would continue without Clarence Clemons by bringing emptiness into Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. By giving those in attendance a moment stripped clean of all they thought or knew or expected, he offered them an opportunity to be touched by something far, far more essential.

Released on 1975’s Born to Run, ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’ loosely tells the tale of the E Street’s formation. The song opens with Springsteen’s proxy, Bad Scooter, searching for “his groove.” That things are not going well is made apparent midway through when Bruce chants, “I’m all alone.” Scooter’s fortunes take a turn for the better at the start of verse three. This is when we learn that “the Big Man joined the band.” In concert this line has for years been Clemons’ moment. Emerging from the shadows of stage right, he swaggers into a waiting spotlight. Towering at Springsteen’s side, a blast of saxophone fearlessly proclaims both his presence and his place.

‘Freeze Out’ was the evening’s penultimate song Friday March 9th. Springsteen worked the band hard through the opening bars, repeating them several times. He worked the crowd, too. Moving from side to side across well-worn floorboards, he gestured people into the words with a pair of thick, muscled arms. One has to believe everyone there knew ‘Freeze Out’, its story, its importance in the Springsteen canon. One has to believe everyone knew verse three was Clemons’. When it finally arrived, however, Springsteen transformed this signature moment into a rock and roll 'Heart Sutra'.

Springsteen sang the opening lyrics of that verse without music. As he leaned into those two lines - “When the change was made uptown / and the Big Man joined the band” - the mighty E Street fell silent. “No eye. No ear,” the Heart Sutra tells us. Same at the Apollo: ‘What you think is Freeze Out, is not Freeze Out,’ Springsteen affirmed in that once familiar moment. ‘What you think is the E Street Band, is not the E Street Band.’ And: ‘What you think is my friend...’

The effect was abrupt, but emptiness always is. Whether ushered in by unexpected news or a sudden shock or a pleasant surprise, the experience of having ideas torn away has a lot in common with having the rug pulled out from under one’s feet. The moment is shocking; for an instant, it seems we are left with nothing.

But something is left behind in emptiness. When our ideas are ever so briefly stripped away, something has an opportunity to show itself.

This is how it seemed at the Apollo. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band were playing their first full-length gig since the passing of the irreplaceable Clarence Clemons. The second to last song that night was ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze Out’. As the third verse of this opened, the E Streeters fell suddenly silent. While Bruce sang solo everything we thought or expected of this song vanished.

In this moment of emptiness something shouldered its way forward. It was a big, muscular presence. Towering. Powerful. It was as eternal as it was completely unexpected. Watching a since removed YouTube clip one could almost see this presence taking its rightful place at his old friend’s side. It was the Big Man himself finally answering the question that had been asked so many times over the previous months. That it was an answer nobody would have predicted is not surprising. This is life at its essence: impossible to pin down with our paltry notions of what should or could.

How will the E Street Band continue without their anchor of a sax man? ‘They won’t continue without,’ we were informed that night in New York City. ‘I’m still here.’


Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Practice of Not Practicing

I haven’t meditated in three days and I feel guilty as hell. While revealing in a great many ways, this is not a particularly helpful attitude. Feeling bad about my recent lack of practice, the fact becomes something I want to hide. I want to put distance between the two of us and have already come up with several strategies that might achieve this aim. ‘I’ll meditate more than usual,’ I tell myself. ‘Make up for lost time.’ I also think about framing this stretch as a dismissible aberration. A third approach has me rationalizing the situation away. ‘After all,’ I justify, ‘it was a weekend.’

The trouble with each of these instances - the problem posed by my feelings of guilt and their resultant desire to hide - is they push these seventy-two hours away from the cushion to the periphery of my practice life. More accurately, they remove any time without meditation from my practice life altogether. It is a ‘line in the sand’ way of seeing things: This is practice and this is not.

As I understand it, Chogyam Trungpa offered a view quite different from this. Certainly he encouraged his students to practice. I have seen many of his videotaped lectures end in precisely this fashion: “Dedicate yourself to sitting practice. Please.” At least as much as this, however, he encouraged us to live - fully.

This is one possible motivation behind the decision he made to remove his robes and live in the way of his Western students: he wanted to show us the human journey includes alcohol and cigarettes, passion and aggression, children and partners, heartache and joy, meetings and three-piece suits. The journey includes all of this - it includes everything - and our task is to gradually train our arms to open in this kind of embrace.

From this perspective the journey of this lineage - of the practicing tradition of the great meditator Chogyam Trungpa - includes the fact that I have not meditated for the last three days. Put another way, the practice life of this lineage is big enough to include the fact that I don’t, at certain times, meditate at all.

What does the practice of not practicing look like? It’s much more inclusive than the attitude above, for one thing. Inclusiveness brings with it a sense of relief. I no longer feel vexed by the guilt that was present when I started this piece. I have not done anything ‘wrong’ and consequently feel much more at ease with myself. Not needing to keep the whole situation at arm’s length in order to preserve a comforting sense of being ‘good’, I become willing to actually look at the experience of not meditating: I haven’t practiced in three days, what’s that been like?

Life in this time has been hard. Really hard. The weight of depression has been considerable. It presses down on the body, as usual - a kind of emotional gravity that has me sinking, shrinking. It also pushes hard from one side. This is not something I’ve felt before. Awareness has been shoved to the right and lays packed against the shoulder, the ribs, the hip. The rest of my body feels numb but for the spasm running much of my spine, clenching tight enough at times to draw tears.

Writing this a couple things happen. First, I realize I haven’t just ‘not’ meditated over these last several days. I have been avoiding practice. Sure there have been external constraints - it was a weekend, after all. I could have sat down for a few minutes in spite of these, however. The truth is, I didn’t want to go anywhere near the feelings above. This was not a conscious act of turning away. It was deeper than this, more fundamental. More like a body knowing that I was not yet ready. I couldn’t go anywhere near these feelings and, ever predictable in this regard, meditation would have asked precisely this of me.

The second thing that occurs in the process of writing is I begin to relax. The fight I’ve been waging against feeling so lousy begins to diminish. The distance between us lessened, I am able to raise one hand and touch my emotional life. There’s sorrow. There’s anger. There’s hopelessness and that damnable backache. There’s the numbness I mentioned. Not exactly numbness, it seems, but more like a low, dull hum.

Curiosity is piqued by this last observation. What, I wonder, would this hum say if it had the opportunity to speak? “There’s something here, Neil. Something needs attention.” The hum now becomes more like a cloud. I am seeing a star cluster, the Milky Way viewed from way, way off. There are feelings, experiences, moments of insight. There are pulses of energy; one has just burst behind my eyes. There is also space, a whole lot of open space.

For the first time in I don’t know how long my shoulders release. It feels like they’ve been pressing against my ears in an effort to keep something out. The chords in my neck are soft and vulnerable after this release, and this feels good. A scene arises, replayed from the weekend just passed. Myself, my wife, our daughter. Them more or less present to our time together. Me not so much. I can’t be. I can’t be and this brings tears again. For myself. For my family. For anyone who has ever felt so much they have had to pull away. For everyone who has ever loved a person who just can’t be there.

It feels like Trungpa Rinpoche is smiling now. Imagine we are in a television show, a legal drama in the vein of L.A. Law. The defense, lead by this little man from Tibet, is questioning its primary opponent. In the process of answering these inquiries I have made their case, proved their point. A sense of this sparks electric in the air; everyone feels what has just happened.

Lingering at the jury box, Rinpoche lets one hand rest on the wooden rail before him. His belly presses against the vest of a three-piece suit. The suit is pale blue, his shirt paler still, his tie navy. His thick, dark hair is neatly combed to one side. He’s enjoying this moment immensely and let’s it hover among us for some time.

“So,” he eventually asks, “is not to practice not to practice?” All eyes turn to where I sit on the witness stand. I squirm under the attention, uneasy at being the focal point of so many gazes, uncomfortable with the words I am about to speak. “Not necessarily,” I answer. “Is there any reason, then, to push these last days away?” I swallow. “No.” Rinpoche slams an open palm on the jury box and begins to laugh.

Years ago I bought a book entitled Never Turn Away. This was written by Rigdzin Shikpo, one of Rinpoche’s students from the latter’s time in Great Britain. I’ve never read the thing. I have looked at the back cover, though, and here we are informed of the origins of the volume’s title. “Trungpa Rinpoche’s great saying,” Shikpo asserts, “was, ‘Turn toward everything.’” Feeling anxious? Turn toward. Stuck in a lousy job? Turn toward. Love someone so much you fear your heart might burst? Turn toward.

And what of those occasions when we don’t meditate? When we feel guilty about this and want to banish our transgression to the murky netherlands of awareness?

Now I am seeing all the students I have spoken with over the years who have struggled with this. “How’s your practice?” I ask. They begin to shuffle uncomfortably. Their eyes drop to the floor. “Not so good,” they confess. There’s a sense this has now become the last place in the world they want to be. If it were possible, they would bolt from this room and never come back. Not, at least, until they had a more respectable meditation practice to discuss.

I want to say to these people - and through them, of course, say to myself - it’s okay. It’s okay not to practice and it’s okay to feel bad about this and it’s okay to want to get the hell away from the feelings of failure, disappointment, self-criticism, and whatever else might swirl about a spotty meditation record. It’s also okay to embrace all of this.

It’s okay to look at our lapsed meditation practice not with an eye toward fixing or changing or sugar-coating anything, but with the intention of just seeing. It’s okay to talk about this with our teachers and peers. It’s okay to discuss this, if we are in such a position, with our students. It’s okay to practice not practicing when this opportunity arises. As with every other circumstance in our lives there’s a lot there. It’s discovery, as always, asks us simply to turn toward.


Thursday, 1 March 2012

Practice In Pink

Meditation is sometimes dismissed as navel-gazing, an indulgence afforded a precious few while the rest of us sink into struggle, heartache, and worse. “How can you just sit there?” someone once asked. “There’s so much trouble in the world, I have to get out and do something!”

This is an understandable sentiment. Looking at meditators, it does to all appearances seem as if we do ‘just sit there’. The language that sometimes accompanies practice does little to dispel this sense. When words like ‘non-attachment’, ‘emptiness’, and ‘illusory’ are used, the impression of disconnection with the everyday - an impression I suspect the speaker above was feeling - is often reinforced.

In truth, however, meditation is about neither sitting there nor disconnecting. The practice is incredibly active and, if at root meditation is about anything, it is about reconnecting. Something I say in virtually every introductory class and workshop: “Meditation is about reconnecting with our lives and, through this, the world.”

Something happens when we sit. Our minds may be pretty chaotic for a while, but eventually their wandering lessens in frequency, duration, intensity. We begin to settle into ourselves. We start to relax. As we relax long-standing patterns of tension dissolve. These patterns lock up experience in our bodies. Anything we can’t or don’t want to know about gets tossed behind bars and kept out of conscious awareness. As tension dissolves, these bars start to melt and what we didn’t want to know about is given an opportunity to express. The pain at the base of our neck. The frustration we feel at work. The numbness on the right side of the big toe.

This is the process of reconnecting that occurs as we meditate. Somatic holding loosens and experience that was pushed away is given a chance to return, to be welcomed and embraced. To put this in more psychological terms, that which was unconscious is given an opportunity to become conscious. Unconscious experience could be anything: tenderness toward an old flame, fear from a first day at school. Once returned, however - once integrated into conscious awareness - these experiences open the possibility of a deeper, more intimate relationship with the world around us.

I was bullied as a kid. For five or six years I was targeted by a group of neighborhood boys. How bad was it? I was teased, chased, robbed, threatened, punched, choked, and harassed. I was shot at with BB guns, an air rifle. Divots and stones ricocheted off my forehead and the side of my face.

But how bad was it? I used to peer out our living room window every morning before school, checking to see if the road was clear. If it was, I would leave the house with blood pounding in my ears and run as fast as I could to the schoolyard where an illusion of safety was more easily maintained.

But how bad was it? I was afraid they would kill me, those guys. Not that they would stay up late concocting a plan for my demise. I worried that their bullying would one day simply get out of hand. That a punch would drop me to the ground and they’d swarm. That a rock would crack my skull. That they would coax one of their number into using the switchblade he brandished. That they would bring out a real gun in place of the air rifle packed with hard, stinging dirt - “Just to scare him, you know?” - and things would go terribly, terribly wrong.

I was bullied as a kid. For five or six years I was targeted by a group of neighborhood boys. This got so bad I would lay in bed some nights, fearing what another day might bring.

The curious thing is, though, for the longest while I didn’t really know this. By the time I entered junior high the worst of the torment had ended. They still came after me, but not as often and not quite so viciously. A couple other guys really took it on the chin through those years. Their bikes were stolen, their lockers set ablaze. One of them was dragged into a vacant lot and beaten.

I watched much of this from an uneasy distance. Something about what I was witnessing turned my stomach, but I didn’t in any way link their lot with my life. I couldn’t equate myself with those guys. I wouldn’t allow myself to recall how awful it had all been. Even this early on, the experience of being bullied, of fearing for my life was being “tossed behind bars and kept out of conscious awareness.” In order to survive, I was disconnecting from this part of my existence.

This disconnection went on for a very long time. Decades. Through many conversations, my wife - who has known me about as long as anyone - became familiar with some ‘difficult’ school years. But I never talked in detail or offered much emotional content because these simply weren’t available to me. “I guess some guys were pretty mean,” I might say. “But the school yard’s a tough place...”

Then one day while I was meditating, I felt as if I had been struck on the side of the face. This was a shocking experience. To that point the day’s practice had been so still, so relaxed. It was what many of us call a ‘good’ session. Apparently out of nowhere, though, my body jerked to one side. My left cheekbone took up an ache so deep I wanted to cry out. Maybe I did.

As I continued to meditate, memories returned. These were fleeting, fragmentary. The flash of a blade. A clod of earth soaring heavy toward me, rocks apparent just before contact. The barrel of an air gun at point blank range. This went on for several years - sometimes unbidden, sometimes while writing, most often, though, as I practiced.

Feelings eventually joined this torrent.

Finally, last summer, what happened to me became undeniably real. I cried for a while, then wanted kill those bastards for what they’d done.

So to anyone who believes meditation is just ‘sitting there’, I offer encouragement to take a closer look. Sit down, place your attention in the body, and stay. Then give yourself time, a whole lot of time. Eventually something will show itself. This won’t, I guarantee, be anything you can anticipate. But it will show itself and it will offer you the opportunity to welcome, to reconnect with some part of yourself that has, for whatever reason, been lurking in the shadows.

Then you can begin looking for the bridge.

As soon as we reconnect with a ‘lost’ aspect, we are given a chance to enter the world in a new way. The fruit of our meditative labor does not necessarily separate us from life. At its best, the practice and its result provides us a portal into life. Our recovered hurt, affection, fear, confusion - these can be bridges that link us with anyone else who has ever experienced something of this sort. They can help us respond to others in ways we had never imagined. They can act as catalysts for empathy, compassion, solidarity, companionship, and even action.

One year ago I don’t think I would have written this article. I would have prepared dinner as I often do, with CBC Radio playing in the background. The segment about ‘Pink Shirt Day’ would have flowed over me and been forgotten like most others. But today, this short piece about BC's ‘Anti-Bullying Day’ (the last Wednesday in February) caught my ear.

I put down my kitchen knife and the onion I was slicing. I listened to stories of what some kids go through because they are red- or yellow- or brown-skinned, gay or trans, skinny or heavy, because they wear the wrong clothes or like the wrong music, because they stand at the edge of the crowd instead of its center, because they seem weak or strange or vulnerable.

There are those who never really recover from this kind of treatment; their lives remain pale and stunted long after the most obvious torment ends. There are also those who kill themselves in order to stop the hurt. They leap from bridges, hang from rafters, see pills, guns, fast cars as a way to at last escape. Maybe that would have been me if I hadn’t been able to ‘forget’ so quickly. This might be the silver lining to the process of ‘putting behind bars’: it kept me alive. It kept me alive long enough to learn a practice that has helped me remember.

While I understand why people sometimes dismiss meditation as navel-gazing and puzzle over how I can just ‘sit there’, neither of these expressions comes anywhere near capturing my experience of this practice. Meditation allows me to embrace a scared little boy who spent too much of his time fearing when he should have been delighting. Through that boy, I am able to connect with all the others out there like him - the geeks, the freaks, the losers and dweebs, the fags and dykes, the queers, the strange, the different, the fringe dwellers, the weak, and anyone else who has ever been targeted just because.

So maybe nothing seemed to happen as I sat through my practice this morning. In truth, however, a great deal took place. I was, for one thing, wearing pink both inside and out - flaming, fiery, brilliant pink. This announced my connection with a world that has been too long ignored. It is a world, sadly, much larger than most of us want to know about. But it is pounding at the door demanding attention. And with assistance from a great many directions, meditation among them, it is beginning to find its way into awareness.


Many movements and organizations other than ‘Pink Shirt Day’ are working to bring awareness to the problem of bullying. ‘Stand Up To Bullying Day’ is Friday March 30, 2012, while Wednesday April 11, 2012 marks ‘Day of Pink'. Lady Gaga recently announced her Born This Way Foundation and Glee featured a tag for the Trevor Project in a recent episode. Speaking of these last two, here’s the kids offering their version of Gaga’s ode to self-acceptance, Born This Way.