Category Archives: Music

In Praise of Ego

The ego can be a good thing—an artful, beautiful self embodying soul in the world.
Thomas Moore

I have heard it said that the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead would awaken every morning, and exuberantly exclaim, “Thank God I am Margaret Mead!” That is certainly an eye-opener, and at first blush sounds unpleasantly self-centered. It is also an incredibly difficult thing to say. Try it yourself: “Thank God I am …” I’ll bet your name stuck in your throat. I know mine did. Although it appears as though Ms. Mead is egotistically crowing at the dawn, I think that there is a wonderful sense in which her affirmation can be seen as a grateful recognition that she has been given existence as a unique individual who has the potential to be a blessing to herself and to the world.

In the Prologue to Demian, Herman Hesse writes a moving tribute to the precious reality of each and every individual:

“Each human being represents a unique and valuable experiment on the part of nature … the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world’s phenomena intersect, only once in this way and never again. That is why every [person’s] story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every [person] as long as he [or she] lives and fulfills the will of nature is wondrous and worthy of every consideration.”

I find two ideas in this quote inspiring. The first is that each of us is an experiment on the part of nature in the creation of the human. Each of us is a variation on the theme of humanity, a variation that has never existed before and will never show up again. It is as though nature says, “Ok, John or Sally or Peter, here is your particular slice of humanity. Now let’s see what you can do with it.” We do not make our choices and create a self with impunity, however. The world will either be better off or worse off, if only by a trifle, simply because you and I have passed through it. Will we leave a few small ripples of kindness behind us, or more distrust and fear? This is a question, I think, that is worth asking every day, as a step toward being the man I want to be.

The second idea that inspires me is the notion that my perception of the world here and now is actually creating a world that exists only in this moment, and only through me. This is reminiscent of the opening lines of the Dhammapada: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” Have you ever looked at a sunset, say, and realized that this particular sunset is for you alone and no one else? No one is seeing it from your place in the world, from your angle, with your thoughts and feelings. Think of it: everything you see right here and right now–and in every moment of your life– is the creation of your perceptions. An irreducible world comes into being with your birth, flowers with your every step, and vanishes at your death. We truly are co-creators with the Divine, and I imagine with Alice Walker that our Divine Collaborator must get exasperated with us when we don’t treasure our creative power. We have the opportunity to revel in the beauty that it is our privilege and perhaps responsibility to create and enjoy. In the Color Purple, Shug says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” And when we piss God off this way, She just plunks another field of purple flowers in our path, just to see if this time we will co-create it with Her, or remain wrapped in our complacent slumber.

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St. Francis: Before and After

While the life of St. Francis as we know it is a pastiche of a few facts and a lot of myths, everyone agrees that he went through a series of profound and wrenching experiences that lead to a radical change of his values and his way of life.  There are two sculptures here in Assisi that capture his process of conversion in ways that I find graphic and moving.  In front of the main Basilica we see this:

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and at the lovely church/hermitage of San Damiano we see this:

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The broken man on the horse represents Francis returning to Assisi in shame after renouncing his glorious dreams of military adventure.  Two years earlier, he had been on the losing side of a bloody battle between the cities of Assisi and Perugia, and after seeing many of his friends hacked to pieces, he was imprisoned in a dungeon for a year before his father managed to raise his ransom.  Some modern authors assert that Francis suffered from a form of PTSD that sent him into a dark night of questioning his very identity. He was 22 years old.

After a period of intense soul searching, he attempted to recapture his sense of who he was by enlisting in another military campaign heading to the South of Italy. He got only as far as Spoleto, a town just a few miles away from Assisi.  Here he had a deep realization that the world in which he was living was topsy-turvy.  Most people who called themselves Christian had little use for the teachings of Jesus that encouraged peace and poverty of spirit.  Love of enemies and living a simple life with trust in the Divine seemed to be values honored in words but mocked in daily life.

Thus he turned his back on his upper middle class life, and decided that one was either a Christian or not.  Cherry picking the Gospels seemed a betrayal that was rampant in the 13th century–from the top down.  There were many movements of religious awakening in those days, such as the Cathars and the Waldensians, but for reasons I will pursue in another essay, they were ultimately condemned by the institutional church and many of their adherents were burned at the stake.  Francis himself escaped this fate although some of his most faithful followers were executed after his death.  But that is another story.

For now, let us simply remember that he managed to remain a faithful Catholic and went about his Father’s business of love and healing.  Much is made of his extreme asceticism and life of poverty, but this could be an exaggeration intended to idealize his sainthood by his early biographers.  He was certainly more ascetic than I would wish to be, but I think his most characteristic and charismatic feature was his unwavering love for God and human beings and nature.  Given the context of the 13th century, I think it is this Love that set him apart, and called over 5000 followers to his community in a very few years.  It is this love and peace that I see in the sculpture at San Damiano.  His journey to that beautiful place–both in Assisi and in his own heart–was not an easy one. But look again at the picture.  Is there anywhere else you would rather be?

Philosophy Tempered with Music

Sarita's Cave

This drawing was done by Sarita Worravitudomsuk from Thailand. She was one of the lovely students I was privileged to teach during my years in Japan. At the end of one semester, Sarita presented me with this gift. I was amazed to see that she had depicted Plato’s Cave with the upward ascent being a scale of piano keys. Ever since, her drawing hangs by my bed.

Sarita reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Plato’s Republic, BK 8, 549B, that  I find at once enigmatic and illuminating.  In this passage, Adeimantus asks Socrates what is the best guardian of virtue, and Socrates answers “Logou mousike kekramenou ( Λόγου μουσικέ κεκραμένου).”

The Loeb Classical library observes in a footnote that “logos” and musike” are untranslatable, but goes on to translate it this way:  “Reason blended with culture, which is the only indwelling preserver of virtue.”

Francis Cornford tries this: “the only safeguard that can preserve [character] throughout life is a thoughtful and cultivated mind.”

Alan Bloom has it this way: “Argument mixed with music. It alone, when it is present, dwells within the one possessing it as a savior of virtue throughout life.”

And finally the classic translation by Benjamin Jowett: “Philosophy tempered with music, who comes and takes her abode in a man, and is the only saviour of his virtue throughout his life.”

Combine these translations with the Gospel of St. John, “In the beginning was the Logos…” and we have five meanings: Reason, Mind, Argument, Philosophy, and Word.  In the same way, “musike” can mean music in the modern sense, or any of the arts–hence “the muses.’

However we parse these words that are so difficult because they are so richly evocative, it is clear that Plato sees Logos tempered with Musike as the guardian of virtue that is indwelling and life long.  He suggests that true virtue unites with and colors the soul just as dye seeps into woolen fibers.    Rather than being an abstract adherence to rules, the Greek notion of virtue (Arete) is liberating.  It simply means flowing into life–every day, every moment–from one’s broadest accumulated Wisdom, with a clear mind, a heart unencumbered by fear, and a sense of wholeness and focus, such as Parker Palmer’s living “divided no more.”  It is this living every moment from the best in ourselves that the Greeks saw as ” human flourishing,” or eudaimonia which is often translated as “happiness.”

Eudaimonia is derived from “eu” and “daimon,”  that is, having a good spirit guide.  Socrates credits his inner voice, or Daimon, with cautioning him to refrain from harmful actions.

Seen in this light, virtue is highly practical and something to which we all aspire. As with any living organic growing thing, our human flourishing needs cultivation.   Plato suggests the interplay of logos and musike is the Way (another meaning of logos) toward wholeness. Philosophy is a love of wisdom, a longing for awakening, that broadens the beliefs with which we create our world.  Music, the arts, quiet the mind’s chatter and ushers us into the silent chambers of the heart.  It is not either/or, as Dawna Markova so beautifully sees: “Perhaps, when you allow your heart and mind to pay attention to each other in a clean way, when silence becomes a loom, the still, small voice that is your soul can reweave the pattern that is the purpose of how you are living your life.”

For me, Sarita’s picture captures all of these elements in Plato’s and Markova’s vision: the symbiotic journey of the mind/heart toward our most lovely unfolding, and the well tempered mind rendered sensitive and compassionate by the soulful power of art.  Finally along the way, our tender fragility will be nourished by the silence that awakens a gentle and attentive listening to the guidance that whispers in the recesses of our deepest selves.

A Christmas Haibun (Prose +Haiku)

SilentFREEFirst_BIG

The Newborn King is born over and over, as love pours into this vale of tears.  Here is one of those precious moments when I was given the grace to be a mid-wife:

For about ten years, I spent Christmas day visiting a Mental Hospital near my home in Vermont to play Christmas carols for the patients. This was during a difficult time in my life, and I of course received much more than I gave.

In one ward for the severely ill, I was playing a broken down old piano, and decided to play the simplest of carols: Silent Night. After just a couple of measures, an elderly man made his way to my side, and grasped my left hand in both of his with a firm grip. I left my hand in his, and continued playing as best I could with one hand. Slowly, tentatively, he began to sing the words with a dry, eggshell voice. As I played the carol for the second time, his voice got stronger and his timing was impeccable. When we finished, he didn’t smile or say a word.  He just returned to his chair in the corner.

As I was leaving the ward a nurse approached me with tears in her eyes. She gave me a warm embrace and said, “That man who sang with you…?” “Yes?” I prompted. “He has not uttered a word nor even a sound in over thirty years. I have never seen anything like what just happened.”

The sacred power of music has never been so clear to me. It felt as though I had been given the gift of music for just that very moment.  Silent Night became for him and for me a holy night:

for a brief moment

all was calm and all was bright

troubled souls held hands

The Gift of Listening

rca

In my recent post “Shoddy Virtues,” I quoted John Steinbeck to the effect that the act of giving can often be an ego-inflating sham, while gracious receiving requires wisdom and humility. In that post I did celebrate the possibility of giving with love and lamented selfish receiving, but Steinbeck’s observation that those qualities are often reversed seems spot on.

There is one act of receiving, however, that strikes me as almost always so wise and humble that it itself becomes a gift. I am of course referring to the receptive gift of listening.
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Jazz is love made manifest

I believe that all art is Love made manifest, but since the jazz piano has been one of my best friends throughout my life, I will use this genre to reflect on the lessons that the fine arts offer to the art of living.

Let me start with a couple of stories:

Many years ago, I was playing the 5-7 slot at a good hotel in Burlington, Vermont. After a couple of months, the management hired another piano player to play the later hours, and since I did not know him, I stayed behind to hear what he could do. His technique was amazing! A friend leaned over to me and said “Cat’s got chops!” I nearly ran out of the building in a panic, thinking my career was over. But I heard a glimmer of something off. For all his talent and hard work over the years, it was clear that HE was the point of his playing. He knew he was good, and he not only wanted, but needed, everyone to know it. This need of his ego, however, leached the soul from his music. I decided I could continue playing.
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A second story: I had the privilege of working for many years with a magnificent sax player named Larry McCrorey. We had played nightclubs, hotels, and weddings for over twenty years, and we were very close. For all this time, however, we had never played a concert–until one fateful night in the Spring of 1983. We strolled onto the stage with our sidemen with hardly a thought and proceeded to play tunes with which we were very familiar. We quickly knew, however, that something was very wrong. We never missed a beat nor did either of us play a wrong note. We played every song correctly–but none of it was very Good. Larry and I were both lost and sick at heart, wondering what had happened, and the more we tried to fix it the worse it got. The audience seemed to enjoy the performance, but we both knew it had been flat, heartless, without soul. And we had no idea why.
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Living the Love of Wisdom # 2: Tao 38

In the previous post, I reflected on the nature of Wisdom as a classical virtue, relying mostly on the thought of Aristotle. Gaining an understanding of wisdom as a virtue, however, is only a small part of the art of living the love of wisdom. Let us turn to Eastern Wisdom today, and allow Lao Tzu to guide us on the path of the art of living. Verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching has been an inspiration for me for many years. Here is the translation by Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng:
yinyang
A truly good man is not aware of his goodness,
And is therefore good.
A foolish man tries to be good,
And is therefore not good.
A truly good man does nothing,
Yet leaves nothing undone.
A foolish man is always doing,
Yet much remains to be done. When a truly kind man does something, he leaves nothing undone.
When a just man does something, he leaves a great deal to be done.
When a disciplinarian does something and no one responds,
He rolls up his sleeves in an attempt to enforce order.

Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness (te, virtue).
When goodness is lost, there is kindness (jen, benevolence).
When kindness is lost, there is justice (ren, righteousness).
When justice is lost, there is ritual (li, propriety).

Therefore the truly great man dwells on what is real
and not what is on the surface.
On the fruit and not the flower.
Therefore accept one and reject the other.

The implications of this verse could easily fill several books, but I will do my best to restrain myself. I have already considered superior vs. inferior virtue in the blog post “Shoddy Virtues,” and written two essays on ritual (the Young Monk and A Sip of Tea).

For today, let us consider the evolution of consciousness outlined in another translation of verse 38:
“Hence when the way [Tao] was lost there was virtue [Te]; when virtue was lost there was benevolence [Jen]; when benevolence was lost there was rectitude [righteousness, Ren]; when rectitude was lost there were the rites [ritual, li ]. And, it is implied, when ritual fails, the disciplinarian uses force and fear.

The Way to Wisdom
We might see the unfolding of the art of living the love of wisdom as a reversal of the process in Tao 38: We often begin learning through fear, then develop rote behaviors (li), moving to “right” principles (ren), and perhaps on to benevolent, or at least beneficent, behavior (jen), finally becoming virtuous (te) by assimilating accumulated beliefs and values, actions and attitudes, into ourselves as a second nature (Aristotle). As Ken Wilber points out, each stage is both transcended and included in this process (including fear, although I think ultimately it would evaporate as a needless appendage). While becoming virtuous and acting from one’s virtue is the pinnacle of development for Aristotle, it is only the penultimate stage of development in the thought of Lao Tzu. For him, all the stages of the development of consciousness–ritual, principles, benevolence, and virtue–are dry and sterile without being vivified with the energy of Tao. Just as with Virtue, every stage can be “higher” or “lower.” Perhaps a tentative meaning of Tao and of this entire process will become more clear if I use my favorite musical analogy.

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Beautiful Listeners of Jazz

Soulfulness or heart does not only refer to the playing of music.  It is also important in the listener.   When those of us on the bandstand would notice someone in the audience listening from that deep place, we would tell each other that “someone is here with ears.”

Here is a short clip from an evening in Osaka.  Some of the still photos of young people engaged in soulful listening were taken by Nikolas Konstantin, a truly soulful photographer.  The tune in the background is In a Sentimental Mood by Duke Ellington.

Enjoy these beautiful faces.