Songs Along the Path

It was quite a trip from being raised Roman Catholic to having my jukai ceremony at age 51. (Yes, I was tempted to write “a long, strange trip” or “a long and winding road,” but thankfully I stopped myself.) I had doubts about my given religion even as a child, went through a rebellious atheist phase in my twenties, and eventually found my thoughts and feelings about things spiritual were closest to Taoism and Buddhism.

I can pinpoint the various influences that got me here: the TV show Kung Fu; my roommate’s copy of the Tao Te Ching; listening to Alan Watts on WFMU; sessions with a therapist whose approach was decidedly Buddhist; stumbling across copies of Buddhism Without Beliefs and Zen Mind, Beginners Mind in a favorite book shop; finding Heart Circle Sangha and finally getting up the nerve to step inside.

Perhaps the subtlest and most powerful influence has been the music I’ve listened to since my youth. It has stirred me as few other things can, and its ability to do so has not diminished with time.

The Beatles were my first exposure to Eastern spiritual themes in pop music, as they were for so many others. But in going back through my music collections, I identified so much more. Some of the songs certainly have overt Buddhist references: John Lennon’s Instant Karma, Three Dog Night’s Shambala, Steely Dan’s Bodhisattva, Alex Chilton’s Dalai Lama. Some have spiritual themes that, while not expressly Buddhist, are perfectly at home in Buddhist contemplation. Others contain a feeling, theme, or even just one line of lyric that got me to consider the bigger picture, or seemed to affirm something I was already feeling.

I’ve compiled more than 200 of these songs, and the list continues to grow. Recently I distilled the collection down to what could fit on a CD so I could present some friends with a kind of Zen mix tape (remember mix tapes?). I sequenced the playlist for a bit of narrative structure, and was struck by how many of the tracks reference water imagery and impermanence.

These, then, are some of my songs along the path. Regardless of the artists’ original intentions, this is what I get from them. They’re all available on CDs or iTunes if you’re inclined to try the collection for yourself. Your mileage may vary.

Litany (Life Goes On) by Guadalcanal Diary
We start with a sort of overture or grand statement for the collection. Relentlessly positive, the lyrics spell out how the world looks through clear eyes and with an open heart. The uplifting music takes what might otherwise be the uncomfortable uncertainty of “We move so quickly / Who knows where he time goes? / Where does this road lead? / No one knows” and turns it into a celebration of possibilities. Embrace life and fear not; it has no beginning and no end.

Now by King Missile
Probably the most obscure song on the list (and the shortest), it has the uncanny ability to focus my attention on the only thing we ever really have: the present moment. It contains what is, for me, a very playful depiction of dependent arising: “Once there was nothing but nothingness / Then something happened and now there is somethingness.”

Mind Games by John Lennon
This is the song that truly started me on the path. Where Litany is a celebration of being presented with this marvelous world, Mind Games is a call to action, a resounding chorus of how one can proceed. It made me want to know what the “karmic wheel” was, and it introduced me to the idea of non-attachment: “Yes is the answer / And you know that for sure / Yes is surrender / You gotta let it go.” It never fails to lift my spirits.

Pure and Easy by Pete Townshend
Townshend has been a spiritual seeker most of his life. He became a follower of the Indian mystic Meher Baba in the 60s, and much of his best work has been rooted in this seeking. Pure and Easy is the foundation of his Lifehouse idea, a spiritual song cycle that he struggled for years to bring to fruition. The Who’s best album — Who’s Next — arose from that struggle. When he sings of “the note in us all,” it sounds to me like the Tao or Buddha-nature. This song also came to mind when I first read “The Note” in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones.

Morning Has Broken by Cat Stevens
Hard to believe a traditional Scottish Christian hymn made it into Top 40 radio back in the 70s. The future Yusuf Islam is accompanied here by pianist extraordinaire Rick Wakeman and some beautifully haunting background vocals in a song about constant renewal. Like I tell my kids: Any day you wake up is a good day. Rejoice in it.

Turn! Turn! Turn! by The Byrds
Continues the influence of my Christian upbringing with lyrics taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes, set to music by the incomparable Pete Seeger. It’s probably my earliest exposure to the ideas of necessary opposites and endless cycles.

Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan
I take this as a call to meditation. Whatever is vexing you, the answers are always at hand. Just be still.

Rain by The Beatles
The first of five water-themed songs, this one made me look at the problems we create for ourselves through our perceptions: “When the rain comes / They run and hide their heads” and “When the sun shines / They slip into the shade.” Nothing is ever good enough. We always want what we don’t have. But then: “Rain — I don’t mind / Shine — the weather’s fine.” It’s just a state of mind. Get out of your own way.

Think About Your Troubles by Harry Nilsson
Nilsson’s album The Point was a favorite when I was a kid, the animated film even more so. This is a playful song about cycles and how everything, including your troubles, is impermanent.

Once in Lifetime by Talking Heads
When I heard David Byrne sing “Water dissolving / And water removing / There is water / At the bottom of the ocean,” I was reminded of how the Tao is said to be like water, seeking the lowest places which men abhor. A major theme of the song is self refection, and being surprised by what one finds. The refrain of “Same as it ever was” is almost a mantra. Rather than being a statement about how nothing changes, I take it to mean what was true then is true now.

All This Time by Sting
Written in response to the death of his father, Sting uses river imagery to evoke the endless stream of time, how we all rise and fall in the flow, and the folly of seemingly permanent monuments and rituals. I have always loved the last line: “They only get better one by one.” We have to awaken on our own.

What’s Good – The Thesis by Lou Reed
One of my early struggles with Buddhism was making room for paradoxes. This track is a meditation on loss from an album that was inspired in part by the death of Reed’s friend, the songwriter Doc Pomus. Reed juxtaposes things that don’t make sense together — some real, some truly nonsensical — while trying to come to terms with the death. His conclusion: “Life’s good, but not fair at all.”

Let Love Rule by Lenny Kravitz
A latter-day All You Need Is Love. If love is indeed the answer (as we hear in Mind Games), then we would do well to let love rule.

(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding by Elvis Costello & The Attractions
Written by Nick Lowe, this is a seeker’s lament. We see the pain, hatred and misery. We respond with compassion. Why should anyone scoff at that?

One by U2
Our feelings of the universal are often rooted in our experiences of the particular. Here, a relationship is coming apart, and it brings out something much bigger: “We’re one, but we’re not the same / We get to carry each other.”

Just Breathe by Pearl Jam
What Buddhist wouldn’t be intrigued by that title? It’s only mentioned once, but it’s the best response to contemplating impermanence, and being grateful in the moment.

All Things Must Pass by George Harrison
From the über-spiritual album of the same name, Harrison wrote this in the midst of the turmoil surrounding the disintegration of The Beatles. It’s a beautiful reminder that everything — whether we see it as good or bad — will pass away.

Do You Realize?? by The Flaming Lips
Structurally similar to Mind Games, and musically just as rousing. Listeners have been quite moved by this track that includes the lines “Do you realize / That everyone you know / Someday will die?” Far from being morose, it’s a celebration of seeing the world as it is, seizing the day, and giving the lie to illusion. It brings to mind the Evening Gatha. Take heed. Do not squander your life.

Find the River by R.E.M.
Back to water imagery for the final summation. Michael Stipe’s lyrics are frequently impressionistic (if not downright cryptic) and R.E.M.’s songs have always touched me at a more subliminal level. Find the River feels like an elder looking back at his life and passing the torch. Throughout the song, he observes how “Nothing is going my way” — except at the end, when he sings, “All of this is coming your way.” It could be a warning from a world-weary soul. Or it could be sage advice to check desire, to “do without doing,” to open up to what is flowing in the river — or blowing in the wind.

[2013]

(Click here for the playlist on Spotify.)

We Are What We Consume

WHEN MY daughter was very young, we were watching TV together. I don’t recall the program, but it wasn’t a cartoon, and at a certain point, one character hit another. It wasn’t slapstick; it was mild TV violence by my standards.

Not by my daughter’s.

She was horrified. She had never seen anyone do that to another person. I felt like the worst parent in the world. I turned the set off and did my best to explain that what she had seen wasn’t real; it was acting.

But even then, I knew her reaction was the right one, the true one.

Today, her reaction to the massacre in Newtown, Conn., is like so many others: Wouldn’t the world be a better place without guns?

Once again, her reaction is the right one, the true one.

When I was a younger man, I wrote impassioned letters to the editor of my local newspaper about the need for gun control. I’ve had little personal experience with gun violence, other than the story of how my paternal grandfather had accidentally killed his younger brother when they were mere toddlers with a pistol found under their father’s pillow. I can only imagine the effect on him and his family. The only clues of which I’m aware: His parents divorced, he named his first child after his slain brother, and he died a hopeless alcoholic and rests in an unmarked grave.

No, most of my experiences with gun violence come from the news. I’m old enough to remember the Kennedy assassinations. Dr. King. John Lennon. And far too many special reports of carnage in every corner of America. In other countries as well: I haven’t been this shaken since the slaughter in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996.

I would love a world without guns. But time has made me realize that will never happen. I do believe in strict gun laws at a national level, so one cannot circumvent one state’s laws by simply going to another state.

The Founding Fathers could not have imagined the weapons that are now our reality. It was a simpler time, and the means of defense were much simpler, too. The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was meant to ensure a well-equipped militia in lieu of a standing army, which was seen as an instrument of government tyranny. But now we have a standing army, and the idea that armed citizens could reasonably do battle against it is laughable to me.

In that regard, the Second Amendment is almost as quaint as the Third, prohibiting the quartering of soldiers in private houses. As for self-defense: I have no quarrel with it. And sports? If you need a 100-round magazine to hit a paper target or take down a deer, you’re no marksman. Limits must be set. Just about every other industrialized democracy on the planet has shown that reasonable gun regulations reduce gun violence. Surely, we can follow suit.

For the record, I am a gun owner, of the kind the Founders would actually recognize. I have no use for the National Rifle Association.

So why do I find it so difficult to write another angry piece to a newspaper editor about gun control? Because the problem is bigger than just guns.

We are what we consume. That doesn’t just go for food. It means books, movies, television, games, music, magazines, websites — everything we take into our minds and hearts, and everything we allow into our children’s. Garbage in, garbage out. This is a dark side of the free market: Sell the people what they want. Satiate every impulse and desire, and we end up valuing the wrong things. More than wealth, status, appearance, possessions, ego — we should value each other.

Granted, in a free society, we cannot condone censorship. We can, however, exercise discretion in the marketplace: Turn your back on junk culture, and it will whither away. That seems as likely to happen as getting rid of all guns, but if we at least move in that direction, things can only get better. Not perfect, but better.

Some have claimed the increased violence in our society stems from driving God and religion out of public schools and the public square. I disagree with that reasoning, but not with the larger point.

There is a spiritual aspect to our nature. We neglect it at our peril. We don’t necessarily need to get religion, but we each need to acknowledge that part of ourselves and care for it as surely as we need to care for our physical, intellectual and emotional well-being. It’s the part of us that knows we’re all connected. We’re born with it.

My young daughter’s first reaction to violence was the right one. We’re born with that awareness, and we too easily let it slip away. We need to honor that awareness every day.

[2012]

Originally published under a different title in the December 30, 2012 edition of The Record.

Gaining Perspective

Last week my children had two experiences that helped broaden their outlook. One close to home, the other on the far side of the world.

Two Sundays ago we had dinner with our friends Bob and Mary and their kids.  (The visit was partly social, partly business. Bob is an accountant and he looked over our tax returns before dinner, since I now work for myself and our taxes have become a bit more complicated. Thankfully, it was not as painful as I had imagined. But I digress . . .)

Mary’s father had just had a pacemaker put in and was still in the hospital. She said he was doing well.

Wednesday morning, Bob called me to say that Mary’s father had died. The wake was set for Friday, and the funeral for Saturday.

My kids have been to a funeral mass, but not a wake. They wanted to go to this one as a gesture of support for Bob and Mary’s kids.  We were also dealing with local flooding, so my wife said she’d stay behind to keep an eye on our basement as we continued pump it out.

My daughter and son were expecting the wake to be a sad and somber event. What they found was a loud and genial gathering of friends and relatives paying their last respects to Mary’s dad. Tears were certainly shed, but laughter was more abundant as stories about the late Aldo made the rounds. It was good to see a life being celebrated more than a death being mourned.

We have been very honest with our children about death. They each had moments when they were younger where they comprehended the seeming finality of it, and were understandably upset. We talked through it, and they now see it as a normal part of life (at least that’s the way they talk about it). The wake demystified another aspect; they weren’t as upset as they thought they might be by viewing the deceased. I’m sure the reaction would be quite different if it were someone close to them, but it was an important step nonetheless.

All this took place against the distant backdrop of the devastation in Japan. While not experiencing it firsthand, the news coverage still makes the tragedy more immediate than reading about such things in the past. My kids are witnessing the destructive power of nature, and how fragile we are in the face of it. It’s a reminder that, while death is certain for us all, the time and place are not.  We all travel different paths in life, but two things we all have in common are that we were born and we will die. What we do in between, and how mindful we are about it, is what matters.

At the wake, it was obvious that Mary’s dad had made every day count. I hope we can do as much.

[2011]

Mindfulness Hike in the Mountains

The kids and I were supposed to visit Zen Mountain Monastery this month for their youth program. But my daughter had some school projects due, so we opted to stay home.

I love taking them to ZMM, because for a few hours they are immersed in a broader Zen culture than Dad’s altar, incense and cushions, and they really enjoy it.

I still wanted to have some kind of Zen practice with them, and I spontaneously hit on the idea of going on a mindfulness hike.

Where we live, there are many great hiking trails in and around the Ramapo Mountains. I decided to take them to a favorite trail at the historic Long Pond Ironworks; wide trails, flowing water, old buildings, and some nice wooden observation platforms that I thought might be good places for some outdoors zazen.

The day was perfect for a hike with the crisp autumn air and the sunlight playing through the clouds. I decided we would just hike, pay attention to whatever was around us, and talk about whatever came up. Anything resembling formal Zen discussion would only happen at the platform.

I brought along my copy of Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. I wanted to talk to my kids about “Right Speech” — what Bhante G calls “Skillful Speech.” Of all the aspects of the Eightfold Path, this seemed to be the one that needed the most attention.

I didn’t want this to be a pedantic exercise, and Bhante G’s book was perfect for the task. Each chapter has a wonderful, bullet-point summation at the end, and this was the only part I read aloud once we arrived at the platform. It was short and sweet, and left space for questions and discussion. These are the Key Points for Mindfulness of Skillful Speech:

  • Skillful Speech requires that you abstain from lying, malicious words, harsh language and useless talk.
  • Lying by omission is still lying.
  • Malicious talk is speech that destroys other people’s friendships or damages their reputations.
  • Verbal abuse, profanity, sarcasm, hypocrisy, and excessively blunt or belittling criticism are all examples of harsh language.
  • Harsh language hurts others and debases you.
  • Gossip and idle talk lead to quarrels and misunderstandings, waste your time, and create a confused state of mind.
  • All unnecessary speech not motivated by generosity, loving friendliness, and compassion is harmful.
  • The test of Skillful Speech is to stop and ask yourself before you speak: “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it beneficial? Does it harm anyone? Is this the right time to say something?”
  • Using mindfulness to strengthen your resolution to say nothing hurtful and to use only soft, well-chosen words can bring harmony to any difficult situation.

And I added one last item: Skillful speech includes the words you use in e-mail, while texting, and on Facebook.

It was a relatively quick talk. The kids had some good questions, and then we sat zazen for about five minutes out there in the woods. They commented on how vibrant the sounds of the wind and leaves and water were when just sitting still.

Make no mistake, skillful speech is still in short supply at our house. My children are, after all, 11 and 14, and we parents still have a way to go in carefully choosing our words and tone in the heat of the moment. But perhaps the most skillful speech that day was just talking about it.

[2010]

Old Photographs

All we have is now.

This perspective, so central to Zen, has helped me immensely. The past is gone.  The future does not exist.  There is only now.

And yet, I have found that photographs of the past have a way of fostering compassion.

One way is having before my eyes representations of the world in which my ancestors lived. It’s one thing to hear the stories. It’s a bigger thing to have the stories illustrated.

I’ve been researching my family history for 15 years now, and one of the great joys is acquiring photos of the people and places I learn about along the way. It creates an appreciation for all those who have gone before me, whose lives made my life possible.

Old photos have also been helpful when it comes to family members who are still very much alive. I first discovered this while compiling photos from my mother’s past.

My relationship with Mom is very good. But like anybody else, she can be difficult at times, and of course there are those rough spots in our past that sometimes resurface when you least expect it. Letting go, it seems, is a full-time job.

But ever since I uncovered a photo of her when she was five years old, looking somewhat lost while sitting on a makeshift merry-go-round in Germany back in 1940, I see her in a different light. She had no idea what was going on or what the future would hold. And for all our life experiences, this still holds true for us as adults.

It’s now very easy for me to remember this when I look at her, age 75, and it brings up this wellspring of compassion that I would have felt for that lonely little five-year-old girl if I had crossed her path way back when. That’s not to say I don’t have compassion for my mother to begin with — I certainly do — but any transitory irritation or anger that may come up is immediately vaporized by the memory of that photograph. It’s a remarkable thing.

A similar reaction happens when dealing with my children. They’re only 10 and 14, and I have vivid memories of them at every stage of their lives. I try not to fall into the trap of longing for a time when they were younger and seemingly more respectful of their parents and kinder to each other. But a photo of either of them around age five does wonders do disarm my anger.

Yes, we only have now. But I have to wonder, since most of us meet the other adults in our lives as adults and not as kindergartners, if it would be a good idea to carry photos of ourselves at age five, and to share them at the moment we’re about to act out of anger.

[2010]