Friday, September 30, 2011

Transcendentalism 101

I've been reading two books this past month. The first is The Transcendentalists by Edith Packer. It's a history of this fascinating philosophical/religious movement that took hold of America in the 1830s and 1840s. The movement interests me because there is something uniquely American in its idealism and energy.  It is also loosely akin to Zen in some ways, almost like it arose through a sort of convergent evolution.

I had started reading Packer's history when I came across the second book: Selected Writings of the American Transcendentalists edited by George Hochfield. Hochfield's book assembles key writings by thinkers who led up to Transcendentalism and essays by the actual leaders of the movement as well.  So it's all the cerebral 'wiring' behind the history that Packer's book covers.

Hochfield's book includes material by George Ripley, Margaret Fuller, Orestes Brownson, Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, and many others. A further plus is what the book doesn't include: the really popular pieces from the movement: Walden, Emerson's essays, etc.  Hochfield wisely kept these out since most people likely have access to them through other books or already have them in their library.  This means his book is filled with material you probably would not be able to get and/or are unlikely to own.

As a result, Hochfield's book has almost all the material Packer references in her history, at least in the early chapters that I have read. Once I had Hochfield's book, I decided to start all over with Packer's, only this time as I go through it I'm stopping to read the essays and writings she references. So it's like I'm working my way through the history and actually reading all the thinking and writing that was being done as I go. Very stimulating way to study a movement like this!

I'll re-read some of Emerson's essays (most notably Nature) as I do this exercise. Plus it will spur me to finally read Walden, which I have to admit is something I haven't done. Probably not everyone's idea of fun, but for an Early US Literature fanboy like myself, it's as fun as watching UFC matches!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Back to Piano...still!

A while back, I posted that I had gotten back to playing piano. Well, I have stuck with it! Long ago, I had a fairly decent repertoire for a beginner. Almost all classical music. None of it was super difficult stuff; it's mostly the kinds of pieces "any serious student has in their repertoire" (according to the one of the books of sheet music I have).  I've really enjoyed getting into this again; it activates a whole other part of my brain.

One of my favorite composers to play (that sounds pretty presumptuous since I haven't got scads of composers that I play!) is Chopin. He was born in Poland, so he's a countryman. His stuff is really emotional, and there's a somberness to some of his pieces that I really love. I'm re-learning a couple of his preludes and a waltz. Some of the pieces are really short so they are quick learns. But some of the chords this guy has in his music! It's like you have to stretch your thumb and pinky as far as possible in opposite directions and it's still almost impossible. I think I read somewhere that he had a very wide reach with his hands. Must be true, because the sheet music offers alternate ways to play some of the chords so that you lose one of the outside notes. And that's good, because there's a few chords that I physically cannot do!

I'm also relearning a sonatina by Diabelli that I used to be able to play all the way through. Much longer piece with different sections/movements/whatever you call them.  Diabelli is much more light and happy in tone. He's a good antidote to all the Chopin. 

The best part of this is the mental break it offers. I come home for lunch, eat, and zip through a couple pieces. After I'm done it's like I've taken a mental bath. My mind feels clearer and I'm more relaxed and in a happier state of mind. I think it's because I have to focus so much on my playing that my mind just ejects any extra baggage sloshing around in my skull.

One thing I've never done is play in front of anyone. Jim hears me sometimes, but he's not really listening, and I really try to practice as much as possible when I'm alone.  In fact, I'm not sure I could play in front of someone. Maybe when I get a better handle on some of these pieces. For now, though, this is a very private thing.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Work Stress or Lack of Discipline?

I'm back! After not posting for a while. A lot of hours at work and just being very busy left me little time for blogging.

However, while these last several months have been really crazy, I feel as though I've managed it well. I had a few moments where I wigged out, but I found myself able to take hold of myself and quickly regain control over myself. I kept my thoughts calm and even and did not allow myself to go off the deep end. Summoning this impacted me within seconds, and I noticed it sometimes telegraphed itself to others and 'destressed' them as well. Not saying I'm perfect by any means. I'm a very strong personality, and I did have a few 'moments' where I was just panicked. However, I know I dealt with these last few months far better than in times before my Zen training.

As things are slowing down, a thought occurred to me that work stress isn't all from external sources (i.e., our job, boss, coworkers). Much of it is self-inflicted, and much of it is created by undisciplined reactions to external sources. That means a lot of work stress is self-inflicted and I can just decide to shrug it off. A few things I noticed:
  • Deadlines that aren't deadlines. I say I'm going to do something by [date], and then I - admirably - feel obligated to deliver. However, no one wants on-time - but subpar - results. We create stress by assuming everyone is inflexible (and/or that we always have to submit to that inflexibility).
  • Other people's stress. When someone else gets worried, I find myself becoming worried. Empathy is good, but it must be controlled. It's best to sit back, dettach, and think: "Is this really a problem or are they freaking out?" Not letting others determine our mindstate avoids stress.
  • We gotta do X. Sometimes, we have to examine what we're doing and get to essentials. This takes a lot of discipline because we tend to think everything we do is critical...and it's not. The difference between 'good enough' and perfection is often too slender for all the extra stress it causes.
  • Dropping the ball. People request stuff and then forget about it when something more critical comes along. If you ask about the task, they tell you to deliver (because they are stressed). But if you say just goes away. If/when it comes back, everyone says: "Yeah, let's do that now. I know we had to put it on the backburner." Naturally, this takes some wisdom in using it.
  • Summon the right mindstate. When I feel stressed, for a few seconds I think about the smooth stone on my zen table or a moment of enlightenment I had while in zazen. My breathing notably becomes deeper, my tension level plummets, I feel my shoulders relax, and my thinking becomes much cleaner and logical. This is really helpful in conflict situations or when someone is wigging out because I become detached emotionally and my stance and tone are much calmer when I reengage. I had a client who was literally exploding (swearing and all). I did this and - within seconds after I reenaged - he calmed down and even apologized for his outburst. We solved the problem within seconds after the dynamic shifted.
All these observations have one theme in common that is a hallmark of Zen: taking control. Stress comes from being undisciplined mentally: feeling like we're out of control or have no control. Zen trains you to understand that you always have control over yourself: how you think, how you respond, what you feel - and what you choose not to feel, etc. By maintaining this discipline, I got rid of a lot of unnecessary stress. Or perhaps the stress that is bred from stress. I learned quite a bit from this situation, and I was happy to see my Zen training validated in such a concrete way.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Another Bike Ride

I have got to get the odometer fixed on my bike. Until then I'll continue using the blog to track miles. Did another 17 miles yesterday. So we're up to 233 miles for the season.  Should have time for another ride this weekend.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Obama the Appeaser

Obama has just scrapped a smog bill due to Republican and business resistance. While I do not know the details of the bill or whether I would have agreed with it, I've become put off by Obama's repeated inability to stand up to Republicans in any strong or consistent way. It's not that I think standing up to Republicans is in itself a good thing, but their often unjustified and willfully counterproductive stance during the last seven years has really turned me off. A week or so ago, I read this article in Newsweek and I think the writer makes very smart observations about what's wrong with Obama's presidency.

The piece hits the nail right on the head and puts into words what I thought but could not express. There have been several times during Obama's presidency that the Republicans took stands against the people of this nation to protect their wealthy financial backers. In doing so, they stood in the way of measures Obama had proposed that would keep America afloat. And despite all the Tea Party rhetoric, it is justifiable to keep pointing out that it was Bush and the Republicans who got us into this mess because it is a fact. They ran headlong into two massively expensive wars we could not afford while cutting revenue by giving tax cuts to the rich so as to deliver continued economic growth and job creation.

Where did it get us? The wars were pointless (Iraq) or drawn-out debacles (Afghanistan), we're trillions of dollars in the hole as a result of them, and there has been no economic growth or jobs after nearly a decade of 'tax cuts for the rich'. And let's not also forget that the Bush administration literally did nothing at the end of its regime as the banking crisis sent the US economy skidding towards a catastrophic meltdown. They were too busy financing a new branch of big government called the Department of Homeland Security (which spends billions so we can hear airport announcements that "the security level is orange"). It was left to Obama to push the stimulus needed to halt the imminent crash. Which it did. After all that, the Republicans have had the nerve to make it a policy to stand in Obama's way by defending tax cuts to the rich, low regulation on banks, government subsidies on big oil, while at the same time claiming to represent small government and the financial high road of tightening our belts (by cutting unemployment benefits to the 10% of Americans who were out of jobs). Then they grouse that the stimulus wasn't a magic wand that returned America to economic stability and, suddenly holding deficit spending as anathema, precipitate an economic slow down by refusing to raise the debt ceiling without an embarrassing display of bickering that caused America's debt rating to be downgraded.

During all this, rather than making the Republicans actually vote down measures that would help the vast majority of Americans and keep us on the road to recovery (and reveal the Republicans as the representatives of the wealthy that they so clearly are), Obama has repeatedly caved into them and let them get away with being obstructionist cry babies, a few of whom are driven merely by fear their 'good ole boy' tactics will be trounced by a black man. The Republicans have several times been glaringly in the wrong on these issues, yet Obama never calls them on it. I think if he had done so early on, they would have backed down under pressure from the people. Then we would likely have had a more constructive dialogue in Washington these past few years since there would have been some incentive for it. Instead, he's encouraged dissension by rewarding their cry baby tactics and giving them whatever they want in order to have - as the writer puts it - 'peace in our time'.

If Obama loses re-election, I don't think it will be because people really embrace the Republicans (Michelle Bachmann? Donald Trump? Rick Perry?). It's too clear that the Republican economic program is about balancing the budget and financing tax cuts for the rich by cutting everything that benefits anyone who make less than $250,000 a year. If Obama loses, it will be because he did not take a tough enough stance against these positions so as to bring life to the change he promised.

Can Obama turn it around? Given the parade of clowns the Republicans are market testing for 2012, I hope so!