Thursday, May 26, 2016

Acoustic Guitar Journal #9: Performance!

First recital: May 21
A journey that began almost two years ago hit a milestone this past week. As part of a group recital, I performed three songs on a stage in front of an audience. This was the first time I had ever played guitar in front of anyone, sang in front of anyone, or shared my songs publicly. So it was a triple milestone.

As posted previously, I’ve always wanted to write and sing my own songs. And most of the skills needed were there. I could write great lyrics, put together a tune, read music, and play (or learn to play) musical instruments fairly easily. Unfortunately, one key element had always been missing: my voice. I have always been a terrible singer. Even after two stints of voice lessons with different teachers at different times of my life, I remained so awful that even people with an interest in being kind to my mistakes gently requested I not sing. No matter what I tried, the same dreadful sound would always emerge from my mouth. Repeated disappointments led me to give up on the whole idea nearly two decades ago.

Two years ago, I took up guitar as a way to reignite my creative life. Almost immediately, I began to write songs. While playing my songs, the guitar's sound box would vibrate against my chest and I found I could ‘pitch’ my voice against this vibration. Recordings suggested a tiny improvement in my singing. It wasn’t good singing, but it wasn’t as utterly dreadful as I had always sounded before. It was the first time I’d improved in any way, so I was very excited. However, I was also very much afraid of being disappointed yet again.

It seemed pointless to write songs no one would ever hear, and I had little interest in hawking them for others to sing. So, basically, I realized if I couldn’t sing my songs myself then there was no point in writing them. So, after completing six or seven songs, I had to try learning to sing again. And, because I apparently didn’t think the emotional stakes were high enough, I told myself that if I found I couldn't sing that I would immediately give up guitar and stop writing.

So less than a year ago, I had my first lesson with all that hanging over me. I told my teacher how awful I was, that she probably couldn't do much to help, and that even if she could help I would be happy if I could simply sing in tune. I was so scared that she had to urge me to sing above a low whisper. My teacher was great! She made me feel safe, but she also provided honest critique so I wouldn't feel I was being humored. I felt a thread of confidence and clung to it. This was the start of a long road and a lot of work that led to this first recital.

I performed three songs at the recital: 'Stolen Car' by Bruce Springsteen and two of my own songs, 'Far Behind' and 'If You Have No Wings'. I was nervous, and it wasn’t a perfect performance by any means. However, it was a solid performance and left me feeling extremely excited and proud. Not to mention relieved that it was over! I'm now much more confident about performing in front of people.

At the same time, it's easy to remain objective. I'm neither a brilliant singer nor a virtuoso on the guitar. I have a lot to learn. But I'm certainly able to perform publicly, and I think I write really good songs. So this first recital was a proving ground. I've already set up plans for my next performance: doing a 'set' of seven or eight songs for friends at our home. I've purchased my first non-starter guitar, an acoustic-electric Breedlove (see picture) with which I fell in love. Also picked up an amp so I have the option to perform publicly elsewhere...perhaps at a coffeehouse or something. I've also started researching home recording equipment.

What began as a seemingly futile stab at an old dream has turned into something very rewarding and alive. Not really sure what the next step is or what my ultimate goal is (or whether I even need to have one). For now, I'm just very happy and willing to take things as they come. And, of course, to keep working and grow.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The 'Mystery' of Donald Trump

caricature by DonkeyHotey
I hate to add - in any small way - to the pile of media coverage Donald Trump is receiving. However, since I have many friends who are Democrats and/or liberal, I've heard and read a lot of stunned shock over Trump's success in the Republican primary. Most recently, in response to his latest low-level stunt, a friend of mine posted several questions on Facebook:

"What is wrong with Trump? Is he two years old? Someone please explain how he is supported when he acts immature, unprofessional, and unpresidential. I just don't understand."

My friend's reaction is pretty representative of what Donald Trump has inspired from national news media and political wonks. There seems to be a general sense of "how can this be happening?" However, Trump's appeal and success are not at all mysterious. Nor is it difficult to understand or explain. In fact, I would argue that the only mystery about him is that the political machine - in this case, the GOP - did not see something like Trump coming a long time ago.

Trump's appeal is due precisely to all the things my friend cited about him in her questions. He is unprofessional. He is not presidential. He is immature. Further, he is undignified, uninterested in thoughtful discussion of key issues, proudly dismissive of facts that contradict his emotional outbursts, and more interested in appearing strong than in being just. He will do or say whatever pops into his head and not worry about the consequences. To cap it off, even though he is running as a Republican, he is clearly not one. Nor is he a Democrat. His party and his cause are his 'brand' (i.e., himself), and he is cynically using the political process to attain those ends.

cartoon by Jeff Parker
In other words, Trump is doing everything that is suicide for a mainstream political candidate. What the mystified masses seem to forget is that there are a lot of Americans who are utterly tired of and disillusioned by mainstream political candidates. By not being one - and actually spitting in their faces - Trump is tapping into a powerful reservoir of frustration Americans have with their political system. And it's paying off immensely. There's no mystery in any of this.

It's common knowledge that many Americans have lost faith in mainstream politicians and, to an extent, traditional leaders and experts. This is because, as America shifts to a different role in a rapidly changing world, many Americans interpret the shift as a sign that our country is losing its influence and power. This loss of power is seen as leading to reduced global security, a weak economy, and insufficient job opportunities. In response to these problems, many Americans see President Obama, Congress, and mainstream political powers as incapable of (or just not interested in) doing anything to fix it.

Trump is appealing in this context because he is the only fully non-mainstream choice for Republicans. It's him or the feckless mainstream machine that has failed to authoritatively address the problems many people care about. In short, Trump has presented these disillusioned voters with an alternative, something they have desperately wanted for a very long time. The fact that they have it now is why Jeb Bush was a non-starter, Rubio spluttered out, and Kasich hasn't ignited. Trump's existence relegates them all to a trash heap labelled 'More Of The Same'. Their every calculated speech and condemnatory comment glaringly reinforce Trump's 'otherness'. It also reinforces that these candidates are just part of the same machine disillusioned voters blame for sending the US on a dizzy stumble towards a cliff.

As a result, the more obnoxious Trump is and the louder the mainstream gasps in horror at him, the more his followers cling to him. Were Donald Trump ever to speak in a reasonably intelligent manner, address issues thoughtfully, or gain mainstream acceptance it's probable that many of his followers would dismiss him as a 'sell-out' and his support would evaporate. He probably couldn't change course now even if he wanted to.

Notably, Trump is not the first recent candidate to thrive on being an outsider. He's just the most extreme version. Sarah Palin cashed in on this dynamic during her run with John 'what-the-hell-was-he-thinking' McCain. In a sense, it is also part of the reason Obama was able to upset Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008 and why Sanders is able to challenge her in 2016. Now I'm not saying Obama, Sanders, and Trump are the same kinds of candidates. However, all three were not/are not traditional Presidential candidates. Each, in his own way, flouted conventional rules about what a candidate for President can be or should be. For example, Sanders has spectacularly dared to use the 'S' word (Socialism) to describe his platform. This would have been political suicide in the past. However, in today's landscape where voters want alternatives, such deviations are a badge of authenticity that draws votes and makes traditional opponents (in this case Clinton) look stale and unappealing.

One very positive thing about Sanders - as an alternative candidate - is that he proves such candidates can kick over the applecart of political complacency without resorting to racism, sexism, un-Presidential behavior, and stoking fear. Whether you agree with Sanders' views or not, one has to admit that he certainly has married a unique point of view to a serious campaign (as opposed to the slimy reality TV show that is Trump's campaign). His refusal to trash talk is an example. In fact, I'm sure that if there was a Republican alternative candidate using Sanders' approach, that they would have supplanted and crushed 'the Donald' early in the Republican primary.

The danger in American politics is not that nuts like Donald Trump run for President. The danger arises if the mainstream political parties in the United States become so rigid that they are incapable of producing alternative candidates that also make good choices for President. If Republicans fail to deliver such candidates in 2020, then such candidates will be forced on them the same way Donald Trump was. The difference will be that the nuts in 2020 will have the benefit of the Trump candidacy as a playbook. That means that they will be much crazier than Trump, much worse for America than Trump, and - barring reasonable alternatives for frustrated American voters to rally around - much harder to beat than Trump.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Illusion Of Security

In a previous post on the difference between happiness and contentment, I noted that chasing after 'happiness' can lead to a deluded mindstate that creates suffering rather than happiness. This is because the human condition includes suffering. As a result, happiness cannot be maintained as a permanent state of being. We should appreciate happiness when we have it, but clinging to happiness is doomed to failure.

Permanent happiness is not the only illusion which can ensnare us into deluded thinking. Another is the mirage of 'security'. As with happiness, the desire for security is essentially natural and healthy. The problem occurs when we attempt to maintain security as a permanent condition. In other words, when we try to pretend that suffering and uncertainty are not as natural to the human condition as are happiness and security.

While clinging to happiness leads us to chase our tails and stress out, grasping after security leads us to become pawns of fear. We will fear losing security due to not having enough money, terrorist attacks, being lonely, or any number of threats. A deluded mindset driven by fear takes hold. Fear drives how we look at life, prioritize, and make decisions. By clinging to security, we permanently lose it. We end up in a paranoid state of mind, looking for and fending off every potential threat. We are reduced to a basket case always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

As you can guess the ultimate root of this suffering we create arises from no longer being in the moment. Instead of engaging with what is happening right now (good or bad), we focus on some idealized state of security in our imagination and then we compulsively compare our present situation against it. We spend our energy making plans and taking actions to avoid losing our sense of security. This often involves worrying about things that are not true threats or are unlikely to happen. We live in a world of what might be as opposed to what it.

This is an absurd mindset because, in truth, we never are truly safe and secure. No matter what we do, our lives can always be derailed by the suffering innate to human existence. We contract diseases, people we love die, friends move away, we lose jobs, etc. Even at the most fundamental level, we cannot be truly secure. No one ever expects to be in a car accident, a plane crash, or struck by lightning. However, in an instant, any one of these events could disrupt, irrevocably change, or even end our lives.

This may seem like a very depressing way to view the world! But it isn't. It is depressing only if we have a mindset that clings to security. In contrast, if we accept that we are vulnerable to suffering, then we can exist in the present moment and not fear potential threats. Yes, I could be hit by a car tomorrow...but I could also win the lottery. I could contract and die of cancer by Spring...or I could live to be 120. I might walk into work tomorrow and be fired...or I may be offered a promotion. Since anything is possible, it is foolish to spend time worrying about (or celebrating) any of these possibilities. The present moment is all that is real.

Of course, this outlook doesn't mean we should not work towards our own security, pass measures to fight terrorism, drive safely to avoid accidents, etc. It only means that we accept there are limitations to how much we can do to fend off these threats. This enables us to exist in a dangerous world and act in sensible ways to protect ourselves and those we love. Most importantly, it allows us to draw lines we should not cross or set aside things we should not sacrifice in order to provide an illusion of security.

The benefit of such in the moment thinking is that when uncertainty or insecurity inevitably come our way we will react to them calmly, from a place of sense and strength. This will allow us the possibility of remaining content even while we suffer and, in some cases, make our suffering of a shorter duration. We also will have the ability to be happy in life, rather than constantly looking over our shoulder for threats and problems that might happen. In other words, serenity.

Monday, February 29, 2016

A Disciplined Mindstate in Everyday Life

One of the biggest challenges many Zen Buddhists face is to maintain the disciplined mindstate we achieve during zazen in everyday life. Despite our best intentions, life’s barrage of deadlines, multitasking, pet peeves, fire drills, curve balls, petty conflicts, and bottlenecks seem calculated to drag us into a reactive, deluded mentality. This, despite the fact that we know such a mentality leads to our own suffering.

Everyday life can seem like a minefield to our centered state of mind. The cat vomits all over the carpet when I’m already late for work. The idiot ahead of me is driving at ten miles per hour under the speed limit. It’s raining, and I forgot my umbrella. And the typical office environment? Wall-to-wall bear traps! The distance between how we act in everyday life and the centered mindstate we achieve in zazen can make a trip to Pluto look inconsequential!

It’s so difficult to carry a disciplined mindstate into day-to-day life that some people believe the only way to reach one’s full potential as a Zen Buddhist is to abandon everyday life and take up a monastic existence. While this is probably true to at least some extent, it’s also true that everyday life cannot be completely hostile to a centered mindstate. If it were, then Zen Buddhism would have no practical value.

Therefore, no matter how annoying our day has been, we need to accept that the problem in bringing a proper mindstate into everyday life is not what we encounter in everyday life. The problem is that we tend to ignore our training during day-to-day living and, by deactivating the wisdom we need to discipline our minds, doom ourselves to unnecessary suffering.

"Zen Logo" by vargux
So how do we activate - or perhaps more accurately - hold onto the wisdom we gain from Zen Buddhism so as to benefit from it during daily life? I’ve found that doing so requires: 1) developing an instinctive sense of when we’re slipping from a disciplined mindstate, and 2) the ability to instantly reactivate a centered mindstate. While this is not as easy as it sounds, everything we need to develop these two skills is available to us via zazen.

Of course, the rest of this post assumes you engage in zazen on a regular basis and have done so for a relatively long period of time. A few sessions of sitting or visiting a zendo once a month is not going to give you a command of these skills to most effectively resist the undertows of everyday life. In addition, my thoughts here are only what I have personally found to be true. This is not a how-to guide, because there are few (if any) how-to guides in Zen Buddhism. It may not even be right for you. So with these disclaimers made...

First, how can one develop an instinctive sense of when we’re slipping from a disciplined mindstate? Through regular zazen practice. During zazen, we slowly learn what a centered mentality ‘feels’ like. Let me clarify. In early stages of training, we associate the ‘feel’ of right-mindedness with actual feelings: relaxation, serenity, compassion, etc. However, in Zen Buddhism, these feelings are only side effects of a disciplined mindstate, not indications of the actual state itself.

A disciplined mindstate involves letting go. It’s devoid of expectations, value judgements, attachments, and desires. We’re completely in the moment. We’re not thinking about how we got here, how we feel about it, what it will lead to, what we’re trying to accomplish, etc. This is mindstate often conflicts with everyday life because so much of everyday life involves goal-oriented activities and/or making value judgements. However, once we have trained ourselves to know what a disciplined mindstate ‘feels’ like, then we will know when we’re drifting away from it. We just have to pay attention and be focused.

The other part is how - when we sense we’re drifting - to bring ourselves back to center in an instant. Again, everyday life doesn't give us any breaks. It doesn’t allow us to chant mantras during a tense conversations, close our eyes while driving, or not own any goals. So the challenge is to find a way to - literally within seconds and without stopping what we’re doing - shepherd our mind back to center.

image taken from
Again, the answer lies in our experiences during zazen. During samadhi, we are acutely aware. We can feel when a stray breeze touches our skin, study dust in sunlight, be aware of soft ambient sounds, etc. This focus occurs when we have cleaned our minds of chatter and exist only in the moment. To center ourselves in everyday life, we can find such details in any given moment and use them as anchors to stand firm against the currents of what is happening around us. Then we can quickly reassert control.

In this way, by working to apply what we learn and experience during zazen, we can train ourselves to identify when our mind is undisciplined and then correct ourselves so as to retain the centered mindstate we cherish. I’ve been able to successfully apply this process many times...although I have a long way to go before I will probably be able to do it consistently.

In the end, applying these skills has allowed me to view everyday living as a kind of practice. Much the way zazen is practice.