July 9, 2008

Oliver Trust Fund

As many of you already know, Oliver Schroer died last Thursday July 3. He was living in hospital, but going out to the studio every day to work on his last album. That morning, he knew he wasn't going on any excursions, at least not of the normal kind. Had the doctor call Michele George, who was going to take him to the studio, and ask her to come to the hospital instead. When she arrived, he had just slipped away a few moments before.

An email has gone round encouraging us all to donate to the Oliver Schroer Scholarship Trust Fund, a fund to sponsor young string players who, like him, are pushing the boundaries. I met and played some of the young people who have apprenticed with him and, given their example, I can tell you that this is a chance to make a very wise investment in the future of music. These kids are just like Oli: brilliant, modest, open, generous. His legacy goes far deeper than music. He's taught us all so much, just by example, about how to live one's life.

Please consider donating. You'll find a link on the front page of his website www.oliverschroer.com... also a delightful animation of him dancing at his Last Concert on His Tour of This Planet, just under a month before he died. The picture above was taken at the concert as well.

You can check out my previous posts for his thoughts on dying here and here.

June 22, 2008

Bad News, Good News

"You can buy a ticket, but you can't pick the destination." — Ken McLeod

When beginners sit down to meditate, they generally hope for certain experiences: calm, clarity, a sense of well-being, even bliss. There are literally centuries of anecdotal evidence of this, and today we even have direct scientific evidence of the positive results of meditation. But what most people actually experience at first can be quite different from this.

Meditation is the practice of cultivating awareness. As Ken McLeod says, when you decide to become aware, you don't get to pick what you become aware of. When we begin to notice how our minds actually work, we get the bad news: we are not nearly as consistent as we thought we were. We may see ourselves as kind and reasonable, but we notice thoughts that are cruel and capricious. We may see ourselves as strong and courageous, but we notice vulnerability and fear.

Meditation doesn't cause these "new" thoughts and feelings to arise: it simply reveals what is already there. What's there right now is the result of what we've done and experienced in the past. Of course we don't have much influence over this — things are just unfolding according to past events and actions.

The value of meditation is not just the calm states it can sometimes produce (although those are very nice), but fact that it allows enough "space" in the mind for us to see how we're causing needless suffering for ourselves and others. We do have influence over our future states of mind, because our future state of mind will be a result of what we choose to do from now on. If we stop letting our patterns run our life, things will change. And that's good news.

"The practice of meditation is the study of what is going on. What’s going on is very important." — Thich Nhat Hanh

May 29, 2008

More Thoughts from Oliver

More thoughts on death from my eloquent friend Oliver Schroer, who has untreatable leukemia.
Dying is a funny subject. Very slippery when you try to get in there. I mean, I am dying now, am I not? But for me, dying represents more like that moment in the play where the actor clutches his throat and falls to the ground in a dramatic display, possible two or three times. That moment of passage which caused Nathaniel Webster to utter as his last words (paraphrased): “I die. I am dying. Both are used.” Right now it feels as though I am living, and rather intensely at that. So we could say that we are all dying, because in fact we are. We are all heading there. But that becomes very abstract, and believe me, it is not less abstract for me right now than for any of you. So that kind of leaves me back at square one in terms of my grasping of what is happening on a daily basis.

Sometimes I think of dying as taking a trip, a trip far away to a place from which I cannot come back. We all know people who do that…. move to Tasmania (great place, by the way…) The point is, we wish these people well on their journey, but we don’t get all choked up and overwrought about it. We remember them fondly, and they live on in our memories through stories and the legacy they have left. We toast them in absentia, and hope they are doing well in their new digs. Well, my whole journey feels a bit like that. I am going to this place we will all go, and my travel plans are just a bit more immediate than yours. (Though life is strange, and I still might not be the first to go. Just be careful crossing those streets and driving those cars, folks.) I think a lot in terms of metaphors to help me understand things. I have been informed by the stationmaster that my train is coming in immanently, and that I should be ready to get on board when it does. But until that train comes, I am still doing what I am doing fully and completely.
I am still trying to decide if he misspelled "imminent", which means "any minute now", or deliberately used "immanent", which can mean "performed entirely with the mind".

May 14, 2008

Defying Comfort

Some time ago a multimedia item in the on-line New York Times captured my attention: "A Death-Defying House". A pair of artist-architects design houses that deliberately violate several assumptions: that living spaces must be comfortable, convenient, easily navigable. They design houses that are uncomfortable, inconvenient, and hard to navigate, and make the dramatic and challenging artistic statement that these houses will help you live forever: in other words, if you live in one of their houses, you will never die. They have even created designs for cities with no graveyards.

I love statements like this! Everything about the piece, from the death-defying statement to the details of design, challenges assumptions on an intellectual, emotional, and somatic level. Why should we be comfortable? When we design an office in which all needed tools can be reached immediately, what do we do with the time we save? The energy we save? Are we designing spaces that make us weak, unfocussed, confused, lazy? When are we more alive: when hunting for berries in the forest, or when deciding what to order at Sushi Time? When climbing the side of a mountain, or when standing on an escalator? When spray-painting graffiti on an illegal wall outside on a cold fall day, or when airbrushing defects out of a portrait on our computer at home? (Of course there are assumptions in these questions, too.)

I remember reading an interview with lama who was asked why the centuries-old traditional robe design of Tibetan monks had never been updated. When the monks do prostrations (and they do a lot, every day) the robes really get in the way. The lama pointed out that the inconvenience of one's robes was good for mindfulness.

So the next time you find yourself wanting to fix something uncomfortable or inconvenient, consider your assumptions: why does it have to be comfortable? Consider an experiment: What happens if you make it more inconvenient, instead of less?

Here is link to the New York Times story.

May 13, 2008

Dharma Name Generator

It is customary, when embarking on a spritual path, to adopt a new name. In the Tibetan tradition, one receives a new name with each vow.

Some people take this VERY seriously...and when I consider the situation, my tongue inevitably finds its way into my cheek. I've developed my own automated Dharma Name Generator. Click here to visit -- bring your sense of humour.

Signed, Zombie of Hazy Perplexity

May 1, 2008

Total Life

Update: Tickets to Ollie's Last Show on His Tour Of This Planet (June 5) are now on sale through ticketpro.ca.

My friend, violinist Oliver Schroer, has leukemia, and has recently received the news that his treatment options have run out. In his words, "They have deemed my case incurable and terminal at this point, and are figuring out how to keep me comfortable for the time that is left to me."

Now when I read his words, knowing Ollie, I can hear his voice delivering them: upbeat, matter-of-fact, a little ironic but always with a lightness and depth that is very much the signature of his spirit. He is upbeat about this news, and has sent a couple of group emails sharing this thoughts. The latest is particularly in tune with my own aspirations right now. Here is an excerpt:
“A few years ago, I reached a point in my music making that I called Total Music. For me that meant, when I played, particularly in improvs and such, there were no more mistakes because I could use everything. (Of course there are still tuning issues and specific things that are wrong in certain contexts...) But in my own playing, I was not rejecting anything that came up. It was all valid, because it could all be contextualized to make sense, to be meaningful and useful and musical.

“Well, maybe I have reached a point in my life where it is Total Life. As in, all of what I am going through can be used; none of it need be rejected. This is a very freeing perspective. It means you can stop editing your life and the bits you don’t want, because you realize you have been given these things, and strange as it may seem, they are actually gifts. I have been realizing lately that my leukemia has been a huge gift to my entire circle of friends, fans and acquaintances. The fact of the disease and my response to it seems to have focused so many of you on issues that are meaningful to you, and left you with something significant. And propelled a lot of you into action of some sort. I think that is fantastic. Use it all, I say. And don’t wait, either.”

I will close with a link to Oliver's website (www.oliverschroer.com) and a suggestion that, if you buy one piece of his music, you look at Camino. I recommend it because I find it deeply resonant with my own meditation practice, and perhaps you will feel the same. It's a series of musical improvisations, meditations, and soundscapes recorded during his 1,000 kilometre walk of the Camino de Santiago. Available on Amazon and iTunes, or through his website. And if you're interested in getting updates Ollie's journey, his newsgroup link on his site doesn't seem to be working but he has a group on Facebook: just search "Oliver Schroer, Canada's Tallest Free-Standing Fiddle Player" and join up.

One more thing: he is planning to give a farewell concert (called "Oliver’s Last Concert on his Tour of this Planet") for June 5 in Toronto. If you'd like to get tickets, keep a close watch on his website and his Facebook group; tickets should come on sale in a few days and I have no doubt will sell out immediately.

March 23, 2008

Working for Treats

Watch a person training a dog. When the dog does the right thing, the person says "Yes!" or "Good dog!" and gives the animal a treat. Watch a parent and child: when the child does something great, the parent smiles, and his or her body language reflects pleasure and pride. Watch a meditation class. When people report breakthrough experiences, does the teacher smile and show appreciation? When people report problems, does the teacher frown and look concerned? What kind of reports get attention? Are the students working for treats?

Some classes "treat" positive meditation experiences. But any kind of attention can be a "treat": sometimes the sheer drama of a big problem can capture the teacher's attention for long periods. Interestingly, the rest of the class can support this. If the class is discussion-based, as mine are, when a student reports unpleasant or frustrating experiences, other students may start offering sympathy and advice. I have noticed that some people experience this extra attention as a reward; others experience it as a punishment. Either way, the patterns are being activated and running unconsciously. Nobody benefits.

We all want to measure success. It's natural to feel happy when people have breakthrough experiences, and to give extra attention when they are suffering. But it is a mistake to allow these responses to unconsciously influence what gets raised in class. The effect may be to create an increasing sense of fakery, or to cultivate narcissism, or to drive some students completely underground.

You may have noticed some odd behaviour on the part of teachers to avoid this. Many teachers have the same response to everything: they say something like "Yes, yes, very good," or "Keep going," or "Hmmm," or just grunt in a neutral way, no matter what the student reports. But people are very observant, and will pick up the tiniest sign.

The best thing, as always, is to cultivate awareness. If I feel pleasure as a teacher at a breakthrough report, I try to be aware of the pleasure as my own reaction, not as something I need to reflect back to the student. If, as a student, I feel inhibited about raising an issue that I suspect will make me look stupid or a failure to the class, I try to be aware of my insecurity as my own reaction, and raise it anyway. And if, either as a teacher or a student, I feel discomfort at another's suffering, I try to be aware of the discomfort as my own reaction, and refrain from acting on the impulse to "fix" the problem with sympathy or advice.

February 18, 2008

I Never Metempsychosis I Didn't Like

Human beings in general share the same overarching illusion: that there is this thing called the "self". Imputing permanence to that "self" is an obvious extension of that illusion, in fact it's combining two illusions. The inconvenient fact that people die is explained away by the assumption that their "self" is going to carry forward and assume another form, perhaps another human life. It's easy to interpret Buddhist teachings that way. Heck, the Dalai Lama's on record as being reincarnated 14 times!

But here's the problem: according to Buddhists, there IS no self. So what is being reincarnated?

My answer: I have no idea. I don't believe it, and I don't disbelieve it. I am simply dumbfounded by the whole question.

A lot of people ask me about reincarnation. It can only BE an opinion of course. Proof will come to us all, but too late for us to discuss it. What I know is this: the entity called "Franca" is simply a set of behavioural patterns, memories and fantasies shaped by a whole host of factors, including DNA, childhood, current circumstances, possible previous lives, magical spells cast by evil sorcerers, etc. Sort of like the programs on my computer. But unlike the programs on my computer, I am aware. (Perhaps this is what Descartes was getting at when he said "Cogito, ergo sum," but of course now that we have machines that can think, we have to look deeper.)

This awareness is pretty hard to explain away. It cannot be proved or disproved. But when I look, there is nothing there to prove or disprove anyway. I can't see it, or touch it, I find no direct evidence of it, aside from the fact that... I know. I know, simply, that I am aware.

Like I say: dumbfounded. In that I am not alone. Buddhists as a whole intentionally cultivate a sort of continual state of bamboozlement on this whole issue.

I suspect that "Franca" will end when this body dies. But what is this body? Every cell that was "my body" 10 years ago has been pooped out, breathed out, scraped off, trimmed away, cut out, or shed in some other way. So what's this then? When it turns into a corpse, what can we say that it was?

I also suspect that awareness will continue. How, I don't know: I can hardly imagine it. I suspect this for two reasons. One, I have had several vivid experiences of people within days after they have died... just an intense experience of that individual being present and communicating something quite clear, specific, and understandable. Are these delusions? It's possible. But whatever the explanation, the experiences were real. The second reason I suspect so is because people like the Dalai Lama and many others, some of whom I have met, are not fools or liars. I, however, can be both, and the conventional explanations to which these teachers resort are certainly adapted to the limited understanding of the non-awake. The paradox of wisdom: real truth cannot be expressed in words.

The story: When Buddha awakened, after sitting out for a night under a tree, Mara, the Lord of Illusion, threw some crazy things at him: beautiful women, mighty armies, etc. etc. Buddha just sat there and experienced it all. Finally Mara sat down in front of him and said something like this: "By whose authority do you know these things you claim to know?" Buddha replied with a gesture: he simply stretched his right fingers down and touched the ground.

That is the final answer: one's own experience. The sound of snow crunching under one's boots. The blue of the sky just before sunset. The sensation of breathing in, and breathing out. Perhaps, some day, the moment after dying.

As I said earlier, we will not be able to discuss it.

January 31, 2008

If a beam falls and nobody notices, does it change anyone's life?

An excerpt from Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon". Sam Spade tells the story of a Mr. Flitcraft, who has a good life, but completely disappears, abandoning his wife and two small children:
"Here's what happened to him. Going to lunch he passed an office-building that was being put up--just the skeleton. A beam or something fell eight or ten stories down and smacked the sidewalk along side him. It brushed pretty close to him, but didn't touch him, though a piece of sidewalk was chipped off and flew up and hit his cheek. It only took a piece of skin off, but he still had the scar when I saw him. He rubbed it with his fingers--well, affectionately--when he told me about it. He was scared stiff of course, he said, but he was more shocked than really frightened. He felt like somebody had taken the lid off his life and let him look at the works.

"Flitcraft had been a good citizen and a good husband and father, not by any outer compulsion, but simply because he was a man who was most comfortable in step with his surroundings. He had been raised that way. The people he knew were like that. The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things. He, the good citizen-husband-father, could be wiped out between office and restaurant by the accident of a falling beam. He knew then that men died at haphazard like that, and lived only while blind chance spared them.

"It was not, primarily, the injustice of it that disturbed him: he accepted that after the first shock. What disturbed him was the discovery that in sensibly ordering his affairs he had got out of step, not into step, with life. He said he knew before he had got twenty feet from the fallen beam that he would never know peace again until he had adjusted himself to this new glimpse of life. By the time he had eaten his luncheon he had found his means of adjustment. Life could be ended for him at random by a falling beam: he would change his life at random by simply going away. He loved his family, he said, as much as he supposed was usual, but he knew he was leaving them adequately provided for, and his love for them was not of the sort that would make absence painful.

"He went to Seattle that afternoon ... and from there by boat to San Francisco. For a couple of years he wandered around and then drifted back to the Northwest, and settled in Spokane and got married. His second wife didn't look like the first, but they were more alike than they were different. You know, the kind of women that play fair games of golf and bridge and like new salad-recipes. He wasn't sorry for what he had done. It seemed reasonable enough to him. I don't think he even knew he had settled back into the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma. But that's the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling."

Most spiritual practice begins with a shock: unmistakable evidence that an "ordinary" life, even a very good one, does not, and will never, satisfy. We all live immersed in differing degrees of denial and frustration, anesthetized (or simply deluded) by our patterns. We drift through our lives, mechanically serving the intricate medley of behaviour patterns that we call "Me".

When the beam falls, there is an instant of awakening. What people do next varies a little, but not much. In the vast majority of cases, they go back to sleep.

I'm grateful to delanceyplace.com for bringing this into my inbox.