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

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 ( 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.