Thursday, October 27, 2016

Lessons from The Sopranos - Part One

Melfi, Tony Soprano's psychiatrist, says "Depression is suppressed rage." She says it twice in an episode in the fifth season.

Let's assume she's right. What is rage? Can it be thought of as over-the-top anger, or anger out of control? Though it can't be completely out of control if it can be suppressed.

This seems to suggest that anger is an emotion we, most of us, have some control over. Stephen Gaskin, founder of the long-lived commune known as The Farm, famously said that anger is always an optional emotion, one we can choose to engage in or not. His advice: refuse it. Always choose not to indulge it. Many disagree with this advice, advocating we recognize and express it in order to prevent an explosive buildup into, we might presume, something like rage.

Whether you agree with Gaskin's advice or the opposite, consider what anger is, and where it comes from. There may be another, better way to defuse anger than indulging it.

One cause, perhaps the principle one (or the only one?) is disappointment.

Okay, so what is disappointment? It is nothing more or less than defeated expectation. I expect something to come to me, something good to happen to me, something that will make me happy, and it doesn't come. Or its opposite comes. Because I expect some good event or outcome, if that event or outcome fails to appear, I feel disappointment. Disappointed, I may CHOOSE to feel a victim, to feel put upon, hurt, let down. In that case, how can I refuse anger?

The point, Melfi's point when working with the combustible gangster Tony Soprano, is that the cause of unhappiness, and especially of anger, is not the event or outcome outside of ourselves. Disappointment, with its attendants unhappiness, anger, rage and, as in Tony's case, violence, or in his sister's case, depression, occur INSIDE of us. If we're unable to turn the tide of negative emotions that accompany disappointment, then we victimize ourselves. We find blame. We refuse to look within ourselves at the real causes of the pain we feel. If we are the victim, the next step must be retribution. Punishment. If we're unable to punish what we take to be the cause of our hurt (say, the dealer in a game of cards), then we may punish ourselves instead.

To continue the search for First Causes: what underlies expectation, which leads to disappointment and worse? This is the question that drove Buddha. His answer: attachments. Expectation leads to suffering. Release yourself from expectations, from attachments, and suffering looses its hold.

Expectations are a form of clinging, of holding on to something which does not yet exist: some future action, whether the result of our actions or those of others. We imagine some result that we imagine will please us, make us happy, fulfill us, complete us in some way.

It doesn't matter how large or small the outcome we expect; we cling to it. When it happens, we swell with pride at our ability to understand and predict things. When it fails to happen, we bludgeon ourselves, briefly or lastingly, with little more than a fleeting "damn", or something much more dramatic and intense and long-lasting.

All are the same: attachment to outcomes over which we hold the illusion that we control or should control. The cards are dealt; we get that third ace or a lowly deuce. Regardless, we expect great things, and even in situations that we tell ourselves are completely random and beyond our control, more often than not we secretly believe we exert some kind of influence on the workings of the universe, that our minds are somehow able to yank the strings of cause and effect to give us what we think we want.

Non-attachment. The real solution to disappointment, to anger, to rage, to violent acting out, to depression, is never allowing ourselves to be emotionally attached to the outcome of actions, our own or that of others. Or, if attached, to release ourselves from them. To let go. To stop clinging. "If you love somebody, let them go," is more than a song lyric. It's a prescription for emotional healing.

This is a kind of mental yoga I'm talking about. Buddhism isn't required; what is required is a clear mind and common sense and a bit of self-discipline. You, and only you, can clear yourself from the life-long habit of expectations.

If only this was taught to all children from the very beginning. This would be quite a different world we live in.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

On Sailing and the Sea

It's not easy to remember those days on the water, but I can't forget the way they felt, the ease and langor alternating with strenuous effort in service of my passion: sailing.

I miss it, that feeling. I miss, too, the ebb and flow, the rise and fall of the boat on the water, and too the expressions of feelings that used to flow from my pen in those days; the poetry that spilled from my too-young heart, stimulated by my experiences on the water.

Is the poetry of my soul exhausted?

Still, I suppose this is an example of what a Brain Pickings article described as "conscious practice": bringing what has become an autonomous practice (writing) back into the danger zone of consciousness, where failure is not only possible, it's required in order to push past my comfort zone and genuinely improve my skills as a writer.

So, this isn't story creation. This is practice. Pulling out the threads of my life into visibility; reaching deeper than I'm used to; swimming in a sea of uncertainty.

The hull of my sailboat was an object of singular beauty, one I have not the power to describe properly. Much of what it was was what it was not: an empty bowl made of a thin shell of material, solid if not quite rigid, that separated me from the water beneath, that contained me and my boat's rigging and whoever was with me and odd-smelling air and above all, the invisible resonance of my soul, bouncing about with each thump of the waves beneath.

The rigging rang; the mast creaked; but the hull gave me a bass note barely audible, felt more than heard. All together, my sailboat was a small chaotic orchestra of sounds, including the lap of water surrounding me that thrilled and informed me, that lifted my sinking sense of myself each time I stepped in her; and of course she was a she, my boat, as has always been known by sailors for as long as men have been on the water. If only I might understand why that is, what about my boat on the water was so feminine, I might understand what a woman is and who I am combined with her, and thus find my place, both within and without the shell of my body.

But this is not about me. This is about salt sea air in my hair and the roar of waves and the ticking sounds of stays stirred by wind, their tension vibrating like clocks as they try to hold mast and sails against the pull of wind.

On the lee side, slack and swaying but ready to snap to attention, those wires merely swayed like metronomes, unlike those on the windward side. Those sang to me. They still do. When I listen carefully, I can hear melodies and harmonies as well as their weaving dissonances, a composition by as well as about wind, sea and boat as they pull against each other. This struggle, this tense contest of forces, propelled the boat and me with it through the water, as if drawn forth by a magic hand.

What I love most is what I do not hear: the sound of an engine. The motor that brought me so gently into the night was a fragile membrane of trust and knowledge: that place where man worked not against nature, but with her. The force that pushed me and my boat forward is a gift from my fore-bearers, those engineers and inventors who understood that they, too, were formed from the collision of natural forces; that they were created and nourished by a dance performed by sun, wind, earth, water and something else less tangible, something for which we have no proper word: Life or, perhaps better, Love.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Writer As Artist

"In the twentieth century people stopped just reading novels and poems and started studying them. It was a revolution. Suddenly everybody studied literature. At school it was obligatory. They did literature exams. They understood that when there are metaphors and patterns of symbolism and character development etc. then you have “literature.” They supposed that if you could analyze it, you could very probably do it yourself. Since enormous kudos was afforded to writers, and since it was now accepted that nobody needed to be tied to dull careers by such accidents of birth as class, color, sex, or even IQ, large numbers of people (myself included!) began to write. These people felt they knew what literature was and how to make it.

"In the second half of the century the cost of publishing fell considerably, the number of fiction and poetry titles per annum shot up (about forty thousand fiction titles are published in the US each year), profits were squeezed, discounting was savage. A situation was soon reached where a precious few authors sold vast numbers of books while vast numbers of writers sold precious few books. Such however was the now towering and indeed international celebrity of the former that the latter threw themselves even more eagerly into the fray, partly because they needed their declining advances more often, partly in the hope of achieving such celebrity themselves.

"In the first half of the twentieth century the decline of the gentleman publisher coincided with a rapid growth in the number of writers seeking to storm the citadel. Along with the increasing complexity of book contracts—hardbacks and paperbacks, bookclubs, bonuses, options, sliding scales of royalties, film rights, foreign rights, territorial divisions, remainders, and a host of other niceties—these conditions created and consolidated the figure of the literary agent.

"The emergence of the agent signals an awareness that there is a clash between the idea of writing as a romantic, anti-establishment vocation and the need for the professional writer to mesh with a well-established industrial and promotional machine. Hopefully the agent would reduce the tension between the two. Soon, however, agents found themselves so overwhelmed by pressure from would-be new arrivals and contract complications that they could no longer be seen either as a gateway into the world of publishing, or as middle men who could spare writers from getting their hands dirty. It was at this point, in the 1980s, that the creative writing course took off and the figure of the career writer began to assert itself.

"So then, a would-be anti-conventional public enjoys the notion of the rebel, or at least admirably independent, writer, but more and more to achieve success that same writer has to tune in to the logic of an industrial machine, which in turn encourages him to cultivate an anti-conventional image. This is an incitement to hypocrisy. Meantime the world opens up; books travel further and translate faster than they ever did in the past. A natural selection process favors those writers whose style and content cross borders easily. Success and celebrity breed imitators. Lots of them. Nobody can read everything. Nobody can read the hundredth part of everything. Nevertheless international prizes purport to tell us which is the best novel of the year, who the greatest writer."
[source: "The Writer's Job" by Tim Parks, New York Review of Books, Feb 28 2012 - see]

Now, I happen to agree with everything Tim Parks says in this article. He provides a fine overview of the awkward position of a serious writer of fiction in our culture at this time. Here are some reactions, both general and personal.

1. This, like just about everything, is the result of overpopulation. Our species busy reproducing itself without limits, spreading itself across the globe, consuming all resources like there is no tomorrow. Well, guess what. There might not be one at this rate.

2. We're crushing ourselves. Our culture is both homogenizing and collapsing into itself, which is another way of saying "overpopulation." Thing is, we can't stop this happening, so all we can do is try to survive it and maybe adapt to it in some ways.

3. All of this makes us stupid and silly and robs us of the ability to see above the fray, to see the forest, so to speak. We're diminished and blinded, and I'm here to tell you, we started out pretty diminished and blind. We can't take much of this without self-destructing.

4. I remember, as a kid, wondering what it might be like to be part of that mass of people on other side of the world, the Chinese, who all ran around and thought of themselves as a "society" and poo poo'd the idea of individuality and personal contribution, much less personal greatness. Like a soup made of people, sloshing this way and that, moved by forces too large for any one, or even any small group, to grasp, much less control. And how there was this gang at the top of some non-descript building over there somewhere, six of them I imagined, who were all sweating and yelling and desparately yanking on levers, trying to control the mass of humanity below them, the soup of people sloshing around, and every once in a while one of them would stop and look at the other five and say, "Shit! We just have too many people!"

5. I remember the day when, more than twenty years ago, I looked up and told myself and my family, "Guess what. I'm an artist." I didn't know if I meant that, I didn't know what it might mean if I did, and I hadn't the faintest idea what the repercussions might be. I knew only one thing: my kids were half-raised and seemed pretty independent to me, and I felt gray and transparent, fading into the woodwork, becoming like the dust bunnies that crowded the molding of my kitchen floor. It was a survival statement: I must change, discover and embrace who I really am, or I will die way too soon, sad and unknown to anyone, especially myself.

6. It took a while for this to take effect, this vague acceptance of a new me. Eventually I remembered my original passion: playing with words. Stories. Fiction. That I had actually studied creative writing in college, if such study is even possible. That I had been serious about writing fiction once, which made me curious to find out if I might be serious about it again.

7. Then came the Big Change, in which I found myself no longer burdened with a day job at the same time I was able to retire early and draw a small pension. By getting rid of most of what I had accumulated and living as simply as possible, I found I was able to live a quiet, hermit-like life. With no other demands on my time, I had to confront the possibility that I could practice writing, that whatever artist there may be inside of me could now emerge. It was fish or cut bait time.

8. If only it were so simple.

9. Some part of me holds to the possibility that it should indeed be that simple: just focus on one story at a time and tell it in words on a page. Ignore everything around you that tries to distract you from this task. Finish each story, start the next. Rinse and repeat. Build a body of work.

10. Except too often a story does not come. It does not reveal itself. And in these moments, all moments actually, I deal with a cacophany of voices in my head, pulling my attention this way and that until I, too, am like that out of control bowl of soup spilling over its container's edges and making one mess after another.

11. Not to mention the aches and pains and appetites of my body.

12. All of this, and I haven't even gotten around to saying what I really wanted to say about this writer-artist-in-modern-times thing, which is this: there are things that are very right and great about being an artist. I don't really know what they are, but I know them when I see them, as they say. But there are also some things, depending on your values, on who you are, that are very wrong and twisted and even sad about being an artist and practicing art.

13. An artist tends to be a loner, an outsider, perhaps even an outcast from society. This can be a very good thing indeed.

14. An artist can be thought of as the most deliberately selfish person in the world. Artists may have great politics, be socially conscious, support great causes even. But when push comes to shove and the world rubs up against an artist, who wins? Whose interests come first? No contest. Art wins.

15. Okay then. Let's assume, just for argument's sake, and despite any doubts or misgivings I might have, that I am an artist and that my art is "literature". Stories about real people in possibly real situations making real choices and taking plausible actions. Stories which are driven by, and revealing of, characters, meaning real human beings. Why would I want to write such stories? Why write any stories? Why practice art at all?

16. I can feel rationalizations pouring out of me, and maybe you too, reader. As if we shared a virus that gave us the shits and pukes both at once. You know what? That stuff stinks.

17. So there must be something beyond the obvious, beyond the socially appropriate. Certainly well beyond the "writer's job" explanation. If it isn't obvious by now, my response to Tim Park's explication of the forces pushing writers into the job of writing these days, is this: sure, it happens. A lot. But when an artist is creating in order to feed himself and especially in order to feel useful and part of the social fabric around him, he may be a writer - he may even produce fine work - but he's not an artist. Not. An. Artist.

18. Which suggests that, for me, there's something about real art that's beyond (maybe above) the social fabric in which it occurs. Above feels about right: such art is positioned to look out over the field of human culture and human endeavor, without being caught in any particular strand of the warp and weave. It sees a much larger picture. It's like that book "Flatland" in which we discover what it must be like to experience reality in only two dimensions, while retaining knowledge that there is indeed a third dimension.

19. So. There, I've said it: art is primarly a form of spiritual work. You might think of it as a visible, healing manifestation of spirit, produced by an individual as a gift to humanity, who may or may not experience it at all, much less as a healing gift.

20. Literature, as art, has a particularly hard row to hoe. It paints pictures of human beings with words, when words are more often than not the problem: the very anchor holding down human understanding, as well as that which can lift up and reveal.

21. And it's that tension between words as filters that limit our perceptions and constrain our understanding of ourselves, and words which illuminate and reveal, words as veils inviting us to look between and beyond, that draws me to the art of literature. It's the immense challenge and the ineffible payoff if I succeed, that makes it all worth while, regardless of the material world and my relation to it. An artist loves a challenge, and often the greatest artists cherish the challenge and problem which takes a lifetime to solve.

22. Seen in this light, poetry makes perfect sense. Forever a mystery to me, a puzzle in its own right, poetry IS the veil that hides and reveals at once.

23. For better or worse, I am not a poet, nor likely ever to be. I am allied to the idea that stories, fictional stories done properly, hold not more power or healing grace than poetry, but more accessibilty. Larger numbers of humans will read short stories. They find them both entertaining and potentially enlightening, whereas poetry, most at least, seems merely enlightening. Most of us can't stand the idea of being enlightened. But we can take a bite-sized chuck of story, read and digest it and maybe enjoy it. And if the story is told properly, if it is art, then it will be a pill in disguise. It will gently and gradually open itself in the mind of the reader and even if it has no direct effect, it prepares the ground for the seeds of illumination yet to come.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Message from Kafka

I reprint here without permission a new translation by Mark Harman of a short piece written around 1919 by Franz Kafka, called "A Message from the Emperor". This was published in the September 29, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books.

Why do I reprint this? Because I find it the clearest statement I've found of how incapable we are, as humans, of communicating with one another. Of how intellect blocks insight; of how our society of mind, as Minsky calls it, barks up so much noise and confusion and layers of misdirection, that a single idea, a single thought, has little prospect of successfully forging to the front of consciousness. Especially when mandated into existence by intention.

Yet thoughts and ideas do surface for us, floating into view just as on occassion a leaf, waterlogged and wilted and fraught with crawling life, sometimes floats to the surface of a pond, there to display itself to the glory of sun and air.

Is Kafka wrong? Not when we consider the source of the message he describes. Not when we understand the futility and hubris of its mandate. The message of the emperor may fail where the message of the leaf, modest, serindipidous, seemingly accidental, prevails.


"The emperor--it is said--has sent to you, the one apart, the wretched subject, the tiny shadow that fled far, far from the imperial sun, precisely to you has he sent a message from his deathbed. He bade the messenger kneel by his bed, and whispered the message in his ear. So greatly did he cherish it that he had him repeat it into his ear. With a nod of his head he confirmed the accuracy of the messenger's words. And before the entire spectatorship of his death--all obstructing walls having been torn down and the great figures of the empire stand in a ring upon the broad, soaring exterior stairways--before all these he dispatched the messenger.

"The messenger set out at once; a strong, an indefatigable man; thrusting forward now this arm, now the other, he cleared a path through the crowd; every time he meets resistance he points to his breast, which bears the sign of the sun; and he moves forward easily, like no other. But the crowds are so vast; their dwellings know no bounds. If open country stretched before him, how he would fly, and indeed you might soon hear the magnificent knocking of his fists on your door.

"But instead, how uselessly he toils; he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years; and if he were to burst out at last through the outermost gate--but it can never, never happen--before him still lies the royal capital, the middle of the world, piled high in its sediment. Nobody reaches through here, least of all with a message from one who is dead.

"You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

All Things are Sacred

It's comforting and reassuring to find intelligent thinkers who share my perspective, and better, who have positive visions for humanity. Here's an excerpt from one of my favorite authors, Kim Stanley Robinson.

From The Years of Rice and Salt:

“Tell me more about what the Buddha said,” Ibrahim would say in the evenings on the verandah. “I have the impression it is all very primitive and self-concerned. You know: things are the way they are, one adapts to that, focuses on oneself. All is well. But obviously things in this world are not well. Can Buddhism speak to that? Is there an 'ought to' in it, as well as an 'is'?”

“ 'If you want to help others, practice compassion. If you want to help yourself, practice compassion.' This the Tibetans' Dalai Lama said [answered Kang, his wife]. And the Buddha himself said to Sigala, who worshiped the six directions, teachers, spouse and children, friends, servants and employees, and religious people. All these should be worshiped, he said. Worshiped, do you understand? As holy things. The people in your life! Thus daily life becomes a form of worship, do you see? It's not a matter of praying on Friday and then the rest of the week terrorizing the world.”

“This is not what Allah calls for, I assure you.”

“No. But you have your jihads, yes? And now it seems the whole of Dar al-Islam is at war, conquering each other or strangers. Buddhists never conquer anything. In the Buddha's ten directives to the Good King, non-violence, compassion, and kindness are the matter of more than half of them. Asokawas laying waste to India when he was young, and then he became Buddhist, and never killed another man. He was the good king personified.”

“But not often imitated.”

“No. But we live in barbarous times. Buddhism spreads by people converting out of their own wish for peace and right action. But power condenses around those willing to use force. Islam will use force, the emperor will use force. They will rule the world. Or fight over it, until it is all destroyed.”

Another time she said, “What I find interesting is that of all these religious figures of ancient times, only the Buddha did not claim to be a god, or to be talking to God. The others all claim to be God, or God's son, or to be taking dictation from God. Whereas the Buddha simply said, there is no God. The universe itself is holy, human beings are sacred, all the sentient beings are sacred and can work to be enlightened, and one must only pay attention to daily life, the middle way, and give thanks and worship in daily action. It is the most unassuming of religions. Not even a religion, but more a way to live.”

“What about these statues of Buddha I see everywhere, and the worship in the Buddhist temples? You yourself spend a great deal of time at prayer.”

“Partly the Buddha is revered as the exemplary man. Simple minds might have it otherwise, no doubt. But these are mostly people who worship everything that moves, and a Buddha is just one god among many others. They miss the point. In India they made him an avatar of Vishnu, an avatar who is deliberately trying to mislead people away from the proper worship of Brahman, isn't that right? No, many people miss the point. But it is there for all to see, if they would.”

“And your prayers?”

“I pray to see things better.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Remembering Stones

(An old post from an old blog, recycled)

Consider this:

That all of your knowledge is like stones lying in a field. Where did they come from?

You didn't put them there. They erupted -- are continually erupting -- from the earth's bowels, from the soil itself, which is a fine matrix of crushed stones, old knowledge, edges worn away by endless exposure to the light of the sun, the pressures of water and wind, and the ceaseless, restless shifting of the earth itself.

Pick them up and build with them. Build a castle. Build walls, build mills and line wells, build your homes. Live in them, raise your children and animals in them. Line your gardens with them and shape your tools from them. They are endless and they are yours.

In time they will crumble back to the earth and with the help of the sun and moon, they will feed you. Know that they are the substance that protects you and sustains you. Know that they are the substance of which you are composed and to which you return.

Lay no store in knowledge. It is nothing. Like the stones, it is only earth and sun and moon. It is only the all of everything and only emptyness. You may value knowledge, but only for a moment. More than that disallows it, prevents it, subverts it into something other than its origins. Knowledge is only consciousness. It is the field itself in which you lay. Cultivate it, then forget about it.

As the poet says, "Work without doing."

The Up Side of the Apocolypse

It's 2011, going fast on 2012, and the now-inescapable meme of End-Of-The-World (as we know it) is upon us all. Every other movie, too many books to count, computer games. Rise of Zombies, or of vampires, or vampires that fight zombies; asteroids that shatter the Earth, unstoppable infections of one kind or another. It's all about death and destruction and wiping humans from the face of the earth.

Not that we don't deserve it. It's just tiresome that we invoke it so slavishly and even longingly.

There is an up side to all the Apocoplyse-think. I think that more than anything else, it's a manifestation of humanty's weariness with our own poor showing. Our limitations. I think we collectively wish we could be a better species, more compassionate, more balanced, friendlier to ourselves and the planet: in short, more humane.

So maybe instead of using words like "end of the world" or even "apocalypse" or "Armageddon", what we're visualizing, for we're certainly visualizing something, some fix for our malaise, is a transition or transformation. I like to think of it as a spontaneous rise in global intelligence, the result of which is our ability, as a species, to understand the ways we're undermining ourselves, and initiate effective, practical changes to give ourselves a future. Not easy stuff, this, and I think even thinking about it, much less talking about it openly, requires considerable courage. But if there's any group of humans capable of displaying courage, it is the group we call BURNERS.