Barefoot Zen?

Barefoot Zen?
Namaste, Y'all...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Staging a Sit In...Of Sorts.

If your new year's resolutions have already fallen apart, here's a second chance.  And this one doesn't require running shoes or calorie counting.  Actually, it requires something even more challenging.  Just sitting.  Every day.  For four weeks.

Mind you, that's not non-stop sitting.  That would then lead to you having a March resolution of finding a new job.  No, we're talking 5, 10, or maybe 30 minutes a day. It's the 28 Day Meditation Challenge.  Though "Challenge" seems too harsh a word.  Perhaps "Invitation" is more suitable here.  

Here's the scoop from the folks at Shambhala Sun magazine:

During the month of February, Sharon Salzberg is inviting a diverse group of people to participate in the meditation program that she lays out in her new book, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program.
Participating in the group will be a firefighter, a comedian, an investment banker, a teacher, an activist, a human rights worker, and many more people from all over North America. They will be asked to reflect on their experiences—pleasant, difficult, and in between—and then blog and/or tweet about these experiences. All feedback will be posted on Sharon’s website. So visit it and follow along! 

I'm going to do my best for 28 days and post portions of my experience here.  I promise my postings won't be laborious or esoteric. I'll keep it light, brief and, whenever possible, sprinkle in enough humor to keep it entertaining to all.  

More than anything, posting the journey here is just a way of holding myself accountable to the pledge to take on this invitation.  I've meditated on and off - rather sloppily - for over a decade.  Whether on my front porch or in a Zen Center, I find my monkey mind is ever present, and finding a way to coexist with it, or even control it, versus doing daily battle with it, is as noble a war as I can wage. 

So, I'll be dusting off my zafu this weekend in anticipation of February 1st.  Will you join me?

Friday, January 28, 2011


Depending who you choose to listen to, yoga is one of the following:
  1. a 3000 year old Hindu form of spiritual practice, to be performed with rigid conformity.
  2. a malleable approach to exercise that combines mind, body, and spirit.
  3. a sin against God
  4. just another way to stay in shape
As yoga steadily gains popularity, the splintering of philosophies continues, and apparently, while many of its practitioners have the flexibility of a pipe cleaner on the mat, they take great umbrage when the practice itself is categorized in a way that displeases them.
Many Hindu practitioners want Westerners to recognize yoga’s deep roots in their culture.  Some Christians demonize it while others adapt it to their own faith, trading out the Sanskrit names of poses for Biblical references.  Thus, your Sun Salutation becomes The Son’s Salutation, I presume.  I’m not a big fan of this approach.  It is, after all, this kind of thinking that gave us Christian Rock. 
Likewise, there are many who believe yoga should be practiced with strict adherence to a particular teacher’s approach, with no tolerance for adaptation of an uncomfortable or challenging pose.  Others have a ‘hey, it’s just exercise’ attitude that strips yoga of some of its defining characteristics, making some seriously grounded practitioners come completely unhinged. 
So, what’s the ‘right way’ to do yoga?  Is there one?  Is it possible that there’s room in the studio for more than one approach without the world’s most peacefully staged war taking place?  
My thinking is yes.  I know a lot of running purists who say if you are jogging, you’re not really a runner.  Someone once told me if I practiced Buddhism in, say, Thailand, I’d eschew it, not recognizing it at all as what I am engaged in here in America.  And I know that the whole designated hitter thing confuses National League fans.  And yet, we adapt and we move on with what works for us.  
Any practice that has survived three millennia is bound to get repurposed a few hundred times.  Fact is, those ancient yogis tapped into something primally powerful with yoga, the yang to kung fu’s yin: a practice that fully immerses mind, body, and spirit in a synergistic spring of rejuvenation.   In many ways, it’s just too much for some of us to handle.  And so, we take what we can from it:  the calm abiding that comes with the spiritual discipline, the ability to keep muscles toned and taut with the physical rigors of the teaching, or the guiltless way it helps some channel their stress and negative emotions into something that feels healthy and sound.
If people come to the mat with pure intentions, be it to connect with a higher power, align chakras, or to honor a downward dog instead of an impending downward spiral, I think they have earned their modest ashram real estate.  
Still, the debate rages on in certain corners.  So, what are your thoughts?  Is yoga sacrilege or sacred, a life’s work or merely a workout?   I’ll revisit this topic again soon, but I’m eager to hear what you think.  
Until then....
Namaste, y’all.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


This piece of flash fiction is from my 2005 book of stories "Welcome to Storyville".  A friend mentioned it the other day and I realized it might be worth sharing on this blog, given all my talk about the quest for living in the present moment.  This very short piece explores how simple it is when you enter the process with the 'beginner's mind' of a child.  I hope you enjoy "Kite". 

The struggle began well before takeoff.  He stood there on the beach, oversized bathing suit sinking off of his tiny hips, wrapped in a morass of ribbon and tail.  No sooner would he liberate one strand before he’d have another caught up in what seemed an infinite spool of cord.  
I could’ve helped him, but I didn’t.  He was dogged, all jutting chin and nimble fingers; for an adult to step in seemed treasonous.  A life lesson, learned far from scornful eyes and wagging fingers, is perhaps the kindest of gifts.
The sun slipped behind the sky’s lone cloud as he managed to unravel the components of his charge.  He stood up, toes twitching as he studied his dance partner.  She had to travel just right.  Couldn’t run too slow or she’d drag and bend, couldn’t let her get caught up in a low tidal gust that’d push her into the sand.  She required grace, a gentle and knowing hand that would give her room, a stride which would let her find her own way.  He couldn’t know all this yet, of course.  He was too young, too clumsy.  But he was on the verge of magic.  
His first attempt, hobbled by an uneven gait and a whisper of wind, was quickly sullied.  There was no judgment from the boy.  He picked up the kite, unwound the line from around the frame and renewed his effort.  This time, the sky denied the kite harbor with a swift squall that sent the diamond sputtering into the seashore with a thrust violent enough to rip a lesser model.  He studied the kite, relieved to find it still armored for its maiden voyage.  
The third time was no charm, nor the fourth.  He tried for mere minutes, but they snaked like painful hours as I watched.  Yet, the boy never wavered, never sighed.  Each failed flight a lesson in refinery, every disentanglement a cause for hope.  
Finally, the breeze steadily rippling off his back, a headwind in from the east found favor with the nose of the kite.  And so the climb began, wrists turning in rhythm, feet adjusting for his dance partner’s wide berth.  If you’d checked your watch to see how long it took, you’d have missed it, the ascent was that seamless.  The kite had embraced the theory of flight, and he rode on her shoulders.
His kite and the sky: that was his world.  Nothing else, not even the cry of the sea, could penetrate it.  There was no sense of where the spool handle ended and he began.  You cannot buy that in a boardwalk hobby shop.  It’s an attention we’re born with and one we start losing so soon thereafter.  The erosion is self-inflicted, and ultimately fatal.  But for these precious moments, he was in possession of something no one could touch.  Even my voyeuristic joy was only a shadow of what he must’ve felt, watching his sandpiper nestling open her wings to the world.
I left him there, kite still kissing the sun.  I couldn’t handle watching him rein her in, an inevitable retraction of freedom that comes when the sun sets, when a parent calls, when a small seismic shift reminds us we are earthbound.  I needed to remember him at the height of his discovery.  For that day, he learned to trust the wind and tide, the elements that have the energy to lift us heavenward if we’ll let them.  He himself flew.  He took me with him.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard

When it comes to choosing a running route, you’ve got to take a lot of things into consideration:  traffic patterns, hills, terrain, distance.  But for a couple of my less traveled routes, I also have taken stark reality into account.
My most recent run was through the hilly confines that surround Dekalb Medical Center.  The sidewalks of Winn Way are populated with driveways that lead to every kind of medical entity imaginable.  There are mental health facilities, obesity centers, cancer specialists, rehabs, and even the sleep apnea  lab I spent a night or two in back in 2008.  
This may seem like quite an antiseptic environment for a run when I have parks, green space, and the quaint shops of downtown Decatur so close by.  But, this run isn’t about blissing out. This run reminds me of how grateful I need to be for my health.  I’m one of those very fortunate people who gets to fill out a health form and check ‘no’ on all the boxes that ask about existing conditions, allergies, and health problems.  Diabetes and cancer have visited my parents, but so far, I’ve been able to dodge those swords of Damocles.  It’s my job to keep that streak going and even pay it forward.
The run through this district not only reminds me to be grateful for my health, but also to do what I can to gently raise the bar on how I care for myself once I get back to my front door.  Celery and hummus for a snack instead of M&Ms, 15 minutes of meditation in the AM instead of 30 minutes of Facebook.  I often fall short of these propositions, but if there’s an awareness around them, I’m at least on the right road.
My other favorite spot for a ‘Reality Run’ is the cemetery in downtown Decatur.  I know I’m veering eerily close to the macabre here, a thought creepier than my Vibram shoes, but the notion is the same as the Winn Way trek.  I’m 43 now and realize that 65 is just a little closer than 21.  No matter what your belief system is, each day is a gift, be it from God, the Universe, or a day pass from your own iffy karma.  Sometimes the best reminder of that is the most somber one.
The graveyard is a contemplative place, and my run through there is not a brisk one. I stop, I look around at dates, names, the thoughtful configuration of generations.  I make up stories about who these people may have been, and wonder what it takes to live a life without regret.
Then, I’m on my way again, back into the land of the living, and hopefully more keenly aware of how important each moment is and how responsible I am for those moments.
It may sound strange, even a tad foreboding, but while I always hope to run, I also hope to never be one who runs away.  And so, I run through the places that scare me a bit, just to summon the courage to keep them at bay a little longer. 

The Winter of Our Disconnect

While I have little interest in hearing how the Tiger Mother tortured her children into their current state of superiority, this book does intrigue me. What happens when a Mom had her kids 'unplug' for six months? No TV, I-pod, Internet, Facebook, etc?

I, for one, would likely be found in a fetal position in the shower after about three weeks, begging to just post one status update or hear one track from "Born to Run". But, I think this family's approach appears to be admirable, healthy, and quite positive.

I often pine to live more simply, though I know the withdrawals would be harsh. Maybe this book will provide some insights. Here's a link to the AJC article

What happens when mom unplugs teens for 6 months? | accessAtlanta

Friday, January 21, 2011

What a Refreshing Approach to Life...

This article is in the current edition of "Shambhala Sun".  It was written by Pico Iyer.  Enjoy!

The Folly of the Weather Forecast

Not knowing the future helps Pico Iyer keep his hyperactive mind at bay. Then, whether it snows tomorrow or dawns ra
diant, every moment is a happy surprise.
I never read weather forecasts. As soon as I read one, tomorrow is clouded for me, even if it is sunshine that’s predicted. A part of me is making plans, or second-guessing the heavens; a part of me is saying, “I should be able to get in a second walk tomorrow, though by Sunday night it’s going to be cold again.” When it turns out different, as it often will, all my thinking is in vain.
It isn’t that weather forecasts mess with my mind. It’s that the mind is so ready to mess with everything it touches—to make theories around it, to draw fanciful conclusions from it, to play distorting games of projection and miscalculation—that even the elements are not safe from it.
I never look at my wife’s schedule for the month. I’ve learned not to read the jacket synopses of any book I pick up. I don’t read reviews till after I’ve encountered the movie or book. It’s not that I don’t trust them; it’s that I don’t trust my mind to make good use of them. It has a supreme gift, I’ve found, for complicating the simple and muddying what could and should be transparent. It can take the tiniest detail and turn it into a drama or a universe of needless speculation. I don’t want to hear about Anne’s life before I meet her, because then I’m meeting someone else’s subjective image of Anne, or my agitated response to someone else’s subjective response, and not the wondrous and confounding reality of Anne herself.
All Buddhists know this, I think, but it took me the longest time to learn. I remember, years ago, inviting an old friend up to a beautiful retreat house I had found. As soon as you get there, I told him (violating my own rule, and possibly spoiling the experience in advance for him), all thoughts of past and future fall away. You’re entirely in the moment and in a great bowl of ocean and stars, in which you disappear and become as large and spacious as the universe around you. You can’t fret in such a place, I said, and you can’t play neurotic games. It’s as if a filter is placed in your system, and all impurities dissolve.
Needless to say, he was intrigued by my description and wanted to try it for himself. He made a reservation, months in advance, for a time when I would be there. Every day when I woke up in the silence, awaiting his arrival, I saw things with his eyes. I prayed—as I never would usually—for the days to be cloudless and warm. I worried—though worry was nearly impossible here—that it would be louder than usual when he came, or the wrong monk would be on duty in the bookstore. I fretted that the road would be closed off, or a group of raucous schoolchildren might be visiting. I even began to fear that it would not be the place that he’d imagined from my accounts.
For day after day of radiant silence, I threw myself out of paradise by living inside his possible responses and not inside the transparent moment. I corrupted my own paradise while worrying it would not be his. So of course there was a poetic justice when, near the end of my two-week stay, he called up to cancel—and I realized that my invitation had not deprived him of his selfless calm (since he never came up to the monastery at all), but me of mine.
A trivial example, but it’s through trivia that I experience my follies and learn to correct them. Most times that I fret and chafe about an upcoming engagement, someone cancels; most times I dread a coming moment, the moment never comes. It’s not the world that I need to change, I see, but the mayhem that my overactive mind makes of the world. It’s more than capable of seeing a blue car, stationary, and constructing out of it a six-act melodrama.
The mind has a purpose, Tibetan Buddhists tell me; if harnessed correctly, it can be the greatest instrument we have for finding in the world the potential and lessons that other mammals miss. But it’s wonderful at being a five year-old mischief-maker, and not a calm adult. It’s much more eager to play than to work, to feed on gossip than on wisdom, to get ahead of itself and then look back, to run around like a tired child at 10 p.m., screaming, when all it really wants to do is go to sleep.
I’ve been lucky enough to grow up in many traditions, with Hindu parents and Christian schooling. But I don’t think any discipline has so taught me the limits of the mind as Buddhism. What I’m seeing when I meet Ellen is not her, usually, but all the ideas I’ve created around her. What I read when I pick up Proust are all the volumes of what I know I’m meant to feel reading Proust, and all I don’t want to feel because everyone feels it, reading Proust, and what I’m not sure I’m finding at all, in Proust, and how I’m about to describe Proust to my friend (with an eye on myself, not Marcel). And then a car screams toward me on the road, the driver having lost control, and every one of these ideas is forcefully banished, as folly.
I don’t read the weather forecast, usually, and I don’t turn on my laptop at all, because I know all the snippets, diversions, distractions, grand theories, and data that are waiting for me inside that innocuous-seeming little white cover. It’s not what I imagined when I was young, and so eager to throw open the pages of any encyclopedia or book. But not-knowing is the happiest state I know. When it snows tomorrow, when it dawns radiant the next day, every moment hits me with the force of an inarguable surprise. Not reading the weather forecast is actually a way of ensuring that the prospect for many days (though never all) is sunny.

Pico Iyer is the author of many books, including The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

What's in a Name? Hmmm...

So, I was writing a note to a yoga teacher friend yesterday and signed it - as I realized I had many times with my yoga friends - "Namaste, y'all".   It's a silly little twist on the salutation used by many folks, from yogis to new agers, "Namaste", which loosely means, "the _______ in me bows to the _______ in you."  Fill in that blank with any number of positive notions:  divine, light, god, goodness, spirit, etc.

Anyway, it hit me that "Namaste, Y'all" was a great title for this blog, perhaps more so than "Barefoot Zen".  The notion with both was the same, an invitation to something with implications of wellness, creativity, a dash of spirituality, but with the implication that it would be casual and playful.  "Zen" or "Namaste" tackle the first criteria nicely, and "Barefoot" or "Y'all" seem to cover the latter.

"Namaste Y'all", as it turns out is the name of a website that promotes, you guessed it, yoga studios in the Southeast.  A little homework showed me that "Barefoot Zen" is actually an old book about kung-fu.  There's really nothing new under the rainbow, is there?  Sigh.

Anyway, "Namaste, Y'all" seems a tad less austere, so while I'm locked into this blog address, for now I am thinking the new title is worth trying out.  I'm not the world's smartest branding person, obviously. When my former business partner named her company '7 Course Theater' some twenty years ago, I didn't voice how much I hated the name.  Then when I shared ownership of it with her, we already had a strong presence and a name change could cost us business.  When she quit in 2001, I had my chance to change names, and the fear of being unfindable led me to keep the first part of the moniker, but change 'Theater' to the more appropriate 'Communications'.  In retrospect, I'd love to have changed the whole name.  I can't tell you how often I get calls for dinner theater, restaurant supplies or just an inquiry as to what the soup of the day is.

In 2005, when I was preparing to publish "Welcome to Storyville", I communicated with Warren Zevon's son, Jordan.  He's a very nice guy who is very protective of his dad's legacy.  I asked if I could have permission to use a line from Warren's song "Mutineer" in one of my pieces, and he wanted to charge me $500 to do so.  Given my anticipated royalties on the book as a whole, I opted to pass on using the line.  It was a good call.  But, I am not interested in receiving a 'cease and desist' over a blog title, so things like this do give me pause.

But I also don't see this little experiment being one that will send a shockwave through the blog-o-sphere, given my readership of approximately three dozen people.  "Namaste" might scare some conservative readers that fear it's a word that threatens their faith, but dispelling that closed-minded belief is one of the reasons for this blog anyway.  Besides, all the "Barefoot" nomenclature just leads to people being afraid I'm going to post more pictures of my Vibram Five Fingers running shoes or my snake bite.  Honestly, the snake bite is much less scary looking to most.

So, I'm gonna sit with this title for a while and see how it feels. If I don't like it, I may switch back.  This is a very tiny readership of friends right now, being nice enough to follow me on a journey.  If this gains traction in any form or fashion, I'll lock in on a decision.  In the meantime, I am curious as to your thoughts on the matter.  Does either title click with you?  Should I have just reincorporated "Enjoy Every Sandwich", which has a bit of a Zen vibe to it, though not much on the wellness angle? (Depending on what kind of sandwich it is, I guess.)

Feel free to share your thoughts.  In the meantime...

Namaste, y'all.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Hawk & the Vulture

No, this isn’t a Zen koan, or a set-up for some ‘two birds walk into an aviary’ joke.  
For years, I’ve been fascinated with hawks.  When asked my favorite animals, hawks and whales are usually the first that come to mind.  As a fan of the perpetual underdog, one might wonder why I am drawn to these top-of-the-food-chain creatures.  I think it has less to do with might than with majesty.  A whale isn’t a predator in my mind, he’s just a hefty guy who’s gotta eat, as opposed to, say, a shark, who takes a Marquis de Sade approach to suppertime.  
While hawks certainly show little mercy when tracking a squirrel or a finch, I stand amazed at the way they carry themselves on high.  They fly with purpose, elegance, a sense of dominion.  When I see one, I do that thing Elaine’s boyfriend on “Seinfeld” did whenever he heard the Eagles sing “Desperado”.  Staring into the middle distance, mouth agape, I make everyone around me stop and hush so I can just admire the hawk’s aerial stride, her unconscious insistence that I let go of whatever I thought was important at that moment and just appreciate her wild grace.
Sometimes, though, I see a wingspan in the distance and get giddy about the divine experience ahead, only to learn that I am actually watching a vulture.  A buzzard. The hawk’s old world Accipitridae cousin.  A carrion consuming creep who doesn’t even have the cajones to chase down his own food.  He’s ornithology’s answer to the dumpster diver.  
From a distance, these two birds are easy to confuse.  Both have impressive wing spans and can coast through the air for quite some time between flutters.  Both are bold enough to fly over areas inhabited by humans.  However, upon closer inspection, it’s easy to spot the difference.  The vulture’s wings appear serrated, allowing the wind to wreak havoc with their aerial balance.  They actually appear to be fighting against the elements just to get where they are going.  The hawk - at least to the human eye - appears less subject to resistance.  She uses the wind to her advantage, and never seems to be at odds with her surroundings.   To be soaring one hundred feet high and having the wind at your command seems a mighty and enviable proposition.
So what’s my point here?  I guess I better have one lest I become the subject of protests from the Maligned & Misunderstood Buzzard Anti-Defamation Wake.  I think the reason I am so enamored with hawks is that their movement, while mighty, seems so effortless.  It’s aerial Tai-Chi.  The vulture’s plight seems to be one of not only drawing the Darwinian short straw, but also not being able to do more with less.  If the folks at Looney Tunes are correct, buzzards are not the brightest of beasts.  Perhaps if they figured out how to embrace the wind instead of fight it, they might find their travels easier, and their buffet options more bountiful.  If I were to make the evolutionary leap over to humankind, I would say the same for myself.  Perhaps you can relate as well.  Some days we are subject to life’s gales, be it winds of change or just reacting to so much hot air blown our way.  How we navigate it says a lot about who we are...and how far we fly.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

In the Spirit of My "Scarcity Cats" Post

Scarcity Cats

Here in the south, the threat of the slightest frozen precipitation causes a Pavlovian response.  We race to the nearest grocery store for what we perceive are the bare essentials.  These typically include milk, bread, and eggs as, apparently, when snowed in all Southerners choose to survive on repeated meals of french toast.

I'm no stranger to this.  I tend to go through our house, doing an inventory of what we need on-hand to survive even the mildest of hazardous squalls.  And yes, I was one of those sad morons in the express lane yesterday, trying to rationalize that I had to be there, because three rolls of toilet paper wouldn't see my family through Wednesday.  (I don't apologize for this hypothesis, by the way).

However, I really do marvel at our sense of 'gotta have'.  If we'd been low on coffee, for instance, I would've been at Dancing Goats or Starbucks the moment I heard there was a significant chance of sticky precipitation.  And I plan to have my Blackberry, I-Pod, and MacBook fully charged in case we do lose power for any length of time.  Somehow, I don't feel like the rugged pioneer that Charles Ingalls was when he chopped firewood and tracked deer to provide for all of his Little Housers when the gales of December knocked at their door.  He was staving off frostbite and death, I'm just looking for a backup plan to check email and listen to Radiohead.

Now, business-wise, I've always been one of those people who believed 'the pie is big enough'.  I trust that there's enough work out there for me and those like me, you just have to work to find it.  Be resourceful enough to find it, hard working and talented enough to keep it.  Even when the recession was at its ugliest, I think I maintained a solid sense of equanimity and openness.  But, when it comes to running out of java or losing power during an ice storm, well, I turn into quite a Me Monkey.

I share this openly because I know I am not alone here. It's human nature to want to hunt and gather when there's a sense of scarcity, even of that hunting and gathering means standing in line in your PJs and slippers at Publix at midnight to be sure you have your favorite bottle of wine, can of soup, or in my case, two-ply Charmin.

Yet, I hardly think this mentality is in keeping with a healthy mindset.  Whether it was Jesus doing a Kriss Angel routine with loaves and trout, or the Buddhist belief that, quite often, having less will make you more  -  more generous, more grateful, more present - life always seems to provide us more than enough.  And then of course, I think it was a British philosopher from the mid-20th century who taught us that, "if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need."

Now, that said, there are plenty of unfortunate souls that don't have enough.  I'm not making light of that. In fact, I think a big reason we are here is to change that dynamic.  My point is that for those of us who have easy access to a blog post on a Sunday afternoon, well, you're probably doing alright.  Even if you think you aren't.

So what is it that makes us always crave more?  Do we ever hit that wall where we say, "Enough"?   Can we pare down our bookshelf,  purge our attic,  trim down our Facebook friends cache?  I know it's one of the biggest challenges I wrestle with.  If Wendy could keep me off of and I-Tunes, I think we'd be set for retirement.  But, I gotta   (Though I will say it takes over 60 songs on I-Tunes to compete with one pair of cute shoes she's 'just gotta have'.)

So, what are your 'gotta have' demons, be it during a snowstorm or a half-price sale?  What do you tell yourself you can't live without?

Gotta scoot.  Storm's coming and we've only got a half bag of Tostitos left.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Yoga Memoirs for the Soul - Newsweek

Newsweek has a new article on yoga memoirs and why they can be alternately inspiring or insipid.

Which brings up the question, if you practice yoga, what does it mean to you? Exercise? Spiritual ritual? Detoxifying therapy? Just a place to meet pretty women?

And if you don't practice, why not? Seem too new agey? Too hard? Not 'real' exercise in your mind? Do you think it's a cult?

I'll write a longer piece on some of these very perceptions soon. In the meantime, here's a link to the article...

Yoga Memoirs for the Soul - Newsweek

Namaste, y'all!


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Keith's Secret Wisdom

I just finished reading Keith Richards memoir, "Life".  It's a surprisingly well-written, coherent and charming book, considering our perception of Keith as the groggy, stumbling bag of chemistry experiments that he often seems to be.  But I've always loved the ol' rascal, and this book just confirmed that adoration.

One thing Keith went on about (I mean, besides the drugs and what a d-bag Mick can sometimes be) is his approach to the guitar.  One particular passage struck me, and while I couldn't lay my fingers on the paragraph again, I think I can recapture the essence of it here.

Keith said the secret to most of the Stones' great riffs, and something many musicians don't get when they cover his licks, is in the silences.  If you listen to the unmistakeable intros to "Brown Sugar", "Start Me Up", "Jumpin' Jack Flash", "Street Fightin' Man", or his solo hit "Take It So Hard", as a handful of examples, you'll here that it's the silence between the strums that constitute the energy of the song.  He makes you wait for the resolve, or takes you down a different path with a chord change, but only after you've lunged forward in anticipation of what is to come.  He catches you off balance, and therein lies the answers.  For a moment, you're suspended in nothingness, and then released back into his crashing, plunging world of rhythm and blues.

As someone who spends most of my day surrounded by noise, mostly the self-imposed sounds of my I-pod on a run, I-Tunes at my desk, my Blackberry 24/7, and the occasional TV background blathering at night, Keith's insight was a stark reminder that sometimes the first step toward creating a masterpiece - be it as a writer or a parent - is to let the silence work its magic.

So far, it's working.  I have been trying to get my runner's mojo back, and for the first time since I bought the thing a few years ago, I opted to leave my I-Pod at  home.  The difference has been transcendent.  I'm more focused, more consistent, and more engaged with every step of my run, and I love it.

When we went to Orlando last week as a family, I accidentally left two things at home - my phone charger and my I-Pod headphones.  It was like the technology gods were telling me to give 'em a rest.  And I have to admit, it was nice to not check email, Facebook, and Twitter every few minutes, as well as to wind down without the support of an audiobook that I'd usually drift off to anyway.

So, thanks, Keith.  You're a pretty smart fella, and like you guys told us, if we try sometimes, we just might find, we get what we need.  Even if what we need is nothing more than the space between the noise.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Your Creative M.O.

I am cutting and pasting an excerpt from Jonathan Fields' blog, as this is just a great entry.  His blog ("Awake at the Wheel") is a great read, and this entry, in particular, captured my imagination.  Working from home, I have tried to set up a feng shui'ed kind of workspace, and have even taken to attempting certain rituals to put myself in the 'stay focused, get it done' mindset.  Some days are diamonds, some days are stones, and some of my approaches had the stickiness of a 1986 Post-It note.  

When I read that Tom Wolfe always wore a white suit when he wrote (my Lord, does the man ever wear anything else?  He is the yin to Johnny Cash's yang), I tried 'getting dressed' for work in my office.  A great idea - ditching the shorts and t-shirt for a more business-like, crisp look.  I was miserable within minutes.  Isn't being comfortable one of the very attributes of having a work-from-home business?  Why was I opting to wear the poly-blend shackles of the Dunder-Mifflin world if I wasn't going to meet a client?  Well, my answers to Jonathan's survey are at the bottom of this entry.  In the meantime, here are Jonathan's two cents on how to set the stage for your creativity to flow:  

Legendary copywriter, John Carlton, tells the story of how he used to have a very specific outfit that he’d to wear to write copy. And, he had to wear the same thing every time, right down to his hat in order to get into that place where, as he says, he literally stalked and attacked his writing.

Could it really be that what you wear changes how you feel enough to impact what you create?
And, what about other factors like where you work, what your view is, how light or dark or loud or quiet it is. Do these things change your creative output, too? In my experience, everything from what I wear to where I am and what I eat have a pretty profound impact on my creative output.

These things form my Optimal Creative Modus Operandi (MO).
So, I thought it would be fun to do an experiment here and share our collective creative MOs.I’ll start and I’d love for you to share yours in the comments.

Below is a short list of personal and environmental conditions that have an impact on my creative output, along with my preference for maximizing the flow of creative juices.

Here is Jonathan's Optimal Creative MO:
  1. Clothes – Bare feet, old jeans and a well-worn t-shirt.
  2. Sound – Moderate background noise, classic rock, love writing to Led Zeppelin
  3. Light – Bright, sunny setting, preferably with sunlight on my face and body
  4. Time of Day – Early morning (5:30am), then again late in the evening.
  5. Location – Crunchy, low-key cafe, home-office or Soho House in NYC.
  6. Directionality - Facing out into a room with a wall or substantial piece of furniture at my back
  7. Routine/spontaneous – Routine, BUT provided I have an idea capture device
  8. Long periods or short bursts – 2 to 4 hour intensive creative sessions where time often fugues
  9. Carry something to capture ideas on the fly? – Always have a voice recorder or app on me
  10. Squeaky Clean or squalor (setting) – Squeaky clean
  11. Clean or dirty – Unshowered in the morning, showered at night and in the final weeks of writing a book, you probably don’t wanna get too close to me, lol.
  12. Solo or surrounded – Solo, except when creating music, then collaborative
  13. Digital or analogue – Analogue to ideate, digital to flesh out and build out
  14. What fuels you? – Raw almonds, organic berries and ice-cold water
  15. Leaded or unleaded? – Leaded latte in the morning, nothing in the evening.
  16. Breaks – Getting outside between creative bouts, preferably by water or woods.
  17. Mindset practices that fuel creation – Meditation, playing guitar.
  18. Movement practices that fuel creation – Yoga, hiking, running, spinning
Those were Jonathan's.  Here are mine (Tommy's) :
Clothes – usually barefoot, shorts and a t-shirt for warm weather; jeans and button down oxford for winter, barefoot until winter weather demands otherwise.  

Sound – music, always: jazz, Americana, classic rock are faves.  Depends on what I'm writing as to who sets the mood, but Miles or Coltrane is always a sure bet to stimulate something creative.  

Light -  I need good light, and the addition of candlelight, just for ambience, is always a plus. 

Location -  My Mac is in my office, so I live there.  I sometimes take my laptop onto our front porch for some Spring/Autumn work, when the weather is mild enough.

Directionality – Back to the window or I'd never get a lick done.

Time of Day -  Love the AM, once I'm up and coffee has worked its magic.

Routine/spontaneous -  Loose routine.  Try to be flexible to change and improvise when needed.

Long periods or short bursts - Long periods punctuated by short breaks.

Carry something to capture ideas on the fly? -  Moleskin notebook Wendy gave me and my Tony Robbins RPM Planner book.

Squeaky Clean or Squalor -  The cleaner the better.

Clean or dirty -   Me?  Oh, I'm weird about this.  Gotta shower to feel truly ready to work.  

Solo or surrounded - Solo.  Not a recluse or a curmudgeon, just love to talk, and I will given the opportunity.

Digital or analogue -   Digital.

What fuels you? -   Coffee and Coltrane are my drugs of choice, though anyone from Van Morrison to the Stones, Radiohead, Miles Davis, Cassandra Wilson, Emmylou, etc can hit the right note to create the right mood at any given time.  As for food, recently pistachios, red pepper hummus and quinoa/black bean chips from Trader Joe's.  A good trail mix is deadly too.

Leaded or unleaded? -  Leaded.  One cup when I wake up (6am), another mid/late AM, and a final one toward mid-afternoon.

Breaks –   Whenever my kids need me, when I can grab a few minutes with Wendy.  My office is always open, so if I lose an hour in the afternoon, there's always night time. 

Mindset practices that fuel creation -  Meditation.  Creative writing before business writing.  And, yes, sometimes Facebooking.  Sadly. 

Movement practices that fuel creation -  Yoga and running.
So, now it’s your turn.
What’s YOUR Creative Modus Operandi?
Copy and paste the below list into your comment then share YOUR creative M.O…
Clothes –
Sound –
Light -
Location -
Directionality –
Time of Day -
Routine/spontaneous -
Long periods or short bursts -
Carry something to capture ideas on the fly? -
Squeaky Clean or Squalor -
Clean or dirty -
Solo or surrounded -
Digital or analogue -
What fuels you? -
Leaded or unleaded? -
Breaks –
Mindset practices that fuel creation -
Movement practices that fuel creation -