Barefoot Zen?

Barefoot Zen?
Namaste, Y'all...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bada-Bing: A Real Wise Guy

When I was a student at Mercer University, a private Baptist college here in Atlanta, I was very active in my church.  I was also having my eyes opened to just how vast and diverse the world was.  The provincialism of high school was in the rear view mirror and the notion of a world divided into mere right and wrong, black and white, was replaced by shades of gray and an accompanying palette of hues, for almost every situation.

Case in point, I was cast in my first college show, "The Shadow Box", in 1987.  It was a very gripping, very candid play about how people deal with death, specifically cancer, as we meet three characters and their loved ones dealing with the waning days of life in a hospice environment.  The candor of the play came very frank language and behavior, the kind that a good Southern Baptist boy didn't take part in.  But, I was swept up in the chance to be onstage and to help tell such a compelling story.

Naturally, I invited my family and my church friends, with the caveat that things would get rough.  The backlash was inevitable, I guess.  You'd think I'd invited some folks to an interactive adaptation of "Caligula".  On Ice.

Briefly in this article, actor Michael Imperioli addresses the challenge of being a spiritual person - whatever your path - and still being true to your art.  Your story.

I've always believed that you have to tell the truth or people aren't going to buy it.  A family member once referred to Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" as 'filth' because of all the profanity, but portray anything less than unflinching honesty and - to my ear, at least - you stop telling the truth.

It's why Scorsese can make "Goodfellas" (hell, "The Last Temptation of Christ", for that matter) and still be a good Catholic boy.

Speaking of "Goodfellas", here's the guy who played the ill-fated Spider in that cinematic morality tale.  Check out Michael Imperioli's story of trying to keep it real, on the screen and on the meditation cushion.

Here's the link:
Shambhala Sun - Wise Guy (November 2011)

I always had a sense that spirituality meant having to work on yourself, rather than just adopting a set of beliefs and following them blindly,” says Imperioli. “"It made sense to me that the only way to transform your world was to transform yourself.

The Lost Art of Listening

In a recent interview, Tom Waits commented that music hasn't changed so much as how we listen to music has changed.  How we engage with music is completely different than it was twenty, even ten years ago.

When I was a teenager, I can remember waiting for a favorite artist's album to be released.  Back in those days, there was no to keep you posted on the latest releases, so you had to rely on handmade signs at the record store and word of mouth from fellow aficionados.  Then, on the release date, right after school, I'd make the sojourn to Peaches, Turtles, or Record Bar.  I'd hold the album in my hands, turn it over and soak up the song titles, the cover art, even reading the sticker on the cellophane that boasted the presumed singles from the album.  I'd lay down my cash, drive home, and lock myself in my room.  Drop the needle, slide the liner notes or lyric sheet out of the cover, put on my headphones, and get lost.

The eerie immediacy of Springsteen's "Nebraska", the sonic exuberance of "Sgt. Pepper's", the layers of culture woven through "Graceland", the post-Lennon maturity of "The Nylon Curtain".  I sat with those songs, those words, a child in church.  The church of music and poetry.  It's where I fell in love with words, it's where I learned to write and tell stories.  In college, I gave myself over to the guttural street opera of Lou Reed's "New York", the calliope-infused surreality of Tom Waits' "Rain Dogs", and the earnest hallelujahs of "The Joshua Tree" and "Strange Fire".

Fast forward the tape some 25 or 30 years and take a look at how we interact with music today.  We download our music with little effort or forethought.  We listen to it through the compressed space of a laptop speaker.  Our lyrics live as tiny font on a PDF file that we read from a screen, if we bother at all.  And the days of album cover art?  Long gone.  Deader than the eight-track.

As sadly effortless it is that I-Tunes is killing the local record store, it may be even more tragic that we've come to view art as such a disposable luxury.  Are we trivializing Billie Holiday's heartache when we don't give her our unguarded attention, at least once?  Alone?  In the darkness of a sacred space?

Music is a communal experience and a balm in isolation.  It's, both, tantric healer and party starter.  Certainly, not all music cries out for us to give ourselves over to it completely in order to appreciate it.  But we all have those artists that speak to us, those that take us places we'd never dare go without their assured guidance.  In honor of that album, or that artist, the one or ones who speak to you like no other, I challenge you to try this:

Go to a quiet place, with your I-Pod, your stereo, or yes, your laptop if that's where your library solely lives now.  Take down the lights, settle in, and listen to a full album with no distractions.

It's 45 minutes, 60 tops. No longer than a TV show.  Just...listen.  Listen like you used to when you thought the music was written solely for you and the possibilities of life stretched out before you like an endless ribbon unspooling in sonic wonder.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How to Train a Wild Elephant

One of my weaknesses - if you want to call it that - is that I often look for wisdom that already exists inherently in the pages of a book.  Whether it's affirmation, confirmation, or just comfort, the presence of something I already believed - or at least suspected - in print gives me solace.

Case in point, if you tasked me with the job of coming up with 100+ exercises to help increase mindfulness, I have a hunch I could give you a solidly publishable list by next Monday.  Ask me how many of those tried and true exercises I engage in, however, and you may be waiting for an honest answer until the next lunar eclipse.

We're all somewhat guilty of preaching more than we practice, and one of the functions of this blog, in my opinion, is to share some insights that I come across with likeminded readers and friends, and in the process, open my own eyes to the thoughts I'm passing along as well.

So, when I found out there was a book already available called "How to Train a Wild Elephant (And Other Adventures in Mindfulness)" by Joy Chozen Bays, I had to check it out.  Literally.  The library wants it back in three weeks, so I've got some mindfulness training to do.

Over the next three weeks, I'll also make a point of sharing some of the more valuable exercises I find here on my blog, in hopes that they resonate w/ you as well.  At first blush, some seem remarkably valuable, others marginally so, and a few seem a little extreme.  Like all good guidebooks, it takes you from the wheelhouse of your comfort zone and then pushes you out into dicier waters.

I know for me, mindfulness is the most elusive of behaviors.  I'm a frequent flier in the worlds of Facebook, MP3's, online articles, NPR headlines, and TV-as-background-noise while I read lifestyle.  Silence, apparently, unnerves me.  For a while, at least.  Then, when I push through that discomfort, I reconnect with some rather primal, organic things - like lengthy linear thought, awareness of sensations, and a calmness of mind.

So, why do I keep pushing that kind of contentment out of the way?  Well, because as Carrie Fisher once famously said, "Instant gratification takes too long."  I want pleasure.  I want it now.  This is why I don't drink much.  I'm not morally opposed to alcohol.  I just know that if I found it to be the dizzying, mind-altering chemical that it appears to be, I'd be Bukowski'ed out in about a month.

Thus, this blogging exercise of sharing some of Ms. Bays' insights is as much to hold my own metaphoric feet to the fire as it is to pass along these exercises to others.  But, hey, maybe we'll all learn something and, perhaps, by the end of this thematic blogging experiment, I'll have helped spike sales for the book by another four or five copies.

So, stay tuned.  Wild elephant training begins here soon.  Bring your own peanuts.