Some western philosophers (notably Augustine and Hobbes) postulated that our nature is evil and destructive and if left alone, we would act selfishly and hurt others. When we take a mystical path (a path based on looking inward for truth) the belief that we start with is that our nature is good. The Shambhala school of Buddhism calls this idea “Basic Goodness.” Basic goodness tells us that we don’t have to impose rules on ourself to act well and to express the best of our nature, we simply have to release layers that obscure that nature. In other words, when we act from a conscious and unconflicted place we will be our best selves. With this understanding, the practitioner can freely explore and examine their own deepest thoughts and sensations without judging and without picking and choosing the “good” ones. Meditation and Yoga are examples of practice that strip away layers to reveal our nature - Meditation strips away layers of mind and habitual thoughts, while yoga strips away layers of tension from the body that prevent it’s full expression.
It’s not skillful to be completely honest with everyone you meet. But it’s important to have some place in your life where you can be completely honest with someone. It’s the only way to truly know yourself. When you witness people in their vulnerable honesty, you learn what human beings are truly like and you learn what is underneath the exterior that many people show in their daily lives.
My first structured experience with this was at an ashram(yoga center) that I was working at. All of us who had been working side by side for months got together and sat in pairs. The instructions were simple - give the person across from you honest feedback about themselves. Tell them three things you don’t like about them.
In daily life we tend to silently put up with the negative characteristics of the people around us. Once we get a chance, in a safe environment, to express what we don’t like about someone and to hear what they don’t like about us, an incredible chemistry can happen. We can see what fears and challenges are underneath that persons negative behavior. With this knowledge, instead of merely tolerating the things we don’t like about someone, we experience true compassion.
Being a teacher and Being a practitioner are two completely different skills. Many aspiring learners try to find a teacher who is a great practitioner - this of course makes sense because they want to learn the skill from someone who has that skill. The problem is that some of the most skilled people are not great teachers. They may have mastery over the subject/activity but they may have no skill at communicating how they got it or how to break it down into achievable steps. Instead of looking for an expert in your field as a teacher, look for someone who is skilled in the field AND is skilled at seeing what you are looking to achieve and how to help you achieve it. If you spend most of your lesson/class marveling at how good the teacher is, you should probably find a different teacher. A great teacher will take you right to a learning edge (something you understand but haven't mastered yet) and will help you get over that edge.
Every morning when we wake up, the world is created anew. When we are dreaming, in a sense, we are outside of the world. Most(if not all) of our daily concerns are gone during sleep. Upon waking, each thought we have slowly “brings the world back in.” A morning ritual helps to make this a conscious process where you can decide what is important and what kind of world you want to live in. While practical concerns can inundate our brain, it can be a relief upon waking to remember the great mystery that life is. Ultimately, we are on a floating ball in the middle of vast vast space. After contemplating that, you can worry about anything that you want to.
Cliche advice is often cliche advice because it works. Here’s some advice that I am currently taking: Focus on one thing and be great at it. The yogis may talk about this as digging 100 shallow wells looking for oil vs. digging 1 deep one - only the 1 deep one will strike oil. Someone from the business world might call it “The lead domino” - one thing you can do that will make all other things easier. People may have many talents - but they typically initially become successful at one thing. After that, it becomes easier to branch out. I’m taking this advice because I have been in such violation of it. For example, here are some of the jobs i’ve done in the past few years:
Bassist with organ trio (Kennedy Center, Jazz Foundation of America Gala)
Orchestrator (for several televised events, galas, and documentaries)
Pianist/Composer hired to write and perform music in the style of Jazz piano virtuoso Oscar Peterson
Nylon String/ Classical Guitarist for one woman show
Producer (pop, folk, jazz, film)
Music Director for several shows
Non-profit executive director
Venue executive director
Music Director of spiritual music festival in Hawaii
Jazz Big Band and Quintet arranger
Show Runner for talk show
The point is, I will never be the best at all of these things. And in this day and age you have to compete with the best in whatever you do. It’s great to be able to try many things and to learn, but in the end commitment and clear priorities are necessary to advance. If you don’t declare what you want, you will put out an unclear signal to others who will then use you for what they want. As the saying goes: “If you don't build your dream someone will hire you to help build theirs.”
Ok, I’m gonna go back to focusing now.
Many spiritual practices focus on quieting the mind or letting thoughts pass without investing in them. This can be very helpful in dealing with persistent negative or stressful thoughts. Something that is not often stressed in these traditions (but I think is very worthy of mention) is the positive aspects of focusing on thoughts. Once the practicioner has learned to unattached from the compulsive negative/limiting thoughts - there is room for what I might call ‘the deeper mind’ to emerge. This is the mind that is endlessly curious about anything and everything. The mind that enjoys exploring problems and their solutions. When this mind is allowed to emerge one can enjoy sitting and thinking for hours. Many creative people set aside time for thinking. Do you make time for thinking in your life? Time to let your mind revel in unlimited possibilities? If you don’t, I highly recommend stopping to take 5 minutes to enjoy your thoughts and to see where your mind can go.
Though we think of music as an invisible entity(that we hear and don't see), we know that it is a physical process. A drummer strikes his snare drum, the drum vibrates rapidly making the air around it vibrate. The vibrating air molecules reach your ear making your eardrum vibrate. A psychological process then happens in your brain as it interprets the sound. What if we could actually see this process? What does music look like? Will the way we make/experience music change when the technology that allows us to see it becomes commonplace?
Here are some experiments in revealing the physical nature of music:
Exploring The Idea of Intergenerational Identity:
is it fair to say that we’ve become a fairly self-obsessed culture? Carefully cultivating our social media profiles and public image.
We choose what we share with others and how we define ourselves. Our sense of “roots” is also changing. Many of us end up living far from our birthplace and from our families of origin. When we have success in the world, our image and our name are praised. We are rewarded with money and opportunities. But are we separate from our roots?
Would Mark Zuckerberg have founded Facebook if his father didn’t teach him computer programming as child?
Would Brad Pitt be the well regarded leading man without his parents genetics?
The person and these experiences/attributes are inseparable. So why do we reward the individual for their accomplishments and not their ancestry? How much of “us” IS our ancestry and our past experiences? Can we truly take credit for our accomplishments? In the same way, can we take credit for our failures? This may seem like silly thing to ask but the implications are huge. What changes would we see in our culture if we defined ourselves not as individual bodies but as an intergenerational aggregate?
Exploring different ideas of identity:
We often think of “ourselves” as our personality and our body.
Are you really these things?
If you are not trained in anatomy, then many other people know “your” body better than you do.
You do not make your heart beat, you don’t make your blood flow, it does that without “your” intervention.
The idea of personality is an abstract concept. It doesn't actually exist anywhere. It’s something created by thoughts and interactions.
You may have a relationship with your body and with the idea of your personality but you are not those things.
So who are you actually?
If we never play with abandon, - our expression will be too technical and will feel stale
If we never practice with discipline - our expression will be sloppy and limited
If you’re more on the technical side - experimenting with spontaneity can be helpful (a common practice is improvising for 20minutes in your medium)
if you’re more on the spontaneous side - learning something very structured and exact can be helpful (a common practice is precisely imitating someone elses work)
Flow happens in that place where discipline and freedom meet.
After taking a Chinese Medicine class in college I would practice sets of qigong meditations designed to help the health of 5 organs in the body(kidney, liver, spleen, heart, lungs.) The practice that I had learned required me to spend 10 minutes focusing intensely on each organ(50 minutes total.) Although I followed the instructions, I had a very hard time ‘feeling’ my organs. After a few months of what I perceived as failure, I gave up this practice. Being older now, I often feel my organs without trying. I look at it as their way of telling me that I need to make a lifestyle adjustment to take care of my health. When I was trying to feel my organs I couldn’t feel them. Now I’m not trying to feel them yet I can. My somewhat comical point is this: you really only need to feel your organs when they are giving you pain signals. If you’re young and healthy don’t try to ‘feel’ your organs. Just go outside and have fun or something.
I was standing on the 4th floor of my college dormitory looking down at the courtyard. Every few minutes a new group of students would pass through. From this bird’s eye view it was easy to notice patterns. The members of each group had similar physical characteristics. First it was the big football players, then it was the African-American kids, then the nerdy kids, etc. At that moment, the thought came to me: “if we are only comfortable hanging around with people who are superficially similar to ourselves, how do we really get to know ourselves or others?” From that moment on I began a quest to know “otherness.” I wanted to get to know anyone who appeared to be different from me. This led me to prolonged situations where I was the only caucasian, the only male, the only non-something.
We are the same at the core. To understand the different packages that we come in helps us to understand different sides of ourself. If we are scared of superficial, external differences then we will never understand our own humanity.
My first “waking up” experience as a young man went like this: I was walking around Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachussettes lost in my own thoughts as usual. I looked around and saw so many other people walking the streets. Suddenly, A thought came to me that interrupted all my other thoughts: “if every other person has equally complex thoughts and experiences in life as I do, what makes my own life meaningful?” Many years later, I was surprised to see that a word was coined that means exactly this. The word is “Sonder” and it’s defined as: the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness etc.
That realization was the beginning of my thinking outside of the box known as egocentrism.
How do you relate to the idea of Sonder?
Monday: Writing music charts for Amateur Night At The Apollo.
Monday-Tuesday: Meetings for my non-profit “Your Time To Shine” (yourtimetoshine.net)
Wednesday: Amateur Night at the Apollo (playing keyboards and guitars)
Thursday: Edit my podcast featuring Danny Goldberg (former manager of Nirvana, head of Mercury and Warner records, etc.)
Edit audio for tv/internet show I wrote/produced “One With Everything” (onewitheverything.tv)
Monday-Thursday: Producing 5 song EP for vocalist Nicole Vanessa Ortiz
Friday: Work on my music, work on music for an upcoming Broadway show
Saturday: Benefit concert for ALS (Music Directing, Bass, Keyboard)
Sunday: Fly to Los Angeles, California
This video shows a series of extreme closeups of “ordinary” objects. As we are able to look very closely at something, we see that it is has many imperfections and is broken down into smaller components. What seems unified and perfect has many imperfections. It can be good to remember that we cannot trust our senses to give us an accurate representation of the world. When we are driving or operating heavy machinery, it helps us to block out a large amount of information to help us concentrate on the task at hand. When we are not focused on a task or on our survival, we can look at things more deeply and perhaps catch a glimpse into the true nature of things; Not only of objects, but of ourselves as well.
“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought.” Matsuo Basho
This is great advice for an artist. Don’t let the medium become more important than the message. Interacting with like-minded people in other mediums of art will show you this. Traditions are created by free-thinking, risk-taking artists who use the materials of their time to express themselves. If we try to emulate their art, we are missing the point that they were trying to express the intangible through the available mediums of their day. Beethoven had the piano, Charlie Parker had the alto saxophone, today we have all kinds of electronic instruments. We can look at the music of Beethoven and appreciate its genius but it helps us to remember that the piano was the greatest technology of his day. It would be silly for us to neglect all of the new ways that we can experiment with sound because Beethoven wrote such great music for the piano. Imagine what a radical and innovative artist like Beethoven or Charlie Parker would be doing today. You can study their music and learn from it but don’t make it gospel. They certainly wouldn’t.
I have played in jazz clubs for an audience of 20 where the inspiration and creative energy were palpable. At the same time, I have played gigantic venues for thousands of people with some of the most famous artists where the over all feeling was sterile and uninspired. What is “big” and what is powerful has much less to do with external circumstances than we are led to believe. If you are called to do something “small” and inspired, then the satisfaction that you get from that will be greater than what a more prestigious and “valid” position will offer you. We can gain graspable things from these prestigious positions - knowledge, experience, financial resources - but the most satisfaction, by far will come from following your inner calling. Also remember that large, prestigious institutions are often created from small and inspired experiments.
The Grammys were this past week. I haven’t watched them since I was a kid. I watched a little this time to see some friends who were performing on the show. I stopped watching the Grammys many years ago because it goes against my sense of what music is about. As musicians in the modern world, we all have to package, brand, and market ourselves to have viable careers - but in the end I believe that no one “owns” music. We borrow music. Music is something that passes through us, temporarily using us as it’s instrument. Music reflects the endless creativity that is our nature and the nature of the universe.
I studied with a well known musician who, decades ago, had opportunities for fame and fortune in New York City. Instead of pursuing those things, he picked up and moved far away to the mountains. When asked “why?” he said that when he rode the subway he felt the pain of others and his reaching out to them led to disapproval and hostility.
Cities like New York require us to occupy a small space and to have tight boundaries. Although we walk within inches of each other, we live in entirely different worlds. This sense of disconnection bothered the up and coming musician.
When I lived in Hawaii, I had a large rock which sat at the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The meditation that I would do on the rock consisted of watching the waves and harmonizing with their endless rhythmic movement. This harmonization creates an experience of timelessness. Then, I would shift my attention back and forth from my inner body to the ocean, not identifying with either. This would lead to an experience of vastness.
Another time that I have experienced this was a night when I was driving up to the great state of Maine. At one point in the drive I realized that there was not a single man-made light in sight. No cars, no houses, no streetlights. I shut off the engine and sat there in the absolute silence and dark. When you have no external references of time and no people to activate your sense of personal space, the experience of self can be unbounded.
If you feel compressed from city life, perhaps you may try your own version of these experiences.
A few weeks into my trip to northern India I began to dream of the main street in the Connecticut town where I grew up. I thought about how clean it was. I thought about successfully we’ve dominated nature in the attempt to create a perfectly sanitized environment. It was so orderly and comfortable. I had spent the last two days being sick due to some mango juice that I ingested. I couldn’t get a bottle of water that didn’t have a thick layer of dirt over it and the 12 hour drives along the edges of the Himalayan mountains were doing nothing to add to my comfort. At the end of my trip I felt a relief upon returning to America. I felt so grateful to be back in New York so I walked the streets with a big smile on my face saying hello to the passing strangers. They all looked down and carried on with their business. At that moment, a great sadness fell over me. Though the conditions were uncomfortable in India, there was a constant experience of humanity and connectedness. It was a feeling of reverence and respect based on the collective understanding that being human meant that we were in this together. Walking the New York streets and feeling so alone in my celebration made me aware of this difference.
A young man that I met in Rishikesh told me his belief that “India and America are like two wings of a bird. India is strong in spirituality, but weak materially. American is strong materially, but weak spiritually. A bird cannot fly with one strong wing and one weak one.”