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.”
Ever notice how some people can be happy in seemingly miserable circumstances while others can be miserable in seemingly perfect circumstances? Heaven and Hell can be understood not as physical places but as metaphors for inner states. Hell can be the experience of jealousy, regret, ego, expectation, addiction, and other negative emotions. Heaven can be the experience of humility, joy, gratitude, love, and other positive emotions. Find humility and the appreciation for simple things and you will find heaven on earth. Here is a great story from the Zen tradition that illustrates this:
A big, tough samurai once went to see a little monk.
He barked, in a voice accustomed to instant obedience.
"Teach me about heaven and hell!"
The monk looked up at the mighty warrior and replied with utter disdain,
"Teach you about heaven and hell? I couldn't teach you about anything. You're dumb. You're dirty. You're a disgrace, an embarrassment to the samurai class. Get out of my sight. I can't stand you."
The samurai got furious. He shook, red in the face, speechless with rage. He pulled out his sword, and prepared to slay the monk.
Looking straight into the samurai's eyes, the monk said softly,
The samurai froze, realizing the compassion of the monk who had risked his life to show him hell! He put down his sword and fell to his knees, filled with gratitude.
The monk said softly,
"And that's heaven."
(This version of the story borrowed from http://www.onbeing.org/blog/the-little-monk-and-the-samurai-a-zen-parable/5496)
The most powerful ideas and experiences come from stillness. Stop. Listen deeply to yourself. Don’t center yourself in your mind. Rest into your body. Thats where the essence of you can be found. Ideas that are commonplace to you but possibly revolutionary to the world are there. Trust what comes to you from this space. All your answers are there. When you get quiet - the first thing you may notice is your breath. The breath is like waves on the ocean - consistently and rhythmically moving. Bring your awareness to your breath. See what thoughts and ideas come to you when your attention, instead of being in your head, is on the breath in your body.
A key to getting better at something is to make a commitment that you can keep. Many beginners fail to recognize that 5 minutes of daily practice will lead to better results than 4 hours of practice one day per week. The daily practice helps you to come back to the same problem with fresh eyes day after day. Your weaknesses become apparent and you are able to bring your attention directly to where it is needed. I've discovered this in my practice of musical instruments, martial arts, yoga, meditation, and studying Chinese(Mandarin.) If you want to become great at something, start with a little every day. If you are passionate about it, the 5 minutes will grow into 10 minutes, 1 hour, and eventually you will lose track of time as you practice.
My interest in this mystery woman made me painfully aware of the gap that existed between me and the outside world. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was but there was something large in between the two. It manifested as a feeling of tentativity and uncertainty.
I felt like i was not a normal person. I had trouble doing very basic things. Walking through a hallway was an incredibly self-conscious challenge for me. I wondered if I was doing it “right.” I forgot how to “human.” *This insecurity mixed with hyper vigilance prevented me from having relationships, or from holding any strong beliefs. I had fulfilled the identity that I always thought my caretakers and my schools wanted of me - to become a blank slate. An empty and suggestible robot. The suffering that I felt in relation to this state was a clear indication to me that it was not a natural or healthy one.
The exercises I had practiced so vigorously had brought me to the core of my being but in terms of how that core related with the outside world, I was at square one. An absolute beginner.
The questions that came up at this time were:
Who am I as an individual person?
What is my place in the world?
What am I meant to do in the world?
I felt like a monk who had emerged from a cave or from years of deep sleep to find myself in a strange and alien world. Am I supposed to fit in and adapt to it or am I supposed to create a world of my own?
I looked at what seemed to be basic rules of this outside world.
1. you have to make money in order to survive.
2. if I can fit in and get along with people they will accept me and help me.
3. Use the skills that you have to accomplish 1. + 2.
It was time to accomplish “worldliness.” Where do I start?
7 - Reengaging With the Wider World
There was still a great divide within me. My belief was that the inside world contained the timeless truth while the outside world was only distraction and illusion. I would later, through a rather intense experience, realize that this was not the truth. Suffering has always been a great teacher to me. Some ways of healing are like a really extended version of putting your hand on a stove and taking it off. You are suffering but it may take a while to realize which hand is on which stove. Because as a youth I experienced the outside world as dissonant and incongruous, I believed that peace and truth only existed within myself. That peace was found by closing my eyes and turning my senses inward. Something I would later learn was called meditation. Because of this, I never looked for much from the outside world. All I wanted from it was a place where I can retreat into myself.
It should be no surprise that what happens when you don’t care about the outside world is that your worldly life goes to shit. I had lost a sense of preference. I didn’t know what I liked because I didn’t care about anything. Politics, sports, pop culture, we’re all alien to me. I didn’t feel like I had much to offer the world.
Life has a way of flashing shiny objects in front of the resigned to reengage their interest into the world. This came in the form of a mysterious, playful, and physically lovely woman. I felt thoroughly inadequate to court and win the affection of this woman. I intuitively had a sense of what to do to be “good enough” for her. It involved having some accomplishments in the world and having money in order to provide the necessary food, goods, and possible housing for her. How the heck was I gonna do that? I was working in the kitchen of a yoga center and earning about $200 a week. I’d better get myself together.
Luckily, I was surrounded by wise people who could navigate the naive decisions of the young and in love or in infatuation. One of my yoga teachers gave me some very interesting advice that I took to heart. She told me “forget about the girl and make a list of the things that you liked about her. Then take that list and become each of the things that you liked about her.” The first part was easy and took about 10 minutes. The second part was hard and took about 10 years.
I asked people to send me a youtube link of any song that they wanted to learn so I could learn it and show them how to play it in a quick video.
On weekends at the ashram attracted throngs of suburbanites would come in for short retreats and trainings which was how the place got their funding to keep their doors open. Saturday nights would often have some kind of concert or talk in the main hall. Once in a while there would be a musical act that would catch my attention. One event featured a jazz drummer/zen master with his jazz trio. I had been a jazz fan for a long time and had studied the music extensively in my school days. At this concert, something different was happening. There was a quality of space and presence in their music. There music allowed people to have a profound meditative experience. I realized that if used correctly, music could be a bridge between my inner experiences and my relationship with the world. In the basement of the ashram there was an old beat up piano. On my break the next day, I found myself gravitating to it.
Meanwhile, across the street was another spiritual community. It was led by a charismatic “enlightened guru.” He was a musician and wanted to put together a band that would play wherever he would give a talk. Someone told him that there was a piano playing monk across the street. Referring to my interests in music and spirituality, he told me that playing with him could be an experience of “having my cake and eating it too.” We arranged a meeting and I joined his band.
After playing the local club circuit, we began to do international tours that coincided with his spiritual lectures. I should mention that I was the only one in the group that was not a devotee of his. This made for an interesting dynamic. His personality and teaching style was very confrontational and dominant. We would often have lively debates where his not so secret intention seemed to be to convince me of my inferiority to him in terms of my spiritual achievement level. I welcomed these spirited discussions because it allowed me to further the work of questioning myself and my beliefs. Cults share some underlying dynamics and his organization had many of them. You could say that there were cult-like elements to this community or you could just say that it was a straight up cult. If the leader wanted me to agree with him on something I would often hear it from him and then, over the course of the day, I'd hear it from 20 or 30 of his devotees. Yes, it was a little strange but I enjoyed it because I didn’t feel threatened by it. I fully engaged with him because I figured that if he was so much better than me or someone that I should devote myself to then I would realize that and do it. Otherwise I’d move on with the current plan: continue to stumble around as myself for a while longer. Cultish manipulation aside, it can be a helpful self-awareness tool when each day groups of people question you about every aspect of your life from your diet to your wardrobe to your sleeping habits.
A common experience of leaving a meditation retreat can be the jarring reintegration into civilized society. The deep state of relaxation that happens when I would take 35 minutes to savor and contemplate a piece of fruit would make it hard to walk through a crowded supermarket or to drive a car on the highway. There are advantages and disadvantages to great sensitivity. These practices gave me a set of sort-of superpowers(known by yogis as siddhis) where I could see deeply into a person predicting how they felt and what they were thinking about- it also seemingly allowed me to heal my body quickly and to prevent myself from getting sick. I became an oracle for those around me who wanted to know more about themselves. This was documented by one of my peers, Brian Leaf, who wrote a book about his experiences during this time:
While these new skills were very affirming of the power of these practices it proved to be more of a distraction than their best use.
After a few years at the ashram, I began to take short excursions into the outside world. I’d go see a local band or i’d take a walk to the supermarket. These experiences quickly taught me that although I’d had some profound insights about myself and about the nature of reality, I was no more comfortable in the real world than I was before I’d left it. How was I to bridge this gap? What good was my “spiritual” revelation if I was completely dysfunctional in the “real world.” After my school years being so filled with discomfort and confusion I wasn’t ready to return to that world yet. I wanted to give myself some more time in “the garden.” Yet, in the back of my mind, I knew that this was an awareness and a challenge that I couldn’t turn away from.
PART 4 Interpersonal exercises
I began applying that same level of awareness that I applied to my inner self to my interpersonal interactions. I would “rehearse” interactions by slowing down a conversation with someone to investigate the meaning of each word and each gesture. Being in a sacred place one can redefine convention thus making any layer of consciousness normal. If it could be investigated, I would investigate it. My practice involved breaking each item that entered my awareness down into it’s various components and then putting it back together. The ashram(yoga center) was a laboratory for this work.
In my life before this, I found the experience of eye contact with another person to be a very uncomfortable experience. In my yoga laboratory, I would practice prolonged periods of eye contact with willing participants to explore and “solve” this discomfort. I’d set the timer for 30 or 40 minutes and we would hold eye contact. If you’ve never tried this, can you imagine what it would be like? This practice is worthy of its own blog post(in the works.) Humans are complex multilayered beings and these layers can be seen if enough time is taken to see them. These experiences affirmed the depth that I suspected was in me and in others.
A related set of practices that I also did were the inquiry practices of Ramana Maharshi. This practice involved sitting across from another person and simply asking them “Who are you?” They would take 5 minutes to answer and then they would ask you the same question. After 8 rounds of this we would take a break and then do another set of rounds. The depth of this exercise occurs in unraveling the layers of how we think about ourselves. The practitioner may start by identifying him/herself with a certain occupation or with a certain race or religion. As layers unfold, the subject finds him/herself immersed in the great mystery of what it is to be a human.
I arrived at the ashram and went through the necessary formalities. I was shown to my room where I was to sleep on a top bunk in a dorm that slept approximately 15 men. After spending the last month in the bowels of a shaky cruise ship in a coffin-sized bed, this was a luxury.
With our 9pm bedtime and the no drugs, alcohol, coffee, television, or radio policy this was a far cry from the world of the musician that I had just been immersed in. Being that I was seeking clarity, I appreciated those rules. I wanted to know who I was without external stimuli, without acculturation. It would take great clarity and insight to make these discoveries. Prior to this, I would have a recurring vision of being stranded alone on a remote desert island. I wondered how I would act in a situation like this where there was no accommodating other people or without living up to the perceived expectations of others. I wondered if I could ever truly know myself without that kind of disconnect from everything I knew.
A few things happened instantly. First, I realized that I was surrounded by people who were somehow different than anyone I had met before. Second, I felt like every word, action, and thought were under a microscope. This made me feel incredibly self-conscious and uncomfortable. I had become accustomed to a layer of impersonal-ness in my interaction which let me hide and let me get away with being half present. This place was different. People seemed to look through me. I felt exposed. Much later I would come to appreciate this level of self-awareness as a valuable tool for making changes in oneself.
Awareness itself became a focal point for me. It’s embarrassing for me to say this now but at that time I would spend 90 minutes staring at and “putting my awareness” in my hand contemplating what it was. Being in a serene environment with minimal distractions allowed me to deeply investigate things that I would ignore or take for granted in my normal life. With my awareness it seems like I could experience my hand on a cellular level. Instead of a solid object it felt like a spacious floating mass of small particles. After focusing on my hand, I might focus on feeling my spleen, liver, or some other inner part of my physical body. If you ignore the fact that they make you look insane, practices like these have many benefits.
What other every-day amazing things do we take for granted? The digestion process, breathing, a piece of grass on the side of the road, a flavor, a smell. Done with great attention and awareness, each of these can become a peak experience of insight and ecstasy.
I was practicing intensively in preparation for my trip to China. 10 days before i’m set to leave, the phone rings. I hear in extremely broken English:
“Hi Matt, It’s —— from the Temple of ——, I just wanted to let you know that things have changed.
We need you to pay tuition in addition to your work exchange here. It will be about $1000 a month. Also, we don’t have a room for you at this time so you will have to sleep outdoors for the first month or 6 weeks.”
Me: “Ok, interesting. What will the weather be like this time of year?”
Him: “It will likely be snowy, but no worries! The master will teach you Dragon Breathing which will keep you warm at night.”
Me: “Um, ok I’m gonna go ahead and cancel now. Both of those things don’t really work for me.”
My kung-fu dream was gone just like that! When I think back on that, these questions come to mind:
1. Were they scamming me in my idealistic western naiveté?
2. Was that a test to see how committed I was? If so, theres no two ways about it; I failed completely.
Regardless, I needed a new plan. As fate would have it, that same day a young woman that I knew dropped a flyer on my desk. She told me that she was going to spend 3 months at this retreat center in the mountains of….Massachusettes. They had beds to sleep in with a roof overhead, and get this, they would pay me to work there while I received instruction in yoga, eastern philosophy, and other related practices. I immediately applied and was accepted. I was to show up there in 6 weeks.
In the time being I decided to work on a cruise ship for the travel experiences. Being paid to travel would become a way of life for me for several years after this time. Famed canadian jazz pianist, Paul Bley, who was my teacher at the time aptly described the experience that I would have on the cruise ship with the quip “Hell is a paradise that you can’t leave.” I’ve never forgotten that.
After finishing my run on the cruise ship which completely lived up to Mr. Bleys words, I got in the car and drove up to Lenox, Massachusettes where unbeknownst to me, would become my home for much of the next 4 years.
As I drove up the drive to the large retreat center I saw a woman on the side of the road practicing a Chi Gong exercise. When I saw that, I instantly knew that I was in the right place. The woman who gave me the flyer never showed up. It’s as if that flyer was meant to go directly past her to get to me.
Stay tuned for PART 3 - Welcome to a new world. Prepare to be uncomfortable.
PART 1 of (probably many)
I remember having thoughts that the physical world is not real as a youth. I thought of my self as “half in this world.” I thought of life on earth as a role playing game where I was given a character that I had to pretend to be. Meanwhile, all my thoughts and what I later came to think of as my energy existed on another plane. Life on earth was mundane while this energy plane was vibrant and ever changing.
It was during my formal education when I was exposed to some kung-fu movies that highlighted some of the Taoist and Buddhist philosophy of China and India that I realized there were other humans and other traditions that took these inner experiences into account. The subjects of these films also seemed to have a refinement and efficiency to their way of being that appealed to me.
One image that I remember was from Bruce Lees “Enter the Dragon.” At some point in the film he is trapped by the evil boss in a small room with no windows and no doors. He instantly knew that there was no way out of the room. His response was to calmly sit down, crossing his legs. There was no wild yelling or pounding. Not motivated by fear or impatience, he simply accepted his fate and let the boss make his next move. Like water, he took the path of least resistance. This struck me because at that time in my life I didn’t understand the root motivations of the people around me. They seemed to be for the most part inconsistent and not consciously decided. This level of awareness and efficiency struck me as a very appealing way to be.
I suddenly had a direction to explore. I read all I could find about these traditions and I found teachers to study with. A university class on Chinese Medicine connected me with healers and martial artists who were steeped in these traditions. Thus began a long learning and exploring process.
I became particularly engaged with one teacher. He was supposedly a Daoist recluse from the mountains of northern China. He must have weighed no more than 100 pounds but when we played push hands(the tai chi way of sparring) he could effortlessly push me around into submission. Through his movements, he expressed some mastery of this energy plane.
I had made plans to do an extended work exchange at his temple in a remote area in China. I would do manual labor in exchange for kung fu, tai chi, and chi gong instruction. Getting ready to live out what was probably a common fantasy for American kids post- Karate Kid.