just have to say…

… that Nancy Pelosi tearing up the SOTU speech is the best thing I’ve seen all year. And then that perfect response when asked why: “It was the courteous thing to do — considering the alternative.” — oh yes. She speaks for millions around the world in this gesture which will reverberate down through the ages. I bow.

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Dear Denmark

Any chance at all you might consider buying Vermont? Just wondering. I think you’d like us a lot, and you’d gain mountains! As for us, sanity levels would rise by several orders of magnitude. Win-win! Please prioritize. På forhånd mange tak.

cultivating the sacred

(from Embracing Each Moment: A Guide to the Awakened Life, by Anam Thubten)

There are many theories on how to achieve happiness. As you know, people are constantly developing techniques and theories about how to achieve it. The truth is the only way you can achieve unconditional happiness is by knowing how to tune in to this truth, this subtle and pervasive truth, the sacredness of everything. Then your relationship with people becomes alive and filled with reverence and love, and you no longer objectify people. Finally you know how to feel unconditional love. Then you may feel that this world is your home, even though it sometimes has a lot of imperfections. It is still your home. You may feel that this world is heaven. Not heaven as you thought, but heaven with lots of imperfections. Then you may feel this spirit everywhere in the world of nature, in the trees and animals. You may feel a deep reverence and heart connection with everything that exists. You’ll find that you are a modern mystic. You’ll be a mystic whose heart is drunk with love. In the end, the emptiness you felt as a terrifying condition and tried to get rid of by all kinds of creative means turned out to be sacred, a doorway to your aloneness that was always perfect and lacked nothing.

 

generating compassion

Everybody knows, or should know, that music is one of the most powerful ways of generating compassion, of remembering it. I’ve been singing to myself the song embedded below a lot lately, as I think of this unspeakably precious suffering world, as I think of the Buddhist community I used to be a part of — now imploding (deservedly) in scandal — and as I work with (or try to) my own pain.

Ordinary compassion in Tibetan (vajrayana) Buddhist circles seems to be too easily forgotten in the climbing of ladders, the hope of being seen as an “advanced” practitioner. It’s an endlessly sobering thought to me that virtually all of the most heartless people I have known have been Buddhists. Something so deeply wrong there.

Well, I’m still a Buddhist, at least at the core. But it’s clear that some major work needs to be done in reforming systems which were transplanted more or less wholesale from one culture to another, extremely different one. The extent and depth of the scandals we are witnessing are going to require a lot of wisdom and diligence to properly understand, and heal.

One thing always needed: the experience of ordinary old compassion. Nothing tricky there, no cleverness or “advanced” practices required. Just that automatic human ache in the face of suffering. That almost unbearable longing to remove something so intolerable. This is where we start, and it’s our middle, and it’s our end.

Sade’s “Pearls” is such a beautiful and pure expression of compassion. On a deeper level, it is about the truth that any of us could have been, could be, anyone else. “She lives a life she didn’t choose…”

there is a woman in Somalia
the sun gives her no mercy
the same sky we lay under
burns her to the bone

long as afternoon shadows
it’s gonna take her to get home
each grain carefully wrapped up
pearls for her little girl

elephant in the meditation hall

For the past year or so I’ve been absorbing the scandals which have been rocking the worlds of Tibetan Buddhism and yoga. A great many people have had to rethink their allegiances to one organization or another. Many feel deeply betrayed. Too many have been harmed.

I’ve been thinking about our relationship to spiritual communities for a long time, but more recently I’ve been pondering the question: what, specifically, do we tend to bring to them of our own? If the teacher is mature, genuine, they will not encourage students to treat them as a spiritual dictator. Their purpose is to uplift the student, after all, not to dwell above them. But at the same time why should we expect — in the spiritual supermarket which extraordinary economic prosperity and the free flow of all the world’s information inevitably has brought us — that spiritual communities would not inhabit the same full spectrum of integrity as everything else? In other words, banally, power corrupts. Safeguards are always needed.

I think two areas of work must be engaged with. The first is to call out genuine abusiveness where it has been shown to exist, and help all who have been afflicted by it. The further educational need here is this: Asian religious traditions retain an aura of exoticism and unfathomable depth in the West, while at the same time very few people actually know anything about them. This means: a very human situation, in which insufficiently critical seekers long for meaningful spiritual community, and certain others come along to exploit them. The latter group seems to fall into two different categories: those who know what they’re doing all along, and those who become corrupted by power. But the point is that it’s an interdependent situation: without naivety/uncritical thinking, the exploitative teacher doesn’t succeed. So I think we need to focus on both sides.

The larger point is a truism which is nonetheless true: we’re all just human beings in the big human soup together. Our mistake lies in thinking that anyone teaching something “spiritual” dwells above or outside of that soup. Of course, some might profess some kind of enlightenment (personally, my own reaction whenever I hear this is the opposite of what might be intended), and straightforwardly build a power structure from the beginning. But more usually abusive communities hold together as a result of a number of other people silencing in good faith some nagging doubt in their minds — again out of the very human fear of losing their world, their friends, the warmth, the certainty.

Serendipitously, I just thought of a late poem of Allen Ginsberg’s called “Elephant in the Meditation Hall.” It begins by referencing all the religious scandals of his time, then continues:

… And New Left carried psychedelic pictures of Mao, Che Guevara &
++++Castro up and down Empire State’s stairways
A scandal of the sixties! …
What US president hasn’t sponsored war, Lumumba’s assassination, an
++++H-bomb, …
Scandal hundreds homeless under Brooklyn Bridge freezing Xmas &
++++New Year’s Eve! Millions homeless in America!
Who’ll gotta pay for 500,000 U.S. boys & girls visiting Arabian Deserts!
Who’ll cough up billions for Iraq War to save a President’s face?
Twelve Billion dollars mickeymouse the year’s drug wars?
El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala we paid death squads for decades
Nobody does anything right! Gods, Popes, Mullahs, Communists,
++++Poets, Financiers!
My own life, scandal! lazy bum! secondhand royal scarlet ties & Yves St.
++++Laurent Salvation Army blazers …

“Mercy Mercy Me” at the White House

As unbearable as it is to think about the man who currently dwells in the White House, fouling the office he holds to a degree no one could have begun to imagine, and every single day, it’s good also to remember another time. Here was one: Usher getting “Mercy Mercy Me” so very, very right that Marvin couldn’t have been more touched. In the presence of the Obamas and their guests: this is who we are.

it really is all on the line

Two Novembers ago we definitively left what now seems like a quaint old world where Democrats and Republicans shaped our governance. I refer to a time where a certain percentage of the populace psychologically tilted towards broadly “progressive” values, and another group psychologically tilted towards broadly “conservative” values, but they could have respectful conversations about their respective affinities. They could touch common ground — quite a lot, in fact, if the listening was really attentive — beneath the different choices they made.

That country has been fraying at the seams for some time. But two years ago a guy unambiguously, not to mention ferociously, declared war on it, and hasn’t let up for one day since. It took me a little while to come up with a single word which comes close to encapsulating the governing “ideology” (if that is the proper term) of our current rulers. The so-called president’s behavior is so uniquely nauseating in so many ways — the delusions and continuous lying, the viciousness, the proud abysmal ignorance, the self-adoration: how to get a handle on it all? But I suggest that we do, it turns out, have a term that gathers together all of these qualities, and it is nihilism.

What we are seeing today emanating from the White House and all its abject apologists in Congress, from the media sector which is driving us over the cliff and all those who swallow that agenda entirely uncritically, is a rejection of values themselves. Which makes it, of course, the precise opposite of conservatism, because it is purely destructive — destructive even for its own sake. It is the pursuit of pure naked power, at virtually any cost. All of the genuine conservatives saw through it from the very start (and they have been amongst the most eloquent and impassioned dissecters of this madness).

There truly does appear to be no decency at all in Trump’s mind, no connection whatsoever to the notion of truth, no sense of constraint to speak of. He is only for himself, and in the crudest, most vulgar way at that. He is precisely the sort of person who should never be given any power over others. And yet he managed to con about 28% of the voting-age population sufficiently to acquire as much power as anyone on the planet has. And they continue to believe the continuous lies he tells on a daily basis — a full 80 in one day a week or so ago. They believed him when he told them they would get a tax cut before election day, despite Congress not even being in session. They believe him when he tells them his wall is being built. They believe him when he tells them that a group of poor, unarmed men, women, and children seeking to apply for asylum in this country entirely legally, coming here on foot, and still 800 miles away, constitutes an “invasion” of disease-ridden Middle Eastern terrorists.

They believe literally everything he tells them. He could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, and his media minions would call it a fake story, and they would believe it.

I’m so exhausted having to inhabit a culture which has become untethered from reality itself. I have not wished to fill this website with daily testaments to just how exhausted I am by it all. How utterly disgusted. And heartbroken. There is something truly poisonous here which needs to be thoroughly defeated. I’m not talking about the triumph of progressivism over conservatism. Again, what we are facing is the antithesis of conservatism. True conservatives and true liberals really do have a lot more in common than many in each grouping often realize, and they can speak to each other, respect each other, and find areas of shared understanding. I’ve had many such conversations online. We need to be under no illusions about the fact that the choice on our plates at this point is between a (certainly flawed) republic, and the triumph of nihilism, with an accelerating cascade of horrors to come if it is not stopped in its tracks, and reversed. It’s that stark.

When (for my own mental health I have to think “when” and not “if”) the delirium breaks and we can return to some kind of basic sanity, then lesser differences can, and should, resurface. At that point Democrats can continue the full range of debates on how they conceive of their party. But now … there is only one party which even recognizes climate change, for heaven’s sake! There is only one party that appears to believe in press freedom! An independent judiciary! An unequivocal right to vote! The full humanity of immigrants! I could go on, but I don’t need to. Vote for the survival of this country — and the greater health of the world. It’s certainly imperfect, but it will get massively, unrecognizably worse if we don’t counter all the poison that has been released into the body politic in recent years.

Simply retaking the House is only a first step, but it would restore at least some measure of divided government. We would still be in a very perilous state, but it’s where we have to start.

I’m not an uncritical fan of Bill Maher, but I do occasionally catch a clip and find that he is capable of saying certain kinds of things well. As he does here. We don’t have the luxury at this point, unfortunately, of insisting upon pure voting choices. The fate of voting itself — among so much else — is on the line. The Republican Party has become a fascism-enabling party, and it seems clear that unless it is repeatedly pummelled in elections it will not edge away from the abyss. So on Tuesday we must pummel them.

Douglass Truth — “This Human Project”

Awhile back I attended a week-long retreat with Tsoknyi Rinpoche in upstate New York, and the guy I ended up sharing a room with turned out to be this brilliant painter, writer, and creator of theatrical events called Douglass Truth. He has a new show coming up, with performances so far only out west, but with any luck there will be some East Coast dates at some point, because the trailer is so much fun. Check out his artwork here.

“Call Me by Your Name”

A few nights ago I saw the film “Call Me by Your Name” and am still entirely lost in its spell. A film I’ve kind of been waiting my whole life for, which, miraculously, did not disappoint but was even better than I could have hoped. Review coming soon, but for now, this song — featured towards the end of the film — captures its purity and great beauty. This film shimmers with goodness and I bow to all who made it possible.

“world citizen” — sakamoto / sylvian

what happened here?
the butterly has lost its wings
the air’s too thick to breathe
and there’s something in the drinking water

the sun comes up
the sun comes up and you’re alone
your sense of purpose come undone
the traffic tails back to the maze on 101

and the news from the sky
is looking better for today
in every single way but not for you
world citizen

world citizen

Sade — “Immigrant”

Earlier today I had a conversation, with an apologist, about our so-called president’s recent remarks on Haiti and Africa. The depth of sophistry, the mindless shuffling around of words, the unthinking pure reactivity and inability to acknowledge straightforward facts, left me actually shaking in despair. It really has felt like the very death of civilization over the past year and a half. Without at least some level of good faith and commitment to truth, nothing works, nothing is possible. There only remains a bottomless fall into barbarism.

More specifically, this subject can render me a bit ballistic. I keep trying to imagine what it must be like arriving in an alien country with, typically, very minimal proficiency in the native language to start with, where every day contains all kinds of logistical, communicative struggles someone like me never has to think about for a moment. Doing many of the hardest, most unpleasant, most poorly-paid jobs, generally working exceptionally hard, navigating frequent subtle and unsubtle slights — and worse.

These are simply heroes in my book, and this is supposed to be the country that recognizes and welcomes them more than any other on earth. It breaks my heart to see this moronic, astoundingly uneducated, surreally self-obsessed, endlessly foul, utterly lawless man who has never had to materially struggle a day in his life say such things — and be defended, always, by virtually the entire congressional delegation of his party. Really beyond the pale disgusting.

Listening to Sade’s “Immigrant” is helping restore some sanity:

Isn’t it just enough
How hard it is to live
Isn’t it hard enough
Just to make it through a day

The secret of their fear and their suspicion —
Standing there looking like an angel
In his brown shoes
His short suit
His white shirt
And his cuffs a little frayed

Coming from where he did
He was such a dignified child
To even the toughest among us
Don’t you know that would be too much …

He didn’t know what it was to be black
‘Til they gave him his change, but didn’t want to touch his hand
To even the toughest among us
That would be too much

Galliano!

Happy 2018 (gulp) to everyone and to our deeply ailing, unspeakably precious world. May we do much better this year. May we really, really do much better!

My tiny blip of a contribution to world peace this 31 December is to pass along a rediscovery. Was traipsing through YouTube last night trying to cheer myself up and came across a band I haven’t thought about in a long time. But they were the best of the “acid jazz” scene in Britain and I got to see one of their joyous romping gigs once, just before they broke up I think — was it in Leeds? Sheffield? alas those were days when I had THC for blood… (cf. song number three: “skunk funk, in my bo-o-ones…”) I do remember, as here, that at the end there were as many people on stage as in the crowd!

Honestly, if everyone could go to a gig like this even once a month or so, I do believe we might have world peace. Music gets there. Music cuts through all the confusion and nonsense and division and hatred and stupidity. More music!

As the old Tibetan chant goes: “May all beings without exception on this earth enjoy peace, happiness, and complete prosperity.” Cheers!

discotecha?

Impossible to determine on the face of it whether the below is genuine or a parody. But in fact it’s real. Wyatt is the son of one of the four Koch Brothers (Bill). And he’s actually wearing a shirt covered in bags of money! … Entirely appropriate of course as the American people’s supposed representatives in Washington have just seen fit to transfer yet more of it — much, much more of it — to people like him, the super-rich.

Note the one made up entirely of what appear to be pink handcuffs. ?! All in all, good to know someone out there is designing louder than loud pajamas which can be worn in the boardroom and … on the yacht.

Oh, and in the “discotecha” (discothequa? discotekka?) …

We have to take the lightness wherever it comes from these days…

Sarah Slean — “Nothing But the Light”

so this is a schoolyard and no one survives
the terrible beauty of being alive
let it move you, let it come through
the stream is never-ending …

breathe … breathe …
eternity is written into time
there’s nothing but the light

Driving back home this evening I tuned into the excellent q, with Tom Power, a CBC program we get here on Vermont Public Radio, and heard an interview with Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Slean. I’d not come across her before. The interview was a rebroadcast, originally airing in April when her latest album, Metaphysics, had just come out.

She tells an extraordinary story in it of finding herself alone on the train home one day, and deciding to fit in a meditation session. At a certain point the door to the compartment suddenly opened, someone sat down across from her, and she immediately experienced a sense of menace, a distinct chill in the air. She opened her eyes and saw a man who, indeed, seemed hostile, even scary. In part, she thought, because she’d been doing a practice, or perhaps purely instinctively, she didn’t freeze but immediately said hello to him, rather cheerfully. He was quite taken aback at this and she sensed him trying to work her out for awhile. For a time he slouched on the seat in silence. His coat opened slightly and she saw he was carrying a gun.

Eventually they began an intermittent conversation and then … he told her his life story. It was full of pain and a sense of hopelessness — dealing drugs, unable to contact his family, not knowing how to change anything. He cried, in front of this complete stranger. When it came time to part, they hugged and exchanged numbers and email addresses, and as it turned out corresponded for two years. She said his emails were always stream of consciousness, nothing spelled right, but she understood him.

Then one day, when she was in the midst of a great deal of turmoil in her life, doubting her life as a musician which she’d been pursuing at that point for almost two decades and seriously considering giving it up, the phone buzzed. She didn’t recognize the number but picked it up, and heard this fractured voice which turned out to belong to her companion on the train. He’d been gravely ill, nearly lost his life, and had had half his larynx removed. He had phoned to tell her that while he was in the hospital a nurse had brought him books of poetry, and he discovered a love for words. Now, he realized, he had a passion himself to write. Poetry had given him a new strength.

She concludes the story in an online interview this way: ““A guy with a literally broken voice had found his voice, and was excitedly telling a singer (who was at that moment, taking it all for granted) that he wanted to write… It completely blind-sided me – the beauty and power with which the universe can speak to us.” And shortly after that she wrote the song “Every Rhythm Is the Beat,” inspired by the encounter, which appears on the new album.

After getting back home I did some listening and came across this jewel from the same album, which I’ve already listened to half a dozen times. I think it’s one of those songs which can give hope to people in a dark place. Just the way her voice shapes so purely the words “breathe … breathe …” I hope it touches ya!

 

“Keep Quiet” (2016)

Earlier this evening I watched a Hungarian documentary called “Keep Quiet.” It concerns a man named Csanád Szegedi, who was in on the far-right nationalist party Jobbik from the beginning, rising to become the number two man in it, cofounder of the Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard, a paramilitary organization now banned), and even an MEP. Until the day he discovered he was actually Jewish, and that his grandmother was a survivor of Auschwitz (the family had entirely hidden their background from him). Over the course of an astonishingly brief period of time — a couple of years — he fully embraces Orthodox Judaism and is now in the process of immigrating to Israel.

When he first discovered his ancestry and mentioned the fact to the party, Jobbik’s suggestion was that he remain, to counter the neo-Nazi supporters (look, how can we be anti-Semitic when this guy is part of our leadership?). But he did leave and began a long process of renunciation of his entire past identity. He talks for the first time with his grandmother and mother about their experiences, he begins studying with a prominent rabbi (who after some contemplation of the Talmud decides he must accept Szegedi and try to help him), and he visits Auschwitz with a survivor of the camp, in an almost unbearable-to-watch scene.

When he did leave, he got slammed from both sides: threats from Jobbik members who felt betrayed, rejection by many Jews who didn’t (and still don’t) believe his transformation was genuine. We see him speak to a Jewish conference and be confronted with angry questioners. We see him attempt to visit the large Jewish community of Montréal (a failed visit, as he is not allowed entry, is sent back to Budapest).

It’s a fascinating and powerful film, beautifully shot and assembled.

the 15th

I’ve been immersing myself in the Shostakovich quartets again lately. Some of the profoundest and most extraordinary music I know. I have four sets — the Borodin, Brodsky, Emerson, and Fitzwilliam — and keep meaning to write something up about their respective strengths.

Honestly, I love them all. But there are a handful which I love even a little more than the rest, and tonight it has to be the fifteenth that I cue up, written in his final year. Wendy Lesser, in her really excellent book Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets, says that she has personally witnessed audiences walking out during this piece. (The first movement, roughly 12 minutes long, is meant to be played so deliberately, according to the composer himself, “that flies drop dead in mid-air, and the audience start leaving the hall from sheer boredom.”) !  In reality it is so sublime. My favorite recording here, of those I’ve heard, is the Fitzwilliam, but it is unavailable on YouTube, so here’s a live recording from the Emersons: