Joan Baez – All My Trials – Tree of Life

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See Also

Trump’s America: Teachers With Guns
Why we need gun control – an alternative spiritual view
Joan Baez: The Cherry Tree Carol

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Happy 87th Birthday, Sri Chinmoy!

Remembering the beloved spiritual teacher, musician and artist with a joyful music mix and slideshow

Sri Chinmoy’s birthday was always a joyful occasion, a perfect opportunity to celebrate. The celebrations continue, although he passed away in 2007. He lit a bright torch, carried it for many years, and taught others to hold it aloft. So many people around the world are celebrating on August 27, 2018, the day when Sri Chinmoy would have turned 87.

My way of celebrating was to make this video as an introduction to Sri Chinmoy’s music world:

I say “music world” because Sri Chinmoy is a world unto himself, and his music is best understood by listening with an open heart, rather than theorizing with a critical mind. Listening brings its own rewards and leads to understanding.

I say “music world” because inside Sri Chinmoy’s music is his art — his painting and drawing. All his creations emanate from a deep spiritual well, and one can approach that well from many directions, like a circular fountain which has a myriad of little footpaths leading up to it.

Music, art, concert posters, and photographs are all ways of making inroads to reach that centre of consciousness from which Sri Chinmoy always acted. But the divine secret is that this centre of consciousness does not belong to any individual, but is our collective consciousness, to be realized. It is the Supreme’s consciousness of Light and Delight.

It is fitting, then, that the music mix begins with “Supreme Chant” — a melody which Sri Chinmoy composed to the word “Supreme” — and that it ends with Sri Chinmoy chanting the word “Supreme.”

In between, we can begin to glean something of the vastness of Sri Chinmoy’s musical oeuvre from the main selection, which is a medley of his songs performed by Gandharva Loka Orchestra, culminating in a magnificent counterpoint. Truly, his music is “vaster than the sky,” and a thunderous pipe organ improvisation from Riverside Church punctuates this point.

There are many facets to Sri Chinmoy’s musical manifestation — so many that we can only catch a fleeting glimpse in the 38 minutes of this video. I hope to create other videos which bring out different aspects. A great wealth of Sri Chinmoy’s music is available online at Radio Sri Chinmoy. Special thanks to them, and to the musicians, photographers and videographers who made this non-commercial production possible.

A very happy birthday to Sri Chinmoy! Wishing peace and joy to everyone around the world who is celebrating this day!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Scotland The Brave vs. Jamaica The Hot

(Photos to follow.) No, it’s not a World Cup playoff, but there’s still an international flavor to the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race. Known as the longest certified footrace in the world, it pits stellar ultrarunners against daunting distance, as well as brutal heat and drenching downpours. It all takes place around a half-mile loop in Jamaica, Queens, but runners travel from as far away as Russia, Israel, Slovakia, and Scotland to compete.

The 2018 winner in the Men’s Division was Vasu Duzhiy of St. Petersburg, Russia, who finished Tuesday night, July 31st. He ran a distance of 3,100 miles in just under 45 days — not the first win for this solid competitor who’s nearly as consistent as Roger Federer.

The only American among this year’s starters was Yolanda Holder — a pedestrienne or race walker who was the surprise sensation of 2017’s race. With her unique style, she’s known as the Walking Diva; but this year, Ms. Holder had to retire after 1,200 miles due to foot problems.

In a field of many talented athletes, one standout is William Sichel, who hails from Sanday — a tiny island with a population of 550 located in Scotland’s Orkney Islands. The busy streets of Queens are a far cry from the quiet, pastoral setting of his home.

With Viking determination, Mr. Sichel is challenging not just heat and thunderstorms, but also the rigors of advancing age. 64 and a cancer survivor, Sichel’s the dark horse hero of 2018, unable to beat the frontrunners, but turning in an inspiring performance, and likely to set numerous records, including one for oldest competitor to run all 52 days.

In 2014, Mr. Sichel successfully completed the Sri Chinmoy 3100 in 50 1/2 days at age 60. This year, he’s been averaging 56.5 miles per day — less than the 59.6 needed to finish in the allotted time. He would need to up his average to 70 miles a day for the final 10 days of the race — an almost superhuman task, but not impossible for a competitor who’s shown superhuman toughness and come-from-behind prowess in the past. He ran 70.8 miles on Day 1, so no one counts him out!

Sometimes dubbed the “Scottish pocket rocket” and credited with “a mind of iron” (but a kindly disposition), Sichel is competing against 5 remaining runners who are members of the Sri Chinmoy Marathon Team — likened to the running monks of Japan for their combination of spiritual and athletic discipline.

The Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race was conceived by Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007), a spiritual teacher who was active in many fields, including athletics. Since its inception over two decades ago, the race has attracted mostly students of Sri Chinmoy, but other exceptional athletes are invited annually. In addition to Sichel and Holder, this year’s invitees included Kobi Oren, the noted Israeli ultramarathoner who came to a searing second place finish on Thursday, August 2nd with a time of 46:03:24:48.

The competition is friendly, and runners are urged to view the race as a competition with themselves, to transcend their previous capacity and gain spiritual insights, drawing on untapped inner depths to achieve the seemingly impossible. Race co-director Sahishnu Szczesiul says of the 3100:

In multi-day races there are fluctuations in performance, feelings of highs and low, abject despair, and undiscovered elation. These races reflect the struggle to survive another day, to assess effort but not to associate with the pain and sweat, but rather, conserve the energy for the next group of laps, or hours, or even stretches of days. Take a power nap, or stretch the stiff legs, and try again.

Interviewed in 2015 by RunUltra.co.uk, William Sichel emphasized the mental discipline needed to run such a long race:

My body adapted very well and I started running further and further each day as the race progressed. But mentally I found it to be the most enormous struggle especially when things were going against me and it looked like I wouldn’t finish in time. To regain mental control I had to narrow my focus right down to just being aware of my breathing, only thinking of the next lap and never, ever thinking past the current day! Simple as that.

Perhaps this explains why ultramarathoners are more likely to be in their forties or fifties than their twenties. Physical strength is important, but is not the only factor. To run 3,100 miles requires special qualities of mind and heart which must be cultivated over decades.

One-pointed concentration on a goal is also the point of intersection between the athlete’s world and the spiritual world. The total commitment needed to run the equivalent of two marathons a day for 52 days seems to demand coping skills not acquired until middle age.

William Sichel has above average coping skills. In 1997, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Two months after surgery he was back in training, soon setting distance records for Great Britain and Scotland.

His second bid for the Sri Chinmoy 3100 was scheduled for 2017. But on June 12th, the day before he was due to leave for New York, his wife Elizabeth received news that she had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He withdrew from the race and cared for her until her death 24 days later. Now, in 2018 he’s back facing the ultimate running challenge.

Though Sichel’s temperament is cool, he runs best when the mercury stays below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The long, excruciating heat wave which ushered in July affected his time, and the volley of thunderstorms which closed out the month further dampened his performance. According to race updates, he has now completed 2,830 miles in 50 days, but can’t reach 3,100 miles by the deadline. Still, no bookmaker would give odds that Sichel will quit before Day 52. His many fans in Orkney (and throughout the running world) would be sorely disappointed!

If the Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race is a hero’s journey, William Sichel is a torchbearer of the life-affirming aspect. He remains a hero whether or not he manages the full distance this second time around.

The race ends on the evening of August 7th.

More about William Sichel on Perfection Journey.

UPDATE 1: William Sichel continued to run, and by Day 52 achieved a total of 2,904 miles.

Sidebar: Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race – Women’s Division

Surasa Mairer of Austria and Kaneenika Janakova of Slovakia are duking it out for first and second place in the Women’s Division, with less than 25 miles separating them.

In 2015, Mairer broke the long-standing women’s record set by Suprabha Beckjord in 1998. Beckjord’s time back then was 49:14:30:54, but 18 years later Mairer topped it with a time of 49:07:52:24 (6 hours and 38 minutes faster).

Surasa Mairer crosses the finish line of the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race, August 2015. Photo courtesy Perfection Journey http://perfectionjourney.org/2015/08/02/august-2-it-is-all-grace/

Mairer’s record was not nearly as long-lived as Beckjord’s. Two years later, Kaneenika Janakova raised the bar for women’s times by acing the Sri Chinmoy 3100 in 48:14:24:10. Now, in 2018 these two record-setters are competing for top spots. Indeed, after Yolanda Holder had to withdraw, they’re the sole remaining women. But due in part to adverse weather conditions, neither are challenging their personal bests. Both are expected to finish on Day 52.

Interviewed in 2017, Kaneenika Janakova echoed William Sichel’s view of the need for mental toughness:

It can be very challenging to control the mind and the thoughts during this race. What I do not want to think about is the distance and the number of days or weeks I have to spend on the course. If I do that it gets very hard because all my mind wants to do is to find the reasons why I should not be doing this race. In order to avoid this I have to trick my mind.

In Janakova’s case, she relies on meditation and going “inside the heart”:

As much as the physical preparation is important, for me it is equally important to devote time to practice meditation. Meditation helps me tremendously to calm and control my mind and also helps me to be more aware of my abilities and believe in my true potential coming from inside. Running and meditation complement each other in my life. I try to quiet the mind and go inside the heart. The heart doesn’t calculate or plan anything. It is just full of joy and eagerness.

What will the 2019 pilgrimage of 3,100 miles bring? Better weather, we hope, and another year of auspicious good fortune for those who dare to challenge impossibility.

UPDATE 2: Both Surasa Mairer and Kaneenika Janakova reached their goal of 3,100 miles on Day 52, at times running through heavy rain and thunderstorms. They were the only female finishers this year, placing 4th and 6th overall in a field of ten starters.

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No More Targets!

What makes people hunt other people like animals, or hunt animals for that matter? Let’s explore a clip from the movie Targets, a UK demo against fox hunting, a great song from The Pentangle, and a rare reference to the Hunt Saboteurs in Doctor Who. But first this bunny hugger rabbits on a bit…

I feel like I’m in a grim version of Groundhog Day where every day I wake up to another school shooting, the latest in Santa Fe, Texas.

A talking head stressed that people in the community often feel like they’re to blame in some way, but said they’re absolutely not to blame — the only ones to blame are those who continue to oppose sensible gun laws. Though largely true, this is an oversimplification. We desperately need sensible gun laws, but the kind of society we have collectively created is also a factor in random acts of violence.

Our society is increasingly impersonal, based on material goods, mass entertainment, and high technology. Because we’ve not been able to agree on certain core values, we fail to teach them to the children in our schools. We need to help children foster peace, insight, compassion, and a sense that each human being has worth because he or she is created in the image of God. Or, if the latter idea about God has become too controversial, then let us at least teach them that there is something at the core of the human spirit which is noble, and that in spite of quarreling, in spite of suffering at each other’s hands, we must not harm human life or wantonly take the life of another.

I had to arrive at these ideas through some effort — certainly my parents and schoolteachers never explained them to me, though there were one or two teachers who created a caring space in which positive human values emerged naturally. And later on in life, as I began to consciously explore spirituality, I had a wonderful teacher in the person of Sri Chinmoy, who was a fount of all those good qualities with which we would hope to imbue our children.

But like many from my generation, I had already suffered greatly in adulthood before discovering these truths. It is much better if children receive good grounding in spiritual or (as a fail-safe) humanistic values before they have to confront the challenges of the adult world, which may include brutal competition to survive economically, as well as temptations to merely anesthetize oneself. There are many factors underlying the present opioid crisis, but certainly two factors are the sense of hopelessness which some people feel, and the view (reinforced by endless TV commercials for wonder drugs) that chemicals are the way to solve our problems, regardless of dreadful side effects (masked by pictures of puppies romping, children playing, kites flying, and lovers holding hands).

I suppose a third factor is the ultra-rationalist belief that we are merely collections of chemicals, that consciousness is a phenomenon which arises from chemical reactions, and that when our bodies die, our consciousness, our entire existence, dies with it. Some other time, I’ll discuss at length the “God delusion” and simulation theory as further hindrances to spirituality. The point is that these various views of human life as essentially meaningless estrange us from those truths which we need in order to value each other, to recognize the sacredness of human life, and to come to feel deeply that we would never want to kill a fellow human being.

I’m sometimes critical of our political leaders — the present batch in the White House being particularly corrupt and unenlightened. But I can also see things from their point of view. These are people who subscribe to materialism (perhaps having inherited it as their default view), and who feel driven to strive for money and fame — much more than any of us actually need. Lacking grounding in higher values, they are obsessed with money, sex, and power, and are eager to destroy each other in order to scramble to the top of the scrap heap.

Without making this another rant against Donald Trump, one thing I hear repeatedly from talking heads is that he’s never had to pay a price for doing dirt to people. His (possibly ill-gotten) riches have allowed him to pay off those he’s wronged (when forced to), like enrollees at Trump University. His campaign of hatred against the noble Barack Obama has not hurt Trump appreciably, nor has his womanizing. To the extent that the president is a role model for the nation, this particular role model confirms the worst materialist suspicions: that you get ahead in life by being a creep and throwing your weight around. Do it to the other guy before he does it to you! Truth is whatever the guy with the biggest megaphone, biggest bank account, and biggest army says it is! In this sense, it may be argued that materialism leads to authoritarianism.

But again, a critical issue is that there are seemingly no consequences for wrong action. The reason human justice is often harsh — amounting to years of torture in subhuman conditions — is that we do not collectively understand or believe in the law of karma. We view things from a narrow human time frame, and mistakenly assume that because someone like Donald Trump can act like the worst sort of blaggard and yet become president, therefore we should adopt a crude, materialist view of life. This is the lesson our children learn by osmosis from Trump’s ascent to power.

Spiritual insight tells us, however, that just because we do not see the punishment with our human eyes does not mean there is no punishment for wrong action. In this life we may act like the worst kind of corrupt king, but in the next life we may be born a blind beggar who has to fight with dogs for scraps of food.

When we throw out many spiritual insights acquired over the ages — including the insight that “As you sow, so shall you reap,” this has destructive ripple effects throughout society, including an increase in a particular type of mass shooter psychosis. Here, a person is seized by the notion that he will kill dozens of people and then kill himself, and that will be the end of it. He does not realize that for causing unimaginable suffering to dozens of people, he himself will have to undergo terrible suffering — if not in this world, then in the next.

So, to come back to my original point, there will always be a small percentage of insane shooters; and sensible gun laws can limit the amount of damage they inflict. But to the extent that we collectively subscribe to the view that human life is meaningless and valueless, and that there are no lasting consequences for wrong action; and where we construct a technocratic society devoid of human empathy; and where we fail to teach our children ideals of peace, love, and compassion, and fail to instill in them a proper understanding of the laws of the universe (which exist independently of our human codes and statutes), then we do bear some limited responsibility for mass shootings.

Of course, I don’t mean this in a fundamentalist “fire and brimstone” sense. I mean simply that we share in the societal environment we create. If we pollute that environment instead of tending to it with care, we may end up with freak weather conditions or mass shootings. We need to be more conscious of what we do, and not inflict harm through carelessness.

As a child, I had Grimm’s Fairy Tales, some of which were truly horrifying. I still remember the mean girl who “trod on a loaf.” She pulled the wings off flies, and then in hell the flies settled on her and could not fly away because she had pulled off all their wings.

There’s a lesson in environmentalism here. As human beings, we are collectively stewards of this beautiful planet which God created, or which arose spontaneously from His Soul. As president Kennedy remarked in a famous commencement address at American University in 1963:

Let us not be blind to our differences — but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.

Much of the speech in question dealt with peace. This brings me back to a theme I’ve oft sounded in response to mass shootings: Peace studies. It will help us to recognize (one might even say “admit”) that in an increasingly technocratic age, what we lack is compassion, insight, empathy, and inner peace. To recognize this is a kind of breakthrough; for only when we recognize the lack of something do we consciously seek it out, find methods to cultivate and attain it. To realize that we are presently lacking in certain core qualities which make us truly human is not to take a negative or defeatist approach. Rather, it is to take a positive, proactive approach to diagnosing our present malaise — of which opioid addiction, random shootings, and political corruption are only symptoms.

The qualities which we presently lack cannot be forced on society or on any individual; but as individuals we can become more conscious, and so help to foster a more conscious society in which hatred is less, injustice is less, and children grow up feeling loved and protected rather than like walking targets.

Segueing into the promised media clips: Targets was the name of a 1968 Peter Bogdanovich film dealing with the inexplicable (and impersonal) quality of mass shootings:

2018 is (ironically) the fifty year anniversary of Targets, but we are still dealing with the modern “flattening effect” or loss of empathy. The film is more complex than a one-dimensional study of a social phenomenon, however. It features multiple perspectives, and includes Boris Karloff as Byron Orlock, a retiring horror actor who is nonetheless a principled, old-school gentleman repulsed by violence in real life — but who tells a chilling story in this scene:

Learn more about Targets (which is partly based on real life mass shootings) from these two insightful YouTube reviews:


From hunting human beings we transition to hunting animals. The royal hunt plays a grand role in the history of England; and of the various political factions which exist in the UK, monarchists and Tories are perhaps most inclined to support a continuation of that tradition, while British Labour tends to champion animal rights.

Arguably the best British folk group from the late 60s/early 70s was The Pentangle, and their 1969 album Basket of Light included a remarkable flight of fancy called “Hunting Song”:

Much as I love it, the lyrics contain an element of cruelty:

As I did travel all on a journey
Over the wayside and under a dark moon
Hanging above a mountain

I spied a young man riding a fine horse
Chasing a white hart and all through the woodland
Head of a hunting party

And there followed after ten kings and queens
Laughing and joking, the white hart they’d seen
Bloodied running into the bushes…

Perhaps this cavalier, privileged attitude on the part of the hunting gentry is what spawned a counter-movement known as the Hunt Saboteurs (or “Sabs”), who first emerged in the winter of ’63 and continue on to this day, interfering in hunts by various physical means.

A rare (if fleeting) tribute to the Hunt Saboteurs occurs in the 1989 Doctor Who story “Survival” — the last story broadcast during the “classic” period. There, Ace (played by Sophie Aldred), visits her old stomping ground of Perivale in West London. Most of her friends have mysteriously disappeared, but one friend (Ange, played by Kate Eaton) is still around, looking waiflike with her collecting tin for the Sabs:

The story is interesting for a number of reasons, not least that it serves up an inversionist view of hunting, with catlike creatures on horseback hunting humans! (More here.)

doctor-who-survival-cheetah-person-cat-person-karra

Fast forward to 2017, when Prime Minister Theresa May threatened to end the UK’s ban on fox hunting, thereby spawning some lovely, creative, colourful, and humourous demos by animal rights activists:

While it’s always risky to characterize or stereotype entire movements, I think many animal rights activists are motivated by a sense of compassion and caring, and an insight that we are all fellow creatures on this planet. We should treat each other well and not hunt each other. In short: No more targets!

I don’t mean to be simplistic. With slogans like “Save a fox, hunt a Tory,” protesters are obviously embracing an element of class warfare. And as with all movements, animal rights can devolve into fanaticism or the assumption that “We are absolute good, you are absolute evil.” At one time, culling the fox population through hunts perhaps made more sense than it does today.

Earlier I mentioned TV commercials we have in the US made by drug manufacturers, where a long list of scary side effects is recited while viewers are shown pictures of puppies, children, kites flying, and lovers holding hands — certainly no pictures of the actual health catastrophes being enumerated! In other words, propaganda.

Likewise, the notoriously anti-liberal Daily Mail ran a pro fox-hunting spread with seemingly dozens of high definition colour photos. Lots of puppy dogs licking children’s faces, pretty ladies and handsome gentlemen in full riding regalia (including UKIP’s Nigel Farage), but not a single dead fox. Just sayin’…

Apart from all the politics, I must say I find it easier to identify with the beautiful people who turned out for the anti fox-hunting demo — though I suspect that somewhere among them might have been Edina Monsoon wearing one of her more eccentric outfits.

An alternative to harming living creatures is the mock fox hunt pictured here:

This first person account titled “Adventures in Mock Fox Hunting!” is less visual, but more informative.

Not to digress, but our curious commercial culture is such that generic nouns are frequently appropriated by companies for their own ends. In searching Google for “mock fox,” I had to wade through a number of commercial listings before getting to “the real animal.” FOR FOX SAKE!!!

And to really not digress, we could move from mock foxes to mock turtles, like the one Alice encountered in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This in turn inspired a song by the Bruford band called “Fainting in Coils:

As a youthful maniac in search of ultimate guitar chops, I was led not only to Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, but also to the slightly-less-well-known Alan Holdsworth, who did some of his best work with Bill Bruford’s group. (Their styles are somewhat opposite: McLaughlin tends to pick every note (like Django Reinhardt), while Holdsworth (who also plays violin) makes extensive use of legato technique.) But there’s no way I’m going to get from there back to my original topic, so no point even trying. Heavens to Murgatroyd! (Exit, stage left.)

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Potent Quote

“Not a very efficient way to hunt, is it? All that noise and pantomime just to slaughter one little animal.” — Doctor Who (Sylvester McCoy) from “Survival”

Bonus Clips



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Peaceful Morning Meditation Music April 13th

Celebrate the dawn with the music of thirteen different artists…

I hope you enjoy this peaceful morning meditation music:

The styles and instruments may differ, but these thirteen artists are all performing variations on the same song: “Usha Bala Elo” by Sri Chinmoy. Judging by the number of recordings, it’s one of the most popular songs among his students.

Lyrics:

Usha bala elo
Dhire aji dhire
Hridaya gabhire

Translation:

Slowly, very slowly,
The virgin dawn appears
In the very depths of my aspiration-heart.

Source: SriChinmoySongs.com

This beautiful song with its simple melody is very enjoyable to sing. Usha means “dawn,” and can also refer to the Goddess Usha, who is celebrated in the ancient Rig Veda, where she is identified with the dawn and described as a bringer of light.

In poetry and song, we need not choose a single meaning. We can enjoy the superimposition of the outer and inner meanings. In the outer world, we can imagine the first rays of the dawn softly illuminating the sky, and in the inner world we can feel a new dawn, new light, new consciousness appearing in the depths of our heart.

April 13th is a special day for those who admire Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007). On April 13th, 1964 he arrived in the West and began a remarkable decades-long career as a teacher, composer, musician, poet, artist, athlete, and humanitarian.

He composed thousands of songs, but “Usha Bala Elo” is certainly one of his most beloved.

Of the versions performed here, two merit special attention because they are medleys. Master sitarist Adesh Widmer begins with “Usha Bala Elo,” but also works in other tunes by Sri Chinmoy. And arranger Paree Atkins creates a rich tapestry for large ensemble, beginning with another of Sri Chinmoy’s dawn songs: “Andhakarer Bakka Chiri”:

Lyrics:

Andhakarer bakka chiri
Khulche ushar toran oi
Jaya dhwani kare sabe
Khoka khuki achhish koi
Arun ranga charan phele
Usha rani ese
Khelar chale anlo tene
Ajana ei deshe

Translation:

Behold, tearing the heart of darkness,
the door of dawn opens.
O children, where are you?
Sing, sing the divine glory.
The queen of dawn descends
with her morning rays.
She has dragged me down
into this world unknown.

Source: SriChinmoyLibrary.com

Paree incorporates both the original Bengali and the English translation into her choral fantasia, adding a welcome dynamic element to the mix!

Artists and Links

These are the artists performing “Usha Bala Elo”:

1. Silence-Hearts
2. Phulendu
3. Hiya Bhasha
4. Akasha
5. Utsava and Friends
6. Purnakama
7. Song-Waves
8. Adesh
9. Adarsha
10. Paree’s Group
11. Ananda
12. Sri Chinmoy
13. Satja

Many, many thanks to Sri Chinmoy, to the artists performing his music, and to Radio Sri Chinmoy, where much of this music is freely available. (It is truly a treasure trove.)

This year, April 13th happens to fall on a Friday. But after a peaceful morning meditation, we need not surrender to bad luck or Fright Night. The light of the dawn can carry us through to the evening, and at day’s end we can enjoy sweet, peaceful dreams.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Why we need gun control – an alternative spiritual view

Introduction

The demonstrations in which hundreds of thousands of people have participated — many of them students — demanding sensible gun laws, is a very positive development. It represents a countervailing force against the sheer money power and bullying power of the gun lobby. It remains to be seen whether these demonstrations will have a lasting political impact, and will ultimately achieve the goal of meaningful reform.

Many of the reasons why we need sensible gun laws are painfully obvious — both to Americans, and to friends of America like Great Britain. The latter is one of several Western nations which have enacted strict gun laws, and as a result have seen gun violence plummet dramatically. No thinking person can question the basic connection between the mass proliferation of firearms and a spiraling murder rate.

It is especially fitting then, that our young people are rising up to question the political and moral corruption which keeps both gun sales and gun murders at astronomical levels — fitting not just because young people are often innocent victims of gun violence, but also because young people bring a fresh perspective unstained and unsullied by the base motives which have led us to the present morass.

Young people are shepherded through active shooter drills at school, and in neighborhoods like South L.A. (as demonstrator Edna Chavez points out) they learn to duck bullets before they learn to read. So they’re angry about this wholesale, bump-stocked destruction of their innocence. They rightly observe that in an atmosphere of fear, even those not directly impacted by gun violence in the form of losing a friend or loved one nevertheless feel the intense psychological pressure. If they are angry, and are speaking up with anger, this is understandable. But is there anything beyond the anger?

On the one hand, political action for a worthy cause is admirable; on the other hand, political movements are less than perfect. There’s always a certain amount of sloganeering, emotionalism, and “rah-rah, hooray for our side.” These things are inevitable, and don’t invalidate the underlying cause. Some people can be forgiven if, with respect to a particular demo, they ask not “What are the organizing principles?” but rather “Which bands are playing?” After all, social bonding is part of the process of amassing political power.

One summer when I was just a tiny tot, my aunt paid my way to go to day camp. On the daily bus ride, the camp counselors would sing endless renditions of “Blowin’ in the Wind”:

A good protest song is definitely worth its weight in gold, and can help both inspire noble idealism, and galvanize opinion on concrete issues. To this day, on the issue of gun control I trot out this old Tom Paxton ditty, often introing it as “Wayne LaPierre Sings”:

Has anything changed? I think so. To understand what, we need to know about the madness of crowds. Over time, the population becomes enamored of — and subsequently disenchanted with — various fads, some of which can be long-lasting. After a decades long experiment with the mass proliferation of firearms, it may be argued that we are, as a nation, beginning to turn the tide. The learning curve is finally bending in the direction of insight that more and more guns do not lead to a safer and safer society, but rather to a society in which our children grow up in a state of perpetual trauma. In this respect, the slogan “Enough is enough” is perfectly apt and signals a definite inflection point (we hope).

A Spiritual Perspective

To some people, the concept of spirituality seems remote or pie-in-the-sky. This is understandable, since spirituality is mostly not taught in our schools; and when it is, it’s sometimes the “believe this or go to hell” variety.

Yet, spirituality is connected with peace and peace studies. Peace is a quality, and peace studies is an organized effort to find ways of bringing peace to our troubled world.

From a spiritual perspective, gun control is not just about reducing the number of guns, but also about changing the mindset which leads us to adopt violent solutions to basic human problems. One of the tools used in peace studies is meditation, and this NBC story on meditation in the schools shows just how effective a tool meditation can be:

What do I mean when I say that peace is a quality? If you go to a certain restaurant, you know they specialize in items like burgers, salads, or shakes. In God’s shop there is peace, light, and joy. You can eat as much as you want according to your appetite.

Peace does not mean simply the absence of war or conflict. Peace is a quality which we can imbibe through our prayer and meditation. When we drink deeply of peace, so many human problems are solved! And also, when we drink deeply of peace, we see more clearly what things need to be done to improve our lives, to improve society. When we drink deeply of peace, we see that this decades long obsession with guns, guns, and more guns is total insanity! It is an unnatural fixation which comes from man’s destructive mind and destructive vital.

Again, when we drink deeply of peace, we are taking in something which is natural, just as some people prefer natural foods rather than heavily processed foods. For gradual, lasting change to occur, we need to drink in peace in abundant measure, and learn from the experience of peace how we can make a world in which our children feel safe and loved, not angry and betrayed.

But this peace is not just for adults, and the solutions will not come only from adults. The more our children feel the psychological pressure of violence all around them, the more they need a safe space where there is quiet time and they can experience peace. And the more they see that this inner peace is indeed an ingredient in solving the problem of outer violence, the better prepared they will be to create tomorrow’s institutions based not on turning schools into prisons and teachers into armed guards, but on patterns of association involving love, trust, and insight.

Now, there are even deeper spiritual reasons why we need gun control. Our world was created by God. He was one, He was silent; but He wanted to become many in order to know the meaning of His silence. So He created the Cosmic Game, in which matter is thrown out from His soul, and takes billions of years to evolve back into conscious Divinity. This is the Cosmic Game, of which we are part.

Our world is a reflection of something which is, at its root, perfect. This is the great secret which peace can teach us, silence can teach us. Presently, our world is an imperfect reflection. But gradually, gradually, over the long arc of time, it is evolving toward perfection. So we get the most joy when we consciously participate in God’s Cosmic Game in the way that He intended; not by collecting more and more guns, but by expressing more and more self-giving.

Meditation can take us very far. In meditation, we can catch a glimpse of the higher worlds. There, the beauty of nature springs directly from the mind of God in infinite abundance. There are no guns there, and no need for guns.

If we know we are evolving toward something higher, then we can have a kind of blueprint for what we want to achieve in society. The golden future is fast approaching, but we are late in making ourselves fit to receive it, live in it. The future beckons us, but in order to fully embrace it we must renounce our foolish attachment to guns and weapons of mass destruction.

Change occurs not just on an individual level, but also on a macro level. The micro and macro influence each other. If, as individuals, we are able to cultivate more peace, then we can also affect institutions in a positive way. Likewise, when institutions charged with fostering the health and well-being of society reach the unmistakable conclusion that gun control is necessary, they can educate and influence individuals.

Let us hope that we have passed a milestone point in history, and are moving away from armaments and toward the firmament!

Anger and slogans are part of politics, but for lasting change something more is needed. We need to cultivate peace, and we should not lose faith in humanity despite setbacks. Spiritual master Sri Chinmoy writes:

India’s greatest spiritual politician, Mahatma Gandhi, said something very striking. He said not to lose faith in humanity. We have to take humanity as an ocean. There are a few drops in the ocean that may be dirty, but the entire ocean is not dirty. According to him, we must not judge humanity by the limited experiences we usually get when we associate ourselves with limited persons around us. We have to be careful, but at the same time we have to have faith in humanity. If we lose faith in humanity, then we are doomed, for humanity is an actual limb of our body.

— Sri Chinmoy, from A Hundred Years From Now, Agni Press, 1974

To bring about a more peaceful world, we need to become students of peace. That is how Sri Chinmoy always described himself. Looked at from a spiritual perspective, gun control is part of a broader effort to create a world based on principles of peace.

A peace benediction from Sri Chinmoy


Sidebar: Save The Country

If you are a student of peace, then you are in the same boat as singer/songwriter Laura Nyro, who sang “In my mind I can’t study war no more”:

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Salvation – a short film exploring NYC snowscapes

Now released on YouTube

Although I made brief mention of it in a post on Storm Emma and the Meaning of Snow, I’d like to officially announce the YouTube release of my short film Salvation:

While I’m only an amateur videographer, and the means brought to bear for Salvation are exceedingly modest, I can nevertheless point out a few things about the film.

It first and foremost uses the language of visual images, sound, and music to say what it wants to say.

Though my primary purpose was artistic, it does call attention to the plight of New York City carriage horses, who work in all kinds of harsh conditions (including snowstorms).

The film begins by showing a dense crush of passersby on a midtown Manhattan street during a blizzard. We hear the tinkling of a bell, and as the crowd thins out, we see that the sound is coming from an African-American Salvation Army worker with a collection box to which no one seems to be contributing.

The next sequence is of Pomona, the Goddess of Plenty, who stands atop the Pulitzer Fountain there in Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza. Like the Salvation Army worker, she looks cold, forlorn, and forgotten in the snow. We can still hear the bell tinkling faintly in the distance.

The third sequence shows carriage horses; and just as we saw clouds of steam coming from the nostrils of the Salavation Army worker, we likewise see clouds of steam coming from these equine nostrils, and hear the metal clink of their fittings. One horse hollows out the snow around its front hooves to push back the cold.

In the middle of the carriage horse sequence we cut away to Nike, the Goddess of Victory, as she appears high up in a gilded-bronze sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens depicting William Tecumseh Sherman.

The fourth sequence begins with a brief shot of two men fencing indoors during the same blizzard, adjoining tall picture windows from which we can still see the snow falling. We hear the metal clink of blade on blade, but the men are tethered to body cords (as is the custom in sport fencing), just as the horses are tethered to their carriages. We cut briefly to more shots of the Goddess of Victory, and then to the final sequence, which is vintage footage of black stallions running free in an open field in the midst of a snowstorm. (This less than 30 seconds of film is adapted from the BBC documentary The Big Freeze about Britain’s harsh winter of 1963.)

After completing the final edit, for those who might ponder the meaning I offered these words:

What does salvation mean to a man? To an angel? To a horse? Is snow the great equalizer?

About the music

From 30 seconds into the film until the end, we hear the music of spiritual master Sri Chinmoy arranged and performed by the duet Silence and Sound, consisting of Kushali Tarantsova (violin, vocals) and Rageshri Muzychenko (keyboard, vocals). The song is “Param Pitar Charan Duti Barai Madhumoy” from their 2006 CD Playing My Heart-Violin, recorded and mixed in Kiev, Ukraine and released on the JRC label.

I’m so happy with their music, which could not be more perfect if they had produced it specially for the video (they did not).

Sri Chinmoy wrote thousands of songs, mainly in Bengali and English. Ten years after his death, not all of them have been translated or made readily available — though many have, due to the diligent work of his students.

This song is one of 150 from the 2002 songbook Bahir Jagate, Part 1. Most of these have not been translated, but the Bengali reads:

Param pitar charan duti barai madhumoy
Param pitar dibya ankhi asim kripamoy

To aid us, here are some Bengali words and phrases with their English equivalents:

param pitar – Supreme Father or Absolute Lord
charan – feet
barai – great, intense, or deeply
madhumoy – sweet or blissful
dibya – divine
ankhi asim – infinite Eye
kripamoy – compassion

So we can guess that this is a mantra invoking the Father Supreme, taking refuge at His feet of intense bliss, and His divine, infinite Eye of Compassion.

Sri Chinmoy wrote this song on December 26, 2001. Many of his “param pita” songs written during the Christmas period are Christ songs. Indeed, there is a whole book of them from 1990 called Jesus the Seeker, Christ the Saviour with a mix of English and Bengali entries.

If the recording I chose for Salvation is plaintive or even sad as rendered by Kushali and Rageshri, this need not be true of other “param pita” songs. Sri Chinmoy’s students organize Songs of the Soul concerts around the world. While visiting Mongolia in 2017, Pavaka and Nelson recorded this sunny version of “He Param Pita Bishwa Bidhata Ami,” accompanied by a beautiful HD video in which horses also figure prominently:

It’s so good I want you to see it, even though it puts my video to shame. (In fairness, mine is based on analog footage shot in 1995, when Hi-8 was thought a fairly good “prosumer” format.)

Here’s a medley of two more “He Param Pita” songs by Sri Chinmoy:

The titles are “He Param Pita He Param Pita Ami Je” and “He Param Pita He Param Pita Dharar.” (A quick search reveals about three dozen such songs to his credit). These two are performed in monastic style by an unnamed group, though it could be Oneness-Dream, which in 2016 toured churches in Ireland performing Sri Chinmoy’s songs in a manner like to Gregorian chant:

Conclusion

So how does all this relate to the concept of salvation? Well, people use the word in different ways. To truly achieve salvation (from ignorance, bondage, and death) is an extraordinary achievement. I cannot claim any such thing. But in the small, human sense of what salvation means — or perhaps in the sense of what salvation means to a horse tethered to a carriage — I feel that knowing Sri Chinmoy has saved me from a life which would have been as dull and plodding as a workhorse’s. By his Grace I have seen and felt things beyond my imagination, and he has given me hope that I might one day at least grasp the concept of salvation, even if achieving it is presently beyond me. I gratefully dedicate the film Salvation to Sri Chinmoy, who inhabits my dreams (the best ones, anyway).

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Sidebar: Sri Chinmoy’s universal teachings

For the sake of clarity, I should explain that Sri Chinmoy’s teachings are universal in nature. He embraces the Neo-Vedanta view that there is truth in each religion. He emerged from the Hindu tradition, but composed songs honouring many spiritual figures, including Sri Krishna, the Buddha, the Christ, Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Aurobindo, Mother Teresa, and many others.

Sri Chinmoy is a teacher who epitomizes vastness. This post brings out one small facet, namely his “param pita” songs. Broadly speaking, his philosophy is Eastern philosophy. (See, for example, his Eastern Light for the Western Mind.)

His path includes an emphasis on meditation on the heart.


Of Further Interest

The Sound of Music in Bengali
Jesus is Born – in a world of many faiths
Radio Sri Chinmoy – Songs Devoted to Jesus Christ
Shindhu performs “Param Pitar Charan Duti Barai Madhumoy”

Barber’s Adagio For Strings (YouTube)
Hearts and Flowers (version 1) 1908 Orchestra (YouTube)
Hearts and Flowers (version 2) Mahavishnu John McLaughlin (YouTube)
Alice in the Snow I

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Storm Emma and the Meaning of Snow

I know it can be dreadfully inconvenient, but snow can also be unimaginably beautiful — a forced timeout by God which fades all our earthly scenes, earthly dramas to white.

After all, we human beings can make a dreadful hash of things, and a really good snowstorm feels like wiping the slate (or griddle) clean. In the midst of a great blizzard, one gets a feeling of Eternity — like it might never stop snowing and perhaps that would be for the best. Who ever heard of anyone starting a war in the middle of a snowstorm? Better that we should all seek comfort around a warm fire, and recognize our smallness compared to Nature — not to speak of God, of whom Nature is only a small portion.

It is best in a snowstorm — even if you are a citydweller — to locate some region of parkland, however small, where you can look on the falling snow without seeing automobiles or other signs of civilisation.

There is an individual occurrence of snow, and then there is the archetype of snow. What we want to do is move from the individual to the archetype. Everything has its essential nature, and the nature of snow is that it is holy. Believe in this, and contemplate the falling snow as it blankets even one lone tree.

When you are certain you know what snow means, then widen your gaze and take in more of the sights around you:

Wait! That is too fast! What we need is a more leisurely sojourn through the snow:

What is the meaning? You can make your own meaning. But ask yourself these questions: What does salvation mean to a man? To an angel? To a horse? Is snow the great equalizer?

In a December 1993 episode of Northern Exposure (set in the mythical town of Cicely, Alaska), radio DJ Chris in the Morning reads a fragment of an 1869 poem by John Whitaker Watson:

I can only wish all readers everywhere a (belated) Bon Hiver! as I vicariously enjoy Britain’s “inclement” weather.

Michael Howard

First Snow – Grace Ellen Morton

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Parkland School Shooting: NRA’s Wayne LaPierre Sings

Breaking news and broader discussion of issues

Everyone expected that due to mounting pressure, Wayne LaPierre would have to issue some kind of statement in response to the latest school shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left at least 17 people dead — most of them children. But no one expected that he would break into sunny song:

Yes, it’s wonderful when young children are indoctrinated into gun culture, for this is bound to pay off later on in life! (especially if they have a beef with someone).

I’ve already blogged about crazed mass shooters here and here. What is there new to say? People die, and the usual suspects offer their semi-automatic response: We shoudn’t “politicize” the deaths by talking about gun control. We need a decent interval of time to pass (like maybe until the next mass shooting); and even then, the real issue is better mental health for all Americans! (and lots and lots of country music). Bacon should be made a mandatory breakfast food. Shunning bacon is erratic behavior. Must always report such instances to authorities, again and again! 😉

Lacking the political will to make truly beneficial changes (like loosening the stranglehold the NRA has on our feckless Congress), we can at least give our children an education that allows for quiet time and insight:

Crazed shooters are often people who have more anger and outrage than they can handle. It’s not clear our current health care system and mental health establishment can do much about that. A couple of talk therapy sessions and a prescription for Prozac aren’t going to de-weaponize people who’ve accumulated a lifetime of grievances by the time they’re 18 or 19.

Besides the insane proliferation of firearms, there are also sociological and spiritual reasons why our society is producing a ridiculous number of mass shooters. The doctrine of materialism, taken to extremes, leads to depersonalization and a failure to recognize the value in each human life. The past few decades have seen accelerated change, but our educational system has failed to ring the changes. It doesn’t teach people basic skills like how to live, how to deal with conflict, how to overcome the setbacks, disappointments, and even outright maltreatment which people may experience in our highly competitive, acquisitive, dog-eat-dog society, presently headed by one Donald J. Trump.

“Going postal” is a particular type of psychosis experienced by people who have a lot of pressure building up with no release valve. But as the above video on meditation in the schools shows, quiet time and insight are release valves. They’re valuable tools in our toolkit which we’re not utilizing to the extent that we could. These tools are largely free, but highly effective.

The emphasis on personal freedom which emerged in the 1960s is a positive development, and was a natural outgrowth of many factors: some of them cosmic, and some of them a reaction to the repressiveness of the 1950s. Any good thing needs to be assimilated; and we’re still trying to assimilate the freedoms of the 60s, which at their worst can lead to personal selfishness. Wantonly taking the life of a fellow human being is the ultimate in personal selfishness; so there’s a spiritual connection between the problem of greed and the problem of violence:

One of the institutions affected both positively and negatively by the changes of the 60s is parenting. On the one hand, there was a recognition that the repressive, disciplinarian style of parenting was harmful and outmoded. But in discarding that model, what was sometimes left was no parenting at all, or an assumption that children will simply find their own way with little or no guidance and attention.

The economic model has also shifted, so that both parents (in two-parent households) often work, whether they want to or not. A single wage-earner may not be able to provide for the needs of the family, as was once the case. There are only so many hours in a day; so when both parents work, giving children as much love, care, and attention as they need becomes an even greater challenge.

The solution is not a Leave It To Beaver trip back to the fifties (to quote a West Wing-ism), but an effort to really think about these issues and find a way to care for children with the right balance — neither ignoring their genuine needs, nor subjecting them to harsh discipline. Parents who love their children should try and mould them — not in a domineering or destructive way, but through love — because the parents know many things which the children need to know but cannot know merely by osmosis or hanging around the mall, or by being given large allowances.

There’s no substitute for being there as a parent — sometimes to supervise, but sometimes just to express love, caring, and a sense that the universe is a basically friendly place, even if the child can’t avoid having some painful experiences (like bullying). Parents need to teach one of the most difficult lessons of all: forgiveness of those who cause us pain.

Freedom is not as simple a concept as it might initially seem. We are free to do absolutely anything, but without wisdom we may do things which have serious negative consequences. An impulsive person may express their freedom in an irresponsible or destructive way. Then, because they cause grievous harm to others, they may have to spend years in prison or endure other serious punishment because their freedom was not tempered by wisdom.

Parents can’t make their children happy by giving them all freedom and nothing else. They do need to teach their children right from wrong and help them grow in wisdom, so that they can use their freedom wisely. Spiritual freedom is not the freedom to do absolutely anything. It is, rather, freedom tempered by wisdom and compassion — the freedom of a person who knows how to do the right thing that will not bring suffering on himself or others.

Parents need to be a light to children. To be a light means to be present.

In his 1986 book A Child’s Heart and a Child’s Dreams, spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy writes:

Here in the West, there is a kind of freedom that I do not endorse. Parents sometimes act out of false modesty, saying that they do not know what is best for their children. So they give their children the freedom to find out for themselves what is best. True, in comparison to a spiritual Master or a Yogi you may know nothing. But in comparison to your children, you know much more. You have made many mistakes in life, and by making mistakes you have come to know to some extent what is good and what is bad. If you really love your children, you will let them profit from your experience. Every day you should pray to God and meditate on God to illumine you so you will not misguide your children. And the illumination you get, you have to offer to your children. So in the children’s formative years, the parents should always tell their children what is best for them.

If children are not properly moulded when they are of a tender age, then when they grow up they may take drugs and do many undivine things. At that time the parents claim, “I didn’t teach them to do these things.” But unfortunately the parents gave them the wrong kind of freedom. Instead of teaching their own ideals to their children, they let the children make up their own minds.

When you have a child, you give your child milk because you know that it is nutritious. You do not say, “Let the child drink milk or water, whichever he prefers, and when he gets older he will realise that milk is better for him.” By that time he may have fallen sick or even died. So you make the child drink milk until he is ten or twelve years old and then, if he does not like milk, you let him drink something else.

Likewise, on the spiritual plane, parents often do not feed their children’s souls. They say that they do not know which path their children will want, which church they need or what kind of prayer is best for them, so they do not teach them anything. But what you feel is best for your own inner lives, you should also feel is good for your children. Children will die spiritually if you don’t give them inner nourishment. You are not injecting anything into them; you are giving them food. They may not like that particular food, but they have to eat or they will die. Later, when they grow up, they will have the freedom to eat whatever they choose.

Here I see thousands of children who have been misguided by their parents in the name of freedom. Freedom is available, but who can really enjoy freedom? He who listens to the dictates of his inner being and obeys the inner law. You enjoy freedom on the outer plane precisely because you listen to a higher authority, which is your own higher self. When you do not listen to your higher self, at that time you are totally limited and bound.

The parents have to feel that since they have more wisdom and experience than their children, they are the higher self of their children. They are part and parcel of their existence, but they are more conscious; therefore, they are in a position to guide their children. These same children will one day grow up and be in a position to guide and mould their own children. But when children are given freedom before they have any inner wisdom, this freedom is not good.

In America, parents always think that they have to give their children material things. But when it is a matter of love, most American parents do not give it to their children. They give a life of comfort. But there is a great difference between a life of comfort and a life of love. The child’s heart and soul do not care for money. In the depths of his own heart the child cares only for the mother’s heart, the father’s heart. If the child gets love from his parents, then he is eternally and divinely bound by his parents and he himself binds his parents in the same way.

Love has to be given unconditionally, not with the feeling of an inner bargain. If the parents think that they will love their child when he is four so that when he is twenty-five he will give them material comfort, this is absurd. God is constantly showering His choicest Blessings on us. He never cares for our gratitude. He cares only for His giving. When He is giving, He is happy. In this world, happiness comes only from giving. So the mother and father should give everything to their children unconditionally and expect nothing in return for their love. True, if the parents go on pouring their love into their children, eventually their children will offer them gratitude. But real parents do not care for gratitude; they care only for loving their children. Even if the children do not offer gratitude, at least one person will never remain ungrateful for what the parents have given to them, and that person is God. He will try to please the parents in His own divine way.

–Sri Chinmoy, from A Child’s Heart and a Child’s Dreams, Aum Publications, 1986

* * *

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


Of Further Interest

Sri Chinmoy – Love-Power, Gratitude-Flower
Thought of the Day: People Are Good
People Are Good Everywhere

The Gospel Truth About Congress

Celebrating POETS day with an ode to our underworked legislators, and blues, gospel, and jazz. Musings about art, media collage, and the nature of reality.

For the second time in less than a month, the U.S. Congress managed to shut down the government late Thursday night, by failing to fund it. Then, by about 5:30 a.m. both the House and Senate had passed the necessary funding bill for Donald Trump to sign when he woke up — in between defoliating his eyebrows and sticking new pins in his Katy Tur doll. (What that mean, what that mean?)

At one time in the hoary past, Congress harboured the quaint notion that it was their duty to pass carefully crafted budgets. More recently, they’ve taken to making do by passing a series of stopgap funding measures known as continuing resolutions or CR’s. These are hard to fathom, stuffed with pork, and no one reads them anyway. The whole process has become farcical (thus steering it into my natural territory!).

Since they were up all night having adventures, I guess congresspeople were glad to finally adjourn and beat it out of town for the weekend. They are legendary celebrants of nothing if not POETS day, i.e. “Push off early, tomorrow’s Saturday.” While celebrants in Britain and Australia consider it proper to depart by 3:30 p.m. Friday, the U.S. Congress leaves nothing to chance. A Friday train disaster or invasion of midgets might derail their plans for the weekend, so best leave on Thursday and not come back till Tuesday next. Their departure reminds me of this bit of doggerel I penned a few years back:

The moving finger writes O Lord,
And having writ takes five;
So as this Congress now adjourns,
We thank God we’re alive.
We’re glad you didn’t strike us dead
Or cleave our tongues in two;
So many things you could have done,
But kindly didn’t do.
But most of all, O Gracious Lord
We thank you for the pork
Which thanks to CR feeding time
Now drips from every fork.
The rumours reach us now and then
Of hunger in the streets;
But we’re content to roam these halls
And milk the public teats.

I think it would best be recited in a deep, serious basso profundo like that possessed by Senate Chaplain extraordinaire Dr. Barry Black:

Here’s another good basso profundo:

And while we’re on the subject of politicans, scandalizing, and backbiting, here’s one from Bessie Smith:

Moving forward a few decades, how about John Coltrane: “Spiritual”

There’s a Church of John Coltrane which has survived for nigh on fifty years, but is threatened by gentrification. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if their goal was to pray ceaselessly, to make praying as natural as breathing. This brings us full circle, back to Dr. Barry Black:

Another basso profundo with a slow and steady delivery was the late Sen. Everett Dirksen. In an unusual cultural inversion, he was so square that he actually become hip:

Well, we’ve wandered a bit, but wasn’t it worth it? Wasn’t it fun?

These different connections create what’s sometimes called a “tangled hierarchy.” Sen. Dirksen praising The Monitors in a sci-fi flick from 1969 is an inflection point where we can stop and ask ourselves what the topic-at-hand is. The answer is that there really isn’t one. The fun is in the connections or kaleidoscopic movement of different elements hitting off each other, creating some kind of multidimensional pattern that’s too vast to describe or explain. We can only experience it.

Populist media often use framing to manipulate us and force us down a narrow pathway. Buy this! Vote for that! But when we connect media sources more freely, they begin to act as frames for each other. Reality begins to look like a rich, multi-layered tapestry woven of many kinds of fabric, in which we can yet perceive certain shared themes.

The truth that can be told simply and easily in a 30-second cable news segment is a dumbed-down truth — hardly a truth at all. In their richness, the arts have the potential to reveal more profound truths.

The 1960s comprised a new phase in the history of civilization in which many cultures, many views of reality, collided. It’s no coincidence that this gave rise, in the arts, to collage forms where it was up to the viewer or listener to respond to the sum total of what was being presented — not necessarily with a logical conclusion, but perhaps simply by giving himself/herself over to the experience of it.

This is related to a field of study which I’ve tried in my way to comprehend: hermeneutics. At its simplest, Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics implies that we each see reality through our own horizon, but that we can collide with other realities, other horizons, other frames, and so become more deeply aware. This stepping out of ourselves to become the whole universe and all of history is at once an aesthetic and a spiritual experience.

To express this in art is not always easy, and may result in dense, difficult works which require some effort to understand, such as James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.

Back in the early 1970s, I remember hearing composer Eric Saltzman’s avant-garde work The Nude Paper Sermon — a multi-layered sound collage (he disputes this term) in which different kinds of music and texts are superimposed. In its way, it’s like a modern multi-track version of Finnegan’s Wake. In the original liner notes for the Nonesuch recording, Saltzman writes:

The Nude Paper Sermon is about the end of the Renaissance — the end of an era and the beginning of another.

Therefore it is about old and new means of communication, about verbal and non-verbal sound, about the familiar and the unknown, about human activity and the new technologies. It is not a “neo-classic” work nor is it a collage; rather it is “post-modern-music, post-modern art, post-style,” a multi-layer sound drama that is itself an example of the kinds of experience which it interprets and expresses: the transformation of values and tradition through the impact of the new technologies.

Recording technology makes all possible musical and sonic experiences of the external world raw material and even, increasingly, part of a common culture. Multi-track, multi-layer experience becomes the norm: Ravi Shankar, John Cage, the Beatles, Gregorian chant, electronic music, Renaissance madrigals and motets, Bob Dylan, German Lieder, soul, J. S. Bach, jazz, Ives, Balinese gamelan, Boulez, African drumming, Mahler, gagaku, Frank Zappa, Tchaikovsky, Varèse . . . all become part of the common shared experience. Recording technology also transforms that which it communicates: it makes all music part of the present and in so doing changes it. There is nothing inherently good or bad about this; technology can liberate and it can oppress. But there is no running away any more; we must master what can oppress us, learn how to use it to create and liberate.

The words of the piece are taken from John Ashbery’s Three Madrigals (texts for soloists and chorus) and The Nude Paper Sermon by Steven Wade (texts for actor). The latter, produced especially for this work, is written to suggest the contemporary verbal barrage, that endless language stream of all those who use words to manipulate others: preacher, politician, TV personality, professor, newscaster, even poet. The actor’s part is a kind of scoring imposed by composer and performer on fragments of text that are used emotively and as a kind of symbology. At times words dominate, at times they are submerged, at times a precarious balance, interaction, or interweaving is maintained.

By and large, printed texts would be beside the point; spoken language — heard and overheard, comprehensible and incomprehensible, clear, elusive, simple, complex, logical, mystifying — is the subject matter here. Perhaps one printed text is in order, however: that part of one of Ashbery’s madrigals which has a traditional structure but is made out of a series of word images and verbal snapshots. It occurs near the very beginning of the work and is set as a kind of Renaissance ruin — real fake Renaissance music (“why don’t composers write like that any more?”) overlaid with electronic graffiti:

Not even time shall efface
The bent disk
And the wicked shores snore
Far from the divining knell!
[continues]

Read the full liner notes here: The Nude Paper Sermon and Wiretap – Booklet for the CD reissue (PDF)

Parts of the John Ashbery poem stuck in my mind forever: And the wicked shores snore/ Far from the divining knell! So true, but what does it mean?

Forgive the tangent, but people tend to assume there is either sense or nonsense. Yet, beyond what makes logical prose sense, there are infinite gradations and colorations of abstraction. This is easier to understand in the visual arts than in language arts. A painting is, by its very nature, an abstract representation of something; though admittedly, some painters tried to do little more than capture their subjects with lifelike realism.

Still, it’s easy to imagine how painters, in a new era of photography where they no longer needed to be slaves to realism, could gradually relax their grip and drift by degrees toward abstraction. But because we use language almost entirely for practical purposes, we may be quick to dismiss any impractical formulation of words as simply “nonsense.”

John Ashbery’s poems are not nonsense. They often contain exquisitely crafted passages which verge on meaning, and tend to create pictures in the mind, but ultimately defy logic. That is their charm.

In dreams we visit many places, many states of consciousness. Some dreams are like parodies of reality itself, from which we wake up laughing. It’s so much like those wicked shores to snore, being as they are, far from the divining knell…

By the late 1960s, not all sound collages and abstract poetic constructions were confined to an audience of avowed avant-gardists. As Robert Worby points out in this Guardian article, borrowed texts and sounds from short or long-wave radio became part of the new language explored by the Beatles and their producer George Martin. A classic example is the song “I Am The Walrus,” which owes some of its expressiveness to a closing collage with bits of King Lear nicked from an AM radio tuned to the BBC.

Musicians are fascinated by sound, influenced by sound, view the world in terms of sound, and (according to David Amram) symphony artists often have voices which resemble the instruments they play.

Eric Saltzman passed away in 2017, and his New York Times obit included this passage:

Mr. Salzman, among his many side interests, was an avid birder, and particularly favored the song of the elusive hermit thrush.

“The other thrushes are baroque artists, constantly elaborating, reworking and adding to their showy repertoire,” he wrote on his website. “The hermit thrush is a classicist, working on the principle of less is more, multum in parvo. Constantly changing variations appear within a simple, firm musical framework. Complex chords and high overtones climb and resonate between the tree trunks to create a sense of space and depth: a song in three — no, four — dimensional space that seems to speak of eternal things.”

To the mystic, everything is God; to the composer, everything is music; to the painter, all reality a collection of shapes and colours. That is as it should be. And to the collage artist (or maker of home brew mashups), each media source has greater meaning when it collides and refracts with other media sources. The ultimate meaning is supplied by the viewer or listener.

This post isn’t really about Congress, or gospel music. It’s more a survey of reality, reflecting on different media sources which may have something in common. Seeing the connections between things is often more interesting and satisfying than trying to wring out of them some trite prose conclusion about which one can say: lesson learned. How much more enjoyable to say: experience noted!

Backtracking to planet earth and the prosaic meaning of this post, I admit that my poem takes a rather bleak and sardonic view of Congress. In truth, there are some good people there — people of integrity without whom things would be far worse than they are. In between Congressional baseball games and Congressional turkey shoots (the two are sometimes combined for efficiency’s sake), Congress does occasionally turn its attention to doing the people’s business. (Some committees specialise in minding other people’s business. Trey Gowdy, do not ask for whom the bell tolls! What’s that committee called? The House Overbite Committee? “There’s been some backbiting goin’ on.” Meanings refract and collide!)

I’m trying really hard to close by saying some good things about Congress, but am not in the proper mood. Okay, when push came to shove, they actually did manage to nearly impeach Richard Nixon. (Hint, hint.)

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


The Gospel Truth – Video Annex

Michael Stanley: “Poet’s Day” (lyrics here)

Van Morrison: “Summertime In England” (lyrics here)

The Church of Saint Coltrane:

Gandharva Loka Orchestra: “Ai, Ai, Ai Chandra Taraka” (lyrics here)

Eric Saltzman: The Nude Paper Sermon Part 1 (YouTube)
Eric Saltzman: The Nude Paper Sermon Part 2 (YouTube)

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Enlighten

In ordinary conversation, to enlighten is to inform. I enlighten you on the latest box scores, and you enlighten me about the spaghetti dinner at Luigi’s. The president enlightens us about his subterranean homesick penthouse blues. His daily tweets remind us of his unenlightened state.

In the field of spirituality, enlightenment has a deeper meaning: to receive abundundant light which is all-transforming. Spiritual enlightenment can be a sudden burst of light which lasts for a few hours or a few days, or, in the case of a great spiritual figure, it can be an ultimate enlightenment which does not fade. Having learned the truth of life, this truth is not forgotten or eclipsed. The spiritual master remains in a permanently enlightened state from which he conducts his day-to-day activities.

In Entertainment versus Enlightenment, Sri Chinmoy recounts traditional stories in a humorous vein — some about the great Mogul Emperor Akbar and his minister and court jester, Birbal:

Akbar is Superior to Indra

Once Akbar asked his ministers and the others present in his court, “Tell me frankly, who is superior: Indra, the Lord of the Gods, or I? Be very frank.”

Everybody was shocked, and nobody dared to answer. If they said that Indra was superior to Akbar, Akbar would be displeased. And if they said that Akbar was superior to Indra, it would be a real lie. So they all kept silent.

But finally Birbal came forward and said, “I have the answer.”

“Then tell me,” said Akbar.

Birbal proclaimed, “You are superior.”

Akbar was outwardly amused and inwardly pleased. “Prove it,” he said.

“That is very easy,” replied Birbal. “When the Creator created you and Indra, He put both of you on a scale. On one side He placed you, and on the other side He placed Indra. Just because you were heavier than Indra, you dropped down to earth and Indra remained up in Heaven. So you see, you are superior because you are heavier. You are more fulfilling for earth. That is why you have become the Emperor of the earth.”

Akbar was very happy. He thought, “Indra remains high because he is light. I came down because of my superior weight. That is why I remain on earth.”

Spiritual comments

Everybody was happy with this answer. But poor Akbar did not get the point. He did not understand that Birbal really meant that Indra was superior. Akbar thought that just because he was heavier in weight he had more power.

In the spiritual life, a seeker sits on the scale every day. God places him on one side of the scale and his ignorance on the other side. The seeker always finds that his ignorance is heavier, much heavier than his knowledge and wisdom. Then he feels miserable. So he tries to pray, he tries to meditate, and gradually he increases his knowledge and inner wisdom. Simultaneously the other side of the scale, his ignorance, becomes lighter and lighter.

Finally a day comes when he has only knowledge. His ignorance has all been devoured or illumined by his inner knowledge. When there is nothing on the other side of the scale, the knowledge side drops down to earth again and the seeker enters into the world to work for mankind with his newly acquired wisdom. With this wisdom-power he tries to conquer the ignorance of the world.

— Sri Chinmoy

In this passage, to enlighten means to lighten the side of the scale which represents ignorance, and to acquire wisdom which can transform the world.

Douglas Hofstadter is a college professor who first achieved recognition with his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach. He evinced great intellectual curiosity about the Japanese zen tradition, and the teaching stories which often mystify the unenlightened, but may act as a catalyst to enlighten those seeking after enlightenment. In Chapter IX, Hofstadter serves up this zen story:

Hyakujo wished to send a monk to open a new monastery. He told his pupils that whoever answered a question most ably would be appointed. Placing a water vase on the ground, he asked: “Who can say what this is without calling its name?” The chief monk said: “No one can call it a wooden shoe.”

Isan, the cooking monk, tipped over the vase with his foot and went out. Hyakujo smiled and said: “The chief monk loses.” And Isan became the master of the new monastery.

What I take from this story is that enlightenment is not simply more information, or even a different way of thinking. Enlightenment is a radically different perception which breaks the mold or overturns the vase in which we had previously stored a host of unenlightened perceptions and experiences. To enlighten is to palpably vanquish ignorance. Enlightenment is made of different “stuff” than information or ideas. Information and ideas about enlightenment are only “pointing at the moon,” but are not the moon itself.

One might venture to ask: “Can one enlighten and entertain at the same time?” In Sri Chinmoy’s case, clearly the answer is yes. If his own prodigious ventures in the arts were not proof enough, he explicitly addresses this question in his writings:

The ultimate aim of the spiritual life is enlightenment. But we must not have the wrong notion that enlightenment excludes entertainment. Enlightenment does include entertainment. Real entertainment is not and need not be restless, vital excitement. It can come from an innocent, spontaneous feeling of joy from deep within and be the simple expression of this inner, sweet, tender, soulful feeling. This kind of innocent entertainment gives the rest of the world the same kind of spontaneous, childlike innocent joy.

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Everything is in seed form in the inner world first, and then only can it become manifested in the outer world. The embodiment of thought-reality, which is manifested here in the form of art or in any other form, first existed in the inner world. Never see anything with your mind’s eye. See everything with your heart’s eye. Then you will see that everything is beautiful. Art is meant for man’s understanding. It is meant for man’s blending with the inner life’s inner ecstasy.

— Sri Chinmoy

Art charms and entertains us, but if it is spiritual art it also enlightens us or points us toward profound inner truths.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are those of the author, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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The Last Crossword – A Play (video)

A fresh take on the subject of crossword puzzles, spirituality, and death (with some talking animals thrown in for good measure)

This is a short play I wrote in 2004, based on Sri Chinmoy’s telling of a traditional story about Ramdas Kathiya Baba. The story, called “I am going Home,” may be read online at Sri Chinmoy Library:

The play was performed in Bali in early 2004, with Devashishu Torpy playing Ramdas Kathiya Baba, and Sahadeva Torpy his crossword-loving disciple Rakhal (a very moving performance!).

Look for Kanan as the cow, Sanjay as the tiger, with special guest appearance by Ketan Tamm as the roving reporter — a character not in the original story, but being more in the nature of a gratuitous anachronism.

The play was performed outdoors, and according to one apocryphal story, when Sanjay made his exit by leaping over a wall (souple et féroce comme un tigre), he thoroughly startled a casual observer! Thank you to everyone who made the play possible, including the videographers.

I re-dedicate this play to Sri Chinmoy on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of his Mahasamadhi.

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