September 21, 2013
Napoleon once said, “Never interrupt your enemy when he’s in the middle of making a mistake.” And if my brief and more or less unsuccessful experiences with violence have taught me anything, it’s this: when we’re engaged in a conflict, it’s easy to be taken in by the false impression that we are facing perfect adversaries. When I was a kid, I used to pass this park on 175th St.. I never liked walking by there, because there was a gang of boys slightly older than me who used to tackle me and take my things. What I remember most is the way everything seemed like a blur as soon as they started pouncing on me. It was as though some thousand-armed god were raining his blows down on my body. There seemed to be no spaces in the beating, only a solid wall of hurt. Had I faced violence year after year, I no doubt would have changed my perception of what was happening. I would have learned to see spaces between the blows. I would have learned that no adversary is perfect. And I would have learned to wait for those boys’ mistakes — a loss of balance, a punch thrown too far — to seize an opportunity to prevail.
The spiritual life is predicated on a desire for peace — the deepest peace possible — and yet, if we’re honest, we have to admit that there are enemies inside us. Not every thought we think, not every impulse we have, not every belief we tender, leads towards our true wellbeing. It’s not that the mind is fundamentally bad or that we ourselves are fundamentally bad. Yet there are real dangers in how and what we think. One of the reasons we have a hard time admitting these dangers to ourselves is that our mental perceptions seem inevitable. A thought such as “I always say the wrong thing” enters the mind, and we immediately see that thought as being perfectly formed and solid. And when friends console us, saying, “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” we tend to defend our thoughts with this further thought: “But what I’m thinking is true!” We take the idea that our thoughts are true very seriously — as though some team of scientists had independently verified our worst fears. But of course, there is no such team of scientists. There is only our habit of believing whatever we think.
Why do we do this? We believe what we think primarily because we see no spaces between our thoughts. Our internal arguments seem so continuous, so seamlessly woven together, that the idea of a truth apart from them seems impossible. Our thought-patterns are like those huge corporations that never pay taxes because they are so intricately woven into our economy that eventually the idea that they shouldn’t be held accountable starts to seem natural. And we’re sort of like the IRS, which prefers to go after small businesses and individuals because they’re less trouble to deal with: we prefer to blame our sorrows on a noise in the street or a change in the weather, rather than deal with the thought-monopolies that are running the show inside our heads.
And yet, there is space between the blows. No empire is perfect, no enemy without a weak point. The secret to finding this space is somewhat counter-intuitive, for it requires not so much energetic resistance as a certain kind of acceptance. Chuang Tzu tells a story that illustrates this well. Once upon a time, he says, there was a butcher named Ting. Butcher Ting cut meat with the same knife for decades without ever sharpening his blade. People would come to him and ask, “How do you manage not having to sharpen your blade?” He would answer, “I aim for the spaces between the joints. That way, my blade actually hits nothing at all, so it never wears down.” And dealing with pain inside the mind requires the same approach: in order to find the weak points in your destructive thought-patterns, you have to begin by aiming at something that offers no resistance: your inner goodness. For you already have inside you, to some degree, patience, kindness, determination, and all the other qualities you need to be happy. The key is that you must put your attention on those “spaces between the joints,” rather than trying to hack away at the bones of your sorrows.
Your inner goodness needs to be cultivated, of course, but that cultivation comes not from trying to substitute the life you want for the life you have, but from putting your mind on what is already working — for in fact, there is some way in which you already feel yourself to be enough, to have enough. People think that acceptance and desire for change are opposites. They say, “If I accept things as they are, they’ll never change.” But acceptance and desire for change are actually more like the two feet on which a man moves forward, And in fact, if you try to walk with only one, you’ll fall down pretty quickly. But once you understand the way that acceptance and desire for change together create a forward-moving equilibrium, you can take joy in their synergy. For acceptance of who you are right now puts your being into motion, which only makes it easier to make the effort needed to feel even better about yourself. This is how the future is made.
Recently, a friend of mine said to me, “I have a problem with motivation.” I said to him, “You know, motivation is innate. If you have desires, you already have motivation to fulfill them.” He looked at me funny, and of course, what I was saying runs counter to what our culture teaches. We’re a very results-oriented culture, which is to say we know very little about the real way the present and the future are bridged. If we aren’t already running four miles in the morning, making six figures, married with kids, or fully enlightened, we assume this is because we lack some magical propulsion-system called motivation. But motivation isn’t a propelling force, like a rocket. Motivation is more like a stream that moves effortlessly towards its source. We are always, in fact, moving towards what we have been seeking all our lives (often without even knowing it.) If you’re alive and wanting to be fulfilled, you already have a stream in you that is flowing towards that fulfillment. The problem isn’t lack of current; the problem is that we keep paddling against that current. And what keeps us paddling against the current are the stories in our minds that we don’t have what it takes, that we aren’t capable of finding our way, that we can’t trust ourselves. These stories are like little rocks on which the raft of our desires gets hooked. But if you can unhook the raft, there’s no need to add further momentum: you’ll already be going where you want to go. You don’t need a mission statement or an affirmation. You already know where to go.
So the practice is actually quite simple, though it’s a practice that has to be done rather than talked or read about. For every thing or situation in your life that feels like a block, try to see the way that “block” actually has put you in contact with your innate motivation. Writing in a journal can be very helpful for understanding the stream in which all your conflicts are scattered like stones. I like to spend some time each morning writing sentences that start with the phrase, “I’m glad that …” (I like the word “glad,” because sometimes “grateful” feels too heavy or too serious.) This puts me in touch with the fact that I already have and am some of what I want in this life. Then, gradually, I’ll switch to writing sentences that start with the phrase, “I’m excited that …” That switch is very important, because it’s what puts you in touch with your inner momentum. Many people practice gratitude in a way that makes them secretly believe they don’t deserve their blessings. They say, “I’m grateful to be alive,” but what they’re secretly thinking is, “This is going to be taken away from me any second now,” and so they end up cultivating anxiety rather than gratitude. This is why using the phrases “excited” or “looking forward” can be helpful, because these phrases remind us that opportunities for being happy are abundant, not scarce. By understanding that we are already in motion, we start to see the space between the blows. But you have to practice this looking forward to what comes. You can’t just wait for it to show up on your doorstep.
The mind will resist this. You will probably hear voices telling you that your excitement, your gratitude are fake. You will probably hear voices telling you that half of what you were excited by in the past never materialized, never came to pass. And it’s true: a lot of the things we are excited by in life don’t end up coming to us in the form we would like. When I wake up in the morning, I’m usually excited by the prospect of doing ten or twenty things that day, and I’m lucky if I can make a quarter of them happen. The point, though, is that this “success rate” doesn’t matter, because happiness is not like a to-do list that we check things off of. Happiness is simply the absence of resistance, and we experience — at least in a small way — that absence of resistance when we learn to look forward to our work here on earth, rather than worrying about completing that work.
In this regard, the creative process works in the same way. Artists sometimes have trouble finding fulfillment in their creative lives, not because this frustration is in the natural order of things, but because they tend to waste their time either uprooting their own gardens or dreaming of other people’s. There is this prevailing idea, especially in America, that creativity is the result either of innate talent or else of hard work. And in fact, neither belief is true. There is no amount of talent or hard work that will come out of you if you fall prey to your own insecurities, and this is why a lot of what art consists of isn’t technique or inspiration, but rather, training the mind to focus on what is already beautiful. Spilling paint on a canvas or words on a page doesn’t require nearly as much energy as people believe. What is required, however, is focus — specifically, focus on the potential that all lines, colors, words, and sounds have to bring insight into the truth of things. And that focus requires an appreciation for things as they imperfectly are and the determination to resist the idea that what blocks us from that truth is a solid, inevitable force.
There’s a Japanese proverb that’s been making the rounds recently: “Fall down seven times and stand up eight.” It hardly needs to be said that to flourish in this life requires resilience. The problem is that people think of resilience as a type of brute strength, rather than as a skill. No one is born with the ability to stand up every time he’s knocked down. You have to practice resilience in your mind before you can live it in your life. For like a ship on the water, it is freedom from resistance, not striving, that keeps bringing us back up to the surface.
Paul Weinfield is the singer, songwriter, and founder of Tam Lin, a New York City-based band whose adventurous brand of storytelling-folk rock has earned it comparisons with Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Radiohead, and Talk Talk. Tam Lin’s newest album, Medicine For a Ghost, will be out in the fall of 2013.
July 18, 2013
When you were younger, perhaps just after you left home, you may have found yourself at a family gathering at which someone suggested putting on an old home video that featured you in it. You may have reluctantly sat down by the TV and winced in front of that gangly, awkward double of yourself. What might have hurt more, and somewhat to your surprise, were the comments people around you made as you watched. “Look how ridiculous you looked!” they may have said. “God, you were so fat back then!” The pain those comments caused you years later might have startled you, so much so that the next time someone suggested watching that family movie, you might have blurted out angrily, “Can we please not watch that again?” And yet, as still more years went by, you may have learned to watch that movie — you may have even learned to enjoy it. You may have reached that point of equanimity that expresses itself in a smile that says, “Yes, that was me with the rat-tail and the bad skin.” But that kind of equanimity comes with time and growth.
So here’s the thing. All day long, your mind plays family movies. I don’t mean external movies, of course. I mean that whenever you find yourself lost in a thought that you didn’t deliberately choose in that moment, that thought is nothing but a repetition of the past, a repetition of something that happened a long time ago. The thoughts you think without choosing are like light from stars that have long since burned out. This is a hard thing for us to accept, because our rants, our anxieties, our resentments feel so real and crucial to the present. But they’re not really present. They’re remnants of the past to which we’ve surrendered the present. The situation is actually worse, because we’re not just watching old movies — we’re sitting around with a bunch of other voices in our heads and rudely commenting on them. Those voices, like the movies, are also dead. They belong to other people, people who have either passed away or else no longer play an active role in our lives. So when you think about it, getting lost in thought is basically sitting around with a bunch of ghosts watching old VHS tapes. A good premise for a horror movie, actually.
It’s interesting, though: We learned such great strategies for dealing with those external family movies. Why have we not developed similar strategies for dealing with the movies in our heads? We learned how to walk out of the room when that particularly ridiculous scene of us dancing to “Billie Jean” came on. We learned how to change the subject and say, “Hey, does anyone want to go out onto the porch for a bit?” We learned to evade, dodge, and move away from what didn’t feel good around us. And yet, we rarely learn to do the same with the movies in our heads. The yearning or the self-loathing comes on the screen of our awareness, and we somehow can’t stop watching. But the beginning of wisdom consists in this thought: we can stop watching.
We can stop watching. But in order to learn how to stop watching, we first have to understand that we can’t “get our way” within the mind in the same manner we learned to get our way in childhood. In childhood, most likely, we learned that when we made a scene or retaliated against someone, eventually a member of the family got up and changed the channel for us. But the mind doesn’t work that way. In the mind, unlike in your family home, there are no doors you can slam shut, no tantrums that give you control over your environment. The mind simply mirrors your actions and changes in line with them. So when we have a thought and don’t like that we’re having that thought, the mind simply plays that old tape some more. We have trouble accepting this basic law of the mind: when we argue with the thoughts in our heads, they become magnified in our awarenesses, and ultimately, therefore, in our lives. We have trouble accepting this law, and yet it is law.
So what’s to be done? The way to stop watching old movies is to make new ones, and the way to make new ones to learn how to appreciate the goodness in our lives. That might sound strange. Normally, we think of the things we don’t like about our lives as “reality,” and we push constantly and uselessly against that reality. On the other hand, we think of the things we’d like to appreciate about our lives as our “dreams” and “fantasies.” So we confuse the past and the present, in other words. Think about it. Did you ask to have those dreary thoughts about all the things you don’t like about your life? Probably not. You’d prefer to have thoughts that feel good, right? Probably so. So if the thoughts about your life that don’t feel good aren’t ones you chose, then how did they get into your head? They got there because of the past, so they are real as the characters of an old movie, which is to say not real at all, unless you forget that you’re staring at screen.
On the other hand, when we learn to appreciate the goodness in our lives, we learn to take action that is born from a real choice to think about what feels good to think. In other words, when we appreciate the goodness in our lives, we truly live in the present. People have all these weird ideas about what “being present” means. They talk as though being present were some kind athletic feat like walking on a tightrope. But being present doesn’t require any Olympic-style focus; it only requires the deliberate exercise of choice about what to put your attention on at any moment. For example, when you’re standing in line at the post office, being present doesn’t mean staring intensely at the package in your hands or pretending that you somehow like being there. Being present in that situation means being able to use that opportunity to put your mind on what feels good. So you might use that time to focus on your breath and enjoy the pleasant sensations it offers you. You might also use that time to count your blessings or just appreciate whatever is pleasing around you. Sometimes merely appreciating the different people, sights, and sounds in your immediate environment is enough to remind you that you are a creator, not just a consumer, of your experience. That’s how new movies get made — not by yearning for new ones, but by becoming a director yourself.
A really good sign that we’re lost in our old movies is when we find ourselves caring about what others think of us. We like to defend our desire to be liked, of course, and we often do so by arguing that this desire is “natural.” We all know, however, that not everything that is natural is good for us. And on a deeper level too, we have to admit that our belief that “wanting to be liked is natural” is an expression of our doubt that we have control over our happiness. The idea that we have to be concerned with whether we are liked is the same as the idea that we have to watch a movie if someone else puts it on. And not surprisingly, the same old movies have the same old endings, which is why our desire to be liked generally leads us to same old conclusion that, in fact, we are not liked, at least not by the right people in the right way. We see this a lot in the realm of romantic love. We might be sure that we are loved by a billion people, yet as soon as we fall for a certain kind of person, all of life becomes focused on what that person thinks about us. And if someone were to ask, “Does it actually matter if that person feels the same about you?” we would react in horrified disbelief, saying, “Does it matter? My God, all of life depends on it!” When we’re caught in that kind of clinging, it doesn’t help to try and push the desire away. This is the mistake so many people make. They try to stop fixating on what the other person thinks about them and end up fixating on in even more desperately.
When we are caught in fixation about whether we are liked or loved enough, there are usually two ways to ease that fixation. One is to put the attention on something completely different, and here physical activities are often very helpful. People intuitively know that a good way to ease fixation is to exercise or take a walk. The problem, though, is that you can’t do that all day long, so at some point you’re going to be alone with your old thoughts of wanting to be liked. When that happens, the skill of appreciation can be extremely helpful: Instead of focusing on how that other person feels about you, focus on how you feel about him. To do this properly, you really have to watch your mind, because the mind will try to slip back into its old patterns by thinking, “I really feel good about this person … which is why I hope that person feels good about me.” When that happens, you can remind yourself that your happiness depends on finding goodness in your life, so you only need to focus on what you appreciate about the other person. If you can’t hold appreciation for your beloved in your mind, cultivate appreciation for other people. It’s amazing how much we think we are in love because we think about love — and yet, we are remarkably bad at identifying what we actually like about the people we’re in love with. A man says, “I love her! I’m so miserable!” But when he tries to identify what qualities in his beloved he appreciates, he often finds either that there wasn’t much there in the first place, or that, if there was, he’s remarkably unskilled at focusing on those qualities. And that’s because his old movies still matter to him more than his new experiences.
I’ve always found the cliche, “Those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it,” particularly annoying. What bothers me about the phrase is that it makes it sound as though our problems come from not thinking enough about the past, as though if, for example, people read more about the Holocaust then that sort of thing would never happen again. I think it’s pretty clear that people rarely learn anything from the past, no matter how much they study it. And it’s the same with the narratives in our heads: we don’t “get to the bottom of them” by thinking about them more. In fact, the idea that we have a duty to think about the past is precisely what keeps us from growing. It’s not that we have a duty to learn from the past, but rather, that we have a duty to teach the past. Teaching the past means exercising choice in the present moment by choosing from among the potentials that the past has given us — in the same way that, for example, teaching a child means choosing which potentials in that child to foster. We teach the past not by fighting what has come before, but rather, by learning the skill of appreciation so that we can cultivate the seeds we have inherited that are worth growing.
The Buddha compared our ability to see goodness in others to the ability of man who is dying of thirst to slurp up water from a puddle. That comparison might seem dramatic, but from the standpoint of our own wish for happiness, it’s quite accurate. There is no way our hearts can thrive without this skill of learning to appreciate the goodness in others. This is true when we harbor hatred towards others, but also when we are attracted to others and caught in wanting their affection. In both cases, our ability to quench the deep thirst we feel depends not on separating ourselves from others or lashing out at them, but in calmly and patiently reminding ourselves of the sustenance that their goodness offers us. In the end, the moments when we can appreciate others are the only reason for us to be together. Everything else about interacting others is a waste of time. We might think it’s a relationship or partnership we’re after, but all of that is just images on a screen, an apparition from a dead world. It’s in appreciation that we truly start living.
Paul Weinfield is the singer, songwriter, and founder of Tam Lin, a New York City-based band whose adventurous brand of storytelling-folk rock has earned it comparisons with Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Radiohead, and Talk Talk. Tam Lin’s newest album, Medicine For a Ghost, will be out in the fall of 2013. Beats Per Minute is pleased to premiere the video for “Golden Apples,” the first released single from that album, at: http://beatsperminute.com/media/video-premiere-tam-lin-golden-apples/
July 6, 2013
You may have heard the expression, “The devil is in the details.” You may also have heard the expression, “God is in the details.” And you may have thought: Well, which is it?
The Gnostic writers of antiquity understood well the way in which detail can be both divine and diabolical. They expressed this idea in a variety of creation myths, all of which shared a common narrative thread: in the beginning, they agreed, there was a good god who doubted whether creating the universe would be a good idea. In some of these stories, the good god decided that creation would be a mistake, so it was another, diabolical force (the Demiurge) who brought the universe forth in all its specific details. In other versions, however, the good god decided to go through with creation, even though he realized the mess he was getting himself into, because he understood that the joy of discovering the divine within a specific point of focus is far greater than the joy of experiencing the divine abstractly. The metaphor many of the Gnostic writers used to describe this is that of an oyster and a pearl: this world, they said, is a prison, but only in the sense that, like an oyster shell, it both locks in and creates something of great value. So for those who are patient enough to look beneath the surface of things, the details are divine. For those, however, who take the world simply as it appears to be, the world is demonic.
Whether or not words like “God” or “devil” mean anything to you, these myths are quite accurate representations of the way our human feelings work. Have you noticed that when you feel bad about a situation, the more you focus on its details, the worse you feel? But have you also noticed that when you feel good about a situation, the more you focus on its details, the better you feel? For example, if you get into a fight with someone, the more you catalogue the ways that that person has wronged you, the more angry you feel. But if you sit down to plan your summer vacation, all of a sudden each new detail of your trip elevates you to a new height of enthusiasm. We all know this intuitively. The problem is that it rarely, if ever, occurs to us that we have a choice about whether to think generally or specifically about a given situation. Most of the time, we just grasp onto details as they arise in our minds and follow them without any deliberate intent. This means that our chances of improving or hurting our current mood through the thoughts we think are more or less equal. As the Buddha said, most people’s destinies are like a stick thrown up into the air: sometimes it lands on one end, sometimes the other.
If we want to have more control over our happiness, we need to learn to have more control over when and how we use the mind’s ability to think in terms of detail. Our ability to fill in the details of a situation is more mechanical than we realize, and as with any machine, this ability creates problems when we leave it running all the time. So the first thing we need to locate is the “on/off” switch of our detail-oriented thinking. One good way to do this is to learn how to bring awareness out of the verbal realm and into the body, so that when the details of a particular train of thought get ugly, the comforting sense of simply inhabiting a body can provide a refuge from what would otherwise become a downward mental spiral. For example, if you are dreading seeing someone with whom you have difficulty, and if you feel your mind begin to delve into all the specific reasons your meeting could go wrong, it can be very helpful to bring your awareness to some part of your body that feels good — say, your hands or feet or chest. This ability to shift from discursive to bodily awareness is a very important skill to learn, though obviously it can’t be the only skill you use to be happy, since eventually you’ll have to attend to some of the details of your life. But bodily awareness does give you a vantage point from which to understand that you are free to choose the time and order in which you think engage with the details of your life.
A basic rule of thumb in choosing when and how to think about details is this: think specifically about a topic only when you’re already in a good mood about it, and think generally about a topic when you’re not in a good mood about it. If you have to think using details, change topics until you find one that you do feel good about. This is very counter-intuitive, because we’ve been conditioned to believe that we aren’t “allowed” to change topics in our minds until we’ve completely settled all the issues related to one topic, but in fact, our chances of solving a problem are directly proportional to our ability to put our minds on what feels good, so we have to learn how to change topics. For example, let’s say you have to take a test next week that you’re feeling anxious about. Once you notice that you have anxiety around the test, you have to resist the urge to think about the details of what might go wrong. You can think generally about the test — for example, you can think, “I have some anxiety about what will happen” — and then turn to the details of other topics that make you feel good. This could take the form of a mental gratitude list. You might think, for example, “There are a lot of wonderful things going on in my life right now. I liked that event I went to the other night and I like the book I’m reading and I like the way that person on the street smiled at me.” Be careful about trying to make your gratitude too weighty or profound. If something in your life brightens your mind, no matter how small or trivial it is, use it! If you practice this technique of appreciative detail enough, you’ll find yourself naturally solving your problems more effectively. For the ability to solve problems depends not on approaching them directly, but rather, on approaching them with the right mood.
Finding a strategic relationship to detail-oriented thinking makes not only for a happier life, but for a more creative one too. Many people think creativity is a matter of hard work, and while there can be no doubt that some people who have great creative ideas fail to execute them, seeing creativity as a matter of work misses the point. A worker is someone who shapes what lies is in front of him, but a creator is someone who shapes what is not yet in front of him, i.e., what is not yet visible. So if you approach creativity as a worker approaches his work, you may develop a bit of skill in, say, playing scales or using perspective in your drawings. But you will always be nagged by the existential question, “Why this and not something else?” You will never have the sense of inevitability that must precede all creative activity. In truth, most people who fail to execute their creative ideas do so not because of laziness but because of a lack of conviction that they could possibly bring into existence something that does not yet exist. And this is because they think in too much detail at an inappropriate time. What any creator understands is that the general form of something must exist before the details — that, in fact, it is this intuitive, general form, rather than hard work, that arranges details into an appropriate order. As every visual artist knows, you have to know how to sketch before you can draw. This is not a matter of mere technique. It’s a matter of practicing a mood in which you understand that details are meaningful only when something transcendent has first been accessed. This is the point at which the distinction between us and gods starts to blur, for we all have this ability to create out of nothingness. The trouble is that we’re so attached to the idea that we are obligated to make order out of what already exists.
The Gnostics understood humanity as the battlefield between God and the Devil, and while that drama might seem dated and silly to us moderns, humanity is indeed a battlefield between two principles: one is the idea that we’re here to create, and other is the idea that we’re here to work. I once bought a replica of an ancient Persian engraving in Iran that I now keep over my desk. It shows a man and a lion locked in combat. The man, I was told, represents the light, and the lion represents darkness. I keep the replica because, for me, it symbolizes the struggle inside me between freedom and obligation. When I write a song, for example, this struggle is always there: Part of me knows that I’m free to create anything I want. Yet another part of me keeps insisting that I have to pay homage to what already exists, that I will somehow be betraying something important if I create from nothingness. Einstein famously said that imagination is more important than knowledge, and I think he meant just this: if we are to be truly fulfilled on this human plane, that can only happen through our ability to see what isn’t yet there. Yet humans are so often lost in details.
What the symbol of the lion fighting the man doesn’t reveal, however, is that our imaginations triumph not through resistance but through love. Love is a big word, I know, and I don’t mean by it that sense of obligation that society parades as love. That sort of impostor love is best recognized by the fear that accompanies it: that love is, in fact, nothing more than hard work. Once we start believing that love is hard work, we diminish ourselves to being drones in a beehive: we may think we’re serving some queen, but we’re really just doing service for something we’ll never get to experience. We experience love most vividly and most gratefully when we understand that we are its creators it, and we learn to do that not by waving banners and proclaiming great ideals, but by learning how to choose, moment by moment, to look at the beauty in the things and people around us. It doesn’t matter if we’re looking at a pleasing face or a great mountain or the thousand-page volume we’ve just finished writing. Whatever we appreciate gets us closer to our nature as creators. The Judeo-Christian tradition taught us that, in the beginning, it was a transcendent God who created the universe and then saw that it was good, but that’s actually backwards. It is more correct to say it this way: when a person sees what is good, he becomes creator of a universe. It is appreciation that allows us to recognize the free and limitless beings we actually are.
Paul Weinfield is the singer, songwriter, and founder of Tam Lin, a New York City-based band whose adventurous brand of storytelling folk-rock has earned it comparisons with Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Radiohead, and Talk Talk. Tam Lin’s newest album, Medicine For a Ghost, will be out in the fall of 2013. Beats Per Minute is pleased to premiere the video for “Golden Apples,” the first released single from that album, at: http://beatsperminute.com/media/video-premiere-tam-lin-golden-apples/
June 19, 2013
Ibn al-‘Arabi tells a story of a man from Yemen named Khalid bin Sinan who once received a vision from God. The Lord said to Khalid, “I will show you the truth of your dreams and where they come from. But first, you must pass through death. Tell your children that in two weeks time you will die, and that they should bury you and wait. After forty days, they’ll see a donkey with split ears and no tail pass your tomb. They should dig up your body then, for you will be alive once more and filled with knowledge of the unseen world.” Khalid did as he was told, and in two weeks time he lay down and passed away. His children buried his body and waited. After forty days, the donkey with split ears and no tail passed Khalid’s tomb, but Khalid’s children were seized by this doubt: “What if our father’s body has already started to decompose?” they said. “Think of the shame it would bring this family to dig up our father’s rotten corpse.” So they did nothing, and their father never returned to them from the dead. Some months later, while Khalid’s children slept, the Lord came to them in their dreams, saying, “Prophecy is given to all men, but few will dig for it. Therefore, do not say that you are lost, but rather say that you have squandered the direction given to you.”
Seeking wisdom is like digging up a grave. To truly change for the better, to become the people we were meant to be, we have to face two possible horrors: the horror that what we thought was beneath the surface of our lives is not actually there, and the horror that what is actually there is nothing like what we thought. For what we normally see in our lives is not reality, but our stories about reality, and so any attempt to change our lives by looking at them directly is bound to feel like entering the world of the dead. We would rather mourn according to what we already know than expose ourselves to the what we don’t yet understand.
Now, it’s not that the stories we tell ourselves are all that comforting. Most of them are as miserable as they are boring. If we look at the volumes that line the bookshelves of our minds, we find some pretty depressing titles: “No One’s Good Enough For Me,” “Something Bad Always Happens,” “When’s This Going to End?” etc. As my teacher likes to say: the stories we tell ourselves aren’t exactly bestsellers. But we keep telling them anyway, not because they make us feel better, but because we learned their narrative structure when we were young, and like those traditional storytellers who are initiated at a young age into the practice of passing oral tradition down through the generations, we feel it’s our duty to keep telling our ancestors’ legends. We are like the children of Khalid in the story above, more concerned with following tradition than with finding something new and wonderful in our lives. And so, as Philip Larkin wrote, “Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf.”
We all know that if we don’t move beyond our inherited stories, we will lead mediocre lives. And yet, we find it so hard to let go of our stories, because we don’t yet know how to tell — and how to believe in — new ones. For example, here’s a story I’ve struggled with a lot in my life. It’s called: “Things Are Hard.” It’s a pretty idiotic tale, actually, and at this point in my life I can laugh about it, but the horrible truth is that, whenever something in my life comes to me easily or without effort, it’s very hard for me to resist placing that detail of ease into the larger narrative about how things are actually very hard. So I might say to myself, “Well that was easy, even though things are really hard,” or, “That was easy, but now I better start doing some real hard work,” or (my favorite,) “If I work really hard things will get easier.” The reason why the details don’t alter the basic story is that the basic story isn’t actually unfolding: its values and conclusions were written long ago and will always control any details I add to it. You can’t become happier by adding happier thoughts to a fundamentally sad story, just as you can’t take Romeo and Juliet and rewrite it so it has a jolly ending. At some point, you’re going to have to take a look at the larger narrative and make an effort to abandon it.
So how do you abandon an inherited story? The first step is to start looking at your thoughts not in terms of whether you think they are “true,” but in terms of how they make you feel. Your body intuitively knows what is living and what is dead, what is healthy and what is sick, in how you think. So you have to keep foremost in mind this principle: if thinking a certain way makes you feel bad, then that way of thinking is bad. It doesn’t matter how loud the voices in your head scream at you to pay attention. There’s no thought that makes you unwell that you must think, at least not in that form. Once you develop a sensitivity to how the stories you tell yourself resonate in your body, you can begin to discard the ones that hurt. And that right there is a huge burden off the mind.
But there’s something else you have to do if you really want to release the burden of your inherited stories. You have to learn how to pick up the threads of new stories that are actually going somewhere you’ve never been before. This isn’t just a matter of putting on a smiling face and telling yourself, “It will all work out,” because you probably don’t believe that story, at least not yet. To tell a happier story, one you can actually believe in, you have to resist your conditioned impulse to look for evidence for that story in the world. For example, if you don’t get along with your father, and your usual story is, “My Father Is Impossible,” you have to check your desire to look for evidence to the contrary, at least at first, because as long as you’re stuck in your old narrative, the only evidence you will find in the world will be evidence that your father is, in fact, impossible. This doesn’t mean you should invent details to the contrary. It means you need to look for anomalies and irregularities in your life, and try to see why they aren’t fitting into your usual narratives. The Thai ajaans put it simply: you have to strive to see something you haven’t seen before.
How do you do this? The best way to train yourself to look for anomalies in your life is to work first with more emotionally neutral topics. Here’s a great practice: At the end of each day, write down three things that happened that were out of the ordinary. Then, reflecting with eyes closed or writing on a piece of paper, answer these questions:
- How does each anomaly make you feel?
- How are all these anomalies connected?
- What do these anomalies show you that you didn’t know before?
This training doesn’t have to work with anything too profound to have profound results. I’ll give a recent, mundane example from my life. A few weeks ago, I sold something on eBay, but for some reason, I had a strong block against going to the post office to send off what I had sold. At the same time (though I didn’t make the connection till later,) I was having a technical problem with something I was recording. I had a felt-sense that my dread of the post office was connected to my larger story of, “Things Are Hard,” so I decided to experiment with seeing my task not as a burden, but rather, as a clue to the puzzle of why I tell that story. So keeping that detective-spirit in mind, I went to the post office and found that it was actually easier than I thought to send off the package. But more interestingly, as I was standing in line, this thought occurred to me: If using eBay and the post office isn’t so hard, maybe I should search for the answer to my other technical problem on eBay too. I went home and found what I was looking for in a matter of minutes and for next to nothing.
There is great magic in the world, and this magic has nothing to do with the hand of God or with some preordained fate. The magic of the world is the way events and circumstances effortlessly organize themselves when we don’t resist them with our preconditioned thinking. When we turn to what is difficult to understand, what doesn’t quite “fit,” and we ask ourselves what next actions these anomalies are calling us to take, we receive new connections that can help us solve all sorts of problems. The tension anomalies cause us is actually a source of fun, in fact. For in the end, it isn’t our problems that cause us suffering, for humans are by nature problem-solving animals, and nothing brings us greater joy than seeking and finding solutions. We suffer because of our stories about our problems, and once we can begin to see our problems as doorways leading to new, happier stories, we can throw ourselves joyfully into untangling the knots before us.
When I was a child, I used to play a game by myself in the woods. I’d find a stream that had a series of exposed stones running from bank to bank, and I’d run across those stones as fast as I could. This was my rule: focus only on the next stone, and don’t look ahead. I don’t think I ever was happier than when I was playing that game, and in my child’s way, I also discovered an important definition of freedom: lack of resistance in moving to the next right action. As adults, we tend to equate freedom with complete knowledge of all the answers, so we think that once we complete some course or get a certain quantity of approval from others, we will experience freedom. But knowledge of all the answers, even if we could have it, would only be another detail in the same story that we are here and the goal is still very far away. This is why adults are so obsessed with their “work,” for what they mean by work is a postponement of freedom until everything has been revealed — and this, of course, never comes. What we have always been seeking is not knowledge of how things will unfold, but rather, the certainty that everything in front of us is a stone by which we can make a path. And there’s no time other than right now to start living that way.
My friend Veronika Varlow puts it like this. She says, “Deep down inside, everybody wants to be kidnapped.” What I think she means is not that everyone wants to be thrown into the back of a van, but rather, that everyone wants to be told, “Whatever it was you thought you were going to do today, forget it. You are now part of a plan that is beyond your understanding, and you’re going to have to adapt to it.” We all want to experience that type of beautiful surrender. But don’t make the mistake of surrendering to a guru or a priest or a lover, for none of them knows the true plan in store for you. Just surrender yourself to the odd detail that lies in front of you, let its call to you unfold, and you will be free as a child running across stones in a stream.
Paul Weinfield is the singer, songwriter, and founder of Tam Lin, a New York City-based band whose adventurous brand of storytelling-folk rock has earned it comparisons with Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Radiohead, and Talk Talk. Tam Lin’s newest album, Medicine For a Ghost, will be out in the fall of 2013. For more information, please visit http://www.indiegogo.com/medicineforaghost
June 10, 2013
I’ve been thinking recently about the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Every culture has a version of this myth, for nothing is more universal than the theme of losing love due to a lack of faith. In the Greek version, Orpheus is a Thracian poet engaged to marry Eurydice. On the day of their wedding, however, Eurydice is fatally bitten by a snake. But Orpheus doesn’t give up on his love. He descends to the underworld and convinces Hades, the god of the dead, to let Eurydice return with him to the world of the living. Hades agrees on one condition: Orpheus must walk ahead of Eurydice and not look at her until they reach the surface of the earth. Orpheus agrees, but just before the couple arrive back in the world of the living, Orpheus doubts that Eurydice is behind him. He turns around to check, and the god of the dead seizes Eurydice for all eternity.
We talk a lot about the importance of faith, but rarely do we have any idea how we can cultivate it. How do you walk ahead of what you love without looking back? We tend to think of faith as a type of willpower, but this is precisely the reason why we have so little of it. You cannot will yourself to have faith; you can only try to understand what draws you away from it, what makes you keep looking back. Our insecurities are different, but they are all the same in stemming from a need for external specificity, a need to “see” a solution in front of our eyes. This is why Plato insisted that desire itself is not what makes us unhappy. What makes us unhappy, he said, is desiring what is visible rather than desiring what lies beyond the seen world. In yoga, there’s a similar idea of pratyahara, or “withdrawal of the senses” in order to find a deeper fulfillment of one’s desires. Both these ideas get at the same point: the visible world will always let you down, for what you will find in it, over and over again, is nothing but the message that what you want is not yet here. And the more you keep turning to look at what is not yet here, the more you will unconsciously work against attaining your desires.
This all sounds very mystical and possibly useful only to yogis or saints, but nothing could be more practical. When people desire, say, a new lover or a new job or a healthier body, they generally make the exact mistake Orpheus did: they cling to an overly specific vision of how things should turn out, and their specificity reinforces the idea that they are, in fact, different from what they love. For example, when a person wants a new job, his usual line of thinking is something like, “I want a new job that pays at least 60K and lets me travel. I interviewed for one like that once, but I didn’t get it …” Notice that this person’s only roadmap for attaining his desire is a list of things he doesn’t have. That means that when he starts looking for this job, his mind is telling him, “You must be who you are not,” which is, of course, an impossible demand. If the poor fellow listens to that voice, then no matter how much he exerts himself, he will always instinctively gravitate towards acting like the poor schmuck he already believes himself to be. This is the same reason why people so often want to find loving relationships but don’t: their picture of what they want is always based on what they don’t yet have, so naturally, they don’t believe love has anything to do with them when it comes to find them. And that only makes them want more painfully than ever.
The way out of this downward spiral is to shift from desiring what you can see to desiring what you can feel. For example, if you want a new lover or a new job or a healthier body, start by asking yourself, “What would it feel like to be satisfied with my lover, job, body, etc.” You can use words at first, but this practice works better if, gradually, you start to feel the fulfillment of desire in your body. This might seem impossible, and there will certainly be a part of the mind that objects: “But I can’t feel the fulfillment of desire until I get that new lover or job.” So you have to ask yourself if that’s really true. Have you never felt love before? If that were true, you’d be dead. Have you never felt materially cared for? If that were true, you’d be dead. As you start to play with desiring feelings instead of things, you start to realize that you have a profound ability to tap into the inner form of desire. You also see the ways in which you already have what you want, which only makes you feel that you deserve to get more of that.
So here’s an abbreviated practice that puts these ideas into motion. Either thinking with your eyes closed, or writing on a piece of paper, answer these questions:
- What don’t I like about my life right now?
- What does that say about what I do want right now?
- How would it feel to achieve what I want?
- In what part of my life do I already feel that way?
As you work with desiring feelings, you find that material things come to you more easily, but you also find, ironically, that you need these things less and that they are intrinsically less satisfactory than the feelings underlying them. Is the purpose of love to keep another body close to you at all times, or is it to feel love? Is the purpose of money to keep piles of paper close to you at all times, or is it to feel the sense of unfolding and possibility that money represents?
Of course, our advertising culture is constantly saying the opposite of this, namely, that material things are what create desires in us, and this means that the only way these desires can be fulfilled is by possessing the specific material objects that caused the desire in the first place. But the premise of advertising is sort of like the idea of Hell: if you don’t believe in it, you find it has no power over you. You have to give consent to the idea that the ways to fulfill desire are scarce in order to experience that scarcity in the world around you. I always cringe a little when I hear progressives railing about the unhealthy standards of beauty in our media and how we need to replace “their” standards with “our” standards. These ideas are well-intentioned but ultimately unhelpful, for if you believe that feeling attractive comes from looking a certain way — whether that way is similar to or different from what you see in ads — you will still breed low self-esteem in yourself and others. The idea ought to be to teach children how to feel beautiful rather than simply replace one external image with another. A child who has been taught how to desire feelings rather than images will not have a problem living happily in a world full of advertising.
We find desire painful primarily because we have no felt sense of what the fulfillment of desire is like. We’ve become so accustomed to thinking of desires as itches we have to scratch that, like real mosquito bites, our desires have been scraped down by us to the point of being nothing more than bleeding scabs. But what if the purpose of desire is to teach us freedom, the way that in any creative act such as music or painting, desire expresses itself as a widening of what can be rather than a narrowing of what is? What would it be like to live life that way all the time? It sounds like magic, as all things that take practice do before a person has practiced them. But in fact, the path to experiencing desire as freedom involves the repetition of a very simple practice: Find some aspect of your life in which you experience desire as something unstrained, effortless, and free. Focus on the feeling of that, and ignore for the moment any thought that makes you lose that feeling. Don’t look back to see if your love is still there.
Ernest Hemingway used to give this piece of advice to writers: Always end a writing session when you’re in the middle of a great idea. That way, when you come back to your writing the next day, you’re faced with your genius rather than your limitations. And the same is true of the art of happiness too. If you want to face the parts of your life in which you aren’t yet fulfilled, you have to start in the middle of what is already working and try to make connections from that point. Whatever there is in the external world that you need in order to make those connections will come to you from somewhere beyond your present horizon of consciousness. You don’t need to struggle to find the links. You just need to learn how to resist the temptation to make the connections happen by force of will.
There’s a story in the Arabian Nights about a magical castle that Aladdin and his genie built for a powerful Sultan. However, they left one window in the castle unfinished. When the Sultan saw the castle, he was unimpressed. “My architects could easily make a castle twice this size,” he said. “And why didn’t you finish the window?” Aladdin replied, “Your Majesty, I wanted to give you the pleasure of finishing the building yourself.” The Sultan sent for his best architects and builders, but none of them could find the right stones and jewels to complete the window. The Sultan grew more and more frustrated, until he said to Aladdin, “If you finish this window for me, I’ll give you whatever you want.” Aladdin and the genie already had the right stones and jewels, and they did this easily. The Sultan made Aladdin his vizier and gave him more riches than Aladdin could ever have dreamed of.
The moral of this story is that desire isn’t a call to bring our lives to material completion. Desire is a call to understand the value of what is still unfinished. For we make ourselves poorer by wanting to tie up all the loose ends of our lives prematurely, whereas, in fact, it is in the vacuum of what has not yet been completed that all our power lies. So when we find ourselves wanting something, rather than struggling to attain something or struggling to rid ourselves of the desire, we would do well to answer this basic question: What thought can I think right now about what is unfinished that will feel good to me? For these thoughts are a window into a world that has more value than anything we’ve yet seen in this one.
Paul Weinfield is the singer, songwriter, and founder of Tam Lin, a New York City-based band whose adventurous brand of storytelling-folk rock has earned it comparisons with Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake, Radiohead, and Talk Talk. Tam Lin’s newest album, Medicine For a Ghost, will be out in the fall of 2013. For more information, please visit http://www.indiegogo.com/medicineforaghost