Thursday, September 10, 2009

Letting Go

In many disciplines, both spiritual and artistic, a concept arises that is paradoxical within the very meaning of the term "discipline", and which more often than not causes my brows to furrow and my blood pressure to rise a notch - that is, the concept of "letting go". In Zen Buddhism one sits for endless hours taming the wild ego in meditation, holding deep and intense focus without distraction, just to be told that ultimately one must let go of that control and hard won discipline if enlightenment is even to be glimpsed. Dancers and athletes practice moves over and over and over again, battling monotony and fatigue so that in the moment of performance they can simply "let go", simply play. From many Christian pulpits one hears the admonishment to control one's desires, act morally and righteously, study the bible rigorously, but then "let go, let God". Are these just diverse definitions of an over-used cliche, or is there a common thread here, a simple, even elegant key to something larger?

I'm curious about this because I have my own discipline, my own artistic practice that I find to be the foundation for all of my creative work, and in fact the very bedrock for my sanity, without which I would most certainly spin out of control in the blink of an eye. It's sometimes boring, repetitious and mundane. At times when I'm creatively blocked, or anxious at the day to day madness all around me, or simply frustrated by my inadequacies, I can view it as a crutch, a lazy habit, simply something to keep me busy and distracted. But deep down I always know that it is absolutely necessary, and so I cling to it....and then I realize I'm clinging, and a tiny voice whispers in my ear "let go", and my brows furrow, my blood pressure rises a notch, because I'm caught in yet another paradox - how does one will oneself to let go, control oneself to be out of control?

Of course, that's my head talking, and if I let my head run things I would have to be on prozac, or perhaps something more powerful. Luckily, these head games tend to make me laugh, and laughter originates in the heart, or sometimes the belly, parts of the body that seem oblivious to paradoxes. And discipline. And rules. In fact, they seem much more interested in playing, or to use the cliche, in "letting go". Oh my, did I say that?

Ok, so the head is not yet ready to capitulate, though it will do its best to avoid paradoxes (it hates being laughed at) while exploring this curious and intriguing idea of letting go. Heart and belly will of course be dutiful companions, just in case there is a relapse. So let's, with grace and good humour, look at some different ways the concept of letting go pops up, meandering around in a wide circle, or perhaps a spiral that gradually guides us to the center in ever-tightening coils.

I've always been struck by the last phrase in that famous prayer attributed to St. Francis, the 13th Century monk, which in my favorite translation goes like this: "It is in dying to self, that we are born to eternal life." "Dying to self" sounds to me a lot like "letting go of self", but how can we just let go of our...self? Most modern psychology stresses a strengthening of the self to overcome neurosis or psychosis, so what was that ancient Italian Saint talking about? Surely he wasn't suggesting we plunge into selflessness, lack of identity, nothingness? (uh oh, I can feel a laugh building in my belly, better resolve this quickly). No no, existentialism - the ultimate head trip - hadn't been invented yet, so he must have had something else in mind. Buddhism, however, had been invented, and perhaps by "self" he meant all of those identities, costumes and masks we wear to present to the world, and indeed to ourselves, to convince the world and ourselves that we actually exist. You know what I'm talking about - doctor, lawyer, indian chief, saint, whore, bad boy, good girl, punk, gay, straight, conservative, liberal, hero, villian, genius, rascal, artist, captain of industry - all of those endlessly changeable and ephemeral trappings that we weren't born with and which, when we physically die, will evaporate. In short, our ego. Could it be that dying to our ego allows us to be born to...eternal life? Now that rather Buddhist notion came straight from the mouth of a European Christian.....who knew? Perhaps there is a web of meaning around this term "letting go" after all. But what does St. Francis have to do with a great performance of Beethoven's last piano sonata, or for that matter the composition of Beethoven's last piano sonata?

To be continued.....

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Letting Go II: Beethoven, performance anxiety, and the art of playing shortstop

Indeed, what does a Beethoven sonata have in common with a prayer from a 13th century monk? Beethoven certainly was no saint himself - especially later in life he was irascible, moody, anti-social and a tyrant to cooks and housekeepers under his employ. He was deaf and in constant bad health. Yet amidst all of this his later works, written in his fifties (he was to die at 56 years) are some of the most sublime and spiritual works of western art. If you get a chance listen with your eyes closed, without distraction or disturbance, to the second movement of his last piano sonata, opus 111 (if you can, get the recording played by Mauricio Pollini). This is not the work of a man in a bad mood, bitter over his deafness and isolation, angry at the world. This is the work of a man who has LET GO...let go of his disappointments, his pain, his decaying body. In the words of St. Francis he has died to self, and in that music is an earthly resonate touch of the eternal.

Which brings to mind another form of letting go, that of musical performance. I know a bit about this, having taken up classical piano in my twenties, studying and practicing intently for 10 years until carpal tunnel pains and the realization that I had more important things to do caused me to quit the obsession. I started late and was not a natural talent, but I reached a modest level of skill and in certain moments, always when alone, was actually able to not only play, but be the music. Those moments, small as they were for me, had their own sublimity. But perhaps more importantly, going through this phase in my life taught me to hear, and to appreciate the difference between a really authentic musical performance and one less than authentic.

Classical musicians for the most part are highly and strictly trained, often practicing 6-8 hours a day on their instrument above and beyond their other studies. This high level of discipline has a danger, that of turning the musician into a technical virtuoso without heart and feeling. I suspect this is why most people don't listen to classical music - it can sound cold and soulless compared to a good Zydeco band rocking out with joy and passion. On top of that comes the issue of performance anxiety, one I'm intimately familiar with. When performing in front of people the classical artist becomes self-conscious, aware of an intent scrutiny from the audience totally lacking in a rock concert, where the primary expectation is a good dance beat. Most of the audience knows every note to be played, every nuance in the score, and probably has a particular favorite performance locked in their memory. This can freeze a performer in the vise of judgement, which might push some deeply buried psychological buttons from either childhood or even, in the case of inexplicable phobias, from past lives (is it possible that, having been tried and executed in a past life one might carry that fear of judgement forward into later incarnations? I'm not one to answer that definitively).

So, when you hear a stiff, soulless classical music performance, you may be experiencing the musician's inability to LET GO, let go of self or self-consciousness. In such a case the best course of action is to be compassionate, it could be you afterall! And when you hear Mauricio Pollini play Beethoven's late piano sonatos, you will experience two people simoultaneously who have let go - Beethoven and Pollini.

Somehow, this discussion of performance anxiety and self-consciousness has brought up an experience of mine in adulthood, an experience of dying to self on a children's playing field, and the discovery of a personal experience that illustrated a phrase in Dostoevski's "The Brothers Karamozov" - to paraphrase, it's not miracles that create faith, but faith that creates miracles.

To be continued.....

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Letting Go III: A Grounder Up The Middle - The Yin Of It, The Yang Of It

Did I say miracles? Well, Dostoeveski did, and that quote has stuck with me since I first read it in my early twenties. I'm not prone to religious dogma, but I've experienced a few strange things (some of which I may reveal over time) and can at least attest to the word miracle with a small m.....I'll leave MIRACLE to the priests in black who are trying mightily to create faith with capitol letters. Here I have a story to tell of a miracle on a children's playing field, one so small you may argue over my use of the word, but significant nonetheless. But first, I diverge...

The other day I heard a discussion which was eerily relevant to my musings on letting go, and which sent me down a different path in my thinking (this is almost always a good thing; I rarely know where I'm going anyway and if I do think I know where I'm going it's usually the wrong destination). A Buddhist scholar was describing the Taoist notion of Yin and Yang, the male and female principles inherent in the world and indicative of the duality of existence. He was speaking of how one acts in the world, how one finds balance within the duality, and he described what he called the Yang will and the Yin will. Yang is the creative, and the Yang will was the will to act upon the world to achieve an end. He spoke of an out of balance Yang will as one that bulldozes over things regardless of the consequences, as an invading army or an abusive spouse. Yin will, as the receptive opposite to the creative Yang, expresses an attitude of letting the universe do its thing, go with the flow, or letting go of control. An out of balance Yin will is pliant, passive, unengaged - a defeated country, an abused, helpless spouse. As soon as I heard the phrase "letting go" my ears perked up, and that's when the new path opened up for my exploration.

"But, but, but..." I thought to myself "isn't letting go a kind of release of will? How can one have a Yin will, a receptive will?" The word "paradox" suddenly loomed large, and I began fidgeting in my chair. I thought back to St. Francis, and the phrase "dying to self".....letting go of self, of ego...then it hit me! It's an act of will to let go of your ego, a conscious decision, a kind of directed energy. And to let go in a performance is no less an act of will, a willful giving in to the play, a willful letting it take you over, having its way...

Which brings me back to the miracle on a children's playing field....

To be continued......

Monday, September 7, 2009

Letting Go IV: Yin, Meet Yang. Yang, Meet Yin. I'm Sure the Two of You Will Get Along Just Fine

This is a story about an adult co-ed softball game, and a particular tiny moment in time that revealed a simple but profound truth to me; however, to set up the story I have to go back to childhood, that time of big dreams, joyful play and boundless enthusiasm. I'm thinking in particular of my fifth grade year, a time when my classmates and I invented, or perhaps re-invented, a recess game we named "Smash". It was a simple game - 12 to 15 of us would gather out in the schoolyard with a ball of almost any kind, surrounding it closely as it lay on the grass. Eventually one brave soul would snatch the ball and run, the rest of us tearing after him with the intent of tackling him to the ground as viciously as we could, at which point he would let go of the ball and someone else would grasp it and run, only to be chased again by the screaming mob. If, either through fear or just bungling, the ball carrier dropped the ball before being tackled, a penalty was assessed, consisting of the entire horde jumping on top of him in a classic dog pile - thus the name, "Smash". Being 10 year old boys, this seemingly senseless activity was endlessly fun.

The typical strategy for the ball carrier was to run like hell and hope only one or two of his fellow players would catch him to make the tackle. I was not one of the large guys in my class, in fact a bit on the small side, so playing this game had more hazards for me than most. However, I had a wild streak in me in those days and played the game a little differently. My small size had one advantage - I was quick and could snatch the ball up and get away before the others could react, usually attaining a good 10 yard lead on the group before they came up to speed. It was at that point that my strategy diverged - I would stop, turn, put my head down, let out a roar and charge straight into the howling pack, usually to be bruised and battered while being pummeled soundly to the ground, laughing gleefully.

That year was also one in which I really discovered baseball. My friends and I would go out almost every nice Saturday morning in the spring and play on the schoolyard diamond until sundown, oblivious to the world outside of the playing field, lost in the endless drama of fly balls, grounders, and the glorious line drive in the gap. That summer I joined a little league team and started at shortstop for the first time, reveling in my new found role in the middle infield, excited at the possibility that any play might come my way. I was perhaps an above average player, but nothing spectacular, so I was pleased when at the end of the season I won my first and only award, granted to me by my teammates - a tiny trophy with the label "Most Inspirational Player".

Now let's flash forward to my 44th year. A few years before I had joined an adult coed softball team, and each summer we played every Saturday for a couple of months. The idea of joining a team like this is pretty basic - the opportunity to run around like a kid for a couple of hours, have a few beers and a few laughs afterwards, and occasionally go home with a teammate to have drunken sex. That's about it. And so it was for me for several summers until a fateful Saturday afternoon when in the flash of just a few seconds...

I was playing shortstop, my old childhood position. In softball the game is played on a little league sized field, quite a bit smaller than a hardball field. This is fine when you're a little munchkin, but playing infield that close to a batter when he's 250 pounds and swinging out of his shoes requires being on one's toes at all times lest a vicious line drive finds itself colliding with your noggin. On that particular day we were being hammered by the other team, a condition that had most of my teammates sagging in despair but which inspired in me a seething anger, an irrational desire to have my revenge in some manner, however small. Late in the game the opponents best hitter - a huge fellow who had already humiliated us with 2 impossibly long home runs - came to bat with a runner on first. His presence at the plate shot my adrenaline up, and I settled into a steely resolve, bent over at the waist, glove hovering inches above the dirt, ready for anything he could send my way. On the first pitch he lashed a vicious grounder past the pitcher, headed up the middle into center field.

What happened next transpired in no more than 3 seconds, so let's take ourselves into slow motion, like in the movies. I can remember clearly my reactions and thoughts, but they must have been flying at the speed of light (the effects of anger and adrenaline, perhaps), because so much happened in that micro-moment. My first automatic reaction at the first hop of the ball was to break toward second base, a simple reflex and no more. Then I clearly remember thinking there was no way in hell I could catch up with that ball; the best I could do was frustrate and humiliate myself by making the effort. A clear signal went to my legs to stop, give up on it, resign myself to the inevitable and position myself for the ensuing throw in from the center fielder. you remember my previous discussion of Yang will and Yin will? It's only in retrospect that I'm making this connection, of course, but I see it clearly now - my Yang will, the desire to create, to act, kicked in and I bolted even more quickly toward a point in short center field where my only chance to cut off the ball would be. Simultaneously, my Yin will, the receptive, looked my doubts straight in the eye and ordered them to "let go". Sadly, despite the heroic partnering of Yin will and Yang will, I realized as I approached the last step toward the ball that it would be impossible to catch up to it - my animal instincts, trained for millions of years in my DNA to calculate instantly the trajectory and speed of game in the hunt, knew with certainty that I was too late. There would be no joy in Mudville, as the tale of Mighty Casey so sadly laments.

This is where, as I think back on Dostoevsky's truism, the faith of childhood took over. Rather then helplessly watch the screaming grounder rip past me, my Yang will gave one last order to my aging body and I leapt with all my might, body parallel to the ground, my Yin will shouting "Let Go!!!!!!". Practically dislocating my shoulder, I thrust my glove out and as I hit the ground, sliding on my belly, the ball nestled into the very tip of the webbing. The impossible had happened - I had stopped the ball, cut it off from it's destined journey into the outfield. It was, by definition, a miracle.

But I wasn't done. I knew there was a runner heading from first to second base, and if I got the ball there before he arrived we would make an out. There was a dilemma, however, that needed to be reconciled - I was on my belly in short center field 5 yards behind the bag, my back to the play. I had no time to get up and look to make a throw, so by instinct I did the only thing I could - I flipped the ball blindly over my shoulder in the general direction I presumed second base to be. The second baseman was covering the bag, the ball somehow went right to him, a half step ahead of the runner. He was out. Another miracle.

Now, you may argue that the play was always possible, that it unfolded just as the laws of motion and momentum would dictate, that my characterization was merely hyperbole. But I know better; one moment the ball was past me, the next it was in the webbing of my glove. The toss to second base was awkward, completely blind, and nothing but an act of faith. I know a miracle when I see one (besides, I did say miracle with a "small m").

And like all good miracles, there was something gained. Later, upon reflection, I remembered my trophy in little league, and realized why I had won it - in their boyhood hearts my teamates knew that when I was on the field I treated every play as a possible miracle. And I realized that a cynical, jaded middle-aged man had been granted a moment of grace - the miracle had finally happened.