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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Asia's First Shot

This past week I was invited to a talent show put on by a middle school close to where I live. One of my newer guitar students, a young girl named Asia, was going to give her first performance ever and her excited parents gave me a ticket to the event. They were surprised that she had chosen to do a performance since she had always been so shy and reserved and it was a big deal for them.

So last night I was thinking that I might rather enjoy a nice glass of wine at home, but instead I dressed up and headed out into the blustery darkness.

Asia has been coming to guitar lessons for a month or so, but she actually taught herself quite a bit beforehand. The first time she sat down with me, as nervous as she was, I could see that she had that built-in ability and a good ear. She had picked a song by Taylor Swift (really big with the young girls these days), called "Teardrops On My Guitar". She found a version on the internet before our lesson, so we went through it and I showed her a few extra chords that would spruce it up a bit.

Her parents didn't want to come into the room the first time she had a lesson with me because they wanted to see how she would do on her own. As it turned out, we hit it off very well and over the next few weeks we worked on that song pretty hard. I sang it with her at first, but during the last lesson we had before her performance, I pulled back and let her sing it by herself. In spite of her jitters, I knew she was going to be just fine :-).

The event was held in a church auditorium not far from where I live...dozens of tables were decked with flowers and lit candles, coffee cups and plates set for a delectable dessert. There was a silent auction and door prizes, and as we went in, I was handed the program for the evening. I think my jaw dropped as I realized that there were 37 performers and Asia was second to LAST. Not that I'm a particularly cranky type, but 37 performers...

It's been a long time since my girls were in school and we had to sit through those school performance nights. For the most part, I enjoyed them tremendously, but sometimes they were a bit tedious and dragged on. Why are the chairs in school auditoriums always so bloody hard and uncomfortable? And you're either too hot or too cold, or some excited father with his video camera stands up in front of you blocking the view, screaming in excitement as his kid muddles through some song or dance.

Okay, okay, I admit there were times when I whistled a little too loud as my kids performed something, or teared up because they were so darned cute. There were certainly some highlights during the performances last night. One boy chose to play a rendition of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Going to Take It" on clarinet. I imagine that's the first and only time Twisted Sister has been played on clarinet, but I could be wrong. Some of the kids were clearly very talented, those many years of piano, string or voice lessons in evidence. The majority of them were just up there for fun, and you can't beat that. The music they chose was everything from Bach to Oasis, Beatles to, well, Twisted Sister.

One of my favourite performances was from a tiny girl on a trombone at least as big as she was. She played "Bear Necessities" with her mom accompanying her on piano, and her sister on drums and brother on bass. Somehow or another she managed to move that slide all the way down on those low notes, even though it was clear that her arm was not nearly long enough!

There were a number of small groups of giggly girls who got up and sang to backing tracks of popular songs, half hiding behind each other, occasionally swapping nervous smiles or looks. One boy played the ocarina, a beautiful ancient flute-like instrument, and another group of about 6 boys on various brass instruments played the theme from Peter Gunn, complete with sunglasses and attitude :-) Outside of a few flubbed notes and occasional equipment problems, they all made it through their performances with flying colours. Some ran awkwardly off stage after their performance just happy to have it over with, others politely took their bows, and then there were a few hams who did an extra dance or waved and grinned broadly at the audience.

It was almost four hours before Asia had her moment in the spotlight. The poor thing must have been sick with nervousness waiting all that time, but finally it was her turn. She walked out as two other kids moved a chair and a couple of microphones to the stage for her. There were a few awkward moments as they tried to position the mics properly, but then she began. Her sweet little voice rang through the auditorium clearly, her guitar playing was nice and confident and her eyes were stuck securely on the music stand in front of her.

I knew she could do the song in her sleep, but having it in front of her helped. She did a great job, of course, even though I'm biased! I realized by the end of it that I was probably as nervous for her as she was. How many times have I spent hours sick with anxiety before a performance of my own? I never got over that. She remembered to take a bow after her song, and then there was one more performance from a group of four boys in a band as the evening came to an end.

I hurried to the back room where all the kids who had performed were running around and screaming with excitement at the evening's events. There she was quietly putting on her coat and packing her guitar away. She didn't recognize it was me at first, but I gave her a hug and told her she did great, and we started to walk back to where her parents were. "Thank you for coming," she said in her sweet little voice.

Well, that pretty much made the evening worth it for me. Good for you, Asia.

IJ

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Obama-mania

I was driving on Highway 17 in Ladner, B.C. with the radio on when I heard Obama being sworn in as the first African-American US president. I was a little worried that I would miss some of it because I was pretty close to the Massey Tunnel, and the radio signal goes dead for a minute or two as you drive through it. But an unusually heavy morning rush hour slowed everything down, so I heard the actual swearing in just fine, only missing one part of the middle of his speech when I finally hit the tunnel.

I sat there in a sea of cars and trucks and unexpectedly teared up as I heard him take the oath. I imagine there are a lot of people everywhere in the world, but especially in the US, who will remember exactly where they were when this momentous event occurred this past week.

I remember where I was, as many do, when President Kennedy was shot in November 1963; I was in the living room at home and my mother had the TV on as she was housecleaning when the news first broke. I think that's the first time I felt a real awareness of a significant historical event; the tone in the voices of the reporters that day was ominous, shocked and almost spooky.

The opposite emotion rang through in so many voices I heard last Tuesday morning at Obama's swearing in. Excitement, awe, tears, unabashed joy. My first introduction to the "American persona" happened, oddly enough, in Europe during the summer I turned 16, when my father and I made our big trip to Denmark. For many Europeans at that time, the only Americans they came in direct contact with were well-to-do tourists who had created a pretty bad reputation for themselves over the years.

The point was made to us before we left that we should wear Canadian flags prominently somewhere so that we wouldn't be mistaken for Americans. I had a Canadian flag t-shirt that I wore a lot and my Dad wore a lapel pin. I thought it was kind of laughable, until I actually came into contact with some American tourists myself...loud and aggressive, you could see and hear them coming for miles. The fact of the matter is that I probably came into contact with others that were not behaving this way, but I wouldn't have known that, would I?

I remember one day strolling through a square in Copenhagen with my Dad, wearing my new clogs. They were killing me because I hadn't really worn them in yet, and I was kind of trailing my Dad as I tried to get used to them, so I appeared to be walking by myself. An American couple came across my path, and the woman turned to her husband loudly squealing "Look Harry! A typical Danish girl!" Okay, I don't think his name was Harry, but the rest of it is true.

I smiled to myself and kept walking. I was convinced all Americans were idiots.

When we turned on the TV at night, we saw the live broadcast of the US Senate investigation of Watergate. The whole world was fascinated with the Nixon scandal and it ran live in most countries in Europe as the Senate proceedings began to unravel his presidency. Another fascinating and dark time in history.

In the last couple of years there have been a lot of comparisons between John Kennedy and Barack Obama, mostly centred around the fact that they both created such a stir in the hearts of people of all ages, especially the younger generation. For older generations it's certainly heartening to see kids actually interested in the whole political process for the first time. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, Obama the first black, and both of them moved into the White House with young families and a sense of youth and real change.

For those of us outside of the US, Obama's inauguration feels like the beginning of what may be a long journey towards an American redemption. There are many people in the world who love to hate the US, but that emotion has been even more prominent in the last eight years. Here in Canada we certainly have a love/hate thing going with the US. We love a lot of things about them...their television, movies and music, we love their money and their high-profile personalities, their gossip and political drama. We go to Disneyland and Las Vegas, New York and Hawaii, and near where I live, we like the cross-border shopping when the dollar is in our favour.

We know a lot about the US that they don't about us. Other than the tired "eh?" references, I mean, and that a lot of funny people and great musicians come from here. Our advantage is that we have had American media piped into our homes practically since television was invented, and so much of what we are culturally is tied to that country. It's easy to find fault with somebody you know too much about! 

We sit back sometimes and scoff at their politics and patriotic flag-waving. Here in Canada we have our own style of patriotism...it's the opposite of boisterous, almost polite and somewhat awkward. There are often questions, even jokes about "Canadian identity". The fact is that most of us don't really know what that is or how to describe it and it's hard to live up to the boundless patriotic enthusiasm of our southern neighbours. With or without the "u".

I can promise you one thing, though. In spite of our aloofness and occasional holier-than-thou demeanor, many Canadians are thrilled about Obama's rise to the Presidency; we have been watching with great expectation over the last few months, almost afraid to hope that it could actually happen, and so relieved when it actually did. He has a huge burden to bear over the next four years, and most of us in the world realize even more so lately that what happens there happens to all of us, so we all want him to succeed.

It is rumoured that Obama's first foreign trip will be to Canada, as is tradition when a new president is sworn in. George W. Bush didn't follow that tradition, however, and appeared to have little or no interest in Canada. I'm thinking Obama is going to be a little more inclusive than his predecessor. Maybe, as usual, we are just swept up in the uproarious enthusiasm that Americans have for their new president, like rooting for the good guy at the end of a Hollywood movie. Or maybe we are just wishing we could have the same excitement, and someone as appealing and historic running for prime minister up here.

Whatever the case may be, good luck Mr. President. We're rootin' for ya.

IJ

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Checklist

Right view
Right thought
Right speech
Right action
Right livelihood
Right effort
Right mindfulness
Right concentration

These are the eight elements of the Eightfold Path, which is contained in the Fourth Noble Truth; the path to the end of suffering. When you look at it, the Eightfold Path is not really all that different from the commandments in the Bible or any other moral code or rule of conduct. Buddhist monks have an even more intensive code that they must adhere to, but the Eightfold Path is plenty for the rest of us to work with!

Some of it makes practical sense. For instance, right speech and right action are what most of us who are trying to be better human beings aspire to. "Do the right thing" seems to be a common catch phrase these days, and so for the most part the Eightfold Path, as with many Buddhist teachings, is a fairly pragmatic code.

They are not in any particular order, but the first on the list, right view, is the one I have probably worked with the most. The fact is that you can't expect to deal with your circumstances or your problems if you are not seeing them clearly in the first place! If you are besieged with anger, jealousy, grief or any negative emotion, it clouds your view and it renders any attempt to resolve your situation next to impossible.

That is not to say that we shouldn't feel what we feel. In fact, we need to allow these emotions to come, and then to go...as with everything else in life, emotions are not permanent, not static. What we want to avoid, however, is elevating them; making them worse or hanging on to them for too long. This for many people is a difficult thing to do. I know that I have at times practically relished in my own anger. Sometimes it feels good to be angry!

Anger, if not kept in check, can also become quite addictive. Most of us eventually get over our anger or grief, but what is it that drives some people to extremes? For instance when it comes to livelihood, every time there is a serious down turn in the markets, you hear about somebody at Wall Street actually jumping out of a building and committing suicide. "Going postal" is a phrase which has become commonplace when people lose their jobs.

One more recent story in the US is about a financial manager who was being investigated for scamming his clients. He got into his private plane and while he was in flight, he radioed into air traffic controllers to say that his window had blown in and he was bleeding profusely. When they tried to contact him, there was no response, so they sent military aircraft to track the plane and found it was flying on auto-pilot with the door open! He had obviously jumped.

To make a long story short, the authorities realized he was trying to fake his own death, and when they finally found him he was in the wilderness in a tent having cut his wrist in a suicide attempt. 

What would drive a human being to such extreme behavior? We might write them off as mentally ill in some respect, and perhaps that is true in some cases. I'm not a psychologist by any means, but I would venture to guess that most of them simply paint themselves into a emotional corner and can't see any other way out.

Being able to see clearly, right view, is a first step in any kind of emotional recovery. I'm referring to job loss and the pitiful state of the economy because this is what is first and foremost affecting my life these days. But any difficulty, from the smallest to the largest, means a battle with the mind for most of us and this is what much of Buddhism entails; working with the mind. What has helped me quite a bit over the last few weeks is putting a halt to my temptation to look any further than the moment I'm in. Be here now. When I focus my attention this way, I see and feel everything that I have right here, and I have a lot. In fact, I have everything I need, and even more than I need!

The chances are pretty high that I'll continue to refer to Buddhist teachings as I understand them in the following blog entries, but as I said before I'm not an expert. If you are interested in more in-depth studies, I recommend a couple of websites.

The first is BuddhaNet which is a great resource for practitioners or newbies like me. There are links, readings, an e-book library (which I've been a frequent user of!), a directory, audio talks and even more.

Another site I've spent some time perusing is the Berzin Arhives which essentially contains the teachings of Dr. Alexander Berzin. These teachings are more in-depth and cerebral, but Dr. Berzin has an intimate knowledge of the orginal teachings, having translated a number of them over the years.

One of my favourite teachers, however, is Ajahn Sumedho. He has a website called the Forest Sangha and his teachings are so readable and inspiring. A "sangha" is a community of Buddhists and Ajahn Sumedho teaches in the Theravada tradition which I seem to be drawn to. As with most of the world religions, there are many traditions, and branches of traditions which have been created over many years. I don't expect I'll ever figure them all out, but that doesn't matter. You take what you need and leave the rest...that's always been my motto!

And I hope you will do the same. If there is something here that helps you or inspires you, that's all that matters!

IJ

Thursday, January 8, 2009

This, Too, Shall Pass

My Dad used to laugh about a fellow he'd often see while driving his bus every day in downtown Vancouver. This guy was obviously a street person, maybe a little off his rocker, and he always carried a sign saying "The End Is Near!" It entertained my father to no end. (Little pun there). 

Actually, the street person might have been one card short of a full deck, but he was absolutely correct. In fact, "The End is Here!" Things, events, lives, circumstances...are ending every moment. It's what the Buddhists refer to as impermanence. Nothing, as it turns out, is permanent, not even the massive Rocky Mountains or the sun that rises every day. That might seem a depressing thought at first, but it can also work in your favour because it means that difficulties and bad times and suffering end too. And the end of suffering, as it happens, is the Third Noble Truth. 

Suffering does indeed, come to an end. We'd all like to escape our misery by just being able to push it away or pop a pill, attend an inspirational sermon, watch a good movie, or read a great book. And while all of those things might give some temporary relief, quite often the root of our unhappiness remains because it is self-perpetuated. The cause is often created in our own minds. 

As I have mentioned before, taking some time to pay attention to your own thoughts can be quite a revelation. Realizing how much our thoughts influence our attitudes, moods and behaviours in every moment of our day-to-day existence is the first step to understanding what the Buddhists call the "nature of mind". It isn't as much about control as it is about awareness. And if we pay attention long enough, we become aware of another Buddhist saying..."all that arises, must cease." 

We are less successful when we look for distractions in the external world than we are by simply paying attention and noticing how thoughts and circumstances come to their own, natural end. Sounds kind of mundane, doesn't it? But we're impatient sometimes; we want to end our discomfort in a hurry and a quick-fix method sometimes sounds pretty good...lose 10 pounds in two weeks, pop this pill and you'll feel better, look younger, etc., etc. No wonder so many people end up in emergency rooms or on therapist's couches!

In fact, there are a number of psychotherapists out there now who incorporate Buddhist thought into their practise. There is an excellent book called "Thoughts Without A Thinker" by Mark Epstein, M.D., on this practise. When the larger life events happen like the loss of something or someone, and they do, it takes time to recover emotionally and to adjust. What we are really aiming for is to simply not make it worse for ourselves! Clinging, desire and aversion, all work against us when it comes to recovery.

My mantra in the last few weeks has been "this too shall pass", because I know for a fact that it will. Every day I notice I am a little less fearful or overwhelmed. I expect the odd setback like a lost night of sleep or a moment of discouragement or depression. But we'll get through.

And there is one more Noble Truth, the Fourth, which contains the Eightfold Path, the path to the end of suffering. If you're with me this far in this small series, I'll explore that in the next blog posting! Be there or be square :-)

IJ (PS...my writing here is really just skimming the surface of the Buddhist philosophy, it is not meant as an in-depth study by any means, but I will pass along some links to Buddhist websites at the end for those of you who are interested in studying it further)

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A New Year and the Second Noble Truth

I'm not normally a very negative person, but thank goodness for the end of 2008! Good riddance. I look forward to the next year, knowing that it is going to be very different from the last few in many ways. But I'm ready!

We are two days into our official job layoff and the world is still turning as it always does. I've been thinking a lot about the Second Noble Truth because it certainly applies to our present situation. It is "There is the cause of suffering, which is desire and clinging."

Desire is something we all experience at varying levels during our lifetime...but I think that in the developed world, desire has become out of control and almost obscene. On YouTube there are thousands of videos dedicated to "unboxing". They almost always feature young males opening up their latest games or electronic gadgets, oooh-ing and ah-ing over them. Now, of course, I'm part of this electronic world too...I have a laptop and a cellphone, and I received an iPod for Christmas, so I can't really get too high and mighty :-). But it's almost disturbing to see the level of desire for objects and how quickly we then tire of them and move on to the next.

Beyond "things", there are many other types of desire...the desire for success, for more money, sexual desire...the list goes on. And there is another type of desire that the Buddha describes; the desire to "get rid of", also referred to as aversion, such as trying to escape bad feelings or wanting to get away from someone who annoys you, for example. Some desire is relatively harmless...such as my desire for a Mustang convertible, for instance :-) I'm not making myself sick over it, I don't obsess, and my life isn't ruined because I don't have one! But I remember years ago reading a quote about how humans have a hole in themselves that they are always trying to fill...some of us have more of a problem than others. We are in constant need of things or achievements, or we are haunted by past events or become addicted to a myriad of intoxicants or behaviours.

There are people in my life who seem to have this deep darkness that they are perpetually trying to fill, and it causes me great sadness.

Desire is certainly a cause of suffering, and the other is clinging or grasping; when we want to hang on to something that is impossible to hang on to, or relive an experience over and over, which is also impossible to do. You can't step into the same river twice. Change is inevitable, constant and unavoidable. Change is indifferent, it can be good or bad or neither, but there is no stopping it. And it is the one thing we resist more than anything else, (unless it's "good" change, of course!).

I get up in the morning and see a 51-year-old person in the mirror...how did that happen? My husband gets up and realizes he's no longer going to work at the same place he has been for the last 29 years. How did we get here? I can't hang onto my youth, and he can't go back to his old job. So what do we do?

The first step is to recognize that by desiring and clinging, we cause ourselves suffering. That one step back to get a better view of our circumstances and to see the thoughts that make us miserable, actually makes a difference. When you can see that YOU have created your own suffering, that also means that YOU can end it. It's quite a revelation. It's the end of suffering, which is the Third Noble Truth and the subject of my next blog entry. What a cliffhanger, eh? :-) Take a moment to look clearly at the desire and the clinging in your life that creates your own suffering. I'll join you. Happy New Year!

IJ