Empathy Closes the Gap

Finding ways to relate to the “other”

Bring anger and pride under your feet, turn them into a ladder and climb higher.- Rumi

In the wake of the events in Charlottesville, I believe we each have been deputized as ambassadors of good will. When things become so ugly, it is easy to get drawn into the rabbit hole of fear and contempt. While it is certainly important to speak out strongly against hatred, it is vital to stand as love. That is the strongest aspect of our being. Being able to align ourselves with our compassion will allow more people to recognize and come back to their own humanity.

Isis, neo Nazis, the KKK and similar terrorist groups represent a cancer that can claim us if we become disenfranchised from our hearts. Many people are drawn into those groups because of a prolonged isolation from love.

It becomes all too easy to put people out of our hearts when we are confronted by violence and atrocities fueled by ignorance, greed and fear. The motivation for us to strive not to give into hatred ourselves, is the toll it takes on our internal being, peace of mind and overall health. If we allow fear and loathing to dictate our speech and actions, the outer circle that we banish our “enemies” to, will start to contaminate the inner circle of our loved ones, as well as everything we hold dear.

I have talked to friends who have survived family abuse who said they finally came to forgiveness, not because they would ever condone what was done, but because it was the only way they could survive and have any semblance of wholeness.

One of the things, I believe, that has opened this floodgate of hate crimes is our increasing inability to talk to one another across a widening divide. While leaders have used fear of the “other” to gain personal power, average citizens are drawn into factions. They are carefully segregated and become calloused towards folks with who they might otherwise have been able to find common ground.

Professor of Sociology, Rob Willer, points out in his TED talk that many of us are going into our separate ideological silos. We watch different news, have different friends, we are reluctant to date someone from a different party and don’t want our children to marry across political lines. His suggestion for bridging the gap between us is what he calls “moral reframing.” It is recognizing that everyone has their own moral values. When you are speaking to someone about a button-pushing issue for them, use language that embraces their morals. Certain terminology that will allow them to let down their defenses long enough to actually listen to you.

I believe that life is, in part, a game of semantics. We all have a set of vocabulary words that we feel define our beliefs. We also have a set of words that set off flares for us. The key in this game is not to have the person you are trying to reach pull up the stakes of their circus tent and hit the highway on you.

“Moral reframing” will obviously be much harder to practice with people who have been indoctrinated into a hate group, but even within those dark circles, there are those who can still be reached.

I used to watch To Kill a Mockingbird every year, to remind myself what it means to be human. In one of the most powerful scenes, a small girl innocently dispels a lynch mob by talking kindly to one of its ring leaders, who seems to wake up and remember that he is a family man and a decent person at heart.

The time is now to start reaching out to those who have not yet reached the place where they are susceptible to becoming inhuman. This tragedy in Charlottesville, and the one in Barcelona, have shaken us up. There is a window of opportunity for us to start a conversation. I am not suggesting we start with the people perpetrating the violence but with people we know, maybe within our family, who belong to a different political party, who may be feeling the need to reach out as well.

We all feel innately that we are in the right. I was taught in theater school that when playing a villain, you do not play them as if they are choosing to be evil but make the audience feel, “But for the grace of God, there go I.”

Rob Willer ended his talk with the words, “Empathy and respect.” These are the pillars that hold up the building we are all sharing. They are the key to every philosophical and religious understanding.

It is also only natural that, with the tensions we are retaining, with all we encounter in the news, that we will use humor to lighten our perspective. While I am a fan of certain political comedy, and applaud the comedian’s ability to spotlight truth in the face of tyranny, I also know that there is a certain point where I can find myself tipping into vindictiveness.

I recognize that when we continue to insult and hurt one another’s feelings, it escalates our collective antagonism. The result has become increasingly more violent. We can begin to find ways to relate to those we consider to be “other” in small ways. The Hindu teacher, Yogananda recommended that we become “smile millionaires.” I have personally found that a genuine smile offered without an ulterior motive, can dismantle walls.

Perhaps practicing “moral reframing” even before we look for the right words to say to one another starts with a willingness to admit that those “other” people are still people, even when they are consciously or unconsciously identifying as monsters. If we are not at the place where we can admit that yet, then we can start by becoming more human ourselves.

 

“I can see you are me in disguise, let me wipe the tears from your eyes.”- The Levins

 

Being Bigger Than the “Veil”

Shifting Our Perspective to Seek Solutions for Racial Equality

“I’m on my knees looking for the answer. Are we human, or are we dancer*?”

-from the song Human/The Killers

I saw a moving, one-man play written by Alexa Kelly, and performed by Brian Richardson, at my local library about the life of W.E. DuBois. It was called A Man for All Times .

Poet, author, editor, activist, Dr. W.E. Du Bois believed that literacy and education were tools to help us lift the veil. The “veil” was what he called the racial divide in our country. W.E. DuBois helped found the NAACP and his newspaper, The Crisis, was a vital catalyst, support and contributor, as well as critic, of the Harlem Renaissance. He was a complicated man who quested for world peace, convinced it was the key to equal rights for all people.

He strived to bring his fellow countrymen and those around the world, their basic inalienable human rights. He was a civil rights leader who died the night before Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream speech.”

Hearing this fact about the timing of his death, I started to cry. There is a torch that is passed in clear daylight that remains invisible to the eye that is “veiled.”

Watching the documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” based on James Baldwin’s writings, it became apparent that what Mr. Baldwin, an eloquent, beautiful and courageously observant author had to say in 1965 is just as pertinent today. Essentially, the veil over our eyes prevents us from really looking at the inequality that is perpetuated consistently on a vital portion of our population.

When we look at the human condition, greed and privilege are too tempting for those who already have what they perceive as power. It is hard to resist and, unless we shift perspective, we won’t be willing to give our “privilege” up, even if it means moral bankruptcy.

In the documentary, James Baldwin also suggests that there is a gap between what we want to be seen as and what we are. This causes problems in the home, which spurns us to create scapegoats outside of ourselves, to blame our unhappiness on, to put someone else down in order to build ourselves up to where we think we ought to be.

The problem comes from the belief in a “me”. My ego will never be appeased, it will always think it should have more. Ironically, what we are is actually more than what we conceive ourselves to be.

“We look at life from a viewpoint of seventy or eighty years. But if the reference point were seventy or eighty billion light years, what would our reference point be then?”

- Sailor Bob Adams/author/teacher of non-dualistic perception

What if the question to the answer we are seeking is, “Who are we beyond the veil?”

What if we woke up, not just to realize that the world isn’t white, or black, but that we are, “DANCER”*? It is an investigation.

Are we just these temporal bodies or are we something that dances within everything? What if the awareness inside of us in this present moment is something that is looking out from everyone’s eyes simultaneously? Our seeming separation from one another and the planet we live on, causes us to strike out, to attempt to dominate everything. But if we are everything, we do not need to go to all that trouble or to make that much trouble for everyone else.

Martin Luther King understood that retaliation escalates hostility. What may have woken America up, momentarily, during the Civil Rights Movement was seeing people, men, women and children being attacked and not striking back. There was an alignment with a love that is vaster than ignorance and hatred.

I remember a friend telling me about being in a restaurant where a huge, tattooed biker stood outside the window watching him with venomous hatred. He had gone outside and said something like, “I know you hate my guts and that you probably wish I was dead. I am not challenging your beliefs.  I just want to know how you came to have them.”  The man had been braced for a fight but found himself telling my friend his story.  At one point, he said the man’s eyes went out of focus and, when they came back, he seemed to be in shock.  Here he was getting to talk about his pain. He was talking to my friend, oblivious or despite the color of his skin color, telling him something he may never have gotten to share with anyone, even himself.  After he finished, he actually said, “Thank you.”  This was a form of empathetic martial arts.  My friend said he doesn’t know if it changed that man’s life but it changed his. He had grown up with violence and had been all about conflict up until that point.  Now, he realized that being able to shift the conflict, staying centered in peace was a path he could take.

The mind tends to divide. The heart can unify.  What we are goes beyond the veil.  By each of us meditating on being bigger than a body confined to a timeline, we can connect to solutions that will allow us to see one another clearly, finding a way to prosperity that does not require someone else to pay a price that we would never be willing to pay.

Time, Space and Turntables

A Vinyl Meditation.

Some of my earliest recollections are of my dad selecting a classical album, as if it were a bottle of rare wine from his cellar. He would get me to lie on the carpet, close my eyes, and then say, “Tell me what you see.” The needle would hit. Crackling into life, wasn’t just an orchestra or a symphony, it was portal. There were landscapes, dimensions of worlds that opened in my imagination.

By the time I was a teenager, sitting with your eyes closed, listening to a carefully selected album was a social event. It was something that allowed us to gather together as friends. It opened us up and increased the bond between us. We loved holding the covers, especially the double albums. We obsessed over the history and details of the music.  We prided ourselves on knowing the band members, the year an album was released and the studios where they were recorded. It led to the discovery of new groups and the ability to recognize every signature riff. We analyzed, memorized and held discourse on the lyrics.   Getting absorbed in the artwork, in the interludes, was our version of meditation. Singing and dancing to the latest and greatest records was the foundation of our community. Those experiences serve me to this day.

In considering if my group’s next musical recording should be pressed into vinyl, I read that people “over fifty” do not buy records. The new demographic concentrates on teens through thirty. Surely, hipsters in Brooklyn are buying them, but I had to ask myself why I had yet to pull  out my old turntable.  Did I get a pang when I saw a milk carton filled with records at a garage sale?  Sure. Have I experienced a secret longing to buy the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 album on display at a roadside restaurant? Absolutely.  So, what was my hesitation?  Time and space.

In our fast-paced reality, I have a hard time justifying spending time to pull the turntable out if its storage space.  It would also take time to clear a space for it, as well as unearth the lone crate of records that remains from my vast collection of vinyl that dwindled as I moved from place to place.

I allow myself time to occasionally binge watch something with my wife, so why not take time to engage in an ancient ceremony of sound? TV is a conventional, accepted mode of relaxing, so I could justify that, but taking time to enjoy vinyl seemed to be like climbing a tree for some reason. It is something I used to love to do, but seemed like it would take too much effort to enjoy.

Recently, while visiting a high school friend, her son couldn’t wait to show me his vinyl collection. He had hooked up his turntable to a guitar amplifier and other speakers around their basement. My friend was delighted because her son was not only listening to his music, but he was becoming enthusiastic about bands she had tried to get him to listen to for years. We sat down and listened to his makeshift surround sound, while he turned me onto a group that I wouldn’t have heard on my own. We sat and listened, not needing to talk.  When we did, the bond between us deepened. It felt like a mystical rite of passage that I feared lost in this generation.

After visiting another friend whose turntable definitely augmented our evening together, I finally decided to jump over the invisible barrier and dig mine out again.

Something amazing happened. I created the time and space to set it up. The exhalation of determination parted the red sea of my schedule. I even took the time to make sure all the speakers around my living room where hooked up properly. I became aware of the moment as the needle engaged the groove. Was it different then playing CDs, or listening to my favorite music on my iPhone with headphones?

It was.

There is a tangible warmth and immediacy that fills the space with vinyl. I chose an old record, which felt like taking up where I left off with a close friend. The cracks and pops were endearing. I never have enjoyed when the record skips, but now it reminds me that life isn’t a polished exactitude but something that is happening right now.

When my iPhone is on shuffle, or I am streaming music, I love it. It is like having my own radio station. Still, the turntable stands as an opportunity to savor life in a different way. It can be similar to the Japanese tea ceremony, which is an elaborate ritual designed to enhance the harmony and beauty inherent in everyday things. A turntable isn’t automatic. There is first, the selection of the album, the removing of the vinyl from its sleeve, then you get to choose a side, place it onto the spindle. The dust can be lovingly brushed off. The power is turned on and you get to practice the care of placing the needle where you want it to land. All of this, provides the opportunity to become present enough to really listen.

Vinyl offers the chance to reconsider the connection that individual songs have to the whole. Why did the artist choose these songs in this order on this album? The art of creating an album, of listening to an album from beginning to end, has also been relegated to shuffle. Records can again become like books, speaking to us of other points of view, widening our perspective.

I grew up in an era when there were 45 records on the back of cereal boxes. There were brightly colored Close and Play toy phonographs. We had a stereo console in our living room, that sat opposite our family piano. My father had a walk-in closet filled with records.  I knew the words to nearly every Broadway show because my mom played those records all day long.

In college, I used to eat ramen pride noodles, so I could afford to go to Vinyl Fever, where the owner would make recommendations that would expand my horizons. Today, I will spend twenty dollars on a bowl of ramen noodles in NYC, and I could get a new blue tooth turntable for thirty-five bucks.

Perhaps, vinyl’s comeback is a sign that our society is yearning to slow down enough to reconnect to something tangible. Something that we can savor; that we can share to unite generations. A  way to bring harmony and beauty back into our daily lives.

I have been enjoying selecting albums in the mornings to play. They fill the house with a soundtrack again.  Regardless of how old you are, allow yourself the luxury of a turntable, if you can. It will do more than connect you to your past, it will bring unexpected breadth back into the present.

 

The One Word that Makes America Really America

A Contemplation for Our 241st Birthday

I read a book in which an Aboriginal tribe asks why we celebrate birthdays. They point out that we get older regardless. That, in itself, is not a reason to celebrate.

“We celebrate if we are a better, wiser person this year than last. Only you would know, so it is you who tells the others when it is time to have the party.”- Mutant Message Down Under/ Marlo Morgan

Today is America’s birthday. It is up to each of us, individually, to decide if the collective spirit within our land has become better and wiser.

There is a part of me that wants to rail out against the plans to defund our public libraries, the first of which was founded by Benjamin Franklin. The current efforts to privatize our public museums, parks, and schools, for me, diminishes the flame that fires our collective imagination and soul.

Emma Lazarus was the Jewish poet who gave our Statue of Liberty these words to proclaim:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”

I feel the pilgrims, the founding fathers and Emma would all be ashamed at our current lack of hospitality.

Still, there is a part of me that appreciates that we were the first nation to not be ruled by a king. Our ideal is that America can be ruled by the people, for the people.  A nation that recognizes its inhabitants are…

“created equal…endowed…with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”- Thomas Jefferson

To me, America is all of humanity living peacefully, boldly, as weird as we want to be.

There is an image conjured up in the TV show, This is US, of an abstract painting. While the painting is a metaphor for life, it can also apply to us here in the US.

“We all get to come along and we add our own color to the painting…

And these colors that we keep adding, what if they keep getting added on top of one another, until, eventually, we’re not even different colors anymore? Just one thing, one painting?

Not you, me or them, it’s just us. And this sloppy, wild, magical thing that has no beginning and no end is right here. I think it’s US.”- This Is Us – Kevin’s Painting of Life https://youtu.be/xh-Tof_QxKU

I am celebrating today because I am grateful that, at this point, we still have the one word that really makes America truly beautiful.

We still have a free press and can share the ideas of those we admire. So, I would like to allow the American author Tom Robbins the chance to reveal this one word to you:

“The word that allows yes, the word that makes no possible.
The word that puts the free in freedom and takes the obligation out of love.
The word that throws a window open after the final door is closed.
The word upon which all adventure, all exhilaration, all meaning, all honor depends.
The word that fires evolution’s motor of mud.
The word that the cocoon whispers to the caterpillar.
The word that molecules recite before bonding.
The word that separates that which is dead from that which is living.
The word no mirror can turn around.
In the beginning was the word and that word was,,,

CHOICE”

 ~ Tom Robbins/ Still Life With Woodpecker

From the far right, to the far left, from the Jimi Hendrix museum in Seattle to the Pride-filled sunsets of Key West, from the nude beaches in San Diego, to the bilingual English and French speaking residents at the tip of Maine, and everyone in between, the CHOICE is still yours!

Happy 4th of July!

 

Being “Vintage” in our Disposable Culture.

Keeping things real in and out of business.

This week, my wife, Julia, and I took our laptop to the Apple store to get a new battery for it. We were told that all models before 2012 are considered “vintage” and Apple no longer works on them.

Our computer is a great product and, with a new battery, it will last a few more years. We surmised that Apple doesn’t work on “vintage” products because they want us to buy a new computer every few years, even though we don’t need to.

Before I ever considered buying a Mac, I remember their “Think Different” campaign.  They had posters of people like Albert Einstein, Jim Henson, Jane Goodall, Jackie Robinson, Pablo Picasso, Amelia Earhart and the like. They had a commercial that said:

Here’s to the crazy ones

The ones who see things differently…

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

I just read a book called Mutant Message Down Under about some “crazy ones” who call themselves, the Real People. They are a small Outback nation of Aborigines, who have been around for fifty thousand years. In all that time, “they have destroyed no forests, polluted no water, endangered no species, caused no contamination, and all the while they have received abundant food and shelter. They have laughed a lot and cried very little. They live long, productive, healthy lives and leave spiritually confident.”*

They are “crazy” enough not to even want to change the world but to recognize how wonderful the world is, as it is.  They live with and honor the land, which provides all of their needs, for free. They honor each individual among them in a way that we reserve for the people on Apple’s Think Different posters.

One of these Real People noted:

“Your businesses were started so people could get better items collectively than they could get by themselves… But now the goal of business is to stay in business. It seems strange to us because we see the product as a real thing, and people as real things, but business isn’t real. A business is only an idea, only an agreement, yet the goal of business is to stay in business regardless.”*

Julia and I are grateful for our Mac and various technologies. They are powerful tools that help us create and share ideas. Still, we strive to be the “crazy ones” who will find another store to replace our computer’s battery. Being “vintage” ourselves, we believe that we are not living life to just buy new things. We are living life to generate as much love as we can.  We believe that we can recharge and even replace one another’s batteries with the way we honor one another.

We do not need to live in the Outback to appreciate the value of life. Even though living in the city makes it harder to see the stars at night, we can see them if we persistently look up.

*- Quotes from Mutant Message Down Under by- Marlo Morgan

Change your Story, Change your life

Do I live in a friendly or hostile universe?

I was riding the train into Manhattan when a man sitting opposite hailed me.  He showed me his purple heart metal and said he had two of them.  Apparently,  he wasn’t being given enough common courtesy from the woman taking the tickets. His father came to the US from Italy and, as soon as he had landed, signed up and fought in the Second World War.  He, himself, had served in Vietnam but ruminated that, with the people coming into the country now and the way folks acted, he wouldn’t do it again.  I said there were a lot of good people. His opinion was that there are only a handful. We agreed that a little common courtesy went a long way. Just talking with him seemed to sway his view that this society was no longer worth serving. He boarded the train with a story in his head that he was verifying. That story was capable of being shifted.

When I got home, I found a letter from a close friend. She said someone had given her an unexpected sum of money and she was sharing it with Julia and I because she believed in who we were and what we were doing. This kindness and consideration blew us away. Even though our friend could have certainly used this money for herself, she felt she could afford to offer a portion of it to us. She believed sending us this gift would enrich her being. Knowing this friend, I can say that she does feel that this society is worth serving.  It is another story that can be verified.

One of my favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein:

“The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.”

I do have to remind myself often that I live in a friendly universe.

However, I have demonstrated the validity of this decision to myself innumerable times. When I find that my mind is taking me down a rabbit hole, and I am becoming anxious about the state of the world and what might happen if this or that occurs, I declare that I live in a friendly universe. I can actually feel the story I am telling myself start to shift. The outcome, for me so far, is that I continue to live in a friendly universe. For that, I am immensely grateful.

I believe the mythologist, Joseph Campbell, would have agreed with Albert that our beliefs and reactions to the world around us reflect the stories that we subscribe to.  Each religion, spiritual practice and culture revolves around a set of stories.

People in power with vested interests, and salesmen in the media, often try to convince us that we live in a hostile universe. This belief leads to fear of others whose stories are different from our own. It can also lead us to take our own stories literally and become ridged in our thinking. Once our hearts are closed off, we often find that we do, indeed, live in a hostile universe.

I also believe we can get to a place where we are able to share our stories to mutually benefit one another.

I know someone whose basement was flooded one year just before Christmas. All of her families’ presents were destroyed. On Christmas day, her doorbell rang and when she answered it, instead of finding a person, she discovered a mountain of presents for her family. When people ask her if she has told her kids that Santa is not real, she says that he is. Someone used their story of a jolly man who brings presents and good cheer to others, to help this woman’s family; they became Santa Claus. Santa is a story that we can take to heart, that we share to mutually benefit one another.

There is a Jewish legend of the Lamid Vavniks, that predates Santa and describes 36 anonymous folks who are so pure of heart they keep the whole world in balance.  This story makes it a virtue to do something wonderful for someone else in secret.

How many other myths or stories outside of our comfort zone could benefit us in ways that we have not even considered?

Being willing to not only shift our own story but recognize something beautiful in someone else’s story, can help us to decide, on a daily basis, that we live in a friendly universe.

The Story I Can Hear

“If we see it all as literal, it might end up in a fight.

If we see it as a story, it might work out alright.

Let’s go out and meet the modern, willing to embrace-

See the gold inside the dust, be the change that’s taking place.

I long to tell the story I can hear.

One that fills my eyes and opens up the skies.

I long to tell the story I can hear.

One that fills the skies and opens up my eyes.

Not just for believers, or those who think its true,

but that holds me in its arms as it reaches out for you.

We’re busy telling stories. Meanwhile, life goes on.

It listens to our verses. It sings all of our songs.

One song. Our songs.

Not just for believers, or those who think its true,

but that holds me in its arms as it reaches out for you.”

The Levins  (inspired by Joseph Campbell)

May your story place you in the center of a friendly universe.

Rallying for love in a world-wide blizzard

Finding ways to bond together in an age of “hyper-individualism ”

People dare to be comfortable with uncertainty if they are in solidarity with each other.”

– Joanna Macy speaking of the Work that Reconnects

My father told me a wonderful story about being in Chicago, on business, during a blizzard. He was staying in a hotel and, because everything was shut down and there was no electricity, people bonded who otherwise would not have had anything to do with each other. Beds and portable lights were set up in the ballroom of the hotel.  Meals and drinks were shared.  By laughing, joking and singing, strangers broke down that invisible wall to befriend one another.  When the snow let up and airport connections could be made, people went back to not knowing one another and went about their business. It confounded my dad, who was sure that the group intimacy they had shared would linger. Convention and profit margins magnetized the folks he had met back into being strangers as they scrambled to catch their taxis and flights.

Currently, it feels like we are in the midst of a worldwide, social blizzard. While one group is pitted against another, and commercial tactics and fear are breeding what Joanna Macy calls hyper-individualism, good folks are magnetized into becoming strangers, even to themselves.

We are in need of scenarios in which we come together to laugh, joke, sing and brake down that invisible wall to befriend one another.

With this aim in mind, my wife Julia and I started hosting a rally for LOVE in various places throughout the country. So far, we have held events in NY and CA. At both of these rallies, the intention was to bring various communities together to illuminate resources that allows us to stay connected as the world situation becomes overwhelming.

On the East Coast, there was a wide range of groups represented from an ethical culture society, a temple, a unity church, a wholeness center, Centers for Spiritual Living, The Interfaith Council, Science of Spirituality meditation centers, musicians, life coaches and even the Penguin Plungers, who brave the waters of the Hudson River in winter.

On the West Coast, the music was interspersed with acts from a network of circus performers who knew how to lighten our hearts. In the audience, there were teachers, authors, upcyclers, counselors, musicians, filmmakers, healers, potters, caretakers, and implementers of what Joanna Macy calls the Work that Reconnects.

The spirit of this rally was exemplified by Jaime Coventry, who was the M.C. for the night. In setting up the space just before the show, Jaime broke his pinky toe. He was so focused on the aim of the night, I had no idea he had injured himself. All he radiated was a gracious, gregarious and humorous benevolence.

Coventry & Kaluza

The success of both of these rallies was that the individuals who attended have continued to bond together after the event.

When asked why she does the work she does, Joanna Macy replied:             “I’m doing this work so that when things fall apart, we will not turn on each other.” To do this, she advises: “…little study groups, and book groups, make a garden together. Keep your ear to the ground. Inform each other. We have to develop the skill of finding that it is more fun to be waking up together, Sarvodaya [Sanskrit term meaning ‘universal uplift’ or ‘progress of all’], than a single lone star on the stage.”

When the daily news prompts you to run and hide, remember we are all on this stage together. We can still rally for LOVE!

 

Promoting your Self (with a capital S)

A working artist’s guide to staying grounded in the grind.

 

Our world changes so fast, you have to be superhuman in order to stay ahead of the curve. Keeping up with trends is exhausting, especially if your livelihood depends on it. 

 As musicians, my wife, Julia, and I try to strike a balance between being grounded and soaring.  Accordingly, each morning we take time to activate our bodies, read books that soothe us, and we sit in silence to connect with non-duality and taste timelessness. Then, we get on Facebook, make phone calls and promote the heck out of ourselves.

Aye, there’s the rub, me hearties! Musicians must eat and pay the rent. Even if it is our intention to play music that helps others slow down so they recognize the beauty within and without, we are part of the fast-paced world and must sing for our supper. Self-promotion does not come naturally to either one of us. While we are grateful to have an agent, there is always more work to be done. We have learned to step up to the plate.  

It is fair to say that we dance with our ambition, which provokes the actions that secure gigs. Then, there is our mind’s daily “To Do” lists, along with the ego’s assertion that there is always an image to project, to brand, to define, to deliver, to uphold.

Fear pipes in and says that we’re not getting any younger. It paints anxious, detailed murals of the future trying to get us to be proactive.

While our minds, egos, and fears all vie for control of our vessel, we are aware there is another part of us that is merely observing, watching it all happen from moment to moment.

I remember having a lovely conversation with my father one night. As we were talking about getting older, he remarked that inside he didn’t feel any different in his later years than he did when he was a child. His wonder at this observation left a lingering impression.

When my dad said he didn’t feel different inside, he wasn’t addressing the physicality or realities of growing older. It wasn’t about the aches and pains that start to appear, the life knowledge he has acquired or even the wisdom he exudes. I marveled that without labeling it, he was recognizing and acknowledging his conscious awareness; the part of him that is observing unconditionally. His body is not the same, his cells are not the same, his thoughts and desires are not the same, but his inner awareness has been untouched, despite all of his experiences, good and bad. 

Pondering this further, I recognize that while our minds are constantly busy, labeling, judging and classifying every little thing, there is always a part of us that is silently witnessing.

While we are going through the rise and fall of one cycle after the next, our being regards us.  It watches us react, reminisce, regret and reach out for more, or in some cases, less. It behooves us not to identify ourselves with any of these things, (e.g., pain, regret or even success.) This thought was reinforced at a conference recently when I heard an esteemed musician say that “if we can’t handle a standing ovation or if we need the standing ovation, we are in trouble.”

It is with the slightest shift of perception that we can identify with our observing presence. This presence offers peace, a freedom that opens us up to understanding, even gratitude for everything that comes in.

So, even though I carry on with my goals and my daily practices, I don’t have to postpone expanding into the calm and stillness streaming through me.

I remember seeing the group Beirut at the Treasure Island Music Festival.

Their lead singer, Zach Condon, blew me away, not for his master showmanship or for his incredible prowess. It was his openness. It was as if the music was streaming through him. 

His happiness was like a tranquil breeze. Something that reached us without effort. He was fully content and radiating a quiet bliss without attachment.

 

I say he blew me away and that is accurate. I was swept into the music; there was a merging, not a ‘me’ confining and codifying the experience.

In the midst of our daily dance, the slightest shift of perspective can transform the rat race into smooth sailing. So, if you are tied up in the riggings of your mind, quietly start connecting to your inner awareness and know that you are the boat, the sea and beyond. It makes the journey much more interesting and the treasures easier to find.

Steven Universe and the Euphrates Institute Save the Day!

Fostering hope for humanity by investigating alternative channels.

No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.

-Albert Einstein

I recently had a conversation with an intelligent, informed, introspective young man in his twenties. He said that, aside from advances in technology, it appears that humanity hasn’t really changed. He felt that we are, essentially, still hostile towards one another.

I understand why he feels that way. The media tends to project a story which instills the belief that our chances of getting along on a global level are hopeless. Variations of a zombie apocalypse have dominated the entertainment world and have steadily been infused into the nightly news. It is a story based on fear of the “other”.

There is, however, a steady stream of hope that flows below the tumultuous waves raging on the surface of what gets mainstream airtime. Here are two of my recent favorites:

Janessa Gans Wilder was a CIA operative in Iraq. Her job was to make sense of the “other” or the enemy, and report back so the situation could be handled with greater intelligence.  Janessa discovered that, even when her team managed to stop four terrorists, hundreds of others took their place instantly. She described it as catching drops of water from a leaking faucet. After a month or so of diving on sandbags during deafening explosions, she found herself on a rooftop quietly overlooking the Euphrates river. The calming, life-giving waters below her contrasted with the violence and suffering she knew were on the river’s banks a few miles away. A question presented itself to her, “Which will you choose? Peace or war?”

Janessa chose the peace of the river. Turning a three-month assignment into a twenty-one-month journey, Janessa began seeing the “other” as fellow humans. She listened to the stories of the people around her with the intention of understanding their problems, working with them to devise solutions. This lead her to found the non-profit Euphrates Institute, which promotes peace by building personal relationships with individuals throughout the Middle East and the West. Via tours and talks given by the institute, people in both the West and the Middle East begin to see there are people like themselves behind the fearful stories that have built walls between them. The institute is constantly shedding new light on the impact we have on one another and empowering a more moderate understanding, taking the power away from extremists.

Another far out example of hope for humanity in the world of entertainment is Rebecca Sugar’s cartoon series Steven Universe.  A wonderful role model for children, Steven Universe also carries a deep message for adults. Like Janessa Gans Wilder, the child hero of this show strives to relate to difficult community members and “hostile aliens” with the aim of understanding them, and befriending them when possible. Every episode demonstrates the practical benefits of empathy. Steven shows us that when we uphold our own humanity, we can often transform the “other” into an ally.

Steven and his super-hero teammates  also have the capacity to ‘fuse’ together and become a larger being with synergistic power that transcends what each can do on their own.  This fusion takes place when the individuals dance together with a conscious intention. A brilliant metaphor, that children may miss, but another reason why this is a favorite go-to series for my wife and I.

In 2015, the creator of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq was named Visionary of the Year by the Euphrates Institute. Zuhal Sultan was only 17-years old but her orchestra ‘fused’ together young people from every culture and religion in the war-torn country. By playing together, with conscious intention, the heroic musicians become a larger force with a power that transcends what not only what they can do individually but what individual nations have been able to do to build bridges towards peace.

When you are inundated with hostile news and feel yourself loosing hope for humanity, I urge you to investigate new channels to tune into. Steven Universe and  Janessa’s TED talk are great places to start .  Just this week Bill Gates recommended Steven Pinker’s book: The Better Angels of Our Nature- Why Violence has Declined, calling it “The most inspiring book I’ve ever read.”

There are ways for us to change our collective story. They all start by entering the calm-river of our hearts.

“We are the Crystal Gems, we’ll always save the day. And if you think we can’t, we’ll always find a way!”

– Steven Universe theme song by Rebecca Sugar, Aivi & Surasshu

 

The Year My Mother Became My Auntie Mame

  • A Mother’s Day reflection

The Year My Mother Became My Auntie Mame

A Mother’s Day Reflection

“…get the message of my book. Live, that’s the message!”

– Auntie Mame (Patrick Dennis- author)

When my mother turned forty, her hair turned red and that was it; she was off to the races. She became a liberated woman. The local theater troupe gained an invaluable actress as well as a director. The local nudist colony had a valued new resident. The local Science of Mind Temple got a new congregant.

This sudden revolution in our nuclear unit did not take place without resistance. We were a conservative Jewish family. For my mom to break out of the confines of the home was one thing but to go outside of the circle of the religion?  My dad is an honorable man, who really didn’t know how to handle the situation, and that train had left the station. Even the silent treatment he gave her as a last resort, was no match for my mom’s resolve.  After a week of giving her the cold shoulder, he realized there was nothing to put his foot down on.  The foundation of our lives had shifted. It was no longer where it had been at all. I used to joke that we would soon be hosting a Martian convention.

I remember standing outside of the laundry room a few years prior, listening to my mom quietly cry. I asked what was wrong and she said, “It’s nothing.” I longed to be able to do something for her in that moment. Her lament was not about her family. It was about innately knowing there was a universe inside her expanding and not knowing how to expand with it. The plight of the fifties’ housewife was something with which she was not prepared to be content. What she was yearning for was wholesale liberation.

Once she made up her mind, she never looked back. Even Science of Mind was just the first station on her spiritual trek up a mountain that is, still to this day, rising.

I got swept up in her revolution, joining her in theatrical productions, at the nudist colony, at Science of Mind meetings, at a matinee of the controversial French romantic film Cousin Cousine.

Mom didn’t abandon the house. We still had our meals together, my sister and I made it to school on time, we still had clean clothes.  My mom’s clothes, when she wore them, were brighter, still classy, always classy, but with more of a theatrical flair. Overall, after a few months, there was just a lot more leivity, as if there was an extra breeze that hadn’t been there before.  Our house became filled with the laughter of wild thespians, authentically larger than life characters. Late night parties ensued, complete with group singing, around our upright piano.

My mom had really just taken me along on her adventures but I loved the whole thing. It was a grand opening that never stopped. It was as if I had popped into the novel Auntie Mame. The book inspired both the play and movie and was about a boy, his eccentric aunt, and their bohemian, outrageous adventures. “Life,” as Mame would say, was indeed “a banquet,” and not only was my cup overflowing, I was able to pour some out to those around me as well.  I had friends at school and had made my classmates laugh but my new extended theater family were really my people.  My mother became a portal for us, to not escape into, but to be transported fully into who we were meant to be.

The fact that I became an actor, a musician and someone who aspires to inspire peace and connection between faiths, communities and colorful lifestyles, all bloomed the year my mother came out to her fabulousness. I never heard her cry behind a closed door again.

My mom- Sally Levin as Sweet Charity

Sally Lee Levin has become a dedicated fountain of life, a river of positive affirmation and a healing presence for those within the rippling circumference of her heart.

My dad was not only a good sport but rose to the occasion of my mom’s transformation with award-winning valor. He still rolls his eyes at some of my mom’s beliefs, but acknowledges that she is very powerful. He is grateful for her and their invaluable, intertwining partnership.

My sister aimee, (She spells her name with a lower-case ‘a’.) was a teenager and was essentially doing her own thing during mom’s emancipation. Still, I believe it sent a message to her that she could be strong within herself and become what she was drawn to be. My sister is a doctor of audiology with a thriving practice and has two wonderful children of her own.

So, here’s to unconventional, strong moms and how they model life for us inside and outside the circle of our expectation and understanding.

Happy Mother’s Day!