Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"And the Days Go By..."

The song comes to mind, but not the meaning. Is that possible? Sure, why not?

Summer has been a quiet time. For me, my focus has remained on my mandolin practice with the addition of a Songwriting MOOC. A MOOC? A Massive Open Online Course. This course is offered periodically through Coursera in conjunction with a professor from the Berklee College of Music. The course is completely free over the Internet. There are reportedly tens-of-thousands enrolled worldwide with students over eighty-years-old participating. The lectures are pre-recorded. Every week for six weeks, new lessons, quizzes, and a writing assignment are released on Friday. The quizzes are automatically graded; the writing submissions are peer-reviewed by at least five fellow students. In the end, a grade is assigned.

The course is useful and fun for me, bringing me all of the way back to my high school days and earlier, analyzing and writing poetry and prose. In truth though, I'm enjoying it even more as a Zen exercise.

Ultimately, the only thing the course offers is what the student takes from it -- that and perhaps a certificate suitable for framing. There's really no notion of "passing" or "failing." There is no "permanent record;" the student registers online with any email address and can drop and take the class as many times has he or she likes. Still, just entering week three, there is already drama in the class forums. There are heartfelt class resignation notices, complaints about peer grading, complaints the video professor and fellow students don't understand, questions about whether to sacrifice personal style to bend to the will of the course, and even the infusions of eternal optimism… People pursue the points. People pursue the validation from their peers. People enjoy the social aspects. Others are networking, maybe falling just shy of advertising their work.

So, the interpersonal and personal struggles aside, there is also the technical aspect: Given the proscribed form, highlighting the important aspects of the lesson, express yourself. 


There's more, of course. Stay tuned.

Friday, June 21, 2013

By Invitation Only

Approaching you in the hallway, walking in the opposite direction, I offer "Good morning."

What if I offer "Good morning!" with a bright smile?

And if I asked "Good morning?" with some hesitation, might you wonder why your day is off to a less-than-stellar start? Or maybe you wonder what I've heard that you haven't?

Maybe it's more illustrative to ask how you saw the one who asked? Was I a friend, a stranger, or a foe? What if I preemptively tell you that I was greeting my friend walking behind you in the hall.

... or should I point out that we're not actually walking toward each other in a hall right now at all.

I throw the ball; the dog retrieves it. Before I ask if you like being my dog, I'll ask what color was the ball? Before you answer, though, ask yourself "How would a lion respond?"

Are you looking for clever things to say to show that you understand the point? There's no need. The universe constantly invites us to show ourselves and we respond in kind. But what do we invite?

Perhaps today we will invite the very best in each other and in ourselves to step forward and respond.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Only Me, All of the Time

"Since I've been here, I attend these different meetings and I get the feeling they're selling me bullshit," he confided in words approximating those. "So why are you the only one here I hear questioning all of this?"

It was one of several encounters yesterday that made me think twice and gave me some hope.

We'll see where it leads...

Monday, June 17, 2013

Lakeside Polution

This sanctuary of mine is in fact a public place -- something that generally makes it all the more enjoyable. If I'm not walking the two-mile path around the lake, I'm sitting on a bench with my mandolin, playing and watching the people passing by. Often it's my decompression stop between the office and home, ensuring I leave the former behind.

Now school is out and all of the kids are out to have some fun. I see younger ones with mom or dad at the tot lot; I see some fishing; I see some tossing a baseball; I see some riding bicycles; and just parked beside me, I see three young teens with Subway sandwiches and the most foul, racist, homophobic mouths I could imagine--mostly because of their ages. They went through the catalogue of the people they had in common and gave loud commentary about the passers-by. The gays, the blacks and the KKK, the Jews and Auschwitz, the disabled, the deaf, the blind, the obese,  ... on and on and on.

The benches beside the tot lot were within earshot, but I was the only adult in the immediate vicinity. Quite honestly, my immediate want was to beat them senseless since the people otherwise assigned to that task were obviously not doing their jobs. Instead, I put my recorder visibly on the table and started to quietly play my mandolin...

Two of the three went on, oblivious or unfazed I do not know. One kid was clearly concerned and embarrassed. When the first two spotted openings on the swingset, they bolted and left their belongings behind, leaving the third to figure out what to do.

"Son, you seem a little smarter than your friends there..." He smiled sheepishly, "Yes, sir." "Son, do you know who I am?" "No, sir." "Do you know who I know?" "No, sir." "When your friend joked, 'What is the worst that they'll do to me, throw me in jail?' did you really think that's the worst that could happen?" "No, sir..." "You know your friends are headed for trouble, right?" "... Yes, sir." "Don't let them take you down with them." "I won't, sir." "Son, one more thing..." "Yes, sir?" "Why don't you deliver your friends' belongings to them over there and make sure that they do not come back to this table." "Yes, sir." "Son?" "Yes, sir?" "Take care of yourself." "Thank you, sir."

The open table next hosted picnic with extended family including grandmother and some little children who danced around fascinated by the mandolin.

Technique #528491

A box labelled "Give What You Can." A bin labelled "Take What You Need." What's inside them?

You may think they're silly questions and dismiss them out-of-hand, but there's a reason I'm asking, a lesson to be learned--and not necessarily the obvious one.

In my beginner's aikido class, we begin with a few techniques from katatekosadori, the "cross-arm grab." Everybody in the aikido world is familiar with the invitation to cross-arm grab: an extended arm, palm open, inviting the attack as a beginning to a finishing technique. To a stranger in a western culture, it's an invitation to shake hands, an invitation to friendship.

To a more experienced practitioner, extending the hand this way is an invitation to show your intention. Does the other smile and shake hands, or grab and proceed to attack? It's very clever, but it's problematic: The experienced practitioner operating this way transmits doubt and suspicion in offering the choice, perhaps inviting attack--perhaps suspecting attack. Little does she know that this is an attack in itself.

The polished practitioner realizes there's only one reason to extend the hand this way...

Sunday, June 16, 2013

"You Don't Understand"

Isn't it clear?! (picture via WikiMedia)
Standing in front of the lecture hall, I heard the discussion and the question that made it quite clear that the student simply did not understand the concept.

How many variations would I try? To what lengths would I go to have this student grasp the concept? How much time would I take from other students and from my own work to see this through? Would it be because of my own dedication to teaching? Would it because I was being evaluated as an instructor through the class' grades and teacher evaluations? Or maybe there's simply a latent desire in everyone to be understood?

Regardless, as a teacher standing before the students, a parent directing your child, a subject matter expert explaining the need for a particular course of action, you have knowledge and experience to convey that the others may not be prepared to accept or to understand. Reputation is on the line! When your unstoppable force encounters that immovable object, what happens? Do we blame the student, saying that the student is a fool or even that the student is purposefully resisting the lesson? Do we not blame a particular student, but instead rationalize that not everyone will get it and this is just one of those someones? Do we begin to doubt the material itself, wondering if it might not be valid at all if no one will accept it? Do we begin to doubt ourselves, questioning our reasoning or even our ability as teachers?

What are the consequences of one course of action over another? And while we're wondering what to do, what is not getting done?

There's lots of fertile ground here for exploration in future posts. Do you have examples from your own experience to share?

Saturday, June 15, 2013


"Crossroads" via WikiMedia
Live long enough and you will eventually find yourself at the crossroads...

One time, someone asked me to consider the prevalence of bridges in the road system, even between your home and the office. Having spent some of my youth around New York City, I had a fairly certain notion of what a bridge is, so naturally I thought "none." "Think again," I was instructed. "Next time you drive to work, watch for them."

He was right. They were everywhere.  Not the super-sized architectural wonders necessarily, but the nondescript sections of road passing over other roads, streams, and so forth. It's kind of amazing, really.

So, what about the crossroads?

Oh. You were thinking I was talking about something else, yes? Those challenging, major decision points in your life? Actually, I was. Somehow, when I want to describe the feeling that I'm at one of those points in my life, the word "crossroads" and associated images that are attached to that feeling for me appear. Then, if you and I are "on the same page," you get the sense of what I'm communicating, right?.

Back on point. We all find ourselves at the crossroads from time to time. I bet you have several examples, as well as stories from either side: standing there before them and looking back and seeing how your life was effected. I'd bet we could sit back with a bottle to share, exchanging our stories all evening. As the sun rose, we'd concur we'd find more crossroads ahead.

Triggering an imaginary drive from home to the office, I see the more mundane crossroads passing by. I wonder how many there really are, how many I've never noticed before. I don't know that's the safest way to drive though... might miss the exit. It might be more useful to watch for all the signs around us that keep us pointed in the right direction.

* * *

Have you noticed the new tab near the top of the page? Some folks have been asking about "Zen Storm" lately, so I thought to give a little insight so we start on the right foot. It's an eternal work in progress, so watch for updates and let me know your thoughts.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


Within about a week, I witnessed two separate and completely different events through the internet that brought something peculiar to mind.

The first was sitting back around midnight when my twitter stream announced that Moby was streaming live from the Coachella music festival on YouTube. I watched in awe as a sea of bodies pulsed together to the rhythm of the music and the flashing lights over the course of an hour. In my younger days, events like this just weren't part of my experience. I wouldn't have found being part of such a crowd appealing in any way, and I wasn't prone to "losing myself" to music or anything else. So watching, I wondered what it would be like to stand in the center of that crowd, and I wondered if I could "enter" into the experience with the others or if I would stand there in some sense alone.

Boston Marathon, via The Washington Times
The next event was the unfolding of the events surrounding this year's Boston Marathon. At once the news feeds and social media came to life. The news stations in particular went wild with moment-by-moment speculation while the social media gushed with wild emotion.

And just like with the Moby concert, I sat as an observer and wondered what it would be like to be one of those people so deeply affected by what they observed... Could I leave my detached perspective and enter into the experience, feeling the waves of empathy that affected everyone so deeply?

via tomikiaikido.blogspot.com
In Aikido we have the concept of "Irimi"--or "Entering." As we've discussed here many times, at a basic level the defender is closing distance toward the attacker, often in an unexpected and disruptive way. Even within the confines of a safe dojo environment and within a fixed choreography to practice an attack-defense exchange, it can take the student quite some time to become comfortable stepping toward someone intent upon killing you. It takes even more time before it's natural, particularly in unscripted exchanges. It may take even more time before the student develops the attitude of freedom and situational control that the physical entry represents and integrates it into daily life within any situation. After all, the irimi is not the concept of entering into an attack, nor is it really a programmed response; both of those stand between the student and the actual irimi. If anything, irimi is what happened when your spirit stepped forward and takes charge, trusting your body to use the techniques it's learned. It's not necessarily when you "become one with the technique," "become one with the attacker's energy," or anything else... You've not given yourself to the overwhelming attacker nor are you solely responding instinctively, however skilled; rather, you become fully present and step forward, defining the situation in your own terms.

When I wondered if I could even enter into the roles of what I was witnessing, I immediately failed... unless, of course, I entered spontaneously--and perhaps unwittingly--into the role of an observer.

It's a "technique" that--in my experience--has served me well.

Are people defective for being detached? Is an "observer" necessarily passive? Does being an observer not actually affect the outcome of a situation? Where do we draw the line? What are your thoughts?

Monday, April 15, 2013

What's Your Story?

Kumare: The Story of a False Prophet
Kumare Promotional Poster
(via Wikipedia)
I saw this movie, "Kumare: The True Story of a False Prophet," a few months ago. From the Wikipedia page:
To record the documentary, American filmmaker Vikram Gandhi transformed himself into Sri Kumaré, an enlightened guru from a fictional village in India, by adopting a fake Indian accent and growing out his hair and beard. In the film, Kumaré travels to Arizona to spread his made-up philosophy and gain sincere followers.
Depending upon your point of view, the film could be considered a swindler's how-to instructional video, a cautionary tale for spiritual seekers, or more likely something in between--maybe even something with a spiritual message.

The film chronicles the developing relationships between several individuals open to accepting a spiritual guru, and a would-be "guru" who needs such followers for his experiment. In time, "Kumare" begins to question his role in giving spiritual advice to those who've placed their trust in him. As the story evolves before us on screen, instead of ending his relationship with his followers by disappearing back to his village in a faraway, mystical land, the filmmaker will reveal to them all his true identity...

In the end, the filmmaker will confide in us his wondering if he has actually become Kumare or maybe channels Kumare in some way. Also in the end, several of the seekers will be thrilled with the underlying revelation while others will storm out in disgust at having been duped.

There are many facets to examine here. From my own view as an individual who by day counsels clients in seeing through the smoke and mirrors of sales pitches and adversarial negotiations, keeping them rooted in their own objectives, my mind recalled several "They're drinking the Kool-Aid" moments from the conference room.

It also dredged up examples from my years moving through martial arts and spiritual circles...

Content I'd understood what I saw, I let it go and moved along to whatever was next in the queue... until an acquaintance on the internet I found in zen circles posted he'd watched the movie and enjoyed it. That prompted a friendly "I enjoyed that one too" from me. He asked me then if I had any idea about to what extent the movie had been scripted...

I told him, essentially, that my answer would surely depend upon--and reveal--who I believe this person to be in relation to me.

That was presumably a zennish answer since we've discussed zen before--you see the relationship revealed in the response--but it was also a reminder that we are only interacting voices on the internet, where we can create and present ourselves with any identity that we wish... just like in the movie.

But at face value, the question was interesting, no? What leads us to accept any assertion at face value?

In the end, some guy I never heard of said on film that he was making a film about this false guru experiment presented his film at the SXSW festival in 2011. where it received the festival's Feature Film Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature... well, at least according to Wikipedia. Maybe having burned himself as a guru he really has become accepted as a filmmaker--now with additional marketing buzz!

Fact or fiction, it's largely our stories that guide us.  So, what's your story? Before you answer, keep in mind that it's wrong to lie! What did you see watching the movie?

Friday, April 5, 2013

The First Plateau

My mandolin studies have plateaued. There's a sufficient body of fiddle tunes and other songs stuck in my head, available at a moment's notice, but I'm not adding new ones like I once did--sometimes several per week.

It's also true that a lot of those tunes need work. Some speed work here, some polishing there--maybe even some ornamentation... but I'm not focused there. I recall them and I play them as I know them now.

My instructor is giving me additional scales work--complicated variations in each key, one key after another. The objective is to master those fingering positions, those combinations, the thirds, the fourths, the arpeggios, ... but my heart's not in it lately. He'll assign the work, but I'm not going to do it... not without a real, conscious effort anyway.

I recognize this: It's the first plateau after the initial fascination and obsessive pursuit is exhausted. Sometimes it has the feeling of the roller coaster pulling back to the platform, the harness releasing; other times it has the feeling of waking up with a hangover and wondering where you are ... and where your clothes are. More often than not, it's somewhere in between, something more subtle: "The honeymoon is over..." The alarm clock rings Monday morning.  "Not ikkyo again!" "We're going to sit zazen for how many hours?!" "Scales?! Ugh..."

I recognize this as the first plateau. Whatever got you started, it was your own passion that carried you this far, without the help of any carrot dangled in front of you or stick chasing behind you. Now, here you are. You are undoubtedly in some way changed. Maybe you have a new skill, a new relationship, or maybe a new cautionary tale. Now with the fog of initial passion cleared, you are free to examine, to deliberate, and to decide: What now? Do I continue?

I see this as a plateau, not a finish line, because I know that I'm not done. I haven't stopped here because I believe I know it all; rather, I'm stopped here because this is where I "woke up" from the delirium. In truth, this is the first place where I could even entertain the notion of stopping, the first opportunity to see myself from outside the activity and to see how far I've been carried by that tide. But from here, I also have some sense of what mastery is, and I recognize roughly how far I am from it. I can see there's more to learn, there's deeper to explore, there's nuance I don't understand, but the next step--if I choose to take it--is going to be a conscious one. That choice would be to trust this habit I've cultivated to carry me forward through the plateau's difficulties or to face new frictions in changing direction.

Of course, if the underlying true path is to use music to inspire more connections between people, I may know enough to make a good showing! It's springtime, after all, and people are returning to the benches lakeside!  In that case I'm not on a plateau at all, just momentarily distracted by wondering whether mastery of any instrument was part of it...

I wonder: Are you one to live chasing your passions, or are you one to cultivate the discipline to achieve mastery in the face of passions?

Will you let even that question deter you, or is it fun to play along and entertain it with me?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

This Life in a Different Light

I spent some time reflecting upon all of these posts dating back to 2007, wondering what they all might have in common and what they might reveal about me--and that's precisely what I saw.

Now that's not to say that at different times I didn't have different focus. Clearly I did. There was a time I struggled with making sense of my son's diagnosis with muscular dystrophy. There was a time when, out of work, I struggled with the prospect of losing everything. There was a time when I struggled terribly getting through each day in unsatisfying jobs. I struggled to find meaning in each situation or perhaps a path out of it.

As I considered different meanings and teachings, I reevaluated old situations and as well as new ones as I encountered them. I concocted experiments to test my understanding, collected evidence of successes and failures, and looked at the future as well as the past through different lenses. I turned years and years of Aikido practice inside out, reevaluating my entire approach. Sitting on a cushion, sitting in the evening smoking a pipe, or sitting in traffic late for an appointment--each became a subject of a study. Even my most recent obsession with learning a musical instrument did not escape examination. 

At some point a few years ago, I realized I was doing all of that. That's when there was a subtle shift from trying to make sense of what was happening to me and integrating that understanding into my life to selecting how I would face life. And I recorded it all. Read through the old posts if you like; it's all in there--but it's also all in the paragraphs above if you're looking for a shortcut. In one way or another, I've tried to insert that point into every post. It's a reminder for me, and maybe it's a roadmap for you. Maybe it just depends on what you're looking for.

Now, in some sense, I know what my posts are going to say--and I say it anyway. That gives me a little more insight into who I am.

So, who are you?

Monday, January 7, 2013

The Path from There to Here

It was a fleeting thought last night:
Twenty years ago, I would most certainly have assured you that I would not be sitting here tonight deciding whether it would be easier to transpose "New River Train" from the key of D to G or to tune my banjo to an Open D.
Those who knew me then would know it's not just because I don't own a capo yet...

Perhaps it's always been a trivial matter for the anyone who grew up with a guitar or the like, but for me it's all still new. I found a simple melody and I wanted to hear the banjo sing it in the clawhammer style, but the banjo was tuned to Open G and the song is presents in the Key of D. Finding the melody's notes would not be a problem, but hitting the D, G, and A chords between those notes might be, what with my lack of experience and all... But you just know that that banjo can sing that song and you also know that you can make it happen. Without taking the time to master playing D songs in Open G tuning, I could only see two choices: Change the instrument's tuning to D or shift the song into the Key of G.

It only looked like a dilemma to me, of course: changing tuning and transposing keys are both trivial matters for the experienced--happening without a second thought. For a novice, there are obstacles to either solution--neither or which, by the way, will guarantee that I'd be able to make an intelligible presentation of the tune in the required style anyway! Still, it seemed to be a necessary intermediate step on the way to a solution, at least from where I was standing.

But 20 years ago, I did not foresee this; looking back, it would be hard to even see its beginnings. What I do have, though, is some vague sense that suffering through this awkward fumbling is worth the effort and a sense that it's a necessary step on the way to something I can't quite describe.

I can tell you, though, that it just feels right if not unavoidable.

Sounds as clear as a bell that you're about to strike... once you find a mallet, that is!

Now, why is it that when there's a keyboard on my lap and a mandolin resting on its stand beside me that this banjo story would come to mind at all?

As usual, feel free to read once through for the novice musician's path and maybe another time through in case there's an application to your own situation. You can even put off finding the koan within it indefinitely, or at least until the time is right--it's up to you!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Great Remember... Almost

Nearly twenty years ago, I approached my piano teacher with sheet music for Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata under my arm. She sent me home with "Go Tell Aunt Rhodie."

I inhale, I raise my wrists, and with enough heartfelt melancholy to bring a tear to the listener's eye, I deliver the news in 22 notes with maybe two chords thrown in for fanciness here and there: The old grey goose is dead. And while I might have earned a standing ovation at the recital had there been a recital and I been an additional 20 years younger at that recital, It's doubtful that even my mother would have imagined that she had just heard me play the Moonlight Sonata.

Skip forward those 20 years to learning fiddle tunes on the mandolin. With a bluegrass fiddler for an instructor, the basic targets seem to be precision and speed (all within the proper rhythm, of course). When you're responsible for the melody on the mandolin, it can be painfully clear when you've missed that note--maybe not "missed note on a fiddle" painful, but still...

At this stage in the game, your audience knows what the tune is supposed to sound like, and the final applause-to-contorted-false-smile ratio is largely based upon how little you screw it up.

Interestingly enough, something completely different seems to happen when you've got a banjo on your lap--and it's quite an amazing thing: People tend to be happy to find the tune they expect to hear within whatever it is that you're playing! Now that's not to say that they're going to strain their imaginations unduly, but if you've got the rhythm right, you're within the expected chords, and you occasionally hit a good melody note, you just might find a few people tapping their feet and smiling, maybe even singing along.

It's crazy!

But it's not unexpected. If anything, it's a case of "managed expectations." While there are different schools of thought about how this funky thing should be played--with disagreements voiced with all kinds of religious fervor--my very basic beginner's understanding says that you will at a minimum be providing rhythm and chords that accompany your song in some form. When you're soloing, the more of the actual melody that you can weave in there the better.

Some people call that "approximating the melody," balancing the banjo-ness with the song itself. For instance, you might hear someone saying, "In clawhammer style, we play the characteristic 'bum di-ty bum di-ty bum dity'" and it's up to you to arrange the tune to to fit into that form." In a different parlance, we're looking at a projection of a song against various styles. In each case, what's comes out is an approximation of the original given the style and the interpretation--and hopefully it's still recognizable! Why approximate? Well, there don't seem to be a lot of note-for-note melodies that sound all that pretty on a banjo--if for no other reason than that you can recognize that you're hearing a banjo, but that je ne sais quoi banjo-ness is missing. There's just something offensive about a banjo not being played like a banjo, and that something can be more offensive than the banjo itself--enough so that you'll not even notice that there was a tune in there at all!

Now admittedly I'm using the "that was fun / sounds good!" method of banjo education so far--tempered with some reference materials and knowledge from my mandolin classes, of course--so I hardly have an opinion about The Right Way to do anything. Still, I'll tell you that there's something to it...

Know what I'm sayin'? Can you dig it?

It's in there...

Anyway, for fun:

  • Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, not performed by me (link).
  • A song written for the banjo in clawhammer style, played by a fellow better know for something completely different in other circles: The Great Remember.
  • You can find some renditions of Go Tell Aunt Rhodie on your own.
  • Remember, this is a Sword Mountain. If you read the post through Applied Zen lenses, what do you see?
Enjoy... and let me know when you find the koan!