Monthly Archives: April 2009

Living La Vida Virtuosa

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That’s “the virtuous life,” for those of you like me who are not proficient in Spanish. The subject has been on my mind lately as I finish reading Brendan Myers’s recent book The Other Side of Virtue. It has taken me a long time, partly because it is a new subject for me. Paganism as we know is long on other_side_of_virtue_coverspontaneity and very light on anything which requires concentrated, sustained thought. This book demands it however, and rightly so. It suggests a way to live that is radically different from the way most of us view our lives, and which bring us into accord with some of the great minds of Western civilization—those famous Pagan philosophers and heroes most of us know very little about.

When I first saw the title I was confused, because I had never considered that virtue might have more than one side. Wouldn’t the other side of virtue be simply a lack of virtue, or a life spent actively refuting its importance? Now I know better, as the title is meant to identify mainstream values like Faith, Hope, Obedience, Charity, Humility, and Chastity as largely Christian virtues. In contrast to these “passive virtues” Myers then takes us through the “other side” of virtue: those values and character traits which arose earlier in Heroic and Classical societies, had a resurgence during the Renaissance and Romantic periods, and are surfacing yet again in various forms—in short, he introduces the reader to Pagan virtues.

Myers digs deep into the Greek, Germanic, Irish and Norse sagas to build his depiction of Heroic virtues such as fortune, friendship, honor, courage, trust, hope, magic, and atonement. He then moves into Classical society, where he finds reason, courage, prudence, temperance, and justice. Moving ever onward, he visits the virtues espoused in Renaissance art and humanism, and in the writings of Machiavelli, Shakespeare, the Romantics, Nietzsche, and for good measure ends with the more modern take on virtue expressed by Tolkein and J.K. Rowling. (Spoiler alert: they may be such popular authors because they revive the old virtues which still resonate deeply in the population.)

If someone had asked me previously what qualities I considered virtuous, I would have named honesty, humility, integrity, courage, compassion, and maybe humor. But virtues have often felt like extra credit assignments to me. We aim for leading a good life, and if we manage to hit a few of the virtues along the way, more’s the better. Perhaps this laissez faire attitude is a generational trait, but it might be a larger cultural issue.

Growing up my favorite jigsaw puzzle was one of the Seven Deadly Sins, with gleefully cartoonish faces in 1920’s attire depicting sloth, avarice, lust, gluttony, pride, envy, and wrath. They all looked like they were having a fine time, though one might gather that too much of a good thing could harm one’s looks. How telling that I can still remember almost the entire list off the top of my head, yet had no idea what the corresponding biblical Seven Virtues were until I read about them in Myers’s book.

The other thing we as a culture know about virtues is that those who espouse them are usually guilty of the worst sorts of hypocrisy: witness former Education Secretary William Bennett, whose best-selling Book of Virtues belied the fact that he himself is a compulsive gambler who has lost millions. Or poor Ted Haggard, that paragon of God-fearing, anti-gay religiosity who fell from his pulpit when it was revealed that he had a thing for gay sex with hookers and speed. In a crazy world with no real moral compass, it is usually the one shouting the loudest for people to follow his compass that we should trust the least.

Myers acknowledges that he is not broaching a popular subject. Yet he lays out his case for following the ancient virtues—and some new ones stemming from contemporary Pagan experience—with patience and clarity. Though the subject may be dense with literary and philosophical references, the book is written in an accessible, almost conversational style. Myers knows (and laments, to some extent) that when he speaks to his fellow Pagans, it is to an audience largely ignorant of and unaccustomed to the thinking of our learned forebears.

Today’s Paganism is replete with varied customs, devotions, and ritual recipes. We put on a pretty good festival, but are we ready to tackle philosophy? Or, to put it another way: given the tremendous influence Pagan ideas are currently having on the larger culture, what can we put forward that best exemplifies our core values? How do we believe a good life is lived, no matter one’s religion?

Myers writes:

The origin of virtue itself…is in the dynamic meeting between our ideas of who we are, and the various events and experiences that call these ideas into question. (pg. 155)

Times being what they are, we will have plenty of opportunities to ponder those big questions in the months to come. Read Brendan Myers’s book, especially the last section where he proposes some newer virtues. Then think about it, and if your ideas don’t match his figure out why that is. Make philosophy a topic of normal conversation. I don’t know whether the world needs another Socrates or Aristotle, but it would be a shame to cede the position to another religion, just because we were too busy blogging to wade back into the deep end after all these centuries.


Riding In Your Slipstream

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The first ecstatic/musical/lucid dream I remember happened when I was about 15 or 16. At that time, I was the principal bassoonist for the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra, and my life was strung with a pattern of lessons, rehearsals, concerts, after-parties, and more rehearsals. It was a good life, a great orchestra, and our conductor Denis DeCoteau knew exactly how to coax the best music from our hearts and souls. We had a dynamism and group energy that many older orchestras lacked, and I remember many ecstatic moments in our playing together. I sometimes felt, as my breath coursed through my instrument with every note, that not just my part but the whole piece was playing through me. The resonance of every part seemed to vibrate within each of us, and just by breathing together we made the music flow.

At that time, the city of Oakland was renovating the beautiful Paramount Theater, an Art Deco wonder in the center of downtown. By some fluke of scheduling, OSYO was the first group to hold a concert in the newly re-opened theater. As the curtain call approached, we lucky teenagers whispered nervously and peeked through the heavy velvet hanging at the back of the stage, watching our audience enter the hall.audwalls

Then it was time to play and we filed silently onto the stage with our instruments, professional and serious in concert black, as a gentle patter of applause rose from the plush seats below. From the stage the theater looked like a giant gilded music box, all gold leaf and tapestry, with titans and goddesses sculpted on every surface. Denis lifted his baton, and the surging of strings and jewel-toned brass slowly brushed over every surface, collecting in corners and rising to the rafters until the whole hall was filled with sound and the aging theater woke from its slumber to witness our musical offering.

Shortly after this I dreamed that:

I am backstage at the Paramount, and there is another orchestra on stage. The curtain is drawn so I can’t see them, but I am enraptured by the music they are playing. It is nothing I recognize, part Debussy and part Beethoven, with strains of Mahler, Shostakovich, and here and there a hint of Mozart or Dvořák. It is such a fluid sound that just as I try to pin it down, it changes into something completely different and I am newly enraptured. Then I realize that I am not reacting emotionally to the music, it is reacting to me, shaping itself according to my shifting moods. I am somehow composing this mysterious, complex and beautiful piece in every moment! It is a huge revelation, and wakes me up.

Like a music box itself I marveled at this dream, and have kept it on a high shelf since then, taking it down now and then to wind up and listen to once again. I have kept in mind its advice, too, and slowly through my adulthood have learned to act as though I were composing my own life, not just reacting to what was around me.

Two nights ago, I found myself by a tricksterish fluke in the orchestra seats of the Paramount at the first of three nights of Leonard Cohen concerts. I had ordered balcony tickets but that’s not what we got, so after freaking out about money for a few minutes, my friend and I went ahead and took our seats way down in “industry row.” It was a very good move, because that was the most remarkable concert I have ever experienced. Ever.

Leonard Cohen has spent a lifetime writing with scathing honesty, clarity, and wit about the range of human experience. His finely crafted songs stand on their own, each word placed just so to reflect light over to the next verse, where the same thought comes back again but this time with a snap and a shock of something unexpected. Most artists with his catalog of songs would wear them like medals, letting their gleam be the first thing one sees upon entering the room. Yet somehow, maybe through years of Zen Buddhist practice, Cohen has separated himself from his songs. He looks on their lives with wry amusement and a deep tenderness, knowing they are not him but being able to completely surrender himself to them the moment the song begins.

Lea Suzuki/SF ChronicleI have never seen someone sing with such passion and emptiness. He is like a reed through which the song blows, and yet he is present in every slow syllable of its passing. When it has fully passed, he takes a deep bow and returns to stillness, just himself, surrounded by the exquisite musicians that share the stage with him. Though he was obviously the master, they all stayed with him on the journey through each song, and every part was played with such precision and care that it took my breath away.

And there I was again, in the music box dream. This man was actually doing consciously, for an entire three-hour show, what I had dreamt about once, and only for a split second. The theater walls gently held his testament to the beauty and transience of life, and my heart rattled in its rib cage as I was pulled gently along into the flow of music by the power and artistry of his performance.

I don’t expect to see another show like that in my lifetime. There is simply no artist I can think of who matches Cohen on all fronts: poetry, voice, grace, wisdom, humility, passion, humor. Two days later, I still feel transformed by the experience. Yet it is not just the concert that has me energized. Out of the blue, the lid to my music box dream was lifted and music came pouring out. Only this time it wasn’t a memory, it was in real time. And I am still reeling from that unexpected convergence.

Who knows? Maybe a song will come from it someday.

A View of the Earth from Space

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I pay particular attention to the dreams I have when I am away from home. Particularly on overseas or extended journeys, it seems to me that our dreams take on a different character. As our lives are unmoored from habit and routine, our dreams are likewise free to roam, and often show us startling pictures of life back home. I call this the “View of the Earth from Space” phenomenon. Sometimes we can only identify patterns and see larger truths from a distance.

As it happens, last month I did a fair amount of traveling, leading dream workshops and selling copies of my new book. Maybe because of my busy schedule, or maybe due to jet lag, I tended to wake an hour or two earlier than I needed to in the morning. As I lay in bed hoping to get back to sleep, often I would drift into a dream and bring a little lucid awareness with me. The following dream was like that:

I’ve got a pole for pole vaulting, and can do all these tricks with it. It’s great, I can twirl and leap all across the landscape, and I’ve figured out how to make it almost a part of my body. The feeling is exhilarating. Then I notice that I assume the dream will end poorly, so I start imagining not quite reaching my goal, or reaching it but messing up toward the end. And it hits me: why do I need to assume that? Isn’t it just as likely that with my strength I will cross the finish line in great shape? So I decide to change the story in mid-flight, and it works. Crossing a huge expanse, I get from one side to the other without falling or getting weak.

This dream was a huge aha for me, first because I had been worried that I might get sick on my trip. But I felt good, was eating well, getting plenty of sleep, and the workshops were going great. Why would I keep worrying about getting sick? 

More than anything, the dream made me aware of that voice in my head which does assume the worst, is always bracing for at least mild failure, and actually serves to weaken me when things are going just fine. By way of antidote, the dream seemed to suggest that simply focusing on what I knew how to do and keeping my mind on my task was enough to ensure that I could be successful.

The second aha for me was in the dream’s unequivocal opinion that I was strong and skilled enough to do this pole vaulting. There was never a moment when I felt physically in jeopardy or fatigued. It was simply a trick of my mind that created the opening for missteps and falls.

I woke up feeling great, and resolved to stop worrying about what might go wrong on my trip. I also began paying attention to see whether that sabotaging voice came up in other situations. No surprise, it was a near-constant chatter in the background no matter what I was doing.

It took flying far away from home to get enough distance to be able to distinguish that message and to see clearly that I could change it. When I got home I continued to think about the dream and how I could keep practicing this new awareness. I realized that another realm where I am constantly afraid of injury is in fact physical exercise. 

I have been practicing aikido now for over 10 years, and view earning a black belt 5 years ago as a huge accomplishment, more important in a way than any degree or initiation I have received. But the art is very strenuous, and I kept re-injuring my knee and shoulder. Last summer I realized that I would not be able to continue training at the level I wanted  unless I did more physical conditioning in addition to the aikido.

I started doing hot yoga one or two times a week, something I’d done infrequently in the past. This is another strenuous activity, but one that felt better for my knee than the physical therapy exercises I’d been doing. Intuitively, I felt that I could strengthen those weak points while actually healing the original injuries if I kept at this practice for long enough.

Fast-forward to a couple weeks ago, back from the last of two overseas trips. I had eaten too well, it turns out, and nothing fit quite right anymore. The obvious solution was to work out more and shed those Cadbury pounds. That’s when I realized that I also needed to completely shift my perspective on physical training. 

Always in the back of my mind I had thought of yoga as something I did to get strong enough to go back to aikido. But there was nobody forcing me back to the dojo. I could in fact follow whatever path felt best for my body—I could just pursue yoga and let the aikido go for now.

Finally, I realized that the dream was showing me my needless fear of getting into great shape. I was in good enough shape, but why not let my body get as strong and flexible as it wanted to be? The dream felt almost like a hunger for that kind of physical mastery. What is more, unlike in aikido, I was toned enough and familiar enough with this style of yoga so that I could embark on more intensive training without fear of injury. All I needed to do was pay attention and keep focused on ground, breath, extension. 

So here I am, never having thought of myself as particularly athletic. And yet I go in there and sweat with the best of them, 4 or 5 times a week. All the Cadbury is staying put for now, but that is not really my goal. I want to feel more like that pole vaulter, energized and confident, crossing the landscape with grace and skill, and landing just so.