At the end of the last Bill’s Blog piece offered (way back in January: “Long Ago (and Far Away),” as the Jerome Kern song says—but a veritable universe of change has taken place since then!), I proposed to write about “four more sets at the 62nd Monterey Jazz Festival” I had not covered in my piece on that event–and offer more thoughts on the “unique perspective” I had acquired. Logistics were of major concern for me at the MJF: “just getting from one venue to another”–relative immobility: the result of two “medical” conditions: “vestibular neuritis” (daily vertigo) and numb unsupportive legs the result of “Lumbar spinal stenosis.”
This Bill’s Blog post will have to pass on what I planned to write, because “the longest continuously-running jazz festival in the world” will not take place in September of this year, has been cancelled (along with just about every other significant major local event), and I feel I have a more essential theme just now I want to address as fully as possible. I will, however, briefly here, mention two CDs (spin-offs from the Festival) available: Parlour Game (featuring Jenny Scheinman on violin; Carmen Staff, piano; Tony Scherr, bass; and Allison Miller, drums); and Tammy L. Hall’s Blue Soul (with Ruth Davies, Tammy–in photo (credit: Irene Young) alongside CDs–gave an inspiring performance on Sunday night: “Re-imagining music from Charlie Haden and Hank Jones’ classic recordings Steal Away and Going Home—Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs.”
The reason for my shift of attention is, of course: The world–the universe–has changed drastically since the time (January 18, 2020) I last posted a blog. The Coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis arrived, and then came more unfortunate events to accompany the multitude of deaths (more than 100,00 people) and economic depression: the brutal murder of George Floyd, and the protests (both peaceful and violent) that engulfed the country. It’s been impossible for me not to think lately of William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
With lots of time on my hands now, spent for the most part “sheltered in place” at home, I’ve turned my attention to the fine art of “Stillness”—attempting to cultivate a “cool” (in control of thought and action), even passive approach that might allow me (at a time when so many people have failed to “keep their heads,” out of fear, panic, urgency, contention, anger); stay “cool” so I can plan a path or “Way” to whatever meaningful “activity” or “action” might be necessary to undertake in the future.
I wrote and published (in Monterey Poetry Review, the Spring 2019 issue (long before the Coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis, or LockDown set in) a poem called “Stillness,” a poem in which I worked (or played) at describing the state I felt I should strive to move within. “Stillness? The moment I say, / or even think, the word, the state for which / it stands (or better yet, sits) sets in / and I do feel more at home with myself / in the manner we all desire, although / desire is no longer a part of the equation. / Buddhism calls it “mindfulness” (“As you / walk and eat and travel, be where / you are.”): being aware of “what is / happening right now without wishing it were different … I’ve recently taken to saying, / “Stillness, stillness, stillness,” slowly, / softly, over and over again—my eyes / inactive, my heart on hold, my legs worthless, / extended, blanketed, my hands deployed / in prayer, my lips still, with nothing / to translate, assert, or explain; my soul / a species undeclared, allegiant only / to stillness … / So much Life–the fullness / of Joy–confined now to this chair / in which I sit as still as I can, making friends with whatever surrounds me, whispering this unfamiliar mantra: “Stillness, stillness, stillness” again and again—lost in this / moment of measure: this mean which, / in my case, if not exactly golden, fits / well for the time being, and should suffice.”
The German theologian, philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart (1250-1328) wrote about “true inner detachment,” in which “the spirit stands immovable in the face of everything that befalls it, whether it is good or bad, honor or disgrace or calumny, just as a broad mountain stands immovable in the face of a little breeze.”
I found another excellent description (or “definition”) of states suggesting “stillness” in a book I read recently, travel writer Pico Iyer’s very aptly titled The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere: “At some point, all the horizontal trips in the world stop compensating for the need to go deep, into somewhere challenging and unexpected: movement makes most sense when grounded in stillness … In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing could feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.” (Photo Credit: Orange County Register)
A current study I’ve undertaken of stillness, or my gentle obsession with it, includes reading Iyer’s excellent book, alongside Robert J. Wicks’ The Tao of Ordinariness: Humility and Simplicity in a Narcissistic Age; David Brazier’s Zen Therapy : A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy; Brother David Steindl-Rast’s Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness and his amazing autobiography I am through you so I; and re-reading a long-time favorite, Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer. I recommend each of these books—if you want to take a stab just now, throughout this very demanding Age or Era, at “stillness,” or a measure of peace of mind. I’ll let you know how my own attempts progress or turn out.
Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness is so filled with hard-won wisdom, insight, sentence for sentence fine writing, and wit, I could be tempted to quote endlessly from it, but (for lack of space, and time) will settle for a few examples. In the opening chapter, “Going Nowhere,” Iyer writes about visiting songwriter/novelist Leonard Cohen, when the latter had retired to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in Los Angeles, California and, in 1996, was ordained as a monk. Cohen was “working on simplifying himself as fiercely as he might on the verses of one of his songs, which he spends more than ten years polishing to perfection.” Cohen described “going nowhere” as a grand adventure which “makes sense of everywhere else.” He was attempting to find a life in which “stage sets and performances” disappear, and we are reminded, “at a level deeper than all words, how making a living and making a life sometimes point in opposite directions.”
The visit with Leonard Cohen had a lasting effect on Pico Iyer, for this “small taste of silence” proved so engaging that the latter decided to change his own life. He moved to Japan, where he and his wife had a “doll’s house apartment,” but no longer a car, bicycle, bedroom or “TV I can understand.” A deeper blessing, as Leonard Cohen had shown him (sitting still), is that you will find yourself “as wide-awake, exhilarated, and pumping-hearted as when you are in love.” And you are in love—with having slipped out of your life and “ascended a small hill from which [you] could make out a wider landscape”—of stillness.
Pico Iyer began his third chapter, “Alone in the Dark” by saying, “None of us, of course, would want to be in a nowhere we hadn’t chosen, as prisoners or invalids are”—and he goes on to recount a “retreat” adventure voluntarily undertaken of his own, in the woods of Alberta, Canada, where he sat, alone, in a cabin day after day reading the letters of Emily Dickinson, “the poet famous for seldom leaving her home.” A fortunate “stillness” experience, but the poet dwelt often on “Death” (with a capital “D”), and haunted by it, herself concluded: “Ourself behind ourself concealed– / Should startle most.” Iyer himself concluded: “As in any love affair, the early days of a romance with stillness give little sign of the hard work to come”—a truth he would verify first hand in a chapter called “A Secular Sabbath,” in which he writes: “Keeping [that] sabbath—doing nothing for a while—is one of the hardest things in life for me; I’d much rather give up meat or wine or sex than the ability to check my e-mails or get on with my work [as esteemed essayist and novelist, known for his travel writing] when I want to.” But a “Secular Sabbath” [stillness!] makes certain we will have something bright and purposeful to carry back into the other six days.” Or nearly always, if we can bring that off!
The last chapter in Pico Iyer’s book is called “Coming Back Home,” and it quotes Trappist monk Thomas Merton (Iyer earlier writes about a visit with him at the Abbey of Gethsemani, the monastery at which Merton resided in Kentucky.) saying, “One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves. Or until life solves them for you.” How very “Zen”! And Pico Iyer ends his fully engaging book on such a note, with a deliciously taunting challenging Koan: “You can go on vacation to Paris or Hawaii or New Orleans three months from now, and you’ll have a tremendous time. But if you want to come back feeling new—alive and full of fresh hope and in love with the world—I think the place to visit may be Nowhere.”
Robert J. Wicks, the author of The Tao of Ordinariness, may not be as entertaining a verbal stylist as Pico Iyer, but he offers a solid premise and scholarly acumen (Wicks, Professor Emeritus at Loyola University, has published more than 50 books “for professionals and the general public”), and this book makes good on showing the Way (the “Tao”) to its subtitle: “Humility and Simplicity in a Narcissistic Age.” (Photo credit: http://www.robertjwicks.com/)
Each of the book’s six chapters takes up a different approach to accualizing this end, and again, as much as I’d like to take a look at them all, I will need to settle for just a few examples—the first being Wicks’ main theme: “As an adult, simply being yourself can be surprisingly difficult. That is why people often pretend to be someone else. Yet when we experience the lost virtue of ‘ordinariness’ lived out by us or sense this freedom expressed in others, it can be truly amazing … the aim of this book is to bring these virtues [ordinariness, humility, simplicity] more clearly into focus so they have a chance to take greater prominence in our lives.” Wicks defines ordinariness as “an attitude or stance that allows persons to explore and be intrigued by current realities and possibilities within themselves. It is marked by a comfort with oneself that leads to appropriate transparency.”
Robert Wicks’ book has a “How to” flavor or tone (that grand old staple in American life), but the book’s content is genial, refreshing, and applicable in a meaningful way. Each chapter is preceded by epigraphs, quotes from “experts” in living well (from Krishnamurti, William James, The Buddha, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Albert Schweitzer, Victor Frankl, to Thomas Merton) and offers background on qualities such as “Humility” (which has a “long history that needs to be revisited and valued anew for what it truly can mean in the way you live your life”)—history dating back to the Persian Desert Fathers (Abbas) and Mothers (Ammas), those early Christian hermits, ascetics, and monks who valued humility as a tool for maintaining hope. “Whereas today the word humility may connote a placid servility in the face of mistreatment, its Latin origin suggests strength and fertility. The word comes from hummus, as in ‘earth’” A humble person is one who “accepts the paradox of being both ‘great and small’ and does not discount that hope which [philosopher] Kierkegaard terms ‘possibility.’” Humility entails a healthy “rejection of self-centeredness … a powerful means of getting right with the world.”
A chapter called “Travel Lightly: Simplicity and Letting Go” states “If ordinariness is a forgotten virtue and humility an elusive one, simplicity is certainly one that is wistfully viewed as surprisingly unattainable or impractical in modern life.” Robert Wicks mentions persons with very full, demanding and complex lives who “see simplicity as an underlying attitude to behold and embrace,” and he cites the Dali Lama as an example—and quotes Pico Iyer writing of the Dali Lama as “full-time, lifelong student of the Buddha, who taught him that nearly everything is illusory and passing, not least that being who declares everything is illusory and passing”: a person who aspires, “as every monk does, to a simplicity that lies not before complexity but on the far side of it”—someone who “does not dodge experience but subsumed it.” Wicks adds: “As is especially the case with humility, being ordinary without embracing simplicity is almost impossible.”
In a chapter “Mentors in Ordinariness: Experiencing Authenticity in Practice,” Robert Wicks turns to Zen Master Shunryu Sukuki, who advised those seeking a spiritual guide to “seek to meet someone as sincere as themselves.” The author himself recalls once visiting someone “so real, so nondefensive, accepting, and self-aware” that, in that person’s presence, he felt not a trace of stress or anxiety, but that “I could be myself, “ and that was “enough.” He felt the strange sensation, after leaving, that he “had not aged” while in that person’s presence. Reading this, I couldn’t help but think of Psalm 100: “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all ye lands. Serve the LORD with gladness, and come before his presence with a song.” Yes, would that we all could feel this way, this free, this uninhibited in our human encounters, each such occasion ending in song. In another chapter, Wicks refers to the teachings of Shunryu Sukuki again: how he encourages “a constant sense of awareness of the one constant in life: change”—how to Suzuki, “honoring the truth of ordinariness ‘means to be yourself, always yourself, without sticking to an old self.”
I found it ironical (and all-too-loyal to American “How to” conditioning) that in his Epilogue, Robert Wicks, emphasizing “flowing with our life” as a reality; humor as a helpmate toward this goal; finding “the crackle of yet a new adventure in life” (“in the freshness of childhood with the wisdom of maturity”); and fully fathoming “the amazing paradox of letting go [italics my own]—Wicks felt a need to accompany such freewheeling phrases with thirty “points to consider,” which came across, to me, as near commandments or strictures–such as “Value pacing and timelessness over haste” and “Become more aware of what we are experiencing in the present moment rather than jumping to conclusions and unnecessary judgements.” But I appreciated his second to last sentence, the summing up: “The time for rediscovery of the virtue of ordinariness by all of us is now.”
Brother David Steindl-Rast is a living embodiment of all that Pico Iyer and Robert Wicks hope for us by way of a full and meaningful life. Benedictine monk, author, and lecturer, he is committed to interfaith dialogue and has dealt with the interaction between spirituality and science. I was so won over by his writing ( his totally individual style and content) and his person (which shines within the writing and in his fully engaging YouTube talks: see “Brother David Steindl-Rast Interview, Rome 2004,” Part One: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6BVvGQS-wc ), that as soon as I finished reading his book, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to life in Fullness, I acquired and read his extraordinary memoir, I am through you so I (the title taken from a poem by e.e. cummings) and his profound, respectful and important reexamination of the Apostles’ Creed, Deeper than Words—and I now want to read even more from the large body (and soul!) of his written work. (Photo credit: Diego Ortiz Mugica)
In his memoir, he writes about time he spent at Esalen Institute in California (close to the New Camaldoli Hermitage, which had been his monastic home for fourteen years), and a return to New York state (where, originally having arrived from Vienna, Austria, where he was born, and having joined the Benedictine monastery of Mount Savior in Elmira), he felt he had “reached the end of my life.” He settled in a Quaker retirement home: “I did not travel anymore, reduced all contact to a minimum, and prepared to die”—then adds: “Well, life was to unfold differently.” Friends encouraged him to put texts on the internet, “suggesting gratefulness as a theme,” and–Lo and behold—from humble beginnings, the website grew to be “a source of strength for a worldwide network of tens of thousands of visitors daily”—the outcome an organization called the Network for Grateful Living, which connected people, “all over the world,” who have “discovered the joy of living gratefully.”
Brother David Steindl-Rast’s book, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, shows us just how to do that: “Gratefulness” described at the start as “always wholehearted. Our whole person is engaged in it. And this is precisely what the symbol of the heart stands for—the whole person.” Our hearts are a “pulsating core of aliveness” in far more than just a physical sense. Gratefulness is “full aliveness” summed up in the symbol of the heart. “All of my past history, all of my future possibilities, this heartbeat in the present moment holds all of it together.” Elsewhere in the book he writes: “Only at heart are we whole. The heart stands for that center of our being where we are one with ourselves, one with all others, and one with God.” Living from the heart includes the fulness of longing and belonging. And this means “to live fully.”
Separate chapters are devoted to meaningful distinctions between terms too often misrepresented or confused, such as “Heart and Mind,” “Prayers and Prayerfulness,” “Contemplation and Leisure,” “Faith and Beliefs.” Linking “Heart” to “Prayer,” Brother David writes: “Moments that quench the thirst of the heart are moments of prayer. They are moments when we communicate with God, and that is, after all, the essence of prayer.” He writes: “It is absolutely necessary to distinguish between prayer and prayers. At least if we want to do what Scripture tells us to do and ‘pray continuously’ (Luke 18.1) … There is no reason why we should not be able to communicate with God in and through everything we do or suffer and so ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess 5:17). What is it that makes prayers [genuine] prayer?” He suggests words like “mindfulness, full alertness, and wholehearted attention.” And “concentration” (“an essential ingredient”). “As I get more and more distracted, my prayers run dry. Finally, my prayers may be an empty formality … the empty husk of prayer.” He also emphasizes “wonderment.” “You might even find yourself opening your arms wide as if your wide open eyes were not enough for your body to express your limitless openness … The more we come alive and awake, the more everything we do becomes prayer.”
The object of “contemplation” is to bless “whatever there is, and for no other reason but simply because it is—that is our raison d’etre; that is what we are made for as human beings. This singular commandment is engraved in our heart … Even under the hammer blows of fate the heart rings true. The human heart is made for universal praise …Thanksgiving, blessing, praise, all three belong to gratefulness … Can the spiritual life be that simple? Yes, what we secretly hoped is true: it is all that simple … What brings fulfillment is gratefulness, the simple response of our heart to this given life in all its fullness.”
In another chapter, Brother David Steindl-Ras offers a meaningful distinction between Faith and Beliefs. He claims we are all mystics (“If mysticism is, by definition, the experience of communion with the Ultimately Real (God, if you feel comfortable with the term), then who can disclaim being a mystic?) … If I fail to experience God in my own unique way, that experience will forever remain in the shadow land of possibility. But if I do, I will know life by the divine life within me.” Faith, Hope, and Love; Brother David regards them as “different aspects of one and the same living reality.” He feels faith is “the art of making fools of ourselves wisely like dancers.” Unless we take the risk of falling, we never take a single step (God asks “not riding, not swimming, not flying, but walking—a constant losing and finding of our balance.”). “At our peak moments of gratefulness, we find the threefold courage of faith easy, because at these moments we respond to the challenge of life from our heart.”
Faith takes trust and courage: “Faith is courage to let go. Fear clings … When we lose heart, faith weakens and fear mounts. But a fearful mind will compulsively cling to some support. Religious beliefs are readily at hand … And so, as faith grows weaker, we clutch our belief more and more tightly, more and more rigidly … Sometimes you meet people who seem so compulsive in their effort to convince everyone else of their beliefs that it makes you wonder about their faith … A person of genuine faith can afford to be far more at ease. Genuine faith holds its beliefs firmly, yes, but ever so lightly.”
Here are photos of Brother David Steindl-Rast with the Dali Lama, Pope Francis, and all by his beautiful solitary self. (Photo credits: https://integraleuropeanconference.com/2018/10/25 ; https://gratefulness.org/blog/br-david-meets-pope-francis/ ; https://www.resources.soundstrue.com/ )
Brother David’s Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer: An Approach to life in Fullness is much more than just an “approach.” It’s a source of immense spiritual insight, wisdom. For now, I shall have to pass over much of the great gift he has given us (in all his books, and talks)—and “jump” (a leap of faith) to his last sentence. He mentions the Triune God: Giver, Gift, and Thanksgiving–what St. Gregory of Nyssa called “the Round Dance of the Blessed Trinity”–and ends: “This is how God prays: by dancing. It is one great celebration of belonging by giving and thanksgiving. We can begin to join that dance in our heart right now through gratefulness. What else could be called life in fullness?” Ever practicing humility and simplicity (and “stillness”), gratitude, gladness, wholeheartedness, and just being himself, Brother David Steindl-Rast concludes with a question.
And I will bring this blog is a close now, short of the mark I originally (ambitiously, and joyfully) intended—and save, for my next post, the two other books I mentioned at the start (David Brazier’s Zen Therapy: A Buddhist Approach to Psychotherapy and Thomas Merton’s Contemplative Prayer), along with a portion of jazz bassist David Friesen’s new lecture series Beyond the Note…Jazz Music Essentials: excerpts from three of the ten topics included (because they relate significantly to our topic, stillness): “Listening and Communication,” “Patience,” and “Our Individual Personality.” I have had the pleasure (honor) of providing liner notes for several of David Friesen’s CDs, and have great respect (as I have, obviously, for the three writers discussed in this blog piece) for his artistic skill and his ability to articulate all he has learned “over the past 60 years, performing in concerts and recording with jazz legends, [with his] own groups and presenting jazz workshops worldwide in over 31 countries including the USA.”
I have let the three writers represented in this current blog speak for themselves (through extensive quotation from their books), as if they were welcome guests, “experts” taking precedence (rightfully) over whatever I might have to say about the art of stillness–and I hope to continue that approach in the next post, with the words of David Brazier, Thomas Merton, and David Friesen. I hope you have enjoyed this first “seminar session” on the Art of Stillness, and will enjoy the next as well. Thanks (good to be “back” with Bill’s Blog, believe me, after such long absence) and please do stay tuned.