Posts Tagged ‘Freud’

Dream Songs

Monday, August 6th, 2018

Dream Songs

Basketball Guitar photo by Todd

“One does not dream; one is dreamed. We undergo the dream, we are the objects.” Carl Jung

For two consecutive mornings recently I woke from dreams in which I was playing basketball and sinking improbable shots. Having had basketball dreams since I started playing basketball when I was twelve, what I found most interesting about these recent basketball dreams was that I was making shots instead of missing. In most of my previous basketball dreams, the ball would almost go in, but not quite.

In the first of these recent basketball dreams, I am in a professional basketball training facility, standing at mid-court watching pro ball players shooting around at one end of the court. A ball comes to me and I hold it for a moment and think about shooting, but instead of shooting I pass the ball to one of the enormous pros. I then turn away from the pros and go to the other end of the court where a few non-pro players are shooting around. I take a few shots and make them all, and as I continue to shoot, the court starts to change into a store with aisles of shelves. I am in one of those aisles about thirty feet from the hoop when I confidently launch a shot that swishes through cleanly. Feeling marvelous, I look around for a witness and see a boy running by.

“Did you see that shot I just made?” I ask him.

“Yeah,” he says with little enthusiasm. “Awesome.”

The second basketball dream takes place in a vegetable garden connected to a basketball court in a high school gymnasium. I am standing amidst the vegetables with a tall wooden archway looming between me and the faraway hoop. I fling the ball over the arch and watch with delight as the ball falls from on high and passes cleanly through the hoop. I make a second such shot, which prompts the approach of a woman who is concerned I might be interfering in a high school game I shouldn’t be involved in.

Where are Freud and Jung when we need them?

In other subconscious news, having recently taken up the guitar again after a ten-year hiatus, I just wrote my first new guitar song and found the process delightful and mysterious. I call this subconscious news because a large part of songwriting for me has to do with seeding the brain/body/spirit consortium with ideas for melodies and story lines and then seeing what the consortium comes up with over time.

Which is also to say, I think most dreams are the consortium’s attempts to create symbolic movies out of what we’re dealing with in our lives, both in the immediate sense and in the longer arcs of experience that compose our lives. The blueprints for these symbolic creations, I believe, are the ingrained ways we think and feel about ourselves.

I also think some dreams are clairvoyant communications from other people; that we actually co-dream and thereby receive information about each other via the astral plane.

So. After much noodling around, I found the chord and rhythm pattern for my new song, and then for several nights in a row I played the pattern multiple times before going to bed. I woke the following mornings to intriguing images and phrases and memories, gifts of the subconscious, and I would then try fitting those gifts to the chord and rhythm pattern of the song.

The recurring tonalities of those morning gifts were humor, nostalgia, playfulness, joy, and melancholy.

So check this out.  A few nights ago I went to bed feeling confident the song, You Say Yes, was done and ready to be sung a hundred times to get it well-learned before I record it. I was smiling as I went to sleep, happy with my new tune, and the next morning I woke to the song playing in my head and…

The lyrics were in Present Tense.

I’d written those lines and worked them dozens of times in Past Tense.

I jumped out of bed, ran to my office, picked up my guitar, sat down with the lyric sheet, and sang the song in Present Tense, and every previously-not-exactly-right syllabic relationship was magnifique.

Man oh man. Woman oh woman. What a kick.

Another of the songs I’ll be recording along with You Say Yes is a song I wrote in my early twenties when I was crashing in my friend Scott’s squalid apartment in New York City, one of the few songs from long ago I still play, a ballad called Agnes June.

Scott was studying composition at the Manhattan School of Music, and through Scott I met several aspiring composers, one of them Hans, a jocular German fellow lavishly supported by his socialist government to study abroad, his particular interest opera. When Hans learned that I played the guitar and wrote songs, he asked to hear some of them, and after I performed a few tunes for him he asked if I would be interested in writing words for a series of operatic lieder he wanted to compose for a talented soprano he was working with.

“If I use your lyrics,” he said, gesturing expansively, “I will pay you a hundred dollars per song.”

I was flattered, felt entirely over-matched, but was desperate for money and agreed to give it a try. Hans was delighted. We had three meetings at groovy cafés where Hans footed the bill for much-appreciated meals. At one of those meetings, we were joined by Neta, the Swedish soprano. She, too, was being nicely supported by her socialist government to study abroad, and we had a lively discussion about the kinds of lyrics they were hoping I would write for them.

“Sorrow,” said Hans, smiling ecstatically. “Youthful sorrow.”

“But joyful,” said Neta, nodding emphatically. “Joyful sorrow.”

“The poignant juxtaposition of joy and sorrow,” said Hans, tapping the table. “Bitter and sweet, tragic and comic.”

“The moodiness of youth,” said Neta, sighing. “You know how when we were teenagers we could go from ecstasy to misery in a heartbeat? That sort of thing.”

“We want the listener to smile and weep,” said Hans, beckoning the waitress to bring him another beer. “Cry and laugh.”

I spent several days sitting on various park benches working on lyrics for Hans and Neta—Scott’s apartment too depressing—and then presented Hans with the words for seven songs. He said he would get back to me, and a few days later he took me to lunch and said, “I like all your lyrics, love two of these, but Neta was hoping for something more free form. These are intriguing story songs, but not modern. Not contemporary. These are ballads from another time. They ask for beautiful melodies, but atonality and abstraction are in vogue now. I should have been more explicit. I apologize. You obviously worked very hard. I would like to give you a hundred dollars.”

I foolishly turned down the money, stowed the sheets of lyrics in my guitar case, left New York not long after, and carried on with my vagabond life for a while longer before settling into hippie life in Santa Cruz.

When I got a new guitar and a new guitar case, I was transferring stuff from the old case to the new case and came upon the lyrics I’d written for Hans. Most of the songs struck me as trying-too-hard junk, but the one called Agnes June sang to me as I read the words.

All these decades later, I understand Agnes June as a story from my life at that time, disguised as a classic ballad—sorrowful and joyful.

I was married in the snow to a girl named Agnes June.

We loved all through the year, under sun and under moon.

She could sing like an angel, like a birdie, too.

When the sky was gray, Agnes Junes would sing the blues.

Aggression Versus Intelligence

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

 

 


magician

Mr. Magician painting by Todd

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser October 2013)

“The tendency to aggression is an innate, independent, instinctual disposition in man and constitutes the powerful obstacle to culture.” Sigmund Freud

Konrad Lorenz famously defined aggression as “the fighting instinct in beast and man which is directed against members of the same species.” How about violence directed against members of the same society? I’ve been thinking about the certifiably insane people in Congress who want to deny tens of millions of poor and hungry people sufficient food and shelter and healthcare. I am referring to those duly elected nutcases willing to shut down the entire government to get their murderously selfish way. We might ask: why are these crazy idiots so pissed off at poor people? But more interesting to me is the question: how did these horrible, racist, sexist dimwits attain positions of such great power? And though it may seem overly simplistic, I think the answer is that in degenerate human societies, which ours has definitely become, aggression is a more successful survival trait, in the short term, than intelligence.

I recently read a report summarizing the calculations of a group of budget analysts and economists showing that if the United States government would spend a quarter, that is one-fourth, of the amount currently spent on our military, all the tens of millions of people currently living in poverty in America would immediately be lifted out of poverty. Now why won’t our government do that? The only feasible explanation for our government’s failure to quickly rectify the grotesque economic imbalance in our society is that the people running our government are more aggressive than intelligent. They would rather attack members of their own species than help members of their own species. In other words, they are moronic goons.

Consider this. If you and I got together with two other people, and you had hundreds of eggs and eleven big bags of potatoes and I had thousands of carrots and seventy-three loaves of bread, and the other two people had nothing and were very hungry, what do you think we would do with our abundance of food? Well, if we were even moderately intelligent and just a tiny bit compassionate we would share our food with those less fortunate people. But if we were very aggressive and extremely stupid, we would not share our food but do everything in our power to keep those two people from having anything to eat. This is what we are living through right now on a national scale. We are witness to and victims of a few hundred senselessly aggressive people trying to hoard everything for themselves rather than give anybody else anything. Defies belief, but there it is.

What went wrong? How did we, the people, allow our society to degenerate to this critical point where so few have so much and so many have so little? Another recent article reported that over 75% of the American people have no savings whatsoever and no money beyond this month’s paycheck, if they are fortunate enough to have a paycheck. That’s three out of every four people in the country on the verge of hunger and homelessness. So how is it that we haven’t elected a Congress to represent this vast majority of the population?

In thinking about aggression versus intelligence and why we handed over the reins of power to a bunch of heartless jackals, I am reminded of Marshall Mcluhan saying, “The modern Little Red Riding Hood, reared on singing commercials, has no objection to being eaten by the wolf.” I interpret this to mean that adults infantilized by mass media (and raised by parents infantilized by mass media) are as powerless to defend themselves against the aggressive depredations of the corporate rulers and their government lackeys, as children are powerless to defend themselves against the depredations of violent adults.

Whenever I think of Mcluhan I also think of Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self. Lasch said, “The effect of the mass media is not to elicit belief but to maintain the apparatus of addiction.” This crucial observation was especially prescient since it was made before the advent of cell phone computers and Ipads and their ilk, apparatuses that purvey the addictive flow of mind-altering media while the devices themselves are as addictive as the gunk they purvey.

Lasch also said, “Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology, which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure.” So what does it say about our underlying character structure, the American character circa 2013, that we, the people, would consciously choose hyper-aggressive idiots to run roughshod over our nation and the world? I think it says that we, the people, have been lobotomized by mass media and the insidiously invasive technologies purveying that media to the point that we are now, for all intents and purposes, collectively supine and passive in the face of the pathological aggression of a tiny minority of raving bullies.

I think it is crucial in any discussion of media manipulation of the masses to recall that television in its most primitive form did not become ubiquitous in American households until the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, and it was not until the 1990’s that television and television-like media were empowered by the internet and internet gizmos to go everywhere with us. Think about what has happened culturally and politically in synch with this television-based takeover of our lives and our society. Our public education system has entirely collapsed, our industrial base is gone, meaningful journalism has been replaced by sensationalist propaganda, our food supply is controlled by chemical companies, our largest banks are owned and operated by unregulated criminals, and we now have a vast underclass, hundreds of millions of people living in or on the verge of poverty, whereas in the 1960’s homelessness and dire poverty were essentially non-existent in America. There is a clear and direct connection between the conquest of our homes and minds by television and mass media, and the collapse of our society—a conquest that took very little time at all.

We the people are perpetually entranced now, the images and sounds and special effects and hypnotic suggestions brought to us minute-by-minute and hour-after-hour carefully designed and calculated to amplify our yearning for friendship and community and adventure and love and health and meaningful work. But rather than actually help us fulfill our desires and satisfy our yearnings, the media never ceases to whisper that fulfillment comes from watching enactments of other people fulfilling those desires. We needn’t do anything but get the latest and fastest and highest definition devices for displaying those constantly reiterated myths we so greatly desire to inhabit. By watching actors and athletes and celebrities and lucky winners attain their goals and live their dreams, or at least lead lives more exciting and colorful than our own dreary lives, so shall we be satisfied.

But only if we keep watching. Should we ever cease to check our phones or our portable screens every few minutes to get an update, a quick fix, or if we miss an episode of that gritty drama comedy murder mystery series we are now hopelessly addicted to, we will fall into a bottomless pit of fear and depression from which there is no escape, no return. Happiness is maintaining a strong clear high-speed connection anywhere and everywhere 24-7. Got it?

And while we’re imbibing remarkable graphics and awesome surround sound and never-ending car crash sequences and fascinating presentations about all the things we’d really like to be involved in if only we had the time for those sorts of things (but we don’t), we are too distracted to pay attention to those maniacs looting the nation and tearing the heart out of what might have been a great society, because whenever we do pay attention we feel, you know, bummed out, because there’s nothing we can do about those unpleasantly aggressive men wrecking everything. That’s just the way things are. Don’t the most popular television shows glorify amorality and violence and stupidity and drug dealing and serial killing and out-of-control aggression? Haven’t things always been that way? Haven’t violent bullies always wrecked everything for everybody else? That’s never going to change, right?

Even so, here’s a wild idea. The next time you go for a walk on the beach, don’t take your phone with you. I know that sounds crazy and reckless and dangerously daring; but do it anyway. You’ll be okay. I promise. And when you’re way out there on the sand, have a seat and watch the waves and just hang out for a while and see what happens. See what you think.

Slow Going

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

(First published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2010)

“For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.” Lily Tomlin

Five years ago, a few weeks before I made my move from Berkeley to Mendocino, I came within a few inches of being killed by a young man who was driving his pickup truck very fast while simultaneously using his mobile phone. I had just stepped into the crosswalk at the intersection of San Pablo Avenue and Gilman Avenue, having been given the go ahead to cross by the illuminated symbol of a human being taking a walk. The young man who was driving his pickup very fast apparently did not see the red light or me or possibly anything as he sped through the intersection with his phone pressed to his ear. I don’t know if he was talking to someone or listening to someone else talking, or perhaps he was listening to music; I am only certain he was pressing his phone to his ear as his two-ton missile shot by within inches of my puny little flesh and blood body. And whether there is such a thing as fate or whether life is a muddle of meaningless happenstance, had I been one step further along at that moment, I would have been smashed to smithereens.

So today I’m driving our old truck into our soggy hamlet to get the mail and groceries, a cold rain falling, and because I am the unelected president of Mendocino Drivers Not In A Hurry To Get Anywhere, I’ve only gotten a few hundred yards down the Comptche-Ukiah straightaway before my rearview mirror is filled with the sight of a pickup closing fast upon me. As is my custom in these situations, I move to the outer edge of the road and slow to a crawl, timing my move so that whoever is driving that oncoming pickup will have an easy time passing me—the road ahead empty, the broken yellow line entirely on our side. But this particular pickup (going at least seventy miles per hour) zooms to within a few feet of my bumper before swerving around me and becoming a dot in the distance; and I, frightened and angry, unleash an obscenity-filled and punctuation-free description of this person’s intelligence, sexual predilection, and everything I wish to befall him in the near future.

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” Mohandas Gandhi

Seriously, folks, the village of Mendocino is not, I repeat, not a city. I’m not even sure we qualify as a town given we only have one criminally usurious gas station and nary a Mexican restaurant. Yet on most Fridays, some Mondays, every summer weekend, and unpredictably throughout the year, people drive around the village as if they are in Santa Monica at lunch hour late for I don’t know what, surgery? and in mortal fear of not finding a parking place and therefore doomed to die in their cars.

At first I thought these lunatics had to be tourists or weekend residents bringing their urban neuroses to our hinterlands, but over time I have come to realize that such irrational behavior is contagious, that locals participate, too, and that even I, determined to honor my inner slow poke, do at times react to this transplanted insanity by momentarily joining in the madness.

“Human nature cannot be studied in cities except at a disadvantage—a village is the place.” Mark Twain

A good friend recently visited from San Francisco and accompanied me on my errands in the village. He was envious there was no line at the post office, and he was impressed that the postal employees knew me by my first name, but my gabbing with Jeff and Patty at the Mendocino Market as I lollygagged in front of their delectable fish and fowl drove my friend mad with impatience. And as Garnish struck up a conversation about opera with me as he rang up my purchases in Corners, and I having already complimented Sky on the fabulous cauliflower and blabbed at length with Deborah about the benefits of cocoanut oil, my friend began whirling like a dervish and I had to send him outside to wait for me, though he is sixty-one and should know better.

“Teach us to care and not to care.” T.S. Eliot

I first delved into Buddhism in the late 1960’s when I ran into Buddhist references in the poetry of Philip Whalen and Lew Welch, my favorite San Francisco Beat poets. For many years thereafter I read essays and books by American, Japanese, Tibetan, Chinese, Thai, and Korean Buddhist teachers discussing the ins and outs and ups and downs of Buddhist dharma.

Nowadays I’ll go a year or two at a stretch without reading any dharma, and then a book will befall me or I’ll be hunting for something in my bookshelf and pull out Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki or White Sail by Thinley Norbu, and the next thing I know I’ll be deep into a refresher course in mindfulness and the wisdom of no escape.

Most recently I couldn’t resist buying a brand new hardback copy of Jack Kornfield’s The Wise Heart, his four-hundred-page treatise on Buddhist psychology for only a few dollars from the Daedalus Books catalogue. Such a deal! One of my all-time favorite Buddhist texts is Mark Epstein’s Thoughts Without a Thinker, a brilliant illumination of both Buddhist psychology and western (derived from Freud) psychology in which Epstein compares and contrasts these two very different yet complimentary views of human emotionality and behavior. So far, I have only read sixty pages of Kornfield’s The Wise Heart, but the text has already proven to be a good kick in my mental ass, so to speak, to slow down and smell the moments.

So this morning I decided to walk very slowly on my way to pick up the morning paper at the mouth of our driveway. As I took my slow and mindful steps, I focused on what I was stepping on. Lost in fascination with the conglomerations of pebbles and soil and dead leaves and tiny green shoots of new life composing my path to the highway, I arrived at my destination in no time at all. The newspaper in its plastic sheath seemed enormous and prophetic, and my hand as it entered the frame of my vision to pick up the paper seemed incredibly complex and beautiful—everything shaped by the quality of my focus.

“It is important to practice at the speed of no mistakes.” Lucinda Mackworth-Young

I have been practicing the piano every day for forty-five years. Of late, I have been playing tunes as slowly as I can without entirely abandoning their rhythmic forms, and in so doing I have discovered tunes within tunes I would otherwise have never guessed were there.

“People ought to listen more slowly.” Jean Sparks Ducey

In 1972 I attended a single meeting of a group practicing Therapeutic Conversation. Had I been a bit more emotionally evolved, I probably would have attended several more of their meetings, but one of the members so repulsed me I never went back. However, I learned such valuable lessons from that one meeting, I was changed forever as a conversationalist.

The first process of the evening was Circle Talk, in which we took our turn speaking after the person to our right had finished saying whatever he or she wanted to say. However, we couldn’t just jump right in the moment the person finished speaking. We had to wait a full minute before we spoke, the time being kept by the leader. And I discovered, in the silence of that incredibly long minute, that what I initially thought I wanted to say was almost never a real response to what the previous speaker had said, but something only tangentially related. Yet if I could be patient, a true response would rise from the depths of that short infinity.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com

Magical Thinking

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

“Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business.” Tom Robbins

Big game tonight, our Giants scrapping for first place in the National League West, a dozen games left in the regular season, our first shot at making the playoffs since the decline and fall of Barry Bonds. So this morning I hand-washed my black Giants sweatshirt and smudged it with white sage to amplify the winning mojo therein. Do I really believe wearing this particular sweatshirt will make a difference in the outcome of a distant baseball game? Was Yogi Berra a catcher? If reputable physicists seriously aver that butterflies flapping their wings in China impact the weather in Brazil, why wouldn’t my choice of sweatshirts influence a baseball game a couple hundred miles away?

Maybe you don’t believe butterflies contribute to the creation of weather? Do you believe that devoutly imagining something can make that something happen? As in envisioning Juan Uribe hitting a home run, and then he does? Hit a home run? Coincidence, you say? Then how about this: you’re stuck on the sofa, too tired to get up, or you’ve got a cat on your lap so you can’t get up, but you fervently wish someone would bring you a beer or a cup of tea, and suddenly here comes somebody with exactly what you wanted. That’s never happened to you? God, I’m sorry.

“In the magical universe there are no coincidences and there are no accidents. Nothing happens unless someone wills it to happen.” William Burroughs

In 1962 the Giants went to the World Series. I was in the eighth grade at La Entrada Junior High in Menlo Park California. This was before the passage of Jarvis Gann Proposition Thirteen that annihilated the common good, so California still had the best system of public education in America. Indeed, the system was so good, the powers that were wheeled a television into our classroom so we could watch the World Series. Talk about having your priorities right.

So the bell rang at the end of class, lunchtime upon us, just as Willie Mays was coming to bat, at which moment Nancy Woolf, the girl of my dreams (though I was too shy to tell her so), approached that television, kissed her right index finger, and with that lucky finger touched the tiny projected image of Willie Mays on the screen. And on the very next pitch, Willie hit a towering home run. I saw this happen with my very own eyes, in real time. Everything was live in those days, no tape delay as I witnessed the power of love and divine pulchritude precipitating a mighty swing. Coincidence, you say? Magic, say I.

“Formerly, when religion was strong and science weak, men mistook magic for medicine; now, when science is strong and religion weak, men mistake medicine for magic.” Thomas Szasz

My father, a medical doctor and a Freudian psychoanalyst, was a religious atheist. He felt it his un-God-given duty to debunk and demean anything and anyone tainted with even the slightest whiff of what he called magical thinking, which included believing in God, astrology, reincarnation, and Santa Claus. Near the end of his life, my father proselytized zealously about his latest and greatest theory explaining everything that had ever happened in human history. To wit: most people are genetically incapable of not thinking magically, and are therefore easily controlled by vastly more intelligent people who don’t believe in magical thinking. Shamans and priests and gurus and messiahs and emperors and popes and politicians throughout history were those born free of the magical thinking gene, but they pretended to believe in magical thinking in order to rule the roost. For thousands of years, anyone who didn’t believe in magical thinking and was naïve enough to say so publicly was branded a heretic or a lunatic, until finally science overcame religion and reason prevailed over superstition. But magical thinking, according to my father, still must be ruthlessly opposed or the charlatans will make use of this dominant genetic propensity to seize control once more and plunge the world back into ignorance and organized religion.

My father insisted that spirituality was synonymous with magical thinking, and he declared all spiritual experiences to be fake or delusional. On those rare occasions when I used the words spiritual or mystical in my father’s presence, his reactive rhetoric rivaled the fieriest of fire and brimstone preachers. This was before he developed his ultimate theory of the genetic inevitability of magical thinking, which allowed him to express pity for the inferior masses rather than hatred and contempt.

“Art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth.” Theodor Adorno

My mother was not a magical thinker, nor were my siblings, but I have always been so. This means, according to my father’s theory, that I was born with the gene for magical thinking and my siblings were not, which may explain why they are atheists and I have never felt that the geological, chemical, and biological workings of nature in any way preclude the existence of an intelligent universe. Indeed, my recent reading of a rigorously scientific text on hummingbirds confirms my view that the universe is a fully conscious artist.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke

I have recently heard the expression magical thinking used to castigate those who believed Obama’s campaign promises, to ridicule those who think solar energy can effectively replace fossil fuels, and to pour salt into the wounds of those who lost their shirts and pants and everything else in the ongoing economic meltdown; and I realize from these vitriolic usages that the expression magical thinking is used primarily as a synonym for stupid and/or ignorant, which conforms with my father’s theory of cultural history.

So let us deconstruct the expression and see what we find. On the surface we almost have an oxymoron. Magical—Thinking. In my experience, magic only fully manifests when the linear logical mind is quieted or turned off, and disbelief (preconception) is thereby suspended. That is, if our brains are on red alert to not believe in anything contrary to our current notions of reality, our brains are highly unlikely to be open to magical occurrences.

I think this brings us to the root of the inquiry as well as to the root of magical, which is magic, a seriously loaded word. There was magic in the air when he saw her. Witchcraft. Voodoo. Love. Angels. Pleasure. Luck. Fate. Sunsets. Kittens. Simultaneous orgasms!

As with most loaded words, magic behooves us to find a less loaded equivalent to make our point. I nominate the word extraordinary, which means beyond the ordinary, something unexpected, perhaps even unprecedented. We’re down one to nothing in the bottom of the ninth, Posey on second, two outs. Juan Uribe steps to the plate. I am suddenly overcome by an extraordinary thought, one might even call it a vision, of Juan connecting with a fastball and hitting the ball out of the park. And he does, Juan does. He hits the ball out of the park. Fair. Not foul. Gone. Outta here! Adios pelota! Extraordinary! Did my wanting him to hit that home run make the home run happen? Or was my vision merely prophetic? Whoa. I don’t know. For if I knew, then my thoughts would be what? Scientific?

“Genius is another word for magic, and the whole point of magic is that it is inexplicable.” Margot Fonteyn

There is a marvelous passage (marvelous to magical thinkers) in Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain in which Merton tells of his extraordinary experience in a cathedral in Mexico City. As Merton prayed fervently to God that He exert His extraordinary power so that Merton’s first book would be accepted for publication, Merton was filled with an extraordinary energy (a magical thinker might call such energy the light of God) and Merton was shaken to his core. And though his book was not published, Merton came to understand that God had not forsaken him, but had given him exactly what he most needed, not what he most wanted.

So tonight when I don my black sweatshirt and perform on our extraordinary piano an extraordinary blues progression in lieu of the national anthem, and Marcia (yes, I’ve converted my extraordinary wife to the cause of los Gigantes) and I take a moment to visualize our starting pitcher throwing extraordinarily well and our hitters making loud and extraordinary contact with the ball, we will trust the unseen powers, otherwise known as the baseball gods, to grok from our vibes that we don’t just want to win, but that our need is extraordinary.

(Todd worships los Gigantes in Mendocino and blesses KMFB for broadcasting the games locally. This essay appeared originally in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010.)

Carma

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser: April 2010)

Yesterday a tree fell on our car. Fortunately no one was in the car when the wind snapped the top third off the pine tree and a thousand pounds of soon-to-be firewood fell twenty feet though the crystalline springtime air and smashed the roof, the windshield, and the hood of our dearly beloved cello-toting 1996 Toyota Corolla wagon.

We had just gone for a brief spin in our old pickup truck, eschewing the wagon because she was low on gas, and I had just said to Marcia regarding the formidable westerly winds, “This is a trees-falling-on-power-lines kind of day if I’ve ever seen one.” Upon our return from the spin, there was Zephyr (so named in a fit of poesy when I bought her five years ago) half-buried under the glossy needles and sappy timber of the former upper reaches of a quasi-stunted pine doing his best to survive in that nutrient-stingy soil known hereabouts as Pygmy. The bottom two-thirds of the still-living tree loomed over the wreckage; the scene only lacking a raven perched on the stub cawing, “Nevermore.”

We were in shock. When we got married two plus years ago we not only exchanged rings, we exchanged cars. I needed a pickup for pruning jobs and toting manure, Marcia needed a zippy little car for the aforementioned cello toting and friend toting in all sorts of weather. Now Zephyr was totaled. Marcia immediately called AAA and within the hour we were on our way to Fort Bragg to pick up her rental car so the cello toting could continue unabated. Say what you will about the decline and fall of the American Empire, if one has comprehensive auto insurance, the system will seamlessly keep you rolling along. Now if only health insurance would work so seamlessly when trees, as it were, fall on your health.

What does it mean when a tree falls on your car? Well, the most mundane interpretation is that a tree falling on your car means that a tree has fallen on your car. But why did that particular tree fall on that particular car at that particular moment in our lives? Is this a sign? An omen? A message? Was this an act of divine intervention or an attack by the forces of evil? We will almost certainly never know. However, when things like this happen to me, I like to interpret them as I would interpret a dream. What for? Fun, of course.

I’ve read numerous books about dreams and dreaming, countless articles both scientific and fanciful, and I’ve even taken a dream interpretation class, which is the only class of any sort I’ve taken since dropping out of college forty-some years ago. My father was a Freudian psychoanalyst and cursorily introduced me to dream interpretation when I was twelve by giving me a copy of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, a tome I found to be largely useless for my adolescent purposes. But what really got me interested in dreams and dream research was/were beagles.

I was a freshman Anthropology major at the University of California Santa Cruz in 1967, the campus just beginning to spread its concrete tentacles over the former cattle ranch and throughout the third and fourth-growth redwood groves. One of my favorite extracurricular activities was to head off into the largely unexplored woods and hope to get lost, so that in trying to find my way home I would have an adventure. This was a free and fairly safe way to experience the thrill of being lost, because going downhill from anywhere on the campus eventually brought me to a road; and I knew all the roads in that watershed.

So one sunny day I got lost in the forest, had a splendiferous daydream by a sun-dappled pool in a grotto of ferns, and at day’s end I headed downhill. I emerged from the forest in a place unknown to me and espied a cluster of a one-story buildings and a cyclone-fenced enclosure containing several dozen beagles. Curious about this remote installation, I made my way thither. The dogs saw me and charged en masse to the cyclone fence to bark at me. But their barking made no sound. I could see they were barking, but no noise was emanating from their mouths. So, yes, I thought I had gone deaf if not mad.

Totally freaked out (to use a popular expression of that era), I continued my approach and when I was within twenty feet of the pen, several of the hysterical dogs hurled themselves against the cyclone fencing, and I heard the noises their bodies made striking the fence, though nary a sound emerged from their furiously barking mouths. At which moment, a man emerged from one of the buildings, deduced I was the cause of the commotion, and said to me, “Looking for something?”

“I’m lost,” I said. “What is this place?”

“Dream research,” he explained. “We’re using the dogs to map sleep patterns, REM sleep and…”

“What’s REM sleep?”

“Rapid eye movement. Indicates dreaming.”

“What’s wrong with the dogs? Why can’t they bark?”

“We snip their vocal cords,” he said, inadvertently touching his throat. “Impossible to work with the constant din of their barking.”

“Oh,” I said, aghast at his nonchalance about taking away the dogs’ voices. “Why not use humans?”

“We’re laying the groundwork for that,” he said, somewhat condescendingly. “Establishing baselines. Things you probably wouldn’t understand.”

My reports of this canine gulag failed to incite my classmates to storm the lab and rescue the dogs, but something about that encounter and the dreamlike experience of coming upon a pack of silently barking hounds got me reading about sleep and dreams, which took me to Jung and back to Freud and eventually back to Jung, with my simultaneous readings in anthropology leading me to the Dreamtime of the Australian Aboriginals and the Bushmen of the Kalahari who believed there is a dream dreaming us.

Meanwhile, my pal Rico was en route to becoming a psychotherapist, and he, too, was fascinated with dreams and dream interpretation. It was Rico who taught me to recount my dreams out loud in the present tense, which technique invariably improved my recall of important and otherwise overlooked details of the dreams.

Eons later, I would enroll in a ten-week dream interpretation class taught by a brilliant man who was not keen on interpretations that deviated from his, so we butted heads, though I learned many things from him and appreciated the consistency and clarity of his system. And what I especially loved about his class was that we got to act out our dreams, with my fellow students and I taking parts of people and things in each other’s dreams, which enactments often exposed hidden emotions underpinning the dreams.

Then some years ago I caught the end of a radio program featuring a wonderfully articulate woman taking callers’ questions about dreams. A man called to say he wished he had a dream for her to interpret, but that he had never in his life remembered even the tiniest fragment of a dream. And the articulate woman said, “Then tell me what happened to you today and I will interpret that as a dream.”

I don’t remember much else about their interaction, but I have ever since interpreted puzzling and momentous events in my life as I would interpret dreams, from which many groovy insights have emerged. Thus I recommend the practice to you.

Here is the dream version of the tree falling on our car.

Marcia and I emerge from the house we rent and walk toward the Corolla (definition of corolla: the inner envelope of floral leaves of a flower).

“Oh,” says Marcia, “can we take the truck? The wagon’s low on gas.”

“Sure,” I say, noting the Corolla is parked in a place where we almost never park it.

So we take the truck and wend our way along a winding road through the forest, the spring day gorgeous and sunny. The next thing I know we are parking the truck on the side of the road and walking down a wooded driveway to a beautiful house set in a lovely park of old trees and verdant meadows. We pass the house and come to a vast barn-like structure, a fabulous studio on the shores of a lovely lake. In other words, paradise.

“If only this were ours,” we say and think and feel.

We get back in the truck and drive home, each of us lost in fantasies of such a paradise belonging to us. And as we arrive home, we find that a tree has crushed our car.

In short (and drawing from a variety of interpretive schemata): the car (low on gas) represents the means by which the ego navigates the outside world. The tree represents the intelligence and power of Nature. To acquire a house (self) so much larger and more magnificent than our current house (self) and to own (control our destiny) rather than rent (accede control to others) such a grand home (self) would require an entirely different way of conveying our egos in the outside world.

So the question is: do we get another wagon or a sedan? Another Toyota or a Honda? We’re thinking something around three grand.

Todd’s web site is UndertheTableBooks.com.

The Toilets of Mendocino

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

I was going to title this piece Pay To Poop or The Pooplic Option or something else related to the maddening absurdities of the current healthcare debate and the ongoing economic meltdown, but I didn’t want to offend anyone until they started reading. But seriously, folks, the powers-that-be have announced they are closing the only public restroom in the village of Mendocino! And these same enlightened ones just carted away the handicapped-access plastic latrine at Big River Beach. That’s right. The idyllic village and tourist destination of Mendocino may soon have No Public Potties. Why?

According to Sigmund Freud, the short answer is that Americans are insensitive barbarians. Freud made his one and only visit to America in 1909, and his most lasting impression of our great land came not from Niagara Falls, but from the lack of public restrooms. He said, and I paraphrase, “A society that does not provide public bathrooms for its citizens is essentially cruel and maladjusted and barbaric.”

When I first moved to Mendocino four years ago, I was struck by the brusque, dismissive, and sometimes cruel manner in which merchants would respond to my query, “May I use your bathroom?” I was inevitably directed to the state-funded public facility on Main Street, a stinky concrete bunker maintained by the state park people on whose land (our land) the bunker resides. I would sometimes find a homeless fellow bathing in the toilet stall. Sometimes the floors were so slick with piss, the journey across the cement floor wasn’t worth the risk of a fall. But most times the place was relatively clean and usable, and I was relieved and grateful that such a depository was available to the likes of me.

Why aren’t there two or three public restrooms in a village whose economy is tied to the tourist trade? Good question. In my fourteen hundred days as a resident in Mendocino, I have been asked at least three hundred times by visitors in the vicinity of the post office, some doing that telltale jig as they asked, “Is there a bathroom around here I can use?” And I have dutifully sent them to the distant bunker that our public servants tell us they must close because it costs them twenty-five thousand dollars a year to maintain, and the state is bankrupt, so… Really? Twenty-five grand to hose the bunker out every few days? Well, yes, because the hosing must be done by someone in the union, you see, so the numerous offers by the community to maintain the bunker must be declined because, well, hosing out bunkers is, what, highly technical?

The removal of the bathroom at Big River Beach has caused the bushes thereabouts to bloom with toilet paper and stinky residue as needy beachgoers do what any of us would do in the absence of an official portal in which to relieve ourselves. Now the briny air of my favorite beach mingles with the scent of urine and feces. Ain’t it grand?

Let us look a little deeper into this stinky mess. Who will be most impacted by the closure of the public option? Not the wealthy tourists staying at one or another luxurious inn. They will have toilets to use before and after sallying forth to buy trinkets stamped with the local moniker. At a recent farmer’s market I heard a well-heeled couple returning their purchase of jars of honey, explaining, “When we got back to the Stanford Inn, we realized the label didn’t mention Mendocino.” These folks will not miss the missing toilet, nor will patrons of the Mendocino Hotel.

The Mendocino Hotel, by the way, is the current provider of the nicest quasi-public option available in the village, and I will be forever in their debt for allowing me to use their facilities even when I’m not dining or drinking therein. Scruffy folks, however, need not apply. The only time I was ever questioned by hotel staff while en route to the hotel bathroom was on a bad hair day when I hadn’t shaved for a week.

Hmm? Is it too much of a stretch to connect the closure of the public restrooms to the ongoing harassment of the growing population of poor and homeless folks living on the fringes of the village? Not at all. The local grapevine is buzzing with news that our local gendarmes are now arresting folks for sitting or lying down on the headlands overlooking Big River Beach, calling this resting “camping”, which is illegal and punishable with a two hundred dollar fine. I wonder at which sector of the population this new interpretation of the camping law is aimed?

So…for the time being I suggest you take preemptive measures before heading into the village. And should you tarry long enough to need to, you know, make water, be resigned to buying something (or pretending to buy something) at an establishment possessed of a john. Yes, they tell us a portable latrine will be placed somewhere near the Kelly House, and won’t that be an attractive boost to tourism?

But I say let us laugh in the face of economic collapse and start a fund raising campaign to buy the land across the street from the Mendocino Post Office whereupon we will erect a large scale model of the Parthenon in which will reside state-of-the-art toilets and all necessary extras pursuant to a fully satisfying elimination experience. The south-facing roof of the Parthenon will sport highly efficient photovoltaic cells producing lucrative electricity feeding back into the omni-grid, since bathrooms use little or no electricity. All waste will be recycled and eventually certified organic for use on the new community garden where cabbages the size of basketballs will rise from the amply fertilized soil.

Artists disenfranchised from the recently conquered art center will be invited to display their wares in the lavatory courtyard, and in good time a public bath, sauna, showers, and massage parlor will be added to the complex. Bumper stickers will be sold extolling the experience of “going” in Mendocino, and tourists from around the world will come to “have a go” in the famous pooper. I DID IT IN MENDOCINO and I WENT IN MENDOCINO will soon adorn a million bumpers, as locals proudly sport the resident variant I GO IN MENDOCINO.

Let us rise above the barbarism of our time. Let us be a beacon of light and a model for the rest of this plundered nation. Let us come together to build the Parthenon of public restrooms so that in our middle and old ages we can hang out in the village secure in the knowledge that when we have to go, the way will not only be clear, but commodious.

Todd’s web site is Underthetablebooks.com. This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser in November 2009.

Competitive Meditation

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

What a silly idea, competitive meditation. Yet in America all things become competitive and hierarchical as reflections of the dominant operating system. Twenty years ago the notion of competitive yoga would have been just as absurd as competitive meditation, yet today yoga competitions are all the rage with big cash prizes for top asana performers ranked nationally. An asana is a particular yoga pose. Could league play be just around the corner?

The history of Buddhism, with meditation as its foundation, is a fascinating study in what happens to a non-hierarchical, non-competitive, crystal clear philosophy when it comes into contact with different societies, each with entrenched systems of social organization and religious dogma. Because Buddhism in its purest form is not a religion, it is easy to discern how in coming to China, Tibet, Japan, and now the United States, the original tenets of Buddhism have been deformed to fit the pre-existing religious or pseudo-religious structures.

Organized religions universally feature a head priest or priests, priest lieutenants, their favored adherents, the less favored, and so on down the steep slope of the pyramid. Trying to fit the fundamental Buddhist notion of the essential emptiness of reality into such a pyramidical structure is akin to building a complicated factory in order to produce nothing. Delusion, greed, arrogance, jealousy, all of which Buddha called enemies of enlightenment, are, ironically, the building blocks of organized Buddhism in America.

One of my favorite stories about Freud, not to change the subject, is that he said to his American cohorts on several occasions before his death, and I paraphrase, “Whatever you do, please don’t make being a medical doctor a prerequisite to being a psychiatrist.” He made this plea because many promising psychotherapists in Europe, among them Erik Erikson, were not medical doctors, and Freud didn’t want to preclude this valuable source of input to the field.

Sadly, the Americans did just what Freud feared they would do, and we suffer the consequences to this day. Why didn’t the Americans heed Freud’s advice? Because greed, arrogance, and most importantly the desire to control who gets into the exclusive club, won the day. People at the top of pyramids will do almost anything to stay there, and since there isn’t much room at the top, the maintenance of the ruling elite requires the ruthless exclusion of anyone or any idea that threatens the status quo.

Indeed, our government and our entire economic system reflect this basic tenet of organizations structured as steep-sided pyramids. Ironically, the collapse of such pyramids is inevitable because without new ideas and original personalities, these systems decay from the top down. This is why Jefferson suggested revolutions at regular intervals were essential to the continuing health of any large organization such as a nation.

The worship of celebrity, not to change the subject, is a hugely important aspect of the American psyche. Americans aspire to be celebrities, to associate with celebrities, and to know all about celebrities. I attribute this particular mania to our collective genetic memory of being subjects of kings and queens for the thousands of years when members of the royalty were the primary celebrities until the Industrial Revolution spawned a middle class. Regardless of how it came about, celebrities rule our psyches, individual and collective, and American Buddhism has become a celebrity-based system, too; a happenstance every bit as absurd as the notion of competitive meditation. Absurdity, however, is another hallmark of American culture along with ignorance, racism, and senseless violence.

The historical Buddha, Gautama, so say the texts, witnessed these hallmarks of American culture as they manifested in India circa 600 B.C. and was so disturbed by the terrible suffering such ignorance and violence caused victims and perpetrators alike that he left behind his princely life and embarked on a journey, both inward and outward, to discover the root causes of pervasive human misery. And the vehicle he rode, as it were, on his quest to discover the source of suffering, was meditation.

Now here is something crucial to remember about Gautama Buddha: no one anointed him, no one taught him, and he did not belong to a lineage of teachers. Through meditation he attained enlightenment and discovered what he believed to be the source of suffering, and he did this…drum roll…all by himself.

Today in America or Japan or Tibet or China or Indochina, one would be extremely hard-pressed to find any “officially recognized” Buddhist master who would dare say that a practitioner can find his or her way without the guidance of an “accredited master”. I am currently reading for the third time Sogyal Rinpoche’s wonderful text The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying in which he repeats ad nauseum that no one can ever hope to understand the true nature of mind or really make much spiritual progress without devotion to, and instruction from, an accredited, official, bona fide Buddhist master, and to think otherwise is dangerous and foolish and wrong. In subtle ways, he contradicts this message throughout the text, yet he seems terrified to overtly suggest otherwise.

Which brings me to The New Testament, not to change the subject. There is now both academic and popular support for the theory that the gospels of The New Testament were selected from a much larger body of Gnostic gospels in order to espouse the view that it is impossible for a regular person to connect with God except through an accredited, official, bona fide priest who somehow or other is linked by direct transmission to Jesus Christ. Any gospel that suggested you and I might connect directly with God through our own efforts without the intervention of officially accredited priests were simply not allowed into the anthology, i.e. The New Testament.

I may be stating the Gnostic case in an extreme nutshell, but I think it an accurate description of how a hierarchical system was imposed on the teachings of a Buddha-like being (Jesus Christ) who got His download, so to speak, directly from God, with no accredited anybody officiating. Which brings me back to Buddhism and competitive meditation.

I first became interested in Buddhism when I fell in love with the poetry of Philip Whalen in the late 1960’s. Searching for texts to explain Whalen’s passing references to Buddhism in his poems, I came across a little book, and I mean a tiny paperback of less than a hundred pages, written by Alan Watts entitled The Wisdom of Insecurity. Reading this book was more than a revelation to me; the experience rearranged my synapses. The basic premise of The Wisdom of Insecurity is that if I am thinking about the past and/or thinking about the future, I’m not actually here because our awareness determines our place in time and space; from which followed the popular expression Be Here Now.

The Wisdom of Insecurity was new stuff in America when it was published in 1949 (the year I was born) and it was one of Watts’s many attempts to elucidate the primary purpose of Buddhist practice, which is to bring the mind into communion with the present moment and thereby reveal the past and future to be illusory. Watts, it should be noted, has of late been marginalized by contemporary American Buddhist orthodoxy because he adamantly rejected the idea of official anointment and wasn’t particularly keen on formal modes of meditation. In this way, he was another of those folks who apparently “got it” without being knighted by an official of the hierarchy he helped found.

Inspired by Watts and Whalen, I continued to read Buddhist texts, contemporary and classical, for some years, and I was inspired to write a batch of contemporary short stories springing from various aspects of Buddhist philosophy. For instance, I would read about generosity, meditate with generosity as my starting point, and then write a story that welled up from that meditation. Then I’d send copies of the story to several friends, some versed in Buddhist philosophy, some not, wait for feedback, and then rewrite the story. Over the course of three years, I wrote forty-two such stories that eventually became a manuscript entitled Buddha In A Teacup, the title homage to Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm of the Hand Stories.

I made a photocopy edition of a hundred and fifty copies of Buddha In A Teacup, informed my friends I had done so, and within a few months sold all the copies for twenty-five dollars each, which covered my copying and mailing costs. Many of my readers urged me to try to get the book published, so I sent the manuscript to a half-dozen publishers of Buddhist texts in America and Canada. Reaction was swift and universal; the book was fascinating and fresh, but I, Todd Walton, was no one of even minor note in the galaxy of Buddhist celebrities, so No Thank You. To which I replied, “Is not the goal of our practice to transcend the illusion of ego and embrace the essential truth of our no oneness?”

Only one editor replied to my reply. He reiterated how much he liked the stories, and regretted that his company only published well-known Buddhist teachers armed with rave blurbs from really famous Buddhist teachers.

I eventually self-published a lovely edition of Buddha In A Teacup through Lost Coast Press in Fort Bragg, and though not a single Buddhist publication large or small would deign to review the book, Buddha In A Teacup has now sold over fifteen hundred copies and continues to gain a wider audience. People, those not constrained by the worship of celebrity or constricted by devotion to orthodoxy, love the book, and I think they do because the stories illuminate essential messages of the Buddha; that we are all on the same path, each of us seeking to become less fearful and less judgmental of ourselves and others, each of us aspiring to become more loving and generous.

In the vast Buddhist library there are many versions of what happened at the moment Buddha’s body died and his essence returned to the essential ground of being, an extremely subtle and eternal energy field from which you and I and all things arise and dissolve. My favorite version of this last corporeal moment is a poem by Mary Oliver entitled The Buddha’s Last Instruction in which his only spoken words are, “Make of yourself a light.”

And that is what I suggest you say to anyone who challenges you to a meditation contest. “Make of yourself a light,” and leave the competition to the organized and fully accredited yoga teams.

Copies of Buddha In A Teacup signed by the author are available from Underthetablebooks.com.

(This article first appeared in The Anderson Valley Advertiser in October 2009)