Monday, December 15, 2008

Karma in Action

Karma in Action
We are what we do.

By Andrew Olendzki

The Nerve Center of Our Massive Corporation, Elif Soyer, 2005, digital print, 10 x 10 inches © Elif Soyer
Karma is a word one runs across more and more these days. It’s too bad it is almost always misused. Somehow in English it has come to mean “fate” or “destiny” (American Heritage Dictionary). This is an unfortunate, if inevitable, distortion, because in its original Buddhist context karma is a concept of unparalleled profundity and significance.

The word karma simply means “action” and is derived from the verbal root kr which mean “to do” or “to make.” There are three distinct senses of the word here, and what renders the concept unique is that all three are inseparable aspects of the same process. We may be used to thinking of (1) the decision to do something as one thing, (2) the action carrying it out as another, and (3) what we make thereby, or the result of the action, as being something else again. But in Buddhist understanding these three are parts of the same whole. Intention is the leading edge of karma, directing the activities of body, speech, and mind to act in ways that accumulate, at its trailing edge, karmic formations or dispositions. Action, in other words, is preceded by a sort of “doing” in which decisions are made and results in a sort of “making” in which a unique personality is constructed. The main idea behind karma is thus the relationship between what we choose to do and what we thereby make of ourselves.

This can perhaps best be seen when the word for action is used simultaneously as a verb and a noun, as in the expression sankharam abhisankharoti (Samyutta Nikaya 12.51). There are many ways this can be put into English, such as “one forms formations,” “one constructs constructions,” “one creates creations,” or “one fabricates fabrications.” You get the idea. When action is enacted, so to speak, it involves both the activity of building something and the product of that activity, something built. An image sometimes used to convey this in the texts is of a potter at his wheel. The potter is engaged in the creative process of shaping the clay according to his will, and when the pot is cut off the wheel and fired in a kiln it remains as an enduring artifact of that activity. So also our character, our personality, our very self, is viewed in Buddhist thought as a gallery of ossified karmic relics, the accumulated residue of earlier dynamic processes of intention and action.

With the outward focus of most Western thinking, we are used to the idea of making choices in response to shifting worldly circumstances, and to the fact that our actions result in changes to our environment. From this perspective, a great emphasis is placed upon what it is we do, and on whether or not our actions are effective in bringing about the external changes we intend. The Buddhist tradition, however, is more interested in the internal dimensions of action. Here the more important questions include “What effect on our own well-being are our decisions having?” and “How are we being changed by our actions?” What we do, from this point of view, is far less important than how we do it. Karma is primarily concerned with how we shape ourselves, and how we are shaped by ourselves, through action.

The self is plastic, a malleable clay being molded each moment by intention. Just as our scientists are discovering not only how the mind is shaped by the brain but now, too, how the brain is shaped by the mind, so the Buddha described long ago the interdependent process by which intentions are conditioned by dispositions and dispositions in turn are conditioned by intentions. The actions that make up the tangible expression of our lives are merely a go-between, as the world we construct is a mere offshoot, of who we are ever re-becoming.

In a moment of anger, for example, whether acted out, verbalized, or merely seething unexpressed within, one trains oneself to become angrier by laying down a thin layer (there’s the verb and noun again) of angry disposition. A person so disposed to anger will more and more easily erupt in anger anew at any provocation. But in a moment of kindness a kindly disposition is deposited, and one becomes incrementally more disposed to kindness. The attitude with which we respond to an object of experience, with anger or with kindness, will therefore not only influence the causal field outside ourselves but also progressively reshape our very nature.

The secret of who we are is thus found in what we do; yet even what we do is only one phase in a larger cycle of becoming. We inherit our karma from our past, from previous moments of existence in the form of a self—a bundle of dispositions, more precisely— and that past shapes how we understand and construct our present intentions. Yet every moment we also have our future karma in our own hands, as we shape a response to whatever is arising in present experience. This response, which may be more or less wholesome or skillful, is what determines what we will inherit downstream in the flow of consciousness.

The crucial factor influencing how well we can respond in any given situation seems to be the level of mindfulness we can bring to bear upon the moment. If we don’t care to be present, unconscious decision-making systems will function to get us through to the next moment, albeit in the grips of (often flawed) learned behaviors and conditioned responses. If, on the other hand, we can increase the amount of conscious awareness present by manifesting mindfulness, we expand the range of our possible responses. Even if disposed to anger, we can choose to act with kindness. This is the essence of our freedom in an otherwise heavily conditioned system.

So karma is not something outside ourselves that happens to us (as we in the West are so used to thinking of everything being) but is something far more intimate and even, although I hesitate to use the word, personal. As the Buddha put it, “Beings are owners of their actions, heirs of their actions; they originate from their actions, are bound to their actions, have their actions as their refuge. It is action that distinguishes beings as inferior and superior.” (Majjhima Nikaya 135) ▼

Andrew Olendzki, Ph.D., is executive director and senior scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts. He is the editor of Insight Journal.

WIRE Magazine Best of 2008...scroll down to see my picks.

50. Sao Paulo Underground - The Principle Of Intrusive Relationships
49. Ellen Fullman & Monique Buzzarte - Fluctuations
48. Sic Alps - US EZ
47. Mark Stewart - Edit
46. Alva Noto - Unitxt
45. Peter Rehberg - Works For GV 2004-2008
44. Josephine Foster - This Coming Gladness
43. Murcof - The Versailles Sessions
42. Vajra - Live
41. David Grubbs - An Optimist Notes The Dust
40. Jakob Ullmann - Voice, Books And FIRE 3
39. Toumani Diabate - The Mande Variations
38. Portishead - Third
37. Maryanne Amacher - Sound Characters 2
36. Emeralds - Solar Bridge
35. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
34. Harvey Milk - Life... The Best Game In Town
33. Stereo Image - S/T
32. Christina Carter - Masque Femine
31. Malcolm Goldstein - A Sounding Of Sources
30. Terry Riley - The Last Camel In Paris
29. Earth - The Bees Made Honey In The Lions Skull
28. Scorces - I Turn Into You
27. Arthur Russell - Love Is Overtaking Me
26. Tricky - Knowle West Boy
25. Robert Ashley - Concrete
24. Jandek - Glasgow Sunday 2005
23. Group Inerane - Guitars From Agadez (Music Of Niger)
22. Hercules & Love Affair - Hercules & Love Affair
21. Lukas Ligeti - African Machinery
20. Stephan Mathieu - Radioland
19. Bill Dixon - 17 Musicians In Seach For A Sound: Darfur
18. Luomo - Convivial
17. Dusk + Blackdown - Margins Music
16. Autechre - Quaristice
15. Kasai Allstars - In The 7th Moon...
14. Eric Chenaux - Sloppy Ground
13. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
12. Ryoji Ikeda - Test Pattern
11. Kevin Drumm - Imperial Distortion
10. The Caretaker - Persistent Repetition Of Phrases
9. The Fall - Imperial Wax Solvent
8. William S Burroughs - Real English Tea Made Here
7. Evangelista - Hello, Voyager
6. The Advisory Circle - Other Channels
5. Gang Gang Dance - Saint Dymphna
4. John Butcher - Resonant Spaces
3. The Hospitals - Hairdryer Peace
2. Philip Jeck - Sand
1. The Bug - London Zoo

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sunn O))). What its all About

Taken From
12 Dec 08 Friday

13:07 - SUNN O))) 101 (translated from the Italian tongue)
Current mood: drowsy
Category: drowsy Music

Translations provided courtesy of Michele Giorgi

SUNN O))) "00Void" 2000

In the beginning it was the drone… and Sunn O))) that understood its enourmous potentiality like it was a matter to mould, to dismember and to re-assemble, to create new worlds and new limits to exceed. With 00Void we are, no doubts about it, in front of the first act of this new genesis: a genesis doomed to change the course off extreme music and the very concept of sound manipulation. 00Void it's a monolithic album where four long lasting suites raise the cult of god-drone to the level of a real syntax, lexicon of which it's on the same time grammar and dictionary. Obviously, we are still far from the refinement we will find in future releases, like the unreachable White 1, as on this album every attention is completely captured by the aim to create the new language. The sound is the only protagonist as there is no space space for any rhytm or melodic accent, the really important thing is the longlasting and solitary embrace of the sound itself, self-mutilated and selself-proclaimed divinity, sole actor of this new life form. The Sunn O))) insane universe is hard to explain to those that hadn't tasted it yet, it's impossible to convert people unable to understand its lost fascination. Something certain it's that this band is for the present period what pioneers of prog represented back in time, real alchemists doomed to open new ways and to enter legend. We already know that many imitators will follow and that one day the drone scene will implode into itself, repeating the fate of every sound able to open new tracks. Mayne one day this sound will be the standard and that the desire to risk will turn into loyalty to its own models. But we always should remember those who were the demiurges and the time when the creation began… al the other will play to run after them…

SUNN O))) "Flight Of the Behemoth" 2002

If with 00Void Sunn O))) had changed and regenerated the use of drone, with Flight Of The Behemoth they decide to strike further by joining forces with the genius of Japanese noise Masami Akita, a fellow who got no rivals in the field of sounds manipulation. The album opens with two pieces by Sunn O)) in line with the precedent release, bringing the process to a conclusion and developing its destabilizing strength. The sound appears completely subdued to musicians will and the compositions reach that deep impact previously curbed by the early creative urgency. It's with the third track that Merzbow enter the scene and the doors of madness are opened. The gathering between drone's masters and Japanese handler produces a devastating effect. Drone-doom and prog-noise match as to give birth to a new entity, a melting pot of extreme noise and apocalyptic despair. If Sunn O))) sound exasperates the monolithic time expansion, with Merzbow contribution turns into a magma, every edge vanishes and everything appears as "in fieri", oppressing listeners nervous system. The final result deserve a standard ovation and unites two apparent opposite souls: Sunn O))) 70s valve-driven approach and the Japanese cold and over-distorted noise landscape. If we could see in 00Void an extreme development for Sunn O))) sound, with Flight Of The Behemoth the landscape go far beyond all that could have been foreseen and fullfill the erotic dreams of extreme music lovers. To end this riot in sound, we find a piece with a title deserving a Pulitzer prize and as binding as a declaration of faith: it could be only Cliff Burton the Sunn O))) godfather.

SUNN O))) "White 1" 2003

This time, Sunn O))) have done everything in grand style and after Mr. Merzbow art, at present they have even Julian Cope's voice to join their sound, perfect backing for their cryptic drones, so deviated and deviating. Born from the infernal pair Anderson and O'Malley, the album as usual is composed by a limited number of tracks, exactly three for a total running time of almost 60 minutes. This appears to be one of the main characters of the project: to expand the compositions within the bounds of tolerance in order to force the space/time sense in listeners, as in a cathartic ritual of sensorial stimulation. Not by chance, the inner notes of the album suggest to listen at full volume to reach the highest result. For sure it is not an easy listening album nor an academic or didactic form of doom. On the contrary it goes far beyond, blending Sabbath riffing (raped on the great "The Gates Of Ballard") with the drone approach of purest industrial noise, as to create the missing link or the sound able to open new horizons without definitely burning bridges with the original 70s attitude (somehow, it reminds me also of Hawkwind space-rock approach). In short, listeners who likes to taste a real sperimental attitude, also smelling dissolution, will be flung into a world from which it will be very difficult to come out. It's impossible to establish whether this will be the future, but we are surely going in to the right direction.

SUNN O))) "White 2" 2004

With White 1 the Sunn O)) reached untouchable expressive levels, evolved further their trademark and brought their sound to a head and with White 2 they widen their horizons and reach the absolute apex of their career in the final track "Deacy 2" as they promised with the gigantic "Deacy 1" (present as a bonus track in the best of Attila Csihar). White 2 consists of three long suites summing up the various aspects of Sunn O))) thought, from the drone-doom of "hell-O)))-ween" (lined up with the claustrophobic sound of 00Void and Flight Of The Behemoth, of which it was an evolution and natural result), to the insane experimentalism of "Bassaliens", real training room for unexpected sound manipulations. It's "Bassaliens" that fully shows the versatility of this band outlining the ability in forcing every limit and preconceived idea, with minimal sounds proceeding sinuously and furtively. The suite continuously change by making use of pure distorted sounds and cruel feedbacks to demolish every left over resistence. From a quiet beginning we are pushed into a new mixture of dilated sounds and mere noise to reach a final effect that fascinates and captures at one hand, destabilizes and rapes the listener on the other. No doubt it is one of the most claustrophobic experimental pieces ever conceived by the absolute masters of drone. But is with the last track "Decay 2" that the album can be called a masterpiece: we are taken into a parallel universe of changing sounds and anxious atmospheres. The track opens with the most infernal suite the band ever created, by offering us a chorus of souls condemned to dance by ghostly sounds and ominous moans. To top it all we find Attila's voice, perfect Caronte in this Hades created by Sunn O))), an Attila at his greatest ease as director of the apocalypse and in perfect community with his friends of rite. With Deacy 2 the band is entitled to enter the Olympus, it offers a so real sonic nightmare as to leave a strange sensation of anxiety even in the most used listener. An album leaving us terrified.

SUNN O))) "The Libations Of Samhain" 2003

A children chorus opens the space/time door form which feedbacks and drone, white noise and dissected notes peep out. This is the opening of a sole, long lasting, musical outline (the other one is an interview) that composes this live album recorded in London with the aid of Attila Csihar on vocals, a real liturgy for lost souls. Those who are on terms of familiarity with the proposal by Anderson, O'Malley and co., know well how the concept and shape of a song have weak and dilated edges in Sunn O))) music, so it would not have made any sense to expext a pure performance of already released tracks: as a matter of fact it is a real experiment of creation, where each instrument interacts with the others to give birth, little by little, to a beating entity heading on sound. The instruments themselves are real lab machinery to bring sounds to new mutation stages, through the use of "errors" and "malfunctions" to reach a unique suite looking like a ritual and a catharsis. Everything tastes like an initiation ceremony, door to a new world, triumphal arch of the new sound creation. All this explains the choice of a limited edition of only 500 copies to be bought online of newborn Bastet, child of Arthur Magazine. A brave choice in accordance with the nature of this album made with the most scrupulous accuracy also under the graphic aspect, smartly wrapped in a thin cardboard enriched with the artwork by Savage Pen. Something different from the usual, but on the same time a fascinating one and a further proof of Sunn O))) visionary genius.

SUNN O))) "Black One" 2005

Talking about Black One as the most obscure work ever released by Sunn O))) could scare more than a listener, as Anderson/O'Malley previous releases are not exactly joyful and happy ones. Nevertheless from the first notes this album continues what begun along the final track of White 2, when singer Attila Csihar joined the band. Also in Black One, Sunn O))) avail themselves with the contribution of external musicians such as Oren Ambarchi, Wrest (Leviathan, Lurker Of Chalice, Twilight), Malefic (Xasthur, Twilight), John Weise (Bastard Noise). The final result attests the indisputable value of a band able to set to music the most mysterious fears and our most unconscious phobias thanks to the expansion and the manipulation of sounds and human voice. To confirm the obscure nature of this album it is the version signed Sunn O))) of "Cursed Realms (Of The Winterdemons)" by Immortal, here deprived of every humanity and made pure evocation for unredeemed souls, a pure anthem to damnation. But it's the whole album to fade the most experimental Sunn O))) soul into the background, to devote the efforts towards manipulating listeners sensations and to inspire an atmosphere of anxiety and wickedness, also not changing the inner nature of Sunn O))) code. In short, Black One offers us the picture of a band able to master their own expressive means and endowed with a fitting, never excessive, song writing. It would be quite unfair to doubt of the real importance of an entity like Sunn O))).

SUNN O))) & BORIS "Altar" 2006

Altar gets over the concept of split album or of an extemporary cooperation, as it aims to represent anew entity capable to go far over the mere sum of the parts involved. Sunn O))) and Boris look for an expressive form that considers as a starting point the personalities of the involved single entities, carries their potentialities further and debates their guide-lines. To make all this clearer we find some famous guests, to enrich and to distinguish the trajectories of the project. Thus we can listen to Jesse Sykes, Kim Thayil, Joe Preston, the whole Earth and other musicians to make this album a real sound factory or better a laboratory where to play with sound as matter. Therefore it follows that the risk of putting too many irons in the fire and confusing the listener was a real possibility, nevertheless the presence of such strong personalities like Sunn O))) and Boris as conductors can hold the ship's course, so the multiform tracks nature can always find a guiding principle to tie and coordinate it. Song writing is dilated, goes along centrifugal trajectories and in the end inevitably yeld to the centripetal force that puts together again the single elements, thus infusing into the listeners the impression of being present at a rite with its rigorous beat and religious mood. Shouldn't we risk of undervalue the commitment and seriousness of purposes, we could define Altar a thematic park for experimental sounds lovers of Southern Lord school.

SUNN O))) "Dømkirke" 2008

Whoever got the opportunity to attend a Sunn O))) live set knows well how their shows are quite unique under -at least- two point of views. First, because of the huge creative tension, enriched by different guests joyining the core-band on stage, second, because of the high ritual mood surrounding the event, as it was a sort of religious meeting, so far from usual rock parties. Obviously this last effect is amplified according to the mind set of the audience and the place/context of the performance: you can easily imagine the impact of a Sunn O))) live set inside the Bergen cathedral, built in 1150 and place of a high cultural, historical and religious value. To the domkirke and to its strong symbolic recallings is devoted the first of the tracks captured live in 2007, during the Borealis festival, stuck in the tradition of Gregorian chants and enriched by the cathedral ancient organ played by Steve Moore (Earth, Ascend). To complete the line up with Anderson and O'Malley you can find Attila Csihar, a long time partner of the Sunn O))), and Lasse Marhaug, well known artist of the Norwegian scene for his numerous projects (from noise to jazz) and owner of Pica Disk. Marhaug's presence and his progressive penetration inside the creative process as well as his interaction with Attila's ritual vocals contribute to make of Domkirke a sound forge of unusual expressive strength, or better to say one of the most shining and charming events in the whole Sunn O))) discography. With "Cymatics" Sunn O))) reach the apex of their expressive landscape and can be described as almost perfect, so demonstrating out of doubts how they are far from ending their artistic growth or their creative impulse. On the contrary, today Sunn O))) appear in a top condition, perfect in their role of ideal interface between deadly darkness and creative passion, restaurators of ancient rites and overthrowers of dogmas. The interaction between musicians longing to force their limits and the influence wielded by environment represents the climax of an album standing as an unaivodable moment in the experimental and extreme music history. To confirm the special value of the event there is also the decision to release the album only on vinyl, wrapped in a heavy gatefold packaging decorated with an impressive artwork by Tania Stene (who already did the artworks for many important names of the Norwegian black metal scene like Burzum, Ulver and Darkthrone) and great pics of the night. A note of colour in the literal sense of the term: the European version is printed in marbled blue vinyl and is limited to a thousand copies.

My Top Album Picks/Shows of 2008

Best Albums:
22. Nadja- Desire In Uneasiness
21. Waumiss- S/T
20. Coil- The New Backwards (LP no.4 from the "Apes of Naples" Re-issue)
19. Burial:Hex- Initiations
18. Nachtmystium- Assasins:Black Metal
17. Menace Ruine- Cult of Ruins
16. Jonas Reinhardt- S/T
15. Flying Lotus- Los Angeles
14. Boduf Songs- Lion Devours the Sun
13. Adem- Takes
12. Fennesz- Black Sea
11. Grails- Doomsayer's Holiday
10. Spiritualized- Songs in A&E
9. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds- Dig, Lazarus, Dig!
8. Evangelista- Hello, Voyager
7. Apse- Spirit
6. M83- Saturdays=Youth
5. Earth- The Bees Made Honey in the Lion's Skull
4. Portishead- Third
3. Fuck Buttons- Street Horrsing
2. Benoit Pioulard- Temper
1. Bon Iver- For Emma, Forever Ago

For Emma, Forever Ago CD / LP (JAG115, released: 02/19/08)

Bon Iver (pronounced: bohn eevair; French for "good winter" and spelled wrong on purpose) is a greeting, a celebration and a sentiment. It is a new statement of an artist moving on and establishing the groundwork for a lasting career. For Emma, Forever Ago is the debut of this lineage of songs. As a whole, the record is entirely cohesive throughout and remains centered around a particular aesthetic, prompted by the time and place for which it was recorded. Justin Vernon, the primary force behind Bon Iver, seems to have tested his boundaries to the maximum, and in doing so has managed to break free from any pre-cursing or finished forms.

It wasn't planned. The goal was to hibernate. Vernon moved to a remote cabin in the woods of Northwestern Wisconsin at the onset of winter. He lived there alone for three months, filling his days with wood splitting and other chores around the land. This solitary time slowly began feeding a bold, uninhibited new musical focus. The days slowly evolved into nights filled with twelve-hour recording blocks, breaking only for trips on the tractor into the pines to saw and haul firewood, or for frozen sunrises high up a deer stand. All of his personal trouble, lack of perspective, heartache, longing, love, loss and guilt that had been stock piled over the course of the past six years, was suddenly purged into the form of song.

Best Shows:

Spiritualized @ Pitchfork
Cure in Atlanta
Jarvis Cocker @ Pitchfork
Fuck Buttons @ Pitchfork
Woven Hand @ Grey Eagle
Caribou @ Pitchfork
Baroness @ French Bar
Thomas Function @ Admiral
The 19 minutes that Boris played @ Pitchfork

Friday, December 5, 2008

Vinyl at the Vault

Every Sunday night. Alternating Dj's Dustin Spagnola and Chris Ballard. Sun. Dec. 7 is Chris. Come on out for some chill Jazz and Down-tempo.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Albums I'm Enjoying Right Now...

Temper is the second album under his Benoit Pioulard nom de guerre. Composed throughout a year that involved graduation from university and a cross-continental relocation, its 16 tracks arose in specific periods of intense creative energy.

Assembling various analog sources on basic software at home, Pioulard has honed his craft into a form that suggests something far grander. With soft-edged vocals and a broad palette of instruments that lately includes harmonium and cello, he constructs diverse arrangements that skirt the borders of pop with beautiful, detailed atmospheres. The scope and sonic narratives of songs like "A Woolgathering Exodus" and "Golden Grin" exhibit new degrees of musicality, while the weightlessness of "Brown Bess" or "Sweep Generator" reflects the unrestrained context in which the record was produced.

It is no coincidence that the word 'temper' has more than 20 definitions related to basic existential aspects like emotion, behavior, and music; it offers many dimensions but also reveals how scrawny language can be in its attempt to name the abstract. On Temper, Pioulard endeavors to make sense of things in a tumultuous time, inspired by everything from medieval astrology to the poems of T.S. Eliot and the films of the Italian neo-realists. Fully aware of the mission's vanity, he is nevertheless consumed by its path.

Benoit Pioulard's first album was the widely acclaimed Precis which was listed on literally dozens of 2006 year end best of lists.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Please Come to this show!

Thursday Nov. 13 @ the Grey Eagle 9 PM (No joke! Come early. We're on first.)

No Age (Sub Pop)
Titus Andronicus
Soft Circle (formerly of Black Dice)
Ventricles (Chris Ballard and Ross Gentry- Asheville)

Come check out our debut show. We're very excited!

$10 advance/ $12 day of show. Available at Static Age Records Harvest Records and at the Grey Eagle

Sunday, October 19, 2008

This show will not start until 9ish so come out to Static Age this afternoon around 4 for a matinee show. Japanther, Killer Dreamer, and Spaceweed.

Keep up with local show information by viewing Staticagerecords

Friday, October 17, 2008

Stereotype's Fifth Release

Four cuts of impeccable head-burying drone.

Track 2 previously released on Cerebral Spasm Records.

Performed by Jamie Hepler and Ross Gentry.

Photography by Palden MacGamwell

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Jimmy O'neal at Work

Stop Seeking: Paradoxes of the Spiritual Path

Jay Michaelson

An earlier version of this essay was published in Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture (


1. Stopping Seeking Takes Seeking

The point of the spiritual search is to stop seeking. But not in the way it seems.

Stopping seeking actually takes a great deal of effort, because human beings are genetically and environmentally conditioned to seek all the time. Every moment, most of us are thinking about the future or the past, chasing something pleasant, or trying to avoid something unpleasant. Sometimes we're just clueless. And once in a blue moon, we're happy with what we've got. But usually, in ways so subtle that they escape attention, we're seeking something.

For example, as I write this on a train, some people are reading (seeking distraction, information, entertainment, etc.), others are trying to sleep, others are talking – all of us subtly looking for something. So ordinary it goes without saying, and of course nothing wrong with it, except that seeking necessarily involves a little bit of suffering. See what happens if you seek distraction but can't find it. Or what happens when you can't sleep. Or can't get your work done in the way that you would like. And, for me, even when I do get what I want, there's the potential for suffering when it's taken away, or when it doesn't fully meet my desires. Or when, having enjoyed it once, I want to taste it again.

Seeking also necessarily privileges something which isn't here (i.e., that which is being sought) over that which is. From a religious perspective, if “that which is” happens to be What Is, that is, God, Being, the Divine, well, that's quite a shame: God may be everywhere – but how often can I say, like the heroes of the Bible, hineini, here am I? From a non-religious perspective, it's obvious that life is more worthwhile when you're there to enjoy it. How many times have we all eaten a meal and barely tasted the food? Let alone had sex while worrying about how it's all going.
To "stop seeking" is thus to start living. Naturally, searching, wanting, needing, and righteously arguing all have their place, but the processes of waking up, drinking more deeply from the well of life, and pursuing the mystical path are all about slowing down the seeking and inserting more and more pauses in the mind's relentless, evolutionarily designed efforts to search for that "something else" that is going to bring happiness.

Paradoxically, to stop seeking also requires seeking, because it takes effort to be effortless. Once in a while, we are forced to stop seeking, as in peak experiences of amazement or delight or danger. And sometimes life is so pleasant - holding a baby, relaxing after sex, eating a gourmet meal - that seeking stops on its own. But most of the time, to learn to stop seeking requires some kind of work - in particular, a search for the ways in which seeking is still going on, and the ways it can be, if not stopped, at least relaxed a little bit. This "search for non-search" could be as simple as remembering to relax or as life-altering as having kids, or meditating, or religion. But what it really is about is the purification of the present moment from desires or fears of other ones. It’s about showing up.


2. Seeking to Stop Seeking Can Stop Stopping-Seeking

Of course, there's always a catch: in this case, at least three of them. First, seeking ways to stop seeking can become, itself, a narcotically addictive search. Comparing this meditation technique against that one. Searching for ever-more-transcendent peak experiences – "well, I did really forget myself and stop seeking last time, but I'd like to do it even more." Falling into the trap of thinking that it's the particular way of walking that matters on the journey, instead of showing up for every step of it. Talking about meditation instead of doing it. And, despite oneself, turning the whole thing into a goal-oriented process with goals and accoutrements. It's said that spirituality can turn into a kind of narcissism, but narcissism doesn't quite capture the angst of unbridled self-reflection. After all, Narcissus just saw his beautiful reflection – in meditation, you see an ever-more-clarifying picture of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Thus endless self-reflection can end not in clarity and calm, but neurosis and paralysis.

Second, there is what Trungpa Rinpoche called "spiritual materialism," in which the path to non-self becomes instead a path of gratifying and pleasing the self. Yoga, meditation, prayer, entheogens, energy work – all of these can easily become about enriching, enlarging, and serving the self, when they are meant to do the opposite. Spirituality can become an a consumer lifestyle, and a way of enhancing, relaxing, and generally pleasing Me – witness the success of the ego-empowering Kabbalah Centre, and the promises of eternal youth from some of today's most financially successful institutions. Even a sincere motivation for learning can becomes twisted: the search for occult, hidden realities can lead to both surprising truths about subtle energies that otherwise escape our notice – or a great cosmic treasure hunt, in which the goal is to know as much esoteric nonsense as possible.

Third, and most familiarly, because spiritual practices bring about highly pleasant mind states, and among the most indescribably beautiful sensations I have ever experienced, they can spoil precisely what they are meant to enhance. Give me more of the mind-blowing contentment, bliss, and sensations of unity I feel on meditation retreat – the regular pleasures aren't enough. Like a connoisseur of wine no longer being able to enjoy ordinary merlot, I only want the extraordinary stuff. Thus the practice of waking up to ordinary pleasure can undermine exactly that.
In all three of these cases, the search to stop seeking becomes, itself, a search with goals. It's tough, because, as goals go, bliss, contentment, and the deepest joy I've ever experienced are pretty good ones – and my experience is that meditation brings them about. But that is one of the paradoxes of the spiritual path: like love, you only truly experience it when you're willing to let it go.


3. Stop Seeking for a Reason to Stop Seeking

There's one final way that the search for not seeking itself becomes a search, so insidious that I and many other contemplatives still wrestle with it all the time: the search for a justification of the search itself. Naturally, since spiritual practice takes a lot of time and effort, and since it gets sneered at by many smart people, those of us who do it spend a lot of time explaining why it's so important. Not just something we want to do, and not just something which helps life be a little juicier, a little more meaningful - but really Important. Thus one hears all the time that "the purpose of our being here is to awaken to who we are," or that people who aren't "awake" aren't truly happy. Nonsense. That's just the New Age version of Jews thinking we're the Chosen People, or Christians thinking that only Christ can save you.

The fact is, we spiritual seekers want to be doing what we're doing. That's it. We notice that it brings us more happiness, more joy, more equanimity, and we want that. Maybe we're just more dissatisfied than other people. Maybe we just like new mind states. But the rhetoric that "what I want is the most important thing to want" is just odious, no matter how soothing the voice that says it.

I've come to a place in my meditation practice where I'm okay with saying that it's just my preference to do it. And I understand that, for many people, a less-reflective life is simply more enjoyable. I look at my friends who used to argue about Hume or Kant, Proust or Thomas Mann, but who are now quite obsessed with putting their baby pictures on Flikr - and they seem perfectly happy living a more or less conventional life. Perhaps they're too busy to question the meaning of it all, or perhaps they no longer want to, now that non-rational answers to those questions are right in their arms, or needing a diaper change. In an exchange with my editor here at Zeek, he had occasion to say, as he reviewed my latest round of religious self-questioning, that "one reason why I am so much happier now that I was a few years ago was that I'm: a) too busy to do much contemplation and b) 'settled.' I picked a city, a partner, and a level of religious observance and declared to myself 'here I am.' It works most of the time."

There was a time when I would look down on this kind of "settling," either blaming it for all the unconscious evil we do in the world, or castigating it in the name of Socrates. But no longer. I do still think that some degree of "afflicting the comfortable" is necessary to keep us honest – without some way to disturb the calm of a peaceful, bourgeois life, it's quite easy to be ethically irresponsible and spiritually somnolent. But there are many ways to do that, and many comfortable, settled people who are, after all, quite responsible and awake.

Nor do I buy into the myth that meditation is really for everyone. For many people, the resistance to meditation does indeed come from fear – fear that can be productively lifted through meditation. But for many others, it's just not of interest. On the contrary, I sometimes wonder why it's even for me. Why am I not simply satisfied with the ordinary, un-enhanced, un-mindful pleasures that most people seem perfectly content to enjoy? Yes, at the extreme, such a lifestyle is a degraded form of human existence: draining away in front of the television, marching from mall to SUV and back again, being programmed by the vulgarities of pop culture. But that's just the extreme, and a bit of a cliché in any event. Usually, life provides its roller coaster of pleasures and pains no matter how prosaic the daily routine. Some are too intense, others are too dull. But some are quite nice. What's so bad about that?

Although there are plenty of possible answers to that question, I think searching for one is just the kind of "seeking" that the spiritual search is meant to arrest. Why do we contemplatives need to explain why everyone else is not a contemplative? Why can't we admit that we're on the spiritual path because we want to be? Because it's what we like to do? Personally, I find meditative practice leads to more enjoyment of the simple pleasures of my home, my lover, my career. But I also find it interesting in and of itself. Exploring ideas, refining the mind, and learning the subtleties of attention and desire are not, for me, stages to go through until I "find myself." I find them interesting on their own. Isn't that enough?

Now, it's also true that I am just the kind of person who likes to explore, explain, and articulate. As Alan Watts once asked rhetorically, "Why not sit back and let things take their course? Simply that it is part of 'things taking their course' that I write. As a human being it is just my nature to enjoy and share philosophy. I do this in the same way that some birds are eagles and some doves, some flowers lilies and some roses."

That effortlessness, that justificationlessness - that's the ticket. If I keep trying to justify my search for not seeking, the stories will never end. "Maybe I do dislike my ego more than some other people do. Maybe I was just raised neurotic, and so spiritual practice is more important for me than for other people. Or maybe I just can't figure life out, dammit, and am too weird to be successful like my more mainstream-writer and lawyer friends." Now, in the life that I have chosen – "integral" on good days, "fence-straddling" on bad ones - some of this "bad" seeking (comparing, striving, demanding, berating) is inevitable. It's hard to cultivate enough ambition to succeed but not so much that success becomes the only goal, and competition the only way to achieve it. It's also hard, having given up a lucrative mainstream career, not to look at my peers who stayed on the straight and narrow, and flourished. So... stay with me... I'm learning to stop seeking the reason why I'm seeking to stop seeking

See, isn't spiritual life fun?

4. The Kicker (Nonduality)

Most of the wisdom of "stop seeking" comes from the four noble truths of Buddhism, which boil down to the observation that suffering exists because of clinging/seeking/wanting/thirsting, and that it can be ended by learning to stop seeking so much. What's great about the Four Noble Truths is that, now that the Buddha said them, they seem intuitively correct, and more importantly, can be tested in a relatively short period of time. But there is one final element, which might just be the kicker.

Stopping seeking is more than just good for you, in the way that flossing is good for you. It is the only way to turn down the incessant demands of the ego so that it's possible to identify not with the ultimately unreal "small self" created by the illusion of interior consciousness, but with the greater processes of which each being is only a part. This is the Buddhist teaching of anatman (non-self), the Vedanta teaching of tat tvam asi ("you are that"), the Chabad teaching of acosmism: that what seems to be "me" isn't really me at all. Sure, I seem like "Jay" most of the time, especially when "Jay" wants something. But when I look at this personality closely, I really do see how all of its myriad pieces come from somewhere else: my upbringing, or my education, or wherever. "Jay" is really just a bundle of these other things, a temporary one at that, and a bundle which, on its own, never actually does anything; it's always one of the other things. A tactic I learned as a child; a talent I was born with; a way of speaking I picked up along the way. Each act, each decision, and each preference is ultimately ascribable (and, on a quiet retreat, observably so) to one of these sticks in the bundle. So what is so important about this "me" that needs to get fed, and that thinks that if it doesn't get what it wants, the world is somehow in disarray?

The "me" is a phenomenon, but not an important one, and it is possible to stop identifying with it so much... by stopping seeking. And then the "non-seeking, non-desiring mind" (in Zen teacher Genpo Roshi's words) can actually be revealed for what it is: sufficient, blissful, ever-present, enlightened. And not "me." If you've never actually experienced that mental space, where you really don't want anything, this all probably sounds quite vague. But if you've been there, you know it transcends words.
Even in talking about the "non-seeking, non-desiring mind," however, there's a bit of seeking, of justifying, involved. Am I, at such moments, really in touch with Kosmic Mind, Brahman, God, or whatever? Certainly, it makes sense on paper: if the self is an illusion, a phenomenon that only exists when seen from a certain perspective, who is doing all this knowing, if it's not "Jay"? And it also does feel that way, as if the quality of the universe's knowing is present in my own, miniature knowing as well. It feels quite certain indeed. But then, we feel certain about a lot of things that turn out not to be true. Which is it - cosmic consciousness, or a nice bit of relaxation?

What I've found, lately, is that the claim to cosmic consciousness is itself a form of seeking. As if it's not enough that meditation makes me happy and opens my eyes to pleasure and pain - it has to also take me to God, which is somehow more present when I'm relaxed than when I'm stressed out. As if "God," rather than simply experience or insight, is somehow necessary for the deal to be worth it - and that God has a certain flavor, which is exalted or great or wise. As if something has to be holy to be worthy.

Whereas, when I'm able to sit back and let be whatever will be, then real receiving (kabbalah) can take place. Then God, in the sense in which I understand the term, really does show up - precisely because I'm not looking for God, labeling an experience as God, or in any way claiming something is or isn't God. This is not the God of special mind states, particular revelations, or spiritual "holiness" in the way that makes you want to wave your hands in the air, but the omnipresent God - the one who shows up not because God wasn't there before, but because I was looking somewhere else. And so, as one of my teachers once said, stopping the war has no limits. Again I relearn and relearn and relearn: Stop looking somewhere else for God. Really – stop looking in every way. Stop seeking.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Headway @ Izzy's

Every Monday night at Izzy's Coffee Den you can listen to live music from some local ambient and experimental musicians. There is a rotating roster and occasional special guests. This is the only space in Asheville for a showcase of this sort.


Please check out Ross Gentry's new album "The Last Whole Earth". You can listen and download the album for free @

Blissful ambient delicacies from a swell friend of mine.
If you like it, drop him a line @