Unbutton, Ye!

I often feel like a 300-pound man, ready to burst into tears of joy.

Let me explain.

About five years ago I started taking piano lessons. I’m a highly trained and experienced classical musician, but most of my training was directed toward the cello (plus music history, theory and analysis, ear training, and all the rest). Piano, not so much. Decades ago I had to take “secondary piano” in college, meaning basic training for non-piano majors. Much to my regret, the “secondary” part of it dominated my mind back then, and I paid the price. Until recently, my piano playing was awkward, insufficient, upside-down, banana-peel, and I-want-my-mommy.

I have a wonderful piano teacher, my friend and brother Alexandre Mion. Besides the helpful lessons Alexandre has given me these past five years, I’ve also embarked on a project of my own: the development of a new piano method, designed to help a pianist—any pianist—connect with the Creative Source and become happy and healthy.

A concert pianist listening to my piano playing might think that I’m a hopeless banana-peel case. “You ain’t no Horowitz,” he or she’ll think. But I’m playing so much better than five years ago that I can barely explain how I feel about it. The 300-pound man used to weight 600 pounds. He’s still overweight and handicapped, but, wow! He’s made so much progress! He feels so much better! He’s, like, 50% unburdened! That’s a lot! Let’s shed tears of joy!

Believe it or not, this post isn’t about my piano playing, or my piano method in development. It’s about the archetypal voyage from hurting to healing.

Let’s quote, or misquote, or paraphrase, or invent a saying, and let’s attribute it to Gustave Flaubert. “If you have survived your adolescence, you have a story to tell.” Now let’s imagine a silly-ass Zen teacher re-thinking our dear Flaubert. “If you were born, you’re hurting. Life is the hurt, and life is the healing.”

We’re all trying to figure it out, to feel good or to feel better, to shed if not pounds then resentments. Life is challenging but wonderful, wonderful but challenging. If life weren’t challenging, the following people would be out of their jobs: doctors, osteopaths, priests, psychoanalysts, nurses, preachers, surgeons, firemen, cops, lawyers, judges, prison wardens, and bakers.

The bakers: that was a joke, by the way.

The life voyage from hurting to healing is universal in its need and importance and urgency, but no two people travel in the same way. Do your brother and your sister mirror your journey? Nah. You’ve been diverging for half a century. Your stuff is unique to you, and that’s cause for celebration! Call the bakers and order a cake, gluten-free and sugar-free if you know what’s good for you.

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In healing, the symbolic dimension is often stronger than the material dimension. Many years ago, I took some ballroom dance classes. A Canadian woman showed up and participated from time to time. She was a pursed-lips blonde in a man’s button-down white shirt. To my eyes, she seemed to be trying to hold it all in, afraid of looking good, afraid of the swing of life. One day in the middle of class, she unbuttoned her collar. To my eyes, it was a really big deal, as close to a striptease as she could get at that point—or ever. Healing is the healing that’s going to happen, to jerry-rig an expression. “Less fear and more love, to the extent that you can.

It’s not possible to know what the other person is thinking and feeling, where she comes from, how she got to be the way she is. “I know exactly what you’re going through.” No, you don’t! “What you’re going through resonates with me.” Okay, that’s plausible. I may be totally wrong about that Canadian woman, but the unbuttoning—this was more than 25 years ago—has stayed in my psyche as a meaningful moment, on account of its symbolic power.

Each hurt is individual. And each healing is individual, too. For some people, piano lessons heal. For others, piano lessons hurt. For some, healing comes from doing something; for others, from stopping something. A dear person in my inner circle closed a business he had spent 20 years building up, and struggling with. Difficult as it was, the closing—which was both a letting go and an abandoning—was part of a healing processes.

When you engage in the healing process, you don’t know what the results will be. Closing a business, opening a business? Unbuttoned shirt collar? Sex-change operation? Learning to smile? It isn’t possible to know in advance. This is one of the reasons we often hesitate to get started on the healing journey: fear of the unknown. It takes courage.

The journey is akin to martial-arts training: a battle of wills between the old and the new, the bruise and the Band-Aid, the fear and the hope. As Gustave Flaubert famously didn’t say, “We’re all in it. We might as well go all in.”

 ©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

The Wizard of Chicago

During a recent visit to Chicago, I witnessed a high-caliber theatrical performance that was as troubling as it was thrilling. It took place in the subway, or the “L” as it’s called in Chicago—logically enough, since most tracks for most trains are “eLevated.” Subway is the wrong name.

But don’t let me confuse you with terminology. I was riding public transportation late in the evening, when a large, a very large black man entered my car, settled down cater-corner from me, and started his performance. He had a big voice and a big personality to go with his big body, and he wore a bright, a very bright Marlins shirt and matching baseball cap. The thing is, the Marlins aren’t a Chicago team—they’re based in Miami. And somehow the bright shirt from the wrong team contributed to the performance’s hypnotic power.

Let’s call the big Marlins guy "Merlin," since he was quite the wizard. Speaking loudly enough for the entire car to hear him, Merlin invited everyone to take a chance on the guessing game: “Here are three little red cups upside down, here’s me putting a little white cube under one of the cups, here’s me shifting the cups around. Take a guess, my friends! Where’s the little white cube now?”

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His performance is a con, variously called three-card monte and find-the-lady and the shell game. Merlin knows how to move the cups faster than your eyes can track them, and he knows how to cheat, and he knows how to get you to part with your money, and he knows how to get you to love him although he’s ripping you off. Needless to say, the con is illegal. It's impossible for you (aka "the mark") to win the game.

“It’s free to guess, and if you guess right I’ll give you twenty bucks! No, fifty! No, a hundred bucks, a crisp C-note! Guess it right, and it’s yours!”

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A fellow sitting right next to me points at one of the cups, guesses right, and wins a hundred dollars, completely risk-free, easy easy easy! Merlin hands the fellow the money, and everyone riding that L train laughs and claps and loves every second of it. Why, how, why is Merlin just giving money to a complete stranger? Anyone can guess where the little white cube is, easy easy easy! Plus, Merlin isn’t even asking you to wager anything. Guessing is free!

The fellow who won a C-note is Merlin’s confederate. There’s another fellow who plays the game, guesses right, and wins easy easy easy—and he, too, is a confederate. The trio is extremely well rehearsed, extremely efficient, and extremely fun to watch. They are life-loving, people-loving, and Chicago-loving, and Chicago loves them back unconditionally.

After everyone is hypnotized, the real game starts, because the free rounds are over and now you have to wager to play—twenty bucks, for instance. “Bet $20 and guess right, and I pay you $20. Guess it wrong, and I keep your money.” And Merlin will keep your money, because you can’t possibly win the game.

The whole thing got me thinking about performance, persuasion, and connection. It’s tempting to consider performance the domain of the stage or screen: a theater company gives a performance, or a professional pianist gives a performance, in a specialized territory like a concert hall. In truth, we’re all performers, and we perform more or less nonstop, sometimes privately, sometimes publicly, sometimes knowingly, sometimes blindly. Waiting in line at the airport security check, you perform your take on the harried traveler, or the victim, or the stoic hero, or the rebel, or the cynic, or the . . . well, you get it. To live is to perform.

Merlin and his co-conspirators are trained professionals: they make their living performing. And to perform is to persuade, which involves the suspension of disbelief. Merlin made all of us, or many of us, or some of us, forget that he was a con and a thief and a cheat and a liar. We believed he was a wonderful human being, heaven-sent to elevate our moods with his booming voice, his bright shirt, and his generosity: “Take my money!”

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You watch a movie, and if the movie is any good you forget it’s a movie (pixels on a screen, “people who don’t exist doing things that never happened”) and you get carried away, identifying with the actors who play fictional characters and their struggles. Then it’s your turn: you perform for your wife, persuading her that you never, ever said that needling little remark that so irked her. She’ll believe you, or not. Good luck with the performance!

Why are we willing to be persuaded by performances, authentic or misleading? We want to believe in something, and we want to be part of something—that is, we want to connect. Merlin brought us together, gave us the feeling that we were privileged and special because he loved us and he was big and wore a bright shirt and embodied the spirit of storytelling and of play and of generosity. These are good things to believe in when they are true. But we’re willing to believe them also when they aren’t true, too, because . . . because without belief there isn’t life. The word “belief” comes from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to care, love, desire.”

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The L reached my destination before anyone lost money to Merlin’s big lying heart, but it was such a clever performance that I, too, would have lost twenty bucks willingly. As for losing a hundred bucks willingly, or a thousand, or five thousand . . . suspension of disbelief can be expensive. I’m glad I got off the train.

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©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

To own or not to own, that's the question

Foolishly or wisely, I often play a sort of game which consists in looking up the etymology of a word—that is, a word’s origin and the history of its meaning.

We use some ordinary word without giving it much thought, and yet that word had to be “invented,” so to speak, in order to express some aspect of reality. Who invented it, and why? When? And what is the word's deep meaning? These questions can be difficult to answer but useful to ask!

A word’s origin hints at its symbolic power, its importance, its reach. Find out what aspect of reality a word was born to express, and you’ll find out something about reality itself—and, by extension, about how you think and feel.

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You own a house, perhaps. Or a car. Or a book. Or a fork. It doesn’t matter; you own something, and your relationship to the thing is partly determined by your feeling of ownership.

“To own” and “to owe” share the same root, the presumed Proto-Indo-European *aik-, meaning “be master of, possess.” If you own a house, you possess it and you’re its master. It’s an amazing thing once it enters your awareness: Ownership! Possession! Mastery! You own your identity, you own your words and ideas, you own your mistakes: you’re the master of your mistakes.

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And you own a house, perhaps. Possession plays a role in your relationship with the house. Some of your feelings, positive and negative, about “your own house” come from the responsibility of owning, as well as the pleasures of owning—the headaches and heartaches, and also the joys of it all.

Ownership is a form of power, and even a baby knows that: she must, she must own that scrap of paper she picked up at random from your wastebasket, because she feels strangely powerful in ownership, regardless of what she owns.

Possession is mastery. The “power of possession” is life-affirming and identity-determining.

The problem is that it can make you crazy. You can “become possessed,” and feel that unless you own that scrap of paper, or that car, or that handbag, you’re worthless. You measure your worth through the things that you own, and . . . you start wanting to own ever more. There’s nothing wrong with owning a house, of course; it’s only the evil twin of ownership that’s problematic, the twin that says “more, more, more, MORE!!”

Fortunately, there’s a cure for Crazy Ownership Syndrome. It’s called access.

Access also comes from a Proto-Indo-European root. (I get all these word roots from the best website ever: etymonline.)

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In our game, the Proto-Indo-European root reveals a word’s symbolic power—or, if you prefer, its reason to exist, since the word was created to express an important aspect of reality. In this case, “to go, to yield,” and further “to move, to approach, to withdraw.” As you can see, it’s very different from the idea of ownership, possession, and mastery.

You can access a database and “move through it” without having to own it. You have access to the services of a professional. You see the professional very occasionally, but your access to him or her is permanent. It only takes a phone call for you to activate your access. Come and go.

You have access to friends’ homes. They invite you to dinner and take good care of you for an hour or three. You play with their cats, and access to the cats is very dear to you. Access to a guest room in Chicago and another in Brooklyn and another in São Paulo is all you need to feel good about “having a home” without owning one.

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Go to the supermarket and buy an avocado, and a little bit of Peru or Mexico or Israel enters your orbit. It’s a miracle of sorts. You don’t need to own Peru at all, because you have easy access to it! It’s right down the block and around the corner, and it only costs two dollars!

In our simplified metaphysics, ownership is a form of holding, and access is a form of letting go. They are both necessary in our lives, but it seems useful—and perhaps even urgent—to understand the distinction between the two. The sun shines above. We don't own it, but we have access to its heat and warmth during the day. Night for us is day for our neighbors a few time zones away. Let's let them have access to the sun, too!

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©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

May I . . . ?

At a street fair, you bump into an acquaintance and you say, “Hello, my dear!” Whether you do it consciously or intuitively, even before you open your mouth you’re already paying attention to what you say, how you say it, and to whom you say it.

The what, the how, and the to-whom of communication is worth studying, since it’ll help you become a better listener and speaker. Here are some tools I’ve used over the years. They’re based on two simple principles and one simple procedure. The principles are the awareness that there exist multiple modes of communication, and the awareness that there exist multiple frames of mind among your listeners. The procedure is to ask your listener permission to use one of several special communication styles.

"May I give you a compliment?"

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Many people are uncomfortable receiving compliments. Some grow up with a culture of self-effacement, where sidetracking compliments is a way of life for everyone in the family or the community. Others have low self-esteem and find that a compliment, however sincere and well-meant, doesn’t match the way they feel about themselves. The compliment might strike the listener as wrong or even dirty, and you’ll be rebuked for having proffered it. Asking for permission to issue a compliment has a possibly hypnotic result: your listener probably has never, ever had the experience of being asked to give permission, much less the permission to receive a compliment.

"May I give you a compliment that risks sounding like an insult to begin with?"

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Recently, an Englishwoman who took one of my workshops gave the group a short presentation on the English tradition of politeness, deference, and indirectness. She told us almost nothing about the tradition, instead deflecting attention and asking us what we thought this tradition entailed. My compliment? “You succeeded by failing, and you failed by succeeding—because you told us nothing, thereby perfectly illustrating the indirect approach.” She saw the joke and took the compliment.

"May I speak my heart?"

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If you say “yes,” I might reveal some deeply held emotions, or speak harshly of someone, or pass judgment, or swear, or be politically incorrect. Anything goes, because it’s the heart talking, not the mind! And we all know that the heart beats, and blood rushes through it and makes it pump. Or something like that. After I receive the go-ahead to speak my heart, I lift my self-censure temporarily and just bleed left and right. The thing is, I’m so polite about getting permission that my bleeding is sort of organized, directed, and purposeful. Which is the point of the whole exercise.

"May I babble incoherently for a while?"

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I like asking this question with a sweet, reassuring smile, indicating that I’m in control of my lack of control. I might indeed babble incoherently, but I have things to say even if they aren’t fully articulated. The babble is a sort of performance or musical style, with the potential to caress the listener’s mind and rearrange its furniture. I exaggerate the babbling on occasion, making fun of myself and earning the goodwill of my listener, who relaxes and more or less understands what I’m trying to say.

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"May I answer your question indirectly?"

Some questions are impossible to answer. They carry too much information, too many assumptions, too many needs and wants on the part of the person asking them. By requesting permission seemingly to go off subject or seemingly to avoid the question altogether, I acknowledge the question’s complexity and my inability to answer it in a concise manner. Then I can choose one or two aspects from the complex question to weave a path forward.

"May I tell you a joke?"

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Someone talks to you with deep feelings about an important subject. If you happen to know of an anecdote that addresses the talker’s needs, or takes his or her mind off the urgent feelings for a little while, or gives the listener a chance to breathe and relax, telling a joke is can be very helpful. Ask for permission with a friendly tone of voice, indicating that you heard the other person’s feelings and you aren’t planning to trample on him or her with your joke.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

Walk the Paradox

I turned 60 the other day. My younger brother, sending me his wishes, pointed out that 60 divides by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60, making it a very useful number. Back in the 3rd millennium BC, the Sumerians created a base-60 numeral system, called of course Sexagesimal (of course! you knew that already!) (enough with the you-knew-that-already!). Today we still employ it, in modified form, to count seconds and minutes and months and years, and to calculate angles and geographical coordinates.

In other words, space and time.

To celebrate my birthday, I spent a day and a night in Chartres with my wife Alexis. We did the same thing four years ago: Walk here and there, watch the magnificent illuminations projected upon the Cathedral and many other buildings, eat and drink, sleep and dream, space and time. Yes, space and time are verbs, actions, processes with hearts and minds of their own.

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Every place in the world is a good place for you to space and time. Chartres, however, is extra-good, in particular because of its Cathedral and what it represents, which we could call Eternity.

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Eternity—I mean, the Cathedral in Chartres—occupies a privileged position in space: high and visible from afar. Its location and height multiply its importance, its power to impress and elevate. Today, you can see its spires from the train station. Eight hundred years ago, when people had the habit of looking into the distance, you could see the spires from the “outer space in your brain,” to coin an expression. Looking into the distance and looking at your smartphone are both manifestations of the space-and-time continuum, but, man, looking into the distance is kinda awesome.

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Plato, Socrates, and Onassis met in a taverna and said, “Hey, let’s confuse people for the next two thousand years. One of us will say, ‘All I know is that I don’t know,’ another will pretend to have heard it, and the third will spread the rumor.” Ever since, Wikipedia has been trying to sort out the so-called “Socratic Paradox,” with limited success since NO ONE CAN SORT OUT A PARADOX.

But you can live it. Or, at least, you can walk it.

Visiting Chartres, you'll embody the I-don't-know principle. You won’t be able to understand how people built it without computers or power tools. You’ll look at the iconography, the stained-glass windows and the statuary, and you won’t know what each face and each beard and each fold of each garment is trying to tell you.

You’ll see hundreds of people from dozens of countries, walking here and there, taking photos, and—and singing, for Pete’s sake. And you won’t know if they’re “tourists” or “pilgrims.” Best of all, you won’t know if you yourself, in your flesh-and-bones here-and-nowness, are a tourist or a pilgrim.

The Cathedral has a labyrinth of stone and love, right in the middle of the nave. No one knows exactly when it was built, or by whom, or what for. For our purposes, we'll say it was built in 1200, a nice Sexagesimal number. A walk from the entry point to the center, and back out again, lasts anywhere from seven minutes to seven centuries, depending on your speed and state of mind. What will you find at the center of the labyrinth? This, too, depends on your state of mind. And it’s possible that the very walk might change what you're feeling, thinking, and doing. You won't know what you'll find until you find it.

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Do you need the labyrinth to Walk the Paradox? No. You can walk anywhere, within and without the Cathedral.

You might not have to walk at all. You can simply watch a video clip that a guy made, very indirectly inspired by Chartres and its labyrinthine paradoxes.

And for those of you who aren't cathedralicals, to coin a word, here's the profane version of the space-and-time walk. It's the ABSOLUTE SAME THING! Thus shouted Zarathustra from his mountain top!

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

In praise of not understanding

I recently attended a conference in Malta, a marvelous island country smack in the middle of the Mediterranean, not far from Sicily and not far from the coast of North Africa. Because of its strategic importance, over the millennia Malta has known war, strife, occupation, depredations and glories galore.

Malta is very beautiful, thought-provoking and sensation-inducing.

Heading out one night to a concert by one of the conference’s participants, I had a little spare time and decided to enter the Church of St. Publius, the patron saint of Floriana, a town adjacent to the capital Valletta. Publius is a big deal; according to tradition, he received Paul (the apostle) when the latter survived a shipwreck in Malta roughly two thousand years ago.

The Church of St. Publius was built in stages over several centuries. What, exactly, is its style? I think that’s the wrong question. A better one is, “How do you feel when you enter the church? Where are you? What’s going on? What are they saying? What’s it all about?”

The church was nearly full, most people in the congregation dressed for a sober occasion. A priest said Mass. Maltese is a strange and fascinating language. Derived from Siculo-Arabic, a now-dead form of Arabic spoken in Sicily a thousand years ago, Maltese is unique among languages; simplifying it, we'll call it a Latinized Semitic language. If you speak Italian, you’ll recognize words in Maltese; if you speak Arabic, you’ll also recognize words in Maltese; if you speak English, you’ll have a head trip and enjoy the swing of an incomprehensible language. Listening to Maltese is like having a dream where someone is telling you something important concerning your future. You’re desperately trying to understand it all, and at the same time you feel as if you’re unworthy of being told the secret of life.

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I recorded a little snippet from the Mass. I added a few photos from the church interiors. For good measure, I added background bells that I recorded at a different church (there are many churches in Malta!).

Listening to Mass in Maltese, in a church built over several centuries and bedecked in extravagant finery, I was transported to the “Land of Non-understanding,” or as we say in Maltese, “Art ta ‘nuqqas ta’ fehim.” I mean, I didn’t have any idea what the priest was talking about; and I also didn’t have a good idea as to what all the art works and decorations in the church represented; and I also didn’t know what was happening, socially and culturally and historically, within the congregation.

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I grew up with Catholicism in Brazil, though it didn’t really “take.” My catechism teacher once told my mother, with a heavy heart, “Pedro could become a Protestant pastor one day.” (I was ten years old.) But that’s a whole other story; this one is about understanding and not understanding, and let’s say that my background in Brazil half a century ago may have helped or hindered my understanding of what was happening at the Church of St. Publius in Floriana, Malta, in April, 2018.

My theory is that most of the time and in most places, most of us don’t truly understand what’s going on. Or, rather, we have our own subjective understanding of what we see, read, and hear; and by “subjective” I mean “filtered, biased, wobbly, unreliable, incoherent, potentially destructive, potentially constructive.” And I think this is inevitable, for the simple reason that we’re human. My suggestion is that we accept and embrace the reality of not understanding reality.

This is as true of a Brazilian attending Mass in Maltese as it is of the same Brazilian listening to his wife, whom he’s known for more than twenty years and whom he loves dearly. Yes, my wife speaks Maltese to me! And I to her, though we speak mutually incomprehensible versions of Maltese, and both versions are called “English.” How confusing is that?

Thinking processes, deeply infused with sensations and emotions, are authentically subjective. Understanding is necessarily subjective, emotive, and “sensational,” to mis-employ a word. How much of Malta did I really understand? Its streets are crowded with icons, statues big and small, banners, and all sorts of religiabilia. (Made-up vocabulary enhances mis-understandability, although common words are just as easy to mis-use and mis-understand.) Do I really understand how the Maltese celebrate the Divine? Are they even celebrating the Divine? What, exactly, is the Divine?

It’s foolish to make assumptions about anything, and it’s very foolish to make assumptions about how much you understand the Other, and how much the Other understands you. Understanding is a dog with three heads and five tails. Don't let it bite you!

I had a wonderful time in Malta, a wonderful time interacting with my colleagues at the conference, and a wonderful time expressing myself verbally and otherwise in front of a hundred puzzled listeners. We mis-understood one another perfectly.

 Google Translate has a sense of humor.

Google Translate has a sense of humor.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

What suits you better?

To simplify is to lie. And yet, understanding a lie is better than misunderstanding the truth. Simplifying it, we’ll say that several thousand years ago, a people living in what we now call Ukraine spoke a beautiful and complex language. The people domesticated horses, rode wheel wagons, traveled and migrated, thereby spreading its culture and language. But in the spreading, the language became transformed into a hundred other languages, as varied as Sanskrit and Greek, Latin and Russian, Portuguese and German. The original language itself disappeared, and all we have left are the transformations.

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We can’t prove this, but we can argue for it using indirect evidence, mostly by comparing different languages, and also by using some genetics and some archaeology.

For instance, the words for numbers one to ten are very similar in disparate languages. Is this a crazy, crazy coincidence, or do the disparate languages come from a shared root?

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This hypothetical language for which we don’t have hard evidence is called Proto-Indo-European—that is, a language that was the “prototype” for many languages spoken in Europe and in India. Some of these languages are now dead, and others are alive and well, thank you very much . . . like, you know, English, for chrissakes.

Misleading as it may seem, this post isn’t about the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis. It’s about the things we believe in, and the reasons why we believe them.

“Do you believe in a Supreme Being?” It’s perhaps more constructive to ask the question like this: “What suits you better, to believe in a Supreme Being or not to believe in a Supreme Being?” What suits you better, to believe in a hopeful future or to believe in doom? What suits you better, to believe that animals have self-awareness or that they're a bundle of reflexes? What suits you better, to believe that mathematics is exciting or boring? If you adamantly affirm that mathematics is boring, you’re saying that at least for now it suits you better to believe that mathematics is boring. You're making a statement about yourself, not the thing or person or idea in question. And this is inevitable: any one thing is what you make of it, and the "you" in it is primary, the "thing" is secondary.

It suits me to believe in the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis. It stimulates my imagination, it leads me to seek connections among words and among languages, it invites me to study history and geography and linguistics. In my head trip (my subjective response, informed by my subjective filters), this ancestral language was deeply rooted in nature and full of symbolic dimensions born of the mysteries of existence. No, I can’t prove any of it; no, I don’t know what I'm talking about; yes, I like believing in it because it gives me—here, now!—a feeling of rootedness and integration.

Suppose the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis will be debunked one of these days: a geologist or a psychiatrist or an albino raccoon from outer space will demonstrate that the hypothesis is a fabrication, a delusion, a HOAX! It’s not going to change anything for me. I’ll carry on believing in it, because I like it; it’s meaningful to me, it’s beautiful, just beautiful.

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As you can see, the speculative and hypothetical Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root for the word "beauty" is related to the idea of reverence. It proves!—beyond a shade of doubt!—how poetic and integrative our ancestral language was! (It proves no such thing, of course; I'm having a head trip and enjoying myself, and teasing myself about how silly I am at the same time that I state an actual belief of mine. Exclamation marks are obligatory when you're incoherent and drunk-happy.) 

Your beliefs may be completely different from mine, but you and I are alike in that we believe what suits us, temperamentally and culturally. From hard facts, from soft facts, from un-facts and anti-facts we build our personal narratives through filters of which we aren't always aware. Let's respect the facts, acknowledge the filters, and assume full ownership of our beliefs.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

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Separation anxiety

Some years ago, I attended a big conference in Lugano, a beautiful lakeside town in Switzerland. Summer, breeze, pleasure, heaven. Waiting for a cable car to go up a hill, I watched my fellow human beings loitering in the plaza next to the cable-car stop. A boy, aged five or six, played a game on a smartphone. He looked up from his game, and to his horror his mother wasn’t in his line of sight. He let out a terrified and terrifying sound, animal, bestial, feral; an amazing sound for a child to make, not pretty at all but amazing all the same.

His mother quickly re-entered his line of sight, and the boy went back to playing his game as if nothing had happened.

I’ve witnessed other episodes of this sort, all terrifying, all amazing: a child’s fear of finding himself or herself alone in the world, separated from parents, and at imminent risk of death. This is separation anxiety in its most primeval form.

For a few months before our births, we’re completely amalgamated with the mother; we’re one with her, and symbolically one with the Universe. We’re cocooned, protected, loved, housed, fed, clothed though naked, our every need taken care of even before the need expresses itself to us; we're in heaven, like Lugano in summer.

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Then we’re born, and things aren’t the same anymore: Separation starts, and with it its primeval anxieties. It’s a long process, unfolding itself over years and decades, over a lifetime—I mean, not a lifetime dealing with our separation from our mothers, but a lifetime dealing with separation itself, or the disruption of one-ness and the start of two-ness, duality, and conflict.

The word “doubt” is rooted in “two,” or more specifically “to have to choose between two things.” One: no conflict; two: conflict.

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Separation anxiety manifests itself in a thousand ways. You can feel anxious about separating from an old, frayed, stained shirt; separating from a friend at the end of a shared meal, even though you’ll see the friend again two days later; separating from an environment, as when you move house or as when you don’t want to leave the beach at sunset. You can feel anxious about separating from daytime and entering the night.

You can feel anxious about separating from your words and sounds; hence your hesitation to speak in public. You can feel anxious about separating from a habit, a thought, an idea, a feeling. Indeed, you can feel anxious—very anxious!—about separating from anything you identify with; that is, anxious about separating from your identity.

And yet, separate you must. The friend will go home, the moment will dissipate, the sun will go down; the sun will leave you; you won’t be one with the sun, but two: you here, the sun there, gone.

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Paradoxically, the way forward is to embrace separation rather than trying to eliminate it. And, paradoxically, once you really embrace separation you’ll find yourself in heaven again, united with the Universe. You’ll separate from your ego and rejoin the self (also known as the Self). It’s simple, really: you’ll “separate from the separation.”

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Simple, but not easy; it takes a tremendous amount of work, a whole lifetime; according to some authorities, several lifetimes; you’ll be reborn again and again until you succeed in separating yourself from the anxiety and ascending, as it were, to a higher sphere. But you don’t have to enter into metaphysical speculations to appreciate the importance of separation anxiety and the urgency of dealing with it.

And . . . how? Over the thousand years, a thousand schools have arisen, proposing meditations, prayers, methods, postures, sayings, disciplines; breathing exercises; psychotropic drugs. Despite the variety of methods, the message is always the same: Let go. Let go of the monkey mind, of the suppositions, of the judgments; let go of the resentments and worries, let go of fixed ideas and prejudices; let go, let go, let go. The letting go has been called Zen and it’s been called Tao; it’s been called distance, restraint, devotion, submission, non-doing, the Void, think before you act, don’t think so much, listen more and talk less, God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason. But it all goes back to this one principle: Let go. Let go of the thing, the idea, the place, the person, the emotion.

Here’s what I propose: a little drawing, a scheme, a formula! Yay, finally a formula for letting go! (It’s a joke, of course; the formula is secret, and I’m not allowed to divulge it.) (Meta-joke.)

You know how complicated those metaphysical speculations can become. I’m going to bypass the complication and embrace the simplification. I’m just going to show you the little drawing, okay? I’m not going to explain it, okay? I’m having separation anxiety, okay? This little drawing means a lot to me, okay? Bye bye, little drawing! Come back soon, little drawing!

 with thanks to Alexis Niki.

with thanks to Alexis Niki.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

Nostrils, Sacred & Profane

A few years ago, my wife Alexis and I attended a performance of a troupe called The New Vietnam Circus. Trapeze artists, dancers, and musicians from Vietnam wove a tapestry of sight and sound, inspired by the mythical power of the bamboo. It was unforgettable and beautiful and strange and perfect.

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After the performance, I bought a couple of . . . of what I thought were knick-knacks at the theater store: a ten-euro bamboo flute, and a five-euro nose flute. Toys; cute objects; mementos from the evening. “Nothings.” But I was wrong in my assessment of their worth.

This is my nose flute. The Obama bobblehead is there only because I really, really miss Obama.

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I put the nose flute aside and didn’t think much about it. Then, roaming YouTube the other day, I came across a clip of a jokey but affecting performance of the song “Africa” by two people playing ukuleles and blowing on plastic nose flutes, which they attached to their faces with rubber bands.

I felt I needed to educate myself a bit on the nose flute. I discovered that there exist many types and models, and many aesthetics. The ukulele-playing girl has developed an impressive set of nose-flute skills, and she has a devoted following on YouTube. She calls herself the NoseFluter. Her partner on the “Africa” clip does his own thing, too, clever and touching.

But here’s the thing. Watching these skillful silly skits employing the nose flute, I surmised that there must a different dimension, a secret and deeper reason for the nose flute to exist and for people to become involved with it. And I found it, deeply embodied in this Vietnamese woman.

Played in this manner, the nose flute requires poise, breath control, a connection with the Creative Source, an inner discipline. Through the nose flute, the ego might possibly disappear, allowing the Self to emerge. Silly skits are the profane manifestation of something that exists in the divine realm, connected with Nature, timeless and eternal.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m in favor of the profane, which is a necessary counterpart to the sacred. Plus, I’m not saying that something is either sacred or profane. The yes/no switch doesn’t apply to metaphysical matters! Plus plus, I’m not saying I even know what those big words mean: sacred, profane, the ego, the Self, the Creative Source . . . no. I can’t begin to define them. Instead, here I’m simply posting my own modest contribution to the Nose Flute canon, and I offer my clip as my “Happy 2018” to one and all. Let the New Year bring you Two Nostrils, one sacred and one profane!

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara