Sunday, January 19, 2014

August: Osage County

For years I've been hearing my friends sing the praises of a certain Tony award-winning play that I missed during its Broadway theatrical run. I was encouraged to go see it, not just because it was such a wonderful play, but because it takes place in my home state of Oklahoma. Now the play has been made into a film with a dreamlike cast of powerhouse actors, and I finally had the chance to see it last night.

August: Osage County was a masterfully written and beautifully acted story of despair, addiction, self-delusion, alienation, competitiveness, greed, cruelty, perversion, desperation, resentment, lies, secrets, shame, anger, manipulation, betrayal, vengeance, rage, hatred, disease, decrepitude, psychological breakdown, and suicide.

A perfect Saturday night date movie.

Meryl Streep was nominated for yet another Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in this film, and I can't argue with that. She is a force of nature who never fails to impress, and in this film she delivers the goods. The rest of the cast, too, was amazing. The story was well-told, and as someone who grew up in Oklahoma I felt they got the atmosphere right. And the story's inherent bitterness was leavened with just enough skillful black humor to make it possible to swallow the whole pill.

But afterwards I found myself asking: why is it that we are so drawn to such miserable, discouraging, demoralizing stories? Why do we bestow the highest accolades on tales of such utter hopelessness and emotional violence? What is it about them that attracts us so much?

When I was younger, I felt a stronger pull towards these kinds of stories. In high school and college I went through a phase of complete obsession with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a film of comparable emotional violence and hopelessness about the human condition. It was a story that, at that time in my life -- full of youthful anger and rebellion -- resonated for me on a very deep level. It was appropriate to my life stage.

But the older I get -- or maybe it has less to do with my age than with my spiritual practice -- I find myself yearning for stories that demonstrate humans being basically decent and kind to themselves and to each other. I don't long for sugar-coated, Hollywood narratives that look away from conflict or from the darkness within us — for we cannot pretend it isn't there — but I do long for more stories that at least point towards our capacity for stepping into the light and helping others to do so. I'm increasingly turned off by stories that show people dragging everyone around them down into their personal pits of darkness and stabbing them with verbal knives and kicking them when they're down and bleeding.

Rob Brezsny's essay, "Evil Is Boring," very accurately describes "the perspective of many modern storytellers, especially the journalists and novelists and filmmakers and producers of TV dramas…"

"They devoutly believe that tales of affliction and mayhem and corruption and tragedy are inherently more interesting than tales of triumph and liberation and pleasure and ingenuity.

"Using the juggernaut of the media and entertainment industries, they relentlessly propagate this covert dogma. It's not sufficiently profound or well thought out to be called nihilism. Pop nihilism is a more accurate term. The mass audience is the victim of this inane ugliness, brainwashed by a multibillion-dollar propaganda machine that in comparison makes Himmler's vaunted soul-stealing apparatus look like a child's backyard puppet show. This is the engine of the phenomena I call the global genocide of the imagination.

"At the Beauty and Truth Lab, we believe that stories about the rot are not inherently more captivating than stories about the splendor. On the contrary, given how predictable and ubiquitous they are, stories about the rot are actually quite dull. Obsessing on evil is boring. Rousing fear is a hackneyed shtick. Wallowing in despair is a bad habit. Indulging in cynicism is akin to committing a copycat crime.

"Most modern storytellers go even further in their devotion to the rot, implying that breakdown is not only more interesting but far more common than breakthrough, that painful twists outnumber vigorous transformations by a wide margin." — Rob Brezsny

The thing is, I've watched movies about vampires and demonic possession that demonstrated more interest in basic goodness and human decency than August: Osage County. And I'm not saying that makes it a bad film, because it isn't. It's extraordinarily well-crafted and emotionally compelling, and it will probably win at least one Academy Award.

But I guess, like Brezsny, I'm growing bored with narratives that express what he calls a "devotion to the rot" — stories that do nothing but revel in the darkest shadow material and emotional violence that they can possibly dig up (unless, like 12 Years a Slave, they are historical narratives, which have a pedagogic purpose).

I walked away from August: Osage County thinking how important the shadow is in the human psyche, and how we ignore it at our peril — but for God's sake, it's not the sum total of who we are.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Jukebox Karma

Music is profoundly human. Making music and listening to music are two of the most uniquely human activities. There are species of birds whose songs approach the level of what we would define as music, and there are even exotic birds who hold twigs in their feet and use them to tap out a drumbeat on a tree branch as part of an elaborate mating display. But no other species invests quite as much emotional content in music and takes it as far as humans do. Music is one of our most essential ways of articulating and expressing meaning in our lives. It can also be one of our most neurotic forms of self-indulgence. It has the power to stir up and perpetuate emotional states of mind, both positive and negative.

Music has a way of getting inside your mind and planting seeds there, leaving behind a kind of echo of itself, a psychic residue that can linger even for years, in some cases for a lifetime. Musical memories are stored in a different part of the brain than other memories. Studies of Alzheimer's patients show that even when most other memory and cognitive functions are compromised, songs and lyrics from decades ago can often be easily recalled.

A Buddhist teacher I once studied with, Bill McKeever, called this phenomenon "jukebox karma" — the accumulated karmic seeds planted in our minds by the thousands and thousands of songs we have listened to, over and over and over, throughout the course of our lives.

Many contemporary meditation practitioners, myself included, often find jukebox karma to be one of the most irritating obstacles we encounter within our own minds. There we are on the cushion, trying diligently to meditate and keep our minds centered on some object of meditation, and instead we find that our mind stubbornly wants to keep replaying the chorus from some godforsaken pop song we heard on the radio. Gack! We try to let it go and come back to our meditation, but a moment later we are back at it. Our jukebox karma is just too strong.

"Jukebox karma" — the accumulated karmic seeds planted in our minds by the thousands and thousands of songs we have listened to, over and over and over, throughout the course of our lives.

When I lived in a Buddhist monastery, I spent the first year largely free from any musical input — no radio, no CDs, no MP3 player. I was shocked to discover that it wasn't until about six months into that year that my jukebox karma really began to fizzle out and lose its grip on my mind. During those first six months, anything at all could trigger the memory of a lyric or a refrain, and send me spinning off into musical distraction.

So if you find yourself struggling with jukebox karma in your meditation practice, cut yourself some slack. You're seeing (or hearing) karmic grooves that are very deeply embedded in your psyche, and no doubt in your neural pathways. If you're like me, music is one of your favorite ways to keep your mind entertained, and now you're experiencing the inevitable repercussions (pun intended) of all that conditioning and grasping at entertainment. Like everything else that comes up in meditation, it's just a thought, a pattern, an echo. It doesn't have any real substance, and with time and patience it will dissipate and leave the mind to settle into its own natural clarity and stillness. As the Beatles sang, just "Let it be. Let it be. Let it be. Let it be."

Oops, I did it again.