Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Art is What Makes Life Worth Living

“Art is what makes life worth living,” my kung fu master said, looking straight into my eyes. He knew my story. As I approached the end of my thirties I felt a real need to test myself and pursued full contact competitive fighting. I worked with an MMA coach and learned the sport which incorporated wrestling, Brazilian jujitsu, muay thai and boxing but things didn’t quite work out and in the end, I started hating it. I had to quit. You can’t hate something you love. You just can’t let that happen to yourself.

So it hit me hard when I decided to go back to kung fu (the art of my youth) with the less lofty goal of finding the love and fun in it again, only to hear my kung fu master tell me that I focused too much on competition and not enough on the art.
“Fighting destroys us,” he said, “and you know this from your writing and painting--Art is what makes life worth living.”

Earlier in the week, an online friend of mine shared with me a psychology article that broke down the process of creativity to help artists deal with the extreme emotions they go through. Just a few days before, a friend told me about an artist who committed suicide. “Art is madness,” he said. I never saw it that way.

I snuffed the clinical article that tried to generalize the complex emotions of human beings and I questioned my friend’s assertion that art is madness, something that the article also implied. I think about all the times in my life that art has saved me from madness. Aren’t we all a little mad, and if we didn’t have a creative outlet, what would happen to us?

Art isn’t madness. Art is what makes life worth living. Can you imagine a world without music, dance, crafts, abstraction, movies, festivals, imagination or art? How would we cope? How would we learn? What would motivate or inspire us? How would we court our lovers? How would we teach our children? What would comfort us when we feel lonely?

I once had a friend tell me that she resolved to only read books that would help her with her work. I said, “But that’s no fun.” The greatest lessons I ever learned, I learned from reading fiction or stories. All great leaders, teachers, scientists and more saw whatever they did, not as a work but as art. The greatest movers and thinkers in history were also well rounded artists. It seems to me that denying creativity is denying the very process in which our brain works. We disconnect from everything that makes us who we are.

Art isn’t madness. Art is meditation.  We take the emotions and chaos and turn it into beauty and form. We make sense of the things that we can’t make sense of any other way and this takes discipline. A musician doesn’t just know how to play an instrument. He/she has to practice many hours in peace. One has to get lost in ones discipline in order to express oneself in a way that creates beauty. Without this discipline, everything would be madness.

I think art is often confused with ambition. Ambition is what ruins artists, this desire to be the best in a subjective world. Something happens when marketing a book or becoming world champion becomes more important than the joy and tranquility of just doing what we have always loved doing. And at some point, we artists go through a little crisis. We realize that we’ve lost sight of what it was all about and we have to find ourselves again. At some point, it becomes all about making it to the top and we lose a bit of our souls. Art isn’t madness, ambition is. The thing I learned from competitive fighting is you can’t be successful unless you’re disciplined in your art and you’re passionate about what you do. That’s what keeps us doing what we do, regardless of the trials and tribulations, the rejections and the failures. If it’s just work, we wouldn’t do it. We do it because we love it, because it’s what makes life worth living. Success is just a side effect, not of hard work but of playing hard out of passion and joy for what we do.

A few years ago, I knew a very talented musician who played a killer upright bass. He was hired to play bass for a rock band and he invited me to some kind of retreat in upstate New York for the weekend. I had no idea what it was about but I decided to go. He explained to me that this group of musicians were past their prime. They eventually got jobs as lawyers or what not, but they realized that they still loved playing for their friends. In fact, they decided that it wasn’t worth playing for anyone else. So they pitched in and bought a house in the woods together and that’s where we were headed. There were a bunch of people hanging out in the house and we all brought sleeping bags. We just chilled out during the day and someone bought some pottery to paint. It was drizzling outside but I couldn’t stand to be cooped up so I played volleyball in the rain with my friend.

I made many new friends, all friendly and outgoing people. There was a woman who was exceptionally hypnotic. I remember a butterfly landing right on her finger, inviting her friend to take pictures. She had a fire to her that was instantly noticeable. People referred to her as "the voice" and I didn’t understand why until much later. She explained the life they used to live, touring from town to town playing rock and roll. She said that they were loved everywhere they went but it was a tougher crowd in the big cities where good ole’ rock and roll was overshadowed by other types of music. We asked if it was too much, being on the road all the time. She said that she was built for it but eventually, other members of the band settled down. I thought she looked very young. An acting coach once told me that singers and actors always look young, even though they drink and smoke and party all night. It’s because they breathe so deep.

That night, I found out why I was really there. One of the band members brewed some mushroom tea. We drank and had some barbecue from the large fire pit and everyone ushered me into the big red barn outside. They turned the barn into a stage and they played for their biggest fans, their friends. They were good, real good and the woman had a unique voice, a mix of Janis Joplin and Axl Rose. It was good ole rock and roll and it made me move and scream and whoop. Why had I never heard of them? It takes a lot to be the best in the world,and sometimes you have to be willing to deal with a lot of politics, but there’s talent everywhere. Some people just decide that they’d rather just play for their friends.

A nurse once wrote an article about people’s dying words in a hospital. The top regret she heard from men was that they wished they never worked too much. In the end of the life, what really matters, how hard you worked or how well you played for your friends and family?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

PERSPECTIVE: Life, The Universe and Everything

On New year’s day, we went to the Griffith Park Observatory, a great way to put the new year and the universe as we know it into perspective. I remember when they closed it down for five years of renovations after being open since 1935. Supposedly, Griffith J. Griffith saw the work they were doing with the giant telescopes and thought, “If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would change the world.” He started a fund that opened the observatory to the public for free.

During the renovations, they dug underneath the building and added a lower floor. On the walls is a giant picture of a small slice of the universe, taken from the observatory’s super telescope. It only covers the amount that your finger would cover if you held it up a foot in front of your eyes.

To help illustrate this, here is a picture of Einstein doing it.

Here is a picture of the sky map from the balcony. It consists of about a million galaxies, hundreds of thousands of stars and about a thousand quasars. Imagine how many fingers it would take to cover what we see with our eyes from earth and how many more galaxies, stars and quasars that would cover. 
Sorry, my camera is crappy

Here is one a little closer up.

            Isn’t it funny how realizing how terribly insignificant we are in relation to the universe can make us better people? It must be true. The place was packed on New Year ’s Day. They even had to close the streets off for a while. Finding a new year’s resolution seems comical when you know that the lifetime of man is barely a millisecond compared to the life of our galaxy.

How does realizing how terribly insignificant we are change the world?

For fifteen hundred years, western man believed that all heavenly objects revolved around the earth, a pretty egotistical perspective. But could they help it? It’s not like we could take our eyes and throw it up into space to use a different perspective. There is also something fairly comforting about being the center of the universe, but is it really? Copernicus was shunned for asserting that the earth actually revolved around the sun and Galileo was almost killed in the inquisition for daring to agree with him hundreds of years later, and this was after he invented the telescope. This begs the question, why were people so threatened when someone questioned their beliefs, even to the point of torturing those who disagreed with a scientific theory?

When it became common knowledge that the earth actually revolved around the sun, we became a little less significant, no longer the center of the whole universe, and when we learned that we are just on a small planet in one galaxy among billions of other galaxies full of their own suns and planets expanding through space matter, we became even less significant.

Since we don’t have the technology to travel through these many galaxies, all we know about space is mostly through mathematics and with all the new computer devices we have for calculations, we are challenging long standing theories more and more, but in the end one has to ask oneself, what do we really know?

While the ancient Greeks debated about the earth and the sun the Vedic preists of India recorded these words:

“None can know from where creation has arisen, and whether he has or has not produced it. He who surveys it in the highest heavens, He alone knows-or perhaps does not know." (Rig Veda 10. 129)

The Puranic Hindus seem to have had more perspective than the Greeks. This is taken from Wikipedia but I ordered myself a copy of the Padma Purana so I can site this for myself one day:
The puranic view asserts that the universe is created, destroyed, and re-created in an eternally repetitive series of cycles. In Hindu cosmology, a universe endures for about 4,320,000,000 years (one day of Brahma, the creator or kalpa) and is then destroyed by fire or water elements. At this point, Brahma rests for one night, just as long as the day. This process, named pralaya (literally especial dissolution in Sanskrit, commonly translated as Cataclysm), repeats for 100 Brahma years (311 Trillion, 40 Billion Human Years) that represents Brahma's lifespan. Brahma is regarded as a manifestation of Brahman as the creator.
Only some Puranas describe a universe that is cyclical or oscillating and infinite in time. The universe is described as a cosmic egg that cycles between expansion and total collapse. It expanded from a concentrated form — a point called a Bindu. The universe, as a living entity, is bound to the perpetual cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
The Hindus were saying that time is an illusion, thousands of years before Einstein’s theory of relativity:
Space and time are considered to be maya (illusion). What looks like 100 years in the cosmos of Brahma could be thousands of years in other worlds, millions of years in some other worlds and 311 trillion and 40 billion years for our solar system and earth.

If the ancient Indians believed we were so insignificant that even this age of man is nothing more than a microscopic speck of ages within ages of universes that will be destroyed and renewed, expanded and contracted, how does this help us with our own suffering?

Perhaps it helped that they believed in many universes and in atoms that split off and passed within and through us. They mention parallel universes and different probabilities where you may be a queen in one life and a beggar in another. One of the layers of the universes is called “false ego.”

There is something about realizing that we are not the center of the universe but that we are a part of it. We are all made of star dust. The same laws that govern the cosmos govern us but the most important thing is to know that we could be wrong at any moment. My life has been a search for truth and nothing satisfies me more than having my whole perception shattered. Only then do I feel like I’m learning something. It’s very different from others who get angry when they realize that everything they believed turned out to be false. I worship those who prove me wrong, but others would have them burned at the stake.

I guess, that’s false ego, the idea that everything you know is correct. Of course, not everyone in ancient Greece was ruled by their need to be the center of the universe.
A friend of Greek philosopher, Socrates asked the oracle of Delphi, "Is anyone wiser than Socrates?" The answer was: "No human is wiser."

Socrates went around looking for someone wiser than he. How could he be the wisest man when he knew that he knew nothing? All he came across were a bunch of intellects who thought they knew everything. He came to the conclusion that he must be wiser than they because he, at least, knew that he knew nothing.

How the ancient Hindus knew so much about modern cosmology is beyond me but they also had this belief that ego is the great enemy of knowledge. Although they had ideas about how their universe was created, they still admitted that they could be wrong. In their spiritual practice or yoga, they made it a point to destroy all self perception that they were the center of the universe so they could see things as they truly were. Poetry was considered the highest way of communicating. Unlike today’s scientists, they used Gods and archetypes, symbols and metaphors but that is the great gift of the human mind. We can think in the abstract and use symbols to portray and communicate that which is too big for the ego to grasp.

Even Buddha wasn’t known to have found “enlightenment” until he finally gave up on finding enlightenment.

He also said, 
“In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.” 
Imagine how much less hate and war there would be in the world if we all understood this illusion.

As insignificant as I am, there is something life affirming about knowing that I’m not the center of everything. Maybe I’m not right about the petty little arguments of life. Maybe I can lighten up a bit, forgive people more, keep seeing the universe through the eyes of a child. Maybe I can stop acting old and jaded, like someone who has seen it all. Maybe I haven’t seen it all. Maybe I should take up a new subject, dance in the rain more and never stop searching for a truth I will never find because I always know that I know nothing. In other words, I should never stop living life to its fullest. 

And maybe I should keep writing poetry and start liking math more and just appreciate how these arts can take me outside of myself and help me transcend time and space. And with all that, all I have left to say is Happy New Year!

I leave you with a quote from the wise existential poet, EE Cumings:
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart