Taoing

I am fascinated by the idea that something can look very different depending on where we stand. There is the old story of freaking out in the middle of the night because one sees a snake in the bedroom, but after turning on a light one realizes immediately that it was just a rope. Then there is the Tao Te Ching, that 2,500 year old book by master Lao. (((Lao Tzu or Laozi… Tzu or zi means master… hence master Lao and master Chuang/Zhuang)))

I bought my first copy of the book in my early twenties and since then I have looked at many more. It has been translated so many times and all the translations are different! Some translations have been made by people who don’t speak Chinese, represented here by Ursula Le Guin and Stephen Mitchell, others by Chinese speaking folks who are not native English speakers. It seems that the text is some kind of diamond and the shape the diamond takes on depends on the angle of the light and the position of the eye that beholds it.

Are there equivalent works of art that you have looked at, or listened to, many times and which, over time, have changed for you?

Take a look at the first chapter as translated by four different authors.

The way you can go
isn’t the real way.
The name you can say
isn’t the real name.

Heaven and earth
begin in the unnamed:
name’s the mother
of the ten thousand things.

So the unwanting soul
sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants.

Two things, one origin,
but different in name,
whose identity is mystery.
Mystery of all mysteries!
The door to the hidden.

Ursula Le Guin

TAO called TAO is not TAO.
Names can name no lasting name.

Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth.
Naming: the mother of ten thousand things.

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.

These have the same source, but different names.
Call them both deep—
Deep and again deep:
The gateway to all mystery.

Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombardo

The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

Stephen Mitchell

Tao may be spoken of, but it is not the Truthful Tao.
Names may be named, but they are not the Truthful Names.

At the beginning, the myriad things are undifferentiated;
After being born, the myriad things are differentiated.

However,
In the Truthful Undifferentiated State,
we observe subtle appearance of the individual myriad things;
In the Truthful Differentiated State,
we also observe the fading of the boundaries between the myriad things.

Both states appear simultaneously,
as Different manifestations of the same (Tao).

Profound upon profound,
They are the gateways to all mysteries.
– Wayne L. Wang

Restart

When in doubt, restart the computer! That’s what I did when I had audio problems at the beginning of the performance today. After the restart the audio worked fine. Maybe my struggle with equipment is actually a fun, or funny, segment of the broadcast?? I hope you stayed with me, because I think there were some nice moments of music after the restart.

Before the next live streaming performance, in four weeks, I will trial a couple of different software options. Maybe I’ll find something I can trust.

How did you like the older pieces I played today, like Surrender to Love and Heart Still/Beating? I hadn’t played Surrender in a long time… Maybe I can find some other pieces I haven’t performed in a while that I can play in four weeks.

Funday

A slice from this week’s bread.

I realized that my recent obsession with balance should be fueled by reading parts of the Tao Te Ching. I have read a number of translations of that classic and each has a different tone, as if the object appears to everyone in a unique light. More on that later.

Today I found the tenth song for the new album. It’s another very upbeat piece. Dire times produce upbeat music. It’s often been this way.

More tomorrow.

Mercurial

The guitar is an instrument that is mercurial enough, without having to struggle with open source software that “forgets” settings.

I remember reading a blogpost years ago where someone had asked Paco de Lucia about playing guitar. The post was taken down later, perhaps because it wasn’t an authorized interview, perhaps because of the language Paco used not knowing it would be published. I will always remember it though because it was true. Here is part of it:

I could not live without the guitar, but at the same time this is no way of life, because it is such a difficult instrument, so ungrateful; you dedicate your whole life to it, hours and days, and suddenly you come up on stage, and that day you feel in perfect shape for playing, and still you don’t hit one single string right, and you cannot figure out why… it depends on so many things, on how long your fingernails are… I am talking about tenths of millimeters, and you ask yourself. What is going on? Where am I failing? And it could be a badly polished nail…

Well, yesterday I was looking forward to perform and my nails seemed to be in good shape. At 7:30pm the slideshow ended and I started playing. A couple of minutes later I was informed that no sound was being transmitted. I stopped and put my guitar down. Computers and software are clearly as mercurial as guitars are.

The open source streaming software’s meter showed that sound arrived at the computer, but somehow it didn’t make it out to the upstream. Instead of trying to search for the problem I quickly created a new sound source for the broadcast. It seemed to solve the issue and I started playing again. In my hurry I forgot, however, to add the new sound source to the other two cameras and when subsequently switching to either of the two additional USB cams the sound dropped out. We had to use one basic camera for the entire broadcast.

I work hard to make my performances look and sound as professional as possible. Touring with Luna Negra I know that the band sounds great and that our engineer Stephen Coler is doing an excellent job of translating that sound to every kind of venue. So it was very frustrating to stumble yesterday. When I was younger my temper was such that I surely would have destroyed a few things, that’s how upset I was…

I am going to look into streaming software alternatives after next Tuesday’s performance. Yesterday afternoon I spent an hour trying to get the software to “see” the USB cameras I was plugging in. To be fair it could have been a mercurial USB port on my laptop or something with the USB hub I have to use because streaming requires three ports and my laptop has only two. After plugging and unplugging different configurations, and restarting the computer multiple times, it suddenly started working.

I still believe in streaming over making videos because there is something about live performances that just feels right to me. It’s a unique challenge and when it all comes together it is magical. I am hoping Tuesday will be magical.

Bubbles

We are born into a bubble. That bubble is created by our immediate family, parents, grandparents and perhaps siblings. We learn about, and get used to, OUR people, our climate, our food, our Gods, and our politics. If we are born into an extended family there might be an uncle or aunt who doesn’t fit into the bubble, the black sheep of the family. They might introduce us to elements beyond our bubble…

As we grow, the bubble may expand a little bit to include a larger community. Depending on where we live that community might be a mono culture, in which case the bubble can become a bit tougher. If the community is multi-cultural we might make a friend who comes from a different bubble. This may provide an opportunity to create an escape hatch in our bubble, or may make the bubble thinner, even diaphanous. On the other hand our bubble can be reinforced by the schools we go to, or the sport we might elect to play.

In order to see beyond, or venture out of that bubble, something has to pierce the bubble in the first place – otherwise it is nearly impossible to see outside it. This can happen when a parent talks about other cultures, when a teacher suggests a book about another land, or when we discover the joys of the library, with its hallways that lead to views that are different from the views our family might hold. (((there is a reason why some governments want to ban books – books bust bubbles))) A movie might introduce us to something different that beckons to us, or perhaps we simply discover another people’s food. Loving the experience of a strange and foreign food is a powerful introduction to a different culture!

I think there are a number of vector points where the bubble can be pierced. Friendship with a person from a different culture. Finding a book that makes a case for a different bubble… or, if we are lucky, suggests that bubbles are not as necessary as we think. Falling in love with a person from a different culture. Traveling. Music. Food…

I wonder how important TV was in bursting many bubbles. Walter Cronkite, 60 Minutes, Sesame Street… TV became a trusted authority and in the process bubbles were, if not pierced, at least enlarged. Then came the World Wide Web. The web allowed us to follow all kinds of tiny bubbles in the form of Internet Forums. Next came Social Media and targeting software and as a result bubbles could become tougher than ever. Now it was possible for people to ONLY read the news and commentary that enforced their bubble. This was made easy by companies like Facebook that figured out that if they gave people what they wanted they would sell more ads and could make piles and piles of money.

Well, it turns out that giving people what they want is not often what is good for us. Our bodies crave sugar, salt and fat. I rest my case. It’s exactly the same with stories and ideas, which are food for the mind. People want to read what reinforces their bubble, their POV, their prejudices… they want the sugar, salt, and fat stories that make them feel alright – at least for the moment. Tomorrow the craving will be even larger… And that is exactly what social media delivers.

I was fortunate in that my grandfather traveled more than most people and while I never got to meet him – he died the year before I was born – I was told about many of his adventures. Grandpa lived in Beijing and Tianjin, China, for many years and used the Trans-Siberian Railway quite regularly. He was an engineer and found work when the Manchurian Railway was built. Later he started a business engineering heating systems and said that he worked on a heating system for the forbidden palace in Beijing. He even designed barracks for the American soldiers stationed in China – I still have the drawings. There were lots of photos, too. Grandpa took many photos of people and buildings, he even had photos of beheaded bodies lying in the streets during the Boxer Rebellion. These are exciting stories for any boy. Thus when I was nineteen I also spent time on the Trans-Siberian Railway, on my way to Japan.

I was also fortunate that I had a religion teacher in Middle School who, although a Catholic priest himself, spoke in glowing terms about all religions. He introduced my class to a huge number of different religions. Because of him I read about Islam, especially the Sufis, I read parts of the Vedanta and Bhagavad Gita of the Hindus, discovered Buddhism, and eventually Zen.

Without such a piercing of the bubble we are likely to remain in place all of our lives. They say that after the age of 25 the only way we are going to speak another language well is if we fall in love with someone from a foreign country. As we get older we may fight an uphill battle against the bubbles that bind us, because our brain loses elasticity with age. That could be a good reason for making an effort to become MORE adventurous as we get older?

In an ideal world, each family, and each religion and culture, would support a child’s discovery of, and introduction to, other peoples, different religions, other cultures, and therefore other ways of looking at life, because they should be confident that their particular bubble is a good way of experiencing life AND if the child might choose a different bubble, or a life in no particular bubble, that this would also be a good choice.

Old Ideas

The technology changes, but our motivation doesn’t change. The motivation is propelled by old ideas, by old emotions, by thoughts that we can relate to thousands of years later. Perhaps I should use the word timeless instead of old. Love and hate, greed, fear, ignorance… They say there are only a handful of different Hollywood movie plots and only the names and objects change. A horse becomes a car, which becomes a plane, which turns into a spaceship… the plot remains the same. Staring at a fire 5,000 years ago, staring at a TV last century, or being glued to a smart phone today… there is no difference.

We can relate to ancient arts because while our clothes have changed a little bit, and while the stone tablet turned into a paper book and recently became a tablet that’s made from glass and silicon, the human experience itself hasn’t changed much. We are still fighting for survival. Many of us no longer fight against the elements or against animals that threaten us, but against other humans. And humans can be amazingly heartless when it comes to other humans.

It seems to me that there are only a few points in our lives where real change can happen, where the doors of options and possibilities are wide open. As teenagers we experiment with our personalities. We might play with different attitudes, like loud versus quiet, or social versus lone wolf, or active versus passive… but then we settle into a personality that we feel suits us. We pick a profession and perhaps we raise a family and, unless something catastrophic occurs… like getting hit by a bus, losing a loved one to a disease, or becoming homeless, we plod along until we retire or the children leave the house, or both. Then change becomes a possibility again.

Perhaps the desire to change or become something else is a genetic selection… because, if everyone wanted to change it might create too much societal upheaval. If no one wanted change society would become stagnant. It is possible that our choice to be progressive or conservative is linked to what benefits society, or humanity… too much movement capsizes the boat, too little movement makes it drift aimlessly.

Of course this points to how ridiculous it is, when political lines are drawn so deeply and are defended so brutally that cooperation is no longer possible. We need each other. It’s funny that both sides don’t want to hear that. The conservatives want a world of just conservatives and the progressives want a world that is made up of only progressives… and both worlds would falter in a short time!

I have been playing a card game in the afternoon and came to the conclusion that a well-designed game has to balance ability and chance, so that many people can embrace the game and can play it socially. If too much emphasis is placed on ability the average player cannot compete and the learning curve becomes too steep. Too much emphasis on chance and the result is that no desire to improve develops. Why should I bother if it’s all just chance anyway. A great card game is one that uses just the right amount of ability and chance to be fun.

The idea of balancing two extremes is what makes a great piece of art, whether it is a painting or a piece of music…. or food. What are those extremes? They can be familiar and strange, comforting and arousing, sour and sweet. It’s all about the balance.

Change

Change is good. Change is bad. Never change. You gotta change. Enduring without change. Times are changing.

We use the word CHANGE a lot. Too much, in fact. Change is one of those things we love or hate and sometimes we love and hate it at the same time. Change feels dizzying, disconcerting, overwhelming, but also exciting, promising, natural. Some people appear to never change. As an adult they look very similar to how they looked in kindergarten, or they wear the same brand of clothing at fifty that they wore at fifteen. Others seem to change too much! They almost appear as slippery like an eel in the water.

Some people believe that nothing ever really changes, that individuals can’t change at all and are doomed to make similar mistakes over and over. Others are champions of change and take on new attributes constantly.

We say that every journey starts with the first step. Similarly every change starts with one idea. A good idea is like a virus and can infect many people. In addition many ideas have multiple points of origin and can therefore spread even faster. The funny things is after an idea spreads, and eventually reaches a tipping point in society, it becomes nearly impossible to imagine life without that change. In hindsight it seems so inevitable, so necessary and natural. How could we have ever NOT seen it this way?!

In the recent past, ideas that seemed at first impossible and a few years later quite natural were gay marriage and the legal use of marihuana. I believe the next ideas of change will be suicide, the right to comfortably end your own life, especially when very ill, and UBI, a Universal Basic Income. I believe that both of these ideas, which at present are nowhere near reaching a tipping point of acceptance, will be adopted within ten years. Perhaps it will take a little longer for UBI, but it will happen no later than fifteen years from now, that is before 2035. Twenty years from now no one will understand why it took us so long to accept these two ideas and create the changes to implement them.

I could be wrong, but those are my two long bets. What are yours?

PS:

Brian Eno in an interview with Apartamento Magazin in April.

They took a small city in Canada. I think it was about 4,000 people. And for two or three years they were on a universal basic income. They could still have jobs if they wanted to, but they were provided with enough money to keep them alive. Three results kept coming up. One was a dramatic increase in community engagement; people started getting together to do things, like fix up that little park that was a mess, or stop cars going down those streets, little things like that where people started caring about their shared experience. That to me is absolutely the most important thing. The second thing is that the prescription of psychoactive drugs, tranquilisers and so on, went down. People were reporting much less mental anxiety, psychosis, and loneliness. And the third thing is that educational achievement improved. The last one is a bit mysterious. It’s thought it’s because the parents were more at home and helped kids with homework. There haven’t been many UBI experiments, but those three results keep coming up. I agree, it’s not without problems. The question is whether it’s better than what we’re doing now. And to that I can answer with absolute certainty: yes.

Link to a recent BBC article about the Canadian experiment

Anthropause

A new word…

In a paper published yesterday in Science, a team of geologists found that lockdowns caused human-linked vibrations to drop by as much as 50% between March and May. Collected from 268 seismic stations on every continent, the data reveal noise reductions at 185 sites, from the border between Namibia and Angola to Manhattan. Dubbed an “anthropause”, the lull proceeded as a wave, beginning in China in January before sweeping across the rest of the world in March and April. Even in a borehole 380 metres beneath Auckland, vibrations decreased by a factor of two.

LINK

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