Sunday, April 27, 2014

Folk Roots

Getttin' Back To 'Em...

All my music (30 albums and counting, soon to be 31) are all available for downloading free or with a donation at my site  I've been doing this for over 7 years now and I'm really enjoying it. It felt like returning to my deepest "folk" roots.

It totally released me up from a whole barge load of energy draining considerations and freed me up to focus on the aspects of music that I love best: writing, recording, sharing my music online and performing locally. Of course it really helps that I'm not trying to make a living from making music and have no expectation of ever being able to do that. It's not my career, it's my life.

I'm really glad to see other people taking to this idea. When I first started, the only other band I heard about doing it was Radiohead and they just did it for one album. I think it's a great way to go. Let people decide what things are worth to them. It also helps to educate them too, about what it takes to make art and try to live a creative life while somehow making a living.

The alternative...plunging into an adversarial relationship with your potential audience, tracking down every nickel, endlessly pissed off about who might be enjoying your work without paying for it...just doesn't appeal to me at all. Again, perhaps because music, and especially selling recorded music, is not my main livelihood, it's easier for me to feel this way. I can understand why a lot of artists are really into this anti-piracy stuff...I just have to go the way that feels right to me and so far, this is it. The other way seems doomed and like pushing the river. I'd rather go with the "music is free" thing than fight it. Plus, there is nothing quite like receiving a digital tip from someone online for something they could just as easily have taken for nothing. It feels like a real trade rather than a sale and I like it.

(This movement, incidentally, is actually a retro-movement because for the vast majority of the time that humans have been on Earth, music has been free. People created it, offered it to their communities and took back whatever came back. In other words they played for tips. It was considered some kind of divine inspiration and then more or less community property. Claiming and owning music is relatively new thing.)

I would say this is where many artists are headed...not sure at all how much of "the industry" is on board. I couldn’t care less actually. I don't much care for the industry as it now stands. And they sure as hell don't care for me. In the back of my mind whenever I contemplate an "end of civilization" scenario, whether it be a daydream about climate change or peak oil or some mega-natural disaster, I always have this "silver lining" feeling that, Oh well, at least this legalistic commodification of art and everything else will go down too.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Aging Gracefully...

In Martial Arts

Whether or not you train for or ever engage in actual hand-to-hand fighting, if you consider aging, chance, and gravity to be potential “opponents”, you will see that you have been in a “martial” situation 24 hours a day since the moment you were born. If you are reading this, Congratulations! You are winning. But make no mistake, you are going to lose this fight. We all die and we all “go down” and our luck always runs out. So aging, chance and gravity have already won. 

Now, do you want to make it a good fight or a weak fight?  Are you going to make it easy for gravity to wear down your joints? Are you going to make it easy for aging to take away your strength? Are you going to make it easy for the random flow of objects, people, and vehicles to injure you?

And if not, how do you deal with these very patient and very hard to hit opponents? It can be a tricky balance because sometimes the things that are necessary to achieve excellence in hand-to-hand fighting are also damaging to the body over time, which gives these other three more stealthy opponents an advantage. And sometimes focusing totally on the health or personal development aspects of martial arts and overlooking the actual fighting aspects can leave the body too soft to deal with life’s harder situations should they arise.

For me, martial arts are about dealing with change. A fist coming towards your face or a kick coming towards your groin is one kind of change and one that’s coming fast. Other changes come more slowly, like aging. We all have to decide in a sense, which kinds of change we want to focus on learning how to deal with. Whether we do this consciously or not, or whether our particular culture or family leanings come into or out of play, the main point is that we have to decide what kinds of changes we are going to learn how to deal with. And no matter where you put your energy, some other aspect of life can’t have that energy and will be affected.

If you decide to become a full contact fighter, there are consequences, positive and negative to your choice. If you want to be a strictly health and chi kung oriented martial artist, there will be consequences, positive and negative to that choice too. For me the question is not, “What is the best path?”, it is, “What is the best path for me?” How “martial” do I want to consider life to be? How much do I want to focus on the slow “enemies” of random daily chance, aging and gravity? How much do I want to focus on the medium speed changes of relationship and intimacy? How much on the faster speed changes of friendly martial arts training? How much on the much faster and riskier changes involved in combat type fighting?

These days, I’ve decided to put most of my energy into “fighting” aging, chance and gravity, since in my reckoning they are the most pressing “enemies” in my life. It’s just much more likely that I will have to deal with another year of aging, gravity and chance, than a fist coming full speed at my head or my wife leaving me. Everyone who lives long enough becomes very interested in balance. I’m doing the old guy in my future a favor and working on it now.

When I was younger, I put a lot more energy into martial side of T’ai-Chi and a lot more into working on developing relationship and communication skills. Of course these things are not mutually exclusive…but generally whatever I focused on took at least some energy from the others. When I pushed the physical training, I sometimes overdid it and my body and health paid the price.

Now, I should say here that “fighting” aging, chance and gravity isn’t really what I’m talking about here. At least not in the usual sense of the word “fight”. I’m not talking about pushing back hard with determination and a mind-over-matter mindset. I think a lot of people push way too hard against aging, chance and gravity. These opponents are sloooooow. They only seem fast when you ignore them for years. If you meet them at the speed they’re happening, which again is mostly very slooooooow, you can at least take away any advantages you might otherwise give them by using too much force.

By meeting them at the speed they’re happening, I mean adjusting your posture a little bit every day towards a better alignment with gravity. Gravity won’t just crush you overnight. You have years and years to correct your posture. Once you have even basic decent alignment, all of your joints will be happier and your muscles will be stronger and doing the work they’re adapted to be doing. You also have many years to develop physical strength, agility and the ability to match appropriate muscular force to the tasks at hand. In addition, developing a practice of watching what’s happening around you, not with paranoia but with awareness, the way our ancestors viewed the world for thousands of years, will yield positive and slowly growing results the more energy you put into it.

Likewise, paying attention to the health costs and benefits of doing what you do for a living, eating what you eat, indulging in what you are indulging in, listening to your own inner sense of rightness but also focusing on the results of each experiment, this too can come slowly over time and eventually synch up with the speed of aging, so that changes in the body are felt and dealt with more or less as they are happening.

These three “opponents” (time, chance and gravity) are not really opponents. Remember, they’ve already won. They can be stand-ins for the role of “opponent” to help with focusing, but it’s not even close to a fair fight. I’ve always thought that the best “robot” martial training device would be some kind an android thing that would always be just a little bit better than you are. The better you got, the better it got, but always just a bit better. I guess aging, gravity and chance are like that, like a carnival game. It’s not that I want or expect to win, I just want to see how well I can do before I lose.

One thing I can always get better at is doing the best I can with what I have. If I identify myself with this process rather than with attaining or maintaining a specific level of prowess, then aging can be more enjoyable and challenging, in a good way. It must be tough getting older if you have to carry the burden of "saving face" and never being seen to falter. I'd rather just be honest about the aging process and publicly acknowledge that what I'm doing is dealing with what I have, rather than pushing the river or hiding from it.

I think too many people give up doing things they love because they can't do them at the same level they did when they were young, instead of seeing that only the difficulty factor has increased. A lower score, but with a higher difficulty factor is still be respected in my book. I have heard it said that hard stylists who are still active in their later years have become soft stylists whether they admit it or not. There are many sneaky old guy (and old lady) ways of getting more bang for your buck. 

But of course we each have to find what works best for us...We are not born equal and while our limits, both physical and temperamental are no doubt farther out there than we think they are, they are still there.

Some of us can't afford injuries, some of us have past injuries that restrict us, some of us just don't have the same physical or temperamental gifts as others, but we all can push those limits, at least at some point in our training, to find out more or less where they are.

Personally, I really can't afford to get injured. I am self-employed with no “sick days” available and I have to teach almost daily in order to keep a roof over my head. People tell me I'd be good at skiing for instance, but I can't even afford a sprained ankle so I say, “Maybe in my next life...”

As of this writing, at 56, soon to be 57, I don't want an injury to tell me what I'm too old to do, so I'm careful with my edges. Every since I turned 40 or so, I’ve notice that injuries take longer and longer to heal, so I’m more and more careful as I get older. But that's just me. You might be different. I don't have a lot of athletic talent or ability. I've made the most of what I have but I'm not gifted with a very sturdy physique. My tendons in particular are on the soft side and are fairly easily injured. I also have a congenital low back condition that not only gives me some pain but restricts my freedom of motion. So I protect myself in subtle as well as obvious ways to reduce strain. I've tried to do my best with what I have and, considering where I started, I have come a long, long way. I hope to continue doing so for the rest of my life.

We all have to choose our fights in life and I recommend you choose carefully. Especially if you’d like to age gracefully. ;~) 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Finding Your Mission...

And Chores...

I used to hate chores of all kinds. I would put them off as long as I could, even really easy ones. Chores were things to be avoided and then done as quickly as possible to get them over with. They were diversions from my real life, the things I really wanted to do.

One day as a kid, I was sulkily sweeping our porch and my grandfather who was visiting, came over and showed me the correct way to sweep, short more aggressive strokes that moved the stuff clearly towards staging areas where it could be gathered and disposed of. I was still sulky but the idea did enter my head that simple chores could be done with a certain skill.

A bit later on, I was introduced to the Zen idea that everything is Zen. Like the old koan: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” I began to see chores as opportunities to study my self. Ways to embody focus, execution, and attention to reality.

Still later, I had a real breakthrough when I began to get clear on my mission, what my life was about. The clearer I got about that, the more I began to see the chores, hassles and logistical headaches of life not as things to get around, obstacles to my mission, but actually one and same with my mission.

Chores are mission.

Or things that need to be done in order to execute the mission.
By “mission”, I mean the overarching purpose of my life. The thing that all the other things I love have in common. I believe that everyone has a mission at any given time in life. We may not know what it is, and it may change, but there is always an inner mission waiting to be acknowledged.

A simple way to start, if you haven’t found yours, is to ask yourself, What are the activities that make me feel most alive? What are my very favorite things to do? The things that need no force whatsoever to do? When you’ve got a few of these things in mind or have written them down, ask yourself, What do I get out of doing these things? What does it give me? Then ask yourself, What do I get out of that? And again, once answered, ask yourself, What do I get out of that? Keep asking until you get to the root of why you like to do that thing.
When you can sum it up in simple phrase or sentence, you’ve found your mission, or at least approaching it.

Sometimes what seems to be your mission will actually change when you acknowledge what it is. If your main mission seems to be to prove to your dad that you’re a good person, and you really feel and acknowledge it, it might just change right then and there to something deeper…A good question again is, And what would I get out of my dad seeing that I’m a good person? Keep asking until you get to something that doesn’t give you anything but what it is.

That’s most likely your mission, at least for now. If you find what your mission really is, not what you’d like it to be, or what you think a good or virtuous mission should be, when you find your actual real and true mission…that’s the point where chores cease to be chores and start to become things you need to do in order to enact your mission. They become much less chore-y and more like the mission itself. At least that’s how it happened for me.

So organizing my bills and checkbook for instance is not a chore, but what I need to do in order to have a handle on my finances so I can enact my mission. It becomes part of the mission itself. Also, priorities become easier to assign. Things that further the mission naturally rise over things that don’t. If I do a bunch of things that are counter to my stated mission…well that’s probably not my real mission and I need to do more work on digging deeper and finding out my real mission.

So here’s mine:

My mission is to practice, teach, and live T'ai-Chi as fully and deeply as possible, without using force. 

Some elaboration:

T'ai-Chi is the Chinese word for the supreme unforced balance that underlies all things. 

To me, Practicing T'ai-Chi is to study and release resistance to this underlying unforced balance. Practicing T'ai-Chi is also about developing an unforced relationship with Life. 

To me, Teaching T'ai-Chi includes but is not limited to teaching the forms and exercises of T'ai-Chi Ch'uan. It is also encouraging others to develop an unforced relationship with Life. 

To me, Living T'ai-Chi is to surrender into this state of unforced balance and relationship with Life.

This mission applies to everything I do. When I write songs, when I sing songs, when I record and share songs, when I write this now, when I teach lessons, when I perform, when I practice T’ai-Chi training exercises, when I make videos, when I pay my bills, when I work things out with my wife and friends, when I walk in Nature, when I ride my bike to work, when I design CD covers, when I wash the dishes, when I take out the garbage, when I sort through my email, when I vacuum the floor, when I feed and clean my gerbil’s cage, when I get the mail, when I make a bank deposit, when I set up gear before a show, when I print out lyrics, when I send out email announcements or post show information on facebook, when I go shopping, when I feed my fish, when I watch a movie, when I tell a joke, whatever I’m doing, I’m actually enacting my mission if I hold it that way.

If I can see the connection between T’ai-Chi (unforced balance) and what I’m doing now, then it’s T’ai-Chi too. It’s all T’ai-Chi if I can see that the task at hand is not only an opportunity to learn about and express unforced balance but also simply a necessary life task that feeds my ability to learn about and express unforced balance.

When I had no connection to this inner mission, I think it was still there. I always loved activities and things that expressed balance and the beauty of balance in some way, but I wasn’t fully aware of it. I also had all kinds of competing ego goals and hormonal imperatives that got in the way…but the underlying mission was still there.

When I got conscious of it and started to really own it and be clear about it, that’s when the chores stopped being annoying roadblocks but actually became part of the mission itself. Even stuff that at first glance seemed “out of balance” or excessive or even dark, turned out to be opportunities to express the totality of my self, a way to finding a holistic whole-bodied sense of honest expression of my overall quest for unforced balance.

So if the chores of life are getting you down or making you mad…I recommend doing some mission work. There are no chores in a fully mission driven life.