Going deeper...

One of the life commitments I am trying to nourish is the practice of reflection.  Don't get me wrong, I love spontaneity, too:  being wild and crazy can be a joyful blessing. But so can taking the time to go deeper into an insight or experience - and this practice is something is not something I find reinforced in my world.  American popular culture is ruled by "sound bytes" or bottom line calculations while the world wrestles with much more complex and nuanced truths. I think one of the reasons we were led by the Spirit to the Berkshires has to do with nourishing this commitment to serious reflection.  There are still demands and challenges in the rolling hills of the Berkshires, of course, but the pace of life is slower and the intellectual climate more conducive to going deeper.

The Scottish social philosopher and anti-psychiatrist, RD Laing, once noted that the despite our commitment to progress and material abundance the prophecy of the Hebrew poet and social critic, Amos, had come true in our generation:

There will come a time when there will be a famine in the land, ‘not a famine for bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.’ That time has now come to pass. It is the present age... (Why? Because...)  the range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds... We live in a moment of history where change is so speeded up that we begin to see the present only when it is already disappearing.

As a consequence and even antidote, I have found myself responding more and more to the lure of God's grace.  Sometimes consciously but often beyond knowing, I seem to wander towards a spirituality born of poetry, music, dancing, feasting, laughing and quiet walks in the woods. I should add the Eucharist into this spirituality, too, because it grounds me in the sacred rhythm and presence of my Christian commitment. Joan Chittister speaks of these practices as one way of "learning to listen" again - listen to God, to the world around me as well as "my own underlying life messages and the wisdom of those who have already maneuvered successfully around the dangers of a live that is unmotivated and unmeaningful" - so that life is not what Dorothee Soelle once called "death by bread alone."

Indeed, I suspect that this "learning to listen" is what has also drawn me into jazz:  it is an experiential act of contemplation and reflection - a combination of spontaneity and careful practice within an ever-moving musical context.  My friend, Peter, speaks of jazz as "music for grown ups."  And on our last night in Istanbul, I was reminded again just how true that is as old guys like me can still play jazz with credibility and verve.  What's more, this can take place in a truly inter-generational setting where elders can meet, share and learn from new cats and seasoned artists can support newbies.  For if you are playing for the joy and beauty of the music - and not ego - there is a place for everyone in the musical reflection called improvisation.  I like how veteran jazz man, Stan Kenton, put it:

Jazz is a distinct music that depends and thrives on individuality and yet the individual is not oblivious to others nor is he immune to their feelings. Jazz is free. Through spontaneous improvisation, a musician expresses his personality consciously and subconsciously. His music, with its variation of melodic lines and rhythmic patterns, can establish a changing flow of attitudes just as those revealed by a facial expression or a gesture even without words.

A session in jazz is comparable to an open forum where theories and opinions are discussed openly and freely. Without inhibition or the fear of being reprimanded, a soloist rises and speaks without the aid of notes or previous preparation. Speeches with words of various inflections and insinuations are replaced with a flow of melodic, rhythmic music. One soloist will speak for himself on a chosen topic and then retire to hear the feelings of another on the same subject. On occasions, they will speak of happy things, then those of a more serious nature, sometimes somber and even tragic. All phases of life's emotions are felt and experienced in jazz.

Some of the music is complex and reaches far below the surface while other forms dwell lightly. There are speakers in improvised jazz who are eloquent in their ability. Musical words flow freely. Others tend to speak in short sentences with a simple vocabulary. However, if sincerity prevails, everyone is felt, understood and appreciated. (from Joe Overbrook's, Jazzed in Cleveland.)

As our small group was sitting in the airport in Madrid awaiting our return flight home to JFK, it hit me just how hard it is for me to keep up this practice of engaging and listening deeply. If left to my old habits, I won't really watch the evening news prayerfully (and God knows there is precious little reporting that takes place anymore amidst the shouting and polemics.) And I often let myself get too jammed to read the paper with soul, too.  Travel is one way I am awakened to my deepest desires - and this trip has helped that happen.  I see in others some of the blessings I ache to nurture within myself, I see in strangers some of my own fears and projections.  And in returning I notice what has gone missing in my ordinary routines and try (again) to move closer towards living a life of reflection.  Chittister

Our entire generation has gone deaf.  Scripture and wisdom and relationships and personal experience are all being ignored.  We are, consequently, a generation of four wars (and now 6) and the most massive arms buildup in the history of the world - and we call this a period of peacetime.  We are a generation of great poverty in the midst of great wealth, of great loneliness in the center of great communities; of serious personal breakdowns and community deterioration in the face of unparalleled social growth; of great spiritual ennui in the middle of our claims of being a God-fearing country.

Then she adds this:  Truth is a mosaic of the face of God... because the voice of God (that which is sacred and healing and holy) often comes from where we would least expect it, like a burning bush or a stranger or a dream or a messenger from afar or a prophet of the court. And we must be listening for it.

One of the hopes - and maybe dreams - I bring back from Istanbul (in addition to the peace-making through music work we will explore) is this:  is there a way to create a space, perhaps monthly, for the best players in the area to come together on a Sunday evening and play together for a session?  It would be an oasis for players and lovers of jazz - a few hours out of the hustle to savor the sharing as Stan Kenton observed - an encounter with the sacred through creativity and beauty.  A time of meditation in music.  Food for the soul in a place of beauty and quiet. 

We were given an opportunity on this jazz trip to go deeper - to listen - to pay attention.  On the day we returned to Istanbul from Iznik, the historic city of Nicaea, our host took us to consider both the ancient city walls and the amphitheatre.  Standing amidst those ruins I kept thinking that there is so much in my own culture and nation that is also in ruins - and we aren't nearly as old.  And when I asked if there was any marker of the place where the historic Ecumenical Councils of the Church took place, my host smiled and said, "No... they have been lost to time and neglect and empire.  Whatever might remain is now covered by rubble and the lake."  It was sobering to me.

So I don't know about my jazz meditation/improv/holy/human session... but I want to find out and see if it might come to pass.  It could be one small step beyond the famine that has infected our time.


Black Pete said…
Interesting, James. My thought on the monthly gathering is a space for silence. Some years ago, I learned through The Artist's Way that we all need a period of no sensory input, and that when we experience such a period, willingly or not, our inner thoughts go a little crazy and start erupting like lava. According to the AW author, this is because they've been suppressed all this time by more and more sensory input and now have a chance to escape. Eventually, like Hope in Pandora's Box, there is nothing left, and then meditation can truly begin. Just a thought...
RJ said…
Say more about how that might work, Peter? Maybe it is a both/and? One Sunday evening of silence and candles - another with quiet jazz for reflection? Tell me what grabs you...
Philomena Ewing said…
Hi RJ-
I don't know if you have heard of the BBC Radio 4 seriesDesert Island Discs but some years ago in a church setting we decided to do something similar and asked people to bring and play 1-2 pieces of music that meant a great deal to them spiritually - anything at all; no rules , no restrictions and all age groups. They talked a little about what the music meant to them and it was a great success and a very moving evening.Would something like this grab you as being worthwhile ?
RJ said…
Hey Philomena: great to hear from you. I don't know that BBC program but will check it out - and that sounds like something right up my alley. What a great idea - very open and inclusive - but illuminating, too. Many thanks - and blessings right back at you!
Black Pete said…
Definitely both/and. Put out the word, man, and see who walks by...
Black Pete said…
Philomena--our Canadian Broadcasting Corporation did something like a few years ago on radio. Some very interesting stuff came out of it.
Philomena Ewing said…
Glad you like it, both. Yes, pete it was one of the most memorable events we had in the church.
The BBC site is brilliant and now has all the archives going back to 1942 of those who have been on the programme and their music choices - the link is below


The radio guests had 8 choices but that would take way too long !!
As a music lover I hope you enjoy the site- I know I am hooked on it.
RJ said…
Thanks, my friends: what a blessing.

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