Archive for the ‘Tao Te Ching’ Category

Van Morrison, Mike Nesmith and the Road to Enlightenment.

April 11, 2017

 

 

From 1977 through to 1982 Van Morrison had a neat run of radio hits in New Zealand that included Wavelength, Cleaning Windows, Full Force Gale and Bright Side of the Road. I liked them all, especially the last one and decided to add some Van to my album collection. I was going through a heady Flying Nun thing at the time so musically this was quite a departure.

Before I go on I should acknowledge the apparent paucity of my Van choices. I became friends with an avid Morrison fan a few years back and said over a beer “Oh! I like Van too”. His interest piqued he asked what my favourites were and as I listed the aforementioned songs his falling expression said it all – I had it wrong. Very wrong. “What? No Moondance, Brown Eyed Girl, Astral Weeks, Gloria………..” (It was a long list).

He decided I needed educating and over the next weeks proceeded to play me some ‘proper’ Van. His pot was good and he had a fridge full of Mac’s Gold so who was I to complain. Did he change me? No, he had missed the point. The thing that had connected me to Van had less to do with music than with the message.

I look back on those years and a series of albums that include Beautiful Vision, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, A Sense of Wonder, Into the Mystic, Enlightenment and No Guru, No Method No Teacher and it’s all about the artist searching for meaning – something to explain himself to himself while exploring the overarching mystery of existence that was drawing me in.

If I were to sum up the overall mood of this loose collection it would be ‘reaching for the transcendent’. Through these years Van was a seeking spiritual truth/enlightenment and his songs were asking to similar questions to the ones that were swirling about my psyche. While I liked Van’s tunefulness it was in his lyrics that struck a chord with me, a kid who was in the process of casting aside the Catholicism of his youth and embarking upon new adventures of the mind and spirit.

At this juncture I should pause for a moment to consider what it is I mean by enlightenment and after some thought I have settled on a series of words: perspective, knowledge, informed understanding, insight, clarity. In a classic spiritual sense, someone who is seeking ‘enlightenment’ is exploring the workings of the mind in order to better understand suffering and unhappiness.

The literature tells us that that desire, attachment to worldly things (including inherited tradition and possessions), expectation and ambition imprison and limit us. Enlightenment is the liberation of oneself from this psychological imprisonment. Once free of our cultural programming we are able to experience life in unique and exciting new ways.

I purchased No Guru, No Method, No Teacher on the title alone. It was ‘Guru’ that caught my attention. Except for some Beatle references as regard their passing flirtation with Indian spirituality I knew little else about the term but felt that there might be something worth exploring here. My first task was trying to figure what it was Van was trying to say with this title and this being pre-internet days it meant scouring whatever music magazines on offer at the library looking for information via reviews and interviews.

There wasn’t much but I did find a review that suggested Van was a Gnostic Christian though it didn’t elaborate. I learned that Gnosticism referred to a kind of Western esoteric mysticism that emphasised letting go of worldly preoccupations in order to achieve a ‘higher’ form of understanding about life, the universe and everything – yeah, just like Eastern Spirituality. I also learned that within the many wisdom schools (that exist in parallel with most every major world religion) there are numerous ways of seeking enlightenment that do not always include a method or guide.

The no guru, no method, no teacher approach is all about using a combination of self-reflective analysis and research to find your own peaceful accord with the mysteries but it is controversial approach and not popular with those who declare that enlightenment cannot be achieved without assistance. The cynical might suggest that lack of financial gain or institutional control may have a role to play with this perspective. One especially virulent Guru proponent declared, “This way is just anarchy. People require guidance – no ifs or buts about it”. As for Guru, it is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘master teacher’ as opposed to a ‘generalised teacher’.

Christian Gnostics did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, more an enlightened teacher. This put them swiftly offside with the early Christian church and they were literally rubbed out of existence. The survivors became secretive and hidden – they had to and this is a tradition that has endured to this day. These sects often shroud themselves in mystery and use arcane symbolic language to conceal their message. Check out the situation of the French Cathar’s in 1209 to get a more complete picture of the psychology at work.

Gnosticism is from the Greek word Gnostic meaning ‘knowledge’ and the emphasis is on intuitive knowledge rather than intellectual knowledge. European Gnosticism was probably influenced by ideas picked up from Merchant trains out of the East (Buddhism is another notable influence) and has been at large before the Greek gods were even a twinkle in the historical firmament. Later they grafted the Jesus into their belief system and evolved in new directions though older forms have persisted.

Gnosticism, as I discovered, is no different to other belief systems, fractured into a multitude of parts each claiming pre-eminence over the others. I got in deep for a year or so before waking up to the reality of the situation, that I had swapped one belief system for another and was exactly back where I did not want to be when I had left the Catholic faith of my youth.

But it wasn’t all a loss. The sect I found myself in taught me a few useful things like: “Tear down the mental constructs inside of you and rid yourself of everything you think you ‘know’ and here on the empty landscape of the mind discover your true self”. It has proven a useful method but one has to be very wary of erecting a whole new set of constructs in the place of the old. Otherwise the system of reflective self-analysis they taught has helped me to evolve as a person.

 

Van makes mention of numerous Western esoteric traditions in his music including metaphysical treatise The Golden Dawn and the Theosophical Movement ( Theosophy is mash up of spiritual ideas drawing from diverse sources). Well known spiritual philosopher Alan Watts gets a song, and esoteric Irish poet W.B Yeats is ticked off on the track Rave on John Donne (Inarticulate Speech of the Heart 1983) along with a host of other esoteric luminaries including Walt Whitman.

Then there is the more mundane and less exciting Christian orthodoxy (his ghastly 1989 Christian duet with Cliff Richards – May God Shine his Light was probably the nadir of this period). On his recommendation I explored them all (except for the Jesus love us stuff – had been there and done that) and found value as well as a whole lot of jiggery pokery.

But it wasn’t just Van who was teaching me stuff. In 1977 I wrote to former Monkee Mike Nesmith (remember fan mail) telling him how much I liked his song Rio, which had been a huge hit across Australasia. But more than the song itself was the title of the album it was off: From A Radio Engine to the Photon Wing. Now what was that all about I thought as my mind conjured up strange images of landscapes beyond the confines of space and time? Mike wrote back and with the letter came a box full of records he had made including one called The Prison (he explained nothing but seemed grateful some kid was taking notice).

A book with a soundtrack, The Prison was my first introduction to the album as a conceptual device and I loved it. It was the first vinyl record I wore out. The album opens with the words: ‘Life is the unsuspecting captive of a million dreams, chains of desire bind so vastly to the earth. Seeing the attachment born, of knowing all those things, being alone and at one with the joys of rebirth’ – Opening Theme: Life, the Unsuspecting Captive.

I had no idea what this all meant but it resonated with me and I sang it to myself over and over trying to get to grips with the ideas at play. Later Van led me to Gnosticism and Gnosticism to the Tao De Ching (our particular sect was very big on the Tao De Ching, a Chinese philosophical text dating back some three thousand years), which led me to the ideas outlined in The Prison. Nesmith was big on the Tao (or ‘the way’) and metaphors alluding to it abound throughout his music catalogue.

Tao is the essential, unnamable process of the universe and The Tao De Ching instructs us in the art of letting go and learning to roll with the nature of things and in the process discovering peace and fulfilment. Resistance it tells is not only futile, it is counterproductive. Nesmith’s potent 1972 contractual obligation album, the ironically titled And The Hit’s Just Keep On Coming even features a track called Roll With The Flow featuring a series of narratives linked by a refrain that goes – I roll with the flow wherever it goes and its rolling out of here. Otherwise filled out with lyrical flourishes like ‘he was a didactic minister’ ‘she was a lacklustre lover’, he also taught me a lot about lyric writing, wordplay and phrasing.

Beyond his pop superstardom, movie production (he was the brains behind classic cult film Repo Man) esoteric mysticism, car racing and business career (he is a successful entrepreneur as was his mother – she who invented Liquid Paper), Nesmith is a progressive thinker dedicated to all manner of causes like The Council of Ideas- a forum dedicated to solving the great problems of our times. He is interested in technology and his ‘Video Ranch’ is a pioneering online shopping and recreational site.

Much like Van, Nesmith has maintained a singular musical career and has been beholden to no one, including The Monkees, sidestepping most of the reunion tours and associated activities. “I am to busy” is his standard reply to questions on this subject. He also refuses to sign autographs. The Prison is an allegory about the cultural constructs that imprison our minds and blind us to the vast potential beyond perceived reality and I will be ever grateful to Nesmith for opening that particular door for me.

 

Eamon, a guy I know from Belfast – Van’s base and hometown, told me that he was selling natural gas for the home on the phone and the next name on the list was a Mr V. Morrison. “Can’t be I thought to myself but the feck it was.” he said. “So what did he say?” I asked. “Told me feck off then thought better of it and asked how much then signed up.” How many people can say they have sold natural gas to Van Morrison?

Another story concerns his father who was doing backstage security the night Belfast threw a big concert to celebrate Van’s 70th birthday back in 2015. “My Da said he was drinking before the show and being a difficult c**t but they got him on-stage in one piece and he was brilliant”. I took everything Eamon said with a pinch of salt because he had a fair share of the blarney about him. Still he was entertaining and played the consummate Irishman abroad well.

In his biography Testament Band guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson tells about rehearsing with Van for the concert film The Last Waltz. Nervous, anxious and prickly (and a little drunk) throughout Van turned up late on the night dressed in an Elvis one piece and armed with Elvis style karate style kicks proceeded to knock the roof off the show. Complex, unfathomable but when push comes to shove…….

He often alludes to the difficult aspects of his nature in song and has clearly struggled with life and living at times. But enlightenment, when you distil it down, is mostly about learning to ‘know’ yourself and coming to terms with who and what you are. I get the sense he found his peace with himself and has moved on from his restless searching. Grumpy and contrary are a better fit for the man than smiling over at Cliff Richards while singing about Jesus the lord and saviour.

We are what we are and for many of us the best we can do is recognise the worst about ourselves while keeping a firm eye on the good. So much of human life is bulldust. Eschew the crap, cast aside the clutter of ideas and learn the value of silence and everything will be as it should be. This is enlightenment according to Lao Tzu the composer of the Tao De Ching.

Flowing robes, a serene countenance, adoring devotes – yeah probably not so much. That’s more like cheap perfume. And as for music, sometimes it is nothing more than a catchy tune. Other times it can be a life altering experience. Whatever, as an art form it’s ability to influence should never be underestimated.

‘No guru, no method, no teacher, just you and I and nature, and the father in the garden’ – Van Morrison.

 

 

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Fate has its Way.

October 28, 2016

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Laozi  was an ancient Chinese philosopher and writer. He is known as the reputed author of the ‘Tao Te Ching’ and the founder of philosophical Taoism.

 

So there I was once again without money and prospects so in desperation I applied for a job to which I was probably unsuited but they offered me an interview, the first opportunity of its like in two years, so who was I to argue? Giving myself an ample two-hour lead in time I caught the appropriate bus and 45 minutes later was in the right area but unable to read my scrawled street directions missed the stop and it was another two kilometres before I realised my mistake.

At this stage I had no idea where I was but I did have my laptop and did find a chain burger joint with free wi-fi. Finding my bearings I set about my way arriving at the interview with a safe few minutes to spare. Never once during this wholly mismanaged process did I panic, as I would have done when I was much younger, because life had learned me a valuable lesson – things tend to turn out, not as expected but as they should and mostly fortuitously.

If I had made the right stops I would have been almost an hour and half ahead of time and would have had to ‘kick at stones’ for more time than I would have liked. Fate, happenstance – yes all that stuff. Rationalists like myself would have us all believe that it does not exist, that it is but a mere conjuring of the wayward imagination and that we make our own destiny by hard work and planning, by personal fortitude, by setting goals….you know, all that stuff and not because of mysterious and obtuse forces working behind the scenes.

Frankly I have never been up to much. Too flaky, easily distracted and bored I have drifted through life trying this and that and then moving on, mastering numerous things but not able to glean anything resembling even a modest return for my efforts. This lack of success has caused me all manner of grief and angst but I have never given up trying and despite my best efforts to sort myself as I think I should be sorted life grand game of cricket keep’s on bowling me googlies and pushing me in odd directions.

I have learned a lot on the way and have became better for it but to what application financially and with that in mind how many times have I thanked the gods for being born into a society that provides easily accessed unemployment benefits? At this task I am roaring success. Yes, it often seems that these mysterious fates have other ideas for me than the ones I have for myself and I often feel like a stick being tossed about on rough seas and every time I sight dry land and try to swim for it the winds whip up and I find myself adrift again.

 

 

I did some radio in my home town a couple or three years back and thought that this might be something I could do for a living so off to Auckland I went to do a technical course which I thought would get me a leg up into the industry. One morning about halfway through the course I sat down at a café next to guy who the publisher of a magazine that was about dead on its feet. “I need a writer” he said and I replied “I could do that” with all the naivety of a lamb chatting up a pack of wolves. (The money was crap but I had none so it looked promising on paper at least).

After a time I did get the hang of writing and because it was just me and me alone I became editor by default. By the time the creditors moved in I had learned more than I bargained for and among other things found myself at the centre of a scandal that ended up as national news (courtesy a piece I wrote for the magazine)  and naturally with all this going on I failed the course putting an end to any dreams I had about being a radio personality.

I limped out of there only to be immediately approached by another publisher to do some freelance work for his website ending up a good million miles more from where I expected to be when I set out on this particular adventure. “Where is this all going?” I asked myself more than once especially when the freelance work began to dry up?

 

 

As I walked to the interview it suddenly occurred to me that I knew these streets. I had walked them before as a callow youth fresh out of school and door knocking. It was during one of NZ’s regular economic downturns and it was a futile experience.  When I did eventually find work, in Melbourne as it turned out, it was of the mind-numbing sort, which was all I was qualified for. “Oh dear god, what am I doing?” I thought as I walked toward an interview for the kind I mind numbing job I flitted between as youth while tossing about thoughts of the joys of having actual money with which to pay rent and buy food and clothes and have fun with. The refrain of a song I had recently written echoed about my head – ‘Be careful what you wish for’ as I contemplated another thought – “Full circle”.

I could tell the guy did not think I was suitable for the job (“You are too well spoken and nicely mannered” were his exact words) but he said he knew somebody who was looking for a guy with my experience in the Pie business (I was the sales guy for a major brand for a number of years – a long story of weird design). “Oh dear god, not that again” and while accepted his offer graciously I was thinking “Look, all I want is a job to pay the bills, one that is not going to grind me down with care and worry and require that I exhaust deepest part of me, that one I want to keep safe for writing” and by writing I mean songs. This last year of writing stories has taught me the hard way that I am not made for it.

 

 

I have been writing songs since I was a kid and of all my endeavours this is the one that has remained constant though I have to say, like everything else, it has been an exercise in economic futility. By chance (fate?) I had run into an old musical associate early on my return to Auckland and he pretty much dragged me into his home studio setting me up in front of a microphone before I had a chance to resist. “Whatcha got” he asked. “Nothing” I replied, “I don’t do this anymore”. “Why?” and I explained that it was pointless. Then he explained he always thought I was a bit of genius at the art and encouraged me to give it another go. So I did and between us we have written and recorded a batch of songs of the like I have been trying to write all my adult life.

I couldn’t do it the way I wanted when I was younger because of the missing ingredient – life experience. I could make tunes but not words and now the words poured out – words about heartbreak and loss, about grief and triumph, disappointment, failure, fantasy and the meaning of love. There it is, that bloody fate thing again and perhaps I am back where I belonged all along dreaming up melodies and concepts and arrangements like there is no tomorrow. Full circle.

 

 

The ‘Tao De Ching’ is a treatise of Chinese origin that examines a particular brand of metaphysical philosophy that dates back to the fifth or six centuries BCE. The author, one Laozi, tells of The Way (The Tao), a neat little package that combines all the physical laws inherent in the universe with musings on the mystery from which they arise. He says that while it cannot be understood or ascribed but it can be intuitively ‘known’. To ‘know’ it is to is to find peace and fulfilment. To deny is to experience grief, pain and angst.

To Quote:

It (the Tao) is filled with infinite possibilities, hidden but always present.

Practice not doing and everything will fall into place.

Free from desire you realise the mystery, caught up in desire you see only the manifestations.

 

Maybe I should do as Lao Tzu advices  through the course of his writing – roll with the flow. Resistance is counterproductive and when you let go and let the currents to carry you along it works out a lot work a lot better.

Society says that I should be aspirational, I should be planning and pro-active. That luck like success is made and all that, but no, the harder I try the messier it gets and yes, with all of this in mind, it seems that at the end of the day I am a fatalist, one who is happy to let the strange currents that flow through space and time do as they will with me. It makes no sense but by the same token it makes all the sense in the world and when I allow the fates to take their course everything seems to work out suitably and me feeling happier. I wish I could say it better but I can’t. It is all too strange. As for the job, well I get the sense that something has been set in motion and as to where its going to lead I have no idea but I looking forward to finding out.

Full circle….. I can’t but help think that here in the last round of life I have been taken back to the beginning, that place where I made so many errors and took so many missteps and have been offered a second chance to try it again, this time with a little wisdom and experience on my side. A chance to make better choices and more suitable decisions.

 

I will leave the final word, a counter to everything I have just said, from one S.L Scott who I found in the Huffington Post:

Most people use fate and destiny interchangeably, but they aren’t the same. Fate is the life you lead if you never put yourself in the path of greatness. That’s the direction your life moves in without any effort on your part. That’s your fate. Fate is a negative and is defined as the expected result of normal development. Normal development. Never taking a risk is your inevitable fate.

(S.L. Scott is a New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author. She spends her days escaping into her characters and letting them lead her on their adventures. Live music shows, harvesting jalapenos and eating homemade guacamole are her hobbies. Scott lives in the Texas Hill Country with her husband, two young sons, two Papillons and a bowl full of Sea Monkeys).