Saturday, January 23, 2010

Reflections: All that Jazz

There was a time during high school when I discovered Billy Holiday and the edginess of jazz music. Musicians, the good ones anyway, understand the rules of music so well that they are able to venture beyond the rules of their form and create something even more true and beautiful and reflective of the true condition of human life. I learned this when learning about jazz, though I actually hardly listen to jazz anymore. And, of course, jazz, now that I know it, is just another form like rock, country, punk, ethnic, and electronic music. But if there's a common factor in the music I enjoy deeply these days its that the musician's soul is shining through and that, typically, the music isn't so overproduced that the raw, improvisational edges are missing.

Anyhow, I was remembering how when I first heard Billy Holiday I wanted to be just like her. What a romanticized notion of life that was! Her life was really tough, and, if only for the fact that I'm not stuck in a tour bus all day and singing in smoke-filled bars at night, I'm glad that dream didn't come true. But there was more suffering to her life than that and, no doubt, it contributed to her creative legacy in music.

We all have our disappointments, but on the whole, as an only child and a daughter to boot, I've led a pretty sheltered life. On the other hand, there is tragedy all around me, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the world’s economic crisis, Aids, particularly in Africa, and the recent earthquake in Haiti. Cancer, other illnesses, deaths of friends and family. Many of my relatives were in Europe during World War II. Just to toss these examples out there really does their suffering a disservice. I'm sure the suffering was or is on a grander scale than anything I can imagine. On the other hand, the suffering is played out in individual lives, lives just like mine.

I think a normal response many of us have when not directly confronted by events like these is to push them into the backs of our minds, either out of avoidance or fear or some weird notion that we’ve worked hard enough or been ‘good’ enough in our lives so these things won't happen to us. Life isn’t fair though. Just because these things haven’t happened yet, doesn’t mean they won’t. Most of us go on with our lives and avoid thinking about the possibility. I am not saying that we should live our lives in fear and paranoia of the worst possible scenarios. I’m also not saying that we should purposefully put ourselves in harm’s way.

If there’s a point to what I’m saying, its that by avoiding the possibility that life may not be as good (or even there) tomorrow, we deprive ourselves of the ability to see the real beauty that is present all around us. And that’s a tragedy too. The ability to see and be compassionate towards the suffering around us hopefully allows us to not get quite so caught up in our own individual day-to-day dramas, but also allows us to be more appreciative of life.

On a personal level, what I’m feeling is that I can be there for or at least be with these tragedies and suffering a bit more than before, because just like in the music that I enjoy, recognition of this part of life makes me see and appreciate the overall beauty and textures of life all the more. The suffering and pain are a part of life’s song and it’s creation.

What does this have to do with Zen, Buddhism, or any religion for that matter? Maybe its in the realization that being too dogmatic, ritual, or ruled-based, can result in a sense of entitlement due to ‘following the rules’ that really isn’t something we can earn, if life is, at least in part, due to our luck of the draw. I think its best to put judgment aside and focus on the hearts and souls of the people we encounter, because those hearts and souls are just like ours, regardless of the particular circumstances. We need to learn the rules and rituals, and understand them well enough to go beyond them to the meaning behind them, a meaning that is central to all religions, namely that love and compassion should be our main operating principle. Acting out of love and compassion requires a certain amount of flexibility, an ability to improvise, which you can’t get by just memorizing the rules. The rules and rituals are just the beginning, they guide us to the right starting place.

Has somebody said this before? Sure. This is just one of my riffs. 

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