To own or not to own, that's the question

Foolishly or wisely, I often play a sort of game which consists in looking up the etymology of a word—that is, a word’s origin and the history of its meaning.

We use some ordinary word without giving it much thought, and yet that word had to be “invented,” so to speak, in order to express some aspect of reality. Who invented it, and why? When? And what is the word's deep meaning? These questions can be difficult to answer but useful to ask!

A word’s origin hints at its symbolic power, its importance, its reach. Find out what aspect of reality a word was born to express, and you’ll find out something about reality itself—and, by extension, about how you think and feel.

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You own a house, perhaps. Or a car. Or a book. Or a fork. It doesn’t matter; you own something, and your relationship to the thing is partly determined by your feeling of ownership.

“To own” and “to owe” share the same root, the presumed Proto-Indo-European *aik-, meaning “be master of, possess.” If you own a house, you possess it and you’re its master. It’s an amazing thing once it enters your awareness: Ownership! Possession! Mastery! You own your identity, you own your words and ideas, you own your mistakes: you’re the master of your mistakes.

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And you own a house, perhaps. Possession plays a role in your relationship with the house. Some of your feelings, positive and negative, about “your own house” come from the responsibility of owning, as well as the pleasures of owning—the headaches and heartaches, and also the joys of it all.

Ownership is a form of power, and even a baby knows that: she must, she must own that scrap of paper she picked up at random from your wastebasket, because she feels strangely powerful in ownership, regardless of what she owns.

Possession is mastery. The “power of possession” is life-affirming and identity-determining.

The problem is that it can make you crazy. You can “become possessed,” and feel that unless you own that scrap of paper, or that car, or that handbag, you’re worthless. You measure your worth through the things that you own, and . . . you start wanting to own ever more. There’s nothing wrong with owning a house, of course; it’s only the evil twin of ownership that’s problematic, the twin that says “more, more, more, MORE!!”

Fortunately, there’s a cure for Crazy Ownership Syndrome. It’s called access.

Access also comes from a Proto-Indo-European root. (I get all these word roots from the best website ever: etymonline.)

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In our game, the Proto-Indo-European root reveals a word’s symbolic power—or, if you prefer, its reason to exist, since the word was created to express an important aspect of reality. In this case, “to go, to yield,” and further “to move, to approach, to withdraw.” As you can see, it’s very different from the idea of ownership, possession, and mastery.

You can access a database and “move through it” without having to own it. You have access to the services of a professional. You see the professional very occasionally, but your access to him or her is permanent. It only takes a phone call for you to activate your access. Come and go.

You have access to friends’ homes. They invite you to dinner and take good care of you for an hour or three. You play with their cats, and access to the cats is very dear to you. Access to a guest room in Chicago and another in Brooklyn and another in São Paulo is all you need to feel good about “having a home” without owning one.

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Go to the supermarket and buy an avocado, and a little bit of Peru or Mexico or Israel enters your orbit. It’s a miracle of sorts. You don’t need to own Peru at all, because you have easy access to it! It’s right down the block and around the corner, and it only costs two dollars!

In our simplified metaphysics, ownership is a form of holding, and access is a form of letting go. They are both necessary in our lives, but it seems useful—and perhaps even urgent—to understand the distinction between the two. The sun shines above. We don't own it, but we have access to its heat and warmth during the day. Night for us is day for our neighbors a few time zones away. Let's let them have access to the sun, too!

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©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

May I . . . ?

At a street fair, you bump into an acquaintance and you say, “Hello, my dear!” Whether you do it consciously or intuitively, even before you open your mouth you’re already paying attention to what you say, how you say it, and to whom you say it.

The what, the how, and the to-whom of communication is worth studying, since it’ll help you become a better listener and speaker. Here are some tools I’ve used over the years. They’re based on two simple principles and one simple procedure. The principles are the awareness that there exist multiple modes of communication, and the awareness that there exist multiple frames of mind among your listeners. The procedure is to ask your listener permission to use one of several special communication styles.

"May I give you a compliment?"

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Many people are uncomfortable receiving compliments. Some grow up with a culture of self-effacement, where sidetracking compliments is a way of life for everyone in the family or the community. Others have low self-esteem and find that a compliment, however sincere and well-meant, doesn’t match the way they feel about themselves. The compliment might strike the listener as wrong or even dirty, and you’ll be rebuked for having proffered it. Asking for permission to issue a compliment has a possibly hypnotic result: your listener probably has never, ever had the experience of being asked to give permission, much less the permission to receive a compliment.

"May I give you a compliment that risks sounding like an insult to begin with?"

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Recently, an Englishwoman who took one of my workshops gave the group a short presentation on the English tradition of politeness, deference, and indirectness. She told us almost nothing about the tradition, instead deflecting attention and asking us what we thought this tradition entailed. My compliment? “You succeeded by failing, and you failed by succeeding—because you told us nothing, thereby perfectly illustrating the indirect approach.” She saw the joke and took the compliment.

"May I speak my heart?"

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If you say “yes,” I might reveal some deeply held emotions, or speak harshly of someone, or pass judgment, or swear, or be politically incorrect. Anything goes, because it’s the heart talking, not the mind! And we all know that the heart beats, and blood rushes through it and makes it pump. Or something like that. After I receive the go-ahead to speak my heart, I lift my self-censure temporarily and just bleed left and right. The thing is, I’m so polite about getting permission that my bleeding is sort of organized, directed, and purposeful. Which is the point of the whole exercise.

"May I babble incoherently for a while?"

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I like asking this question with a sweet, reassuring smile, indicating that I’m in control of my lack of control. I might indeed babble incoherently, but I have things to say even if they aren’t fully articulated. The babble is a sort of performance or musical style, with the potential to caress the listener’s mind and rearrange its furniture. I exaggerate the babbling on occasion, making fun of myself and earning the goodwill of my listener, who relaxes and more or less understands what I’m trying to say.

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"May I answer your question indirectly?"

Some questions are impossible to answer. They carry too much information, too many assumptions, too many needs and wants on the part of the person asking them. By requesting permission seemingly to go off subject or seemingly to avoid the question altogether, I acknowledge the question’s complexity and my inability to answer it in a concise manner. Then I can choose one or two aspects from the complex question to weave a path forward.

"May I tell you a joke?"

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Someone talks to you with deep feelings about an important subject. If you happen to know of an anecdote that addresses the talker’s needs, or takes his or her mind off the urgent feelings for a little while, or gives the listener a chance to breathe and relax, telling a joke is can be very helpful. Ask for permission with a friendly tone of voice, indicating that you heard the other person’s feelings and you aren’t planning to trample on him or her with your joke.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

Walk the Paradox

I turned 60 the other day. My younger brother, sending me his wishes, pointed out that 60 divides by 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 30, and 60, making it a very useful number. Back in the 3rd millennium BC, the Sumerians created a base-60 numeral system, called of course Sexagesimal (of course! you knew that already!) (enough with the you-knew-that-already!). Today we still employ it, in modified form, to count seconds and minutes and months and years, and to calculate angles and geographical coordinates.

In other words, space and time.

To celebrate my birthday, I spent a day and a night in Chartres with my wife Alexis. We did the same thing four years ago: Walk here and there, watch the magnificent illuminations projected upon the Cathedral and many other buildings, eat and drink, sleep and dream, space and time. Yes, space and time are verbs, actions, processes with hearts and minds of their own.

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Every place in the world is a good place for you to space and time. Chartres, however, is extra-good, in particular because of its Cathedral and what it represents, which we could call Eternity.

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Eternity—I mean, the Cathedral in Chartres—occupies a privileged position in space: high and visible from afar. Its location and height multiply its importance, its power to impress and elevate. Today, you can see its spires from the train station. Eight hundred years ago, when people had the habit of looking into the distance, you could see the spires from the “outer space in your brain,” to coin an expression. Looking into the distance and looking at your smartphone are both manifestations of the space-and-time continuum, but, man, looking into the distance is kinda awesome.

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Plato, Socrates, and Onassis met in a taverna and said, “Hey, let’s confuse people for the next two thousand years. One of us will say, ‘All I know is that I don’t know,’ another will pretend to have heard it, and the third will spread the rumor.” Ever since, Wikipedia has been trying to sort out the so-called “Socratic Paradox,” with limited success since NO ONE CAN SORT OUT A PARADOX.

But you can live it. Or, at least, you can walk it.

Visiting Chartres, you'll embody the I-don't-know principle. You won’t be able to understand how people built it without computers or power tools. You’ll look at the iconography, the stained-glass windows and the statuary, and you won’t know what each face and each beard and each fold of each garment is trying to tell you.

You’ll see hundreds of people from dozens of countries, walking here and there, taking photos, and—and singing, for Pete’s sake. And you won’t know if they’re “tourists” or “pilgrims.” Best of all, you won’t know if you yourself, in your flesh-and-bones here-and-nowness, are a tourist or a pilgrim.

The Cathedral has a labyrinth of stone and love, right in the middle of the nave. No one knows exactly when it was built, or by whom, or what for. For our purposes, we'll say it was built in 1200, a nice Sexagesimal number. A walk from the entry point to the center, and back out again, lasts anywhere from seven minutes to seven centuries, depending on your speed and state of mind. What will you find at the center of the labyrinth? This, too, depends on your state of mind. And it’s possible that the very walk might change what you're feeling, thinking, and doing. You won't know what you'll find until you find it.

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Do you need the labyrinth to Walk the Paradox? No. You can walk anywhere, within and without the Cathedral.

You might not have to walk at all. You can simply watch a video clip that a guy made, very indirectly inspired by Chartres and its labyrinthine paradoxes.

And for those of you who aren't cathedralicals, to coin a word, here's the profane version of the space-and-time walk. It's the ABSOLUTE SAME THING! Thus shouted Zarathustra from his mountain top!

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

In praise of not understanding

I recently attended a conference in Malta, a marvelous island country smack in the middle of the Mediterranean, not far from Sicily and not far from the coast of North Africa. Because of its strategic importance, over the millennia Malta has known war, strife, occupation, depredations and glories galore.

Malta is very beautiful, thought-provoking and sensation-inducing.

Heading out one night to a concert by one of the conference’s participants, I had a little spare time and decided to enter the Church of St. Publius, the patron saint of Floriana, a town adjacent to the capital Valletta. Publius is a big deal; according to tradition, he received Paul (the apostle) when the latter survived a shipwreck in Malta roughly two thousand years ago.

The Church of St. Publius was built in stages over several centuries. What, exactly, is its style? I think that’s the wrong question. A better one is, “How do you feel when you enter the church? Where are you? What’s going on? What are they saying? What’s it all about?”

The church was nearly full, most people in the congregation dressed for a sober occasion. A priest said Mass. Maltese is a strange and fascinating language. Derived from Siculo-Arabic, a now-dead form of Arabic spoken in Sicily a thousand years ago, Maltese is unique among languages; simplifying it, we'll call it a Latinized Semitic language. If you speak Italian, you’ll recognize words in Maltese; if you speak Arabic, you’ll also recognize words in Maltese; if you speak English, you’ll have a head trip and enjoy the swing of an incomprehensible language. Listening to Maltese is like having a dream where someone is telling you something important concerning your future. You’re desperately trying to understand it all, and at the same time you feel as if you’re unworthy of being told the secret of life.

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I recorded a little snippet from the Mass. I added a few photos from the church interiors. For good measure, I added background bells that I recorded at a different church (there are many churches in Malta!).

Listening to Mass in Maltese, in a church built over several centuries and bedecked in extravagant finery, I was transported to the “Land of Non-understanding,” or as we say in Maltese, “Art ta ‘nuqqas ta’ fehim.” I mean, I didn’t have any idea what the priest was talking about; and I also didn’t have a good idea as to what all the art works and decorations in the church represented; and I also didn’t know what was happening, socially and culturally and historically, within the congregation.

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I grew up with Catholicism in Brazil, though it didn’t really “take.” My catechism teacher once told my mother, with a heavy heart, “Pedro could become a Protestant pastor one day.” (I was ten years old.) But that’s a whole other story; this one is about understanding and not understanding, and let’s say that my background in Brazil half a century ago may have helped or hindered my understanding of what was happening at the Church of St. Publius in Floriana, Malta, in April, 2018.

My theory is that most of the time and in most places, most of us don’t truly understand what’s going on. Or, rather, we have our own subjective understanding of what we see, read, and hear; and by “subjective” I mean “filtered, biased, wobbly, unreliable, incoherent, potentially destructive, potentially constructive.” And I think this is inevitable, for the simple reason that we’re human. My suggestion is that we accept and embrace the reality of not understanding reality.

This is as true of a Brazilian attending Mass in Maltese as it is of the same Brazilian listening to his wife, whom he’s known for more than twenty years and whom he loves dearly. Yes, my wife speaks Maltese to me! And I to her, though we speak mutually incomprehensible versions of Maltese, and both versions are called “English.” How confusing is that?

Thinking processes, deeply infused with sensations and emotions, are authentically subjective. Understanding is necessarily subjective, emotive, and “sensational,” to mis-employ a word. How much of Malta did I really understand? Its streets are crowded with icons, statues big and small, banners, and all sorts of religiabilia. (Made-up vocabulary enhances mis-understandability, although common words are just as easy to mis-use and mis-understand.) Do I really understand how the Maltese celebrate the Divine? Are they even celebrating the Divine? What, exactly, is the Divine?

It’s foolish to make assumptions about anything, and it’s very foolish to make assumptions about how much you understand the Other, and how much the Other understands you. Understanding is a dog with three heads and five tails. Don't let it bite you!

I had a wonderful time in Malta, a wonderful time interacting with my colleagues at the conference, and a wonderful time expressing myself verbally and otherwise in front of a hundred puzzled listeners. We mis-understood one another perfectly.

 Google Translate has a sense of humor.

Google Translate has a sense of humor.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

What suits you better?

To simplify is to lie. And yet, understanding a lie is better than misunderstanding the truth. Simplifying it, we’ll say that several thousand years ago, a people living in what we now call Ukraine spoke a beautiful and complex language. The people domesticated horses, rode wheel wagons, traveled and migrated, thereby spreading its culture and language. But in the spreading, the language became transformed into a hundred other languages, as varied as Sanskrit and Greek, Latin and Russian, Portuguese and German. The original language itself disappeared, and all we have left are the transformations.

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We can’t prove this, but we can argue for it using indirect evidence, mostly by comparing different languages, and also by using some genetics and some archaeology.

For instance, the words for numbers one to ten are very similar in disparate languages. Is this a crazy, crazy coincidence, or do the disparate languages come from a shared root?

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This hypothetical language for which we don’t have hard evidence is called Proto-Indo-European—that is, a language that was the “prototype” for many languages spoken in Europe and in India. Some of these languages are now dead, and others are alive and well, thank you very much . . . like, you know, English, for chrissakes.

Misleading as it may seem, this post isn’t about the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis. It’s about the things we believe in, and the reasons why we believe them.

“Do you believe in a Supreme Being?” It’s perhaps more constructive to ask the question like this: “What suits you better, to believe in a Supreme Being or not to believe in a Supreme Being?” What suits you better, to believe in a hopeful future or to believe in doom? What suits you better, to believe that animals have self-awareness or that they're a bundle of reflexes? What suits you better, to believe that mathematics is exciting or boring? If you adamantly affirm that mathematics is boring, you’re saying that at least for now it suits you better to believe that mathematics is boring. You're making a statement about yourself, not the thing or person or idea in question. And this is inevitable: any one thing is what you make of it, and the "you" in it is primary, the "thing" is secondary.

It suits me to believe in the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis. It stimulates my imagination, it leads me to seek connections among words and among languages, it invites me to study history and geography and linguistics. In my head trip (my subjective response, informed by my subjective filters), this ancestral language was deeply rooted in nature and full of symbolic dimensions born of the mysteries of existence. No, I can’t prove any of it; no, I don’t know what I'm talking about; yes, I like believing in it because it gives me—here, now!—a feeling of rootedness and integration.

Suppose the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis will be debunked one of these days: a geologist or a psychiatrist or an albino raccoon from outer space will demonstrate that the hypothesis is a fabrication, a delusion, a HOAX! It’s not going to change anything for me. I’ll carry on believing in it, because I like it; it’s meaningful to me, it’s beautiful, just beautiful.

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As you can see, the speculative and hypothetical Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root for the word "beauty" is related to the idea of reverence. It proves!—beyond a shade of doubt!—how poetic and integrative our ancestral language was! (It proves no such thing, of course; I'm having a head trip and enjoying myself, and teasing myself about how silly I am at the same time that I state an actual belief of mine. Exclamation marks are obligatory when you're incoherent and drunk-happy.) 

Your beliefs may be completely different from mine, but you and I are alike in that we believe what suits us, temperamentally and culturally. From hard facts, from soft facts, from un-facts and anti-facts we build our personal narratives through filters of which we aren't always aware. Let's respect the facts, acknowledge the filters, and assume full ownership of our beliefs.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

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Separation anxiety

Some years ago, I attended a big conference in Lugano, a beautiful lakeside town in Switzerland. Summer, breeze, pleasure, heaven. Waiting for a cable car to go up a hill, I watched my fellow human beings loitering in the plaza next to the cable-car stop. A boy, aged five or six, played a game on a smartphone. He looked up from his game, and to his horror his mother wasn’t in his line of sight. He let out a terrified and terrifying sound, animal, bestial, feral; an amazing sound for a child to make, not pretty at all but amazing all the same.

His mother quickly re-entered his line of sight, and the boy went back to playing his game as if nothing had happened.

I’ve witnessed other episodes of this sort, all terrifying, all amazing: a child’s fear of finding himself or herself alone in the world, separated from parents, and at imminent risk of death. This is separation anxiety in its most primeval form.

For a few months before our births, we’re completely amalgamated with the mother; we’re one with her, and symbolically one with the Universe. We’re cocooned, protected, loved, housed, fed, clothed though naked, our every need taken care of even before the need expresses itself to us; we're in heaven, like Lugano in summer.

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Then we’re born, and things aren’t the same anymore: Separation starts, and with it its primeval anxieties. It’s a long process, unfolding itself over years and decades, over a lifetime—I mean, not a lifetime dealing with our separation from our mothers, but a lifetime dealing with separation itself, or the disruption of one-ness and the start of two-ness, duality, and conflict.

The word “doubt” is rooted in “two,” or more specifically “to have to choose between two things.” One: no conflict; two: conflict.

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Separation anxiety manifests itself in a thousand ways. You can feel anxious about separating from an old, frayed, stained shirt; separating from a friend at the end of a shared meal, even though you’ll see the friend again two days later; separating from an environment, as when you move house or as when you don’t want to leave the beach at sunset. You can feel anxious about separating from daytime and entering the night.

You can feel anxious about separating from your words and sounds; hence your hesitation to speak in public. You can feel anxious about separating from a habit, a thought, an idea, a feeling. Indeed, you can feel anxious—very anxious!—about separating from anything you identify with; that is, anxious about separating from your identity.

And yet, separate you must. The friend will go home, the moment will dissipate, the sun will go down; the sun will leave you; you won’t be one with the sun, but two: you here, the sun there, gone.

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Paradoxically, the way forward is to embrace separation rather than trying to eliminate it. And, paradoxically, once you really embrace separation you’ll find yourself in heaven again, united with the Universe. You’ll separate from your ego and rejoin the self (also known as the Self). It’s simple, really: you’ll “separate from the separation.”

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Simple, but not easy; it takes a tremendous amount of work, a whole lifetime; according to some authorities, several lifetimes; you’ll be reborn again and again until you succeed in separating yourself from the anxiety and ascending, as it were, to a higher sphere. But you don’t have to enter into metaphysical speculations to appreciate the importance of separation anxiety and the urgency of dealing with it.

And . . . how? Over the thousand years, a thousand schools have arisen, proposing meditations, prayers, methods, postures, sayings, disciplines; breathing exercises; psychotropic drugs. Despite the variety of methods, the message is always the same: Let go. Let go of the monkey mind, of the suppositions, of the judgments; let go of the resentments and worries, let go of fixed ideas and prejudices; let go, let go, let go. The letting go has been called Zen and it’s been called Tao; it’s been called distance, restraint, devotion, submission, non-doing, the Void, think before you act, don’t think so much, listen more and talk less, God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason. But it all goes back to this one principle: Let go. Let go of the thing, the idea, the place, the person, the emotion.

Here’s what I propose: a little drawing, a scheme, a formula! Yay, finally a formula for letting go! (It’s a joke, of course; the formula is secret, and I’m not allowed to divulge it.) (Meta-joke.)

You know how complicated those metaphysical speculations can become. I’m going to bypass the complication and embrace the simplification. I’m just going to show you the little drawing, okay? I’m not going to explain it, okay? I’m having separation anxiety, okay? This little drawing means a lot to me, okay? Bye bye, little drawing! Come back soon, little drawing!

 with thanks to Alexis Niki.

with thanks to Alexis Niki.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

Nostrils, Sacred & Profane

A few years ago, my wife Alexis and I attended a performance of a troupe called The New Vietnam Circus. Trapeze artists, dancers, and musicians from Vietnam wove a tapestry of sight and sound, inspired by the mythical power of the bamboo. It was unforgettable and beautiful and strange and perfect.

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After the performance, I bought a couple of . . . of what I thought were knick-knacks at the theater store: a ten-euro bamboo flute, and a five-euro nose flute. Toys; cute objects; mementos from the evening. “Nothings.” But I was wrong in my assessment of their worth.

This is my nose flute. The Obama bobblehead is there only because I really, really miss Obama.

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I put the nose flute aside and didn’t think much about it. Then, roaming YouTube the other day, I came across a clip of a jokey but affecting performance of the song “Africa” by two people playing ukuleles and blowing on plastic nose flutes, which they attached to their faces with rubber bands.

I felt I needed to educate myself a bit on the nose flute. I discovered that there exist many types and models, and many aesthetics. The ukulele-playing girl has developed an impressive set of nose-flute skills, and she has a devoted following on YouTube. She calls herself the NoseFluter. Her partner on the “Africa” clip does his own thing, too, clever and touching.

But here’s the thing. Watching these skillful silly skits employing the nose flute, I surmised that there must a different dimension, a secret and deeper reason for the nose flute to exist and for people to become involved with it. And I found it, deeply embodied in this Vietnamese woman.

Played in this manner, the nose flute requires poise, breath control, a connection with the Creative Source, an inner discipline. Through the nose flute, the ego might possibly disappear, allowing the Self to emerge. Silly skits are the profane manifestation of something that exists in the divine realm, connected with Nature, timeless and eternal.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m in favor of the profane, which is a necessary counterpart to the sacred. Plus, I’m not saying that something is either sacred or profane. The yes/no switch doesn’t apply to metaphysical matters! Plus plus, I’m not saying I even know what those big words mean: sacred, profane, the ego, the Self, the Creative Source . . . no. I can’t begin to define them. Instead, here I’m simply posting my own modest contribution to the Nose Flute canon, and I offer my clip as my “Happy 2018” to one and all. Let the New Year bring you Two Nostrils, one sacred and one profane!

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

The art of propagation

The most generous thing you can do for everyone around you—and, indeed, for humanity—is to feel good.

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It might sound shallow, ridiculous, selfish, and pointless, but many simple truths seem perfectly ridiculous before you wrap your brain around them.

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The reason why feeling good is your most urgent task is propagation. You put out your energies like a sprinkler in a garden. If you’re positive, you sprinkle positivity all around you. If you’re negative, you sprinkle it all upon the world.

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The principle is universal. The sun propagates light and heat. The ocean propagates wetness and a thousand other qualities. The infinite ocean, helped by the caressing sun and the sweet breeze, propagates healing energies to everything within its reach. You take a long walk on the beach, clear your mind, settle some longstanding issues, and return to the big city to work and to spread goodness.

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You live as part of an interconnected web of human relationships, some very intimate, others so indirect you might not even be aware of them. A friend of a friend of a friend—someone you’ve never met and have never even heard of—affects your life without your knowing it. The friend of the friend of the friend sleeps badly, wakes up on the wrong side of the bed, and starts the day with a thoughtless accident in the kitchen while making breakfast. If the person in question becomes upset, annoyed, impatient, or angry, he or she will propagate these emotions to everyone else. The propagation might be brutal or discrete, but it’ll inevitably happen. The emotion sprinkles itself, and the friend of the friend will get it, and the friend will get it, and you’ll get it. By the time it reaches you, the emotion might be so diffuse as to be scientifically undetectable. But we won’t let science dissuade us from our simple truths!

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Feeling good is a skill that you can learn and practice. Although you receive other people’s energies incessantly, you aren’t a mere receptacle. You have agency—meaning, the power of choosing and of acting according to your choices. Standing in line at a cinema box office, you witness an agitated customer picking a fight with the hapless ticket seller. Then comes your turn. You can receive the previous customer’s agitation through the now-frustrated ticket seller, or you can give to the ticket seller a sympathetic smile and a kind word or two. You turn the tide, as it were, breaking the cycle of negative propagation.

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Proportion, perspective, and distance are helpful. “Distance” is difficult to define, but I’ll say that it’s something you carry within you: a mental space; the capacity to look at yourself as if you were someone else looking at yourself; the capacity to “do” and “watch” at the same time. Most of us live safe and comfortable lives; our problems are manageable; we might be able to deal with these problems right here, right now, partly by not attaching too much importance to them. Many things in life are necessarily uncertain; looking for certainty and control will lead you astray and create frustration. Accept uncertainty and let go of control: this actually puts you in control. You’ll feel much better about yourself and about life, and you’ll end up propagating qualities of adaptability, curiosity, and gratitude.

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Observe the triggers of positive and negative energy within you. Find out how much choice and leeway you have as regards your feelings and your behaviors. Become a student of propagation, sensing and understanding the eternal give-and-take between you and the world, between you and the other, between any one thing and any other thing. Then, go out and sprinkle your good feelings toward all and sundry.

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©2017, Pedro de Alcantara

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The road to mindfulness

Recently, a charming and creative Italian man came through Paris and took three lessons with me in close succession. He was intrigued by the vocal technique clips I’ve been posting all year long, and we spent our time together going through one of my simple vocal exercises. You can watch the exercise in question below.

If you don’t want to watch it, let me describe the exercise briefly. Holding a steady pitch, sing or chant these five syllables in sequence: “hi hey hew hoe who.” That’s all there is to it.

I’ll call my student “Giuseppe,” although his real name is “Martino.” Giuseppe was a good sport and played all the games I proposed during the lessons. We enjoyed each other’s company and we made a lot of progress together. At some point fairly late during the lessons, Giuseppe asked me a keen question: “What’s the purpose of this exercise?”

I confess that at first I was a little stumped, for two reasons: (1) to me, the purpose of the exercises was obvious; (2) and Giuseppe was learning so many things that I thought the purpose of the exercise was obvious to him, too. But nothing is as obvious as you assume it is, and every question has a right to be asked. Not to mention that Giuseppe was probably teasing me. All the same, I got thinking about his question, and here I am sharing what I gathered.

Any situation can be described from multiple perspectives, and my exercise is no exception. We can describe it technically: five syllables, each starting with the aitch consonant and then going on to a diphthong, except for the last syllable (which is a straight-up vowel). The first vowel sound of each syllable follows an alphabetical order: A E I O U.

Or we can describe it as if writing a poem about it.

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 I met James briefly during a recent trip. You can guess where we were by sussing out the landmark reflected on his eyeglasses.

I met James briefly during a recent trip. You can guess where we were by sussing out the landmark reflected on his eyeglasses.

Most of the above applies to all exercises. Perhaps we can simplify it and state that our task in life is to achieve embodied mindfulness. The means we use to achieve it are relatively unimportant. Playing attention to your breath? It has worked beautifully for thousands of years. Tai chi in the park every morning? Yes! Walking around the neighborhood taking photos? Perfect. Starting conversations with strangers during your travels? Nothing better. Lengthening a little syllable and spinning out its diphthong? It makes me so happy I could cry.

To begin with, Giuseppe approached the exercise hesitantly, as if he wasn’t even sure he wanted to do it. Why? Ah, there may be many reasons. Perhaps he was shy about vocalizing in front of someone else. He told me that his mother tongue doesn’t have the aitch sound, and that he was uncomfortable making it. Giuseppe kept messing up the syllables’ order. Have you ever looked up a telephone number, and two seconds later when you start dialing it you have already forgotten it? You look at the number again, and . . . again, you forget it before you dial it. To absorb information is a tricky business. If you don't think so, try to reproduce the Chinese characters below. How many times would you have to look at the photo to get the characters right?

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Giuseppe would start the exercise, and within a microsecond he’d start twisting his neck and shoulder. Why? Ah, there are always many reasons for any one thing! Giuseppe didn’t control his vocal apparatus, and he compensated by trying to do, with his neck and shoulders, what his vocal folds and pharynx and tongue wouldn’t do. By the same token, once he started getting the hang of the exercise, his neck and shoulders became totally relaxed and organized . . . showing that vocal organization is total-body organization.

Giuseppe would run out of air in the middle of sustaining a word, and he would gasp for air and “editorialize” it; I mean, he made a grimace, a joke, or a comment about running out of air. It’s as if he was underlining the very fact of gasping: “Hey, everyone! Did you hear my horrible gasp? Hey!” Then he’d start the sequence again, and for some reason he’d keep his cool and not run out of air. And this without giving any thought to his breathing. His breath was a function of his overall approach: incoherent or coherent.

It’s wonderful to watch someone calm down, enter the moment, and think clearly about something. The transformation is total; the whole person becomes different, in posture, breath, voice, and vibration. Giuseppe would just stand there, looking poised and elegant; he’d do the exercise to perfection, spinning every sound with ease and care; he wouldn’t gasp or tighten his shoulders or editorialize; he’d “be.”

If you’re interested in it all, you can practice the exercise by yourself, following the clip on YouTube. Or come work with me in Paris . . . it’s a beautiful city, did you know that?

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara

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The Lesson

For the past four years I’ve been taking piano lessons with Alexandre Mion, an old student and friend of mine. Alexandre is a first-class pianist as well as a wonderful human being: kind, patient, attentive, full of smiles, the perfect teacher. Alexandre works at a conservatoire in Clichy, a commune adjacent to Paris but administratively separate from it. The conservatoire is housed in a new building right next to the metro station “Mairie de Clichy.”

What do I learn in our lessons?

Not piano technique in and of itself; no. I learn to respond to music, and to embody my responses at the piano. Technique, in other words, is an embodied response to a musical stimulus.

If I respond freely, my embodiment is free. Getting there entails a deep psychological process. I have to become open-minded, open-hearted, open-brained, open-opened. And for me to be open-opened, I need to open to the moment, to life itself—to Life.

Riding the metro, I ready myself for my piano lessons by becoming attentive and appreciative. Corridors, tunnels, crossings, and line exchanges all take on symbolic power, as I pass through different layers of a multidimensional, otherworldly labyrinth.

Arriving at my destination, I exit the underground and go toward light. The first thing I see is a public-housing project. It’s a study in perspectives, proportions, lines and planes, the occupation of space. It’s a beehive for humans, strange and marvelous.

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Then I cross the street and enter the conservatoire. Perspectives, proportions . . . the meditation on space and light continues. I climb the stairs to the fourth floor. The steps, landings, and windows hypnotize me, and I’m now inside a ziggurat, timeless and mysterious.

I enter Alexandre’s room. Oftentimes, the first thing I do is to take a photo of the room’s window. The sun, the clouds, the raindrops are gorgeous; plus, weather hints at astronomy, and astronomy hints at cosmology, and cosmology is unfathomable. I like it that Alexander’s room hints at the unfathomable.

And there he is, my teacher, my witness, my guide, my friend, my brother. A single human being, representing the whole of humanity.

The sun shines and creates the strangest figures on the wall, on the piano itself, on the keyboard.

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I’m ready to sit down at the piano, to respond to music, and to embody my responses in gestures and movements, in fingerings, in phrasings.

Will I be free and open? I don't know. This is the lesson I've come to learn.

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©Pedro de Alcantara, 2017

The Receptive Heart

George Bernard Shaw, the playwright, liked quoting from his writings—“to spice up the conversation,” he would explain. I imagine he did it with a smirk and a wave of his hand, the better to annoy his listeners.

Here’s me, smirking and quoting myself from my book The Integrated String Player, which is being published in a couple of months by Oxford University Press. In the book, I’m making a point about acquisitive and receptive awareness.

You’re acquisitive when you have a goal, the desire to capture information precisely, the need to pay attention to something or someone, or the obligation to reuse, later on, the information you’re capturing. You’re acquisitive when you use analytical capabilities, labels, comparisons, and judgments. You’re acquisitive when you want to be better than someone else at the game. It’s a wonderful ability to have at your disposal: when you’re skillfully acquisitive, you get a lot of things done. It represents the adult in you, responsible and focused.

You’re receptive when you put aside goals, desires, needs, obligations, comparisons, and judgments. Having no objectives, you might not get anything done, although you’re likely to have all sorts of rich sensorial experiences. It’s another wonderful ability to have at your disposal. It represents the child in you, innocent, curious, and open to everything.

As it happens, I blogged about this sometime ago. You can read it here if you’re interested.

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Acquisitive and receptive awareness apply to all areas of human endeavor. You can listen to music acquisitively, when you want to analyze it, memorize it, and pass a music-theory test; or receptively, just to have come-what-may emotional responses. You can smell a flower (or a cup of coffee, or the nape of your beloved when she comes out of the shower) acquisitively by sniffing, or receptively by being close to the source of the fragrance and breathing normally. Believe me, coffee smells different when you sniff (which is “doing”) and when you breathe normally (which is “being”).

I had a busy summer. In Paris, I spent a lot of time correcting the proofs and creating the index for my forthcoming book. And I traveled far and wide: Oxford, Porto, Stockholm, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, São Paulo. My wife Alexis accompanied me to Porto and to Stockholm; elsewhere I traveled solo, to give lessons, workshops, and performances.

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While traveling, solo or with Alexis, I practiced the art of acquisitive and receptive tourism. Balancing the two frames of mind makes for a wonderful experience. In Porto, for instance, I had two professional engagements, for which I had precise places to go at precisely appointed times. The adult needed to show up, and he did show up reliably. Outside these engagements, Alexis and I were free to do as we pleased, and that’s what we did. Get up early, or get up late? Go to the river, or go to the town? Linger, or rush? Follow the map, or meander?

Every day we had an informal plan, which we executed informally. We developed a quick intimacy with the city, absorbing its moods and enjoying its sights, sounds, and smells. Do you want to go inside this church? Not particularly. Okay, we move on. Do you want to take this alleyway? Sure. Hey, look: cats, graffiti, a hidden coffee shop. Let’s go in.

The city’s soundscapes were unique: seagulls galore, singing their hearts out; buskers, some good, some . . . no, let’s not spoil our mood by listening acquisitively to a poor soul eking out a living. He’s what he is, doing what he’s doing. Listen to him acquisitively, and his voice enters your ears and brain and stays there, poking you and spoiling your vacation. Listen to him receptively, and the sounds come and go; his busking becomes authentic because you aren’t filtering it with predetermined aesthetic values.

What should you see when you go to Porto? “Should” is an acquisitive word. Go to Porto and be there; explore and enjoy. Or sleep all day. The receptive heart welcomes whichever experience comes its way. Churches, train stations, hills, alleyways, the river and the beach, museums, restaurants, buskers, seagulls. Your receptive journey will be remarkable; “your” Porto won’t be like anyone else’s.

I won't bore you with every detail of my receptive summer. But if you're curious to see and hear how "my" Stockholm differed from "my" Porto, here's a little video clip.

©2017, Pedro de Alcantara

Space

Big concepts are hard to define: love, beauty, destiny, space, time. All the same, we spend our days living these concepts, thinking about them, having feelings about them, making choices related to them, fighting them, embracing them.

Take the notion of space, for instance. Everything you do is directly or indirectly related to space. Home, city, car, bus, elevator: you pass from space to space, and the passage is always meaningful in some way. If you don't think so, go spend three hours inside an elevator. Or move house overnight. No, no, no--space isn't to be trifled with!

What you call your "body," which technically is your "person," exists in space, occupies space, moves in space. Take a breath, and you move in space. Nod in agreement with something your lover says, and you move in space. Say "hello," and you move in space.

And what you call your "mind," which coincidentally is also called your "person," is a reaction to space and a creator of space. If in your mind you're a small person, so you become in space. And if in your mind you're always growing and changing, your space too will be flexible, lively, adaptable.

Who, when, where, how are you? These are all spatial questions. Inside and outside, the space is you, and you're the space.

©2017, Pedro de Alcantara

The Technicians

What is technique?

I suggest that technique is the shape you give to a thought, which is the shape you give to an emotion, which is the shape you give to an indescribable insight you gathered in a place far away.

Go to the place far away; experience its terrors and delights; then come back to the material world to share with us what you learned. Your technique will unfold organically.

Watch and enjoy!

What is it all about?

This blog post isn’t about the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, but let’s stay with him for a little while.

If you decide to read Stevenson’s biography on Wikipedia, you’ll marvel at what an interesting, bizarre, and marvelous life Stevenson had. Among his great achievements, Stevenson wrote Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a novella about a man with a split personality, Dr Jekyll the kind physician and Mr Hyde the psychotic murderer, health and disease inhabiting the same person. The novella is also known as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or simply Jekyll & Hyde. Movies, plays, adaptations, translations, and suchlike have kept Jekyll & Hyde alive and well since its publication in 1886.

Jekyll & Hyde speaks to us because it speaks about us. Inside all of us there’s a pull between two personality complexes, one aggressive and the other loving, one tidy and the other incoherent, one hopeful and the other desperate, one celebrating life and the other pointing toward death. You’re calm and intelligent as you pursue some little task at your desk, when you accidentally drop some coffee on your computer. And, ka-boom! You’re crazed with anger and resentment, and ready to murder someone.

This blog post isn’t about the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. Born in Romania in 1876, Brancusi spent most of his working life in France, where he died in 1957. His long and creative life is hard to encapsulate in a few words, but we’ll say he was a pioneer of abstract sculpture. Instead of depicting generals riding their war horses, he depicted . . . whoa! Brancusi just arose from the grave and got mad at me.

There are idiots who define my work as abstract; yet what they call "abstract" is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things.

If you’d like to spend an hour in Brancusi’s company, watch this YouTube video.

But if you only have a second, here’s one of his beautiful works.

Brancusi once said this:

Things are not difficult to make; what is difficult is putting ourselves in the state of mind to make them.

When Stevenson heard this, he smiled and agreed. This is what he said:

Things aren’t difficult to make; what is difficult is to keep your inner Hyde at bay and let your inner Jekyll help you take care of business.

The business might be learning a skill, filing your taxes, passing an exam, making dinner, or crossing the street. Hyde runs into traffic, or doesn’t see the bicycle coming at him, or trips an old lady, or rushes into a pothole and twists his ankle, and gets really pissed off about it. Jekyll crosses the street, and that’s that. It’s a whole other approach.

Let's watch the transformation in reverse: Hyde becoming Jekyll. It takes a tremendous effort of the conscious will.

Make a distinction between “the thing” and “the thing before the thing,” or between the task and the frame of mind, or between results and processes. For instance, you don’t learn a foreign language; instead, you “learn how to learn a foreign language.” It’s relatively difficult to learn how to learn a foreign language, but once you’ve done that, learning a foreign language or three is easy!

What triggers your inner Hyde? Judgment, expectations, assumptions, suppositions, guilt and shame, “should” and “should not,” voices that you hear in your head.

What allows you to access your inner Jekyll? The absence of “should” and “should not,” be they whispered or shouted.

And this blog post isn’t about Georges Braque, the great painter who—among other accomplishments—developed Cubism with Pablo Picasso. Braque heard us talk about Stevenson and Brancusi, and he got excited.

I have made a great discovery. I no longer believe in anything. Objects don’t exist for me except in so far as a rapport exists between them or between them and myself. When one reaches this harmony, one reaches a sort of intellectual non-existence. . . .  Life then becomes a perpetual revelation. That is true poetry.

What on earth does this mean? Empty your mind; silence the voices; then you’ll be in a state where you can make things, do things, learn things, enjoy things, love things. Ah, and people, too; you’ll love people.

(This blog post is about love. End of story!)

 

 

The double-helix staircase

Look at this wonderful photo of a wonderful object. It’s the DNA Tower in Kings Park, Western Australia, celebrating life in the form of the double-spiral arrangement of our DNA structure. Some people would prefer to call this a “double-helix” staircase, considering that a spiral is two-dimensional and a helix, three-dimensional. But we won’t get bogged down in words. Instead, we’ll admire the object’s structure and construction, and we’ll respond to its symbolic power.

Two fellows stand atop the tower. To get there, they each took one of the helical paths that intertwine to make the double-helix staircase. Racing upward, they crossed paths at every landing, laughing and cursing, one trying to trip up the other. But they reached the summit safely, and now they are “in seventh heaven.” That’s the story I like telling, anyway.

Opposing energies live inside us. We can call them intuition and intellect, masculine and feminine principles, private and public behaviors, yin and yang . . . the list is long. Integration depends on these opposites getting along and complementing one another. The double-helix staircase stands as a symbol of the travel that each of us must undertake to achieve integration.

Intuition is free-ranging, uncontrolled, unhinged. The word “intellect” comes from “intelligence,” which comes from a root meaning “to choose.” Intuition creates, intellect edits; intuition expands your mind, intellect organizes your insights. Intuition rises up along one of the helices, while intellect rises up on the opposite one. They meet at the landing, and there “they make love.” Then, they resume their path upward, seemingly as separate entities but ever connected each to the other, thanks to the double helix.

Your private self is known to no one, but you. It’s made of dreams, memories, aspirations, hopes, pains, images, and a thousand facets that you polish by yourself—alone in the house, sometimes asleep, sometimes at the computer, sometimes in the company of other people and yet reserved and hidden. Your public self is seen, heard, touched, and smelled by the world at large. It’s the embodiment of communication, the root of which comes from “to share.” You stew private thoughts and insights for a while, then you make them public: you share them. Your private self rises up along one of the helices, while your private self rises up along the opposite one. But at the landing, they meet and interact; they help each other, they inform each other. Your private experiences feed your public ones, and vice-versa. It’s essential for everyone to know how to be alone, and to know how to be with others; to know “how to keep” and to know “how to share.”

I’m lying in bed in the afternoon, having idle thoughts, feeling sleepy . . . After a while I get up, shower and shave, put a clean shirt on, and go out to give a performance. Then I go back home, lie in bed, and digest the performance, whether I’m asleep or awake all night long. My private self is inevitably shaken, stirred, and stimulated by the public exposure. And my next public event will be inevitably informed by the shaken and stirred private self.

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At a studio space that I rent, I talk to myself, sing a few notes, test an idea regarding the voice or the breath or the vowels or . . . something. I weave a narrative about my vocal idea, then I stand in front of a camera and “talk and sing to the camera,” which is very different from talking and singing to myself. Later on, I edit whatever I recorded into a five-minute clip, and I’ll put it on the Internet, where total strangers will watch me and listen to me and respond to me in unfathomable ways. And I go back to the studio space and resume talking to myself, or pacing the room in silence, or just sitting in the semi-dark, by myself, alone, privately.

Or I practice the cello for hours or days on end, then I share a technique or insight with a student, then I write a few paragraphs about the insight. After many intermediate steps, I publish a book about it all. (“To publish” is “to make public.”) My book THE INTEGRATED STRING PLAYER will come out later in 2017, exposing my innermost feelings about the cello to the scrutiny of friends, colleagues, strangers, critics, and humanity at large. And the fact of going public with these innermost feelings will inform and guide my private experiences for years to come.

  • Intuition, intellect, intuition, intellect, forever climbing up and meeting at the landing.
  • Private, public, private, public, forever climbing up that double-helix staircase.
  • Solo, in a team, solo, in a team, forever climbing up and reinforcing each other.
  • Masculine, feminine, masculine, feminine, forever.
  • Yin, yang . . .

The idea, then, is to nourish each opposite and get them to collaborate. Put your shoes on -- and take your shoes off! -- and go climb up those stairs.

©2017, Pedro de Alcantara