The Monk and the Rocker:
Meat Loaf and Thich Nhat Hanh.
One was a rock star whose greatest song was about a guy who needed to get laid so badly that he swore “on his mother’s grave” that he’d love his girl until the end of time. The other was a monk who dedicated his life to peace and to the worldwide spread of “engaged Buddhism,” a form of Buddhism dedicated to addressing injustice around the world.
Challenge accepted! I write today about these two men. Can I put some words on the page that take these two extraordinarily different people and find their commonalities? That explores ways in which they or their ideas are in harmony with one another?
Ummm…maybe this is a chasm too deep to cross.
A Pair of Successful Vegetarians
Let’s start simple:
- Thich Nhat Hanh was vegan. Meat Loaf, ironically, was vegetarian for a dozen years, refraining from all meats, including presumably his namesake meat.
- Both sold millions of copies of their work. Thich Nhat Hanh sold over 5 million copies of his 130 publications during his lifetime. Rock ‘n’ roll is a worthy competitor, however. Meat Loaf’s 14x platinum album Bat Out of Hell, alone, sold over 43 million copies.
I countered that rock and roll is very much about living in the moment. "We gotta make the most of our one night together,” Meat Loaf sings in (the song) “Bat out of Hell.” Similarly, Buddhism (and mindfulness) tells us that there is nothing but the current moment. “There is only one moment for you to be alive, and that is the present moment,” wrote Thich Nhat Hanh. “Go back to the present moment and live this moment deeply, and you’ll be free.”
But, explained Peter, rock and roll is about taking that moment to excess. In that same song, Meat Loaf sings “I never see the sudden curve 'til it's way too late” and the song’s lead character crashes his motorcycle into a pit on the side of the road and dies. He lived the moment to its extreme, and it killed him. Thich Nhat Hanh, in contrast, leans into the present moment whether it is simply a moment of eating breakfast or cutting carrots. No need for extremes for him.
"There is only one moment for you to be alive...Live this moment deeply and you'll be free." - Thich Nhat Hanh
Furthermore, so much of rock is about escaping the present moment. If you know anything about me, you know I am a Bruce Springsteen fan (aka disciple) and of course the Boss’s definitive song is exactly about escape: "Tramps like us, baby we were born to run!”
“Bat Out of Hell” is remarkably similar:
Like a bat out of hell, I'll be gone when the morning comes.
When the night is over, like a bat out of hell
I'll be gone, gone, gone.
Buddhism and mindfulness are about not escaping. They are about accepting the present moment in all its ugliness or beauty. Only from that acceptance, a Buddhist like Thich Nhat Hanh would argue, can one make change in the world as he himself sought to do throughout his life. If one is always escaping the present moment, one never faces reality.
To this, you may argue or simply plead, as I do, "But rock and roll is so good. Just so very good."
A great live rock show is in a category of its own on the “List of In-the-Moment Experiences.” Harken back to your best ever concert – was your whole body filled with the beating of the drums, your mind carved by the squealing of the guitar, your lungs screaming with the lyrics of your favorite song? If someone had told you the world were going to end, would you have said “Sure. Fine. But I am doing this, here, now.” Yes, you would have because you were so engaged with that present moment.
In Buddhism, and I believe the Buddha himself might agree with this, words ultimately fail. There is an experience that one can have, flickering and impermanent as it may be. An experience…
"So much of rock is about escaping the present moment....Buddhism and mindfulness are about not escaping."
- Of the oneness of it all.
- Of a deep peace and stillness.
- Of a lack of separateness between oneself and literally everything else.
And that is where words fail. Three attempts by me to impart through words a transcendent experience that I’ve had, and yet none are adequate to the task. The experience is the experience and nothing else. The experience cannot be described by words, but can only be vaguely pointed to by them.
Let the Sound Take you Deeper
Here – maybe – is where music helps. Sound comes to us very early. In the womb, we begin to hear noises outside of our mother’s body, making hearing foundational to our experience of life. (For those who are hearing impaired, other senses come to play this significant role.)
And where the written word fails us, perhaps the experience of listening to music does not. At least it fails less epically. Different rockers – Steppenwolf –sang the following:
Close your eyes girl
Look inside girl
Let the sound
Take you away
Close your eyes girl
Look inside girl
Let the sound
Take you deeper.
Perhaps the message from Meat Loaf – or really from our now 70 year love affair with rock and roll – is that while words lack the power to truly describe transcendence, music itself gets us closer. It takes us there not through the message of the music (which is encased in words) but through the music itself. Through our “cannot be named” experience of that music.
Take Away? Not that a Rock Concert Equals Meditation.
This is meant to be a blog for men, and for those who count men among their loved ones. A blog that is meant to leave you with a takeaway. Maybe you’ve gotten one. If so, I hope it is not that meditation and a rock concert are the same thing. They most definitely are not.
"While words lack the power to truly describe transcendence, music itself gets us closer."
Let me take a final stab at bridging Meat and Thich Nhat Hanh and finding that takeaway.
And, other moments are one hundred percent full of life. You’ve had them and there’s a chance you’ve had one at the greatest rock concert you ever saw–a moment when you were so lost in the present moment experience of music that you found and experienced your true self.
Those transcendent rock concert moments are available all day, every day. This doesn’t mean you should be air-guitaring, belting out lyrics, or diving into mosh pits at work, while dropping the kids at school, or cleaning up after dinner.
But, the aliveness you felt at that concert is always available to you if only you give each moment the same attention you gave to the singer, to the guitar player, to the drummer or bassist; to the swirling lights; to the driving beat or screaming guitar.
As Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
We can see making breakfast as mundane work or as a privilege—it just depends on our way of looking. When we cook, when we clean, when we walk, each movement can be made with mindfulness, concentration, and insight.
As with the arrival of any year, the birth of 2022 is inspiring many of us to make New Year’s resolutions. As Mark Twain said about the week ahead of us: “Now is the accepted time to make your annual good resolutions. Next week, you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”
2022 will of course bring its own unique challenges for human planning. (Perhaps you’ve heard of COVID?) More than once this past week, I’ve been reminded of the words, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him/Her your plans.” COVID has indeed made a mockery of human planning.
- We resolve to eat better. A Ben & Jerry’s pint will be at least two servings.
- We resolve to learn the guitar. How hard can the intro to Stairway really be?
- We resolve to read more. Look out Ulysses - I’m serious about reading you this time.
Today, I’d like to suggest another possible resolution. That is, resolve to pay attention.
What do I mean by that? I could resolve to pay attention to the news, to the ways that our social fabric is either strengthening or unraveling on any given day, to how the stock market is doing, or to the latest Covid numbers.
What I mean is both less, and more, than any of those things.
I resolve to pay attention to what is happening here and now.
"I resolve to pay attention to what is happening here and now."
The First Snowfall
As I write this, it is snowing here in northern Virginia…the first snow of the year and a solid six inches at that. It is coming down quickly but, as snow almost always does, softly. The blanket of snow quiets the whole world with each flake that falls and, in so doing, the snow wakes my senses.
This snowfall has an uncanny ability to pull me into the present to see, touch, taste, and hear the winter.
The first snowfall makes me pay attention. If only I can take its effect on me into other parts of my life and other times of the year, I’ll be better off for it. Even now, as I sit inside to write, I am more aware of the whirring of the heating system, the knotty grain of the wood desk at which I sit, the taste of saliva in my mouth, the way my reading glasses touch my nose, and the light smack of each finger on these k-e-y-s.
Outside and In
Paying attention to what is happening outside of us is one thing. We engage our senses in the what-is-happening of the present moment.
However, some of the most important things that are happening in the present moment are those things happening inside of you and me. In 2022, I resolve to pay more attention to (and I invite you to pay more attention to):
- What my breath is like in any given moment–deep or shallow, quick or slow?
- How my heart is working. Is it racing or calm? Why?
- Where my mind is off and running to. Is my mind being useful? Or simply re-hashing old worries or new concerns? Is it paying attention?
- What and where my feelings are–-if I am angry or joyful, how and where do I notice that in my body?
That is what I mean by paying attention to the inside of me. And you to the inside of you.
If we can take greater note of these things happening in our bodies–our thoughts and feelings –- well, then what?
What if, once we have paid attention to what is going on inside us, we resolve to share some of it? To share our aspirations and our joys; our hopes and passions; and even some of the harder stuff –- our sadness, our fears, our disappointments, our anger.
Winston Churchill said “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak.”
Speaking up is not easy. Resolving to share your inner life –- both the good and the bad –- may well be the hardest resolution you’ve ever made –- harder than learning guitar, going to the gym, and eating well combined. But you can do it. We can do it. Consider setting the bar low this January: share with one person, one time. That’s a start.
Churchill went on. The full quote from him is: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
On retreat, I’ve seen a group of guys come to a hushed silence -– to pay attention -– as one man shares what he is going through at home, at work, or simply in his heart and mind. To hold space for that guy so he can tell his story –- his hopes and fears, his passion and his disappointment, his joy and his anger -- that is some of the best work a man will ever do. Ever.
Why do all this? In part, it might be because that is what life is all about–-being present for and sharing ourselves with others and with the world around us.
But if you need more reason than that, (and Entrepreneur Magazine backs this up) then know that paying attention to and sharing our inner life can bring us to a place of gratitude for our present moment and our present circumstances, whatever they may be. Realizing the challenges you’ve faced and how you have overcome them; or, not yet overcome them, but begun to address them –- that realization can help you cultivate gratitude for the current moment and a sense of humility. Humility in recognizing it all could have gone another, worse way. But it didn’t.
Similarly, speaking aloud your hopes and aspirations can bring you to a place of appreciation for all you have. An appreciation that your hopes and dreams are even plausible. Gratitude flows from there.
So, please, if you wish, get to the gym, drop ten lbs, learn Stairway and read Ulysses. (Tell me what all the fuss is when you finish.)
As for me, I’ll use the inspiration of this snowy day to resolve to pay attention throughout the year –- to the things around me, to the person across from me, to the feelings in me. I hope you’ll join me.
Wishing you a 2022 that captures your attention.
Our blogs are written by Jerry Casagrande and Scott Taylor, Co-Founders of Cairn & Sky. We are also interested in hearing your voice. If you have a topic you'd like to share with the Cairn & Sky community, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know. We'd love to hear the idea and then maybe share it with the world right here.