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.
by Jerry Casagrande
It was November, 1950. Oliver Smith, a WW2 veteran and multi-decorated US Major General, found himself leading 30,000 troops in sub-freezing temperatures near the Choisin Reservoir in Korea. The People’s Republic of China had just entered the war and Smith and his soldiers were surrounded by 120,000 of the enemy's forces. Smith and his division faced almost certain annihilation.
Smith famously said at the time, “Retreat, hell! We’re just advancing in a different direction!”
And that folks, gets to the heart of what a men’s retreat is:
A men’s retreat is an opportunity for you to step back from the challenges life is presenting--whatever they may be--so that you might advance again in a new direction.
Some really legit questions about a men’s retreat
Cairn & Sky is a new effort offering men’s retreats in extraordinary Jackson, Wyoming, so we have a few thoughts about what a men’s retreat is all about and, sincerely, whether or not one is right for you. We set out to answer your very legit questions in this, our first ever blog. Questions like:
- What is a men’s retreat?
- Should I go on one?
- What might I get out of it?
- What should I expect?
That first question is answered in the story about General Smith: A retreat is an opportunity to step back from everyday life to find the time and space so that you might advance again in a new direction.
"Retreat, hell! We're just advancing in a different direction."
- 4 Star Marine General Oliver Smith
A retreat can be a powerful experience and we believe that if you are a guy with some questions, challenges, or dilemmas in his life, you will very likely benefit from going on one. If you are the spouse or partner of a guy like that--or the sibling, parent, or child of that guy--we think you will see how the retreat has benefited the man you love.
What are those benefits? There are too many to name and each guy will discover different ones--the chance to destress and reset; the chance to enjoy the outdoors; the chance to reflect, journal, and be quiet; and many more.
Two of the biggest and most consistent take-aways, however, are friendships and insight.
It’s remarkable the bonds of friendship you can create on an intentional five day retreat and the unexpected insights you can draw--insights that before retreat you may have thought were unrelated to the questions and challenges in your life; but which on retreat, you realize are actually fundamental to those questions and challenges--right at their beating heart.
Deep friendships and new insights
are two of the most consistent take-aways
from a men's retreat.
Should You Go on a Men’s Retreat?
A men’s retreat is not for everyone. Let’s talk about whether you should consider joining one.
Let’s face it. Life is complex on so many fronts:
- Marriage or partnership. Maybe after many years of marriage or partnership, your oh-so steady relationship is wobbling. Would you benefit from some time and space to figure out what is going on so that you can reinvest in your most important relationship?
- Divorce. Alternatively, did your marriage or long-term relationship just end and now you find yourself a bit lost, asking what the hell happened to the relationship you thought would take you to the end of your days? Even more importantly, what now? Would the time and space a retreat creates help you lean into those questions and gain new insights?
- Career crossroads. Years ago, you set out on your career path and have been successful by all counts. Now, mid-career, you are not sure if your path is still the right one. Perhaps, you see an adjacent path, one that leads to...well, you aren’t sure where it leads. Would the opportunity for reflection and the chance to talk to other men in mid-life help you clarify where you’ve been, where you are now, and where you want to go?
- Friendship. Where did all your friends go? Damn, college was fun. Now you live hundreds or thousands of miles from those college buddies and just haven’t connected with other guys in deep friendship ever since. You’d never admit it but you’re feeling lonely. Would the chance to commune with some guys, go hiking, have a beer and a talk around a campfire--would all that not only help you make some new friends but perhaps offer insight on friendships that are elusive back home?
Those are just a few reasons a retreat might be right for you. That said, there are as many reasons as there are men for taking time away to gain insight on challenges or dilemmas you are facing. For example:
- The kids just moved out, or you’re on the cusp of being an empty-nester and find yourself looking at your partner thinking, “Oh shit. It’s just the two of us. Now what?”
- You’ve never been married, even a decade or two after your buddies all tied the knot, and now you’re struggling with the thought that marriage and fatherhood aren’t ever going to happen.
- Fatherhood: How is your relationship with your dad impacting you? That’s a question every guy faces once, more, or continually in his life--even after his dad has passed away.
- And, also, fatherhood: How is your relationship with your kids? Are you slipping into patterns you swore you’d never adopt? Struggling in relationships with your kids--whether they are in elementary school, teenagers, or grown-ass adults?
That shit you're dealing with? It can be fertilizer to grow something new in your life.
In short, a retreat may be right for you if you’re a man who's got something you are noodling on: a dilemma, a life-choice, a problem that maybe you can’t even quite define, but you know something seems amiss.
Put another way, that shit you’re dealing with? It can be fertilizer to grow something new in your life.
Comparing Men’s Retreats
So, a men’s retreat is an opportunity to explore your path--your path of relationship, career, friendship, family, faith, health, passions, and more--so that you can clear a new path or at least discover the tools you need to navigate a path strewn with brush.
Given that broad description, it might be useful to know how various retreats differ.
There are a number of men’s retreat organizations out there. Some offer two day retreats; others like Cairn & Sky offer a 5-day experience to allow time not just to dig deep, but to adventure, to nurture new friendships, to have some fun, and to have time for quiet reflection.
Some are faith-oriented. There are a number of men’s retreats offered by churches for example. Others, like Cairn & Sky, are completely secular but of course welcome men of faith to share their stories of, and joys and struggles with, faith.
Most retreats have some sort of philosophical approach. As mentioned, some are faith-based. Others are led by therapists or psychologists who will download their expertise to guys for you to then try to implement in your life. At Cairn & Sky, our philosophy is that the wisdom you need resides in you and in the small community of men we gather together on retreat. The job of our facilitators is not to download any particular expertise, but rather to create the time and space for you to find your own insights and to gather the wisdom of the men around you.
What will you actually do on a men’s retreat?
So, you know the purpose of a men’s retreat, some reasons a retreat might be right for you, and how men’s retreats differ, but still one question remains:
What the hell do you actually do on retreat?
Whether you want to get another guy's take on MJ and LeBron, or talk about what sex is like after twenty years of relationship, a six mile hike in the wilderness provides that opportunity.
- Getting outside. On a C&S retreat, we take three day-hikes ranging in distance from about five miles to about ten miles. We explore mountain ridges and alpine lakes. We invite short dips in the chilly Hoback River. Weather depending, we might get to a natural thermal pool to star gaze. The outdoors is both our classroom and our rec-room.
- Talking and listening. Each day, we take time for carefully facilitated discussions that are led by you, in which you get to talk about whatever the hell you want to talk about. You’ll take your turn to listen to the guys around you talk about what they want to talk about. C&S Guides offer unique structures to enable the group to offer their experiences and ask questions that may guide you to new insights.
- Yoga. Never done yoga? No problem. These are introductory yoga classes, suitable for all guys. Their purpose is to wake our bodies up in the morning and help us come into the present moment, where we can truly pay attention to ourselves and to the world around us.
- Delicious food, campfires, tunes, & beer. We like food and we ensure that the three squares you get each day are delicious. We like fire. Who doesn’t? We’ll jaw around the fireplace and around the fire ring outdoors, listen to some of your favorite tunes, and, if you are in the mood, crack a beer or sip a bourbon.
There’s more of course and, quite predictably, some unpredictable but wonderful things happen when you bring together a dozen men intent on exploring both the dirt paths that lead up a mountain and the experience-strewn paths that form the content of their lives.
Retreat to Advance Again
In the end, getting to Jackson, Wyoming, to meet 11 other guys, hike with them, talk with them, listen to them, and share a campfire with them, takes a big step by you. A sort of leap of faith that the dilemma you are chewing on needs a little something else to get resolved so that you may advance once again on your own unique path. If this doesn’t sound intriguing to you, that’s cool. Maybe we will meet another way. However, if the idea piques a bit at your heart, mind, or soul, take that leap today.
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 email@example.com and let us know. We'd love to hear the idea and then maybe share it with the world right here.