November 11, 2013
This BLOG has come into being almost on its own insistence. Even I want to know why I have returned more seriously to music and made a record after letting it putter along for so many years. Songwriting has always been something I do, regardless of whether anyone else ever hears it, at least until now. I write songs because I need to. Music and poetry are an essential part of my life, along with politics, law, economics, meditation, Buddhism, Shambhala and the rest of it. It is all interrelated and perhaps interesting.
In any event, it was interesting to the FBI. Once I was asked to explain to the Lawyers Guild in Denver, Colorado how I transitioned from being a very radical member of SDS to poetry, meditation, music and the practice of law at a large corporate law firm. Later I was told that the Guild had done a Freedom of Information Act request for information about surveillance of their meetings and discovered that the FBI had infiltrated the meeting I attended and had notes on what I had said. Surely this proves there is something interesting to everyone about a path that no one quite understands.
Of course music, poetry, meditation and the related disciplines can wander into love and light and fantasy very easily, but that was never to be the way with my dharma teacher Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, nor for that matter with his student and my poetry teacher, Allen Ginsberg. With Trungpa, Rinpoche, the contemplative traditions, specifically his Shambhala Buddhist Dharma, had to work with, understand and finally command the most complex of energies, which include art, but also business, politics and war. Allen Ginsberg completely understood the implications of this point of view, insofar as it required exploring the dreadful poverty of second guessing your own creativity. Hence the phrase he and Trungpa developed: “First Thought, Best Thought.”
In the world of spoken art, there is probably nothing more challenging than on the spot, in public, spontaneously uttering song or poetry. But that became Allen’s world and the way he transcended the war of self-doubt. I still have recordings of Allen and me improvising the blues at poetry readings at Marpa House in Boulder, Colorado! My own experience in years of meditation practice, always writing songs on the side of my life, working in the high-pressured world of a large international law firm, all the while ensconced in the family realm, is that First Thought really always is the Best Thought, provided you can see it arise. From that vantage point there is relaxation. There is freedom and fearlessness, power and mistake, holding back and proclaiming, and, in the end, beauty. As Trungpa, Rinpoche once said “you can celebrate your deformities.”
Allen discussed the mind of the spontaneous bard all the time, and his interview with Paul Portugés, in a collection of interviews in Spontaneous Mind (brief excerpt beginning page 410), perfectly captures the vast profundity of spontaneous poetics.
Paul Portuges: The use of spontaneity and writing songs, as Milarepa practiced, and as you do now in your collection of songs, would be the ultimate in that practice…
Allen Ginsberg: there’s a very nice song in Loka II that I wrote spontaneously, spontaneously recollecting the events of a recent illness. It comes at the point in a conversation between William Burroughs, Trungpa, myself and other people when Trungpa asked me to make up a song on the spot. I did and it was typed up later. It’s not bad, actually.
PP: how does it begin?
AG: “Started doing my prostrations sometime in February ’75 / Began flying as if I were alive / In a long transmission consciousness felt good and true / But then I got into a sweat while thinkin’ about you / Fell down with bronchitis, the first illness that came / Pneumonia in the hospital was what they said was the name…” It’s actually pretty humorous for such a serious set of events. Writing spontaneously while recollecting—I had to accept any thought. The whole point of spontaneous improvisation in a song is that you have to accept whatever thought presents itself to your rhyme—on the wing, so to speak. Otherwise, you have to break the rhythm, stop the song, start thinking. Once you do that, you’re lost. You have to keep the impulse going—accept doggerel as well as beauty, because you’re improvising and relying on the moment to moment inspiration. It means relying on moment to moment ordinary mind, whatever rises. It’s absolutely necessary to take whatever you can get. If you’re singing, settle for what’s there, at the instant—otherwise, you break the chain. I do think Shamatha practice does help there because you become minutely aware of what’s rising in the mind, thought forms rising and disappearing. And you learn to look on them with less prejudice than before—like this thought is good and that thought’s bad. Any thought will do! When you get to that equality of temperament or judgment, all the thoughts turn out to have their place, to form a sort of recognizable pattern, or chain of workable thoughts—as Trungpa says, “workable.”
PP: That must take a tremendous ability for self-acceptance.
AG: I think it’s much easier than you think. It’s fun! Fun in the sense of being with good friends, drinking and making up songs. You let your tongue go loose! Everybody accommodates to that. Nobody’s embarrassed by anything. There’s less anxiety once you’ve realized that there’s nothing you can do about it. Why fight it? You can’t change your mind—your mind is its own. And there’s nothing heroic about that acceptance. Nor do I think it’s a transition to another state of consciousness. That’s the whole point—it’s ordinary mind! The question is “Do you accept ordinary mind or not?” But even that question is too much of an either/or proposition. It’s more like “Do you recognize what ordinary mind is?” That’s where the problem is, not willing to recognize it, having to be turned on to it. Most people don’t recognize their ordinary mind; they use it all the time, but they use it selectively, just for certain highlights to fix up a specific thought pattern, image, ambition. They think that ordinary mind is just certain highlights of ordinary mind, rather than the whole thing.
There will be more to come—first cuts of songs, YouTube offerings, spontaneous duets, brief observations from myself and others on the poetic landscape, all reflections on the nature of the cheerful disaster of cause and effect!