Posts Tagged ‘bob dylan’

Monasterevin, Co. Kildare, Ireland

Bob Dylan once remarked that when Tommy Makem sang, there was an elsewhere in his eyes. From that elsewhere came his singing.

What was true of Tommy Makem (1932-2007), the celebrated singer and songwriter from Co. Armagh, is also true of Irish balladry in general, particularly its immigrant ballads. One of the best-known ballads, Frank Fahy’s version of Galway Bay, recalls the rugged rocks and the sweet green grass of Galway from the vantage point of Illinois. And one of the most poignant, Sliabh Gallion Brae, is a kind of elegy in advance, in which a farmer by the name of Joe McGarvey from Derrygenard, who can no longer pay his rent, bids farewell to the parish of Lissan, the cross of Ballinascreen, and “bonny, bonny Sliabh Gallion Brae”  All are soon to be elsewhere. In the Irish language, sliabh (pronounced shleeve) means mountain, and in Scots Gaelic brae means hillside. As so often in immigrant ballads, an elsewhere fondly remembered is evoked through its place name, which brings its felt presence into the foreground.

To wish to be elsewhere is a universal human desire. And to become aware of that desire, even as it is arising, is one of the aims of Zen practice. Sometimes the “elsewhere” is a geographical place, as in the immigrant ballads, but just as often it is an imagined state of mind, and it lies in the future rather than the past. In her book Nothing Special the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck examines this recurrent human impulse, as embodied in ordinary thought:

In ordinary thinking, the mind always has an objective, something it’s going to get. If we’re caught in that wanting, then our awareness of reality is gone. We’ve substituted a personal dream for awareness. Awareness doesn’t move, doesn’t bury itself in dreams; it just stays as it is.*

Ordinary thinking, as here portrayed, removes us from wherever we are. By contrast, immovable awareness grounds us in the here and now. To bring meditative awareness to our thoughts is to realize how often they serve to transport us elsewhere.

Of course, not ­all thoughts serve that purpose. Happy to be Here, the title of one of Garrison Keillor’s books, expresses a thought that many of us have when conversing with friends at a dinner party, or spending time with a son or daughter, or eating a bowl of ice cream on a summer evening. Yet the fact is that only a few of our thoughts amplify or clarify our present experience, and many have the opposite effect. If you would like to test this claim, may I suggest that you sit still for three minutes and count the number of thoughts you have during that time. Then sit still for another three minutes, labeling your thoughts (“Thinking about tomorrow’s meeting:”; “thinking about last night”). You may well find that the bulk of your thoughts pertain not to the present but to the past or the future: to where you have been or where you might sometime be. Others may pertain to no place at all, being generalized, abstract, and void of concrete particulars.

The point of this exercise is not to extinguish all such thoughts. To think about other times and places is a natural human activity, and it can give rise to artistic works as richly diverse as Billy Collins’s poems on his childhood or Tommy Makem’s Farewell to Carlingford. The point is rather to become aware of conceptual thinking and to see how it comes between our minds and the realities of our lives, bringing anxiety and untold suffering in its wake. “On the whole,” W.C. Fields is thought to have written as his epitaph, “I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” That makes for a good story, but like many a colorful tale, it isn’t true. The real epitaph reads simply, “W.C Fields, 1880-1946.”  So it is with our images and thoughts, which purport to illuminate reality but often take us elsewhere.


*Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special: Living Zen (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 152.

Gemma Hasson’s rendition of Sliabh Gallion Brae may be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jiSd2rUyrQ8. Tommy Makem’s Farewell to Carlingford may be heard at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGn2G-xjM_M.

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If you have looked closely at advertising copy, you may have noticed how often the word perfect appears in printed ads, whether the product be an appliance, an item for the garden, or a vacation rental. For only $18.97 you can own Black and Decker’s 2-Slice Toaster with Electronic Shade Control, which will provide you with “perfect toast and bagels every time”. If you would like to spruce up your lawn, Patch Perfect Grass Seed  will ensure “perfect even coverage every time”. If travel is on your horizon, Summer House on Winter Bay, a rental property on Prince Edward Island, offers “the perfect choice for your golfing group, family reunion, or destination wedding”. And if you would like to enhance your experience of Zen meditation, you can buy a Mountain Timer from Zen Mountain Monastery at a cost of $145.00, plus shipping and handling. Designed to free you from glancing at a clock, the Mountain Timer is the “perfect complement to the stillness of meditation.”

As these examples suggest, the word perfect (together with ideal, its first cousin) has become a buzzword in the advertising business, if not a mantra.  Presumably, the word has become prominent because it has proven to be effective. What does its prominence tell us about its targeted clientele, namely ourselves?

The most obvious answer is that advertising appeals to our desires, and we would like the objects of those desires to be perfect, or as close to perfect as possible. Why settle for burnt toast or mediocre bagels? Why put up with a spotty lawn or a less-than-perfect vacation spot? And why use a stick of incense (the traditional method for timing a sitting) when you can have the perfect complement of a Mountain Timer? Fueling our fantasies, the word perfect feeds and creates our appetites and longings.

At a more covert level, the word also sends the message that our present lives—and by extension, our present selves—are woefully imperfect. By buying the perfect toaster we will help to remedy that remediable situation. By becoming smart, informed consumers, we will fill the vacancies in our daily round. By investing in a perfect future, we will relieve our present suffering.

As can be seen in the ad for the Mountain Timer, American Zen has not been impervious to Western consumer culture. On the contrary, meditation has often been sold as a form of stress reduction or promoted as a mode of self-improvement. But the primary aim of Zen practice is not to reduce stress or to place new heads, as one of the teachings puts it, on top of our present ones. Rather, it is to cultivate a clear and stable awareness of what is going on, within and without, and to free ourselves from our negative conditioning. And if one persists in the practice, what one is likely to see, clearly and unequivocally, is the connection between our conditioned images of perfection and the suffering we inflict on others and ourselves.

“My love, she speaks like silence,” Bob Dylan sang in 1965, “without ideals or violence.” In the same song (“Love Minus Zero / No Limit”), he contrasted his lover’s serene self-containment with the dissatisfaction of “bankers’ nieces” who “seek perfection / expecting all the gifts that wise men bring”. Over the past four decades, we have witnessed the horrific violence that misguided idealism can loose upon the world. And in the past year we have seen the economic ruin that unbridled greed can foster. Looking inward, can we also see how unexamined notions of perfection lead us to destroy our happiness, impose unrealistic expectations on ourselves and others, and devalue our present lives? Can we learn to live more wisely?

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