Can Morton Feldman’s Music be a Key to Meditation?

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We cannot escape the press of worldly events, expectations, and anxieties — the noise, the computers and the pressure to be the best. Indeed, to talk about the drivenness of the world only adds to the inescapable tension. Too many of us feel like a child’s old-style wind-up toy, impelled along a track we did not choose until finally we stop moving at day’s end, awaiting the next morning’s rat-race and another twist of the key to the clockwork motor. The world wins, stress wins, and we lose. And performers lose especially, by the anxiety that precedes and impedes their performance.

Enter Morton Feldman, composer, who has not been with us since 1987, when he died at age 61. A man who worked in the garment industry until he was 44. Feldman was no therapist, but his music just might add something to the much commended and researched antidote to the crazy-making nature of contemporary life: mindfulness meditation. I can offer no scientifically validated proof that his music makes a focus on “being centered in the moment” easier, but offer my anecdotal observations for your consideration.

For too many, mindfulness meditation is an elusive solution, despite its well-documented benefits to overall well-being. As meditation newbies we sit quietly and concentrate on our breathing, nothing more. We are told that it will be hard and that it should be done daily, usually shooting for 30 minutes at a time at the start. Eventually — so the research tells us — our brains will be retrained.

The object of such a practice is to permit us to live in the moment, alert to (but untroubled by) the single instant in which we are immersed. Its practitioners claim that it is a path to seeing the world as it is, accepting it without judgment. By doing that, they indicate, we stop ourselves from adding to the internally generated interpretations and pressures — and the self-consciousness — that can make life unbearable. We are advised that true mindfulness does not look back or forward. Nor is it freighted with worry, regret, or rage. They remind us that the past is gone and cannot be changed and the future is unknowable. The only thing we have with certainty is the present instant of time and our ability to really “live” in it.

Ah, but mindfulness meditation is difficult, more than you might think. The mind wanders from the breath. We are distracted by small noises and random thoughts: How much time has passed? What about today’s doctor appointment? What did my voice teacher or boss really mean when she talked to me yesterday? Anything and everything intrudes, including troubling dead-end ideas. We are instructed to expect this; and then, when we notice that our focus on the breath has been lost, to gently return our attention to that target. Our attention and focus will, with enough practice and dedication, get better — so the experts say. Until then keep practicing.

At this point, many people give up in frustration. Here is the opening through which Morton Feldman enters, this unlikeliest of composers: a man of 6′, approaching 300 pounds; a non-stop, cigarette-smoking talker with a strong New York accent. Alex Ross described his music this way in The New Yorker issue of June 19, 2006:

The often noted paradox is that this immense, verbose man wrote music that seldom rose above a whisper. In the noisiest century in history, Feldman chose to be glacially slow and snowily soft. Chords arrive one after another, in seemingly haphazard sequence, interspersed with silences… In its ritual stillness, this body of work abandons the syntax of Western music… Legend has it that after one group of players had crept their way as quietly as possible through a score of his, Feldman barked, “It’s too fuckin’ loud, and it’s too fuckin’ fast.”

Feldman requires us to listen to music without the expectation of conventional melody fit into a recognizable musical form and provides a kind of experience that creates that new way of listening.  Unlike most Western music, Feldman’s does not seem to be leading us anywhere. We do not come to anticipate the next note or chord, as we do in a popular song or symphony. We have entered an unfamiliar space with nothing ahead of us, nothing guiding us, no forward or backward. Lacking “landmarks” we can be certain only of where we are right now. We are simply “in the moment” with the delicate sound he most often provides us — and the decay of that sound, as can be heard in this example from For Bunita Marcus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-Kl0eOo1VU

The importance of being neither judgmental nor critical, just experiencing what is present, is crucial. It is easier to listen to Feldman’s music with this type of “accepting” attitude than almost any piece of Beethoven, Brahms, or The Beatles. Their music “leads us” to judgment — too loud, too slow, too fast — once we have established even a bit of familiarity with it. For purposes of enhancing mindfulness, however, music like Feldman’s that provides us with no map is actually more beneficial. It does not “progress” and is harder to know than that which presents a formal structure that can be grasped and notes that can be anticipated, leading our thoughts to interfere with our attention and the mind to drift away from the sound.

Much of Feldman’s work can magnetize our focus so that the pull of external or irrelevant thoughts (including self-criticism) is vanquished, but only if we give up the conventional expectations built from years of listening to “tunes” and apply ourselves to the task he requires of our ears and our brains. With this new attitude, judgments about ourselves and about the music no longer gain an easy point of entry to the mind.

The compositions he offers us don’t seem to make headway except by extraordinarily subtle and quiet changes that are riveting. We are drawn in. To give a visual analogue, it is like looking at a kaleidoscopic image that is changing almost imperceptibly (much slower and without the formal structure of the example just below) with the slightest rotation of the tube, barely enough to be noticeable.

Teleidoscope_animation

As T. S. Elliot put it in Burnt Norton, Feldman finds “the still point” without which “there would be no dance.” But it is a dance in excruciatingly slow motion that can sound boring as described, but is absorbing when experienced and heard; where background silence is as important as foreground, ever-so-careful sound.

With or without Feldman’s music as an alternative to focus on the breath, mindfulness meditation (with sufficient practice) is able to reduce the “chatter” in the brain — all the extraneous and debilitating ideas and judgments inside our head. And to accept life’s inevitable discomforts without so much of the suffering that we seem to add by our anxious anticipation, over thinking, hand wringing, and the belief that things must change in order to create a state of satisfaction.

The regular practice of that discipline attempts to assist us in finding contentment in the terms that life allows, not by virtue of some dramatic achievement or the elimination of all that most of us might wish were different. And, by helping anyone who frets about his own performance to focus on what is being performed (the music or the play or the speech he is giving) rather than the self, the actual execution of that work may reach the state that athletes describe when they are “in the zone” (or in a “flow” state*), fully captured by what they are doing (and achieving the best of which they are capable) rather than observing themselves doing it, or painfully aware that others might be watching critically.

Does Morton Feldman’s music have therapeutic value in the mindfulness enterprise or in dealing with performance anxiety, beyond its shimmering, otherworldly beauty? There is a Ph.D. dissertation or two waiting to be written on the subject, I’m sure. And wouldn’t it be ironic if a man who once said “Where in life we do everything we can to avoid anxiety, in art we must pursue it,” wrote music that might help refocus our troubled souls.

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*For a further description of the “flow” state, see my response to the first comment below.

Here is a short example of Feldman’s music, the first 15 minutes of “For Bunita Marcus:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-Kl0eOo1VU

Here is a 20-minute talk by a monk and master meditator about the benefits of brain-retraining that can come with meditation: Matthieu Ricard: The habits of happiness

The top image is a photo of Morton Feldman taken at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on May 31, 1976 during the Holland Festival. It is the work of Rob Bogaerts. The second image is a Digital Teleidoscope Animation by nadjas. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Long Road to Becoming Rich

Most of us are raised to believe the path to happiness is a simple one: get a good education, obtain a high status and well-paying  job, find the love of your life, have children, stay healthy, and do good in the world.

But what if you have done all these things and you are still not happy?

My friend “Rock” has given me permission to tell you his story. And his tale sheds some light on what can prevent life satisfaction and how you can find it after all.

Rock was a charming, active, and extraordinarily bright and curious little boy, the second of his parents’ two children. Both mom and dad had to work at a time when most middle class American families did well enough on a father’s salary alone, well enough to permit the mother a life at home raising the kids and keeping house. As a consequence, Rock was a “latch-key” child before the expression had been invented, coming back from school to an empty home, passing the lonely time until the after-work arrival of his parents.

The modesty of the family’s material life was no small annoyance to Rock’s mom, who was disappointed in her husband’s limited capacity as a bread-winner. Unfortunately, “Al” Adelstein had no defense against his wife’s repeated verbal assaults. He could do no better with his limited education than work in a hat factory. Purchasing a home was out of the question given the family’s finances, so Mrs. Adelstein faced the further disappointment of living in an apartment when most of her peers owned homes.

The spillover of her episodic avalanche of unhappiness and anger sometimes fell on little Rock.

Not only did he witness his mother’s tirades at his dad, but he discovered she had enough discontent left over to criticize and disapprove of him. Cruel pranks were not out of the question either, as on the day mom and son were waiting for a baby sitter. But, Mrs. A unexpectedly disappeared before the sitter arrived, driving the small boy to a near-panic state, believing he had been abandoned. At last, his mother emerged from her hiding place, laughing at the “joke” she played on her terrified child.

Nonetheless, our boy did surpassingly well at school.

After skipping a full year in grade school, he was to be the only National Merit Scholar in the group of nearly 600 unusually bright, motivated, and accomplished students who comprised the Mather High School class of 1964.  He placed second in both the City of Chicago and Illinois State Science Fairs, and went on to acquire degrees from three different Ivy League universities, the last of which produced a combined Ph.D/J.D., that is, simultaneous doctorates in Economics and Law.

In high school, he would sometimes say to me he hoped to achieve something great in his life.

But life is funny about such things, and our friend didn’t become famous.

Instead he went on to be a full professor and (for a time) Chairman in his Department of Economics at Wesleyan University, wrote scholarly papers (about 30 or so of these), gave talks nationally and internationally, and taught with passion and intensity, winning the first ever teaching award given by a school founded in 1831.

And just  to give you a sense of the scale of his achievement, he spent a year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, a place associated with names like Einstein and Oppenheimer.

But still, on some days he thought back to his high school wish to do something great and wondered if the really great thing would ever happen. Because, you see, nothing in the accomplishments I’ve mentioned — accomplishments that seemed so impressive to everyone else — was very satisfying to Rock. And the feeling of discontent he carried with him from childhood into the life of a university professor never left him. This, despite the good education, the high status and well-paying  job, the love of his wife Sandy, two adoring children, and the excellent health of all concerned.

He was, perhaps, a bit like Virginia Woolf’s Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse; like him, an academic; like him, unhappy. A man who had:

…a splendid mind. For if thought is like the keyboard of a piano, divided into so many notes, or like the alphabet is arranged in 26 letters all in order, then his splendid mind had no sort of difficulty in running over those letters one by one, firmly and accurately, until it had reached, say, the letter Q. He reached Q. Very few people in the whole of England ever reach Q… But after Q? What comes next? After Q there are a number of letters the last of which is scarcely visible to mortal eyes, but glimmers red in the distance.

For Rock, like Mr. Ramsay, there was always one more letter just out of reach.

…because, in effect, he had not done the thing he might have done.

It wasn’t something Rock talked about much, even to his closest friends. For him, like most men of our generation and before, the “athlete’s creed” is honored: don’t complain, don’t look back, just rub some dirt on your “injury” and keep playing the game — mind over matter, and the heart (and the hurt) be damned.

In the summer of 1998, my buddy and I took a long road trip from his home in Connecticut to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. It was the fulfillment of a childhood wish of two middle-aged baseball fans who were also two life-long friends.

And, it was a time to be together and talk.

Really talk.

When I’m alone with someone for a while, I often ask, “If you could have dinner with anyone in the history of the world, living or dead, who would it be?” You get some interesting answers. Jesus is mentioned a lot. Great writers and musicians are named along with other famous people of various kinds. But, Rock’s answer was a little bit different.

“Well, if I could really have dinner with anyone, I’d like to have dinner with my mother — I’d like to think she would believe I’d turned out pretty well in life.”

You see, Rock’s mother died just after he graduated from college, so she never knew about some of the items on his long list of achievements, although his Science Fair and National Merit Scholarship awards, not to mention his admission to M.I.T., all happened well before her death.

Our conversation didn’t stop with that question and, as our time passed on the road, I got to know more about Rock’s home life — the turmoil I related earlier.

One story in particular stands out.

In order to get to the University of Illinois campus at Champaign/Urbana, where the State of Illinois Science Fair was held, Rock had to carry his science project and take public transportation. While it was a bit of a chore, the return trip was sweet. Imagine, at age 16, you have placed second among all the potentially eligible students in the State!

And so it was that he walked in the door of his parents’ apartment, feeling pretty full of himself, beaming at the thought of his triumph; feeling what you feel when you are young and the sun is out and the day is glorious and your adrenaline is flowing and you are on top of the world.

His mother greeted him.

“How did you do?” she asked.

“I finished second in the State of Illinois!” he enthusiastically answered.

“Why not first?”

Before Rock and I reached the Hall of Fame, it was clear to both of us, I think, that the “great thing” he hoped to achieve would never be great enough to make him feel whole. And the roots of his unhappiness were to be found in the circumstances of his early life with his parents. Not even a Nobel Prize or a plaque in the very Hall of Fame we were to visit could have cured the sense of being insufficient to win the approval of his folks.

As the therapist he saw soon after would say to him, “The heart has no clock on it.” Meaning the injuries of childhood wait for us to attend to them. The wound is sometimes as fresh as the day it happened, even if 30 years have passed. And so, at last, the “athlete’s creed” was set aside through the hard work of therapy, and he was able to feel good about an adult life that, all along, had been good objectively.

My friend is one of the Zeolites, a small group of high school buddies — all members of the same park district softball team of years past — who created a college scholarship for the disadvantaged kids at our old school. And Rock has donated more money to it than just about anybody, as well as traveling from Connecticut to Chicago nearly every year to be with us and to be present at the scholarship ceremony, as many of the out-of-state Zeolites are.

He is a smart, funny, and decent man, a man of enormous emotional generosity, warmth, and good will.

Best of all, Rock’s story has a happy ending. Because, in fact, in the aftermath of therapy, his wife Sandy helped him realize the “great thing” was something he’d actually achieved long before.

Not the kind of greatness he expected to lead to fortune and fame, but the kind that sends generations of young people into the world who are somehow different and better because of his influence, and who even today frequently return to Middletown, Connecticut to let him know he was the teacher, the one teacher, who made a difference in their lives.

In 2007 we honored him at the annual dinner of the Mather Class of 1964/65 for the difference he made in the lives of the Zeolites and our class’s effort to make a difference in the lives of a few of Mather’s recent graduates. In addition, he received an engraved paperweight as a token of our affection and esteem.

Although he has given the scholarship an awful lot  of money, he is not wealthy in any conventional sense.

Rather, he is rich in the hearts of all those students whose lives he has touched.

He is rich in the love he has for his family and friends.

And he is rich in the love and respect his family and friends have for him.

It should be no wonder then, the inscription on the paperweight with which he was presented reads:

Rich Adelstein

…the noblest Zeolite of them all…

From the Mather Class of 1964 and 1965

And the Zeolites

May 4, 2007

The photo above is of Rich and Sandy Adelstein.

Money = Happiness? The Problem With Envy

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If seven is really a lucky number, you wonder why Pope Gregory (the Great) gave us Seven Deadly Sins in the 6th century: Pride, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, and Sloth.

Not, you will notice, Dopey, Grumpy, Doc, Happy, Bashful, Sneezy, and Sleepy. But then, he probably hadn’t seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

I would argue that envy is the most troublesome of the seven qualities mentioned by Gregory in the day-to-day life of the Western World, particularly in our commercial life. It plays a role, I will further argue, that pretty much guarantees our unhappiness.

And who better to hold responsible than the advertising industry. Whomever invented the notion of The American Dream, advertising has certainly shaped it.

The “dream” looks something like this. It includes a big house (usually in the suburbs) with the latest and finest appliances, multiple high-end cars, jewelry and finely tailored “fashion forward” clothing, computerized gadgets in our pockets, and a fat bank account. It is not simply success at “keeping up with the Joneses,” but surpassing them.

Schopenhauer put it neatly when he wrote that “a human being, at the sign of another’s pleasure and possessions, would feel his own deficiency with more bitterness.” The cure offered by “the American Dream?” It is to obtain those possessions, often including a comely and dashing partner, expecting that contentment will follow.

Joseph Epstein describes it well in his wonderful little book Envy (upon which this essay draws) when he notes that envy is akin to the question “Why me?” that is often asked by the victim of tragedy. But, since envy is triggered by others’ good fortune and material well-being, the question becomes: “Why not me?”

Envy is further related to thoughts regarding life’s unfairness and the notion that I deserve good fortune more than my less worthy neighbor or business associate.

Epstein notes that the advertising industry is little more than an “envy-inducing machine” designed to make us feel bad and promising a material cure that will make us feel good. However, since there are always people who have “more” than we do (and presumably deserve it less), we will forever be in the chase for the carrot at the end of advertising’s (and our neighbor’s) stick.

Envy assumes that “my life would be better if only…” and it is partially the basis of the alleged “class warfare” that has been going on in the USA for a while. TV, not to mention the internet and other vehicles of voyeurism, show us people flaunting their prosperity and their “life style,” and make it all appear pretty wonderful. We know how much people make for a living, where they reside, what cars they drive, and sometimes even the details of their tax returns. The “information highway” and its attendant loss of privacy fuels our envy.

There was a time in the Western World, no more than 50 years ago, when modesty was seen as a virtue and drawing attention to one’s prosperity was thought unseemly. Now, the material well-being of the luckiest of us is pretty much shoved down everyone else’s throat; ironically enough, at a time when a good many people can’t afford a good meal that would progress through that same orifice.

I half-way expect some well-fed figure in the half-baked Alaska of contemporary politics — someone who is advocating the end of unemployment benefits for those long out-of-work and out-of-luck — to echo the line attributed to Marie Antoinette. You will recall that when she was told that the people had no bread, she said, then “let them eat cake.”

Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, in a 2010 article in Psychological Science, provide data from 12,000 British adults which supports the notion that our tendency to compare ourselves to others is a problem. The authors found that “the rank position of an individual’s income within his reference group dominated the explanation of life satisfaction.” In other words, “satisfaction is gained from each ‘better than’ comparison and lost for each ‘worse than’ comparison.'” Moreover, they report that people tend to make comparisons to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than they make those comparisons to those below them.

This also implies that even if your income increases by a substantial amount, your sense of well-being might not substantially increase unless the extra salary changes your rank within the group of people you tend to measure yourself against (or unless your income is relatively modest to begin with, as noted below). If all incomes go up in your social or business cohort without changing your rank among these people, then you would not be expected to be happier, according to this line of thinking.

All this envy-induced pain might be justified by saying that it motivates people, makes them work hard, and that “in the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we are free to win the prize and defeat our envy by obtaining the prosperity that will unlock the door to happiness. And indeed, international ratings of life satisfaction put the USA quite high, but not as high as you’d think given our superior wealth.

The problem is that psychological research suggests that beyond $75,000 in annual income, you don’t get much hedonic bang for the additional buck. In other words, all the things you would buy with the extra money that your neighbor has but you don’t, won’t make your experience of life a lot more satisfying unless your income was modest in the first place.

What does this mean at a practical level? In the December 23, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel writes:

When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it…

Sound familiar? Remember the thing you couldn’t wait to get as a kid and how great the anticipation was? But once you have the thing it becomes part of the background of your life, yesterday’s news. Like kids who are thrilled with their gifts on Christmas, we adults are likely to put the toys on the shelf or to use them without much delight after just a little passage of time. But if the acquisition of such things is the way you try to fill yourself up, the danger is that you will try to buy more with the same unfortunate result.

The concept behind this tendency for the temporary “high” of the new refrigerator to diminish is called “hedonic adaptation.” Just like a foul smell noticed when you enter a room, if you stay in the room for a while your nose adjusts or “habituates” and the smell no longer seems so bad; indeed, you might not notice it at all. Just so, the momentary excitement of the new possession wanes before long.

Research suggests that we each have a relatively stable level of life satisfaction that cannot be sustained at a higher level by episodes or events of good fortune. Like rats, we are on a “hedonic treadmill,” having to work at the job of happiness just to keep up, unable to do much more than maintain a somewhat fixed degree of life satisfaction.

Ah, but hope is not dead. The ancient moral philosophers of Greece and Rome recommended less concern with status, wealth, and material things. Instead, they suggested more personal contentment would come from knowing yourself and improving your human qualities, performing social acts of virtue, civic involvement, and friendship.

The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi offers another path to satisfaction in lived experience. He has demonstrated the value of productive and engaging work that finds one “living in the moment,” unmindful of past and future because of being pleasantly engrossed in the present. He calls this the “flow” state, one in which you are completely focused and totally involved at a maximum level of performance and untroubled, positive feeling.

When you are in the “flow” state, you are “in the zone,” as the athletes would describe it.

Social scientists also remind us that married people are happier than those going solo, although it is unclear whether that is because of the positive influence of marriage on well-being, the possibility that people who are relatively happy are more likely to marry, or some other cause.

Last but not least, data analysis by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood in their 2010 article in Health Economics, Policy and Law found that a short-term course of psychotherapy is at least 32 times more effective than monetary awards in improving a sense of well-being among those who have experienced some form of injury or loss.

I’ve said enough. I imagine you are leaving for a therapy appointment already.

The above image is Envy, an engraving from Jacob Matham’s series The Vices, plate #5, ca. 1587. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.