Friday, July 30, 2010

DIARY 127 - Praising & Blaming

My most recent trip to visit my parents to celebrate their Diamond Wedding Anniversary, had all the usual hallmarks of the familial dynamic. My own inability to interact with my parents in a way that feels meaningful to me, is painful, and can suffuse such visits with an uneasy mixture of sentimental regret, guilt and frustrated tedium. 'Here he is again, the artistic, gay, vegetarian, Buddhist son, who lives in a Buddhist community, who we do love, but don't quite know how to relate to.'

True, my parents are now both into their eighties, and any likelihood of orchestrating a major change in my relationship with them has long since passed. This fossilisation, turns most visits into a practice of patient endurance - of the endless stories about people and events I know nothing about, and the brief token inquiries about how my life is going, that if you sighed too deeply you would miss. But we do live lifestyles almost completely alien to each other, so its no wonder we struggle to find common ground.

In response to a question about how Jnanasalin was doing, I start telling them about his forthcoming buying trip to China. Half way through my opening sentences, my Mother burst in with an exasperated 'Why can't you get a job like that, one with prospects for promotion'. This was followed by implications of having in some way fallen short of an unspoken expectation, by not having a job she can proudly boast about to their friends - and what was so bad about being a Customer Services Manager? - or working in a Crematorium anyway - though the latter was a bit weird, at least it was a secure job. All of these arise from a fundamental incomprehension about why I've chosen to live the life I do, and a really genuine concern for my job security considering the patchwork nature of my current employment.

I have rarely aspired to a conventional lifestyle, though it no doubt hides away somewhere in a corner of my psyche, brooding. Rarely a conscious rebel, more a circumstantial one, I've become used to not conforming to the norm. I've just tried to live a life with some personal integrity and purpose. My parents do undoubtedly desire the best for me, and want to see me happy, though how I chose to live my life bears no conventional form or price tag they can recognise - so from there own life experience and aspirations - how can I really be happy? It must be difficult for them to appreciate that there is a value in what I do.

The seeming insensitivity of my Mother's response, is rare, but not untypical. Neither is this feeling that I fall short, that what I do is never quite good enough. This sort of self-blame-frame without the praise, appreciation or encouragement to counter it, has sort of sealed in an expectation that whatever I do it will never be really appreciated. Partly I suspect this is a 'Northern Culture Thing' where praise or encouragement is rarely forthcoming. In the past this style of communication might have left me despondent. This time, though I could feel it burrowing about in the psychic undergrowth looking for something to latch onto and exploit, I didn't give it space or credence. Which has undoubtedly been a hard won achievement on my part, and is itself worthy of much praise.

I've since been reflecting on this poor self-esteem and confidence thing, that has often been my bete noire, and seen more clearly its origins. Since my involvement with Buddhism, I've come to know myself, my value, qualities and talents much much better. A lot of this the result of years of the positive feedback and affirming I've received from others, which challenged, and over time has weakened the full force of that negative self-view.

I do, however, still wrestle from time to time with not feeling fully appreciated. But who is ever fully appreciated? Praise in England, when it does come, can be faintly muttered almost under the breath, be muted, imprecise, fluffy edged or vague. This expression of praise can sometimes contain unexpressed qualifications, implied via subtle irony, or deprecations hidden in the choice of words. When someone says they find what you said 'interesting' or 'comprehensive', this tells you nothing about how that word should be interpreted, in what way is it 'interesting' or 'comprehensive'. I enjoy the company of folk from further flung parts of the world, because I don't have to read between the lines. They talk and express themselves more straightforwardly. If one is forced to read between the lines, an Englishman invariable does so in search of a veiled criticism, never a hidden accolade.

Looked at objectively, its not even that praise has been a rare thing in my life, there has been plenty of it around. It could be I don't allow it to touch me deeply enough. Rarely reaching the impregnable negative self view, presumably because I wont allow it to. Pondering on this has raised three further areas for reflection. Perhaps the only praise that can reach deep into negative self views will be praise from ones parents. It may be I should pay closer attention to how I receive praise when others give it. They might feel uneasy giving me praise, because I turn my gaze away, not hearing nor welcoming it openly. If I don't accept and take praise fully to heart, this probably does communicate itself subtly to others. Finally, how easily and freely do I myself give praise to others? For what comes around does go around.

From a Buddhist perspective, all this dwelling on Praise and Blame, will just further entangle me in this polarity, and all the other six Worldly Winds, of Loss and Gain, Fame and Infamy,Pleasure and Pain. I can see how in my desire to have or to avoid any one of these, I'm inevitable sucked into dealing with all of them. Praise - can be pleasurable, through it one gains in worth and self-esteem, and a fleeting illusory sense of position, status or importance. Blame - can be painful, one can lose confidence in oneself, cultivating an illusory sense of worthlessness.

What I've been exploring here, has been more about the consequences of praise and blame. Discovering in the process, how difficult it can be to talk about this area without falling into praising and blaming oneself. I have a better grasp now on why I sometimes react in the way I do. The Worldly Winds are still subtly inform my current way of behaving. What would I be like if I could ignore or be free of them? As Quentin Crisp once said - 'If there were no praise, and no blame, who would I be then?'

CD REVIEW - Laurie Anderson / Homeland

Well, this has been a long time coming. Laurie Anderson's last studio album 'Life on a String' was released way back in 2001. Judging from the accompanying DVD, 'Homeland' has had a complex genesis, starting from recording improvised live performances, that generated huge amounts of ideas that she then struggled to re-form into some sort of coherent shape. Anderson appears to work in an instinctual way, one that isn't fully thought through in advance, she feels her way forward. Though she may not be sure what the theme she's exploring is half the time, she has an unerring ear for what she wants, and what sounds 'true'. This is a gut sense of the 'truth', but one not fully reasoned out. This explains the often elliptical and fractured nature of the narrative strands, around which she weaves her songs and pieces. Its the feelings she conjures up out of this, that are the strength of her work, half the time intensely personal and human, the rest perplexed, is as if she's viewing us from some distant alien perspective.

Anderson, because of her art performance background, is in no way a traditional or reliable narrator. Are these stories true, or woven around a truth? The world she evokes is often a wryly bemused and ironic one, an illusory sense of being trivial or lightweight surrounds her work, because of the lilting wit with which she cloaks the strength of her views. Anderson has, as a consequence, been unfairly accused of lacking in depth,gravitas and substance, which overlooks the subtlety and deftness with which see hits her targets. 'Homeland' itself, is a more sombre, melancholic chamber piece, from a mature artist at the refined height of her powers of expression. In her earlier work, 'United States Parts 1 to 4' from 1983, she portrayed an oddly quirky and dislocated society, alienated from its own humanity and that of others, even your home could turn into something unfamiliar and life threatening. 'Homeland' has a constant tone of bereavement, of having totally lost any sense of wanting to belong to the society she now finds herself in. The Bush years, the response to 9/11, the Iraq war, the US attitude to climate change, the credit crunch, have all taken there toll. Over the space of 17 years, people in the USA have gone from being dislocated, to becoming the dispossessed.

Anderson for many decades has used a voice filter to produce what she called 'the voice of authority.' This masculinised voice has now developed into a complete alter-ego, given the name Fenway Bergamot' by her husband Lou Reed. The eleven minute long track 'Another Day In America' is his world weary poetic musing on where on earth America could go from here, the optimism surrounding Obama's arrival has raised larger questions -

'And so finally, here we are at the beginning of a whole new era. The start of a brand new world. And now what? How do we start? How do we begin again?

When the only lifestyle you're offered is a consumerist/materialist one, what does that do to your sense of purpose, your joie de vivre - the issues become more existential and hence spiritual in tone.

'And ah these days. All these days! What are days for? To wake us up. To put between the endless nights."

Often the political surfaces in Anderson's work through the personal, through the tales that she tells. But here, she directly hits out, particularly on ' Only an Expert' at the cultural and political passivity that makes experts to be the final arbiters on whether something is a problem or not, and then to present us with the ready made solution. Can we trust these 'voices of authority' any more, because they've been proved to have feet clay, because they have vested interests, because they want to keep things just as they are. No one is speaking truthfully, every one has a forked tongue.

' Now sometimes experts lend you money, and sometimes they lend you lots of money, and sometimes when the sub-prime mortgages collapse, and banks close and businesses fail, and the crisis spreads around the world -sometimes other experts say: just because all the markets crashed, doesn't mean its necessarily a bad thing.'

'And other experts say: just because all your friends were fired, and your family's broke and we didn't see it coming, doesn't mean that we were wrong.'

'And just because you lost your job and your home and all your savings, doesn't mean you don't have to pay for the bailouts, for the traders and the bankers and the speculators. Cause only an expert can design a bailout, and only an expert can expect a bailout.'

Anderson may not define herself as a Buddhist, nor actively practice Buddhism, but her contact with, and understanding of Buddhism is there - it informs her view, and seeps through via her words. The opening track the impressive 'Transitory Life' is a heart felt ode on the impermanence of existence.

'Afraid to breathe, afraid to rise, we run and run in this transitory life. Tipped off balance we fall like light. We land on water in this transitory life. We fall like light on water and water turns to ice. Everything keeps changing in this transitory life.'