Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way–Growth | Spotlight: Russian Circles

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I share many of the posts from that blog when I write them, as they fit in well here too. This one is about Nietzsche’s philosophy as an inspiration for an energetic/emotional stance towards life, for instance. At the beginning of the year, I wrote a post on the best albums of 2021 in post-rock, so I recommend checking that out if you find the music in this post interesting.


The cool air of fall blew off the sea onto my face as I walked through my darkened neighborhood last night with Russian Circles’ live album, Live at Dunk! Fest, driving my steps. I was pondering what exactly to say for this post. Last week offered a great opportunity that I had awaited for years, seeing this power trio live for the first time. They’ve been my most listened to band for the last few years, since I got into them. I have listened to almost only their music since this concert was announced. Even though my expectations were somewhere up in the stratosphere near where the upper atmosphere borders space, these guys didn’t disappoint. It would not be an understatement for me to say that this concert and all the experiences around it made my year.

Between that and the fact that my last post about Russian Circles brought confused feedback from friends, finding it too difficult and dense, I thought it would be good to describe their dynamism again in a different way. If one band warrants that focus, they do.

When I was walking and pondering last night, the songs on the album while looking down on the dark, moonlit water of the sea brought back moments from the concert. The particular song to pull at me first was Afrika. As I said last time, “Guidance” is the album I find to be the band’s best, but Afrika is the point where the movement of the first 3 songs starts to chill a bit. However, in the concert, the rolling drums of this song grabbed me and made me feel like I was flying in a way that felt like a therapeutic moment for a lot of recent life. I remember thinking that I never realized just how much I needed this song.

How do you express a feeling like this without riffing on big ideas that would probably take too much background reading or explanation? Furthermore, how do you do it with a band that’s as sparse and cryptic, completely left up to interpretation, as Russian Circles? I’m going to do this by trying to delineate the atmosphere that resonates in this band’s songs and then try to analyze that down to it’s movement and energy as two focal points.

The overarching atmosphere that is in Russian Circles’ albums is a feeling of intense, crushing circumstances yet adapting and growing beyond them, shining above them. The already mentioned song, Afrika, is a great example of this. I spoke of this at length in my last post. For me, Russian Circles’ albums feel like a destruction that leads to new flourishing, creation, and hope. If I were to use another anchor point rather than Nietzsche, I would use the ideas of the Tower card and the Star card as ideas here – the destruction of an existing order opens the way for the hope of the new, a light in the darkness.

To expand or express this differently, I’d like to re-center on two focal points within that atmosphere. First, the movement of their music is a moving onward. Second, and in resonance with the first, the energy feels to be that of growth. To me, again in relation to ideas from tarot, this feels like the powerful abundant dynamism of “Empress energy”, basically an abundance of life force as flourishing in most every sense. Ironically, when thinking of this further, I realized that the name of one of Russian Circles’ albums is “Empros” which means forward or onward in Greek(and sounds a lot like Empress). So, to reiterate the previous concepts here and in the earlier post: their songs are a moving beyond that which presses down on us with a feeling of growing out of it or above it.

Funnily enough, when I saw them live, I waited for an autograph afterward, and I chatted with others waiting outside. One of the other fans was thrilled that they had played Youngblood from “Station” because the entire album had helped her through a dark chapter of her life. I couldn’t agree more. Songs like Micah, Ethel, Vorel, and others have had the exact same resonance for me precisely because of the dynamics I described above.

In trying to choose a single song to exemplify this, I thought of Mlàdek, especially because it is from that album, “Empros”. Also, it was the final song of their set when I saw them. This song speaks of that forward movement and that growing outward, in spite of the many challenges we face. Beyond that something about this song in particular makes me fully feel the image and quote from The Dhammapada I wanted to use to sum up everything I’ve said here about growing and shining within and beyond adverse circumstances:

As a sweet-smelling lotus
Pleasing to the heart
May grow in a heap of rubbish
Discarded along the highway,
So a disciple of the Fully Awakened One
Shines with wisdom
Amid the rubbish heap
Of blind, common people

The Dhammapada, Chapter 4: Flowers, lines 58-59; trans. – Fronsdal.

Studio version of Mlàdek:

Live album of RC at Dunk! Fest 2016. Mlàdek starts at roughly 53:00:

Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way–Transformation | Überwindung und Übergang

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I share many of the posts from that blog when I write them, as they fit in well here too. This one is about Nietzsche’s philosophy as an inspiration for an energetic/emotional stance towards life, for instance. At the beginning of the year, I wrote a post on the best albums of 2021 in post-rock, so I recommend checking that out if you find the music in this post interesting.


Ich lehre euch den Übermenschen. Der Mensch ist Etwas, das überwunden werden soll. Was habt ihr gethan, ihn zu überwinden?

English: I teach you about the Overhuman. The human is something that should be overcome (Note: “überwunden” – post’s title, “Überwindung”, is the related noun). What have you done to overcome it?

Nietzsche, “Also sprach Zarathustra”, Erster Teil, Abschnitt 3 von Projekt Gutenberg, English my translation

Was gross ist am Menschen, das ist, dass er eine Brücke und kein Zweck ist: was geliebt werden kann am Menschen, das ist, dass er ein Übergang und ein Untergang ist.

Ich liebe Die, welche nicht zu leben wissen, es sei denn als Untergehende, denn es sind die Hinübergehenden.

English: What is great in the human is that it is a bridge and no goal. What can be loved in the human is that it is a going-over (Note: “Übergang” as in title) and a going-under.

I love those who only know to live as one who goes under, as they are those who go over.

Nietzsche, “Also sprach Zarathustra”, Erster Teil, Abschnitt 4 von Projekt Gutenberg, English my translation

As a precursor, I have to open this with a clarification of stance and intention. Russian Circles vies for the place of my favorite band. I’ve listened to them more than any other band for the last few years, and I’m thrilled that they will be touring through here next week. I’ve been waiting to see them live for years. I’ve written about them one time previously here, but I haven’t even touched on the depth of meaning and empowerment they inspire in me. This post will be a rough attempt at that, riffing on some ideas from Nietzsche and the Stoics that came to mind last night.

I was going down stairs last night with a weighted vest on, having pushed myself to climb up them multiple times with that extra weight. My legs ached. Such is the pain of pushing oneself to the limit through bearing extra heaviness. Perhaps Nietzsche’s own Spirit of Heaviness from Zarathustra echoed in the recesses of my nonconscious mind, as I flashed on the “Untergang” of going down the stairs in the darkness, the going-under. My mind jumped between Nietzsche’s own strong usage of the term (as above) and its connection to the overcoming and overgoing/going-over of the Overhuman (Übermensch) as well as a philosophical friend pointing out years ago that Plato’s Republic begins with Socrates going down out of the city to the manor for the festival and party where the dialogue takes place. That connection always feels both random and not accidental every time I think of it, somehow.

As I thought of these things, Russian Circles’ Memorial played in my ear buds. Even with their magnificent recent release, and despite the fact that I would say Guidance is their best album, Memorial is the album that I listen to the most with them. It’s haunting – literally and figuratively: literally because it’s an album that stays in your mind after listening; figuratively because it is about grieving and that ambience dominates throughout the album, so it is about the specters of the past.

I’ve wanted to write about this band and find a particular song to focus on for some time. In the past year, I’ve been obsessed with “Micah” from Enter, “Vorel” from Guidance, and “Harper Lewis” from Station among so many excellent songs. I could pick multiple songs from any of their albums to speak about, so it’s really difficult to pick one to summarize a message and a feeling that I sense carries across their albums, despite their very different tones and technical explorations in each.

Recently, I was on another walk, the first with that physical version of the Spirit of Heaviness, the weighted vest, and I was also listening to Memorial. When I hit “Ethel”, I felt so incredibly empowered in the way that I can only describe as a Nietzschean overcoming and overgoing, what I always associate with light feet. I wrote about this long ago in a grad school class where I wrote aphorismically about therapy and existentialism:

12) Healing thyself.  As Nietzsche said: “Everything good is instinctive – and consequently light, necessary, free.  Effort is an objection, gods and heroes belong to different types (in my language: light feet are the first attribute of divinity)”.  Light feet as divinity – a revelation!  Feeling the weight of heaviness keeps us from running, dancing, flying…  We encounter the suffering of others all the time, but we are more than just vessels for suffering.  Staying healthy requires a lightness of foot, mind, and soul, rather than the heaviness of disease; it requires a quick, easy readiness to laugh!  Remember that to heal oneself is a dance with the abundant radiance that is in oneself, in the Other – “You”, and in the world.  Light feet…  

Writing mine. Quote from Nietzsche: Nietzsche, F. (2002).  Beyond Good and Evil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thinking of all these moments last night, the Nietzschean contrast of going-under and going-over, undergoing and overgoing, came to me as the dynamic pull to describe in Russian Circles’ music. All of their work feels like a facing difficulty and moving forward through it, a being destroyed and reborn, a Stoic resolve (a supposed Nietzschean influence, although I find him to be at the very least an early modern/existentialist reimagining of the attitude; Deleuze was right in emphasizing the dynamism of Nietzsche’s energetics affirmation and transformation: that’s precisely what’s at play with the transformation of destruction, going-under, into a positive creation and affirmation of the entire process, going-over). I remember doing a lot of research into Russian Circles’ message some time ago, and I swear that one of the band members said something very similar of Guidance, but returning to the search today, I can’t find it. I did, however, find this echo in a review of Guidance that summarizes this dynamic march of strength and resolve well: ” Guidance is another steady step in their journey, a record that bears the artwork of that photo packet that came into the band’s possession, trying to paint a portrait of strength and dignity even in the face of hell” (Meat Mead Metal Album Review, July 2016). That review is fantastic because it gives an explanation of the evocative album cover of Guidance. It’s an image of a man being marched to his execution: hence the portrait of strength and dignity even in the face of hell. Furthermore, nothing is more existentialist (think of Camus’ The Stranger or Nietzsche’s concept of the Eternal Return). The thing is, that strength and dignity is what I get in every Russian Circles album albeit with different overtones and undertones, different supporting themes and feelings around it. That stance is there throughout: an overcoming and overgoing, eine Überwindung und Übergang.

Again, “Ethel” is a fantastic example of this. It’s a song full of major key energy in the midst of an album exploring the various layers of grief. It’s only a couple songs before the final song, a song where Russian Circles has a guest vocalist who sings of going crazy and grieving the heartbreak of the past, questioning the validity and intensity of that experience, while undergoing it. “Ethel” in contrast feels like someone dancing and climbing mountains, no matter the weight, overgoing in precisely the way I aspired to in running up stairs while wearing a weighted vest.

I hope to write more about Russian Circles after seeing them next week and about that track with vocals, but at this point, I think I’ve summarized the theme and feeling well enough to leave you with “Ethel” as a song to experience and hope you will check out the rest of that album and their discography in general.

Philosophy Riffing | Virtue Ethics Revisited, Interdependent Origination, & Kindness

I return to philosophy riffing after a long hiatus. This session had a lot of meandering ideas. I’m not sure I expressed much succinctly, but I enjoyed the associations and efforts to explain some things. If nothing else, I think this was sweet, well-intentioned, and inspirational of some fresh thoughts and learnings for others.

Poetry | Nostalgic Stirrings

I wrote this a few weeks ago for a friend. I can’t recall the prompt or challenge, but it succinctly captures some experiences and ideas I’ve explored on this blog in the last year – love, loss, remembrance – while riffing on a lot of references including posts I’ve written over years without any sense of name-dropping. In a way, it’s a short, poetic expression of my first intentionally recorded philosophy riffing post on my birthday last year (my most joyous birthday present to myself). I had a sense that my friend would never listen to that much longer description, and I think this poem did a decent enough job of capturing the same experience from a slightly different perspective now.

I honestly wasn’t going to share this poem, but I’m currently getting better from COVID, and I saw it on my computer randomly a couple days back. The words took me aback. Something about the feeling of growing onward into health and flourishing makes me feel like it’s an affirmation to share it, even if I doubt my own stepping out of the Moon card into the Sun card will be anything like the experience described.


Synchronicity, resonance in time
An abstract word
Until our heartbeats entwined
As though from plan designed
Ideas absurd
But doubting the experience – a crime

Together was a new understanding
Of life, of love
An explosion of heart
And the sense of flying high
Wings spread on the warm wind,
Gliding along,
Companionship of brightest warmth
Of greatest power

I held her once
Lying in the dark, listening to a chorus
Frenetic frolick of froggy frenzy
Spring’s promise

My heart-mind fell away
My body ceased to be
Universal presence
Hyperabundance – no longer her and me
No us, no separation
Just everything: love loving itself
The lightning bolt of flashing into being

The night was the most chaste
No kissing, fondling, or exploring erotic arts
And yet
An intimacy more profound
Than many ever experience

From time to time
Sounds – frogs, the wind, laughter, birds’ chirping
Resonate
And synchronicity momentarily returns
The beautiful sound of hyperabundant love
Playing the heartstrings for a few fleeting seconds

Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way — A New Cycle | Spotlight: Coastlands

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I felt it must be shared, as the song I highlight and the experience I had in the described concert really resonate with the last post I just wrote. I recently wrote a post on the best albums of 2021 in post-rock, so I recommend checking that out if you find the music in this post interesting.


This last weekend, I had the pleasure of a short road trip to attend the Post-Rock and Friends Fest in Portland, OR. I had a chance to see a few bands live whom I’d been wanting to see for years. I’m going to write two posts about this regarding the two bands that really grabbed my heart.


One of my favorite post-rock albums of 2020 was Death by Coastlands. Here’s what I wrote on my 2020 best albums review:

Prepare to face the destruction of death in this album. Coastlands goes full post-metal and crushes you without falling into the standard doomy dynamics that post-metal can get stuck in. It’s epic, empowered, and gorgeous. This came out near my birthday, and it ended up being a perfect birthday present.

Retrospective | Best Post-Rock Albums of 2020

Returning to this album a couple years later for an intensive listen brought so many new layers of interpretation and experience. The last year has been a long slog through a cycle of death for me (in the sense of facing the end of the old). My sense of who I was has died. My sense of purpose has died. My ability to stand up again, walk forward, and move on has been challenged, time and again. In that time, tarot cards have been a meaningful self-care tool for solace, insight, and a sense of meaning when things have felt meaningless.

One of the key cards in the high arcana is the Death card. If you are unfamiliar with the tarot, you’ll possibly pause with some trepidation at that, but Death is more than a card that says someone around you will die. It’s a card about the end of an old cycle and a transition into a new one. Life is a vibrant unfolding of change, and a key component of the new coming forward in change is the old ending and disappearing. That’s what death is. As I put it in one of my favorite poems in the early days of my other blog:

Birth, birth, birth

           &

Death, death, death

—  In every moment

    With each heartbeat & breath

A Human Becoming

Coastlands’ album overflows with this energy of change, empowerment, flow, and growth through the death of the old. Every song has heavy, crushing power, but there are major key aspects as well where the lotus blossom grows in the detritus at the side of the road (image from the early passages of the Dhammapada – a chapter with overtones of living well in the face of the transitoriness of life, interestingly enough). The dirge has just as much of a joyous affirmation. It’s a recognition that one’s going over is a going under (Nietzschean riff – early Zarathustra).

I know that this post is dropping a lot of references, so let’s return to the band and the album concretely – seeing Coastlands live emphasized all of this I’m saying. I overflowed with energy and intensity, and I was even more impressed after the concert when speaking with the bassist and realizing that the band’s sound has changed and developed in the last couple albums as the lineup has changed, and new experimentation and growth is already shining through in the little that’s been revealed about their upcoming album. They are harnessing the strength of a new cycle – transitioning with change, the blockages that the last couple years have thrown at all of us in so many ways, and other various challenges of individual and group lives. They take these and shine. That’s the opportunity of the Death card.

Two versions of the Death card – Crowley’s from the Thoth Deck, which shows the cutting off of the old, and a more current reimagining of the Thoth deck, the Wayward Dark, by an artist in Portland (hence the choice here)

I want to showcase the final song of Death as a share here. The song “Marrow” starts with a sorrowful chorus of voices and doomy guitar riffs with discordant static from the amps. It grows into a heavy crescendo of guitar and drums. The old has been cut off, and we’re to the marrow deep in the bones of the broken. Then the song shifts to a more pensive, flowing guitar on top of the heaviness it pulls us along beyond that first stage into something more, something that survives. That’s the true power in that marrow*. It’s the potential to stand up again and make something new.


*One last spiritual geek aside on Marrow – I can’t help but be reminded of the story of Bodhidharma’s successor, Huike, who cut off his arm to gain Bodhidharma’s tutelage. Later on, Bodhidharma passed on his “marrow” in recognizing the transmission of his teaching to Huike.

Poetry | Instrumental Music

I wrote this poem as a brief, spontaneous creative exercise from a prompt. I didn’t make a second pass to polish. It’s simply an impromptu response that took a few minutes. I thought it worth sharing. It feels particularly poignant, as I’m excited to go to a post-rock mini-festival this weekend.

The prompt:
1. Paint your lyrics on my canvas
2. Between a rock and a soft place

Music without words
Flows
An emotional landscape
The whole body reverberates as a canvas
For the instruments to paint
Their “lyrics” on
A symphony of sensation
Beyond words

The mind is hard
Seeking certainty, truth, and absolutes
It crushes down to powder and cuts to pieces
With sharp edges and a hard core
The heart is soft
Feeling and beating with the world
It touches and is touched by all
With connection and the break of disconnect

The right music
Tickles the beating heart’s feeling
And defies the ready capture of the mind
Drifting between them
Inspiring the greatest power of both
Defying both’s petrification
It is unstoppable
Between that rock and a soft place

Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way – Hymn | Spotlight: Sigur Rós

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I felt it must be shared, as the song I highlight and the experience I had in the described concert really resonate with the last post I just wrote. I recently wrote a post on the best albums of 2021 in post-rock, so I recommend checking that out if you find the music in this post interesting.


Last night, I saw another post-rock legend, Sigur Rós, and like in the experience of my previous post on Mono, I was left feeling touched in a way that’s difficult to describe – nearly moved to tears on multiple occasions. This surprised me, as even though they’re revered by many in the genre, I’ve never been deeply into Sigur Rós. I wanted to share a bit more about this experience.

First, I want to repeat a quote that came from Taka, the songwriter for Mono, regarding the spiritual experience that music can present:

“Music is about experiences,” Goto says. “Witnessing extremely loud sounds live is one type of experience. It’s almost like seeing a spark of thunder in a quiet night sky, then hearing the echoes of loud thunder. It’s beautiful, yet crushing – an unusual experience.”

“At the same time, subliminal music is extremely spiritual. Every sound and melody start to soak into every cell in your body, takes them subconsciously and moves them. Music can speak to everyone more eloquently than words. It’s close to philosophy. It’s a gift from God.”

Taka, from this story

Watching Sigur Rós evoked precisely this sentiment in me a few times throughout the performance, even though I wasn’t that familiar with their oeuvre. The super-fans around me were much more amped, clearly experiencing every note deeply and profoundly, much like I did in seeing Mono recently, but even at a more basic connection, the supreme artistry and intensity of this band moved me in similar ways with certain songs.

Personally, as a post-rock super-fan who has grown much more deeply into darker emotional soundscapes with very technical instrumentation over the last few years (for instance, Russian Circles is my most listened to band of the last two years), I found Sigur Rós’ instrumental aspect a bit more lackluster. It truly hinges around Jonsi’s amazing vocals to really create the emotional soundscapes that awe the listener.

Furthermore, this still fits post-rock in the way my first post on this blog outlined, as they have played with language to move beyond any easily understood concepts, even pressing a gibberish, created language into many songs to push beyond the barriers of language into an emotive space that the listeners are meant to resonate with and fill in the meaning themselves. This article really digs into that well.

For me, the songs that moved me were the songs in a major key, where the instrumentation resonated fullest with the falsettos of Jonsi’s voice. These songs gave me goosebumps and teary eyes, feeling like there was some deep cleansing of heart at play. They felt much like Taka’s description above, but the incomprehensible vocals that expressed emotion more than actual words pull the heart along like some sort of transcendent hymn to human experience. As Taka said, those moments are a gift from God.

There is probably no greater example of this for me from the set than Sæglópur from Takk… Takk means “thanks” in Icelandic, and Sæglópur means “lost seafarer”. The song is a mix of Icelandic and the band-created Hopelandic. It is one of their more well-known songs. I have been aware of it for years.

In listening to this song, you’ll likely feel a lot of emotions in the delicate, lonely beauty of the beginning and the crashing intensity when the rock experimentation in sound comes to the fore in mid-song. It pulls at the seeking heart, yearning for solace, facing challenge and pain, and continuing to press onward.

It’s a hymn to the human heart, and that feeling is what shone through for me with Sigur Rós time and again. The songs that felt like existential hymns, every last one of them evoked a sigh from the audience when they were over. That’s a spiritual experience that goes beyond words.

Healing | Impermanence and the Lack of Return

I’ve healed past the worst of depression in the last few months, but I find myself in a difficult place that’s hard to understand. I still wish I were dead. I feel like I’m just waiting for my life to march forward, one day at a time until my consciousness blinks out. I don’t really have any joie de vivre, rather a goal of trying to become wiser and tune into the ebb and flow of the mystery of existence while showing up for the other lives around me.

I’ve talked about this a few times on the blog before – the problem of the metaphor of “healing”. People speak of it as though you’ll return to how you used to be, but that’s a very limited conceptualization of healing. I’ve thought of it more in terms of other, physical healing I’ve been struggling with.

Last summer, I was in the best running shape I’ve been in in probably 15 years. I was getting faster and faster, more and more enduring, and simply poised. My goal was to run a marathon, and I was ahead of schedule and pace.

Then, I pulled a hamstring. A few weeks later, I started again and immediately had intensive calf problems. Every run felt like my calves were going to cramp with every single step. Eventually, I gave up on the marathon and shifted to minimalist shoes – I used to wear them all the time and had greater leg strength and balance because of it.

Not long after that, I started having Achilles tendonitis. First in one leg and then the other. Since December, I’ve been fighting and hobbling along as best as I can for one or two runs a week, getting stronger through care and a strong sense of resolve, but one Achilles simply will not fully heal. I would walk around like an old man with one good leg for most of the week, heal, and then run and repeat the cycle.

About a month ago, I realized I could get a compression sleeve to assist. It’s made a huge difference. I can walk around without much any pain and normal gait. I can run with only a slight pain at the start. It’s almost like my Achilles is normal, and the sense of a nodule near the heel has slowly dissipated. However, I can only go roughly a day without it, and it doesn’t feel completely normal. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to walk normally again without some brace to support my foot.

In healing past everything I’ve gone through, have I returned to some version of myself prior to my experiences? Some chipper, confident guy who believed in love, partnership, and the good intentions of others in relationship with a hope about life and the future? No, I haven’t. Not in the slightest. I’m still pained and tortured on a deeper level, and I don’t know how to change that. I only get through due to a lot of developed self-care, the loving care of those in my life who do value me and see me, and the constant presence of my cat as well as my family. In a sense, it’s like the sleeve – if I don’t connect to these supports constantly, I quickly fall apart, unable to bear all the memories, doubts, and feelings of unworthiness.

The funny thing is that shattering pain has made me feel deeper and kinder than I’ve been in the past, and I can’t really imagine going back to normal in some way that covers over the vulnerability and compassion I’ve felt from it. A couple quotes recently really brought that to the fore, affirming my efforts and dispelling some of the doubts I’ve had about myself, which I’ll share briefly below, but I want to summarize this post with a clear point first.

Healing isn’t some river of Lethe forgetting and return to some previous before. Our lives and experiences are integrated in a complicated growth and decay of impermanence – change. In a very real sense, the body and heart keep the score, and healing back to some enhanced functionality may never be complete like it was before, but like some sort of psychological kintsugi, the art of mending may leave the need for supports that hold the cracks together or an inability to do like previously, but with some fortuitous circumstances, it may sometimes also leave some golden, shining new beauty.

In my own case, all I can do is continue on, doing my best for myself and others, with patience and care for the entire process.

As the Kotzker Rebbe, a nineteenth century Hasidic rabbi, said: “There is no heart more whole than a broken one.”

Sent by a friend, uncertain origin

Sublimation happens when we are no longer attached to our pain. It is not that our pain vanishes, nor that we become immune. Tender sentiments continue to flow and, in fact, appreciation of beauty intensifies. When we are no longer consciously and deliberately fighting it, the pain itself is reconfigured into the very substance of compassion and sensitivity.

Thus, in the work of these three great masters [Saigyō, Hōnen, and Dōgen], we see a pathway out of tragedy that transforms its energy into the signs of enlightenment, signs that do not designate a sterile and frigid person, but one full of feeling and tender. It is this transformation and this process that Dōgen seeks to explicate in Genjō Kōan.

The Dark Side of the Mirror: Forgetting the Self in Dōgen’s Genjō Kōan by David Brazier, p. 37

May this help those who need it.

Gassho!

Cross-Post: The Post-Rock Way – Transformation | Spotlight: Mono

This post was originally on my other blog about exploring spirituality and philosophy through post-rock music. I recently wrote a post on the best albums of 2021 in post-rock, so I recommend checking that out if you find the music in this post interesting.


Earlier this week, I went to see my favorite band live for the 4th time: Mono. Up to the concert, I’d had some mixed feelings due to personal history, but I came out of the concert feeling deeply cleansed. Here’s what I wrote on Instagram:

Words cannot capture how much this concert from my favorite band, @monoofjapan , meant to me tonight. I nearly cried several times through what truly felt like a pilgrimage of the soul. The artistry is so powerful it breaks your heart wide open. At the end, an encounter with a friend led to us staying for autographs, and I got a copy of the first Mono album I fell for as a piece to sign and frame. So thrilled for every moment of this night. #postrocklive #concert #musicasspiritualexperience

To be clear, as this might just feel like fanboyish excitement: Mono’s newest album is called “Pilgrimage of the Soul“, and it’s inspired in part by William Blake’s poem, “Auguries of Innocence“. Lines from the earliest section of the poem are regularly quoted as inspirational and highlight Blake’s spiritual aspirations/virtues. In fact, not only are several song titles based on these lines, an audio clip of a reading of the poem played at one point, closing out a song in the set.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Auguries of Innocence, opening lines

The set was interspersed with tracks between this album and the previous, “Nowhere, Now Here“. The feelings of nature and pushing to greater heights of a spiritual pilgrimage had the counterpoints of the more minor key of the previous album, and the balance was stunning. Beyond this, there were a couple classics: Halcyon and Ashes in the Snow (arguably Mono’s best song).

In thinking of my experience, the album, and Mono’s greater discography, I realized that this idea of transformation in the strongest, most beautiful sense, although one facing the challenges of suffering and sadness, is something I’ve always taken from Mono’s work, and I’m convinced it’s a dynamic thread throughout. Their first album is titled “Under the Pipal Tree”, a direct reference to the Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree (the Pipal Tree). The Buddha’s spiritual journey is one of recognizing the problem of suffering in the life of all sentient beings and seeking peace in response to it.

Subsequent releases riff on problems like this, thinking on fantastic takes of the connection with others, the remembrance of family, dealing with disappointment, and a sojourn through Hell.

A much younger me discovered “Hymn to the Immortal Wind” (the album I refer to in my Instagram post), and the experimentation of rock crossed with classical orchestra with a delay-laden tremolo lead guitar, immediately got through this focus on nature, humanity, connection, and heart/soul. It was a turning point in my life, from which I’ve never been the same, and furthermore, after which, I’ve struggled to share these feelings with others. My trepidation at the concert was grief: a feeling of sharing that having been lost.

However, with the opening riff of the first song, “Riptide“, and the subsequent shift to crushing power and speed, I felt all my clinging of attachment unmoored, and this feeling of having my narrative torn apart by beauty, by majesty, and my sheer, powerful abundance of all that is, came through multiple times, leaving me nearly in tears.

There are few post-rock bands as masterful as Mono, and Taka’s songwriting and presence on stage are nothing short of genius, and this kind of spiritual experience is intentional in their music, especially live. As Taka said when touring for “Requiem for Hell”:

“Music is about experiences,” Goto says. “Witnessing extremely loud sounds live is one type of experience. It’s almost like seeing a spark of thunder in a quiet night sky, then hearing the echoes of loud thunder. It’s beautiful, yet crushing – an unusual experience.”

“At the same time, subliminal music is extremely spiritual. Every sound and melody start to soak into every cell in your body, takes them subconsciously and moves them. Music can speak to everyone more eloquently than words. It’s close to philosophy. It’s a gift from God.”

Taka, from this story

This quote summarizes both my feelings about post-rock’s intensity of expression and the intensity of Mono’s live shows. I highly recommend exploring the spiritual experience of transformation that their music offers.

Lojong Slogan Practice: #1 – Train in the Preliminaries

I’m taking up the challenge of going through Atisha’s 7 point training of the mind from Tibetan Buddhism and will attempt to write a breakdown for every one of the associated 59 slogans. I hope this will add depth and a movement towards effortlessness, sudden meditative non-meditation, and well, healing for myself and offer a breakdown of each slogan in the hope that it will help others as well.


I actually wrote on this slogan a while back when writing about struggling with suicidal thoughts. That post had some good insights, but I thought it worth returning to this slogan with the purpose of intentionally grouping and setting off the slogans and to pay this slogan the respect it deserves.

Honestly, that in itself is easily overlooked. I have five commentaries on the slogans, and many skip past this in a very brief description. Pema Chödrön doesn’t even address the four parts of the preliminaries, and Trungpa doesn’t speak much further to them than that and tying it to guru practice, but in that regard he is right in line with the scriptural master, Jamgön Kongtrül. Dzigar Kongtrül, on the other hand, as well as Norman Fischer, speak at length about the four preliminaries and the full reason why they are crucial for us to understand in moving forward in Lojong practice. They are the mindset needed to cultivate bodhicitta and walk the path of the bodhisattva.

This slogan is the first and only slogan associated with the first of the seven points of mind training.

The descriptions I’ve read for this slogan break down “the preliminaries” into four parts. I summarized them in my own words years ago and still have the post-it note I used at the time to do it. It’s on my fridge (and is pictured in the other post). I’m going to take this as a chance to revise and express them again in the hope of capturing more nuance and empowering them better in my own words for my own understanding.

  1. Human life is an especially rare and precious gift; a human life able to encounter and practice the dharma even more so
  2. We here must die, and we know not when
  3. All action, speech, and thought are entwined with results: all action, speech, and thought are karmic
  4. Samsaric existence is one of dukkha

I had intended to really tie aspects of the Dhammapada into the last of these, but I just did it with 2, 3, and 4. In reading through these and thinking about how to present them here, I decided I think it’s better to reorder them for a structure of mindset, and I hope this will become clear below.

I propose we approach these in the order of 4,3,1,2. The reason to start with 4 is that it represents the entry point to the entire Buddhist path. It’s a marker that points to the first of the Four Noble Truths, and thereby all of the Four Noble Truths. Some summaries of Buddhism emphasize the importance of this teaching, as it’s the first teaching the Buddha gave after attaining enlightenment, and it’s his diagnosis of the spiritual/existential problem of human life and the cure for said ailment – the eightfold path. In a sense, it’s his greatest moment of being a medicine Buddha, and it is accurate to claim that it is the summary of all of his teaching.

Furthermore, in recognizing and accepting the Four Noble Truths as a starting point, a practitioner should also be compelled to take refuge in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha, which is key in moving forward with the mindset of the other preliminaries and the later slogans’ focus on bodhicitta. This preliminary is the starting point: one must recognize there is a spiritual problem to address in order to undertake the spiritual journey like the Buddha and become a bodhisattva oneself. Without this first step, the other preliminaries and, honestly, Buddhist practice in general don’t have much purpose behind them.

We should look at 3 next because it is another foundational basic of the Buddha’s teachings. The opening lines of the Dhammapada, not to mention most chapters throughout, emphasize that mind precede action (whether speech or bodily action) and that the results following the mind’s intentions match those intentions – either pure or impure. In other words, action, speech, and thought is karmic: it is a chain of cause and effect, and intention and view inform the cause and thereby influence the effect. In a sense, as karma is often expressed in metaphors like seeds and giving said seeds sustenance to grow through subsequent repeated action, we could summarize with “You reap what you sow”, but this also applies to thought patterns and worldviews – you strengthen them through repeated intention, thinking, doing, and speaking. This addition is what makes the Buddha’s teaching a bit more nuanced and profound. Hence, the concept of taming the mind through meditation and focus on ethics (i.e. pure intention and action) – meditation brings mental concentration, which strengthens the intentions and mindfulness to continually choose to enact pure thoughts and speech. Recognizing the laws of karma (cause and effect as described above) at play in our lives is another core realization needed to begin the Buddhist path. These first 2 reordered preliminaries are basic premises without which, one cannot even begin.

Now, let us look at the first of the preliminaries. This is the one I’ve struggled with the most in recent times. When struggling with dukkha in the most painful physical, mental, or emotional anguish, it’s hard to see life as a precious gift. However, the commentaries make it clear just how many animals are out there who are not human. This science article and graph makes it clear that humans are only a small part of the animal biomass on Earth. If one were to be any animal, it’s statistically unlikely to end up as a human (clearly, this plays along with ideas of reincarnation, but let’s just go with it for now). Furthermore, as we’ve already said, dukkha is the spiritual problem of existing as a sentient being. Human beings are the only sentient beings with the awareness and attributes to both realize this and work towards nibbana. Beyond that, one must be sound of mind as well for those attributes to truly apply. On top of this, it’s even more fortuitous to be born in a time where a buddha has realized and spread teachings on the dharma. Even more fortunate: to have access to said teachings – for instance, the Buddha lived roughly 2500 years ago, but his teachings only have become widespread and understood in the West in the last few decades. Even now, just being born in certain areas or cultural milieus might forever cut one off from the opportunity to encounter these teachings. As such, having the opportunity to take up the eightfold path and quench the suffering/dissatisfaction (dukkha) really is a precious gift that cannot be taken for granted. Being aware of this capability and opportunity as rare and precious should spark inspiration and gratitude.

Finally, let’s look at the second preliminary. It’s easy to lose sight of how another set of Buddhist teachings apply to our lives: the marks/seals of impermanence and anatta. I chose “we here must die” out of a favorite translation of some of the early lines of the Dhammapada (Fronsdal’s translation). I’ll quote them briefly again:

Hatred never ends through hatred.
By non-hate alone does it end.
This is an ancient truth.

Many do not realize that
We here must die.
For those who realize this,
Quarrels end.

The Dhammapada, trans. Fronsdal, (5-6)

There is no permanent, ongoing “I”. Our time is limited. Standard Buddhist thought grew in a culture with a deep metaphysical background of reincarnation, but even if we buy that, this particular life could end at any time. I could die before even finishing this post from some unforeseen accident.

If we really take this to heart, we can understand the importance of authenticity to our existential projects in Heidegger’s Being and Time. I use this as a contrast to emphasize the motivation. In Being and Time, Heidegger posits that Dasein (human beings) live in a state of distraction from our own mortality. We live with the reality of our finitude out of sight and out of mind. As such, we are always already fallen away from our true potential for authentic revelation of a fully human life, except when existential crises wake us up to the truth of our mortality and we work towards it with resolution. This stance ultimately riffs on other aspects of ancient Western philosophy, even just summarizing it now, I can hear echoes of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics in Heidegger’s position. The point in this summary: there is something to this. We don’t generally see that our life is always already a possibility that could shift to impossibility at any moment. We don’t live this way. To some extent, a full-hearted focus on mortality like that would make the mundane efforts of life inconvenient, but on a greater level, there is an anxiety of facing the big unknown of death in our self-distraction. This preliminary is telling us to remind ourselves again and again as groundwork for our spiritual efforts. Why? Like Dasein’s existential authenticity that comes through resolution towards death, embracing our impermanence, even the flux that there is no permanent self day to day, makes us see that all we have is this moment, so we must practice now. We must work on generating compassion and wisdom now. There is no other time, and there is no guarantee that we’ll have another chance to take up the precious opportunity we summarized above. Time is of the essence – the present moment is the only essence, and it’s empty.

If one focuses on these four preliminaries, the impact can be profound. It truly sets the mind in a different view. They act both as some key facts to set one’s perspective and some points of inspiration to put in effort. I had just started studying them when my dad died, and the fact that I had been focusing on these preliminaries for a few weeks beforehand helped me shift through that transition more gracefully than I would have otherwise. In writing this to better explain them all and inspire others, I find myself settling into the mental framework again for moving along to the next point of mind training. I hope you will come along with me.


May this summary explain why the four preliminaries are a crucial first step in training the mind and generating bodhicitta. May it inspire others to research this practice as well (I’ve linked books by different authors on this text above in the initial paragraphs).

Gassho!

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