imagination


I’ve been reading the book The Trouble with Boys by Peg Tyre, published by Crown Publishing. This wonderful book, which is truly ‘fair and balanced,’ explores the question of why boys are falling behind girls in academic achievement. This book has led me to think about my own experience in school and beyond. I remember my first day of kindergarten. No kid wanted to go to school more than me. Unfortunately, by the time I left 4th grade I was turned off to school. I got by on talent and little work. I was so disenchanted by high school, where I majored in hitching to the ‘record store,’ that I could see no purpose for college. Today, 40 years later, I am writing at 6 AM on Sunday morning and I have my doctorate. What happened? Where did this discipline and passion come from?

Fortunately for me, instead of going to college fresh out of high school, I became an apprentice at one of the world’s premier recording studios, A and R Studios in New York.

This was a rough place to grow up. New York in the 1970’s was an edgy place and the culture of the studio followed that midtown style, where people went to the Carnegie Deli for a pastrami sandwich and paid extra to be abused by the waiters.

The guys at A and R played hard and loud. It wasn’t uncommon to find these grown men screaming and throwing things at one another. A and R’s leader was one of the era’s truly great engineer/producers, the legendary Phil Ramone. Ramone was notorious for being brutally rough on his apprentices, and as each apprentice became a master, they trained the next generation in the same fashion. If the new kid screwed up, and they always did, they would get yelled at, cursed, thrown around. Not many could take it, but if you did, you became a member of the club. I went through it, took it, and gave it back. When I walked in at 16 I was a mess of a kid. 4 years later I was a master engineer working with the most demanding clients in the world, artists like Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra.

I always wondered if the training had to be so rough. Couldn’t I have learned the same lessons in a gentler way? But now that I have read The Trouble with Boys, I’ve been thinking about what was right with the kind of apprenticeship I had at A and R.

The reason I gave up on school was because I was disillusioned. What I longed for was a noble ideal to aspire towards, a reason to work hard. School did not provide this, but Ramone and his minions did. We were there to do the best. We were creating great art. Though we didn’t have the best equipment, we provided the greatest service to the musical geniuses we worked with. Our goal was to provide the ultimate environment where they could create at their peak. And it worked. For example, Billy Joel, until that time a floundering artist with a minor hit, created “The Stranger” and then an endless list of hits in the A and R milieu. We had pride in what we did. We could be arrogant jerks, but we earned it.

In this very male environment, we were all bonded by this common mission and approach. It was no joke that everyone there did whatever was necessary to make a great record. When I started out working in the tape library and got a call on Saturday morning to come in and find a tape for Burt Bacharach, Milton Brooks, the studio manager, had already been there for an hour. We were all in it together. The mores and rules were passed down with each new generation and shared by everyone. And the first rule was you did whatever it took to get the job done right.

Though the training often hurt, there was an amazing amount of loyalty that we felt toward each other. It might be hard to imagine in today’s world where we all want to try out a new restaurant every time we go out, but at that time clients stuck with you through it all. Arnold Brown, a “Mad Men” era music producer for the advertising agency, Dancer, Fitzgerald and Sample, would run me around in circles just for the purpose of driving me nuts, but he was willing to make an investment in the new guy, because he wanted someone there who he knew would do it his way and give him the quality product he demanded. The amazing group of top engineers on staff, guys like Don Hahn, Dixon Van Winkle, and Steve Friedman, stuck by their assistants while kicking their ass because that was how they had gotten the gift of their careers from Ramone, and they wanted to give back. There was enough work for everyone, and when Elliot Scheiner started working with Steely Dan he might not have time to work on a jingle, so he’d throw that gig my way.

So why did that experience change me so fundamentally? These qualities of a tradition, ritual behavior, a willingness to suffer pain in order to achieve an ideal, group bondedness and loyalty are all characteristics of an experience of initiation. This was a group of men who ushered young men who were willing to pay the price into manhood. It was the army, but instead of killing, we made great recordings.

Maybe this tells us what boys need to thrive. If initiation rituals that have existed since the dawn of time have anything to tell us, boys need to suffer to become men. But they need to suffer for a good reason, do it with a group of men bonded by this common goal, who have been through it and are invested in them becoming good, strong men. And it certainly is possible to do this for a better reason than war.

Young men crave this experience and hold it with them as something sacred for their entire lives. A few years ago I went to a party for Blue Jay Recording Studio in Carlisle, Massachusetts that I had helped start in 1980. Several men came up to me to meet the ‘legendary’ Glenn Berger. They had been trained by people who had been trained by someone who had been trained by me. I had trained those first guys in the way that I had been trained, to the exacting standards of Phil and A and R. I passed the legacy on. I had no idea that I had influenced any of these guys, and I was stunned to see the impact that this had had on them. They all had that fire and pride, that passion and discipline that was the true gift that I had gotten from the men who had initiated me. That might be a big part of the answer of what our boys need and what we men need to give to our sons.

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Victor Frankl, a profound human being and one of the great existential psychotherapists of the 20th century, was a concentration-camp survivor. An author of dozens of books, his most renowned is Man’s Search for Meaning. He captures the sum of my philosophy and approach to psychotherapy and life in this short video. It is beautiful and worth watching.

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Contemporary religious author, Karen Armstrong, writer of the recent best-selling book for Knopf Publishing, “A Case for God,” and 2009 TEDPrize winner, tells us that authentic spirituality is an embrace of the unknowable. I take this a step further, and say that living an authentic life is to strive to live up to our highest ethical potentials despite the knowledge that we will fail in this quest. I found the words to express this sentiment while watching an absolutely wonderful film, the Alexander Korda 1940 production of “The Thief of Baghdad.” You will recognize its unique color quality if you are familiar with the work of English directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger whose classic films include “The Red Shoes,” and “Black Narcissus.” Powell is one of the directors of “The Thief.” This is a great movie to watch with the kids. Though the effects are primitive, the emotional impact makes “Avatar” seem cheap. I found the words to express the sentiment I was looking for in this great scene. To truly live is to embrace of the beauty of the impossible.

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In a medieval town in Umbria, a maker of spectacular Italian clothes is attempting to run his company from humanistic values derived from the wisdom of the ages. I highly recommend a visit to Brunello Cuccinelli’s website. You can also read his profile in The New Yorker by Rebecca Mead.

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What is the evolutionary purpose of our capacity for imagination?  Perhaps the purpose of the symbolic faculty is to promote the development of the universe.

Evolutionary science teaches us that nature is not interested in the fate of the individual. Perhaps even more than the preservation of species, and even more than the preservation of life in general, nature is invested in the continuous development of life. Recent research shows that our altruistic aspect gives the lie to self-preservation at all costs. Despite this, we are addled by selfishness. We are also filled with anxieties of the unknown that go against the forces of change. Nevertheless, willy-nilly, over the span of endless spans of time nature grows, and in one small corner of the universe, has grown in the direction of love and imagination.

The symbolic faculty is found in the synthetic, hyperassociative, meaning-making part of the brain, which is its most recently developed part. This capacity is unique to humanity. No other species imagines the way we do, or gives meaning to events that we can then draw on to create our futures. This imaginative faculty pervades all of our abilities. It is not only the basis of art and whimsy. It is the basis for science itself, for science requires us to see what isn’t apparent. It takes a tremendous act of imagination to conceive that the sun is not moving through the sky, but that we are the ones who are revolving.

Our symbolic faculty is the human butterfly, the most recent evolutionary development, and the loveliest. The perception of beauty is nature’s most recent innovation and beautiful itself. Nature is not only developing in the direction of function and “performativity,” but flowers and butterflies tell us it is developing in the direction of the beautiful.

Our capacity for metaphor and analogy is error-filled and mistake-prone and can lead us into tremendous pain. In its worst forms it can lead to harmful delusions and psychosis. On the other side, our capacity for seeing the universe in a grain of sand, for recognizing patterns and forever forming new connections until we are able to perceive the grand patterns of the entire cosmos and the human place in the grand weave, pulls us inexorably toward the apotheosis of a oneness with the All, not in unconscious symbiosis, but through aware, appreciative love.

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The great Chinese Sage Mencius tells us that “Self-Cultivation consists in nothing but trying to find the lost heart.” The first question that this text invites us to ask is: what is the heart?

Around the time that the Sage, Mencius, lived, a great stirring was occurring in the hearts of humankind. German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) referred to this time as the Axial Age, where axial means pivotal.  Masters of wisdom appeared in India and Greece, as well as his home land, China. It was the time of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, the Indian writers of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita and Isaiah of the Old Testament, among others. It was also the time of Confucius and his disciples, the writers of the Chinese Classics, The Four Books. Civilization was flowering. Some of the world’s greatest thinking emerged on the nature of the ultimate realities, all contributing to the liberation of the human spirit.

A central contribution of Mencius to this understanding was his notion of heart. But Mencius was not alone in this conception. When we explore the writings of other cultures, we discover an amazing fact. The symbol of the heart spans the globe. It has been of monumental significance since man could contemplate the ineffable and the existence of the immaterial in virtually every culture, religion and philosophy. From the beginning of conscious man recording his experiences, beliefs, thoughts and feelings in a sophisticated and organized way, he has attempted to convey something essential about himself and the cosmos through the metaphor of the heart.  As it appeared virtually simultaneously with writing itself, we can surmise that this symbolic image emerged with the dawn of thought.

Before reviewing the teachings of our Sage, his forbears and his disciples on the heart, we will illuminate the meaning of this symbol through the use of wisdom texts from this world-history of heart-ideas. (more…)

Recently Charles Blow of the New York Times cited some studies suggesting that people between the ages of 18 and 29 are “moving away from organized religion while simultaneously trying desperately to connect with their spirituality.” I believe this is true for vast numbers of people of all ages. We find ourselves in a time when untold numbers are searching for a deeper sense of fulfillment in their lives. People everywhere are looking for answers.  From the spiritual cognoscenti, to those who regularly tune into Oprah and are committed to personal growth and change, to seekers looking for a way to solve a problem in their lives through the many forms of psychotherapy, to the many millions who fuel the self-help industry, lifelong learners everywhere are seeking something deeper and more fundamental than motivational tips and familiar nostrums.

Evidence that the quest for spiritual development outside of conventional religion has gone mainstream is all around us:  in the upswing of interest in the healing arts such as yoga, meditation, and holistic health practices; in the fascination with forms of mysticism such as Kabbalah; in the study of the traditions of the East like Buddhism and Taoism; in the openness to the melding of the most advanced science and the most ancient wisdom traditions as illustrated by Deepak Chopra’s huge following; in the renewed sense of personal responsibility brought on by the changes in our political and economic landscape; and in the nostalgia for the less materialistic values of the ‘60s.

I call this vast group Seekers. These are people who in addition to personal healing are also concerned about the environment and the fate of the earth.  They are parents who are feeding their children organic foods and working earnestly to give their kids the best start by applying attachment parenting techniques. They are couples who are devoted to having sacred marriages through using the dialogical techniques of teachers like Harville Hendrix.  They are baby-boomers going back to school after the kids graduate college, and thirty-somethings who have gotten off the fast track to become social entrepreneurs, using their business savvy to make a better world. They are open-minded and tolerant.  They are receptive to all traditions, philosophies, and wisdoms, whatever the source.  They read Eckhart Tolle and admire the Dalai Lama. They are connecting with old friends through Facebook, following politics on the Huffington Post and are interested in all types of social networking.  They follow the big thinkers on sites like TED.com. Every day they make an effort to become better people.

Where is this spiritual thirst coming from, and why are people looking in places other than organized religion? (more…)

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