wisdom


Many years ago, when I was searching for the answer to life, I thought I’d find it by going to the end of the world. That was the instruction I found in all the stories. You climbed the mountain, found the guy with the long beard, and he’d give you the secret. You’d come down a changed man, everything clear, all the doubts gone. You’d know what to do and how to do it.

So I got on a plane and I flew to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I figured if I was going to go to the end of the Earth, it should be warm and beautiful. After what felt like days on a plane I landed in Tahiti. The thick warm air and the smell of gardenias from the lei that was put around my neck made me nauseous in a swoonish kind of way.

But Tahiti wasn’t going far enough, I knew, if I wanted to meet the guru. I’d read in the Lonely Planet Guide about one of the remotest of the Society Islands. It was referred to as “picturesque,” and promised “quiet and solitude” which I knew meant it had little to recommend it. Just what I was looking for. The island was called Huahine. Even travelling to that postage stamp in space still wasn’t as far as I could go. Apparently, there was a guest house in a small village on the back-end of the island. That was my goal.

I got on a cockroach-infested ship that travelled to the out islands. After a few uncomfortable nights on the boat we got to the island. At the dock I found a bus headed for the village mentioned in my guide book. I was in luck!

The bus sat at the dock most of the day. A few local workers, naturally muscular golden-brown fellows with long, shiny black hair covered in baseball caps and big, toothy smiles sat on the bus, goofing around with each other, drinking beer. No one seemed to be in any kind of hurry and no one could provide information about the bus’s departure. The entire concept of “information” suddenly felt so western and embarrassingly out of place. Hey, who promised that it would be easy to get to the end of the world?

Before the sun started its precipitous plop into the water, the bus finally rumbled off. I asked about the village, and the driver told me it was the last stop. Perfect. After a few hours of adrenaline-pumping hair-pin turns, I remained the only passenger when the bus bumped to a halt. The driver signaled that we were at the end of the road.  Literally.

I got off the bus. Just me and my backpack. The bus turned around and this time didn’t wait. In moments, my only escape was a dusty dot on the horizon. I found myself in a ratty little village, with dilapidated tin huts, the streets riddled with crab holes. It sure was quiet and I sure felt the solitude. I looked around in vain for any sign that signaled a place for a poor pilgrim like myself to stay.

Eventually, a young woman, barefoot, wearing a wrap-around skirt called a pareu and tee-shirt, sauntered up to me with her two small children. She spoke English and asked what I was doing here. I said that I was looking for the guest house. She looked at me with a scolding look as if I had made a terrible mistake.

“No guesthouse here,” she said, shaking her head.

“When does the next bus arrive,” I asked.

“Four days,” she said.

She looked at me, I looked at her. “Is there any place around here I could stay? I’m willing to pay.” In a moment of anxiety, I stuck my hand in my pocket and grabbed my wad of Polynesian Francs just to make sure I did have the money.

With a condescending shrug, she said I could stay in the empty house next to hers. I expressed my gratitude.

The house had a bed and a chair. The toilet housed a dead fish. But it was a place to stay, and there was no doubt about it: I had gotten to the end. Or so I thought.

The woman invited me to share meals with her family. All meals turned out to be the same. Poi. It was perhaps the most putrescent food I have ever eaten. It was a glutinous, snot-like concoction, that should have been coming out of my body instead of going in. Meals were hard, smiling as I forced the spoon into my mouth, making rudimentary conversation with this woman, her husband, and kids.

I suffered my days alone pacing the short beach. I fell into a bone-crushing despair. I had done what I was supposed to do. Now that all of the distractions of modern life had been scrubbed clean, and I entered the emptiness, what I found there really depressed me. What I found was — nothing.

Sunday came, and the family said they were going to Church. I could come, or I could take a row boat out to the motu. They told me that Grandpa lived out there. He liked having visitors on Sunday. Here it was! The wise old man at the end of the world! It hadn’t all been for nothing! He was here! I quickly chose the boat to the motu.

What is a motu, you might ask. Have you seen those cartoons of the guy on the desert island, a circle of sand with a palm tree in the middle? That’s a motu. You couldn’t possibly get more remote than this and still be on the planet Earth. I got it now: the problem had been that I hadn’t gone far enough.

I got into the boat and glided across the lagoon to the speck of sand in the infinite sea. I got out and saw the one hut on the island. I walked to the door. Inside, there was a wizened brown man with white hair and milky-cataract eyes. He had a big smile, and greeted me as if he knew I was coming. He sat in a metal chair. Another chair sat empty, next to him. He patted the seat, signaling me to sit down. He faced a table. On the table was a small television with a built in VCR player. The screen was filled with gray noise.

I sat down and he nodded with anticipation. He smiled and pantomimed, pointing to the TV. I nodded, too, and smiled. He reached over and hit the play button. The video snapped to life. What I saw on the screen were three hula dancers: attractive, smiling Polynesian women with long black hair, garlands of flowers, coconut shell bikini tops, and grass skirts. They moved in unison, waving their arms, with undulating hips.

I looked at the wise old man and he looked at me with a big smile and nodded. Then he nudged me with his elbow, pointed at the screen, and said, “Vahine! Vahine!”

Which loosely translated, means, “check out the babes.”

I could have hailed a cab on Seventh Avenue and for $7.00 gotten this message. But no, I had to spend thousands of dollars, and travel to the butt-end of the universe to receive this wisdom.

For some time I chalked it up as a cosmic joke. But as the years passed, I realized that I got what I was looking for. The old man at the end of the world did give me the secret to life.

If you haven’t gotten it already, here it is. It’s not only about searching and finding, it’s about recognizing it when it is right in front of your shnozzola. I had to go to the end of the world to figure out the secret is available wherever you look. It’s all about how you look. It’s about being passionate about what is, embracing desire, finding the deep beauty, inviting in the stranger and giving away your heart to them. It is about a willingness to share every little thing you want to hold onto. It is about the daily practice of finding harmony and connection, having a giggle together, crossing the endless abyss to recognize each other. It’s about singing, dancing, and kissing the girl. It’s about knowing that the only thing worth traveling around the world for is true love.

Or in Polynesian, vahine.

Visit Shrinky at http://shrinky.net.

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Solomon Burke and Me in 1983

The legendary soul singer,  Solomon Burke, died on October 10, 2010. The King was on his way to a gig in Amsterdam.

I had the blessed fortune of working with King Solomon in 1983, remixing a live album of his for Rounder Records, called “Soul Alive.” Of all the unique characters I got to work with in my years in the music biz, Mr. Burke was one of my favorite. Solomon told me that he had a Cadillac, a girl friend, a child, and a church in every city of America. He would land at the airport in, let’s say, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and his car and woman would be waiting for him.

Solomon’s gigs were made up of endless medleys interspersed with his personal brand of sermon. The King’s philosophy, at its heart, could be summed up in one word. He told us that the word love was overused these days, as he purred in his rich baritone, “I love you. I love you. I LOVE you.” You could feel the women in the audience sweat. But though the King truly walked his talk by siring at least 21 children, he was something of a feminist.

“And if he doesn’t love the child you had with another man, don’t give him none!” he would shout to the hot squeals of the women in the audience. “You don’t need a man to sign your welfare check for you!”

The big guy and I had lots of fun together in the studio. He had a great sense of humor. But I learned later on that it was not a good idea to mess with the King.

In the late 1980’s I worked with Paul Shaffer of David Letterman fame on a song called, “What is Soul.” The song was co-written and produced by Shaffer, the god-like Steve Cropper, original guitar-playing member of the Memphis Stax rhythm section sometimes known as Booker-T and the MG’s and writer of such timeless classics as Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay,

and Don Covay, another immortal soul-cat who wrote Aretha Franklin’s super-funky hit, “Chain of Fools.”

Covay would come into the studio each and every time and grab me by the shoulders, look me in th eyes and say, “Glenn? Are we goin to make history today?”

I would say yes, and then he’d say, “Then I’m ready. Let’s make a hit record.”

Shaffer’s idea for the record, which would be a part of his album, “Coast to Coast,” was to reassemble the “Soul Clan.” In the early 1960’s, Atlantic Records, headed by the R and B loving Turk, Ahmet Ertegun, were making the hottest soul records in the nation. A group of the extraordinary singing and writing talents from that label came together in 1968 and cut one single. Circumstances led to the almost immediate dissolution of this holy grail of supergroups and aficionados of soul tried for decades to reunite these players. Shaffer, Cropper, and Covay had almost managed to do it. On this one record appeared the original surviving members Covay and Ben E. King of “Stand By Me” fame (check out the beautiful and departed River Phoenix in this clip),

along with Wilson Pickett who performed such hits as the seminal “In the Midnight Hour,”co-wrote with Cropper.

All that was missing was the King himself. (Otis Redding, who sang “Dock of the Bay,” and Joe Tex, of “Skinny Legs and All,” fame, were dead.)

Shaffer got Burke on the phone. We were psyched. But the reunion second only to the Beatles was not to be. Burke told Paul that not only would he not sing on the song, “What is Soul,” but that he had written it, (He hadn’t. Shaffer, Cropper and Covay had.) and if Shaffer insisted on putting it out, he would sue! Alas. You gotta love it.

The moral of the story is, you can’t go back. In Cropper’s day, you’d write a song in a few hours at night, cut the A side from 10 in the morning till lunch, take a break, do a little blues jam for a B side, that might turn into “Green Onions,” press the record, stick a $20 dollar bill in the sleeve, bring it over to the local radio station, and in 24 hours you’d know if you had a hit. (Notice on this clip that this hit-machine of a combo was all the more extraordinary in the Memphis of the mid-60’s for having white and black guys in the same band.)

Shaffer’s record was ruined by the taste-deaf record company execs who kept demanding changes to make it marketable. Over-produced, we worked on it for months. At one point, in rageful frustration, Wilson Pickett screamed, “You pluckin’! You chicken pluckin’ now!”

You can’t go back. Isn’t that what the sweet pain in art is all about? The King is dead and the soul clan will never be reunited. This moment in American musical history is no more. But I get to hold onto these memories. And Solomon Burke, with songs like, “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” (and in Solomon’s case, it should have had the sub-title, “And I’m Available”) and his 21 children, 90 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, truly leaves behind a legacy that will long endure.

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The secret to life from another Chinese Sage.

This week I was interviewed for the second time by Michael Carroll on his quirky, funny, and intelligent alternative radio show, The Mikie Show. Mikie constructs the whole show himself and it sounds wonderful. I think I get to say some good stuff, too. Give it a listen. I hope you enjoy. The Mikie Show Episode 20 featuring Glenn Berger

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In the culminating vision of the Sage, Mencius, heart, the Heavenly Mandate, and flood-like ch’i are combined with the Tao, or the Way. One accomplishes an alignment with the Heavenly Mandate, or universal law, by manifesting the heart, the faculty of goodness, resulting in flood-like ch’i or fully embodied vitality and courage. The method for living in such alignment is called the Tao, or Way. To quote from “On the Practice of the Mean,” one of the four canonized books of Chinese wisdom, “by ‘the ‘Way’ we mean that path which is in conformance with the intrinsic nature of man and things.”  By following the Tao, or Way, we achieve the moral life by living in accordance with natural principles and we become the profound person. We achieve jen, or authentic human-ness.

It is in the natural order of the universe to have manifested a compassionate heart in humankind. We are also given the faculty of cultivating ourselves. What this means is that we can advance our own evolution. By developing ourselves, we participate in the perfecting of nature. The purpose, telos, or entelechy of the universe is love, where love is the ultimate realization of compassion and harmonic relationship. We are each given a capacity for goodness through our inherent compassion and it is our task to develop this capacity optimally in order to play our part in the realization of the universe. Cultivating the compassionate heart is fulfilling the mandate of heaven. This is what it means to live according to the Tao. As the furthest extension of universal development, humankind finds its optimal harmony with the purpose of the universe when we self-cultivate toward the realization of heart.

We come to an alignment with heart through living according to the Tao. The Tao is the heart in time. The heart is the Tao in us. The heart is the faculty that can comprehend and practice living according to the Way.

When we live according to universal principle, our inner conflict ends: what we should do finds harmony with what we want to do. As Mencius put it,

“The profound person steeps himself in the Way because he wishes to find it in himself. When he finds it in himself, he will be at ease in it; when he is at ease in it, he can draw deeply upon it; when he can draw deeply upon it, he finds its source wherever he turns. That is why a profound person wishes to find the Way in himself.”

In this sense, to develop morally is not to learn moral rules, though these provide a framework for the real learning. Instead, we want to cultivate our hearts, the capacity for knowing right from wrong within. In this way we do not obediently follow some rule imposed from without, but intrinsically do the right thing in any circumstance, as the circumstance dictates.  As Confucius put it, “The profound person, in the world, does not set his mind either for anything, or against anything; what is right he will follow.”

Self-cultivation, or the process of developing our human potentials, is accomplished by living according to the Tao. It is through the realization of our human potentials that we embody the Heavenly Mandate, or universal principle. This embodiment of universal principle is our purpose, what we are meant to be, or our entelechy. The full realization of our potentials is to fulfill our human nature and is the way we come to know the universal law. The full manifestation of our human nature, which is an embodiment of universal principle, is compassion. Compassion is the purpose of the universe. To realize loving compassion is to manifest the entelechy of the universe. When we manifest the potential of the universe, we are at one with the energy of the universe.

For the Confucians, we get “close enough” to the Tao by having optimal relationships in each domain of being. We cultivate these relationships by developing our empathy through practicing the virtues of benevolence, respect, and compassion and we do this by accessing the heart.

The Confucian conception of the personal heart and its interconnection to all other hearts, the heart of the universe and the transcendent spiritual heart, is best explicated in the monumental work, “The Highest Order of Cultivation.” Here is my interpretation of the core of this text.

•    Only once one has an embodied experience of the interconnectedness of all, can one integrate all aspects of the psyche, leading to integration and wholeness; where the parts of the self exist in cooperative relation.

•    Only when we are whole can the potentials of the heart be realized. Only when we are whole can we realize our potentials for perceiving, thinking, feeling, imagining, acting and connecting.

•    Only when we have realized our potentials do we manifest virtuous moral being. Only when we have manifested virtuous moral centeredness can we put our relationships right, having harmonious relationships, meeting the needs of our partners and growing optimally.

•    Only when we can put our relationships right can we have happy, good children and flourishing families.

•    Only when we have balanced families can society be at peace and harmony.

•    Only when society is in order are we living according to the Heavenly Mandate, or the laws of the universe.

•    By cultivating ourselves, we fulfill the purpose of the universe.

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The next quality that is central to the Mencian conception of heart is ch’i. (For those of you who are just joining this conversation, Mencius was a great Chinese Sage who lived and wrote 2300 years ago. Central to his philosophy was the notion of “heart.” See other posts.) Ch’i is the prime energy of the universe. This can be correlated to “the sacred fire” of the Upanishads. The Indians, too, located this energetic source in the heart.

“I know . . . that sacred fire which leads to heaven. Listen. That fire which is the means of attaining the infinite worlds, and is also their foundation, is hidden in the sacred place of the heart.”

Buddhists located their equivalent, prana, a concept they borrowed from the Sanskrit, in the heart, and also saw the unity of heart, energy, and the cosmic reality.  Ch’i has also been named tejas, mana, or by Jung, libido.  It is found in Norse mythology as the mead from the world tree of Ygdrasil.

The Chinese posited two kinds of ch’i, the gross and the subtle. The body was the home of the grosser ch’i and the heart was the home of the subtle ch’i. To cultivate the heart means to cultivate our subtle ch’i. This would not only bear on our moral health, but our physical well being as well.  Mencius unified his concepts in a moral vision, where right living, as determined by heart, resulted in maximum ch’i. Health, wellbeing and courage were related to living in harmony with the dictates of heart, which emerged from its connection to universal nature.

Mencius believed that this general energetic principle of the universe was something that “ran through” humans.  When we achieve an optimal alignment with the Heavenly Mandate, or universal law, we have the greatest access to this primal energy of the universe. We then possess what Mencius called flood-like ch’i, which is the ultimate energetic capacity.

Mencius himself admitted that explaining flood-like ch’i was difficult. A disciple asked, “May I ask what this flood-like ch’i is?”And he replied,

“It is difficult to explain. This is a ch’i which is, in the highest degree vast and unyielding. Nourish it with integrity and place no obstacle in its path and it will fill the space between Heaven and Earth. It is a ch’i which unites rightness and the Way. Deprive it of these and it will starve. It is born of accumulated rightness and cannot be appropriated by anyone through a sporadic show of rightness. Whenever one acts in a way that falls below the standard set in one’s heart, it will starve.”

This means that our energy, mood and motivation, is dependent on our integrity, of acting from our highest moral understanding, which is in our hearts. This places us in alignment with universal forces, which gives us courage. Depression and failure can be likened to a lack of moral attunement. This does not only mean not doing the right thing toward others, but also toward the self. The condition of shame, or treating ourselves from self-hatred instead of self-love, will lead to a diminishment of ch’i.

Through the manifestation of flood-like ch’i we develop the virtue of imperturbability. This means being true to oneself even without external validation.  As Mencius stated it, “Only a gentleman can have a constant heart in spite of a lack of constant means of support.”

When we have imperturbability, our motivation for action must be on rightness, and not dependent on outcome. (more…)

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The heart, as the great Chinese Sage Mencius defines it, is the sense organ that knows the good just as the tongue knows the delicious and the eye the beautiful. The good is beautiful to the heart. Here’s what Mencius said:
” . . . all palates have the same preference in taste; all ears in sound; all eyes in beauty. Should hearts prove to be an exception by possessing nothing in common? What is it, then, that is common to all hearts? Reason and rightness. The sage is simply the man first to discover this common element in the heart. Thus reason and rightness please my heart in the same way as meat pleases my palate.”

What Mencius means is that the heart ‘knows’ what is reasonable and right, the way the eye knows what is physically beautiful. When we embody, or live out, what is reasonable and right, the heart is pleased. Through a devoted practice to being reasonable and right, we find the heart. When this inherent sense is optimally cultivated this ends in the ultimate moral development, which means becoming a Sage.

For Mencius, the heart is the seat of compassion. Mencius describes compassion as the “unbearability of suffering of any creature.” This natural reaction to the suffering of others is Mencius’s primary proof of the inherent goodness of people. The universality of this empathic faculty is captured in his statement, “No man is devoid of a heart sensitive to the suffering of others.” He uses as proof the argument that any sentient human would react with horror if they saw a child about to fall into a well. This feeling would occur spontaneously, and not for any extrinsic purpose. He suggests that this natural attribute is the most important aspect of humanness, and is what needs to be cultivated in order for one to achieve jen, or to be truly humane.

(more…)

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