Raw, idiom, 14a: in the natural, uncultivated, or unrefined state: nature in the raw.
Summer's here, and with it the onset of the live music season, also known as Reason #349 that I love living in San Francisco.
There's nothing like the eucalyptus-scented escape squeezed in those few short hours after the morning fog burns off and the evening mist blows in over the Golden Gate, when you can chuck aside your wrap and soak up the sun and listen to the sound of one badass band or another rocking it out in the middle of Sharon Meadow or Stern Grove or Yerba Buena Gardens. I busted out the old-school picnic basket a few weeks ago; it's officially stocked and ready for the season, and I'm so excited to park my ass under the redwoods and lose the upcoming months to percussion and Pinot Blanc.
So all this music-in-the-park action's had me thinking about the arts, and stillness, and meditation already, but lately then, too, I've been living and breathing the end of the symphony and ballet seasons and the beginning of the summer opera season (Girl of the Golden West with Deborah Voigt this month! Holy god!) and wrapping up Shaun and Noemi's run with one last (particularly rockin') performance last night. And in the process, I've found myself sitting. A lot. Sitting, and practicing listening, and trying not to wiggle, and turning off my phone, and turning off the mind, and just being there and soaking it up. And I'm realizing that this practice - of being present with the arts, of taking in what's offered there onstage, of cracking open with a certain receptivity that we otherwise don't necessarily practice in our daily routines - is not so different at all from what we do on the yoga mat each day.
There's a certain sanctuary, an implicit surrender, involved in walking into a theater or the opera house or even friggin' Stern Grove; there's an inherent mindset, an intention, that naturally spreads through your body, an offering up of time and space and a letting-go of the expectation that you're going to run your experience for 2.5 hours plus intermission, and a just sitting back and softening and being there.
Tuesday night I had tickets to the opera, and all day the anticipation fueled me: the prospect of that solace, that quiet, that fantastic repose of slipping into a lush seat and sharing a quiet smile and then the obligatory ceasing of conversation and thought and phone-ringing and list-making crept in and took over and the hush of the overture started and my mind had to follow it into seclusion and it was a tidal wave of silence and stillness and release. And I sat there for 3 and a half hours and loved the institutionalized cultural silence, the willed receptivity, the imposed meditation that is the having to turn everything else off and just be there in your body soaking up the music and the costumes and the voices and the language and the nuance and the laughter and the sorrow and the tragedy. I felt my jaw soften, my shoulders lighten, everything shifting as I released the day's tension into that active listening meditation.
You can't be somewhere else. You can't be living in your mind, planning the next day, thinking about yesterday, wondering about this or that or any of it. You've gotta just sit there, be there, be seriously fabulously present, taking it all in, really truly using your senses in a whole-bodied kind of way that we otherwise just tend to avoid.
The man on my left that night was on his iPhone the whole first act. It was all I could do not to smack him across the face and throw the damn thing on the floor. I mean, jesus christ. You're four rows back from one of the premiere opera companies in the world, you probably paid $300 to be right here, right now, breathing next to someone whose company you ostensibly enjoy, and Mephistopheles is singing about passion and youth and damnation, and the skies of that lush garden set are twinkling with faux celestial wonder, and up above there's one of the more amazing gilt chandeliers you've ever seen, and down below there's a charismatic Italian rockstar conducting the orchestra, and you're fucking checking your FACEBOOK?!?!? Really?!?
The whole thing was such a lesson in non-judgment, in breathing through the irritation, in not being distracted by his distraction. Not easy to do. And, unsurprisingly, when we came back for the second act, my Facebook-checking seatmate never returned.
Sigh. Is it really so difficult to suspend thought/motion/action long enough to sit still for a few hours and soak up one of the arts' many attempts to paint/sing/celebrate what it feels like to be alive? Are we so plugged into these outside stimuli, so frightened of having to sit and be present right where we are, that we've ceased to see the phenomenal expressions of life playing themselves out in front of us?
It's not easy finding that kind of spaciousness in our lives, to be sure, or even giving ourselves permission to rest in it. To trust that when we come back from this particular meditation everything will still be waiting right there. It can be scary to set that all aside.
So you actively build it into your life. You make it a practice. For me, I know that even if I'm running around all day doing this or that or whatever, or tied up in the kinds of conversations that can make me feel far from my reading-writing-contemplative-self, which is so fundamental to my sense of balance, if I've got tickets for a concert Monday night and the opera Tuesday night and the theater Wednesday night, then I know there's a structured spaciousness into which I can retreat, promising a few hours' of silence and stillness and receptivity, even if they're bookended by cocktails before or a late-dinner after. And that becomes a fueling, a grounding, a rebooting, in and of itself.
Building an arts-as-meditation practice into our lives can be an excellent way to learn how to be silent with people, too. Constant conversation can be draining. And so much of it is often, well, empty, preoccupied with silly superficial chatter, a whole lotta gossip, a whole lotta saying nothing. So choose instead to share a few meaningful hours of not-talking, accompanied by the thrum of guitars or the rattle of maracas or the steady beat of drums. You can share being alive with the people on your blanket or in your row or on the beach next to you, breathing the same air, letting the same sensual experiences wash over you. That's when the real repose, the real union, the real balance can come into play.
And on that note: you should read Cyndi Lee's article from a few years back over at Shambhala Sun. Lee emphasizes that we're mostly made of water - we're naturally meant to flow, of course, in spite of all blocked energy and tamasic heaviness and attempts at control and linearity - and so, why not go with that flow and let it fuel our ways of being in the world? She reminds us that "if you’re alive, there is no way you’re not feeling something. It takes being quiet, paying attention and opening to movement to find out what we’re feeling."
Sitting quietly at Outside Lands, or jamming out with your best mates at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, or splashing out on a blanket under the trees at Stern Grove all offer ways to "be quiet, pay attention, and open to movement" to find out what you're feeling. It's really just an externally-directed way of coming back into your senses, of finding that elusive balance, that union between mind, body, and spirit. As Lee writes,
Yoga means “union,” so it is truly not about any one thing, but always about relationship. Relating to waves of movement is what allows us to stay steady and sustain balance. The word “balance” comes from the Latin balare, meaning “to dance.” In yoga, we call this little balancing dance “pose” and “repose.” We yogis do this with every breath during our yoga practice so that eventually yoga is a practice of resting within movement and transition. It is a way to tap into the river of all life as it flows right now through our own body. Water is the reminder, but when we work this way our practice is also about movement of headaches, crabbiness, worry, sadness, stiff shoulders, joy and lunch.Let that balance wash over you in the course of a street fair or a night at the opera. Find in that yet another outlet to quiet the mind, to be still and let emotion pass through you. Then, there, you're doing your yoga. It's all so very impermanent, anyway. You don't get those moments back. You'll never get that crescendo back, or that guitar riff, or that spine-tingling chord at the end of the first act, or that rustle of redwood-scented breeze blowing through your hair as the late-afternoon sunshine cools into a fog-induced chill.
You know what happens to water if it stays still—it either turns into ice or becomes brackish and unhealthy. The same thing happens when we try to latch on to a prescribed feeling or experience in yoga practice—or in any other situation. If we can only relax a bit we will see that our feelings, both emotional and physical, are flowing all the time. It never ceases to amaze me how I can begin my yoga practice with a heavy heart or a cluttered mind, and by the end feel refreshed in every way. The practice washes me from the inside out and I feel back in balance.
So just dig in, listen, and be there. And turn off your goddamned phone, already.
Go With the Flow (Shambhala Sun)