How to save the world whilst shopping.

This week sees Ireland vote in yet another European referendum. We’ve been bombarded with pro and anti propaganda day and night for weeks now, and it screams at us from every lamp post.

In reality its always like this, you just see it accutely during a campaign like this. Its certainly been like this since the start of “The Crisis” and what it is, is a battle of ideologies. There is a battle for the hearts and minds of people, by those who peddle various ideologies. More so, they want to convince you that they have The Right Plan that will Fix Everything. Whether they are left or right, or somewhere in the middle, its the same. Some group or person believe they have the answer to the world’s problems and if we go with them they will save us. And it’s always a Top Down approach – we need to give them power and they will fix things from the top. In recent years I have begun to completely lose faith in this approach.

I have oscillated my whole life from being very political to being somewhat apathetic, and I think as my life goes on the oscillations get shorter and shorter until its an almost weekly or daily cycle. Some days I get quite worked up about The Issues and rabble on about How We Fix Them. Other days I think that they can’t be fixed, at least not within the current system.

As the oscillations get closer and closer, what they really do is merge into one idea – that I want things to change, but I just don’t think they can be changed. On the surface this is a very cynical and pesimistic view. But if I think about it – it’s not really that I don’t think things can be changed – it’s that I don’t believe things can be changed in the traditional manner – that is the Top Down approach – by voting for or giving the reigns of power to, some group of some idealogical bent who will put into place policies, and procedures and legislation. That system is completely broken. The problem is that it is a Top Down approach. I have lost complete faith in this. What I do have faith in, is the Bottom Up approach.

We can no longer rely on the Powers That Be to save us, because I don’t think they really want us to be saved. If we were saved, we wouldn’t need them. They need a level of turmoil so they can come back and save us. Even if you put aside Orwellian ideas, you could also argue that it simply hasn’t _worked_. The current crisis, and the failure to come up with any workable solutions, being evidence.

I wrote about this before, when I talked about Alan Watts’ and John Holloway’s similar ideas about the failure of Top Down politics, and how the solution must come from within us. I think this is true more than ever. What I mainly spoke about then was how our thoughts and attitudes create the world we live in, and that includes our economic and political systems. But you could argue that is a cop out – I condemn standard political action and say “Ah, just change your mind!” But what do you do?

Watts would say, you can’t do much. But you can something. If the Top Down Big Government Grand Scheme hasn’t been working, then how about the Bottom Up Tiny Little Everyday Efforts Scheme. This all came to my mind this week as I passed rows and rows of screaming idealogical propaganda, and thought of a recent interview by the late Adam Yauch, in which he was asked for recommendations on what people could do to help bring about happiness in society. He said:

Everything we do affects other people. One doesn’t have to be doing something that has some huge sweeping change on a lot of people at one time. Every way that we interact with other people, even if it’s like, you’re at the store and buying something — it’s the way that you interact with the clerk at the store. EVERY action that we take has some motivation of either being selfish or altruistic. All that adds up. I’ve heard the Dalai Lama talk about how it’s important to watch your thoughts. Thoughts are what lead to actions. If you are striving to have more happiness in your life, it helps to guide your mind towards starting to recognize what are selfish motivations and what are constructive motivations. The more you look at that and recognize it, the more that’s going to influence your actions.

Yauch’s quote brought to mind one of my favourite pieces of writing ever, David Foster Wallace’s great commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 2005. In it, Wallace talks about encountering people at the checkout in a store and how you relate to them, and how you have a choice in this, if you think about it.

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

What they are talking about here is mindfulness, and the interdependence of the world, two key Buddhist ideas. What we do influences the world around us, and what we do depends on us being mindful of our thoughts, actions and motivations.

Mindfulness is a kind of buzz term at the moment, and like anything has numerous definitions. It is a concept that comes originally from Buddhism, but has since been adopted and modified into a much broader idea accessible to all. In short, it emphasises the ability to place and hold your attention on something, whilst at the same time being aware of what is going on. The practical benefits of this are an ability to experience things more directly and fully, and focus on things that are important to you, and avoid becoming distracted both by the world at large, and your own fleeting thoughts.

The Mindful Manifesto:

It involves paying attention to thoughts, feelings and body sensations in a way that can increase our awareness and compassion, help us manage difficult experiences, and make wise choices.

Mindfulness can also be called, or is sometimes coupled with awareness – awareness of your thoughts and feelings and what is going on around you. If we were mindful – really aware of what is going on around us and what we think of it – would we really act the way we do?

Imagine if people starting becoming fully aware of how their thoughts, words and actions affected the world around them. If our micro interactions between the people we meet as we go about our day changed, and we conducted ourselves fully aware of our place in the world. We can wait forever for a idealogue to come and help us, or we can begin changing our world. There are more of us then there are of them – it would be unstoppable. We just need to wake up.

Salvation won’t come from a political party, and it won’t come from a referendum on a European Treaty. But it might just come at the check-out in Tesco.

Bonus, Ian MacKaye on a similar subject:

The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World

A double whammy of being very busy in work/coupled with some amazing weather has made posting here a little light lately, but normal service should resume shortly. In the mean time, here is a little piece of stunning music I came across on my Twitter feed today, a song called “The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World” by a man named Jóhann Jóhannsson

I strap on my ear goggles and I’m ready to go – MCA on the MIC

So, the other day I put down some thoughts on the passing of Adam Yauch and I want to follow up with a small collection of some of the ‘MCA-driven’ songs I mentioned. This isn’t exhaustive, but it follows a thread through his work.

In the time since Adam’s passing I’ve been re-reading about the Boys, including books such as Alan Light’s The Skills To Pay The Bills and Dan LeRoy’s “Paul’s Boutique”, and its been fascinating to reconsider MCA’s development as an artist.

As I mentioned the other day, one of the most interesting things about Yauch’s life was his journey from obnoxious rabble-rouser to a deeply spiritual activist. This could be traced in his music, and you can see him growing in confidence on each record. The first sign of this on record was probably “A Year And A Day” from their ground breaking second album “Paul’s Boutique”.

This was a remarkable album, being such a departure from the uproarious brattishness of “Licensed to Ill” and this song even more so. It was tucked away at the end of the album, lumped in with the multi-song medley “B-Boy Bouillabaisse”. In it, Yauch in addition to the usual b-boy brags and pop culture, makes references to hope, prayer, dreams and destiny. In an interview with the Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun, Yauch spoke about it:

there’s a song where I am starting to say what I’m feeling spiritually. It’s called “A Year and a Day,” but the lyrics to that song aren’t on the lyric sheet and I’m using a real distorted mic, so it’s not really clear. And I got a lot of positive feedback from people. I was kind of taking a big risk for myself doing that, just in terms of my own confidence, but I got a lot of positivity on that.

For their next album, “Check Your Head”, the Beasties changed course again, bringing in live instrumentation and more of a punk-rock sensibility to the mix. On this album were a couple of Yauch-driven songs, including “Stand Together”, which for me is the spiritual successor to “A Year and a Day”. Here, over a similar mix of rapid drums and a electric guitar line, Yauch is much more upfront about his new outlook on life and emerging spiritual practice

I don’t see things quite the same as I used to
As I live my life, I’ve got just me to be true to
When I find that I don’t know about just what to do
I turn and look within to see what I should do

There are references to Yauch’s meditation practice and its positive effects

Yeah, as the earth spins into a brand new day
I see the light on the horizon’s not fading away
Gonna shine from within, like a bright white sun
No need to hide and no place to run

Also on “Check Your Head” is “Namasté”, a trippy, laid back psychedelic tune, featured Yauch reciting a surreal poem which culminates in:

My fear was just a shadow
And then a voice spoke in my head
And she said dark is not the opposite of light
It’s the absence of light
And I thought to myself
She knows what she’s talking about
And for a moment I know
What it was all about

If you can trace Yauch’s growing confidence in expressing his spiritual side from album to album, it came to full fruition on “Ill Communication”. On “Bodhisattva Vow”, Yauch leaves no one guessing as he talks about the Buddhist vow he has taken.

As I develop the awakening mind
I praise the Buddhas as they shine
I bow before you as I travel my path
To join your ranks, I make my full-time task
For the sake of all beings I seek
The enlightened mind that I know I’ll reap

As he explained, a Bodhisattva is:

someone who has decided to strive to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all other beings, to better assist all other beings in avoiding suffering and attaining happiness — following the spiritual path to end the cycle of death and rebirth, learn whatever lessons need to be learned on this planet.

Yauch attempts to convey Bodhisattva Vow (which I’ve written about before) in one song, something he himself admits was ambitious.

The general concept behind the song was to take the meaning of Shantideva’s text, at least on the level that I understood it, and compress it into a modernized, three-verse rhyming song. In retrospect, it was rather a bold move. People who write Buddhist texts generally spend most of their lives studying them beforehand. The idea that a person could read a couple of books, go to one teaching, and then attempt to write an updated abridged version of the Bodhicaryavatara is presumptuous at best.

The song represents Yauch’s full ‘coming out’ as a Buddhist, a clear statement of intent. It was at this time that he also become heavily involved in the Tibetan Freedom movement, that was to become a huge part of his life.

Yauch’s desire to contribute solo positivity-centered contributions to Beastie records continued on “Hello Nasty” on “Flowin’ Prose”

But I’ll remain sane making gain without pain
Staining trains with names and driving lanes to the refrain
And keep it positive as painstaking as it is
I’ll never turn back cause that’s the way I’ve got to live

But on “Nasty” Yauch also contributed a rare moment of softly spoken melody, with the acoustic Bossa Nova flavoured “I Don’t Know” which was an oasis of calm in between the smashing breaks that populated the 1998 album.

On the Beastie’s last 3 records there were no real ‘solo’ tracks, as the group shared mic duties on all songs, but Yauch continued to supply a positive mind frame, but becoming much more political in the post 9/11 era, but as always was committed to, as he once described it:

striving for […] integrating the ability to only put out positive energy toward all other beings. I want to integrate that into having fun and functioning in the band.

He certainly did that.

Previously: Adam Yauch (1964 – 2012)

See also Beastiemania’s unparalleled wealth of Beastie song knowledge.

Adam Yauch – 1964-2012

As the earth spins into brand new day
I see the light on the horizons’s not fading away
Gonna shine from within like a bright white sun
No need to hide and no place to run
Got the vibrations of the music
Bringing light to your mind
So you can move and groove
And feel the beat of the time
Sense the power in the air as it starts to move
You get a real good feeling that you just can’t lose

MCA – Beastie Boys “Stand Together”

I first became infatuated with hip-hop at the age of 11 or 12. I was cycling my BMX out on the lane outside my house in the early 90s when I heard this strage, but exciting sound coming from my older neighbour’s bedroom window. A few days later I asked him what it was and he said something along the lines of “You are too young for that!”. Deflated, I went back to my Michael Jackson tape collection.

A few months later the same neighbour came over to my house with a big box of tapes. He handed them to me and said they were now mine – his hip-hop cassette tape collection. He had, apparently, moved on swiftly to the new and emerging Seattle grunge sound. Out was the boombox, and in was a drumkit. Teenage fads move fast. His loss was my gain, I was left with a treasure trove of music including classics that would become dear to my heart, including N.W.A (their first EP “N.W.A. & The Posse” was a particularly proud possession), Public Enemy and 2 Live Crew. It was a good early foundation course in hip-hop for a glasses wearing floppy haired Michael Jackson obsessive. But there was something missing.

I went off to secondary school a confirmed hip-hop fan. These were different times however and whilst rap music is now a mainstream convention, back then it was a thing to be mocked. I was a wannabe, a ‘wigger’ and got reminded regularly. I built my tape collection diligently with pocket money; adding Ice Cubes solo work and more Public Enemy. Then one day I was at home and my sister and her friend walked through the kitchen. Her friend heard what I was listening to and said “Do you like the Beastie Boys?”. I instantly lied, in a desperate attempt to not look uncool, and said I did. “What is your favourite album?” I was asked. “Er..all of them?”

A few days later I asked my sister if she could get a lend of some of her friend’s Beastie tapes (“I lost my copy….”). So I spent one evening doing the old “press play and record” routine and got myself copies of “Paul’s Boutique” and “Check Your Head”, and I was instantly hooked. From that moment on The Beastie Boys would become my favourite group, a group I would listen to on a weekly basis, almost without interruption.

The Beasties earned a special place in my heart. I loved hip-hop, but there was always a tiny disconnection between me and the artists I loved. For as much as “Straight Outta Compton” unfailingly gets my head nodding, I could never really _relate_ to it. The Beasties changed that. They liked shit late night 70s cop thrillers. So did I. They were middle-class nerds. So was I. And they _loved_ hip-hop, and so did I.

So I became a Beastie acolyte from that moment on. Their humour, humanity, eclecticism, musicianship, and energy makes them, for me, the greats musical group of all time. Over their near-30 year career they have made some of the best hip-hop music I’ve ever heard, mixed in with all sorts of crazy different flavours.

I can remember clear as day the first time I listened to every album, from my dusty “Check Your Head” pirate copy, to rushing home with “Hello Nasty” to stick it into the CD tray of our cream Dell desktop, to the unbridled joy of downloading their last album “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two” and realising that they had made another classic (I have that on vinyl, despite not owning a record player….) I saw them live in Belgium in 2004, probably the best live show I have ever seen, and the highpoint of a great weekend of beer and banter with my best friends. I once bought a copy of their “Grand Royal” magazine from someone on eBay to be greeted by a bonus DMC (From Run DMC) action figure thrown in by the seller. And there are many more memories.

Through all this, my favourite Beastie was Adam “MCA” Yauch. Its much documented, but Yauch was the one who went from being the most ignorant, obnoxious member to being the thoughtful, spiritual Buddhist member who fought for Tibetan independence. He has supplied some of their deeper moments , through songs like “A Year and a Day”, “Stand Together” and “Bodhisattva Vow” (as well, as some of their silliest). He was also my first real introduction to Buddhism, as he was for many, and laid the groundwork for what has become a key interest of mine.

Yauch nicely maintained the balance between being a goofy entertainer and being a positive force in the world. You get the impression he really worked hard on that; diligent not to put out negative vibes but at the same time expressing themselves in a fun and energetic way.

After dinner yesterday I was just scanning through my Twitter timeline when I saw it. Questlove from the Roots Tweeted:

Yauch is gone. Fuck.

And my jaw dropped. Then I saw another Tweet. And another. And it hit me, he was gone. MCA of the Beastie Boys was dead. Floored. I remember thinking the worst when he didn’t attend the bands induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month, but didn’t entertain really the thought they he might go. He had appeared to be on the mend since first announcing his battle with cancer in 2009.

Buddhism teachs us that everything is impermanent and that accepting and understanding this is the key to enlightenment. And there’s no stronger reminder of impermanence than when someone passes away. It lays it out starkly for you.

Seeing the universal outpouring of love and respect for Adam that has since flowed is testament to his stature as an artist and a man. The Beasties have always been my favourite group, and always will be. And i’ll continue to listen to them daily as I bop around the place.

Thanks Adam, Adam and Mike for everything.

Rest in Peace Yauch.

Summer Time

I was talking to someone earlier today about when “Summer Time” begins. Today is May 1st, and I am in Ireland, and according to The Irish Calendar summer consists of the months of

May, June, July

However, the Irish meteorological society, Met Éireann, say

June, July and August.

And the plot thickens. Ireland is in Europe, and Europe recognises Summer Time as

from 01:00 UTC on the last Sunday in March until 01:00 UTC on the last Sunday in October each year.


Europe is currently observing Summer Time.

So, Summer Time began in March, began today, and is due to begin in June.

This brings up a few things I have talked about before here, all relating to symbols and our relationship with them. Of course “Summer Time” is not a real thing. As I write this I am staring out at a dark, gloomy, grey sky which has been dropping water on us almost unrelentingly for 2 days now. Not what I would call “Summer”. “Summer Time” is an idea. It is also a socially constructed and shared convention, but it is entirely arbitrary and subjective. I wrote before about Alan Watts and his comments on time, specifically day-light savings time. It also brings to mind Robert Anton Wilson talking about his address, and how he could live in many different ‘places’ at once. Why? Because the address system is also a symbol – just like time.

Wilson also brings up Eastern Philosophy and its relationship to such systems of symbols. One aspect of Buddhism is how it stresses that our world of concepts and ideas is not the real world. This is something people like Watts and Wilson expressed time and time again. Symbols, words, ideas are important, they help us navigate the world, but the trick is to never be fooled by them. They are not reality, they are labels for reality. They help us understand reality, but they are not the real thing. “The Map is not the Territory”.

So, is it summer? The rain pounding my window says otherwise.