Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: The Ear of the Beholder: Tantra and My "Desert Island" Playlist

19 September 2007

The Ear of the Beholder: Tantra and My "Desert Island" Playlist

"We don't see things as they are. We see things as we are." - Anaïs Nin

Contemporary culture swims in lists. It has only gotten more intense since the advent of the internet; now we have blogs of blogs, the Billboard Top 40, the TV Guide Channel, tables of contents, dictionaries, phone books, baby name books, syllabi and mailing lists, an endless well of mail-order catalogs, the archived permutations of every internet "favorites" survey of every middle schooler as it has morphed from week to week, directories upon directories until the end of the world. Lists of lists. So much information, so little time. Our way of wrangling the overwhelming fecundity of it all into a digestible package.

The king of all lists for many of my friends is the infamous "desert island" playlist - the ten or so albums that, were we able to power our stereo with coconuts, we would hope would wash up next to our sorry shipwrecked asses on some remote archipelago. For years, I honed this list to reflect my refining tastes in music, winnowing away the chaff in a never-ending crusade to find ten recordings that would never grow old, no matter how many times I listened to them or how I changed as a person. Needless to say, this is a fool's crusade. Maybe two of those ten have stayed the same for the last five years. The Beatles' Revolver is probably the only one that will endure forever - maybe only because it got to me first.

At some point, I got a little fed up with how much time I felt compelled to spend limiting my appreciation of the musical world. After all, I am not on a desert island! Even if I was, the odds are approximately zero that I would wake up coughing on the beach still clutching my prized possessions. This rhetorical exercise reveals little more than how I like to waste my intellectual resources, idling on trivia.

It is no coincidence that around this same time, I was learning about the Eastern mystical tradition of tantra. Now for many of you, it probably goes without saying that tantra - as a lineage and not just an adolescent rumor - was never really about sex; tantra is about finding the divinity in everything. As a philosophy and practice, it appeared in reaction to those ascetic religions that demanded self-denial and even self-mutilation in the name of enlightenment (like starving one's self in order to redirect energy into higher states - or holding a single posture for years, until the body becomes malformed, as a way of cultivating concentration). The gruesome idea against which tantra revolts is that the divine, and our truest selves, are not of this world - that the goal is to escape the cycle of suffering by backing out. That the body is evil. That desires are evil. That this life is a window into something better, something that can be attained with only the most self-abnegating practice.

From this idea, tantra swept in compassionately and announced, "Look, you idiots. If enlightenment can really be found everywhere, then it can be found here: in food, in sex, in death, in business, in all of these things you so naïvely consider 'unholy.'" And so those things became explicit methods for tantric practitioners - opportunities to break the culturally-inherited stereotypes of what is "sacred" or "profane," to find beauty and holiness in the things we have been conditioned to disdain or fear or lust after. It is a radically iconoclastic tradition - because we need to smash all of our idols if we are to experience the world as it is, directly, instead of through the distorted lenses of our easy myths. It is about honoring your experience, every experience, as deeply as possible, from a place of reverence for every sacred instant, deciding for yourself whether something is worthy of your adoration. Charles Muir speaks of tantra as "about how you connect with the love that dwells in your heart, and how you put that love out into the world...about how you interact with people in your office, people driving down the freeway, your children." David Deida says that the essence of tantra is to "Treat every moment as your lover."

We can drop terms like "God" or "divine" if we find they stand in the way of our direct experience of these things. If everything is God, why do we even need the word? It's a loaded term, anyway, these days; so let's use secular temninology and simply talk about finding the beauty and mystery and wonder in all things. Remembering the old proverb, "Beauty is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder," we know that these qualities don't lie waiting to be discovered "out there" - they are something we bring to our lives.

The color "red" has no existence outside our minds; the actual experience of "red" - with all of the richness of its emotion and connotation and depth - is something that we personally constellate around a meaningless sensory datum. In exactly the same way, the beauty of a thing we believe to be a quality of that thing is actually a quality of us, a direct result of whatever beauty we are able to allow it. We are whatever beauty (or ugliness) we see in the world.

The more I came to understand this, the more I had to seriously reconsider how I was approaching my desert island playlist. This list, and others, were saying something about me as a person, obviously - not just "what I am interested in" (and thus, who I would be likely to get along with), but on a deep level, "who I am." Where I find beauty is a map of my ability to be beautiful. Where I find ugliness is an indicator of the parts of myself that remain closed to the potential beauty of the world, and thus, the parts of myself that remain ugly.

So I'm listening to a band I don't like. I'm criticizing them - how the singer is untrained, how the drummer is off time, how somebody else wrote this song and how ridiculous it is that they can't be creative enough to do it themselves. This is my experience, and I'm rejecting it. I can't fool myself anymore; this music and my interpretations of it are both parts of who I am - because who I am is a collection of experiences - and if I refuse this experience, I am refusing a part of myself. I am refusing the opportunity that is granted me in this instant to embrace beauty. And as soon as I recognize this, I realize how much energy I was unconsciously devoting to disliking this band.

If I am a music critic and I spend most of my time finding things about a piece of music I don't particularly care for, I am leaving a snail's trail of disdain, building a life out of energies that might have been given over to living in awe of the incredible creativity of our culture and world. I weave my identity out of my memories - so my ultimate responsibility is to be aware of the memories I am making, the pattern I am weaving, the person I am deciding to be.

It's not about being indiscriminate, but about making discriminations within a broader context of appreciation. I still have preferences, but I like to also find the place from which any piece of music can be enjoyed - and it all can be enjoyed, obviously, because people already do. Someone cared enough to write it, practice it, perform it. If it's in a store or on the radio or in a venue, then someone cared enough to purchase it.

The more I can find the beauty in a song that would never, ever make it onto my list, the less fixated I am on the laughably tiny slice of the world I allow myself to appreciate from force of habit. The less of my mind I spend marveling at how tremendously bad someone's new radio single is, how bizarre and probably demented the people who enjoy it must be, the more I am able to soak in the fun of it - or whatever the intent might be, the qualities that brought it into being in the first place - and the easier it is for me to find solidarity with the people naturally inclined to feel the same way. I find it much more nourishing to come at artwork from this perspective - what is called a "both/and" rather than an "either/or" mentality.

A friend of mine recently caught me railing on a particular artist and said, "Try to say two things you like about this person's work before you start taking them apart." It's a remarkably revealing practice. Don't get me wrong; I'm not advocating being "nice" just for the sake of it, just because it's the "right thing to do," or because "mean people suck." I am not going to pass judgment on you if you decide to spend your time and energies explaining to people who like a piece of music why they shouldn't. I do, however, hope that you notice when you are doing this and, at the very least, can agree with the emotional and energetic investment you're making. Is talking trash really how you want to spend your time? Doesn't it feel better to be appreciative? Wouldn't you rather be putting the world together than breaking it into pieces? There's plenty of that going on already.

Nor am I advocating any kind of compromise - this isn't about forcing yourself to like terrible music. To the contrary, the real compromise is in usual predisposition for appreciating only some of the endless bounty we are offered. We imagine that we have only so much love to go around, and solder shut our own cages. To discover the beauty in absolutely everything is the most radically uncompromising position we can adopt, because we can no longer hide in our preferences. We can no longer pretend that we are so easily defined. We challenge ourselves to love no matter what.

Taking a second look at my desert island playlist, I wonder: How disappointed would I really be, to be marooned without my favorite music? Drawing a bigger circle, how disappointed am I to be marooned in this human life, without constant access to the object of my affection? Or rather, to have forgotten that beauty is something I carry with me wherever I go, regardless of what I have managed to clutch to my desperate breast through the waves and storm?

Instead of endlessly redrawing the boundaries of what I will permit myself to love, I am going to expand my silly little hypothesis of who I am to include love for whatever the world presents me. I have been shipwrecked - and, washed up on my island, I discover that my playlist of favorites is the song of the wind through the trees, the crashing of the waves, the crying gulls, the whispers of the shifting sand. Everything. You say radio sucks? I say, love the one you're with. You can change the station, but you can't get rid of yourself.

My mission is no longer to create the perfect playlist, the most delicately crafted artifact of my personal limitations. My mission is to take that list and stretch it over the whole damn world - to recognize the good and true and beautiful in every faulty, partial, opaque piece of music ever made. Yes, every song falls short from perfectly realizing the universal beauty I know exists. And yes, every song is one gleaming facet of an infinite gem I am slowly working to unearth.

No more "guilty pleasures." I am done trying to excuse myself in the company of the elite for the shape of my affection. There is nothing shameful about love, whatever form it takes. If someone else disapproves of my joy, I forgive them - because I chain myself to my preferences, too! I still wonder about people who dig songs I don't dig. I still have my favorite stations, my favorite bands, my favorite songs. I still like to make lists, to name the wonders I have discovered...and what a luxury, the making of lists! It's beautiful, isn't it?

Goodnight, moon.

(Written for iggli.com)