Fixations, Fears, and Focus

Galveston, oh, Galveston,

I am so afraid of dying,

Before I dry the tears she’s crying,
Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun, at Galveston, at Galveston.”

People in Galveston, Texas have alot of genuine things to fear right now, as does much of the rest of Texas. As I write this, we are in the midst of one of the worst floods in recorded history.

People are trapped and stranded, fearing for their safety and that of their children and loved ones. It is truly terrifying to face your own mortality at the hands of nature, and there is nothing abstract of philosophical about it.  The poor town of Galveston and many like it, are under water.

The fact is underscored by the loss of the great musician Glen Campbell, who famously recorded the song in the 1960s.

I remember hearing ‘Galveston’ by Glen Campbell on the radio one night as a child. I was about 6 or 7 and fixating one part of the lyric “I am so afraid of dying…”.

With that idea firmly planted, I went to my parents that night just before bed, telling them that I was afraid of dying – maybe because I was truly scared, or maybe I was just trying to get out of going to bed like I did every night. Not even sure I told them I got the idea of being afraid of dying from the song, which was probably reinforced by our nightly prayers:

 

And if I die, before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take.

 

Scary concepts for a kid who barely has a grasp of how to ride a bike yet, much less deconstruct poetic song lyrics and form a healthy philosophy about death.

There was also the fact that my new baby sister had also just gotten over a serious illness, and I remember my parents later telling me they were afraid she might die, though they hadn’t told me this directly at the time. I think I probably sensed it based on their seriousness however.

In any case, I remember my parents’ response was kind of patronizing, telling me not to worry about my fear, that everyone dies at some point, and just to go to bed…  Hardly a solid, comforting, reassurance needed by a 7 year old not-yet skilled at self-comforting. However, I was determined to be heard, and this patronizing treatment made me even more committed to the idea that I was afraid of dying.

This, regardless of the rest of the song lyrics of Galveston, which actually paint a colorful portrait of a man in a moment of reflection of his desires. The death reference was a metaphor for his sense of emotional urgency I saw later, as an adult. It wasn’t actual fear as the 7-year-old me was playing it out.

Real fear is a part of our built-in survival mechanism, that runs on the biological chemical cortisol. The natural (or artificially induced) release of this chemical controls our Fight/Flee/Freeze automatic responses. Once true fear is invoked, it creates a primordial response that is, for our protection, essentially uncontrollable. It’s nature taking over the controls, focusing all our resources and energy on the fastest path to safety, be it stopping an attacker with force, hiding, or running away.

Part of Vipassana meditation (and many martial arts) training involves short-circuiting these lower-brained responses for when we truly don’t need them, so we become less inclined to react due to stress or fear.  This skill becomes stronger with each continuous meditation practice, though the level our abilities to focus may wax and wain by the day.

When meditation is working in a flow, this is more what I would call a state of focus where we maintain awareness of ourselves and our state of mind. A mind completely full of awareness might be called “mind fullness”. This, as opposed to fixation, which is a looping pattern of the mind.  During meditation we continuously drop from focus to more of a ‘fixation’ state. The state of mind that generates maximum stress in our body during extended meditation sessions.

The nature of this fixation loop is the default mode of the brain that can occur at the lowest level of functioning – when we are most tired and stressed.  The part that repeats all that negative self-commentary in the brain endlessly, encouraging us to give up — until you wake up enough to stop it’s negative droning and go back to meditating. This is the process toward faster enlightenment.

If only I had Vipassana as a 7-year old! The fear I had created about death in my young mind lasted for a few days, and is probably why that memory stuck with me.  It makes it clear now, how much fear we create ourselves on the basis of nothing, except for an abstract idea we’ve committed to. Fear created from something as ephemeral as a song lyric, or a political talking point, shows how powerful music in particular can be, and how our minds can be influenced by something simple or trivial as a mere suggestion, at the right times.

Our response to fear has a net effect in the real world, regardless of whether the object of the fear is real or imagined.  If the objective is peace, then address the elimination of the deadly emotions of anger and fear. They are emotional residue left over from the instincts of our animal-selves, which still exist and will never go away completely regardless of practice.  If we are to be human, we need to learn to live with them peacefully. Through that act alone, we gather wisdom.
Peace and harmony to the people of Galveston, TX.  May wisdom comfort your sorrow and minimize your suffering.  May all beings near and far be happy.
Galveston, oh, Galveston,
I still hear your seawinds blowing;
I still see her dark eyes glowing.
She was twenty one, when I left Galveston.
Galveston, oh, Galveston,
I still hear your seawaves crashin,
while I watch the cannons flashin’.
I clean my gun, and dream of Galveston.
I still see her standing by the water,
Standing there looking out to sea.
And is she waiting there for me,
On the beach where we used to run?
Galveston, oh!
Galveston, I am so afraid of dying,
Before I dry the tears she’s crying,
Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun, at Galveston, at Galveston
Songwriter: Jimmy L Webb
RIP Glen Campbell 1936-2017
8/28/2017

Cause and Effect in Art and Life

dogwood-2-DSC_2873It occurred to me through my exchange with a teacher this week that kids who do printmaking will have the distinct advantage to learn, first-hand, the process of cause and effect which impacts not only art, but all aspects of our lives. Sometimes things happen within the studio you have no control over, or that you don’t notice before running it through the press, which can result in massive changes to the print. Sometimes for the better, sometimes otherwise. While we can’t always control all variables in artwork or in life, meditation teaches us it is how we react to those changes that is the important thing.

When a print comes out brilliantly, do we take credit for it, and allow our ego to get all puffed up? Do we view it as a blessing from the universe to bring a smile to our day and to others? More importantly, do we look closely to determine why it worked so well this time, so it can be repeated?

When a print comes out ugly do we get angry and tear it up immediately, or do we calmly try to analyze what went wrong? Are we able to learn something about the process by seeing how the outcome could have been controlled better? Do we try to use it in another project? Better yet, do we promise ourselves to keep trying to do better, accept the outcome, and then move up and away from the negative emotions associated with the outcome?

I was not sure if I wanted to post this to my photogravure printmaking blog or this one, but it wound up here as I found it to be more of a spiritual exchange than a technical one.

In Metta,
Jon Lybrook

 

The 4 Natural Elements

I was remiss in meditation practice the last few days due to food poisoning.  I chickened out of experiencing the intimate reality of what my body was going through.  I never meditate when I’m on pain medication or have been drinking.  Seems antithetical to sharpening one’s mind when under the influence.  Meditating while under the influence of salmonella seemed equally wrong.

Noticing tonight how food eaten affects meditation.  Some BBQ pork ribs for dinner made me feel very heavy and tight in the abdomen, making it difficult to sit straight without a little aching pain in the back.  Goenkaji says heavy or greasy food brings about these qualities of the earth element when meditating.  Similarly fire could be equated to spicy food or anger.  Air with fear or perhaps ease of breath or farting.  These things mostly seem distracting from the practice however.  Why would nature want to interfere with my efforts to pursue Dhamma?  Perhaps it’s just my over-indulging in these qualities of nature beyond what I’m capable of taking on and remaining balanced that causes problems.  Water is usually a symbol for ease and flow, and perhaps therefore influences a smooth and easy meditation.  Certainly having to urinate or feeling overly emotional during meditation would be a distraction.  Accepting the natural distractions of the mind by outside influences on nature and remaining focused is part of the challenge and what leads to improvement on the path.

It also occurred to me how much the luminogram to print artwork I do is not just representational of the elements, it is comprised of them (as are all of us, and all the universe).  Chemicals and elements such as silver and bromide are mined from earth. They are mixed with water to allow them to be diluted and flow easier.  Light from fire in my lamp burns the silver halide turning it dark, and air produces bubbles and pressure to deliver the chemicals  to the film in various ways.  Some of my early luminogram work can be seen by clicking here!  I’m looking forward to doing a show in August in Boulder.  Good excuse to work on new images that have been waiting patiently for my attention.