Dec 30, 2011

Three Good Memories of 2011

During a recent conversation I was asked to name three personal stand-out memories of 2011. While I could easily talk about two highly inspirational moments, I was a little hesitant about the third. You'll see what I mean as you read.

We were busy in 2011; our Roman holiday, my step-son’s graduation in Los Angeles, a romantic weekend in Seattle, another at a rustic resort on Vancouver Island, a visit with my sick mother in Toronto, the memorable stage productions from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice to Wagner’s ring cycle, a modern ballet and a church choir. Then, our disruptive move, my college grades and the memorable small film I produced at the Olympic luge run in Whistler. There were plenty more, but three was the target number. Here are my three:

Memory One
While on a much-needed, two-week, April vacation in Rome, we got to know the city well.  It’s an exceptional city, with antiquity and bustling street life in abundance. But the highlight presented itself during the last half hour of the Vatican tour. We had snaked our way through the fascinating, yet endless museum of religious and Roman artifacts, the delightful and crowded Sistine chapel and we spent lots of time viewing the gigantic main Basilica and Michelangelo’s Pieta. But, as we were about to leave, I noticed a sign outside pointing up. “Cupola.” We looked at our watches and realized we had just enough time left on the Vatican tour before we were closed out, or perhaps locked in.

Running down the alley beside the Basilica, we were stopped at a booth where we had to pay to ascend an old elevator to the top of the building. At the top we entered what, at first, looked like a large room, but it was actually a round balcony that circumnavigated the base of the dome itself, overlooking the main alter of the Basilica many feet below. As we moved toward the railing, spectacular sights unfolded, both up and down. From way above we were looking down onto the high altar where, below the marble floor, the bones of St. Peter lay in a crypt. Here at the alter, a multitude of Popes had reached up to high heaven to pray to their Lord; up to where we were, and above. I looked up at the awesome dome; it was like a giant crown over our heads. Michelangelo had designed, built and worked on this dome until his death in 1564. This was his last masterpiece. It was covered with exquisite paintings of biblical scenes and artwork leading to the top, and into the cupola. We slowly walked around the balcony railing, taking in the vast building, until we were stopped by a door to the outside.

The door opened onto the roof of the Basilica, looking toward the front of the roof, and to the row of Saints who peered down onto St. Peter’s square. We were poised behind them, almost like sneaking backstage to watch performers taking their bow onto the world stage. We were then quickly hustled to a small flight of steps sandwiched between the outside and the inside of the dome, like two domes, one inside the other, separated by a staircase. Here, we ascended, spiraling around the narrow slanted steps that wound up to the cupola.

It’s a massive dome and a good climb up the narrow passageway. Like climbing a claustrophobic, interior mountain, the old worn steps wound up the well trodden staircase that threads around the darkly lit dome. We stopped occasionally at one of the many slanted windows and glanced down on the incomplete panorama of Rome. Here we gained a sense of just how far we had climbed. Then, there was more; marble step after marble step. Some sections were easier to climb, but there was a constant echo of others climbing behind, some catching up and passing, while others were to be passed. At one point, the steps got wider, but then narrowed down to barely a body width. We reached the cupola and were ejected into the light of day.

On the crown of Rome, we reached the peak of Christendom: The cherry on top of the worldwide Catholic church.

Late afternoon cast a gentle glow around the city. We edged our way, shoulder to shoulder, around the small cupola portico. Spectacular panoramic views of Rome lay before us. Surveying Rome was a thrill, but looking down on St. Peter’s and the Vatican gardens, I realized that this was a country in itself; 0.2 square miles of the smallest country on earth.

The thrill, I would imagine, would be like climbing to the top of Mount Everest. There’s a euphoria in having done it. And a special feeling of just being there.

Memory Two
Just before Christmas, we were invited to attend Christchurch Cathedral in Downtown Vancouver to hear the Vancouver Bach Choir singing songs of Christmas. The edifice is small on a world-scale of Cathedrals, but the acoustics are ripe with the refurbished wooden alter, pews and floor, which resonate with musical sounds. The whole church is much like a music box itself.

Over time, the various religions have spurred on some of the greatest art mankind has ever known; sculpture, paintings, frescos, stain-glass, architecture, literature, plays, movies, music and more. And to me, there is nothing that brings better emotions than a choir of beautiful voices singing magical music from the great composers. The religions had their marketing skills aimed at bringing in crowds via an artistic direction, and they did it well. There is one story that tells about Viennese classical composer Franz Schubert, who was noticeably delinquent in his church attendance. They were going to excommunicate him, but he wrote a song that was instrumental in attracting hundreds of new church goers and possible converts. They forgave him, and that piece of music was “Ava Maria,” one of the finest songs ever written. It remains one of the primary songs that every choir uses in their reparatory.

We entered the church that Advent Sunday and sat beside our friends in an area they had saved, at the front side of the main alter. They were not seats we would have chosen, but they turned out the be the best in the house. At one point during the singing, the choir left their benches near the organ and toured the church, enthralling us with madrigals, melodies and a wonderful rendition of “Ava Maria.” Then, they walked toward us, and around the back of where we were seated.  The choir master stopped and set up his music stand immediately in front of us. The baton was raised and the song, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” by Michael Pratorius, sprung from the voices behind. The experience was of revery, of being so totally immersed in this musical art form, the composer, the conductor, the church acoustics and each individual choir member melded into one. Like all arts, music takes on a life of its own, voices become song and song filters through our consciousness and senses to become at one with our imagination and our mind. The music itself hangs in midair and envelops the soul.

I was in musical heaven. This was the perfect harmony of surround-sound in all its glory. Had the choir been in front of us, perhaps the experience wouldn’t have been quite so magical. But from behind, I could hear individual singers, their tones and nuances. My mind floated between meditation and the conductor’s baton as I sailed through a place that had no space and time, but was filled with this beautiful music.

Listen to a wonderful rendition of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”

Memory Three

This memory is difficult to write about because I don't wish my thoughts to be taken as a boast or a brag, but as an inspiration to others.

I recently enrolled in college to learn how to teach and to attain a diploma for instructing adults. This is for my proposed course in creativity and innovation. I attended Vancouver Community College's teaching course which had six, one-week classes. Some of them had another week of extensive homework for each class to complete the assignments. To graduate, a practicum/capstone project must also be completed. This was a difficult course, but fortunately I was able to spread the classes throughout the year.

My focus was not in achieving the highest grades, as I had never been one of the top mark earners at school, those many years ago. My plan was to learn as much as I could by enjoying the process, watching the instructors’ performing abilities and gaining as much knowledge as I could to start my own adult course.

Class One put me in the mindset of how difficult the whole course was going to be. It took in the process and mapped out the road for a curriculum. And while the class studies were quite doable, the assignments were complicated and time consuming.

Each class had its difficulties, some were instructor driven while others were learner driven. The class I liked the best was the second course where I had to teach three, ten-minute classes. I chose different styles and levels of teaching and learning. For me, it was about performance art and being able to put across a succinct subject. I also learned a great deal about the learner’s capacity and retention.

Other classes were about styles of learning and styles of teaching, and the last class was an instructor-driven, fascinating and funny lecture about the way the brain works and learns. With each course the homework assignments were extensive. However, this last class was the easiest for me. The assignments demanded simple answers to simple questions. But, I tried to make each answer creatively different.

A college grade of 100% is just about unattainable, but somehow I managed to touch gold. All my classes scores were good but it was the last class that got me an A+ (100%).

Telling this story is not about gloating in the arrogance of winning. As with the course I intend to teach, it’s about inspiring the many who, like me, may not have excelled at school. School takes dedication to learn, comprehend and concentrate, and if you can’t grasp what the instructor is teaching, you must ASK and persist, until you learn. Many learners are shy and afraid of being ridiculed, but teachers are there to help, and will help when asked. One thing that helped me, I was fascinated with the subject and I spent much more time on home-work than usual. I really wanted to learn and I made sure I did.

Joy in learning and curiosity is a wonderful way of gaining the knowledge of the world. And that puts us on a path to wisdom.

I have written about just three memories but there are so many more. Yet, we tend to forget them. Write them down in a diary, a notebook or a journal to help you remember, then share and inspire others. Because it is through our memories that knowledge gets passed around the world.

It is singular how soon we lose the impression of what ceases to be constantly before us.  A year impairs, a luster obliterates.  There is little distinct left without an effort of memory, then indeed the lights are rekindled for a moment - but who can be sure that the Imagination is not the torch-bearer?”
 ~Lord Byron

"Our memories are the only paradise from which we can never be expelled."
- Jean Paul Richter

Dec 16, 2011

The Journey to Shangri-La

Once while trekking through the Himalaya Mountains I thought I had found Shangri-La.

It was high in the Mount Everest region of Nepal, at a wonderful lookout called Gokyo Ri, with a spectacular panoramic view of the surrounding majestic mountains, including Everest towering high over everything. This truly was the top of the world. And just over those mountains was Tibet.

I was looking down on the largest glacier in Nepal, and a few of the mountain passes that wandered through and around these high monuments to Earth’s great upheaval. On my detailed area map I saw that each mountain pass had the word “la,” a Tibetan word meaning “pass.” One of them, not too far from my location, was called Changra-La. "Sounds like Shangri-La," I thought. "Wonder if this could be ... ?" I asked one of the local guides if there was a village or a green valley situated there. “Sorry,” he said, “just an icy pass over a glacier. No one could live there.”

I’m not sure how author James Hilton found the name Shangri-La for the mythical, utopian valley in his novel and film Lost Horizon, but these mountains were teaming with la’s. Through the years, many people have contemplated where his inspiration came from. Some say that he was working with the Tibetan word Shambhala, meaning “pure land” and a utopian legend of a society of worldly wisdom set in Tibet. He was also said to have been inspired by the National Geographic travels of Australian/American explorer Joseph Rock who wrote of the peaceful Buddhist monasteries set in lush, green valleys among high, snow-caped mountains.

Whatever the origin, Lost Horizon and the mythical mountain kingdom of Shangri-La has been a public fantasy for many years. It’s a place of dreams and yearnings, a peaceful place set amongst the snowcapped mountains with a calm civilization of intelligent disposition. A utopian society that has seeped into western culture as an escape from the tense, dangerous, industrialized, polluted world we live in.

The next time Shangri-La came to mind was on a visit to the Ojai Valley in Southern California. Someone told me that the film-makers had used the valley as the location of the mythical Shangri-La in the 1937 film, Lost Horizon.

Recently, I watched an episode in the 2005 PBS TV series called, “In Search of Myths and Heros - Shangri-La,” presented by historian Michael Wood. Wood follows in the footsteps of the 17th century Portuguese Jesuit priest and explorer Antonio de Andrade on his search for the mythical kingdom of Shambhala. Andrade had heard of this sacred place of peaceful worship and worldly wisdom at the top of the world, and he trekked through treacherous mountain terrain to get there. Wood explained that Shambhala and Shangri-La could be one-and-the-same. The legend of Shambhala tells of
a mythical place where a line of enlightened kings guarded the highest of worldly wisdom. Wood’s hypotheses was that the ancient Western Tibetan kingdom of Guge and its fortress capital city Tsaparang, where Andrade ended up, was Shambhala, and perhaps Shangri-La.

There have been many books written and TV shows produced about the quest for Shangri-La. I would highly recommend reading, "Shangri-La - A Travel Guide to the Himalayan Dream" by Michael Buckley. Here Buckley lays out many paths you could take if you wanted to go trekking and searching for yourself. It's a wonderful read on the subject of Shangri-La, if you go or not. There's also a TV series that I recently found that follows English actress Sue Johnston on her quest to find Shangri-La in China, and there she visits Joseph Rock’s home/museum. Apparently Rock’s idea of a worldly paradise was situated in a lush green valley under the sacred mountain Kawa Karpo in the south-east corner of Tibet next to China’s Yunnan province. “This,” Johnston says, “is her Shangri-La.”

There are many places claiming to be Shangri-La, but the real place is still an enigma. Many claim to know, but all are different. Even author James Hilton was coy as to where his Shangri-La was located: Probably in his own imagination. However, whether Shangri-La is a real place or not, it’s a place that is now set deep within all our imaginations. Could it be that we just love the adventurous thought of a Shangri-La? Somewhere where we have to trek across the world to the farthest reaches of humanity, into the highest mountains to find an exotic and hidden value of everything good.

Sue Johnston’s TV program was not just about the physical journey, it was about a mental/spiritual journey of transformation; a search for inner peace. And that, I think, is the essence of our yearnings to find Shangri-La. Shangri-La is more of a concept than a real place, a utopia within our own hearts and grasp. If we could only make the journey inward to find it.

What are we are looking for? What makes the myth and the magic of something like Shangri-La call to us? How do we know that when we arrive we will be happy? Do happy endings only happen in stories? What will make us inspired? These questions have been asked for thousands of years. Even the Buddha and Jesus tried to answer them by advising us to look inside ourselves to find true happiness.

If it’s heaven we’re looking for, most of us have a vastly different concept of what heaven is. For some, heaven is reclining on a cloud listening to harp music played by angels. Others may like a dark, gothic existence filled with black leather, gratuitous sex and heavy metal music. The concept of heaven on earth could be conceived, but perhaps we have it already?

The myth of Shangri-La is supposed to be an elusive place of worldly wisdom, good government, tranquility, green pastures and flowers. So from a practical sense, this can be found in most countries today. I live in Vancouver, Canada, and what could be more like Shangri-La than Vancouver? It is situated on a beautiful ocean inlet and sheltered from the wild Pacific by Vancouver Island. It is beside snow-capped mountains and fertile, lush, green fields. Good food is plentiful. There is peace, relatively good government and worldly wisdom that can be found in abundance in libraries, the Internet and a multitude of intellectual, secular and religious pursuits. There is also a wealth of spiritual wisdom from the local indigenous people and a total connection with the profound beauty of nature. What more could one ask? There is even a semblance of sentience and reason. Is this heaven on earth?

Other cities have great attributes too; parks, theatres, waterfronts, downtown living, good shopping, abundant food choices, libraries, art  galleries, etc. And many of these places we can visit to see for ourselves; San Francisco, Paris, Copenhagen, Sydney, Hong Kong. But while it seems that in this time of civilization we have so much on our doorsteps, we are still not satisfied. Which makes me wonder, perhaps it’s the great intention for some members of the human race never to be satisfied. While we all search for happiness, we seem to have an almost maniacal addiction to unhappiness. And if a place like Shangri-La was ever found, would people really be happy to see it? Perhaps it would have become too run down and dirty, or maybe a tourist trap like Disneyland or surrounded with airports and superhighways, thus compelling some people to retreat in total dissatisfaction and more unhappiness.

At the moment, for some, Shangri-La is still an enigma. It’s a pie in the sky, an untouchable dream. And that’s good.

For the many who dream of greater communities, few will actually travel to the ends of the earth in a search of an earthly paradise or treasure. Some may find their treasure nearer to their home. There is a wonderful novel called The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, where a young man from Spain goes on a long trek through many countries in North Africa to find treasure in Egypt. The story is about the wonderful adventures he has along the way, but the treasure he is looking for remains illusive. He eventually finds his treasure in his own back yard in Spain. The question is, could he have found it if he hadn’t experienced the journey and the adventure of the trek? This book was the number one best seller in the world, so it seems that even reading about an adventure is the adventure.

How many understand that the journey itself is the goal? In someways we learn so much more from getting there than we do from arriving. For me, a world without travel and journey would be a human tragedy. There’s a great quote from an ancient who said, “Those who travel, know.” So, is the discomfort of climbing over the objects on our way to our goal the real learning?

What is life but a series of moments and journeys, sometime difficult, that we must learn to enjoy. And that’s the key. We must learn to enjoy the things that get in our way and discomfort us. The last place on earth I ever wanted to visit was India. I had seen the poverty on TV and read about it. I just didn’t want to experience it. But in hindsight, India was one of the richest experiences of my life. It thrilled me, but it also humbled me. It beat me down. But the experience helped me to become more alive. I saw the poverty firsthand and I said to myself, if these people could experience such terrible poverty, then who am I to find discomfort in the rain, in the cold, in the heat, in the crowded shopping malls, in a misspoken word?

“When I had nothing to lose, I had everything. When I stopped being who I am, I found myself.” 
- Paulo Coelho.

How we experience the thrill and the magic of life is our own business. But so many lose the magic and the thrill by only seeing the discomfort. So when the distraction and the myth of Shangri-La is presented, we jump at it. Just like the comfort and the intimacy of a religion.

We live in two worlds. The world of perceived reality: the now, the body, science, time, space, things, the five senses, pain, consciousness, philosophy, facts, patterns, math, reason. We also live in the world of the spirit where time and space does not exist. i.e. dreams, thoughts of yesterday, hopes of tomorrow, meaning, purpose, intuition, creativity, knowing, sub-consciousness thoughts, ideas, love, hate, understanding, the psyche, spirituality, sentience.

There are plenty of ways to find our true selves, yet so many of us spend our lives searching, yearning for something other than that which is within. Outside we continue with our misadventures, moods swings, anger at the little things our egos and selfishness destroy. The world doesn’t seem to matter outside of our own perceived discomfort and disconnect. We hate the rain, the cold, the jackhammer down the street; we find discontent in many things that are good. We pollute and contribute to the great degradation of the planet that gives us life.  Still, we dream of a utopia.

If we found the real Shangri-La, would we look after it?  The answer is “no.” The one and best Shangri-La we all have is the Garden of Eden we live on: Planet Earth. How have we looked after it? Yes, I mean us; you and me. We are all in this together. We all have a voice. Yet, who among us speaks for Earth? Our utopia.

Very few.

Surely we can all put our minds together to stop the polluters and the people who desecrate our very own Shangri-La in such a devastating way. It is time for us to wake up and clean the planet, the Earth, our home, or soon the Earth is going to wipe us off its face with a shudder, forever.

This holiday season remember where “Peace on Earth” and “Goodwill to all” really is.

And do something about it.

Watch Michael Wood's "In Search of Myths and Heros - Shangri La"

“If we have not found the heaven within, we have not found the heaven without.” 
- James Hilton

“Who looks outside, dreams; Who looks inside, awakens.”
- Carl Jung

“A horizon is something toward which we move, but it’s also something that moves us along.”
- Hans-George Gadamer  - Truth and Method

If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
- Mother Teresa

Dec 1, 2011

The Window Seat

Almost every time I’ve traveled by airplane in the past forty years, which is many, I’ve aimed myself at the window seat. When I board a plane I want to know that I can snuggle away from the madding crowd to a sanctuary of personal freedom, contemplation and inner peace.

The window seat is my heaven. Yet, how many of us who travel take the window for granted? Some have one glance out the window, then they shut the blind so others can’t see out. Some use the space and the light of the sky to read by. Others, like myself, stare endlessly out at the clouds, dreaming, contemplating deep within, of possibilities ... or nothing. Daydreaming. Meditating. At night, when all I can see in the window is a refection of myself, I feel safe in my aloneness.

At one time, to not have the window seat gave me claustrophobia. Now, if I do end up with an isle or the dreaded middle seat on short hops, I have learned to meditate to rest my mind. But the window is still, indeed, very special.

Air travel has only been on the planet for the past century. Imagine if Socrates or Plato had flown in a window seat, what poetry or insights would have emanated? How about Beethoven: what new melodies could he have captured from a trip through the clouds? What if one of the great minds of history, Shakespeare, Leonardo Da Vinci or Buddha, had boarded a 747 and flown in a window seat? What memorable sights would have inspired their creativity? Strangely though, not many artists, thinkers or philosophers who fly today treat us to a book, a composition of music, poetry or a work of art inspired by the bliss of air travel.

While most people detest travel for travel’s sake, I feel totally at home in an airport or at forty thousand feet. I don’t mind the check-in or the security. That’s because I’m fully prepared for it. The wait at the airport gate is fine for people watching or browsing the book stores. Then I board the aircraft where my window is waiting, and it’s a trip through the clouds to who knows where. It becomes my own special time. For me, it’s like floating on cotton wool. It gives me time to dream, to create in my own poetic imagination, to be among the etherial contemplation of the universe and far beyond; to be sailing, soaring, floating above the mind-numbing quagmire, of what seem like ants, on mother earth. For this, I imagine, is how the soul floats.

Some years ago I read the book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach. It’s a metaphorical story about flying higher than your wildest dreams. It’s about breaking free from the social complications of cultural structure to find one’s own individuality. An inspiration of earthly dreams. It has also inspired many, not only to fly, but to be at one with flight. It really is the high flying bible. Try reading it while looking down on a sea of clouds.

As well as revery, of course I have seen some of the most spectacular sights from the air. Early one morning when en-route to Los Angeles, one pilot circled the Grand Canyon a couple of times because it was such a clear day. The great gash in the earth’s crust was never so dynamic in the low light. When flying to India, I remember looking down at the beautiful city if Istanbul. Like a great smile, the mosques were shining from one end of the city to the other. Flying along the string of islands in the turquoise South Pacific to reach the jewel of Bora Bora, was a sight to behold. One time when flying from Paris to London on a clear day, I was excited to see both sides of the English Channel through my one window. That small stretch of sea that so many lives had been lost over, seemed so close. Seeing the high glaciers from over Greenland on a flight to Vancouver was an awesome sight. They seem to reach up to greet you. Then there’s the Himalaya Mountains or the Golden Gate Bridge.

Many of us are dreamers, and when faced with a choice between reality or fantasy, we choose fantasy. Call it escapism. Call it the need to recharge. But how many of us are driven by our fantasies? Where do creative people go to regenerate their spark?  We all need to “chill-out”, and we all find it in different ways. One of mine is through flying, drifting, meditating and watching some of the most spectacular sights. Basically, I love having my head in the clouds (metaphorically) while sailing in a boat, riding a horse, watching a fire crackle, being totally absorbed in a beautiful symphony or art, hiking a mountain side, watching the ocean or flying in the clouds. It’s the essence of my regeneration process.

I couldn’t be more thankful that my work, my life and the time in which we live have given me air travel, for what other man-made, technological wonder could be as sweet?

The window seat comes highly recommended. But don’t just take it and not use it’s power. Settle in and let your mind fly along with your soul, contemplate your dreams and your bliss. And remember what magic there may be in observing an early morning sunrise at forty thousand feet.

“My soul is in the sky.”
- William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

“I pick the prettiest part of the sky and I melt into the wing and then into the air, till I'm just soul on a sunbeam.”
- Richard Bach

“Within all of us is a varying amount of space lint and star dust, the residue from our creation.  Most are too busy to notice it, and it is stronger in some than others.  It is strongest in those of us who fly and is responsible for an unconscious, subtle desire to slip into some wings and try for the elusive boundaries of our origin.”
- K.O. Eckland, "Footprints On Clouds"

“When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”
- Leonardo Da Vinci

“O! for a horse with wings!”
- William Shakespeare, Cymbeline