I’m back!

Hello!  First of all, my apologies for just taking off.  I do that sometimes, particularly when faced with major life changes like finishing university. Perhaps my last post about travelling foreshadowed that it was about to happen again, but it was a fairly spur of the moment decision.  Anyway, I am back now.  In case anyone is interested, I thought I’d include a brief update on my life before I resume my usual blogging habits.

Graduation photo

Yes, I graduated barefoot.

First, I finished up my last coursework and graduated from Syracuse!  I now have a music degree with focus on voice and piano, a minor in marketing, and a minor in IT.  Managed to scrape by Magna cum Laude as well!

Right after graduating I moved out of my place, donated about half of my belongings to charity, and send the rest back to New Jersey with my family.  Two days later, I got on a plane to England.  I stayed with some family before taking off for Prague, Croatia, Switzerland, and making another stop in England, and then I made it back stateside.

Twelve hours after landing in Newark, I began my full time position at Marketsmith.  I was there last summer and they offered me a full-time position- having a job waiting for me was a major factor in my decision to finish school a year early.  I manage social media for the company as well as the charity we sponsor, help out with creative and web design, and write many a blog post.

It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, to say the least.  I will write more about my travels once things have settled down-this is the first time I’ve been home for longer than two weeks since last summer, so it’s a bit of an adjustment!  I still haven’t quite unpacked…might just give the rest of my things away and call it a day.  We have too many objects anyway.

Other than that, I’m just trying to keep up my music (anyone need a cocktail pianist or jazz singer?), getting started on some reading for yoga teacher training, enjoying time with my family, and trying to spend some time in the sunshine.  Decompressing after a long few years, deciding where I want my life to go.

Namaste, friends!

Decisions

I’m at a point in my life where I can sense that a cosmic shift is going to happen soon.  Obviously I’m not clairvoyant- I’m graduating, I’m travelling to Europe for a few weeks, I’m taking a full-time day job- anyone would sense that a lot of major changes are coming very soon.  Hopefully I’m simultaneously continuing my yoga teacher training and picking up cocktail gigs, but either way it’s going to be a massive change for me to be working in an office instead of running around performing and rehearsing and going to classes.  So I’ve been thinking about everything that I’m doing and wondering if any of it is relevant.  I know that all of the above is going to happen regardless of what I do now.  But is this because of the decisions that I’ve made and the things that I’ve done up to this point, or is it because or something else?

This led me to think about predetermination in the bigger picture.  Do any of our actions actually matter, or are our paths already chosen for us?  Was it determined by some power that my life would go the way it’s going before I even started making any decisions?  Are we truly victims of circumstance?

If philosophers have spent centuries pondering this and haven’t figured it out, I don’t suppose I have in my 21 years of experience.  Regardless, how you think your actions affect your life certainly affects the choices you make.  If I truly believed that nothing I did mattered, I wouldn’t do anything I found difficult because if I knew that the outcome would be the same, why would I bother?  Would you?

But are you actually making those choices or has something else determined that you would?  I’ve had to make lots of important decisions lately in all aspects of my life- work, school, relationships- and sometimes I can predict the direct results but sometimes I have no idea what will happen.  How do you make a decision when you don’t have any way of thinking of the results?  Do you even think of the consequences when you decide something, or do you just do what feels right at any given instant?

Clearly in order to function as sentient beings we need to at least have the illusion of choice.  Either that, or we need to give up the idea of consequential thinking and make decisions purely on instinct.  But if that’s the case, what makes us better than animals that do the same?

I am a fairly decisive person, so the notion of whether or not our choices are actually choices has plagued me for as long as I can remember.  I know what I want and I make sure that I get it.  Few things irritate me more than hearing “if it’s meant to happen, it will” or “you’re so lucky” because I like to think that I’ve worked hard for everything that I’ve got.  But at the same time, is it a direct result of my effort or did something else make the decision long before I did?

Grief

They say there are seven stages of grief.  Do you buy it?

Shock, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, hope.

I don’t.  I think that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If you are expecting to feel a certain way, there’s a pretty good chance that that emotion will manifest itself- but the fact is, everyone copes with loss differently.  There are ways that are healthy and there are ways that are less healthy, but not everyone goes through all of those emotions.

Buddhists believe that grief and suffering are inevitable parts of the physical world, and the only way to escape is by maintaining a certain level of distance from attachments.  By recognising that life and everything it entails is effervescent, it makes it that much easier to let go when an unexpected loss makes it necessary.  This uncertainty also makes it vital to savor every moment, because you truly don’t know which breath will be your last.  Your world as you know it can come to a screeching halt in the blink of an eye.

Two years ago tomorrow, I lost someone very close to me.  I haven’t cried about it.  Does that make me cold and callous, or mean that I didn’t love him?  Or does it mean that I’m at peace with the fact that like everything else in the world, people are impermanent?  Some people sobbed uncontrollably, some pretended nothing had happened, others didn’t speak at all.  All are perfectly valid coping mechanisms- for a little while.  I will admit that I didn’t eat for about two weeks and drank more than my fair share of the wine brought by sympathetic friends (which was probably not the healthiest thing), but I never really stopped moving at something close to my usual fast pace.

However, I still fully processed the major life change and cosmic shift that those around me underwent and I began adjusting to new habits.  I was not in denial, I never felt guilty about his death, and I never “bargained” (whatever that means).  Staying busy by planning a massive celebration and taking on other responsibilities to help fill the void helped me to realise quickly that my life would go on regardless of how I felt, so I might as well participate in it.  Having to go back to school for finals, concerts, and juries made that even more clear.  Life will not stop for you, and that is definitely not a bad thing.

Of course I miss my dad, especially at a time when my life is going in crazy directions that I couldn’t possibly have ever imagined.  But the thing is, grieving won’t solve anything.  The best solution is to live enough for both of us and to keep on going even though he’s not around to see what happens next.  I wish we could sit and watch The Daily Show and listen to Mozart’s Requiem on car rides to school.  I wish he were here so I could tell him about my travels, I wish he had been here to see my senior recital last month.  I wish he would come to my graduation in a few weeks and I wish he knew that despite everything, I am graduating summa cum laude after only three years with more credits than most graduate students.  I want him to know that we are all not only okay, but thriving.

Dad

The last words I spoke to him on the phone were “Thanks for the screwdriver.”  This sounds trivial, but anyone who knew my dad would find this incredibly fitting- he always helped everyone with anything they asked and things that they didn’t.  Fixing cars, plumbing, rides to the airport, pet-sitting, lending one of his hundreds of tools, just being a friend, you name it and he would be there- the 200+ people that showed up to his memorial service are a testament to how many lives he touched.

I have lots of great memories of my dad- watching the Life of Brian, visiting  England, dancing around the house to Sousa marches and ELO alike, his cooking triumphs (and disasters), his reckless driving, his funny faces and astonishing intelligence.

I remember the last time I saw him was outside of my freshman dorm, when he brought me back to school after spending Easter at home.  We were on the way back from the dining hall where we had gorged ourselves on cookies and ice cream and it was that fleeting time of day just before the sun begins to set, when the world is shadowy and getting a bit dozy but still has an aura of warmth.  We stood next to my bike to say goodbye and he grinned.  I indignantly asked why he was so happy to be leaving me, and he said, “It’s nice to see that you’re making a place for yourself in the world.”

Miss you, dad.  I hope your next life is just as thrilling and rich as this one was.

The Perfect Performance

In the past few weeks I have spent a lot of time surfing YouTube trying to find videos of pieces that I was going to perform on my recital.  This is a usual practice for any musician, to see how other artists interpret music, use the stage, and so on.  I had chosen a few pieces that had some tricky counting between the piano and the vocalist, and I could not for the life of me find a perfect performance to listen to to get the interaction between the vocalist and pianist into my head.  I would find something that sounded good, and then realise that the pianist skipped a triplet or the vocalist came in half a beat late; think that this recording of Nocturne in C# minor was great until he slipped over the run near the end.  Eventually, I realised that had I not been studying the music myself, I never would have known.  Furthermore, I realised that even though I knew the music and knew that the performer made a minor error, often I still enjoyed the performance.  Sure, the girl who sang Telephone messed up the bizarre triplets in the second half, but her staging and interaction with the pianist was so hysterical that I didn’t even mind.  The lady I watched performing a Ned Rorem piece switched the words around, but the performance was so gripping that it didn’t really detract from it.

I’m not by any means saying that you shouldn’t strive for perfection.  I think if you strive for something unattainable you may not achieve it, but you’ll be better off than if you do meet goals that aren’t high anyway.  At a certain point after two or three hours too many in a practice room, I realised that the successfulness of art isn’t really about perfection.  I know that this sounds sort of obvious, but I think that as classical musicians we often spend far too much time trying to flawlessly reproduce Bach’s exact counterpoint or perfectly execute a two octave run and not enough time focusing on what exactly our music means to us.  Technique is a valuable skill and obviously quite imperative to being a successful musician, but at a certain point it becomes entirely secondary to expression.

So anyway, my quest for the perfect performance was sort of in vain, but I did find something arguably better- I was able to be at peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to be perfect either, but at least I could have a really great time sharing music with everyone who heard.

Thanks so much to everyone who came out to support me!  Here are some selections from my recital in case you would like to hear. The first two pieces are in German, but everything else is in English.

Tashi Delek

When I was in Bir, I learned a common greeting: “Tashi Delek.”  It does not translate to “hello” or “good day-”  it means “good luck.”  I think that wishing “good luck” to someone is a wonderful way of saying hello, but it did make me think about the concept of “luck.”

Someone once told me that I have great luck.  I thought about it, and it seemed true enough.  However, I also have had absolutely terrible luck.  This sort of begs the question- what is luck?  It’s perception.  There are people who have had more incredible things happen to them than I have, but there are also people who have had more terrible things happen to them than I have.  If I were to tally it up, I’d say I come out nearly exactly in the middle- and yet I consider myself one of the luckiest people on the planet.

A major factor of how “lucky” you are is your perception.  If you are optimistic, you will automatically be more lucky simply because you focus on the positive.  If you are pessimistic, you will remember the negative and naturally feel much less lucky.  Luck is sort of a logical impossibility really, because there is no real reason why one person should attract any more positive events than another.  A far better alternative to “luck” is the idea of karma.  If you don’t believe in the power of positive thinking or buy the idea that good actions done bring good results, that’s fine- the science there is pretty shady too.  But if you ask me, anything that gets people to do good or think positively is a good thing.

It’s too easy to blame things on “bad luck.”  It’s a way of escaping responsibility.  Sure, sometimes things really just don’t go your way- that’s life.  But you can always control your perception of it.  Though it’s extremely unlikely that thinking positively will cause you to randomly find a fifty-dollar bill on the street, at the very least it will cause you to feel better about little things that happen to you.  Thinking good thoughts can cause small occurrences like running into an old friend seem exponentially better, and can also make bad things seem much less tragic.

Whether you believe in luck, karma, the flying spaghetti monster, whatever- you can make luck just by altering your perception of the smallest things.   People I regularly converse with always think I have the most amazing life- and that’s true, but only because I perceive it that way.  You can too!

Tashi Delek, friends =)

Capabilities

You are capable of about a hundred times more than you think you are.  This is sort of related to my post about Body Clocks– I promise, you seriously underestimate yourself.  There’s a conception about what’s a “normal” amount of things to do and how busy people are these days.  That may be true, but our bodies are built to handle stress!  I’m not saying that we don’t all deserve downtime- hey, I make sure I have time for a nice cup of tea at night and a pretty substantial amount of nice, restorative yoga a couple times a week.  But if you do have to go on a seriously intense spree of work, I promise you will survive.

This is a thought that I have periodically around certain times- mid-semester projects, juries, finals, deadlines at work.  Today I was wigging out a bit about my impending recital and the other two concerts in which I am performing in the three days immediately preceding it (not to mention all of the schoolwork and job stuff as well).  I haven’t come that close to a genuine freakout in quite awhile, and it was not something pleasant to experience.  I just had to keep reminding myself that it is not the end of the world, and that I can still balance my life.  Just make some time and take a few extra minutes to breathe.  And on Sunday after my recital, I am going to do nothing for the entire day.  Being busy is just another cyclical part of life, as is making some time to relax afterwards.

In case you need some perspective about what you and your body are actually capable of, here’s a list of awesome facts (I love lists):

  • Your stomach acid can dissolve metals.
  • Human bone is stronger than concrete- it can hold as much weight as granite!
  • Your brain can hold between 3 and 1,000 terabytes of information (makes midterms sound easy)
  • Your brain is immune to pain (think harder)!
  • Your heart can squirt blood 30 feet (don’t try this at home)
  • One human hair can hold 3.5 ounces
  • Your hair is basically indestructible, other than by fire.
  • If it really came down to it, you could still be alive without your spleen, 75% of your liver, 80% of your intestines, a kidney, a lung, and nearly all of the stuff in your pelvic area.
  • Your nose can remember over 50,000 scents (can someone harness this power to memorise other stuff?)
  • You can go for ten days without sleeping.
  • You can go for a month or two without food.
Trust me, whatever you’re going through?  You’ll survive =)
Sources: 1 2

Noise

A few days ago, I got this email from WWF about noise pollution destroying natural habitats in the Arctic.  Though this particular issue is that drilling for oil creates noise that is harmful to animals, it made me think about how it’s also an increasing problem for humans.

We all know that noise is bad for us- loud rock concerts, screaming children, a particularly loud brass player in the next practice room-whatever.  Blaring advertisements and overstimulation are part of our everyday life.  But there’s a far more innocuous type of noise that’s just as negative- background noise.  It’s something that we all think we tune out, but it still takes a toll on our bodies.  According to this article from Women’s Health, excessive noise doesn’t allow our bodies time to recover, so they produce negative stress hormones, causing weakened immune systems, excessive nervousness, and even heart disease.  Small noises even affect your concentration.  What I found interesting to read about wasn’t just the obvious idea that noise is negative, but that the reason why we tolerate it is out of a sort of unwillingness to be introspective: we are too afraid of our own thoughts, so we drown them out.  This article even suggestions mindful meditation to get used to hearing your own thoughts so that silence is no longer frightening.

This is a thought that really rang true for me.  I remember a time when I used to blast really loud music so I couldn’t hear my thoughts, and in fact I still do it sometimes.  When I’m at the gym, I pump my music up loud so I can’t hear myself getting tired (I really do have a lot of terrible gym habits that I am not proud of…).  It wasn’t until I really started to engage in yoga and meditation that I began to appreciate quiet.  I can understand that meditation really is difficult at first, though- and it doesn’t get easier overnight.  It’s also hard for us with our Western way of thinking to believe that it’s productive to sit and literally do nothing even for 20 minutes.  It really is, though- if you can channel your thoughts and learn to tune out the noise- not just audible noise, but also unimportant thoughts, pains, and pollution from the media- your mind will become much sharper and more efficient.  You can train your mind to do anything, with enough time- to feel physical pain less, to react differently to negativity, to focus on one task to get it done.  If you can train yourself to enjoy listening to your mind, I guarantee that you will feel better for it.  It sounds cheesy, but you really will get to know yourself better and that’s an integral part of the journey towards finding peace.  It’s worth struggling through 10 or 20 minutes of spending time with only your mind for company, no distractions.  Perhaps a mantra will help you as well.

Anyway, I know that this isn’t quite in the spirit of Fat Tuesday celebrations, but I’m sure that tomorrow everyone will appreciate a bit of quiet 😉  Namaste!

Leaving Negativity Behind

I used to have quite a nasty temper.  I just wrote it off as part of being a passionate, temperamental artist type with strong convictions. My dad always used to ask me “Why are you angry?  Anger is a pointless emotion.”  Of course, this just made me more angry- everyone knows not to tell a really pissed off person to “just calm down-” it feels very belittling.  I, like so many others, did not think that I had control of my emotions.

Recently, though, I’ve been realising more and more how right he was.  Directing negative energy at someone is a whole lot worse for you than it is for the recipient of your energy.  Stewing anger for someone does not magically cause that person to feel upset or have an anvil fall on his head; all it does it brew negativity inside of you.  Even expressing negative emotions towards someone is a waste of time, because it is still energy.  Think about it- isn’t it far worse to be ignored than to have someone scream at you?  Just to clarify, I do not advocate the silent treatment- if there is something that needs to be solved, you have to solve it.  But if there are people that you just don’t jive with, don’t dwell on it and don’t be unkind to them.  Just stay out of their way as much as you can- eventually, I bet you’ll find them less irritating and you may even become friends.  When you don’t waste energy thinking negative thoughts and bearing grudges, eventually they will start to wane and you might just forget them entirely.

This positive thinking also carries through to your inner feelings: you absolutely can control them.  The mindpower to do so comes from two things: knowing yourself very well and being logical.  This goes both ways- you can control how angry you are, and you can also control how happy you are.  It is definitely not an easy thing to do, but I guarantee you that no matter the situation, if you know yourself and you have developed a strong sense of logical thinking, you can tell yourself how to interpret and react to life events.

Feelings are instinctual, so you will always have an emotion that naturally happens.  The trick is to recognise it and change how you think about it.  Then, you have the choice whether or not to express it.  For example- someone being consistently unkind to you.  Your first feeling will probably be anger or sadness- if you recognise that, you can logically tell yourself “lashing out will solve nothing” and just walk away.  You can go have a nice cup of tea and think about something more pleasant, and then just avoid interacting with that person more than you have to.  It really is that easy.  Same thing with grief, like losing someone close to you.  Obviously you are going to be distraught, but that won’t really solve anything.  Some people think that they need to be miserable, and that’s okay for a little while- but if for some reason you need to jump back into the real world before you are ready, it’s entirely possible.  Just to be clear, I am not saying that we should all turn ourselves into emotionless robots.  But often, outside events and our subsequent emotions can affect our inner peace and our enjoyment of the world.  All I’m trying to do is show that you have the power to choose which emotions to feel a lot more than you think.  Sometimes you do absolutely need to feel a bit melancholy for awhile, but you can keep it under control.

Here are some steps you can take to better control your emotions and perception of the world:

  • Know yourself. If you know watching “The Notebook” makes you bawl, don’t watch it unless you want to cry your eyes out.  This also goes the other way- don’t watch a hilarious episode of “It’s Always Sunny” if you are about to go to a wake.
  • Be logical. This is very difficult.  Before you begin expressing anything, take a moment to think about what happened and how you can interpret it.  If someone lashes out at you, maybe he was just having a bad day; let it go.
  • Distract yourself.  It can be a lot easier to control your thoughts when you are busy- distract yourself completely with a good book, or just keep your hands busy with knitting.
  • Set aside time to emote.  If you are going something really tough, it can be hard to focus on being happy all the time and you run the risk of one day exploding into a huge gory mess.  If you give yourself a set ten or twenty minutes to vent and process whatever it is you’re coping with, it can really help during the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of the day.
  • Just let it go.  Honestly, the biggest trick is not to dwell on anything negative.  Like the previous idea- give yourself a few minutes to process, and move on.
  • Keep moving.  Life won’t stop for you, and that’s a good thing!  Let it sweep you up and leave negativity behind.  Say “yes” to opportunities you might come by, or “no” if you’re being overwhelmed.
  • Let it out.  Not in a venting session with some poor friend or even necessarily a therapist- but channel your negative energy into something positive.  I hit the gym for about two hours every single day without exception, and it’s not because I love the elliptical.
  • Find the positive.  Yeah, sometimes it really does seem like there’s no “silver lining.”  But I guarantee that if you look hard enough, you’ll find something to smile about.
Keep on keeping on, friends!

Love (and science)

As much as I detest Valentine’s Day, it seems as good a time as any to write about love.  It’s rather a bizarre concept, since it encapsulates so many different ideas.  Most other languages actually have dozens of words for “love” to describe its many incarnations.

I think that it is important to point out the distinction between feeling love and showing love in a “romantic” way.  Showing love includes gestures like flowers and chocolate and often even saying “I love you.”  Feeling love is a much deeper thing- it’s liking how something or someone makes you feel or act.  It’s not even quite the feeling of being “attracted” to someone  because we all know that following attraction isn’t always in our best interest (Fatal Attraction, anyone?  If that’s love, be very afraid this evening).  Love really is the most pure element on earth because in its truest form, it causes us as humans to feel the most positive power there is.

How?  Science, my friends.  It is science.  The reason for these positive powers are not only good vibes you send into the universe, but also oxytocin hormones- the opposite of cortisol (stress) hormones.  But good news for you single ladies and gentlemen out there: you can generate oxytocin in many ways and reap the same benefits of love without having to put on a fancy dress or pay for an expensive dinner!

Love is not just something for two people to share.  I am very wary of the concept of bestowing it all upon one person- it’s a bit selfish, and also potentially extremely destructive (putting the proverbial eggs all in one basket, so to speak).  If you are in a genuine, healthy relationship with someone and you feel real feelings of love toward that person, great!  But don’t keep it all for yourselves- the rest of the world is just as deserving of love as your S.O. is!

Don’t focus all of your positive energy on one person; send it into the world for everyone.  This sounds airy-fairy and sort of nonsensical, but the power of positivity is frequently underestimated.  Karma is a real thing- but hey, even if you’re a skeptic what do you have to lose by being kind and pleasant to people?

Here are some ways that you can increase your oxytocin to generate more love to share with the world:

  • Appreciation:  In the same way that you appreciate things about a person you love, you can appreciate things about the world and get the same or even more enjoyment from it- just from enjoying things like a warm cup of tea or a nice walk.
  • Give Back: Just help someone who needs help- carrying boxes, cooking dinner, whatever.
  • Puppies: Well, it doesn’t have to be puppies.  Positive contact with any living thing generates oxytocin!
  • Meditation and mantrasKeep your thinking positive!
  • Chocolate and mud: It’s true, they both have lecithin- a chemical used by many homeopathic practitioners to boost your mood.  So eat a few truffles or run around barefoot for awhile!
  • Sex:  Hey, it is the #1 oxytocin-generating activity.  Just throwing it out there.
  • Anything that makes you truly happy: If you’re happy, you’re more likely to exude honesty, generosity and empathy, which are similar effects to those of oxytocin anyway!
Hopefully all you single ladies and gentlemen are having a splendid day despite all of the “romance” in the air- remember, you don’t need to be dating someone to feel love!  I am sending lots of love to all of you today and every other day as well =)

Om, Shanti…Mantras

Mantras are an important part of many yogis’ practice.  They can be anything from the traditional “om” to something complex and unique to the individual.  It’s something that I gave a lot of thought to while I was in the Tibetan settlement Bir, India last month.  I hadn’t quite made the connection between mantras as used in yogic practice and mantras that are religious prayers, but they really are quite similar- even in Western religions the idea of mantras or repeated prayers are pretty prevalent.  When I was in Bir, I noticed that many people carried malas (the Buddhist equivalent of  rosaries) and even walked around chanting.  It seems like something that brought a lot of peace to them as individuals.  Something as simple as mindfully saying words that bring positivity really can make a difference.

To me, it seems that the chief difference between a mantra and a prayer is that a prayer is usually asking a higher power for Om mani padme humguidance, while a mantra is introspective and reminds the individual to find inner power and contentment.  A popular Buddhist mantra that is printed on many of the colorful prayer flags and wheels that I saw in Bir and Dharamsala is “om mani padme hum.” The syllables have literal, earthly translations like “self, “lotus,” and “jewel.”  I was told that it’s impossible to translate the deeper implications of the words, but they represent something like “generosity, ethics, patience, devotion, poverty, and wisdom” respectively.  The idea is that these are the six tenets of life that all people must try to purify- renouncing pride, jealousy, lust, desire, ignorance, possessiveness, and aggression.  Another, more simple mantra that I often choose to use when I meditate is the hindi “shanti,” or peace.

A mantra doesn’t have to be something complex and in a foreign language, though.  It can be something as simple as “this too shall pass” or even “just get through today.”  Maybe it’s as simple as a word that just has a good rhythm when you say it.  You don’t even have to commit to only one- perhaps one day you need to remind yourself to stay grounded, but the next you just need to remember to breathe.  The important part is to identify and connect with whatever words or sounds you choose.

The power to synthesize our thoughts and contemplate the deeper meanings of them is one of the main things that makes us human beings rather than simple primates and it’s essential to making the most of this earthly life before moving on to the next one, whatever that means for you in your belief system.  Keeping a personal and positive mantra in mind both when you’re happy and when you are experiencing something difficult is a great way to keep your inner self content and perhaps even in tune with your higher power.

What’s your mantra?