Mahler and the Meaning of Life

This first blog of the New Year may come out as a bit crazy as I’m writing off the top of my head without any plan. Even for those of you who don’t listen to a lot of symphonies I urge you, just this once, to listen to the first 15 minutes of this! (Eschenbach and his orchestra are superlative by the way. I can’t imagine a better performance.)

Last year I wrote a long poem inspired by Mahler’s 3rd symphony, his longest. Early on in that symphony there is a trombone solo and he plays a haunting melody throughout the movement. I find something inexplicably moving about such musical devices; the solo instrument seems to stand for the individual struggling against fate, society, conditioning karma or what you will. Here in the 5th I find the trumpet solo almost unbearably moving in the same way.

Probably because of early-life trauma I have been looking for a kind of ‘perfection’ most of my life. After reading Colin Wilson’s The Outsider when I was 21 I decided that ‘ordinary life’ was banal and boring and there had to be something else! (I have too many reservations about Wilson now and see his many flaws.) This has led me on a long search which has included investigating religion and spirituality (too much to itemise here), literature, poetry, wring poetry and short stories, art, practising as an artist, various hobbies and of course, relationships. On the psychological level I might term all of this seeking, ‘compensation activity.’ I can accept that I have been trying to ‘fill’ a sort of emotional ‘lack’ but does that negate the seeking after perfection? I am asking these questions as a 74 year old.

A spanner was well and truly thrown in the works when I started following the Zen Buddhist path in 1985. There is a saying in the tradition I follow, ‘to live by Zen is the same as to live an ordinary daily life.’ (Actually it is part of Dogen’s advice for meditation) Yikes; did that mean I’d spent decades wasting time and floundering about? Well, yes and no. It did mean in practical terms that I questioned my assumptions more and more and could no longer take refuge in seeing myself as an outsider or elavating art as the main purpose in life. (Schopenhauer famously believed the Arts were literally the only compensation for being born a human, such was his pessimistic view.)

As a Buddhist I try not to divide things as being inferior or superior. Walking into a shopping centre or supermarket use to throw up all sorts of judgemental thoughts such as, ‘this is mindless, what a consumer society we live in.’ Nowadays because of being more mindful I just do the shopping. ( The thoughts will still arise but I don’t dwell on them.) It may not be as enjoyable an experience as listening to Mahler but that is the Buddhist view. We don’t see reality as it is because of all our personal preferences and opinions. I’m a slow learner when it comes to Buddhist practice.

This slight change in my ‘outlook’ has been very gradual since 1985 I’d say and it actually makes the best of both outlooks. The music, works of art etc. seem more amazing and the little steps of life such as walking in a park or doing the dishes are also amazing. Don’t get me wrong. Depression is ongoing and most days I tread water to keep my chin above the surface. However, even the depression (not a good term as it is not a noun, not a ‘thing’) takes on a slighly different context. A Buddhist monk recently came out with the wonderful throwaway statement that ‘there is more to life than life.’ This gives me hope and confidence that there is a bigger picture than what my own petty preferences show me. I suppose it is similar to the line in Shakespeare that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ It is a lot more nuanced than Shakespeare though; it points to the soap opera quality of ordinary life. (Oh dear, we are back to ordinary life being banal and boring! I told you this could turn out to be crazy.) It is said that there are the circumstances we each find ourselves in and at the same time an underlying ‘life-force’ for lack of a better word. (‘Buddha nature’ to be exact but I am not writing this for confirmed Buddhists.) I cannot describe here what it precisely means but can throw out a few pointers. How about the Christian ‘to be IN the world but not OF the world? And one for the Buddhists among you; Samsara and Nirvana are not seperate.

What has all of this rambling to do with Mahler? Here is another thought. One of the aspects I like about Mahler is the length of his symphonies; most are over an hour long. In this time of the sound bite and low attention span I revel in something which both demands prolonged attention and is compex. Why? Umm, maybe because it’s just the joy of music. Maybe because life is difficult and complex and therefore the music runs in parallel to life. I suspect one of the reasons why Mahler is popular today is exactly because his music reflects the complexity of life we all recognise. That multi-layered complexity is what I was getting at in my poem.

So, finally what of perfection? There is another saying that all people have an intuitive sense of an ultimate goodness or an ultimate ‘reality’ above and beyond their own personal lives. It is not something that can be logically argued about. I believe that is behind my own seeking after perfection – dare I say it: that we have to believe we are okay (perfect?) as we are! (Wabi sabi in our own lives.) That means for me I can still enjoy Mahler but also can accept when I feel grumpy, depressed and irritable. I can still gaze at a Van Gogh in awe but still appreciate the hot water running out of my tap.

My imaginary interlocutor may ask why is washing the dishes ‘amazing.’? Imagine being on your deathbed. Can you wash the dishes then? Will you be at peace then? Now that you can wash the dishes, can you reflect on the incredible compexity of the action. The co-ordination! Above all, can you ‘just wash the dishes’ without following a train of thoughts about the past or the future?