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.) You can start the video and listen as you read: the music then will run parallel to some of my thoughts.

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 overdosing on classical music, 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. Will you be able to 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 complex co-ordination! Above all, can you ‘just wash the dishes’ without following a train of thoughts about the past or the future?

6 thoughts on “Mahler and the Meaning of Life

  1. Perhaps it felt “a bit crazy” as you were composing this post, Eric, but I found it a wonderfully wise dharma talk on the benefits of releasing unrealistic aspirations and of embracing reality as it is. And thanks for the Mahler symphony as the accompanying soundtrack!

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  2. Thanks Tom for your comment. Your use of the phrase ‘unrealistic aspirations’ got me wondering if I had spelt out in enough detail the different layers of aiming for perfection. We all know the term ‘perfectionism’ when we are unrealistic in our aspirations. We expect people to be how we want them to be; we expect to be perfect in our line of work, we want to paint the perfect paining. So, yes, this is a part of the subject I am trying to analyse. And as you say, we need to ‘grow out of’ such expectations. There is a Japanese phrase, ‘wabi sabi’ which is also relevant to the discussion. In Japanese arts and crafts the artist deliberately incorporates imperfections in the work of art – for example a bubble or running glaze in a ceramic pot. This shows that they are aware of the stifling influence of perfectionism.
    Our individual minds – although all are complex- work in different ways. I find I’m still fond of ranking things in order; this is a better symphony than this one, that is a perfect poem etc etc. I chose the Mahler symphony to start off the blog as it epitimises the elevation of music to that special place wherein imagination reigns. Adjectives and phrases to describe Mahler would include magnificent, poignant, introspective, mystical, spiritual and plumbing the depths and heights of human experience.
    I probably used music as an escape from psychological pain in my teen years. And I suppose people can become addicted to innocuous things like music without realising. You can see how in the context of ordinary life how we look to art to provide something transcendental. Isn’t this the purpose of religion too? In Zen and some other religions there is the integration of the Absolute and the Relative and the Sacred and Secular. It all gets a bit complicated when you consider how most of us live in a secular, sceptical society nowadays!
    My relation to perfection even applies to technology; I used to feel great anger if my computer broke down! As if it owed me a certain level of good behaviour! Now I take it in my stride and look at realistic solutions. I haven’t even scratched the surface about how we give ourselves a hard time expecting ourselves to be ‘perfect.’ Someone on a Zoom recently pointed out something rather revealing – the word ‘imperfection’ spells I’m perfection! Like wabi sabi, we learn to live with our imperfections to the extent that they are not looked down on or even considered as imperfections.

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    1. Somehow I missed the usual WordPress notification of your reply, Eric, and am just catching up with it today, nearly a month on. Sorry. I’ve also struggled with perfectionism for most of my life. One of the most damaging ways it’s manifested for me across the years has been having an expectation that my teachers and mentors – academic, professional, Buddhist – would be perfect (why else they would be teachers, etc??). Then, when they inevitably revealed their imperfections, I would be disappointed in them, and often more on in search of a new “perfect” candidate. Buddhism has helped me to recognize this unskillful pattern (just another form of clinging?), and I’ve largely let go of it – though I still feel its remaining traces deep within sometimes. Years ago, a professional mentor suggested that I strive not to be perfect, but to be “perfectly imperfect” – I think he was on to something there!

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  3. I’ve read your post through several times, and it’s made me think. I’m with you on the power of music, although it’s JS Bach that cuts it for me, especially the church cantatas. Strangely enough I was drawn to these over 40 years ago, in the atheist stage of my spiritual journey… And you got me thinking more generally about my relationship with the world. I realise that I’ve been very fortunate in never really having to do anything that I didn’t enjoy or didn’t want to be doing (obviously excluding things like the dentist and other briefly unpleasant stuff), and in these later years of my life have found myself thinking a lot about contentment, hopefully not in a smug and self-satisfied way, but thankful for what I have had, and who I have known. Somewhere in there have been moments of happiness, joy even. And I’ve found myself revisiting books like Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha in my quest to work out what my life has meant to me so far, and where I’m heading. Recently I’ve started to reflect on regrets…

    So thank you for your occasional pieces, which speak to my condition, as we Quakers say. Comparing notes on life is helpful.

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  4. Talking of Quakers, there is a wonderful essay about Silence by David Cadman – it is on a website called Temenos, sorry I don’t have the exact URL link at present.

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