“Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit— the human sperit—the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of.” - John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath
I’ve never been a big fan of God or Jesus. God as a spiritual presence beyond the everyday material world and Jesus as a teacher of humanitarian compassion are both fine with me. But the wrathful, vengeful, spiteful, jealous bearded patriarch in the sky who smites anyone who doesn’t worship him? No, thank you. And the Jesus who people claimed died for my sins and demands my allegiance? What kind of idea is that? As if he got blamed for something I did and he doesn’t know why he got blamed and I don’t know what I did wrong except to get born (into Original Sin). And now I need him to save me, which absolves me of any effort whatsoever except to blindly believe that he’s the guy. Again, not for me.
From teenage-hood on, this idea of blind religious belief and obedience struck me not only as a bad idea for the salvation of my soul, but as a bad way to live period. To adhere to a dogma or a leader, be it political, religious or philosophical, to set aside any critical thought or doubt, to mumble the given prayers, to unthinkingly follow the patterns others made and follow their paint-by-number steps— none of it made sense to me.
What did attract me were all the ways that asked me to enlarge my thought, enlarge my feeling life, enlarge my experience, to step into one unknown after another in search of something I could feel as true not solely with my mind, with my senses, with my heart, with my intuition, but through some confluence of them all, aided by and in conversation with those who had been further down the path. Who kept inviting me to find my own way while affirming that a way would open up if I persevered. Who insisted I question everything, as in Whitman’s stirring advice:
“Re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem…”
In short, to be a spiritual seeker rather than a religious follower and in everything I did, to go for the first-hand experience.
And so no surprise that I was attracted to Orff, Jazz and Zen, three practices that have significant disciplines with specific techniques— teaching pedagogies, musical scales and theories, meditation postures and chants— but none of them content with mere replication. All of them requiring some personal experience and expression that are both particularly mine and universally everyone’s. All of them with strong structural ideas, but all coming to life only when they’re actively flowing, never allowed to harden into rigid dogma.
Orff says: “You are musical. Make music. Create music. Any age. Any form.”
Jazz says: “Learn the stories that come before you to tell your own. Your solo is your life and the next solo should not use the same notes and rhythms because you are a different person from the one who played in the club last night. Sing your truth.”
Zen says: “Don't believe in Buddha, but through a first-hand meditation practice, work hard to re-create his insight into the nature of Self. Come to know your True Nature that is always with you, but obscured by the clouds of your own ignorance. Sit, breathe, clear the sky, manifest your whole Self, which is ‘the one big soul everybody (and everything) is part of.’
Progressive schools say: “Hands-on experience first. Then the concepts. Ask the question that leads to the next beautiful question. Follow your wonder.”
Love says: “Painted cakes do not satisfy hunger. Do not just talk about love. Love!”
So I’m with Steinbeck. Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Or Mohammed or Krishna? Or Communism or Capitalism? When words like the above serve to divide more than unite, obscure more than illuminate, bring misery more than happiness, why use them? Throw them out! Get down to work and learn how to love the whole shebang first-hand. Keep asking your own questions and stop hunkering down in someone else’s answer. Stop following and start seeking.
And I can testify that this way of life makes all the difference in the world. It protects you from being led astray by power-hungry leaders eager to use you for their own selfish and hurtful ends. It connects you with a community of extraordinary people, both living and dead, who had the courage to follow their star. It opens the doors of revelation and leads you into a world of breathtaking beauty. It keeps you moving forward, knowing that you never wholly arrive. Indeed, this is why it is called the Orff approach, knowing that you are getting closer to bringing joy, belonging, musical wonder, to a group of students and every student in that group, but you can never claim you have fully arrived. It is why every jazz musician is still searching for the perfect combination of notes to express the inexpressible. It is why they say that even Buddha is still working on himself/ herself somewhere.
Perhaps it is why more often than not, I sign each letter:
See you in the whole shebang!