08 March 2008

Black Moon Culture

Children of the Machine

A hundred devotees sat motionless on the sand watching, as if on reality-TV, the spectacle of young Thai men playing skiprope with fire, a 15-foot length of flaming sisal. Thump-thump-a-thump-thump went the pounding "music" in the dark; the dayglo constructions overhead offering the only variety from the relentless beat of the machine. Most of the crowd were men, young travelers from Western lands who shared buckets of Red Bull and local whiskey with their shadow-eyed Thai escorts of the night, or with me in exchange for a few eager taps on my djembe.

It was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing, with the group of us who started out in the Be-Bob bar. Be-Bob was not the usual kind of casual misspelling; it was an intentionally clever description of its proprietor, a Thai in his mid-twenties who in his own gentle and gracious way, offered to this corner of the world a kind of personal altar to Bob Marley. Day and night the old standards played, "Redemption Song" and "No Woman No Cry," sometimes accompanied by Mang and friends on guitar or drum, but never out of the looping playlist for long. It was a haven artfully constructed from local rocks and tree limbs, festooned with vines and strings of coral and featuring the burbling sounds of a recreated forest spring. A few feet out the door lay the swath of new road construction, daily heaving with its trucks and bulldozers and graders as the access is prepared for the 200-million-baht, 50-bungalow resort going up on the nearby end of the beach.

A couple of days earlier I had wondered about attending the Black Moon dance party at Ban Tai, just to get a taste of the phenomenon -- at least its new moon variant -- that attracted so many partygoers to that opposite end of the island. But it seemed a bit far to go, with a pricey taxi ride and no certain return in the late night; and techno music was not really my thing. Meanwhile after a casual jam at the Be-Bob, Mang had the inspiration to throw a party on this same night, which seemed a good, rootsy alternative to the Ban Tai beach scene. He printed up some flyers with the additionally clever come-on, "Be There - Be Bob." His friends would show up with a piece of metal roofing to fold into a makeshift barbecue, and the usual fare of drinks and smokeables would be on hand to ease guests into cozy conviviality.

So it went ... me arriving with djembe in hand fresh from kirtan, already uplifted into seventh-chakra bliss by the vibrations of the beehive-kiva sound temple at the yoga center up the hill. I joined a party of somewhat familiar fellow travelers, seven of us from seven countries. Scattered tales of Jamaica and Amsterdam, Laos and India ... but soon the idea arose: who's up for a trip to Ban Tai? Some waffled. Sandrine flipped a coin: heads, she'll go. Tempted by the opportunity and a group taxi fare, I yet demurred. The complimentary barbecue food, tasty fish and plates heaped with salad, was just starting to arrive at our table, and the intended jam session was yet to begin. Mang sat pensive and alone -- perhaps a trifle discombobulated -- behind the bar, watching his only party guests consider an early exit. "Don't worry," we half-sang to one another; "Everything's gonna be all right ..." At that moment disembodied Bob joined us for the chorus.

I felt in a sense obligated to honor the personal invitation that had been extended to me, along with the promise of semi-public performance; but on the other hand the party was, so far at least, nearly empty but for the group of tourists about to walk out the door. At the last instant I changed my mind, grabbed my drum, and joined them, promising Mang to come back and jam again another night. As I walked through the door Bob, always on cue, sang a serenade: "You're running, you're running, you're running away ..."

Sandrine confided that she always had trouble making decisions. Sometimes she would call a friend for advice; usually she would resort to the coin-flip method. That often entailed more than one result: two out of three, or even up to ten tries, to "increase the probabilities." I shared that during my recent Vipassana retreat (at a monastery just up the hill from the town of Ban Tai) I had put this very question of nagging doubt and indecision to the teacher. He had a couple of ready answers. "When in doubt, don't do. Then the task is to ask a friend. If still in doubt, flip a coin." Evidently Sandrine was already tapped into this timeless spiritual wisdom. I recalled the past year's deep dark film based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, No Country for Old Men, with the coin flip a device used by the psychopathic killer to doom his victims by their own choice. This resonance was further enriched by the fact that our Irish friend for the night's road trip was named Cormac.

By the time we reached the taxi stand there were four of us still committed to the journey. But now the taxi driver, taking his ease with friends between the shops in the calm night air, changed his mind, shaking his head as he looked at us as if in dour judgment of our collective cultural (or was it anti-cultural?) folly. No matter; we found another taxi stand, and waited there sipping what was advertised in red block letters on the wall as "Sexy Beer."

Once deposited under the broad banner of "Black Moon Culture," we were confronted with a 300-baht entrance fee, unanticipated but unavoidable now that we'd arrived. The scene past the gate was uninspiring: vendors with rainbow wands beside large boards filled with dayglo figures they would paint on body parts. Long booths selling incongruous drinks such as red plastic beach buckets brimming with Jack Daniels. Herds of aimless, faceless people visible only as a pattern of black and white, punctuated by flashing wands of rainbow light. The ever-insistent, never-uplifting deadbeat pulse of the beat, beat, beat.

Where and when had I felt something like this malaise before? Ah, yes ... the Hinsdale, Illinois Youth Center, when I was seventeen and looking for something to do on a Friday night.

Eventually people danced. Cormac wandered for two hours looking for his girlfriend who had disappeared in the company of another friend. Sandrine sipped whiskey and coke and talked wistfully of her bungalow and book, Krishnamurti. Even so she was content enough with her decision to go for "the adventure," and so was I. You never know unless you try. "Better to act," my teacher had said, "than sit on the fence." I drank a second beer, sat in the sand astride my drum and tried to play along with the bassy airwaves, refusing an offer of Ecstasy. But the beer didn't quite do it. The drumming couldn't really be heard. We joined the dancers. With a little effort and time you could kind of get sucked into the tsunami of sound. After a while that too was boring; we decided it was enough and we should look for a taxi ride home. Cormac gave up on trying to find his girlfriend.

The taxis were doing a brisk business at 3:30 A.M., and we quickly found a ride back to Haad Salad, packed in the back of a pickup with five or six others headed to assorted destinations. The tipsy Swedish blonde sitting across from me could hardly keep her flying fingers off my djembe; but whenever she paused for a moment, the French woman next to me immediately urged me to keep playing. Perhaps after all the spirit of Bob was still with us: "jammin till the break of day ..."

It was 4:30 by the time I reached my bungalow. The decision to turn off the 6:00 meditation bell-alarm was a no-brainer. Sleep when it came was not steady or deep, as the leftover pulse of the beat machine refused to go away ... having entered the very structure of my cells, reprogramming my DNA. Joining the others, in the inexorable drift toward black moon culture, now I, too, had become a child of the machine.

Fast-forward: 9:30 A.M.

"I woke up this morning, and wrote down this song ..."


more percussion compositions by Nowick Gray

digital/live mix also featuring E. Neptune and A. Foebus

02 March 2008

Achievement and Practice

Ten days after a ten-day silent meditation retreat which focussed on the practice of Vipassana -- insight, mindfulness -- the lessons are still sinking in. At first on re-entering the "real world," the shock to the senses was overwhelming. With resumed action and echoing speech vying for airtime with frogs, crickets, sprinklers, motorbikes, trucks, heavy equipment, hammers, neighbor's voices, roosters, wild birds, boat engines ... it has been difficult to keep the mind calm in sitting meditation. But I have kept my resolution to keep sitting every morning, and the overall calmness of my mental state is now increasing.

I was afraid that I would slip all too quickly back into long habits of chosen activity: writing, computer networking, music engagements, restless wanderings ... and indeed I have been inspired to delve into detailed schedules and outlines for all of my old unfinished and ongoing projects. I have made similar resolutions with new inspiration at various times in the past. Always within a week or two the inspiration fades; unpredictable life crowds in like jungle growth; and in despair I give up all my discipline to "the flow."

This time I feel it is going to be different; my resolution is firmer, more grounded in the practice established in the "Buddhist boot camp." The emphasis on mindful meditation practice in all the primary postures and motions of life -- sitting, standing, walking, eating, breathing -- has taught me to view all of life as "practice," a view that is fundamentally different than my former view of the importance of achievement.

Music practice is a prime example. Previously I have found it extremely difficult to maintain any disciplined regularity to my music practice. It always seemed like "work"; and work it was, designed and engaged in so as to achieve better proficiency. Renting a studio space with set hours helped a lot, because I was forced by "efficiency" to make full use of the allotted rental time. But at home -- finally moving into a place where I can practice freely -- the time I could be practicing inevitably dwindles into distraction: Do I have new email? How long is the sun going to be shining outside? I'm hungry right now and better eat ...

The same is true of my eternal backlog of tasks -- lists upon archived lists -- in the area of writing, editing, publishing, networking, promotion. Always I have been inspired by the breadth of work I could do, but debilitated by the lack of focus and determination to choose and see projects through to conclusion. I think that underlying both the verbal and musical fields of activity, I have been chronically hampered by a gnawing, existential doubt: what is it all for?

That, of course, is the problem with all worldly achievement, in the light of our eventual death. A practice of deep and repeated insight and mindfulness cuts through the veil of denial to confront us squarely with the meaninglessness of our ego-driven priorities. But that does not mean we are left with nothing, dangling helplessly, hopelessly in the void. We are left with the tool that got us to this state of realization: the practice.

In the week's company of a slow-walking friend, I had to keep practicing my slow, measured steps, with time left over to watch the breath. No time lost, no time gained: no time. Establishing a comfortable habit with the sitting practice, I extend the form to musical scales and rhythm exercises. Am I improving? Will I be a polished performer? These are secondary questions, not immediately relevant to the importance of the task. The task is to trust the practice. In itself it has value as a tool for engaging in the artful and mindful practice of living. And if continued, it will, like the sitting practice that inspires it, have secondary benefits in the form of a more successful life -- even in worldly terms.

That is the irony of spiritual practice. To be effective it entails giving up all worldly concerns and priorities. Then, being effective, it results in clearer, stronger, more effective functioning in the world, indeed in more worldly success. That success in turn cannot be gloated upon as a stolen, secret reward. Death still claims the last word. But in the meantime we can add, moment by moment, a subtle reward to our efforts, our spiritual work: the happiness of knowing what is simply true, step by step, day by day, note by note, word by word, breath by breath.

The practice continues.