You know them when you see them: people who radiate joy, don’t sweat the small stuff, naturally attract people to them and who seem to be in a pretty constant state of peace.
What do these people have in common? Well, they’ve all worked hard to tame the beast within and turn their minds into their greatest allies. For the rest of us, life might look a little bit like this: worrying, regretting past actions, stressing out about potential future events, spinning out of control, retreating to worlds of fantasy and distraction … sound familiar?
You don’t want to feel like this. You might be thinking about starting meditation and mindfulness practices, to become more Zen, but don’t know how where to start. As you work up to your Namaste, then, it can be helpful to try a few practical things aimed at familiarizing yourself with the lifelong companion that is your mind, which you definitely want on your team!
1: Recognize that you are not your mind.
Here’s a telltale sign: you can actually observe your thoughts and feelings as they come up, which means you are not inextricably bound with them. This awareness is truly a revolution, and the first step toward empowering yourself to begin the work of calming the mind down and getting it on your side.
“To find out what is truly individual in ourselves, profound reflection is needed; and suddenly we realize how uncommonly difficult the discovery of individuality is.” – C.G. Jung
2: Become a witness of your mind.
Your mind is capable of extraordinary things once you learn to take the reins. One of the main purposes of meditation is to connect to the present moment by accessing your inner witness. Rest quietly and become aware of your body and immediate surroundings. Observe thoughts as they arise and slip away; they will do this over and over. As you distance yourself from your thoughts and feelings, you’ll start to wonder you we attach so deeply to ephemera that come and go like clouds in the sky.
“To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.” – attributed to Buddha
3: Be careful what you put into your mind.
In some ways, the mind is very simple: it builds on what you feed it. If you funnel negativity into it, it will soon be hard not to feel negative, because the mind – which is not your enemy, just doing its job – adjusts and happily works with what it’s given. This is known in neuroscience as “plasticity” : our brains work with new stimuli no matter how old we are. Letting the good stuff in will actually, if slowly, make it easier for you to feel positive over time.
“I will not let anyone walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” – Mahatma Gandhi
4: Explore your mind like it’s a foreign country
The best kind of travel is all about being curious, having no expectations, and being ready to be dazzled, even enlightened by what we find. Take the time to be in stillness with your mind and contemplate the thoughts and feelings you find there; they have a lot to teach you about your coping patterns and how you have come to view the world over time. In short: discover yourself!
“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” – Dalai Lama
5: Distinguish between knowledge and wisdom
Knowledge involves learning facts and developing the intellect. You might come to realize that accumulating knowledge does not make you feel any happier. Wisdom, on the other hand, involves learning from our life’s experiences about what is meaningful so we can live our best possible lives with heart. Learning things is great, but acquiring wisdom is invaluable.
‘Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.’ – Lord Alfred Tennyson
6: Embrace compassion, the gateway to happiness
As we focus more on wisdom than gathering information, we come to understand whey we are really here: to benefit others and know deep within that we don’t want anyone to suffer, as we ourselves don’t want to suffer. Cultivating empathy compassion through meditation and contemplation is one of the best things we can do by encouraging the mind to serve our purpose of being agents of good in a world that badly needs it.
“More smiling, less worrying. More compassion, less judgment. More blessed, less stressed. More love, less hate.” – Roy T. Bennett
7: Seek truths that thought cannot produce
The rational mind computes, analyzes, discriminates and assesses very well, but left to its own devices, it does not naturally guide you toward greater consciousness. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get there! The mind just need some coaxing. Attempt to remember your dreams. Comb your mind for things people have said to you in the past that struck you as wise. Don’t dismiss insights; write them down. Embrace synchronicities that seem to fall on your lap. Recognize wisdom and deeper truth for what it is and let it support your conscious life.
“To understand the immeasurable, the mind must be extraordinarily quiet, still.” – Jiddu Krishmanurti
8: Listen to your heart and your gut and let them win
Contrary to conventional belief, it’s been shown that reason and emotions are not two passing trains in the night. Our emotions actually guide our rational and cognitive functioning to a large extent, and our “gut” area has come be known as our second brain. Don’t rationalize your gut instincts away: take the time to listen to the messages you receive from your body and inner wisdom.
“When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.” – Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being
9: Tend to your mind like a garden
Before we start on the garden, it looks like a mess of jumbled weeds and dried clumps of earth. Who wants to go there? But with effort, you end up with a gorgeous kingdom of your creation, full of beauty, nutrients and wonder. So it is with the mind – with a little pruning, love and care, persistently attended to every day, it can grow into a gorgeous and fruitful splendor.
“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” – Plutarch
10: Develop equanimity
Equanimity means regarding the things you experience without judgment. Stop liking things so much that you can’t live without them, and stop focusing energy on despising things, which only strengthens their iron grip on you. Practice observing your reactions to things, and notice how naming and being aware of these reactions helps make them less intense over time.
“It is simply sitting silently, witnessing the thoughts, passing before you. Just witnessing, not interfering not even judging, because the moment you judge you have lost the pure witness. The moment you say “this is good, this is bad,” you have already jumped onto the thought process.” – Osho
11: Allow wonder in
Little kids are so full of awe at everything they encounter – we can be that way again too! The world is really a playground, and we are infinitely lucky to be in it. Life isn’t always going to be easy, but you can access that innocent, childlike wonder anytime by opening eye and heart to the magic all around us. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself for it!
“There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.” – Walt Streightiff
12: Slow down and be silent
We’ve all experienced the overwhelm that comes with trying to be productive all the time. It’s time to stop burning yourself out. Carve time in the day to spend time with loved ones, enjoy the rewards of your labor and reflect on your life. There’s a reason we’re afraid of silence; here we are forced to confront ourselves, and it’s not always pretty. But in coming face to face with our demons, you can overcome them and ease through to peace and harmony.
“Silence is the language of Om. We need silence to be able to reach our Self. Both internal and external silence is very important to feel the presence of that supreme Love.” – Amit Ray
13: Know that you don’t have to be defined by your stories.
Humans have an amazing capacity for storytelling and to create identities based on the stories we tell. It’s key to keep in mind that in choosing which stories you tell and whih memories you latch onto, you are reinforcing certain aspects of your identity, for better or worse. Stories are fluid and can always be rewritten.
“A student, filled with emotion and crying, implored, “Why is there so much suffering?”
Suzuki Roshi replied, “No reason.” – Shunryu Suzuki
14: Replace “what ifs” for “thank you’s”
One of the “best” ways we waste time is to pine over mistakes and wonder, what if we’d done things differently? Well, we didn’t! The life we are living now is a product of the decisions we’ve made, and the best antidote to regret is gratitude. Express thanks for all the million ways in which your life is awesome and worth celebrating, and more of that is bound to come
“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.” – Maya Angelou
15: Take a walk in nature, be wild and write a poem about it
You don’t have to literally write a poem, but tapping into your creativity is also tapping into your nature. Nature and creation go hand in hand. Humans are among nature’s most awe-inspiring creations, and so much of the discord we feel comes from how far we’ve strayed from our roots. We are designed to think and feel more clearly when aligned with nature’s rhythms. Doing things like breathing clean forest air, sitting under trees and using our natural-born creativity – whether you think you are “good” or not – will do wonders to restore the mind and get it working in your best interest.
“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” – John Muir
“If we consider the knower independently of the known, it reveals itself as pure witness. When knower and known are not-two, there is no place even for a witness.” – Jean Klein
In yoga and in our spiritual journey, we seek the transcendence of duality, the arrival of unity between ourselves and the cosmos, knower and known, observer and observed.
One of the ways we work toward this unity is through meditation, by learning more about how to tame the mind’s wild and roaming ways. But immediately, a question arises: who is the “we” in relation to our own minds? Who exactly is it that can control our minds, which we so often associate with our very sense of identity?
How are we different from our minds?
Once we start meditating, we learn pretty quickly, through direct experience, that there is a part of us able to “watch” or witness ourselves meditate, and that “something” accompanies us off the cushion and into our lives as we become more mindful and present in our daily lives.
When we are instructed to observe our in-breath and out-breath, suddenly there “we” are, as though from the outside, tracking the breath’s movements. We are also aware of becoming distracted, and we can guide ourselves – our own minds – back to the breath.
This “witnessing consciousness” is also known as a kind of meta-consciousness in scientific terms; it sounds fancy and official, but that doesn’t make them any less mysterious!
When I think of the witness or observer as I normally understand the words, two visions come to mind.
I think of the unobtrusive but interested observer, maybe collecting scientific data (though the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle teaches us that the act of observation changes that which is observed), or maybe sitting a cafe watching life pass by, somewhat aloof, but with great curiosity. The observer seems to be guided by a higher principle or motivated by a desire to reach greater meaning.
When I think of the witness, my mind floods with images of those who have been at the scene of momentous events like calamities, natural disasters, or the terror of war, who make an active decision to record and transmit what is being witnessed, so that the world can become more compassionate and future generations can benefit from the mistakes and tragedies of the past.
As a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I have been privileged, and sometimes overwhelmed by becoming the legacy and carrier of unimaginable things experienced and witnessed by loved ones.
As I write this, hundreds of witnesses are chronicling the ravaging effects of the Nepal earthquake, tearing our hearts apart and inspiring us to help. In an age of instant media access, we are all becoming witnesses, with the privileges and responsibilities this entails.
What is the overlap between a “mere” witness to events and someone with feelings and conditionings who experiences the event?
Can any being ever be neutral, whether out there in society or within our own selves?
Until we experience pure One-ness, we are always a little bit “in” and a little bit “out” of things, and this can be a confusing place to be.
It may well be that the common denominator between the worldly witness and the inner witness is compassion, and the merging this allows between a self that is conflicted or divided within the universe.
Grappling with the witness and observer can be a chaotic endeavor, but I think it’s important to understand this special consciousness inside of us, so that we can become more conscious beings in a world that desperately needs this from us.
Rather than try to understand it intellectually, I’ve tried, below, to delve right into the “my inner witness,” using my meditation practice as the basis.
If the goal is to lose the witness altogether and merge into a compassion-flooded whole, then this is a humble attempt to bring the witness into sharper focus. I would love to hear any thoughts regarding this phenomenon!
Who is The Witness?
The witness tells me I’m thinking while I try to clear my mind, and brings me back to my body.
The witness stands guard but does not offer solace.
The witness stands back when emotions overtake me and whispers quietly, “Let this be so.”
The witness observes me “be” as though from afar, while remaining a part of this “me” fabric.
The witness guides me into nature when I need comfort and solace, and disappears when I am in rapture.
The witness points me to the physical effects of my confusion, by way of telling me that I am not my confusion.
The witness asks me if I’m being honest with myself.
The witness doesn’t argue with any other part of me, even as the parts argue with each other.
The witness doesn’t have the same goals for my life that I do, and doesn’t get frustrated when the goals I set are not met.
The witness seems to want what is best for me, or at least doesn’t veer me in the direction of harm.
The witness is not a friend or an enemy.
The witness knows what I am doing but doesn’t make any judgments.
The witness asks for nothing the way other parts of me ask me to tax myself over and over.
The witness is not a master or a guru.
The witness allows me to be more attentive.
What do I do with this attention?
Which part of me is the keeper of my stories and the inspiration behind the dreams I long to fulfill?
Can the witness take me there and beyond … or can it only witness the evolution?
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.” ~ Oliver Sacks
Recently, I was thinking about what the world would be like—or rather, how our perception of it would change—if we were suddenly told that Earth was now called Jupiter, and Jupiter was now called Earth.
How would we think about this other Earth, which we have never seen with our own eyes? How would we re-conceive the new Jupiter, a place now simultaneously “ours,” and yet filled with our imaginings of a place far, far away?
It was reported recently that acclaimed physician, author and professor of Neurology Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and as I heard the news, I realized how “Sacksian” my line of questioning above is—how much his ideas, gleaned through readings of his books, have influenced my way of being in the world.
Oliver Sacks has accomplished what very few others have: in addition to his tireless work in the field of neurology, he has managed, through his gifts as a writer and storyteller, to make the brain a fascinating and accessible subject for the layperson (or the “ordinary curious,” as I like to think of us!) I can never put his books down once I start reading them; they are like being led into a vast, incredibly deep and riveting ocean by a gentle, inquisitive and assured guide.
It would be impossible to underestimate how far-reaching the study of the brain is for anybody with a natural curiosity about the world, philosophy, metaphysics, psychology, and virtually every area under the sun. The brain is our incredibly nuanced and mysterious gateway, so we need to know: how does the “normal” brain function?
And, as Sacks has been investigating for decades, what do some of the “abnormal brain conditions” illuminate about the nature of human perception and experience?
What might life look and be like for someone who’s been blind from birth, and has suddenly gained access to sight? (Spoiler: not easy). Sack’s explorations of a rare case of this were turned into the film At First Sight, starring Val Kilmer.
Among some other well-known research topics by Sacks are: encephalitis lethargica, which has people unable to move, sometimes for decades, explored in his book “Awakenings” and the film of the same name, starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams; colorblindness; aphasia (the inability to form speech), Tourette’s syndrome; hallucinations; synesthesia, in which the “wires cross” and a person might “see sounds” or “hear colours,” and Korsakov’s syndrome, in which people suffer from memory loss (so that, for example, a 60-year-old might still believe she/he were a 30 year-old).
Many of us will never directly experience any or most of these conditions, but we may well approximate subtle variations of some of them. For example, maybe we haven’t lost our memories of the last twenty years of our lives, but we’ve certainly lost many memories, struggle to remember things, and wonder how much of what we remember is fiction.
We may have “normal” brains, but how is it that we live in a colour world, but can “understand” or process black-and-white films with such ease? It’s really amazing, how much of a “whole” world we can create with some of the “pieces” missing.
This question, as a film student, brought me to one of my favorite filmmakers, Sergei Eisenstein, who didn’t have synesthesia, but longed to create a synesthetic world on film, where the magical experiences of sight and sound would become all intertwined into a harmonic whole in the viewer’s mind—a sensory world that would cut straight to the emotions.
Most of Eisenstein’s films, because of the era, were made in black-and-white, but he was obsessed by the possibilities colour cinema would open up; reading his dreams about making colour films, you’d think he was talking about voyaging into the entire universe and all its galaxies—such were the horizons one “small switch” in perception could open up. He was an artist and visionary, working with his tool of cinema to grasp at the very limits of what humans, as thinking, perceiving and emoting beings, can do.
For him, film was the grand stage mediating between subject and object, observer and observed, experiencing and experienced. For Oliver Sacks, this grand stage, affording so many possibilities for knowledge and growth, is the human brain.
Using actual case studies, Sacks has fashioned anecdotal scenarios out of the most seemingly bizarre outreaches of brain function, and also out of his impassioned beliefs in the power of music to dig right into our souls, and has allowed us entry into a spellbinding kaleidoscope of human existence. People like the man engaged with in “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat,” who does just that, are an invitation to consider the very broad arenas of human subjectivity, identity, and how we relate to the world through thing like our senses, cognitive abilities, and memory.
It’s a dizzying, tantalizing world Sacks has brought to life for us. Here are just a few of his words and observations. Much more can be found in his collection of books!
On Music, Art and Healing
“It really is a very odd business that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads.”
“There are, of course, inherent tendencies to repetition in music itself. Our poetry, our ballads, our songs are full of repetition; nursery rhymes and the little chants and songs we use to teach young children have choruses and refrains. We are attracted to repetition, even as adults; we want the stimulus and the reward again and again, and in music we get it. Perhaps, therefore, we should not be surprised, should not complain if the balance sometimes shifts too far and our musical sensitivity becomes a vulnerability.”
“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.”
“Certainly it’s not just a visual experience – it’s an emotional one. In an informal way I have often seen quite demented patients recognize and respond vividly to paintings and delight in painting at a time when they are scarcely responsive to words and disoriented and out of it. I think that recognition of visual art can be very deep.”
“Perception is never purely in the present—it has to draw on experience of the past; (…). We all have detailed memories of how things have previously looked and sounded, and these memories are recalled and admixed with every new perception.”
“With any hallucinations, if you can do functional brain imagery while they’re going on, you will find that the parts of the brain usually involved in seeing or hearing—in perception—have become super active by themselves. And this is an autonomous activity; this does not happen with imagination.
“This usually occurs at the moment when my head hits the pillow at night; my eyes close and…I see imagery. I do not mean pictures; more usually they are patterns or textures, such as repeated shapes, or shadows of shapes, or an item from an image, such as grass from a landscape or wood grain, wavelets or raindrops…transformed in the most extraordinary ways at a great speed. Shapes are replicated, multiplied, reversed in negative, etc. Color is added, tinted, subtracted. Textures are the most fascinating; grass becomes fur becomes hair follicles becomes waving, dancing lines of light, and a hundred other variations and all the subtle gradients between them that my words are too coarse to describe.”
“My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”
“We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.”
“Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.”
On the Brain and Imagination
“…when the brain is released from the constraints of reality, it can generate any sound, image, or smell in its repertoire, sometimes in complex and “impossible” combinations.”
On the Survival Instinct
“But it must be said from the outset that a disease is never a mere loss or excess—that there is always a reaction, on the part of the affected organism or individual, to restore, to replace, to compensate for and to preserve its identity, however strange the means may be: and to study or influence these means, no less than the primary insult to the nervous system, is an essential part of our role as physicians.”
“There are moments, and it is only a matter of five or six seconds, when you feel the presence of the eternal harmony…a terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you. If this state were to last more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and would have to disappear. During these five seconds I live a whole human existence, and for that I would give my whole life and not think that I was paying too dearly…”
“We must be willing to encounter darkness and despair when they come up and face them, over and over again if need be, without running away or numbing ourselves in the thousands of ways we conjure up to avoid the unavoidable.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn
“Come and see: As above, so below; as below so in the sea; as high above so in the upper sea; as above, so below; as below so in the lower sea.” ~ Zohar Beshalach 2:48b
The personal is political and the political is personal, but we still see everything as separate and so we ask:
How did we get here? How has all this happened? How could there be such a mess here, in our midst, among us?
We want our brains to answer, scramble to form conclusions, but it’s our hearts that are hurting.
The temptation can be so strong, to hide under the covers where it’s warm and safe, even though we know deep down that in this state, nothing can enter and we can’t get out.
We try to change things without actually taking the steps needed to change from the inside out, and this is the primary—primal, even—contradiction in a vast sea of them; and the cycles of human suffering continue.
The solution isn’t to stop blaming others and start blaming ourselves, because accountability is not the same thing as blame, and because self-blame doesn’t solve the riddle of this mess we find ourselves in any better than blaming others does. Neither can we can’t blame the mess for being what it is, which is what we are.
But we are beautiful. Beautiful things shouldn’t be able to generate ugliness in the world.
Yet here we are. It is made, and some of it is very ugly.
Our contradictions and paradoxes are not to be avoided, or forever indulged. They come directly from us and they’re interesting, and need to be acknowledged, observed and witnessed.
Humanity, glorious as it is, is a messy adventure, whether we understand how we have come to be here and why, or not.
Our contradictions are the building blocks not of the world, but of our self-understanding.
We respond, for example, to notions like be positive, and go for it! with triumphant determination, but say no when resistance presents itself.
We don’t like facing resistance even though doing so engenders change and allows for creation.
We feel the need to go easy, the way of comfort, and resent that no revelations emerge on this path.
We want to fly without leaving the ground.
We want to think through our feelings and infuse our dreams with common sense.
We think sad is wrong and happy is right—we think there is wrong and right, like we think there is you and there is me and that our existence in no way depends on each other.
We think that, from the position of separation, we can know the realities of the other.
We think we can filter everything through a framework of knowledge and wonder why we aren’t reaping the rewards faith brings.
We think the only way to feel good is to feel good immediately, and always.
We think there is an always, even though nothing lasts as long as you can hold it, and we’re going to die.
We think dying is something to be avoided though dying is inevitable, without exception.
We think living long is better than living well, without wondering where this idea comes from.
We think we can run away.
We want to make the best use of our time and then clutter our minds and environments with distraction.
We want to be understood within this cluttered environment filled with distraction.
We want clarity without making things around us clear and free.
We want to see through the mess of our own creation.
We want. We run in circles. We want some more.
The beautiful thing, though, one of the most precious things about being human, I think, is that we do want to see, to understand.
And this is because of love. Love compels us to emerge from the chaos and into something something softer.
Because we have consciousness (which is love-fueled), we have the drive and impulse to get down to the bottom of things, to have clear vision and a space for compassion. This unites us even as our distractions and messes attempt to pull us apart.
This strong pull toward the best kind of survival—a mindful, conscious, clear and compassionate survival — is something we should be so grateful to have in our human arsenal.
With it, we can move toward self-enquiry, find the deep, quiet spaces within, from where we can glimpse at the idea that there are no real contradictions, and start to plant the seeds of a wise transformation, though we are not yet always wise.
Seeing past our contradictions, guided by love: this is the great, human hope amid a mess that need not remain.
I came to Paulo Coelho reluctantly, though I couldn’t tell you why.
But there he was, dotting the backpacker circuit of Southeast Asia, in nearly every guesthouse I passed through, squeezed into crammed shelves, falling apart under bamboo side tables, half-wildly torn and soggy under beer glass condensation.
Always in need of reading material, and craving a break from reading on my laptop, I found myself inching closer and closer to Coelho’s well-read body of work.
One by one, I started reading his books and falling into his lyrical phrasing and optimistic, oneiric spiritualism. I wouldn’t say I became hooked. It was more of a lingering, intermittent and sometimes dysfunctional relationship—and periodically, I would keep coming back for more.
Regardless of how I felt about everything I read of Coelho’s, I will be forever grateful to him for how interwoven his work became with such a meaningful period of my life. These books allowed me to get swept away in his sandy, windblown parables, and occasionally brought me, slap-in-the-face-like, back to the present moment, where I needed to confront myself.
I’ll be totally honest: I can’t remember right now which book it was that struck me with this amazing quote, and I also can’t swear that it’s a direct quote and not a paraphrase. In fact, that memory is a fallible and very creative thing ties into the quote that inspired me to write this.
I do remember the book was about a man who lost the one woman he really loved and was trying to figure out how to get her back, and how to get to the bottom of who he really was, that he could have loved and lost like this.
He asked a wise person for advice and was told to forget everything, to forget his biography and just be—to discover himself in this way, in the shining light of the present moment (my interpretation).
The thought panicked him (and me, by proxy).
How can I stay myself if I willingly forget all that I was? he asked.
And he was told: the important stuff stays.
The important stuff stays.
I’ve had similar fears to the man in the story. I’ve long tended to hold on to too much: too much pain, negativity, doubtful feelings…and I’ve suspected that this has led me not only headlong into life via the modes of confusion and uncertainty, but also to my slowly unfolding journey of turning this around.
During my long travels, I may not have been searching for that one person, that emblem of love and self-fulfillment, of the protagonist of this book (though maybe we always are, in a way)—but I was, without a doubt, reaching for something exciting and elusive. And I was certainly trying to be in two places at once—in the past that was always dancing on my shoulders, never far away from my deepest emotions, and also in a long-awaited, mythical future where everything would fall beautifully together.
Of course, we can’t be in two places at once, any more than we can ever be in back the past, or ahead in the future.
How does one really start over, though—as much as we really want to at the very core of our being – without fearing a complete annihilation of self?
When I read that the important stuff stays, it seemed too simple to hold onto, but so deeply, profoundly sensible at the same time.
Nothing of value will ever be forgotten because there’s no malevolent force out there that wants you to suffer. We make ourselves suffer. If we can only eliminate the causes of suffering—the clinging, the grasping—there might well be a treasure of stuff (we are the treasure!) there for the taking.
We need only to lighten up, literally, metaphorically, and enjoy the proverbial ride, and know that we will not be completely annihilated if we do so.
What’s left behind, we don’t need. What remains, remains. And this remainder will always be enough.
*Postscript: I’ve looked into it now, and the book is called The Zahir: A Novel of Obsession. Recommended!
*Note: This has just been published on elephant journal – and it’s gone viral! Thanks to the people over there for helping me share my words; they work so hard and do great work!
Wolf Koenig (1927 – 2014) was a giant the way more than a few Canadian artists are: in a quiet, humble and very modest way.
I had the huge privilege of witnessing these traits firsthand when I interviewed him back in 2001, while I was in the throes of a Masters degree in film, exploring notions of documentary, observation, reality and truth.
I was living in Bangkok at the time, and he was living in small-town Ontario, not far from where I’m from, though we never met face-to-face.
Kind in a from-the-bottom-of-the-heart way, gentle and at turns humorous and contemplative, Koenig showed his adventurous spirit from the get-go.
I had a million questions for this maverick of the Canadian documentary, and he very graciously agreed to a long-form e-mail interview—his first conducted in cyberspace, as he told me. It ended up being part interview and part dialogue, as I tried to soak up what this brilliant mind was teaching me. We “spoke” for a few weeks, almost daily and by the end, he referred to this exploration as an “archeological dig.”
An explorer—and philosopher, miner of the psyche, and self-professed “tinkerer”—he was.
In the 1950s, Koenig, along with his young, rogue colleagues at the National Film Board of Canada (including IMAX founder and inventor Roman Kroitor), formed a documentary unit called Unit B, and ended up changing the way documentaries were made—which is also to say, how we perceived the world.
Decades before reality TV would permeate the globe, the Unit B filmmakers had the idea that they wanted to record reality “as it was,” without any overt decisions to package or frame what they saw, or offer audiences a predetermined view of the subject matter. This flew in the face of the kind of propagandistic documentaries that were being made at the time, and the team, while given rudimentary support, was more or less left to forge their own path.
This even included the necessity of designing and building their own equipment to record synchronous sound (to record images and sounds at the scene, simultaneously): they were wholly determined to go onto the streets with equipment that was as light as possible, and try to unobtrusively capture the world.
My personal favorites are a two-part series on Glenn Gould and the Unit B’s most famous, a film called “Lonely Boy”, (1961), which follows then-19-year-old Ottawa-boy crooner Paul Anka as he sets out to make it big in Atlantic City. The poignancy and raw excitement this film generates cannot be overstated – check it out below!
It’s also considered by many to be the very first rockumentary, or at least its progenitor, and is startling when you watch the girls scream over Anka, crazed, and realize it was made about three years before the Beatles landed in America.
A lot of the Unit B’s work is not widely available, but serve as a lasting visual and auric archive of an era when the likes of Jackson Pollock, Jack Kerouac, Albert Camus, and this ragtag group of brilliant filmmakers set out to test the very limits of artistic and philosophical imagination.
What do splotches of paint on canvas, free-form poetic ramblings, existentialist philosophy and the observational film have in common? To me, they epitomize the ultimate spirit of modernity and represent, in very different ways, what happens when classical forms of representation no longer suffice to express a personal or societal ethos, when something has to give.
These artists truly turned the world on its head during a creatively fertile time, each representing an edge, a limit, a willingness to explore the frontier of mind and spirit. I think of this as meditation-in-action, a motivated intention to discover what lies beyond what the senses can know directly, using the senses as the way in.
Koenig and his fellow filmmakers may have wanted to “directly capture reality,” but they were in no way naive or obtuse about the possibility of doing this, unfiltered – art can only be an attempt, and people can only do their best, using the tools they have.
These were some of the brilliant, inspiring words Wolf Koenig shared with me, about the potential of art as it relates to Truth:
“I’ve come to the conclusion in my dotage that “structure” is what all the arts are really about – music, dance, the graphic arts, the theatre, the literary arts, architecture, poetry, etc. They show us by inference something that we otherwise can’t see. This ‘something’ is invisible to us, like a fir tree in the dark. But come Christmas time, people hang lights all over the boughs. At first one only sees the lights, but if you step back a bit and squint, you see the shape of the tree – even though the tree itself still invisible. The lights define it, so we’re able to see it by inference. In this laboured analogy, the lights represent the “arts” and the tree the “structure”. And the Structure is what permeates the universe from the sub-atomic particle to the whole cosmos – in effect, we are all little lights hung on the invisible tree. And the arts are about the only way we have of talking about this thing: “Structure” or “Truth.”
I didn’t realize until just now how deeply his wise words remained within me as I set out to find my own way of being in the world, of observing my mind in hopes of peering into Truth.
RIP, Wolf Koenig, light that you were. You will be missed, and thank you for your work, the worlds you gave us, for your being.
* This article was published in elephant journal, here.
And now, for the dialogue!
Some of my interview with Wolf was published in a Take One Magazine article, so please enjoy! If anyone is interested in having access to the full interview, please feel free to contact me by email.
Candid Eye, & Lonely Boy Unit B: take one’s interview with Wolf Koenig.
If the word documentary is synonymous with Canada, and the NFB is synonymous with Canadian documentary, it is impossible to consider the NFB, and particularly its fabled Unit B team, without one of its core members, Wolf Koenig. An integral part of the “dream team,” he worked with, among others, Colin Low, Roman Kroitor, Terence Macartney–Filgate and unit head Tom Daly, as part of the NFB’s most prolific and innovative ensemble. Koenig-began his career as a splicer before moving on to animator, cameraman, director and producer, responsible for much of the output of the renowned Candid Eye series produced for CBC–TV between 1958 and 1961. Among Unit B’s greatest achievements is Lonely Boy (1962), which brilliantly captured the phenomenon of megastar mania before anyone else, and continues to be screened worldwide. I had the opportunity to “speak” to Wolf Koenig in his first Internet interview, a fitting format for a self–professed tinkerer who made a career out of embracing the latest technologies. He refl ects on his days as part of Unit B, what the term documentary means to him and the process of making Lonely Boy.
What was your background before joining the NFB?
In 1937, my family fled Nazi Germany and came to Canada, just in the nick of time. After a couple of years of wondering what he should do, my father decided that we should settle down on a farm. He found the perfect place, 145 acres of beautiful hills and bush bordering the Grand River, just outside of Galt, Ontario. The hills and valleys were beautiful, allright, but hell to plow and harvest. So we got a tractor, one of the first in the area, a Ford–Ferguson — small but strong.
One day, in early May 1948, my father got a call from a neighbour down the road — Mr. Merritt, the local agricultural representative for the federal department of agriculture — who asked if “the boy” could come over with the tractor to try out a new tree–planting machine. The machine was designed to fit only the Ford–Ferguson, and we were the only ones in the area to have one. So my father called me over and said, “Go!” As I was pulling the tree planter across a field, I noticed a couple of guys off to the side. One was pointing and giving directions and the other one was setting up a tripod with a movie camera on it. After the test planting was done, I went over and asked them what they were filming. Raymond Garceau, the director, told me that they were from the agricultural unit of the NFB and that they were making a film about this new tree–planting machine. I got talking to them and told them how much I loved films, especially animation films and that I wanted one day to work in that field. They suggested that I send a job application to the NFB. I think Garceau must have mailed me one, although I don’t remember exactly how I got it. Anyway, I sent it off, and about six weeks later I got a letter asking if I were interested in a position as junior splicer at $100 per month at the National Film Board of Canada. My father said, “Go! It’s the government!.”
So, on July 12, 1948, I boarded the CPR train in Galt, hay seed in my hair, hauling a cardboard suitcase bulging with clothing and my mother’s cookies and sandwiches. I was off to Toronto and then Ottawa [where the NFB was located at the time]. And on the morning of July 13, I reported for work as junior splicer. I was 20, and had no education save four years at vocational school, where I learned the rudiments to auto mechanics, drafting, house wiring and wood-working–all useful things if you’re a farmer, but not much help in filmaking. So I learned how to splice film and I got rather good at it. I met practically everybody involved in production because they all had to come to my tiny cubicle to get their films spliced. In spare moments, I’d hang around and watch people edit or go down to animation and see how they did it, and then go into the optical camera section and watch how animation was shot. I thought I was in heaven. Anyway, after about a year and a half of spicing and learning, I was invited to come and join the animation department.
I understand Tom Daly, who would go on to head the Unit B team, was executive producer for the animation department when you were there. What was your relationship like with him?
Tom was truly the heart of Unit B. He was the executive producer of the unit and its brains and muscle, too. He was a master editor, and still is, and he took great care that we new ones were fully instructed in the rules of the craft. He’d give regular lectures and with the help of a 16 mm projector took us through a film shot by shot that he or Stuart Legg – the great British documentarian brought in by Grierson during the war to oversee The Worth in Action – had edited. Tom had apprenticed with Legg and learned the craft from him. In the war years, they invariably had to use newsreel material from disparate sources – British, German, Portuguese, American or Canadian – yet made it look as if it all came from the same source. Later, as head of Unit B, Tom continued to mentor and guide us. And he still edited. I remember Colin Low and me looking over Tom’s shoulder as he cut Corral and later City of Gold. And he explained everything he did. He was a master teacher as well as an artist. Without his guidance and infinite patience, many of us would never have worked on a film. And Tom challenged us intellectually too. He’d get those of us who were undereducated to read the classics, like Plato’s Dialogues. He was giving us a university education. No other executive producer would have taken the trouble to do this. In the end, Tom’s efforts paid off. Studio B did some of the NFB’s most interesting work and has never seen his like again.
It sounds like an ideal work environment. Does your relationship with Roman Kroitor go back to the early days too?
I met Roman first while I was still a splicing boy. He came to the NFB — I don’t know the exact year — as a summer student. He came into Unit B and therefore was under Daly’s jurisdiction. Roman was doing his Ph.D. in philosophy, I believe, at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. I met him in the usual way. He brought something in for me to splice. We got to talking and pretty soon we were spending lunch hours debating deep philosophical things while eating our sandwiches. Roman always won any debate. He was just too smart for me. He was also very outspoken, and he spoke his mind without much regard for diplomacy. Once, one veteran NFB director stopped Roman in the hall and asked him how he liked his latest film. It had just been screened and he noticed that Roman was there. And Roman said, “It’s a pile of shit!” And I’m sure it was Needless to say, the “old boys” became a little leery of Roman. They didn’t appreciate his frankness. However a least one of the old boys liked Roman’s chutzpah, and so Stanley Jackson would often join us in our philosophical lunches, which we would often continue at Murray’s Restaurant after work, and then we would go see a movie. When I finally got out of splicing, I was fortunate enough to be taken in by the animation department, which was the fulfillment of a dream I had ever since I saw Disney’s Snow White and the Seven dwarfs in 1937. Eventually, I began working with Robert Verrall and Colin Low on The Romance of Transportation in Canada.
Did you work with Kroitor prior to the Candid Eye series?
Yes. Roman’s genius came in handy on City of Gold. He helped shape the film, working closely with Tom Daly, who edited it, Colin Low, myself and Pierre Berton, who wrote and read the narration. Roman was a technical wizard. We had the problem of doing the complex, curved camera moves over the photographs. This was an immensely difficult task, and Roman invented a solution. We called it the “Kroitorer” and it consisted of a hand–sized platform with four tiny caster wheels, a magnetic solenoid, within which was a sharply pointed armature and an oscillating power supply that caused the sharp armature to vibrate up and down 24 times a second. The photograph was covered with a sheet of clear acetate. The Kroitorer was powered up, and moved over the photo, the pointed armature leaving a trail of tiny impressions on the surface of the acetate. Then black grease pencil was rubbed into these impressions to make them more visible. Next, the acetate sheet was placed beside the animation table under a small microscope a ttached to the table and the photo was placed under the camera. The camera operator had only to align the crosshairs of the microscope with the first dot, shoot a frame, line up the second dot, shoot another frame, and so on. The results were perfect. This saved us weeks if not months of work and reshoots. Roman and I then worked together for a couple of years on the Candid Eye series.
How did Candid Eye come about? How was it initially conceived?
I can answer this very simply — Henri Cartier-Bresson. One year I was given a book of Cartier-Bresson photographs, The Decisive Moment. The photographs absolutely stunned me. Here was real life, as it happened, captured on film at the moment of greatest clarity and meaning. I showed the book to Roman, Tom and others, with the purpose of convincing them that we could do this kind of observation on film. We had already seen work from the British Free Cinema and we were impressed. And then there were the earlier films of Pere Lorenz, The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River. We were also very familiar with the fine wartime documentary features like Desert Victory and The True Glory. So it was in the air and the Cartier-Bresson photographs were the final inspiration. Roman agreed we should give it a try, so we took the notion to Tom, who agreed with us. Off we went with little experience, but a lot of enthusiasm. I think our first film was The Days before Christmas, a natural subject, considering the season was upon us. A whole lot of us fanned out across the city and began running film through the cameras.
Candid Eyes was a true departure for CBC-TV and for filmmaking in Canada. Did you have any particular idea about how Candid Eye subjects should be approached? Is it possible to say there was a mandate, or a distinct philosophy, behind the series?
The idea behind the Candid Eye series was simple: show our world and the lives lived by ordinary people without influencing or manipulating them. Observe but do not disturb; preferably remain invisible. Our intention was to put the real world on film — sound and image — in order to help people become more aware of their community and the world they lived in. Who knows whether we succeeded. If nothing else, we recorded a bit of history. Pretty high-minded, if not a little naive, eh? Anyhow, that was it. Not much of a manifesto, but it allowed us a great deal of flexibility and a lot of room to grow. Today, anyone and everyone can do this with the marvellous new DV cameras. I sure wish we’d had these in the old days.
How much of what you did was made possible by the portable 16 mm cameras and possibilities for synchronized sound, so often hailed as the tools that made cinema verite possible?
Alas, we didn’t have a lot of that wonderful new technology at the beginning of Candid Eye. All we had was the little 16 mm Arri S, not a silent machine, therefore not suited to shooting sync sound. For sound, the sound recordist had to haul around a portable suitcase-sized recorder, the Maihack, which was spring wound and weighed about 50 pounds. A little later in the game we used the sprocket-tape machine for sync sound. It was designed and built at the NFB, and used specially perforated quarter-inch audio tape. However, this was not a portable device. The Nagra arrived sometime later. For sync picture we had the 16 mm Auricon, but it couldn’t be hand-held. It weighed about 40 pounds with a 1,200-foot magazine, so we used tripods. A lot of our stuff was shot on the handy little Arri S. The sound recordist picked up a lot of ambient sound and, with careful picture and sound-editing, we got it to look as if the material was in sync an editor’s trick from theearlier documentary days.
You know, the guy talking on the phone, shot so that you couldn’t see his mouth move and editing his voice over the picture.
Here I should digress for a moment and talk about this editing business. The fact is, every cut is a lie. The cutaway of someone intently listening to someone speak is shot after — or before — the actual conversation. Even with multiple camera shoots, the editor uses the ideal reaction shot rather than the exact, matching moment. And when one cuts back to the speaker, likely as not, a long chunk of the actual conversation is dropped in order to get to the point. So, the truth is adjusted. The irony is that, in editing, one has to lie to tell the truth, otherwise the audience would die of boredom or the truth would be smothered under a mountain of chaff. Anyhow, toward the end of the candid Eye series, the camera and engineering departments built a small, noiseless camera. It was a bit awkward to hand–hold, a design problem that could eventually have been corrected; however, just then, the French company Eclair put the NPR on the market. Perfectly balanced for hand–holding, relatively light — about 18 pounds — and almost totally silent. But it came too late for the Candid Eye, even for Lonely Boy [the immediate heir of the Candid Eye series].
A prevailing myth is that there was an active dislike of Unit B and its new ideas at the Film Board, that you were the renegade team. Was it difficult to work as part of this group at the NFB at this time?
The rumour is only partly true. Yes there was a certain disdain toward these young upstarts who thought they knew how to make films. I don’t think it was outright hostility. We were a bit of a joke making films on 16 mm, the “substandard format” as it was called. “Real pros” used 35 mm. Eventually, though, I think we won the old guard’s respect. And even they began to try 16mm. It was a lot cheaper than 35 mm and the equipment was much more portable. The BNC Mitchell, a 35mm blimped sound camera, weighed in at about 80 pounds. The French section of the Film Board was much more open to the newer ways and quickly adopted them. Within a couple of years the whole place was moving in the new direction.
Now, to get to Lonely Boy. There seems to be a dispute whether Lonely Boy was part of Candid Eye or not. Was it?
Lonely Boy wasn’t part of the original Candid Eye series, although it was a direct descendant. It was made in 1962. Candid Eye ended in 1961 with Festival in Puerto Rico, which was about Maureen Forrester in Puerto Rico. The idea for the film, I guess, came from me. We hadn’t really looked at pop music yet and here was an opportunity to go that route — a young, successful pop star from Ottawa, of all places. Roman and I went to Boston to see one of his concerts. The scene was totally different from what we had experienced. We were convinced that there was a film here.
I understand you only had one camera on that shoot. How did your team solve the problems of capturing so much action simultaneously with one camera?
One camera was all we needed. We had pretty well absorbed Tom’s editing lessons by then. We became quite adept at shooting with a mind to the editing process — get lots of cutaway material; get wide shots as well as close–ups; get reaction shots; get material to establish the location, etc. I’m sure you’ve noticed that at one point in the film Anka gets dressed in a black suit before stepping out on stage. Then, when he appears before the crowd, he’s wearing a white suit. Obviously shot at different times. Not an ideal cut, but the general trajectory of the sequence allowed us to get away with it. As I said, every cut is a lie. But sometimes one has to lie to tell the truth.
There is such a sense of immediacy about the film, as though you and Roman were completely thrown off guard by the sensation Anka had become, which is a credit to how the final film was put together. How much did you know about him before joining him for the few days of the film?
We didn’t know much about Anka when we started out. But we did see his concert in Boston and we knew that the material would be rich and relatively easy to obtain. So, with a fair bit of experience behind us, as well as a considerable helping of naivete, we jumped into the river. Then it was a matter of being alert to every moment and continually observant and trying not to drown.
I find it fascinating that while synchronous sound was a triumph of the verite movement, you eschewed it at several key moments in the film, such as when the camera rests on the screaming girls’ faces while we only hear Anka sing. And when Anka is seen writing on stage at the Copacabana, but we hear his voice on the track talking about the gift he’d been given. Can you tell me a little bit about how these decisions were made?
Sometimes, necessity is the mother of invention. Turning the screaming down as Anka continues to sing happened because even though the sound editor, Kathleen Shannon, painstakingly cut and synchronized every scream to the non–sync picture, the screams got to be a bit too much. The only solution was to turn them off. Surprisingly it worked better without them. The imagination continued to supply them. And the sound of Anka’s performance wasn’t recorded at that location either. Marcel Carriere, the sound recordist, was off in the crowd recording the screams while I was shooting picture, non–sync. If you look carefully, you’ll notice moments when Anka’s lips go out of sync a bit as he sings. That’s because the sound was recorded at another concert, a couple of weeks earlier. The band’s and Anka’s routine were perfectly repeated every time. The tempos varied very slightly, hence the out of sync, but it was so close we could use it for short pieces. It’s the magic of editing. The same thing happened at the Copac abana. We used a recording from another location, but this time the tempos were far off, so we used Anka talking about his gift to mask the discrepancy. This also had the incidental advantage of adding another level of thought, allowing the audience to be in two places at once. So you see, it was necessity that made us become inventive.
The film is so ambitious, employing cutaways, creative use of sound, self-reflexivity, interviews. Can you expand a little on the editing of Lonely Boy?
The editing of a documentary is like creating something out of thin air, The shots are often unrelated in time and space and yet, by bringing them together correctly, they begin to attract each other and cohere, like molecules forming a new substance. In editing — like playing an instrument — one has to know the rules as almost second nature. Then one has to let go and allow the material to lead you. The shots often tell one where they should go; one has to be alert and listen. The process of editing, especially documentaries, is probably the most demanding part of filmmaking and it’s also the most rewarding. In the editing process, the film begins to live. Even ordinary material, well put together, can really shine. Conversely, good material badly edited can ruin the project. The cutting of Lonely Boy, as always, was a collaborative effort. I did the basic assembly and Roman and Tom would look at it and make suggestions. Then John Spotton and Guy Cote took over — each with one half of the film — and did the final polish, adding some ideas that we hadn’t thought of. So, you see, even at this stage of the game, film is an ensemble art. This way of working was probably unique to our gang. Many great films have been made by individuals working solo. We were just more comfortable as a chamber orchestra.
I would like to ask you about what it means to you to make an observational film because there’s something transcendent about Lonely Boy and this seems to have something to do with truth, whether it’s an emotional or visceral truth. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Any of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs shows us the truth. He was our inspiration because he did it so consistently. Clearly, it was no accident for him. He knew exactly when to trip the shutter. With film, it’s a little different. It exists in time, and so the element of time becomes important. In both cases, though, there’s a shared commonality — and that’s structure. Roman — the great structuralist — used to clutch his forehead after a rushes screening and ask despairingly, “What’s the structure? What’s the structure?” And he was right to ask it, because that’s what a film is really about. I’ve come to the conclusion in my dotage that “structure” is what all the arts are really about: music, dance, the graphic arts, the theatre, the literary arts, architecture, poetry, etc. They show us by inference something that we otherwise can’t see. This “something” is invisible to us, like a fir tree in the dark, But come Christmas time, people hang lights all over the boughs. At first one only sees the lights, but if you step back a bit and squint, you see the shape of the tree, even though the tree itself is still invisible. The lights define it, so we’re able to see it by inference. In this laboured analogy, the lights represent the “arts” and the tree the “structure.” And the structure is what permeates the universe from the subatomic particle to the whole cosmos; in effect, we are all little lights hung on the invisible tree. And the arts are about the only way we have of talking about this thing structure or truth. So you are quite right to raise the question. Truth is what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Wolf Koenig’s films and television include: Neighbours 1952 (ph); The Romance of Transportation in Canada 1953 (coan, AAN-AS); Corral 1954 (ph); Gold 1955 (sc/ph/ed); City of Gold 1957 (d/ph with Colin Low, CFA-FY, AAN-SD); It’s a Crime 1957 (d); The Days before Christmas 1958 (co-p/co-d/coed, TV); Blood and Fire 1958 (co-p/ed, TV); Glenn Gould – Off the Record 1959 (p/d with Roman Kroitor, also ph, TV); Glenn Gould — On the Record 1959 (p/d with Kroitor, also ph, TV); The Back–Breaking Leaf 1959 (co-p, TV); Lonely Boy 1962 (ph/co-d with Kroitor, CFA-FY); The Great Toy Robbery 1964 (co-p); The Drag 1965 (co-p, AAN-AS); Stravinsky 1965 (ph/ed/co-d with Kroitor, TV); What on Earth! 1966 (co-p, AAN-AS); This is the House that Jack Built 1967 (co-p. AAN-AS); Psychocratie 1969 (co-p, CFA-FY, CFA-AS); N–Zone 1970 (co-ph); Hot Stuff 1971 (co-p); The Family that Dwelt Apart 1973 (p, CFA-AS, AAN-AS); The Street 1976 (exp, AAN-AS); The Hottest Show on Earth 1977 (co-p/co-d/co-sc, CFA-SD); Spinnolio 1977 (p. CFA-AS); Eve Lambart 1978 (exp/ph); Why Men Rape 1979 (co-p/co-ed); Ted Baryluk’s Grocery 1982 (co-p, GA-SD); John Cat 1984 (d/sc); Connection 1986 (d/ed); Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance 1993 (co-p).