To Continue Beautifully

Sangha, Loss, and the Creative Process: An Interview with Susanne Olbrich

By Philip Toy 

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Into the nebulous, ongoing mystery of life I welcome, as if through an open door, the continuing spirit of the one I have loved.
– Martha Whitmore Hickman

During our summer 2010 pilgrimage to Ireland and Scotland, while visiting the Findhorn Community, we were invited by Northern Lights Sangha to conduct two Days of Mindfulness. One of the Sangha leaders, Susanne Olbrich, True Ever-present Stability—pianist, composer, and teacher—graciously consented to this interview.

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Philip Toy: Susanne, you have just returned from a concert tour in Germany, where your Marama Jazz Trio was warmly received. You composed some of the music after the sudden loss of your dear friend and former partner. One piece, “Beyond Gone,” was a meditation you played soon after hearing the news of H.’s passing. How do your practice and your music relate to such a loss?

Susanne Olbrich: It was in Plum Village during the ‘05-‘06 Winter Retreat, just after H.’s suicide, where I took refuge in the Three Jewels. Thay’s teaching on continuation supported me then, especially in light of his conviction that those who take their own lives may not have a good chance of continuing beautifully. Then and there I made a deep commitment to help my friend continue beautifully. Thus the piece “Beyond Gone”—a phrase from Stephen Levine’s book, Who Dies?

PT: Keeping such a commitment in the wake of deep loss requires extraordinary support. Where and how did you find support and encouragement?

SO: It started the first few moments after hearing the news when the shock set in and my legs began to go numb. It seemed as if what kicked in and began to operate was an emergency program designed to hold me. I heard the instruction, “Breathe, just breathe!” This inner voice lingered, and later became like a reliable old friend suggesting when I should rest, when I could let go of an excess obligation, when to focus on one breath, one step, and when to ask for help. Very unlike me! Yet, I would sit on my cushion much longer than usual, however long it took for the pain to subside.

PT: I can see how your decade of practice before this loss paid off. Yet, even with this fortunate help, how did you sustain yourself?

SO: I could not do it without my loving and steady Sangha. They gathered at my place, cooked soup, and filled the house with warm food aromas and their even warmer understanding presences. Whether I had the energy to fully participate or not, soon my isolation began to melt in the warmth of their companionship and compassion—their Sangha eyes, hearts, and hands.

PT: I know from my own experience of the death of my son, Jesse, by drug overdose, and my very close association with Sangha—the complexity of the loss of a child, likely by suicide, calls out for a rich and special brand of caring. How does Sangha embrace and minister to these complexities?

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SO: Making space and holding it, deep listening, sharing from the heart—all central components of effective Dharma discussion— together with the gift of benevolently witnessing one another in the circle. These all allow for the kind of conscious grieving and reflecting that can help dissolve searing issues and questions, such as not having time for bidding goodbye to the lost loved one, or the anger and guilt of “What did I do, or not do,” or “What could I have done,” or “If only….” We can allow all this to unfold within the stable and protective space of the Sangha without fear of getting lost or overcome.

PT: You and I share the experience of surrendering and taking refuge in Sangha following a tragic loss. For me it was key to surviving those earliest days, weeks, and months after my son’s death. As Thay teaches, the Buddha is there, too, in the midst of Sangha. Were you able to take refuge in the Buddha?

SO: The Buddha I took refuge in was the Buddha I had discovered in myself through practice, especially practice with my Sangha. It was the energy capable of witnessing tears and distress with utmost tenderness and letting me know it was okay. There arises an open space for us to recognize harsh feelings and thoughts. Within the fold of Sangha, these feelings may be held gently in the light of awareness, and we may finally watch them evaporate! This was the single most powerful act of self-care I could have given to myself—not just once or twice, but again and again with patience and perseverance. This is the love that heals.

PT: You say you made a commitment to help your lost partner continue beautifully. Tell us more about that commitment.

SO: Thay says that Dharma, too, can be found in Sangha. In Plum Village Sangha those five years ago, I read Thay’s book, No Death, No Fear. Through the teachings on no-birth, no-death, transformation, and continuation, my sense of deep loss was mitigated some and it sparked a new awareness. I was able to see the ways in which my lost friend continues: his adult children, the song I wrote for him, the tree planted at his memorial, the sturdy wooden tables he built for our Findhorn Community Centre, the grove in the Scottish Highlands planted in his honor as part of a national reforestation project, and of course, the many memories I and others hold dear. Also at that winter retreat, I birthed the idea for a new album, a CD in H.’s honor. The cover art would be one of H.’s beautiful nature photographs and the album’s name would be Continuations, in order to celebrate that: “Nothing exists on its own…. Everything is a continuation of something else, and everything will continue in manifold forms…. Nothing is ever lost.” Manifestation of the CD took nearly four years. Every step of the project was a teaching for me, from cover design to legal questions about royalties, from finding a manufacturer to creating a record label, and it was a labor of love. When I finally held the finished product in my hands, with H.’s photo of the Scottish West Coast, it was beautiful. I knew part of my grief had transformed into something else; an artistic offering, a rose from the compost.

PT: You seem to have a heightened awareness of transformation and continuation, leading to the birthing of your Continuations CD; there’s an interaction between mindfulness and the creative process.

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SO: Yes. The energy generated in mindfulness and the practice of deep listening, together with a present-moment focus—allowing what is to be—are working elements for me during the composition or playing of a musical piece. Composing music in its essence has much to do with listening deeply. What takes shape in my inner ear—from apparently mysterious sources—often amazes me. I simply could not have thought it out. In the case of “Beyond Gone,” that’s exactly what happened. About six weeks or so after H.’s suicide when many of my friends had gone back to normal, I was still feeling anything but normal. There was this not-so-subtle pressure that I should be over and done with this grief—ready to move on. In this emotionally stuck place, I had a strong impulse to play for H. It was a meditation.

PT: Your band members’ masterful back-up and solos on Continuations could be seen as an extended Sangha support for you in your grief journey.

SO: Yes, I am extremely fortunate to have found Anja Herold (soprano and tenor saxophone) and Jens Piezunka (acoustic bass and cello). Both bring an extraordinary quality of listening, musical sensibility, and creative imagination to the project. Both of these seasoned improvisers have significantly broadened my musical horizons. Musically, creatively, as well as personally, my work with Marama Trio has been harmonious and joyful.

PT: It seems that as your grief unfolded, your creative process ran parallel to your practice, or in concert with it. I’ve discovered that grief is different for everyone, that it’s at best a bumpy road, and that there is no fast forward button.

SO: Exactly my experience. During the final stage of the creative journey that led to the Continuations CD, I was blessed with two extra-large helpings of Plum Village energy. I was able to spend a whole month with Thay and the Sangha for Summer Opening, 2008, and again for Path of the Buddha Retreat, 2009. Feelings of inadequacy, ignorance of the technicalities of CD production, plans gone awry, bouncing between Scotland where I live and Germany where my band members live—all of these left little time for rehearsals and other preparations. So the energy of the practice was strong in me when I needed it most.

At Findhorn we have woven into the fabric of the community workday the practice of “attunement,” a kind of practical, organizational deep listening. Shifts in every department—management, kitchen, garden—begin with a joint attunement, sometimes holding hands, sometimes sitting around a candle, always breathing together for a moment in silence with a wish to benefit others, uniting heart and mind for the task at hand. While producing Continuations, for the first time in my life I adopted regular attunement sessions for my own often solitary musical work and have continued the practice ever since. We’ve discovered that our attuned work frequently yields a better result than work driven simply by efficiency-oriented thinking mind.

PT: You are very fortunate to have the dual communities of Northern Lights Sangha and the Findhorn Community to engage with, especially in times of great loss and creative struggle.

SO: Yes, I feel gratitude for these two amazing groups every day. I’ve been living in the spiritual community of Findhorn for over ten years now, and our inherent humanistic and ecological missions inform all that I do, here in my Sangha and everywhere I travel. While in the distant past my life has felt at times like pushing the proverbial boulder up the mountain, guided by Buddha mind within these two communities, the CD manifestation unfolded remarkably gracefully. I wish I could claim success practicing equanimity in every corner of my life. In fact, work and relationships are two areas where I do get caught in habit energies more often than I like. Yet, mindfulness practice over the years—be it through dark paths of grieving or inspiring musical projects—has informed and enriched my life. Music, like mindfulness, has the capacity to bring us home to ourselves and in touch with the wordless, refreshing, and healing aspects everywhere surrounding us. With it we can water seeds of beauty, understanding, and love. The piano has been my passion since age six and, long before I knew the term “meditation,” it became a refuge, a place to learn about concentration and dwelling happily in the present moment.

PT: I noted that some of the most common audience responses to your music during the Germany concerts were meditative: “soulful,” “spacious,” “it slowed me down in a pleasant sort of way.”

SO: Yes, though the project may not explicitly be about Dharma, it makes me so very happy to have touched listeners in this way.

PT: Thank you very much, Susanne. May you and your work in this world ever remain soulful and spacious.

Author’s note: On our return from Isle of Skye to Findhorn for our second Day of Mindfulness, I received news that my sole surviving elder brother had died. As I reflect on our stay at Findhorn, although we were across the ocean and far from home, we could not have been in a more accepting, loving, and understanding environment. From my sundown bedroom window at the Shambala Retreat House, I watched the tide wash out over Findhorn Bay, and I knew, despite everything—maybe because of everything—all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.

For more information about Susanne Olbrich and her music, visit www.myspace.com/susanneolbrich or www.susanneolbrich.webs.com.

mb58-ToContinue6Philip Toy, True Mountain of Insight, and his wife Judith have founded three Sanghas in Thay’s tradition. Since 1993, they have hosted mindfulness practice centers—first at Old Path Zendo in Pennsylvania, and for the last twelve years at Cloud Cottage Sangha, Black Mountain, North Carolina. Philip is a poet and jazz pianist. Cloud Cottage Editions is the Toys’ Dharma publishing imprint.

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Peace Sounds

By Joe Holtaway

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I’m a member of London’s Wake Up Sangha and producer of Peace Sounds, a collection of twelve songs on the theme of peace. My friends and I made this album to bring awareness of Thay’s 2012 United Kingdom tour and to support the tour by raising extra funds.

The seeds of this project were planted last summer in London’s Hyde Park. A number of us from the Heart of London and Wake Up Sanghas were gathered for one of our “Joyfully Together” picnics where we meditate, eat, and share songs and mindful yoga stretching.

We include Thay’s practice of walking meditation in our gatherings. Hyde Park, one of the largest in our city, is our piece of countryside, and silently walking together there feels like a gift indeed. We had warm sun that day and the old tall trees brought us shade. I remember just how the sunshine softly lit that afternoon.

With songs sung and food eaten, we were talking over Thay’s forthcoming tour. Sister Elina Pen (Little Earth), flash mob meditation organizer, singer, and a visionary member of our Wake Up Sangha, proposed a musical adventure: we should write a song to be released with his tour. I guess you never know what will come about when a project begins, though I felt full of its magic during my bike ride home!

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That night I stayed up until 4 a.m., composing “Walk with Me My Friend,” inspired by our practice of walking meditation. The Wake Up Sangha had been running flash mobs in London, where young people like us would come by the hundreds with flowers in their hair and peaceful smiles on their faces, to sit and meditate with strangers, then sing and hug as friends. I came to our Sangha’s next flash mob with a recording I had made of the song.

To Soundtrack Love

With a good six months before we had to begin Thay’s tour preparations, we began talking about more music. And from there, the other songs emerged. A mailing to the Wake Up list brought some musicians; we requested other songs from artists we already admired.

Little Earth and I collaborated—the first-ever recording of her magical voice. Both she and Kim McMahon performed versions of Plum Village songs. Kim and I also collaborated for her track. Little Earth had pronounced, “Joe, we just have to have her voice on the record.” Hearing Kim sing was a beautiful discovery; I feel honored to share her voice with the world.

The same goes for Chris Goodchild. He recorded “Life is Beautiful” especially for this project, a song he’d sung that first day in Hyde Park. To spend time with this gentle man was touching enough, but to capture his song was so special. We just left the mic on… I was humbled.

Pianist Tom Manwell and singer James Wills are friends from here in London. I recruited them and four more artists whose work I’d admired: Northern England’s Jackie Oates, London’s Cornelius, Ireland’s Nathan Ball, and the U.S.A.’s Joe Reilly, whom I had heard through his connection with Plum Village (Joe’s song, “Tree Meditation,” features brother and sister monastics, and was recorded there). Finally, we were gifted with recordings sent by Manchester-based Hilary Bichovsky and Brighton’s Gavin Kaufman; they had heard about the project through their meditation groups.

The process involved bus trips around London and the rest of the United Kingdom with a microphone and guitars. I made some recordings in artists’ homes, where we drank tea, ate cake, meditated, and forged friendships. Other songwriters came to my place in London. I recorded my own song at my family’s home in Cornwall, a peaceful coastal area, amidst sea air and warm summer days.

To gather these songs was to soundtrack a sense of honest and, I feel, revolutionary love. Here were individuals responding to life by singing about it and sharing their passion outward. This collection of songs carries that feeling for me, a considered response to what was moving in each singer’s musical soul. I feel a fearlessness in each of them, to stand up for what they feel is worth caring for.

Listening to the collection, I feel a huge sense of gratitude. As I watch the album trailer clips (see www.peacesounds.org), I’m brought back to a sense of reverence for love and peace that was as much in the songwriters’ homes and letters as it is in their songs.

You can listen to the album online and download it for a donation (follow links on the website). Proceeds go to the Community of Interbeing UK, which makes meditation available here within groups, in schools, and on retreats.

For a free download of the song “Peacefully Free” by Little Earth, email “Mindfulness Bell” to info@peacesounds.org.

mb60-Peace3Joe Holtaway was born in Cornwall and currently lives in London. He has a fondness for music, poetry, songwriting,
and gardening.

 

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Avant-Garde Dharma

For “People in Sorrow”

By Karen Hilsberg and Peter Kuhn

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On October 2, 2011, in downtown Los Angeles at the REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theater), an unusual fusion of jazz legends and the Plum Village Sangha converged. The occasion was the world premiere of “For People in Sorrow,” arranged by Alex Cline (True Buddha Mountain). Cline, a world-class percussionist and composer, has been working for years to integrate elements of his mindfulness practice and our spiritual tradition into cutting-edge musical expressions.

Dharma teacher Larry Ward offered an opening benediction in the form of his poem, “A Wild Thing,” written for the occasion (see p. 43). The concert was attended by many friends from local Sanghas as well as by luminaries in the jazz community, including Roscoe Mitchell, whose composition “People in Sorrow” received Cline’s new treatment. Sister Dang Nghiem, a Dharma teacher and friend of Cline and his family, contributed a Vietnamese chant which was recorded in advance and projected on a large screen above the eleven-piece band. In Cline’s words, “After accepting my rather unusual invitation, Sister D (as she’s known) chose to chant the following verses, presented here in English translation: a gatha for listening to the bell and the Verses of Consecration used as part of the Ceremony for Closing the Coffin.”

Listening to the Bell
Listen, listen,
This wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.

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Verses of Consecration
This water’s shape is round or square
according to the container that holds it.
In the spring warmth, it is liquid; in the winter cold, it is solid.
When its path is open, it flows.
When its path is obstructed, it stands still.
How vast it is, yet its source is so small it is difficult to find.
How wonderful it is in its streams which flow endlessly.
In the jade rivulets, the footprints of dragons remain.
In the deep pond, water holds the bright halo
of the autumn moon.
On the tip of the king’s pen, water becomes
the compassion of clemency.
On the willow branch, it becomes
the clear fresh balm of compassion.
Only one drop of the water of compassion is needed,
and the Ten Directions are all purified.
Cline was inspired to rework this piece, which orchestrated a rich blend of composed and improvisational sections, in honor of the original composer, Roscoe Mitchell. “People in Sorrow” was first performed by the Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1969. It profoundly expanded the language of modern jazz, utilizing a wide range of small sounds and percussion to create layers and subtleties of expression that helped define a new era of post-Coltrane modernism. It clearly made a strong impression on young Alex, who was a teenager at the time.

Cline recalls when he first heard “People in Sorrow” on the LP of the same name and, in the concert’s program notes, he also reflects on the genesis of the current project and the connection between being a jazz musician/composer and a student of the Buddha.

mb62-Avant-Garde3 “[When I first heard Mitchell’s piece, it] was an unprecedentedly miserable time of my life, but it was also an exciting time, as I was hearing a lot of creative music, most of it in the ‘jazz’ genre, that was tremendously inspiring to me, something that awakened in me a sense that perhaps there was something akin to a greater purpose in life and which I feel ultimately contributed heavily to my surviving that otherwise grim period.

“The music itself became like some sort of raft carrying me safely across seas of my own bitterness and confusion or a torch lighting the darkness. …While I didn’t know what inspired Roscoe Mitchell to title his piece ‘People in Sorrow’ (and I still don’t), as I listened to its meditative and poignant collective creativity I felt in touch with both my own suffering as well as the world’s, and was somehow consoled by the beauty and immediacy of the music at the same time. For me, ‘People in Sorrow’ was one of the deeply influential musical performances I experienced at the time that served as a potent example of magnificent validity of free improvisation and of the transformational power of music.

“Today, as a musician who chooses to follow in the footsteps of the many great artists who inspired me so many years ago and continue to do so, and as a person who aspires and practices to understand and ultimately transform suffering, this occasion holds special significance for me. Performing this piece offers me a unique opportunity to enable and enjoy an overt confluence of the streams of both my musical and spiritual practices.

“I bow deeply and humbly in gratitude and offer this music to all who suffer, to all people in sorrow, that all may embrace and transform their suffering and find peace, healing, and happiness, the true happiness that our suffering helps make possible.”

The performance was not foot-tapping music. The listener was asked to let go of his or her notions of what can be defined as music or beauty, and to embrace the offering as practitioners learn to embrace all that arises in meditation. Letting go of conditioned responses and suspending judgment, the unfolding transformations of the theme created a visceral experience that was transcendental for some listeners. The all-star ensemble created a musical tour-de-force in celebration of Cline’s deepening practice and engaged life. Mr. Mitchell, who shared the concert bill, expressed his humble appreciation of the tribute and was obviously moved by the performance.

The ensemble featured: Oliver Lake (saxophones, flute), Vinny Golia (woodwinds), Dwight Trible (voice), Dan Clucas (cornet, flute), Jeff Gauthier (violin), Maggie Parkins (cello), Mark Dresser (bass), Myra Melford (piano, harmonium), Zeena Parkins (harp), G.E. Stinson (electric guitar, electronics), Alex Cline (percussion), Sister Dang Nghiem (chant, bell), Larry Ward (opening poem), and Will Salmon (conductor).

The CD/DVD “For People in Sorrow” will be released in March of 2013 on Cryptogramophone Records. Find it on www. amazon.com or www.crypto.tv.  

mb62-Avant-Garde4Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, works as a psychologist in correctional mental health at Los Angeles County Women’s Jail and is a founder of the Organic Garden Sangha in Culver City, California.

Peter Kuhn, True Ocean of Joy, practices with the Shared Breath Sangha  at Donovan State Prison and Open Heart Sangha in San Diego, California. He coordinates “True Freedom,” a prison Dharma sharing (pen pal) program, and recently started a twelve-step Zen group.

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Poem: A Wild Thing

By Larry Ward

The bones of our ancestors still dance
At ease in the field of magic stardust

An ounce of poetry from long ago
The crane says, “I never saw a wild thing feel sorry for itself. A tiny bird will drop dead, frozen, from a bough of a tree without having once felt sorry for itself”. *

In the thick jungles of Costa Rica I was told mother
My mother had passed away
Through the veil of no coming and no going she went
Heart broken I wandered for days
Walking jungle trails
Going no where but sorrow
Trapped in a cloud of sadness.

The cry of an unknown bird cracked open the moment
Ripe! Ripe! Ripe it was! For something, for anything, to heal my savaged soul.

Music of my roots rose up from the earth,
Like a rainbow bridge supporting every step as I climbed grief’s holy mountain
A path wet with the salt of bitter tears.

Sometimes I forget music’s vibrations can touch and quake places
The Mind dares not go, kneading, holding, inviting
With notes of wonder and surprise,
Healing pain, the pain of the second sorrow, created by an arrow fashioned by my own hands

Plucked from my own quiver and shot with my own bow,
Into my own heart.

Picked up on the dusty road of wounded souls
The sacred carriage of music lifted me up from the edge of grief’s deep pit
On the wings of sound I rode to the mysteries of grace and peace
Moment! By moment! By moment!

The music says, “Take up your rightful residence in your Hale Mana, your spiritual house.”
The music says, “Come on in, come on in, come on in,
Enter the clear light of sweet music.”

The music says,
“Take your stand on the back of the fearless dragon of wisdom and compassion
Let go of the gossamer threads of regret
Still attached to your beating heart.
Now catch your precious breath
Right now! Right now! Right now!”

Music is a wild thing
Music is a wild thing
Music is a wild thing

*    A reference to the D.H. Lawrence poem titled “Self-Pity” from Pansies (London: Martin Secker, 1929)

mb62-AWildThing1Larry Ward,True Great Sound, is the director of the Lotus Institute, an adjunct faculty member at Claremont Graduate Universityand University of the West, and a Ph.D. student in Religious Studies.With Peggy Rowe-Ward,he co-authored Love’s Garden: A Guide to Mindful Relationships. He received Dharma teacher transmission in 2000 from Thich Nhat Hanh.

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