Reconnection Through Simplicity

Dave Dunn, Intern Minister
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
October 19, 2014

This is how you can feel connected to a larger life: focus on one finite task, two square inches of granite, one conscious breath, and you open to the infinite, to reality. - Tracy Cochran

In 1958, jazz musician Miles Davis was at a crossroads. He was already a jazz legend after cutting his chops playing bebop with the likes of Charlie Parker. He was now leading bebop and hard bop bands of his own. But the music was getting stale and he felt that his creative energy was slowly beginning to drain away – and that maybe the music itself, as it was constructed, was no longer allowing for creativity. He wasn’t sure what the problem was yet he felt that jazz was getting too thick with chord changes and progressions. As a musician, it could be intellectually stimulating to navigate your way through a sea of such changes yet Miles was experienced at this. He’d been doing it for years.

It was time for reorientation. It was time to reorient and go…and grow... in a new direction.

He didn’t do it alone. When you get right down to it, we never do anything alone – it all comes from someone, somewhere. There were a few innovators who were out there experimenting with new ideas in jazz – nothing comprehensive but there were some new ideas floating around. One idea in particular resonated and reoriented him and he saw a new path to take.

In 1959 he released the album Kind of Blue. Discarded was the jazz thick with chord changes and progressions. Kind of Blue was an album of intentional simplicity – intentional simplicity. The songs had very few chords in them at all. The opening track “So What” had only two chords – 9 minute song – 2 chords. 16 bars of D minor, 8 of Eb minor, 8 more bars back on D minor – that’s it.

What essentially resulted is that instead of running a gauntlet, navigating a sea, or a maze, of chord progressions, the music essentially becomes an artist’s open canvass – an open canvass upon which the musicians could paint; an open canvass where the possibilities are endless, an open canvass where the possibility to reconnect to one’s inherent creativity could spring forth.

So what is the gauntlet of complexity through which we must run on a daily basis in 2014?

iPhone, iPad, flatscreen TV, QVC, cable modem, wireless router, Tivo, Netflix, Online dating, Credit default swaps, Instagram, Magic Jack, GPS, Podcasts, mp3, mp4, ginsu knives!

When I first joined a UU church 21 years ago, none of these items even existed in popular culture (with the possible exception of the ginsu knives). Now all of these are part of the sea of complexity, part of the maze of daily life through which we must navigate. And it won’t stop here. The stuff will keep coming. Five years from now, a new list will no doubt be made, a new list longer than ever with names and acronyms now unknown to us. With this… can you see your canvass? Can you see the canvass upon which you create your life?

Now, many of these devices I listed have practical applications. In fact, most of them do – I’m not going to deny that. The majority of people in the US have cell phones today. They also have access to computers, Twitter, Facebook – the usual suspects.

The words communication and community have the same root; they have the same essence yet although these usual suspects provide us with the ability to communicate as never before, do they have the ability to create community? You might be surprised by my answer because I say “Yes.” I do believe that these items can be used to help create community. They can be used to bring people together yet, more often than not, it is our choice – our choice – that this is not the case.

More often than not, we choose to use such technology in ways that disrupt community. More often than not, we use such technology to communicate on a very limited and essentially superficial basis. More often than not, we often use such technology to communicate and upload our “stream of consciousness” selves out into the ether without even thinking about the repercussions or effects of our own doing. Often, the results can be very damaging.

In a sense, this is getting at a theme that Rev. Robin discussed with us a few weeks back regarding dialogue, right speech, non-violent communications. We have the power and the tools to communicate in such ways yet often we fail to do so. I’m guilty of doing this too. I’m not innocent.

I have a wild hunch about all this though – about why we often behave in this way. One of the common things that I believe unites us all, in our deepest innermost selves, is our very own existential loneliness. Despite us living satisfying or unsatisfying, happy or not-so-happy lives, I believe there is something in our very core, of who we are, that wants to be loved, wants to be seen, wants to be held and we can never get enough of that…yet we are more often than not, too afraid to admit, expose, name that loneliness…too afraid to name or communicate those needs.

And it takes a lot of courage to name those needs, often more courage than I’ve ever been able to muster, yet it doesn’t take much courage to go face to face with a flatscreen, cellphone or ipad. As long as the towers are giving me reception and the electric company provides me with a charge, my cellphone is always there, 24/7, ready to be the friend I want it to be – where I can send my texts and tweets out into the ether – often to no one in particular.

So it’s not the technology that’s the problem. I hate to say it but we can be the problem – the choices we make. We are the constructors of our mazes of complexity.

This is all my construction and I must own it.

When we get so tied up in the complexity of the technology, sometimes we can’t see the maze that we’ve constructed. We can’t see our canvass. If we have enough wisdom, we can see what it’s doing to us and dial it back a bit. Focus on our two inches of granite and one conscious breath. Simplify our world. Empty it out so that we can make room for what is truly fulfilling.

Now that’s something that is easier said than done. There can be withdrawal. I was watching a comedian on TV a few weeks ago who expressed the angst and disorientation associated with being separated from his cell phone. He was driving to the store and realized that he’d left his cell phone at home. He turns around and as he’s driving back home to get it, he feels completely disoriented and dysfunctional. He’s used to texting while driving and he looks at his hands on the steering wheel and screams, “With no cell phone, what am I supposed to do with my hands while I’m driving?”

He is deluded. He lacks the wisdom to see that he is deeply lost in the maze of complexity – a maze of complexity that he has constructed around his very being. He doesn’t even know he has a canvass because it has been so covered up by his material delusions.

When I was a kid, the power seemed to go out for an extended time period in the neighborhood every few months or so. Now, where I live at least, it seems like we rarely lose power and if we do, it’s only for a moment or so. We did lose power one summer evening though about five years ago. For a moment or two, my wife and I and our four teenage children waited for the lights & TV to come back on yet they didn’t on this occasion. As the sun set we all got out the candles and had them set up all around the house – living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom. The interior of the house took on the aura of a sacred chapel of sorts. One of my sons got out his guitar and entertained us with mini-concert – unplugged of course with all the songs sung in hushed tones. We played board games by candlelight. In a way, it was as if time itself seemed to stand still. I must admit that when the power came back on a few hours later, it was with a tinge of regret My musician son, who often says things we all feel yet don’t think to annunciate said, “I really wish the power could go out more often.” We all agreed. “Couldn’t we have this time together for just a little bit longer?”

If Siddhartha Guatama, the Buddha, were alive today, he’d probably have a cell phone and maybe an ipad. He might even subscribe to Netflix. Despite having these things however, he wouldn’t be attached to them. They wouldn’t be part of his canvass. They wouldn’t be part of any maze because for him, there would be no maze – just canvass. For him, it would always be just canvass.

Artist Ran Ortner writes..

As an artist, my materials] are different colors of earth, especially the siennas and the umbers. And then there are some that are more exquisite, like lapis, the semiprecious stone that's ground up and put into paint. And all these elements are suspended in natural oils. It's so simple, It's colored mud. And what's the brush? A stick with some animal hair tied on it. In our age of technology. I find it amazing that we still use these kinds of tools.

These tools, and others, are out there and available to us, yet the path of simplicity is always, always, right at our feet – right at our feet. All we need is the wisdom and courage to walk that path…and have the wisdom and courage to understand that this path isn’t meant to be walked alone – but together, with one another, side by side.

May it be so.

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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