The Archaeology of Reason

     Everyday we are presented with questions and challenges. We encounter moral dilemmas, mathematical equations and traffic jams. Our education system has taught us to use logic to solve these problems. Natural selection has lead us to constantly survey for physical and emotional threats. Of course these tools of reason and self defense are essential. However, we are creatures of counterproductive and senseless habit. We are often subconsciously influenced by irrational fear. Reason is hard to find in a mind cluttered with misguided beliefs, anxiety and aversion. The answer to any given question may be found through the Socratic method. But in order to observe the related data wisely we must come to it with clear eyes.

     We would all like to believe that as long as we have all the relevant facts, we will always get the right answer. But people tend to see what they want to. We are all driven to some extent by our biases.[1] For instance, if we read an article that confirms our view on taxes, we are likely to accept the author’s policy suggestions without any further research. But if the writer presents data that contradict our view, we will spend hours on Google scouring for rebuttals from economists on our side of the aisle. We cannot be perfect. But the first step in improving our ability to overcome our preconceptions is to acknowledge that they exist and are always lurking, ready to defend us from cognitive dissonance. We have to avoid what psychologists call “motivated reasoning.”[2]

     Another defense mechanism kicks in after we make a decision we regret. We desperately try to justify our poor actions or choices. For example, a few months ago I told my friend I would go to his concert that was happening the next weekend. On the day of the show, I had to be up at 6am to go to work. After work I went to the gym. By the time I got home I was exhausted and texted my friend that I was just too tired to go out. Shortly after, I felt badly about my decision and still had time to make it to the gig. But instead of grabbing my car keys, I thought about how early I got up, how I had such an intense workout and that I went to another friend’s performance earlier in the week. I told myself that I was thinking logically. After all, I was gathering evidence to validate my choice just like a good scientist would. But because I didn’t want to confront my moral failure, I chose to only consider the facts that exonerated me and ignored those that would reveal the simple reality: I made a promise and I should have kept it.

     Cognitive biases like the one in the above example shield us from self-criticism. However, many of us follow thought patterns that lay undeserving blame on ourselves. For example, if a person discovers that his partner has cheated on him, he immediately thinks about what he did wrong or what he could have done to keep that partner faithful. He regrets not taking her out to dinner enough. He remembers that time he forgot her mother’s birthday. All of these clouds of self-doubt mask the fact that should be self-evident: Her infidelity was her choice.

     Humans have a tendency to see any given piece of information with distorted vision. When we are making a moral or scientific decision, we must make an effort to do so while acknowledging our predilections. We should not be searching for an answer that absolves or incriminates us. We should be searching for the truth whether it hurts or not.

      The practice of meditation can be used to improve our capability to enter a clear state of mind more reliably. There is a misconception that meditating is simply a way to relax and therefore not care about mistakes we or others make. In fact, its true purpose is to help us see reality as clearly as possible. It is an attempt to rid oneself of the influence of delusional thoughts and beliefs. The practice of vipassanna in particular teaches us to observe our emotions objectively and without attachment. If you’d like to try it, set a timer for 5 minutes and follow these steps:

1.     Sit in a quiet space at a time when you will not be interrupted.

2.     Direct your attention to the flow of your breath.

3.     When you notice that your mind has surrendered its attention to a decision you need to make in the future or one that you made in the past, ask yourself: 
Are these thoughts rational and/or useful?

4.     Once you have evaluated the thought, give it a label such as “planning”, “regretting”, “catastrophizing” etc.

5.     Return your focus to your breath.

     Repeat steps 3-5 for the duration of the 5 minutes. Be careful not to judge yourself for getting distracted. Do not get discouraged if it feels like your mind will not stop wandering. Even practitioners with decades of experience cannot avoid these diversions. The purpose of this exercise is to simply notice when these distractions occur. As long as you are observing when your mind gets lost in thought, you are doing it right.

     As you get more and more comfortable with the process, increase the setting on your timer to 7 minutes, 10 minutes and so on. With diligent practice we can learn to achieve a neutral frame of consciousness on and off the meditation cushion more rapidly and consistently. In this state our mind is no longer an agent of deception, but a tool for reason.

Sincerely,
Jacob

 


[1]
Kolbert, E. (2017, February 25). Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds

 

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motivated_reasoning

Identity Politics and the Death of Truth

“No idea is above scrutiny and no people are beneath dignity.”

- Maajid Nawaz

 

     The purpose of discussion is to reveal truth. We pin two ideas against each other and see which one comes out alive. At the end of a public debate, the speakers may still be in passionate disagreement and the audience may still be divided. Nonetheless, all spectators must attempt to reach their conclusion by the same method. One must evaluate the evidence provided by both participants and determine whose argument was better supported. However, the identity of the debaters must not influence the viewer’s vote in any way. Someone’s ethnicity and biology have no bearing on the validity of their argument. The idea that identity can supersede fact has infected both ends of the political spectrum, but in this piece I will focus on its effect on the Left. We can observe this through the lenses of race, religion and gender.

     Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a day when people would be judged not by the colour of their skin but the content of their character. This is an ideal to which we should aspire. Sadly in today’s conversations about race it seems that we have failed. Many on the far left believe that someone’s skin colour determines the credibility of his/her viewpoint. When a white person expresses concern about the riots conducted by members of the Black Lives Matter movement, he/she is branded a racist. Astonishingly, even white supporters of BLM have been deemed inferior. At a protest at the DNC in 2016, BLM leaders ordered their white peers to go to the back of the crowd[i]. Worse, a black person’s opinion may be dismissed if it does not coincide with the BLM narrative. If they express a differing viewpoint, they are ostracized and labeled an Uncle Tom.         
     Of course, only a black person can speak to the personal experience of growing up black. However, when one is talking about statistics, the skin colour of the speaker is irrelevant. For example, it should not matter whether a white, black, brown or Asian person says that police brutality is the primary threat to people of colour. Likewise, the ethnicity of a debater is irrelevant if she argues that gang violence is the bigger issue. The skin colour of the participants is meaningless in these conversations because their arguments must be rooted in facts, not anecdotes. All people, regardless of race must be required to provide sufficient evidence to support their claims. And all people, irrespective of their skin colour must be subject to equal skepticism and opposition.

     This standard of scrutiny should apply to religion as well. White liberals salivate at the opportunity to criticize Christian dogmatism. They boycott Christian bakeries that refuse to cater gay weddings (which I would as well). They see pro-life people as anti-women. Of course, they have every right to do so. However, all religions should be exposed to equal excoriation. Many leftists declare any criticism of Islam as bigoted. They use the label “Islamophobe” to discredit those who question Islamic beliefs. The label itself is flawed. When one is prejudiced towards Jews we call it anti-Semitism, not Judaismophobia. The term Islamophobia falsely equates criticism of the doctrine of Islam with hatred of Muslims as people. This buzzword is used to quash debate because it labels anyone a bigot who dares to question the morality of Islamic scripture and culture. By stigmatizing these important discussions, they are hurting moderate Muslims who are the most common victims of radicalism. When they condemn conversations that could be used to counter extremism, they fail activists who are fighting for peace and equality in the Islamic world. They have labeled Muslims like Maajid Nawaz and ex-Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali as “anti-Muslim extremists” for speaking out against fundamentalism[ii]. Since the Southern Poverty Law Centre has given them this classification, it has become more dangerous for them to combat the subjugation of women, gays and freethinkers in the Muslim world and across the globe. This label has made Maajid and Ayaan targets for jihadists.
     We have to empower moderate voices in the Muslim community. To do so, we must create an environment in which people of all faiths as well as atheists can criticize Islam as openly and honestly as they would any other religion.

     Finally, identity politics has poisoned our discourse regarding gender, particularly with regards to feminism. Many on the Left use the terms feminism and gender equality synonymously, which implies that any criticism of the third-wave feminist movement is the same as opposition to equal rights for men and women. This is intellectually dishonest. Just because someone disagrees with an individual claim made by feminists does not mean he is sexist. For example, there is a widespread belief among third-wave feminists that women are being paid 77 cents to a man’s dollar. However, even when female economists provide statistical evidence that this gap is hugely exaggerated[iii], they are labeled misogynists. Christina Hoff Sommers, a feminist democrat has required bodyguards when speaking at colleges. People have threatened to physically attack Sommers because they view her critique of modern feminism as “hate speech.” If we want to have reasonable discussions on woman’s issues, we must be able to acknowledge and analyze statistics. Name-calling and violence are not counterarguments.

    In the above examples, the philosophy of identity politics harms our discourse in two ways. First, it validates poor reasoning by claiming that one’s skin colour, religion or gender strengthens one’s position. Second, while it is intended to protect minorities, it harms smaller groups within those minorities. It delegitimizes people of colour whose beliefs and methods of protest do not align with Black Lives Matter. It stigmatizes Muslims who want to reform their religion. It silences women who feel that third-wave feminism has taken a wrong turn. By poisoning debates with groupthink and homogenization, we are hurting those who need our help most: the dissenters.


Sincerely,
Jacob

 

 

[i] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3710701/White-people-march-Black-Lives-Matter-protest-leader-calls-racial-segregation-demonstration-outside-DNC-Philadelphia.html

 

[ii] https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/10/maajid-nawaz-splc-anti-muslim-extremist/505685/

 

[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QcDrE5YvqTs

 

Learning To Suffer

“…that moment...when you panic—that means you’re about to figure it out. That means you've let go of what you know and you’re about to grab onto a new thing that you didn’t know yet."
-  Louis CK


     The human brain is wired for fight or flight. Our evolution has depended on this mentality of survival. We learn from a young age to avoid obstacles. We must "stay strong" and unconcerned with pain. We have to suppress emotion in order to succeed. Particularly in Western societies, we are taught that suffering hinders the pursuit of happiness. However, I believe that suffering is our teacher, not our oppressor. It is not a weight that holds us down; it is one that strengthens us. The avoidance of suffering results in the accumulation of misery, not its cure.

     I played the game of unhappiness whack-a-mole in my college years. When I had tendonitis in my arms, I took ibuprofen on a daily basis. When I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, I took antidepressants. When I was disappointed with my latest musical performance, I smoked pot. When I felt hurt by someone, I distanced myself from them. I thought that if I just stopped thinking about my ailments and challenges, I would be able to focus on the positive parts of my life. But the more I tried to push these problems away, the more they consumed me. 

     I have since learned that I was not alone in this practice of counterproductive self-help. Many of us live our lives in a constant state of regret and concern. That is to say, we live in the past and future. We are constantly asking ourselves purposeless questions: “What if I fail my test tomorrow?” “Why did she break up with me?” “How did I miss that field goal?” “Why do I deserve to be in pain?” Instead of focusing on what we can do in the present moment, we ruminate on what has already transpired. We constantly wonder about the worst that could happen in order to brace ourselves for trouble. Instead of learning from our current experience, we remove ourselves from it. We allow life to pass us by because we are scared of living it.

     Poor psychiatry perpetuates this debilitating school of thought. Doctors often treat suffering the same way they treat cancer. They see it as something that needs to be medically removed rather than a test of the patient's resilience. They often neglect to look below the surface of anxiety and depression. They treat the symptoms without bothering to investigate the root causes. They numb the pain instead of dealing with it. Of course, medication can be beneficial. It is effectively used to get patients on track towards recovery. When combined with therapy, it can be extremely helpful. And for people with severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, prescription pills are necessary. But I believe that at a certain point we must take personal responsibility for our own health in order to improve and sustain our wellbeing. We cannot rely solely on pharmaceuticals and psychotherapists.

     I was only able to escape this circle of suppression and suffering when I committed to facing my emotions head on. Through the practice of mindfulness, I learned that it was possible to observe my thoughts without becoming a slave to them. Meditation strengthened my ability to recognize thoughts as impermanent and often illogical creations of the brain. Most importantly, this method of contemplation allowed me to achieve empowerment through difficult experiences. Instead of feeling self-pity about my circumstances, I changed my relationship to them. I stopped regretting mistakes and started learning from them. I stopped seeing challenges as inconveniences and began to view them as opportunities for growth. I ceased to worry about the future and decided to love the path to it.

     Meditation is not the only method through which one can rewire their thought process*. Many find journaling to be therapeutic. Others paint or compose music or poetry to express their dark thoughts in beautiful ways. Art is an effective medium through which to magnify and understand one’s emotions.
     We can also improve our ability to manage our thoughts by adopting a “less is more” philosophy in regards to stimulation of the mind. Studies show that refraining from multitasking results in higher cognitive function[1]. Checking email less frequently has been scientifically proven to reduce stress[2]Resisting impulses to distract ourselves is essential in developing our introspective capabilities.  When sadness or loneliness appears in our consciousness, we should sit in contemplation rather than divert our attention to the latest viral cat video. When we reduce our intake of information, we diminish the useless noise that clutters our minds. As a result, it becomes easier to observe our emotions with clarity and deal with them rationally. Only then will we discover that we are privileged to live sad moments. Times of distress make us more resilient. They give meaning to moments of joy.

     Our greatest gains in wisdom and character are achieved when we overcome tribulation. But we can only make these improvements if we are willing to confront suffering without reservation. Every time we suppress sadness with drugs, technology or any other means, it is collected in our mind and body. This avoidance of pain leaves us only superficially content. However, when we choose to tackle all that life throws our way, adversity becomes our most fruitful source of sincere happiness and freedom.

Sincerely,
Jacob

 

[1] http://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2014/10/08/multitasking-damages-your-brain-and-career-new-studies-suggest/#43d00b802c16

[2] https://www.ics.uci.edu/~gmark/Home_page/Research_files/CHI%202012.pdf

*Note: Meditation may cause negative effects in people with certain psychological conditions. Consult a medical professional if you have any concerns.

 

Our Good Intentions Have Failed The Muslim World

“When well-meaning Westerners, eager to promote respect for minority religions and cultures, ignore practices like forced marriage and confinement in order to ‘stop society from stigmatizing Muslims,’ they deny countless Muslim girls their right to wrest their freedom from their parents’ culture. They fail to live up to the ideals and values of our democratic society, and they harm the very same vulnerable minority whom they seek to protect.” 

–Ayaan Hirsi Ali


     
Western society is deeply flawed. It is undeniable that discrimination, bigotry and sexism still persist in Canada, the US and Europe. Politicians like Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen have sparked a rise in white nationalism and Neo-Nazism across the West. Thankfully, people of all political convictions have met this wave of racism and xenophobia with great disdain and rejection. While these spikes in hatred greatly concern me, I am confident that liberalism will prevail in this battle of ideas against white supremacy.

     However, what worries me more deeply is the lack of attention liberals have paid to the violence and oppression occurring in the Islamic world and in Muslim families across the globe. The persecution of Muslim women, homosexuals and apostates has largely gone unnoticed by feminists and social justice activists in the West. For instance, the fact that 98% of Somali women undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) is often overlooked[i]. In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, people are publically beheaded for "sorcery", voicing political dissent and other offenses[ii]. According to a 2011 Pew poll, 40% of Pakistanis believed that killing a woman for having premarital sex or committing adultery was often or sometimes justified[iii]. Another Pew poll found that 96% of Jordanians believed that homosexual behaviour was “morally wrong”[iv]. In a 2010 Pew poll in Indonesia, a country that many referred to as a moderate Muslim nation, 72% of the population supported Sharia law[v]. Sharia is a legal system that enforces cutting off the hands of thieves, requires a woman to have four witnesses to prosecute her rapist and legalizes child marriage.
     It is challenging to face the reality that such a staggering number of people hold these views. But turning a blind eye to it is to fail the victims of this discrimination.

     Fortunately, Muslim polling data on these issues in America is more promising[vi] (the polling results in Europe and Canada are not currently sufficient in my view). However, we cannot ignore the horrific, albeit anecdotal events that have occurred on US, Canadian and European soil in recent years. The terrorist attacks in Orlando, San Bernardino and London were front-page news. But many stories of violence committed in the name of Islam have gone under-reported. In December 2007, a Muslim father in Mississauga, Ontario murdered his daughter for her adopting of Western culture[vii]. On New Year’s Day 2008, an Egyptian immigrant in Dallas shot his two daughters for “dishonoring” their family[viii]. In July 2008, a Pakistani immigrant living in Jonesboro, Georgia murdered his daughter after she expressed interest in divorcing her arranged husband (who was also her cousin)[ix]. An independent inquiry led by Professor Alexis Jay discovered that approximately 1400 children had been sexually assaulted in the town of Rotherham, England between 1997 and 2013[x]. The investigation found that gangs of British-Pakistani men had committed the overwhelming majority of the offenses. The study concluded that police authorities had covered up and downplayed the epidemic due to fear of “giving oxygen” to racism.

     Of course, we must remain aware that most Muslims condemn these heinous acts and beliefs. We must empower the peaceful majority to practice their religion without fear of being ostracized. We must encourage them to speak out against the extremists who have used their faith to incite violence and intolerance.  Also, the hateful rhetoric coming from those on the far right must be combatted and invalidated at all costs. Anyone who inflicts physical harm on our Muslim fellow citizens must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
     Nevertheless, we must come to terms with the fact that Islamic fundamentalism currently poses a unique threat to societies at home and abroad.  We must be mindful that the people most effected by Islamic terrorism and abuse are Muslims themselves. If we truly believe in defending their human rights and freedoms, we must acknowledge the threats imposed by their own political leaders, families and communities. The risk of offending those who disagree with us is a necessary one to take.

     My criticism of the treatment of women and gays in Muslim communities is in no way meant to discount the suffering of those in orthodox Jewish and Christian circles. It is heartbreaking to see homosexuals excommunicated by their churches and families. It is embarrassing that many Christians and Jews believe gay marriage should be illegal or that women should be required to wear headscarves. But we have to be wary of false equivalency. Yes, a Christian bakery’s refusal to cater a homosexual wedding is an act of discrimination. But it is not the same as throwing gays off buildings to their deaths as is practiced in countries like Iran. Yes, it is misogynistic to force orthodox Jewish women to wear wigs. But this is not the same as forcing Muslim women to wear the niqab (some but NOT ALL choose to) which covers them from head to toe. Yes, FGM is practiced at alarmingly high rates in Christian countries such as Ethiopia (74%) and Eritrea (83%). But the vast majority of nations that enforce FGM at an over 80% frequency have majority Muslim populations. These include Sudan where 88% of women are circumcised, Somalia (98%), Mali (89%), Guinea (97%) and Sierra Leone (90%).
     Again, sexist or homophobic acts committed in the name of any religion must be condemned. But it is clear that in the 21st century, Islam has posed the greatest threat to women, gays and other minorities. Many wonder why the Left has failed to recognize this fact. I believe the answer lies in our past.

     The West has a dark history of oppression of minorities that still has consequences today. Our legacy of slavery, colonialism and segregation continues to put people of colour at a disadvantage in our society. Due to this ongoing discrimination, civil rights groups in the West have made a concerted effort to advocate for the freedom of these marginalized groups. Due to the recent surge of white nationalism in the US, it has become essential to protect these people against violence and oppression. Trump and the Alt-Right’s support for a ban on Muslims entering the US and a Muslim registry has specifically put those who follow the Islamic faith in dire need of our protection. It is obviously noble, just and admirable that liberals have come out adamantly against Islamophobia. However, some leftists have become so eager to defend Muslims against persecution that they deny or ignore the oppression imposed by Muslims themselves. They label those who criticize Islamic doctrine and the treatment of women in Muslim countries as sensationalists or even bigots. Left-wing college students have de-platformed speakers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali who fight for the freedom of Muslim women. A civil rights organization called the Southern Poverty Law Centre recently declared Maajid Nawaz (who is himself a Muslim) an “anti-Muslim extremist”. Maajid is an advocate for Islamic reform and works to counter radicalization. The demonization of these courageous activists is tragically misguided. People like Ali and Nawaz are indispensable in the fight against extremism.

     When we fail to recognize and combat the oppression of women, homosexuals and non-believers in the Muslim world, we hurt those who need our help most. We must stop playing identity politics. We have to admit to ourselves that while followers of all religions commit crimes against humanity, Islamic fundamentalists have been the 21st century's worst offenders. Let us hold two truths at once: We must defend Muslims who face discrimination from racists and white supremacists. But we must also advocate for the freedom of the victims of Islamic extremism and tribalism in Muslim communities at home and abroad.

Sincerely,
Jacob

 

[i] http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/prevalence/en/

 

[ii] http://www.newsweek.com/2014/10/24/when-it-comes-beheadings-isis-has-nothing-over-saudi-arabia-277385.html

 

[iii] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/05/30/four-in-ten-pakistanis-say-honor-killing-of-women-can-be-at-least-sometimes-justified/

 

[iv] http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-morality/#_ftnref5

 

[v] http://www.pewforum.org/2013/04/30/the-worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-overview/

 

[vi] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/07/22/muslims-and-islam-key-findings-in-the-u-s-and-around-the-world/

 

[vii] https://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2010/06/16/i_killed_my_daughter__with_my_hands.html

 

[viii] http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/08/us/yaser-said-the-hunt-john-walsh/

 

[ix] http://atlanta.cbslocal.com/2013/01/22/court-upholds-mans-sentence-in-honor-killing/

 

[x] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rotherham_child_sexual_exploitation_scandal

 

 

Trump's Left Wing

     For months pundits, journalists and your second cousin have all tried to explain the political success of Donald Trump. Some blame the mainstream media for glorifying the candidate’s sensationalism and essentially handing him billions of dollars in free advertising. Some point to the corruption and incompetence of Congress. These are valid charges. But there’s one group many have neglected to accuse. They are who many refer to as the Regressive Left. The political correctness and viciously anti-conservative rhetoric of this faction of liberals have inspired Donald’s supporters to retaliate. The liberal media’s shaming of right-wingers has incited anger. The left-wing bias at American universities has all but silenced conservative opinions in higher education.  Liberal professors outnumber conservatives 5 to 1 overall and by an even larger margin in social studies departments. Conservatives feel disrespected and outcasted. Their misguided but understandable response was in nominating the most outspoken presidential candidate in American history. 

     Democrats are known for standing up for the rights of gays, women and people of colour. However, while the hippies of the 60s and 70s fought injustice through dialogue and peaceful protest, the hipsters of today fight it through angry tweets. These “progressives” label anyone who criticizes the doctrine of Islam as Islamophobic. Even Muslims like Maajid Nawaz who call for Islamic reform are called "porch monkeys". Anyone, including women who question the statistics regarding the wage gap are called misogynists. Dr. Christina Hoff Sommers, a feminist democrat was heckled by students at UMass simply because she stated facts disputing the accuracy of the pay gap. Anyone who opposes some of the aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement is called racist. Leftists will verbally abuse even a black person*** for disagreeing with BLM.

     Of course, one is free to challenge any of these people. But whether or not one agrees with Nawaz, Sommers, an objector to BLM or a Trump supporter, they must remain open to hearing their viewpoints. If one disagrees with them, they should debate them with superior arguments, not name-calling. If Nawaz and Sommers are wrong, their opponents must use facts, not emotional outbursts to correct them. These people are being demonized simply for expressing their opinion. While the Regressive Left may think of themselves as proponents of open dialogue, they only want to listen to those who share their views. For example, at colleges across the US students have been protesting against the invitation of conservative speakers and often assault those who attend their speaking engagements.

     In the past 3 years, the environment at American universities has drastically changed. Schools like the University of Michigan have instituted “inclusive language” laws whereby students and faculty are not allowed to use certain words such as crazy, gay and illegal alien in class. These regulations were established in order to avoid offending students. Of course, hate speech of any kind should be condemned. But these rules do not take context into account. Professors can be punished for merely having a class discussion about terms like faggot or the N word. The proponents of these regulations feel as though if we just don’t mention such words, homophobia and racism will decrease. They are wrong.

     Progress comes out of conversation. If we don’t talk about contentious issues they will never be solved. Black and white people need to have difficult discussions regarding race relations. Feminists should be encouraged to have debates with men’s rights activists. Muslims should be provided an opportunity to defend themselves against criticisms of Islam. But they will not have a chance to do so if professors and students are condemned for talking about religion.

     One of the main purposes of post-secondary education is for young people to learn to question their own beliefs. They must be exposed to opposing viewpoints in order to learn to debate rationally. But inclusive language laws prevent these discussions from occurring. Students and faculty feel as though they cannot speak up. They run the risk of expulsion or termination if they say something that is deemed discriminatory or hurtful. When students aren’t offered the chance to come to a mutual understanding on controversial topics, ignorance and resentment are fostered. The Regressive Left’s intolerance of their opponents has resulted in frustrated conservatives and disaffected liberals supporting Donald Trump. To them, he represents the antidote to this institutionalized discrimination of ideas.

     Don’t get me wrong. I would never vote for Trump and I disagree with many of his followers’ reasons for supporting him. But name-calling, vitriol and generalizations are not the solution. We must remind ourselves that while we may believe in different philosophies of government, we all want a safe and prosperous world. When regressive leftists refuse to even hear a conservative opinion and call anyone who expresses it a racist, Trump’s stock rises accordingly. His supporters believe that he will be a voice for them in the left-leaning, politically correct media. Again, I disagree with and abhor most of what The Donald says. But one of the reasons that he has been able to tap into the hearts and minds of fearful and infuriated Americans is because the Regressive Left has painted these people with a broad brush of xenophobia. Those that have been unjustly labeled this way see Trump as their ally. They know he won’t hide his positions in calculated rhetoric. In their eyes, his candor supersedes his ignorance. Most of all, they love his hatred for political correctness. Any time liberals criticize Trump for his “unpresidential” behavior, his supporters’ fervor grows stronger.

     I think it is terrifying that such an unqualifed and uninformed person could be elected President. Those of us who oppose Trump should do everything in our power to make sure he does not reach the Oval Office. However, flinging insults at Trump supporters is counterproductive. Rather than making assumptions about their motives and morals, we should be arguing with them rationally. If we see their basis for supporting him as flawed, we should counter with better ideas instead of bombastic retaliation.

Sincerely,
Jacob

***I linked readers to this video solely for them to see the argument between the black Trump supporter and his opponents, not the unrelated debate previewed in the outro to the video.

 

 

What was that?

“The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.”
– Albert Einstein

     I had a stereotypical secular Jewish upbringing. I occasionally went to synagogue with my family. I went to a Jewish summer camp for 9 years. I went to Hebrew school once a week and attended the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto for one year. All of these experiences played an important part in shaping my social and cultural life. I learned to love Jewish humour, art and philosophy. I have maintained life-long friendships with some of my Jewish peers. However, I have never felt a connection with the practice of Jewish prayer. Anytime I went to Shul as a child or adult I felt confused. I loved the melodies of the prayers. But when I looked at their English translation, all of them said the same, seemingly unjustifiable thing. They all praised a divine being that I had no confidence existed. I didn’t understand how one could find comfort in something for which they had no evidence.

     I spent most of my adult life seeing organized religion as misguided if not ludicrous. However, I recently made an effort to understand the driving forces behind the faith of religious people through dialogue. In these conversations, some argued that the order they found in nature could not be possible without a creator. Some said faith was their only explanation for free will. But I realized that behind all their verbal reasoning was a physical feeling. There was an intuition at the root of their credence. I was at a loss. How could I ever comprehend someone’s belief in God if I couldn’t empathize with how they felt about Him? I pondered this question for weeks, searching for answers. On July 9th, the answer came to me.

     A close friend of mine, Aaron Comeau lost his father on July 1st. The funeral took place at a church in downtown Toronto. Between speeches from friends and a eulogy from the deceased’s brother in-law, a pastor led us in several prayers. As the congregation recited these passages, I experienced the same lack of feeling that I had in any house of worship. But something special happened when Aaron came to the altar.

     Aaron is a wonderful musician and composer. He recently released an album of instrumental hymns that he wrote in honour of his father. At the halfway point of the service, he performed one of them on the church’s grand piano. As he played, tears filled my eyes and my heart started racing. It was similar to how I felt listening to a Ray Charles ballad or a B.B. King guitar solo, but it was certainly different. I knew I was encountering an unfamiliar wave of emotion. I became aware of a unity between my friend and his audience. I heard the love he had for his dad in the melody of his piece entitled “To Carry On Your Name.”

     Perhaps what I felt in the pews of the church was just a new personal level of sympathy. Maybe it was contact with God or Buddha. These labels are irrelevant and insufficient to me. What mattered was that I felt something language and science failed to discern. No one can articulate what it means to believe in God. It is just as challenging for one to spell out why they like a painting. We can try to express our love of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” by stating our affinity for its texture and colour palette. But at the end of the day, we like it because of how it makes us feel. We run into the same problem when we attempt to grasp the meaning of life solely through the lens of biology. As our scientific understanding of nature becomes more comprehensive, we enable ourselves to look at the world in a more rational way. This pursuit of knowledge is essential for the progress of humanity. However, no matter how clear our logical image of the universe becomes, we must remain open to the spiritual experiences that reason cannot yet explain. The most highly respected neuroscientists have failed to agree on a definition of this thing we call consciousness, yet they cannot deny its impact on our way of life.

     I still have many doubts and objections towards religious ideology. I disagree with the idea that one can be undoubtedly convinced of anything without evidence, including the existence of God. But this experience caused me to question my dismissing of the strength of faith. While I remain a non-believer, the sensation I embraced as Aaron played shone light on the power of feeling. I had no scientific explanation to justify why “To Carry On Your Name” hit me with such force. But I could not deny that that energy had meaning. In that moment, I felt as though Aaron's wordless performance channeled the bond between him and his father. I was humbled in realizing that this inclination may have been no more rational than a Christian's belief in God.

Sincerely,
Jacob
 

   If you'd like to hear "To Carry On Your Name" and the rest of the compositions on Aaron Comeau's album "Hymns For My Father", please click on the following link:
https://aaroncomeau.bandcamp.com/album/hymns-for-my-father

 

Believe In Yourself

     This weekend I attended my first two-day workshop as part of the University of Toronto’s Applied Mindfulness certificate program. I and 26 other students explored and discussed different methods of meditation. We received a lecture on the 2500 year-old history of mindfulness from its Tibetan roots to present day. Finally, we were introduced to the groundbreaking studies that have proven the medical benefits of this ancient practice.  I received many words of wisdom from my instructors and noted statistics that deepened my confidence in the power of mindfulness. However, for me what was most profound about this course was not a statement or piece of information. It was a physical and emotional feeling I experienced near the end of day 2.

     As I listened to the facilitator Michele Chaban bring our class to a conclusion, I looked around the room. I saw people of all ages, ethnicities and occupations. I saw Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists, conservatives and liberals. When Michele asked if anyone had any closing thoughts, I described what I felt: “Anyone in this room at this moment could say anything they believed to be true. And no matter how much any of us might disagree with that statement, their thoughts would be met with acceptance and without judgment.” This is an environment in which we rarely find ourselves today, particularly in conversation about the current American presidential election.

     Society and history have divided us into teams.  We are labeled leftist or right wing, progressive or conservative. We can blame these categorizations on the media, our parents or our teachers. But sadly we are often the ones putting ourselves into these boxes. Humans of all walks of life share a tendency to want to feel accepted by others. We want confirmation that our ideas are valid. In order to achieve this, we conform. We are told that to be a true democrat, we must be pro-abortion. If we want to be a true republican, we must want lower taxes. A real progressive must support a $15 minimum wage. A proud conservative must oppose gay marriage. As we lengthen the checklist of what makes a democrat or republican we are creating political religions. We are telling people everything they must believe in, no matter how unrelated one of those beliefs might be to another. Telling a democrat that in order to be considered liberal he must be anti-gun and support tuition free college is like telling a child that in order to be cool he has to like basketball and Nacho Cheese Doritos.

     All of these categorizations and their respective belief systems discourage independent thought. They falsely teach us that in order to have a voice it must be in harmony with those who “share our values”. We end up lying to others and most detrimentally, to ourselves in order to fit in. Instead, we can encourage each other to speak our minds and stand up for what we personally value. Also, we can start listening to one another rather than ignoring or degrading those who have opposing viewpoints to our own.  Remember that although we may hold different opinions, we all want a peaceful and prosperous world. Hearing one another will result in dialogue, compromise and progress. The antagonistic way in which we are currently debating will only lead us into further chaos, conflict and stagnancy.

Moments of Silence

“You come into a room, there is furniture, pictures on the walls, and things. Then those things and the pictures are removed and you come into the room---now what will you say? Will you call it empty or will you call it a full room? Room means “emptiness”; room means “space.” With the furniture removed, the room is full. When furniture was there the room was not full; much of it was missing because of the furniture. Now the room is complete, the emptiness is total.” – Osho

     One of the greatest human fears is silence. During a break in conversation, we cough or fidget just to fill that pause. We use the television or radio to get to sleep. The 21st century’s cures for silence are the smartphone and social media. Last weekend while having lunch I sat next to a table of four college students. At every gap in their discussion, all four of them would check their phones. At first glance this may seem like a minor glitch in modern day human interaction. To me it is more concerning.

     Why do we feel the impulse to check Facebook, Twitter and Instagram? Are we really interested in what our roommate’s cousin had for breakfast? Do we really care about the “Top 10 Things To Do With a Paperclip?” I don’t believe so. We are conditioned to perpetually stimulate our mind. If we are not working or sleeping, we are desperate to keep ourselves occupied. We are afraid of silence because it may lead to loneliness or boredom. However, if we allow this phobia to consume us we deny ourselves moments of true happiness, fulfillment and inspiration. By crowding our mind with mostly useless information and activity, we are putting up obstacles in the way of independent thought and creativity.

     No matter what our professions are, how old we are or where we’re from, we all have daily opportunities to be contemplative. When waiting for a bus at a busy intersection we can observe the beautifully chaotic world around us. When lying in bed we have a chance to meditate on an interesting conversation we had that day. If we make a conscious effort to see these moments of silence as windows for self-reflection, we will find deeper meaning in the activities of “everyday life”. If we commit to being fully present in all experiences, we will feel stronger emotions. Instead of repressing sadness, we will let it pass through us. We will appreciate moments of aloneness as catalysts for personal growth and introspection. As soon as we pick up our smartphone or check a social media outlet, these trains of thought are derailed.

     Let me be clear. I am not anti-technology or anti-social media. Facebook and Twitter have given a voice to people who were previously unheard. These platforms allow us to correspond with friends and family abroad. However, we have to be conscious of how we are using them. Social media makes everyone a journalist. Articles are posted that are often biased or misinformed. With only 140 characters at our disposal, we may tweet or read something without nuance or supporting arguments. This leads to anger-based conflict rather than respectful discussion. The conversation ends before it begins. These posts and the ensuing comments add to the pile of information under which we are constantly buried. When this endless flow of mostly superficial thought consumes our minds, there is no room for critical thinking.

     Osho stated the quotation with which I started this entry well before smartphones or Facebook were invented. But his words ring true today more than ever. Whenever possible, let our minds be empty. It is at these moments when we are most capable of change, innovation and bliss.

Dwelling In Happiness

     For most of our lives we are told we can do better. If we get 8/10 on a spelling test we need to get 10/10 on the next one. If we score a goal in a houseleague hockey game, we have to record a hat trick in the next one. If we work at a job for a certain amount of time, we should be working towards a promotion. If we have an apartment, we need a house. The desire to perpetually achieve in our professional and personal lives is noble. However, if our only aspiration is to improve our current situation, what is our destination? If we always think that there must be “something more”, what is our definition of success?

     Before we formulate our image of happiness we must learn how to feel it. We have to enable ourselves to appreciate what we have in this moment. We must allow ourselves to feel satisfaction in what we have done today. We need to acknowledge how far we have come. Unfortunately, this is contrary to what we are daily bombarded with by superiors, teachers, the media and society as a whole. Money is portrayed as the most reliable measurement of well-being. Supermodels set the standard for physical appearance. Consumerism teaches us that “more is more”. In my case, the thought that I always needed to be a better piano player became all consuming.

     When I was in first year at Berklee College of Music, an enriched program was established within the school called the Berklee Global Jazz Institute (BGJI). It was artistically directed by renowned pianist Danilo Perez and hosted a faculty of some of the best jazz musicians in the world. After two declined applications, in my junior year I was finally accepted. For a couple of days I was ecstatic. I felt immense pride when I told my friends and family that I had been admitted. I congratulated myself for all the time and effort I had put in. However, it wasn’t long before that annoying voice in the back of all of our minds set off a chain of irrational thoughts: “What if I can’t keep up with the other musicians in the program? What if I was only accepted because of the essay I wrote as part of my application and not my actual musicianship? I don’t deserve this.” A combination of insecurity and anxiety was my natural response. Any feeling of happiness must have been an illusion or foreshadowing of disaster. These imposing thoughts prevented me from appreciating my accomplishment. I only recently realized that I needed to change this reactionary pattern of thinking.

     In retrospect, there were so many things I should have been thankful for and proud of after being admitted to the program. I was fortunate to have been surrounded by such fantastic musical peers that inspired me to persevere. I was lucky to have teachers who fostered my progress. I should have congratulated myself for doing everything I could to achieve this goal despite the first two rejections. In the past two years, through the practice of mindfulness I have improved my ability to be conscious of these things. But I still have to remind myself every once in a while to remain aware.

    There is so much depth in every moment of happiness. The outcome of a successful journey is just a symptom. We must be in touch with feelings of gratitude and fulfillment in order for the end result to be meaningful. Furthermore, we need to enjoy the process, the moments of success and failure along the way. Granted, we should be aware that there is always room to grow in the future. But before that, we must let ourselves dwell in the happiness of now.

Sincerely,
Jacob

 

 

The Tragic Stigma Around Music Education

Saturday marked my return to teaching at Humber College Community Music. I was anxious about getting back to work. This summer I had a life-changing experience backpacking through India and Europe.  When I returned to Toronto, I enjoyed a month of consistent practice, playing gigs and jam sessions. The time away from my instrument proved to be refreshing as new improvisational and compositional ideas started to flow. I feared that starting my lessons was going to interrupt the progress I was making.

 

However, after the first 30 minutes of the ensemble rehearsal I was directing I was reminded of the rush that teaching had always given me. I felt rewarded as I managed to teach my students a song by ear. I felt a sense of purpose as I remembered all the creative and life lessons that my ensemble directors gave me.

 

My work as a peer tutor at Berklee and on faculty at the Global Music Institute allowed me to discover my passion for teaching. But until now I was hesitant to express that realization to my musical peers. This is because there is a stigma among the performing community towards being involved in childhood music education. Musicians who teach private lessons independently or for agencies are often looked down upon. Many practitioners in all artistic fields believe in the “those who can’t do, teach,” philosophy. This is a damaging way of thinking for a couple of reasons.

 

First, it has been proven that studying music allows young students to improve their performance in academic subjects. This is logical as music requires the use of the creative and logical parts of our brain. Personally, my high school music education allowed me to develop as a leader and team member. It taught me the value of hard work, discipline and practice. In college, my teacher Danilo Perez used music to teach values such as honesty, supportiveness and acceptance. When we look at the big picture, we realize the long-term impact music education can have on our youth whether they pursue a musical career or not. We should see the aspiration of a musician to become a teacher as an honourable quest, not one of resignation.

 

Second, by perpetuating this stigma we discourage musicians who have a passion for teaching from pursuing educational positions. Particularly as a performer in a genre to which children are not regularly exposed, I understand the necessity for strong teachers in jazz education. If we want the music we love to survive, we need people who understand it at a deep level to pass it on. So even if you are not interested in music education, it is destructive to the music community to stereotype those who teach as second-class.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that musical performers play an important role in society as well. A vibrant artistic scene is essential to any community. I never plan to stop performing. But as artists, we cannot devalue the impact our teachers have had on our development as creators and people as a whole. To those who love to teach: Do not suppress your enthusiasm. We need you to foster the talent of the next generation.  You have a gift and it is your responsibility to share it.

 

 

It's Time

It’s been 4 years since my battle with anxiety and depression began. I feel it is finally time that I share my story with the world in order to help others who struggle with the same condition.

 

In my second year at Berklee College of Music, I was diagnosed with tendonitis in my right arm. My condition was as a result of playing the piano with improper technique. Tendonitis is caused by repetitive motion in sporting activities like running as well as micro-movements such as typing on a laptop, or in my case over-use of certain muscles involved in playing my instrument. When this injury occurred, I began studying with a new piano teacher who specialized in teaching students with this type of ailment. He informed me that the way in which I was playing the instrument was injuring me, not the amount of time I was playing it on a daily basis. I took up the piano when I was 8 years old meaning that I had been playing incorrectly for almost 12 years. I had to completely relearn how to perform. This meant changing everything from the way I sat on the stool to the way I played the C Major scale (the very first thing most piano students learn). This was of course a physically challenging venture. I spent hours practicing seemingly simple motions. I didn’t practice an actual song for over a month. However, the psychological stress caused by my injury proved to be more overwhelming then the somatic overhaul. I was constantly worrying about how I was going to make it through the next rehearsal without having to embarrassingly bow out. I doubted whether I’d ever be able to recover. And worst of all, my most frequent thought was, “What am I without music?”

 

Nonetheless, I was determined. Even after a doctor told me to stop playing for 3 months and a physical therapist told me I should consider focusing on a teaching career, I soldiered on. I went to workshops on Alexander Technique and body-mapping, practiced all the exercises my teacher gave me every day and also began seeing a psychotherapist and taking anti-depressants. I came to understand that although the pain was caused by my poor technique, there was a mental element to it as well. I noticed that when I felt the tiniest pain in my arm and the race of negative thoughts took off, the pain would dramatically increase. When I performed poorly I would feel depressed, sending me into physical agony. Once I started putting the ideas I discussed in my therapy sessions into real life practice, my level of pain seemed to decrease every week. Also, my practice sessions became more efficient which allowed me to improve my technique at a faster rate.

 

After my last semester at Berklee, I finally felt that I was able to play the piano without pain. That may seem like an unusual milestone. But getting to that point from being in a place where I was literally afraid of touching the instrument was one of the greatest accomplishments of my entire life. However, I found myself struggling with other things. I felt inadequate compared to my friends who were musicians. I was depressed about the lack of gigs I had after moving back to Toronto.  Finally, any threat to my health brought back memories of my battle with tendonitis. I associated any kind of physical pain with the mental distress I experienced at Berklee.  Anything from a sore muscle to the flu would cause psychological pain.

 

Although therapy helped, I knew that I needed to personally take control of my mental health. I also wanted to stop taking anti-depressant medication. Last May, while traveling in India I discovered meditation and Buddhist philosophy. At first, meditating seemed to make the stress worse. As someone who found it hard to be alone, you can imagine how difficult sitting on my own in silence for even 10 minutes was. However, just like when I realized that I needed to change my piano technique, I persevered because I knew my quality of life depended on it. 10 minutes of meditation became 15, then 20. Today I practice sitting meditation for an hour a day (2 sessions of 30 minutes). Reading the literature of Jon Kabit-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh and Osho has taught me to look within for guidance, fulfillment and strength. I learned how to see myself as a complete person, one with unique traits and flaws that make me human. After practicing meditation and these philosophies for 9 months I now know that although I may be prone to anxiety and depression, I will always have a tool with which to confront it.

 

My message to anyone who is struggling with anxiety and depression is the following:

 

1.     This is not a fixed state. You are in control of your quality of life. While therapy and medication can be good tools, in the end you have to take responsibility for your own well-being. Whether it is meditation or going for a walk every morning, as soon as you start being proactive in regards to your mental health you will feel better. You will start believing that you are at least on the path towards enlightenment.

 

2.     You are not alone.  We all battle stress and self-doubt to some degree. Allow yourself to ask for help and let the people who love you provide that care.

 

3.     One day at a time. If you accept the fact that you can live a better life, simple things can get you on your way. A) Instead of bottling up your anxieties, write them down. B) If you feel depression coming on, call a friend that you trust to talk about it. C) Sit for one minute and just focus on your breathing.

 

I hope my story has connected with you in some way. Whether you struggle with mental health problems yourself or you know someone who does, this post is for you.

 

Love,

Jacob

Conclusions

As I am leaving India early next Sunday morning, this will be my final blog post from New Delhi. Accordingly, I’d like to thank all of you who have followed me on this once in a lifetime journey. I never dreamed that my passion for music could take me on adventures like this one but I am so thankful that it has. I have met so many wonderful people here in India and I hope our friendships continue to grow. I have also learned a lot about myself and what I am capable of as a musician, teacher and citizen of the world. I have been exposed to Buddhist philosophy and the practice of meditation which has with no exaggeration changed my life. I hope my writing has articulated how this adventure has altered my perspective.

 

I’d first like to thank Tarun Balani and Pattie Gonsalves, the directors of the Global Music Institute. This dynamic duo is always looking to help and encourage the people that surround them. They possess the rare ability to make a professional environment feel like home. They have built a remarkable institution from the ground up and I cannot wait to see how it continues to evolve. Above all, I am eternally grateful for their constant support.  Particularly at the beginning of my trip I experienced a lot of stress and culture shock. Tarun and Pattie were always there to make sure I felt safe and welcome.

 

Second, thank you to the immediate and extended family of GMI. Jayant, Adhir, Faith, Adi, Smiti, Siddharth, Rohit, Arjun, Abhinav, Julie, Hayden, Suhail, Kartikeya, Nikkhil, Ujwal, Takar, Ipshita, Shadhab, Chayan: Thank you all for taking me in as one of your own. It was such a pleasure to jam, hang out and bakchodi with you. Kitchensink was the soundtrack to my summer. Please keep in touch and continue to make inspiring music.

 

To my students: Charita, Aman, Vatan, Meghant, Bardar, Vishal, Aneet, Karan, Shriraj, Shubham, Shubham, Shivam, Anupreet and Aakash. You have no idea how much I learned from you all. You inspired me every day to be a better teacher, musician and human being. Your talent and passion are astounding. This is only the beginning.

 

Finally, thank you to my family and friends from across the world that supported me in this endeavour. As much as I loved Delhi, keeping in touch with you was what kept me going through the humidity, monsoons and confusing bathrooms. It means a lot that even when I’m a million miles away, you’ve still got my back.

 

Once again, I am so grateful that you all showed interest in my travels and thoughts. I plan to continue blogging when I return to Canada as my life continues to unfold. Hopefully the next step is just as unpredictable as this one.

 

Sincerely,

Jacob

Torn

As the semester comes to a close, I am experiencing mixed emotions. This is the longest I’ve been away from home since I graduated from Berklee over two years ago. Lately I have missed my family and Canadian friends dearly. Delhi is still in some ways an unfamiliar environment in which I believe I may never feel fully comfortable.

 

However, another part of me is dreading the morning of August 17th when I leave for a week in Berlin before returning to Toronto. The faculty and students at GMI have welcomed me into their tight-knit community. I am excited to go to work every morning as the people that surround me are a constant source of inspiration and laughter. I also feel a great sense of purpose and importance as an educator. In a country where it is difficult to be exposed to traditional jazz, I feel that my experience and knowledge are of great value to the next generation of musicians. My students have so much talent and drive. I am grateful to have contributed to the development of their skills through deepening their understanding of Western musical language. I spent four years of college dedicating myself to studying and practicing my craft and I will never stop learning. But my time at GMI has been my first opportunity to pass on what my professors and peers at Berklee gave to me. The process of teaching the material has deepened my own comprehension of the subject matter.

 

And so herein lies my emotional tug of war. I long for the familiarity of home while I fear missing the family I have become a part of in New Delhi. This conflict has caused me moments of sadness and anxiety. But out of these thoughts I have found a more positive viewpoint on my predicament. I have realized how fortunate I am to feel accepted and purposeful on both sides of the globe.  Who knew that a spoiled, Jewish, Canadian boy could have an impact in such drastically different places? This has taught me of the interconnectedness of our world. We often like to divide people into categories of racial, cultural or geographical background to find a “clearer” picture of the planet. As we can observe in the violence currently plaguing countries in all corners of the Earth, these categorizations cause hatred and confusion. They also make us feel lost in how we can put an end to these disputes as we believe we cannot relate to these “foreign” issues. As I have become closer with my colleagues, pupils and friends in Delhi I have learned that we are not as different as we think. We have common values, goals, musical tastes and senses of humour. Even when we disagree with one another, we can find common ground and are willing to understand each other. Most importantly, we are willing to work collectively.

 

I do not believe my experience this summer has made me a different person. I will always feel more at home in Cedarvale then in South Extension II. I still enjoy watching basketball more than badminton. I still like bagels with cold cuts more than palak paneer.  But what has changed is my perspective on the role I can assume in this world. As I have learned of the similarities and common aspirations between me and my Indian contemporaries, I have come to realize the impact that we can make together.

Sincerely,
Jacob

Responsibility

Last Sunday I observed multiple workshops for new and returning teachers employed by Music Basti, an organization that runs music programs for underprivileged youth in New Delhi. When classes begin next month, teachers will be divided into groups of three that travel to schools and group homes to give kids an introduction to the world of music. Through music education the staff and volunteers at Music Basti provide an outlet for at-risk youth to express themselves creatively and foster optimism for these students whose lives are filled with instability.

 

The day was filled with inspiring conversation and activities held by teachers, social workers and counselors from around the city. The workshop that music educator and multi-instrumentalist Ritesh Khokhar ran was particularly inspiring to me. He began by describing several vocal warm-ups, rhythmic exercises, and songs that he had found to be successful. He discussed the benefits of visual aids to instill concepts. He also advised using music to which the kids could relate rather than what the teacher’s generation grew up hearing. He reminded the teachers that although one must be aware of the informational capacity and attention span of young children, they must never underestimate their capabilities.

 

After the practical portion of Ritesh’s workshop, he spoke about his philosophy on music education and the responsibilities of its practitioners. Firstly, he discussed teaching as performance. When we experience an amazing concert, stand-up comedy set or motivational speech, we are not only stimulated by its content. We are entertained by the energy, enthusiasm and passion of the performer. This is no different in a classroom. An effective teacher can make any subject matter come to life.

 

Secondly, one must teach how their students learn. On the surface this concept seems simple. However, I have often caught myself neglecting the learning style of a particular student in order to teach something “my way”. We must be prepared and willing to tackle the unique obstacles each student may encounter.

 

Finally, Khokhar jolted the Music Basti teachers when he told them that their effectiveness as educators could determine whether their students found a passion for music or rejected the art altogether. These young teachers are responsible for making the practice of music enjoyable and rewarding. We all know people who took piano lessons when they were young and quit because of disinterest. Many of them regret giving up on it now, but who could blame them if their teachers were inadequate? As adults, since we now forget so much of the material we learned in elementary school, we may think that that period in our education was less meaningful than the more practical study we did in high school or college. We must remember that the way in which children are introduced to a subject, whether it be mathematics, language or the arts can ignite inspiration immediately or later in life. It is our responsibility as educators to ensure that all students are given the foundational, impassioned and enjoyable preliminary education that they deserve.

If you'd like more information on Music Basti, please check out their website at www.musicbasti.org
 

Sincerely,

Jacob

Fueling the Fire

The kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers on June 12, 2014 sent the Middle East into an all too familiar state of turmoil. Since the deaths of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah, Israelis and Palestinians have executed violent acts of extremism.

 

As it is for any current event, Facebook has been a sounding board for users’ opinions on the horrific occurrences of the past month. Every day I read posts (“statuses”) condemning one of the parties involved. These viewpoints and the responses to them are rarely presented in a constructive manner. The status will usually be a hateful remark without any sensitivity to the long, complex history behind this conflict. The comments that follow are equally inconsiderate and do not promote any deeper understanding of either perspective.

 

Social media has been used effectively for social change in the recent past. For example, activism initiated on Facebook and Twitter played a huge part in the Arab Spring. These mediums allow everyday people to have their voice heard across the world on any issue they desire. They also enable us to band together internationally towards a cause. However, when the ability to voice one’s standpoint instantly and uncensored is abused, the consequences can be catastrophic. Many people take advantage of the fact that they can hide behind their computer after posting an offensive remark. They do not take the time to separate their emotion from the problem at hand. Seconds after seeing a terrorist attack performed by Jewish extremists on CNN, someone will post an anti-Israel tweet as if a group of radicals represented an entire people. As I mentioned earlier, the comments in response to such posts may include generalizations of Palestinians and hateful remarks directed towards the initial “tweeter”. This only adds to the conflict, and takes the hostility that started in the Middle East and spreads it across the world for anyone with Wi-Fi to absorb and continue to disseminate.

 

We should be using social media as a platform to hear the truth from people who are living in these conflicts and come to a greater understanding of what is behind the unrest. It should be utilized to inspire rational, compassionate dialogue. We must realize that whatever our convictions are, the ultimate goal is peace. This is not to say that we shouldn’t have the right to express our beliefs. But we should think longer before we type. We must determine whether the statement we are about to broadcast internationally is going to promote constructive discussion or confusion and resentment.

 

Sincerely,

Jacob

Inspiration

I cannot believe I only have 5 weeks left in New Delhi. With time flying by, I have consciously taken moments to stop and appreciate the once in a lifetime journey on which I have embarked. I have acknowledged how blessed I am to be in a community of such inspiring people. I am thankful to have met all the faculty and students at GMI as well as the new friends I have made on my morning walks, at concerts and on my trip to Dharamshala.

 

I have been surrounded by talented, intelligent and innovative people my whole life. As the youngest in my family, I have always looked up to my parents and siblings. They each played an instrument and served as my first musical influences. They all have followed their occupational dreams and have succeeded in their respective fields. Most importantly, they are supportive of each other and the people with which they share their world.

 

As a camper and staff member at Camp Kadimah, I met some of my life-long friends. Apart from being some of the funniest people I know, their passion and capability in their areas of study are remarkable. From computer science to medicine to business, I know that each one of my camp friends will be successful in whatever they choose to do in life. The combination of their intelligence and drive provide them with endless possibilities.

 

At Rosedale Heights School of the Arts and Berklee I encountered two gifted communities of artists. I collaborate with and am inspired by the friends I met at these institutions every day. Whenever we jam or I listen to their latest recordings I learn something new. They push me to get better every day.

 

Every now and then I become overwhelmed by the amount of talent that surrounds me. Particularly in my first year at Berklee I experienced self-doubt about my abilities as a musician. When I graduated I felt lost as I observed the success of my siblings and friends. It is common for all of us to compare ourselves to our buddies, colleagues and family. We constantly witness their achievements and expect ourselves to reach those milestones simultaneously. We may even be resentful when one of our peers accomplishes the equivalent of one of our goals before we do.

 

In these moments one has to find a balance between competition and inspiration. It can be beneficial to be fueled by the triumphs of others. Their success can drive us to push ourselves to greater heights. However, we must remember that we are all on our own path. The road to fulfillment and happiness is a marathon and not a sprint. Moreover, instead of being intimidated or aggrieved by the talent or attainments of others, we should be grateful that the stars aligned for us to meet and befriend these people that enrich our lives. We must remember that we inspire them as well. When Oscar Peterson first heard the virtuosic piano player Art Tatum he became depressed. He rightfully said to himself that he could never perform like Tatum. But the fact was that Tatum could never play like Peterson either. This is the beauty of art and life in general. We are each unique beings that offer something of our own to the world that no one else can. Once we realize this we can move forward on our path instead of being distracted by the travels of others along the way.

 

Sincerely,

Jacob

Another Kind of Practice Part 2

As midterms were written last week, this week the faculty and students at GMI were on holiday. With my first chance to travel around India I elected to visit Dharamshala, the home of the Dalai Lama. Dharamshala is a northern city with a stunning, mountainous landscape. It is also home to a large Tibetan population, some of whom are monks.

Yesterday, I visited the Dalai Lama Temple. Just outside the temple was a museum chronicling the history of Tibet and the horrific Chinese invasion in 1950. Learning of the physical and religious destruction of the country was astonishing. However, the peaceful reaction of the Tibetan people was just as surprising. They have maintained an anti-violent culture and philosophy despite constant terrorism and devastation inflicted upon them. The Chinese have demolished countless historic monuments, temples and artifacts. They have also condemned Tibetan freedom of religion. 

When appalling acts of violence and tyranny occur all over the world we often ask ourselves, "What can we do to help?" This is of course a noble question and concern. In order for things to change, we have to stand up for the rights of the people who share our world. We have to take action to make a difference. However, sometimes "non-doing", as we refer to it in meditation is the best method with which to inspire peace and co-existence. In monasteries in Dharamshala, monks spend hours practicing meditation. They take time every day to be by themselves, look within and train themselves to control the activity of their minds. By learning to contemplate constructively, they have realized that violence is not the answer. Despite the unimaginable physical and emotional scarring they have endured they feel a responsibility to remain tranquil for the betterment of the world.

Those of us who have not experienced war or invasion on our home country are angrily confused by the fact that events like the Vietnam War or the Chinese invasion of Tibet are even possible. We become understandably frustrated. However, we must realize that in order for us to galvanize a movement towards change or peace we have to be in control of our emotions toward the overwhelming amount of injustice and conflict in our world. Meditation is the best way to practice entering and dwelling in this way of thinking. During meditation, we work on being aware of our emotional reactions and being able to separate our feelings from the personal, relationship and global problems we encounter. It allows us to see these issues objectively and act rationally in response to them. If the monks I met in Dharamshala who have withstood so much pain, fear and oppression are able to take hours out of every day to practice this sense of awareness, the rest of us must be able to find 10 minutes to explore this state of mind. 

Sincerely,

Jacob

 

Tradition

This week marked the halfway point of the semester at the Global Music Institute. The students wrote their midterm exams and played in the midterm recital. I was floored by their performances. It has been such a pleasure to watch these young musicians come out of their shell and evolve as artists.

 

I have taken the chance to evaluate myself as a teacher at this juncture. As I mark the exams and critique the performances of my students I am also assessing myself as an educator. As expected, there have been some concepts that I have succeeded in instilling and others that I did not present so clearly. For instance, I was overjoyed to hear my students playing solos with clarity and intention. However, on some of the theory tests I have found some inconsistency in their understanding of musical analysis. I have already started to think of new methods to deepen my pupils’ comprehension of this area of study.

 

Many of the exercises I have utilized to get my students to play more simply and logically have involved restriction. For example, I will ask a guitarist to play a solo on a given song in which he can only use a set of six notes, even if the song has many different chords. Another task could be to compose an improvisation only using the notes of the chord that is currently sounding. In other words, if the first chord of a piece is C major, when that chord is played, the student can only use the notes C, E and G. When the song reaches the next chord, say a G major chord they will only be allowed to use the notes G, B and D. This forces them to create something coherent and melodic with limited resources. The idea is that once the restrictions are lifted, the freedom will allow the student to explore more experimental techniques while still being grounded in reason and rationality. These constraints are inspired by the styles of improvising of my favourite early jazz players like Louis Armstrong and Lester Young. Many of Armstrong and Young's solos use elements of the exercises I have mentioned.

 

Music students often fail to see the value in the limitations that their teachers impose. In jazz specifically, students often believe that these restrictions stunt their creativity and are only meant for those who wish to play “traditionally”. Jazz education is rooted in the Bebop era (1940s) in which the musical language invented by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie was most prominent. If one were to analyze the solos of the musicians in this time period they would be hard pressed to find a single note that could not be explained theoretically. That was the beauty of Parker and Gillespie’s dialect. It was impeccably logical but at the same time innovative, passionate and powerful. Professors who exclusively teach this style of improvisation are often labeled as “jazz snobs.” This title implies a lack of adventurousness and an aversion toward the evolution of the genre. It also suggests that these teachers only play in the Bebop style because they are not proficient in any other method.

 

The aforementioned pupils are often fans of modern jazz musicians who push the boundaries of jazz and break the “rules” that instrumentalists like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie indirectly constructed.  Artists like Vijay Iyer, Ben Monder and Brad Mehldau have been essential in the evolution of jazz music. They have created ground-breaking art by constantly pushing the boundaries. I admire and am grateful that these musicians have done so. They are essential in keeping this music alive and allowing it to progress. However, some students fail to realize that the reason these artists are able to make such innovative music is because they learned the rules before they broke them. If you listen to early recordings of Mehldau, he shows that he is influenced by Bebop legend Bud Powell. Students of jazz must realize that in order to be inventive in anything, whether it is music, visual art or science one must be knowledgeable of the history in their respective area of expertise.

 

I am supportive of the exploration of new possibilities in jazz music. However, being rooted in the tradition of the style is essential. Without studying the artists who established the foundations of improvisation, we will not have the tools to find our own voice.

 

Sincerely,

Jacob

 

 

Communication

                  On Friday, June 13th I received my first private lesson in Indian classical music (also known as Hindustani music) with GMI Faculty Ujwal Nagar. I was excited to go into the lesson knowing next to nothing about the genre and to learn from a young master of the style.

 

                   Ujwal began by setting up a speaker sounding a drone (a single note). In Indian classical music the note of the drone indicates the key of the piece, which is called a raag. The drone was kept on for the entire lesson. The title of the raag he taught me was “Raag Yaman”. The notes in the melody of this particular composition were derived from a specific scale (a set of seven notes) that Western musicians call “Lydian”. The melody of any raag never deviates from the given scale, which is one of the fundamental differences between Hindustani and Western styles of music. Jazz in particular is known for its tendency to use multiple scales in a single song to adhere to its rapidly changing chords. Since there are no set chords accompanying a raag’s melody, it can remain in the same scale.

 

                  At first listen one might think that it would be easier to improvise in Hindustani music than in jazz since each Hindustani piece only uses one scale while a jazz song requires constant alterations of the set of notes. However, we must consider the difficulty in creating something beautiful and unique with few options or variations at our disposal. Imagine trying to cook a delicious meal at home with minimal resources. It may be more challenging than executing an intricate recipe with unlimited ingredients in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant.

 

                  Learning “Raag Yaman” was challenging for me. Grasping the rhythm and structure of the melody were formidable tasks due to my inexperience. However, Ujwal and I discussed the similarities between jazz and Hindustani music that could inform my performance of this piece. In both styles the melody is played, then embellished and finally restated. Jazz and Indian classical pieces have a form and structure that needs to be followed during the playing of the melody and improvisation. They are the folk music of their countries of origin. Eastern music has been a source of inspiration for North American jazz musicians for decades, most notably saxophonist John Coltrane.

 

                  In my first month in New Dehli I experienced the power of cross-cultural musical interaction. In the rest of my lessons with Ujwal Nagar we will continue to share our knowledge of our respective nation’s music. Through these artistic exchanges we will learn about other aspects of each other's home country as well. The music of India in particular is an extension and reflection of her people and history. As my students and I share our musical influences with one another we are gaining a greater appreciation for our different backgrounds. Our discussions have inspired me to recall the capabilities of music on a larger scale. During the Cold War era, the US government funded the travels of jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington to Africa, Asia and Latin America. Through international musical collaboration these artistic ambassadors carried out a successful effort in decreasing tension between the countries involved.

 

                I do not believe that music alone can save the world from international conflict. But it can influence a deeper consciousness and understanding of our similarities and differences. It can provide a vision of the world as a whole.

Sincerely,
Jacob

For a Change

When we refer to a nation as a “developing” country a few things come to mind. We may think of extreme poverty, corruption or widespread disease. However, we ignore the fact that the word “developing” implies a process of change, not a fixed state. We assume that because a nation is currently behind other parts of the world politically or socially that she will always be so. The people in New Delhi with which I have discussed these issues do not deny the presence of inequality in India. But they do not accept it.

 

In the state of Uttar Pradesh there is a large Dalit community. Dalit comes from the Sankrit word meaning “oppressed”. People in this caste have been known as “untouchables” because of the severely polluted conditions in their places of employment. They have recently adopted the Dalit title. Members of this community are forced to use public lavatories because of lack of sanitation in their homes. The government sets up these facilities. This is especially problematic for women because it is unsafe for them to travel to these areas at night. On May 27, 2014 two young girls were raped and hung on a tree in Katra Village on their way to use one of these public toilets. Suspects have included policeman hired to patrol the area. In Uttar Pradesh cops are permitted to use lethal force with little regulation. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav responded to a reporter’s question about the exponential rise in rape cases by saying, “You are safe. Why are you bothered?” The minister’s father has been quoted on the same topic stating that, “Boys will be boys.”

 

GMI administrative director Pattie Gonsalves, Faith Gonsalves of Music Basti and other members of these institutions have created a petition in response to this event and the comments from the aforementioned politicians. The petition demands an apology from Yadav, a review of the code of police conduct and implementation of higher sanitation standards in rural areas. Members of GMI and Music Basti are passionate about promoting change in India in regards to gender equality, health and political corruption. Their actions are proof that although India has a long road to achieving egalitarianism, its people are not satisfied with the status quo.

 

The courage my friends in New Delhi have displayed should serve as inspiration to people living in all parts of the world. We think that voting for the politician we support is enough to make change. Anchors on Fox News televise their opinion that racism in the US is solved since the president is black. People think that posting a video about social justice on Facebook is a call for action. We need to realize that if we really want to make a difference we have to make it ourselves. We have to live our lives as if each one of us were an example for the rest of the world and the next generation.

 

Please read and sign the petition Pattie has created at this link:
https://www.change.org/en-IN/petitions/akhilesh-yadav-issue-a-public-apology-reconsider-police-reforms-and-implement-sanitation-initiatives

 

Sincerely,

Jacob