The Chairs at the Strawberry Music Festival

I was at one of the oldest music festivals in America.  ”Strawberry” takes place near Hetch Hetchy reservoir in the high Sierra in California, and takes place twice a year on Memorial Day and Labor Day.   It goes for full days, and many people have been coming for 25 years.

At 7 AM each day people are lined up at the gate with their chairs and then, in an orderly process, are let in.   After placing their chairs they leave, returning throughout the day to attend events. Over the years a cultural value has emerged. Anyone can sit in any chair that is unattended during any event. But the second that the owner of the chair appears,  the person using that chair hops up, says thanks, and finds another place to sit. During headlining events in the evening, there are few unattended chairs and people  must stand or sit way in the back.

This was my first time at the event and I must have heard people talking about ”how the chair process works” 25 times. One evening, a group of people in front of  us were discussing with some indignation a couple other festivals they had been to in which people ”just did not understand how to use the chairs.” They talked of a number of conflicts over empty chairs and were attributing these problems to ”the kind of people who attend that (other) festival.”   They had somehow elevated a particular cultural value taking place at Strawberry into some sort of general proposition regarding what human beings should know about (empty) chairs at festivals.

Of course, how the Strawberry Festival chairs are used is a wonderful example of a cultural value that is passed down again and again year after year.  Unless one is subject to the processes of transmission – of hearing again and again how the process works – one would never know and confusions would reign.

At another festival, I know that I would not even sit in any other chair that was not my own.  I know that others might be confused at observing an empty chair for long period of time and figure that they might as well sit in it.    With the rules unclear,  the arrival of the proper owner might trigger all sorts of confusions.

One of the reasons that Strawberry is so beloved relates to the many rules and procedures that have evolved over the years. Participants have come to embrace and continually help propagate these.  That is what culture is all about.

Chairs at Strawberry Festival by Steve Forman

Chairs at Strawberry Festival by Steve Forman

Find out about the Strawberry Music Festival.

Text vs. commentary

I look around my office at shelves packed with non-fiction books. Other rooms are packed with files full of articles. Magazines are everywhere.

Management, leadership, personal growth, spirituality, training. Years and years of purchases. I’m keenly aware of the complicated motivations behind buying all these books. Part of it was learning. But a deeper incentive has always been that the knowledge in the book will somehow give me at least some kind of clarity or calm or …… something……..

I’ve had this growing realization, though, that this quest – which has left me with thousands of books and articles – has obscured a more powerful and useful idea.

I already have what I need.

Take just one class of books that might be classed under business/spirituality/personal growth. In some magazine I read about “attention management”, and I loved that. We are what we pay attention to.  So I bought a bunch of books that got at what were some pretty basic ideas.

I noticed a curious mentality as I reached for the book and was reading it. I was comforted and inspired by these ideas relating to targeting and managing my attention towards the priority matters at hand. I loved learning about what neuroscientists are learning about the inefficiencies of multi-tasking.

But here’s the rub. These thoughts of mine as I read the many refractions about “attention is good” are like candy. They feel good and generate an aspiration and some inspiration. But the real point of these books and articles relates to work and living in the world, and comes with changed practices and behaviors.

But what if I really want to apply the concept of paying attention within some part of my life?  For unless I already am at my standard of “paying attention,” something has to change.

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Black Swan

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book Black Swan, speaks about the “narrative fallacy” and the disease of dimension reduction.

The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without quickly weaving an explanation into them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link, an arrow of relationship, upon them. Narrativity comes from an ingrained biological need to reduce dimensionality.

I feel I am within these “reduced dimensionality” environments all the time. At it’s simplest level, it can start with someone saying to me, “Jim is wrong, we definitely don’t have the money to invest in that building.”

In this case, Jim’s ‘wrongness’ is usually – and ultimately – not so simple. Ditto on the fact that there are various interpretations about whether there is the “money to invest in the building.”

These tight beliefs we all carry are further explained by a related concept: The “confirmation bias.” Ideas are sticky: once we produce a theory, it becomes harder and harder to change our minds. One person “believes” we don’t have the money. Another person holds an opposite point of view.

Both individuals will have a natural tendency to look only for corroboration. The “confirmation bias” then reduces the quality of decision making, and ratchets up the potential for conflict.

To counter this problem, the philosopher Karl Popper introduced the mechanisms of “conjectures and refutations”.

With any bold conjecture – in this case the belief in affordability – I would immediately start looking for the observation(s) that might prove me wrong. This is the alternative to our seemingly hard-wired search for confirmation.

This takes training as it seems counter to our nature. To have a belief, and be genuinely interested in refuting it?

Felt senses: What are they?

As I move through midlife, and hit age 50, I’m noticing the frequency with which I see and hear references to the concept of just “being”, of learning to live in the present moment, of “presence.” A lot of people, including me and my friends, are thinking about time, its scarcity and oppressiveness. This bombardment of activity that is urban life is a perpetual maze or chessboard. I’m always thinking, always lining up the long sequence of moves to get through the day…the week. I’m of my mind and in it, always.

The concept of presence and “being in the moment” is comforting, but what’s the actual experience of it? What kind of mentality would I have while I am in actually in the present? (and not obsessed with the future or reminiscing of the past).

Last night I was reading a most beautiful book, Gilead by Marilyn Robinson, and on page 7:

Well, see and see but do not perceive, hear and hear but do not understand, as the Lord says. I can’t claim to understand that saying, as many times as I’ve heard it, and even preached on it. It simply states a deeply mysterious fact. You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it.

I realize that I’ve carried a deep belief about the importance of being in the present since college classes on Taoism and Zen. What’s newer is my sense of a huge distinction between all those intellectual ideas, concepts, commentary, philosophies and deeper “felt senses.” What is the practice of being in the present? What does it feel like? How do I do it vs. talk and read about it?

Now, “being in the present” is a more abstract experience than, say, being generous. But the same dynamic plays itself out. I might believe in the value of generosity but what does it feel like? What’s the practice of it?

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Presence precedes meaning

I remember going to a concert of Sophie’s Concert Orchestra at Garfeild High School. It featured members of the Seattle Symphony.

I was thinking about “phenomenology”. It’s a big collection of ideas; the details are unimportant here. However – and this is the crux – the phenomenologist is a “witness to – and not a critic of – experiences.”

Furthermore, “What appears matters first…… before one asks what it might mean.” (Robert Romanyshyn)

What a cool idea!!! What is the experience I’m having? What are the perceptions themselves, and the felt senses that arise?

At that concert I was practicing simply observing and staying with the direct sensory experience in front of me, and not disappearing into all sorts of internal opinions and evaluations.

At one point, 11 members of the Seattle Symphony performed a chamber piece by a 20th century composer named Golijov. So I listened. At first my eyes were open, and the experience immediately included the physical appearance and movements of the performers, the audience, and the various spacial characteristics of the room.

I shut my eyes and kept my attention as much as possible on the aural flow.

A number of sensations arose. First were senses of beauty and non-beauty, which were quickly connected to liking and not liking. I watched these sensations. Were they linguistic? Was I suddenly thinking the words “Oh, that is really nice.” Or were the senses more emotional? They were both…..

I tried to bring myself back, though, to the pure sound.

Sounds became textures, and textures became instruments. I couldn’t help it. I found myself noticing the tonal differences between a violin, a clarinet, a trumpet. Suddenly it wasn’t a composition I was listening to, but instruments and the relations between instruments.

Again, I brought myself back to the pure sound.

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