Meditation on the Make

By Ed Staskus

When did the ancient practice of meditation become the hot topic tool in the toolbox of stress reduction and weight loss, a push-up for the brain, and the credit card of getting ahead in the world?

When did it morph from keeping the mind fixed on the self in order to unite with the divine to a way of improving scores in schools, as was recently reported by the journal Health Psychology?

When did meditation veer from a practice meant to quiet the mind of the world’s noise in order to attain enlightenment to a means of mitigating the common cold, so demonstrated in a study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison?

It probably happened the minute Vivekenanda began his speech “Sisters and brothers of America…” on the main stage of the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. A key figure in bringing yoga to America, and the man who helped catapult Hinduism to the status of a major world religion, Vivekenanda assumed Americans were intensely religious.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Even though more than 80% of Americans, even today, describe themselves as being religious or very religious, spiritual or very spiritual, the American soul is not found in any church. It is found in the American workplace because the American character is bound up with materiality and wealth.

Alexis de Tocqueville had it right when he wrote in Democracy in America that Americans were more practical than theoretical.

“As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

The last of America’s three Great Awakenings, religious revivals characterized by sharp increases of interest in religion, was over by the time Vivekenanda arrived in the United States. There was no fourth awakening after he returned to India in 1899, nor have there been any more to the present day.

Vivekenanda was considered an expert in meditation, what is called a dhyana-siddha. Introducing meditation to the West he defined it as a bridge connecting the soul to God.

“When the mind has been trained to remain fixed on a certain internal or external location, there comes to it the power of flowing in an unbroken current, as it were, towards that point.”

Both of his approaches to meditation, whether the practical approach through yoga or the philosophic approach through Vedanta, had the same objective, which was illumination through the realization of what he called the Supreme, more commonly known as God.

One hundred years later God has been marginalized, if not swept into the dustbin of history, by the emerging culture of the United States and meditation has been re-defined as mindfulness meditation. The difference is that in the 21st century, unlike all other centuries, no one has to sit quietly in lotus position for hours.

All they have to do is train the brain to be mindful and mindfulness then becomes a state of mind.

In the past mindfulness was known as awareness. Today it’s called focus, as in sharpening your focus. It used to be if you were paying attention to what you were doing you were being mindful. Now you need to meditate in order to learn how to be engrossed in what’s going on.

Or, in modern parlance, it teaches you to live fully in the moment.

A new set of meditation benefits have been formulated, implicitly guaranteed to make everyone happier and healthier. The benefits include: better memory; performing at a high level; losing weight; lowering stress; boosting immunity; improving decision-making; and coping with anxiety and depression, among others.

Some studies claim it speeds recovery from heart disease and psoriasis.

Vivekenanda would probably be astonished at how widely meditation has spread in the past one hundred and twenty years since his groundbreaking appearance in Chicago. It is no longer just the pursuit of quiet yogis seeking a spiritual breakthrough.

Dan Harris, ABC newsman and co-anchor of Nightline, who after self-medicating with cocaine and Ecstasy and crash landing on Good Morning America, turned to meditation as an alternative.

“When I say meditation, I’m talking about mindfulness meditation. It’s completely secular,” he explained.

“It’s like doing neurosurgery on yourself,” he added.

The Marine Corps has begun teaching its troops how to be even tougher on the battlefield by teaching them mindfulness meditation. The military’s pilot program began at Camp Pendleton in 2013 and is being duplicated at other bases.

“It’s like doing pushups for the brain,” said one enthusiastic general.

“Meditation used to have this reputation as a hippie thing for people who speak in a particularly soft tone of voice,” said Jay Michaelson, author of Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment.

“But, samurai practiced meditation to become more effective killers,” he pointed out.

On Wall Street stock market traders and bond managers have taken up the mantle. Hedge-fund manager David Ford credits his newfound serenity and recently bulging wallet to the twenty minutes he spends every morning meditating.

“I react to volatile markets much more calmly now,” he said. “I have more patience.”

Another hedge-fund manager, Paul Dalio of Bridewater Associates, who is worth $14 billion according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index, claims meditation has been the biggest factor in his success.

Even congressmen have gotten on the meditation bandwagon.

Congressional job approval in December 2014 stood at 15%, close to that year’s record-low of 14%, according to the Gallup Poll. The 86% disapproval rate in 2014 was the worst ever measured in more than 30 years of tracking the rating. And that was a century after Mark Twain said, “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But, I repeat myself.”

Henry Kissinger, former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, once pointed out that 90% of politicians give the other 10% a bad name. He did not say who the 10% were.

Nevertheless, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan recently published A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit. In it he touted the perks of mindfulness, pointing out improved school test scores and workplace job output.

As far and near as meditation has spread, it’s newfound fame is not limited to U. S. Marines and the wolves of Wall Street. Even Mob assassins, at least the noir crime novel kind, are taking advantage of mindfulness meditation, although not in the sense of overcoming delusion in pursuit of enlightenment, but more in the sense of overcoming delusion to make sure their aim is true.

In Walter Mosley’s The Long Fall the implacable hit man aptly known as Hush has a reputation of always getting his man, to the point that when you know he’s after you the only thing left for you to do is get your affairs in order. He practices zazen, a form of meditation at the heart of Zen, in order to stay at the top of his game.

Commanding a five-figure fee the assassin meditates to make a killing.

The rub about meditation is that there are moral principles embedded in it. Some teachers are concerned that those moral principles are being ignored.

“You can train people with meditation to be sharpshooters,” said Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center in Santé Fe, New Mexico. “Are they trying to get smarter so they can exploit more people?”

Meditation is elastic in the sense that it has been practiced for millennia and there are many forms of it. The classic sense of it is the Buddhist notion that everything is impermanent and all anyone has is the here and now.

The modern brain hacking or on the make sense of it is that it imparts an edge to the practitioner. As Paul Dalio, the $14 billion dollar man, explained in a February 2014 panel discussion on meditation: “It makes me feel like a ninja in a fight.”

Vivekenanda may have thought he knew what he was doing in 1893, but he might have been better served reading Tocqueville first, getting ready for the U. S. Marines and Paul Dalio’s of the New World.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

It Takes 2 to Tango

By Ed Staskus

   “I’ve always been obsessed by weddings,” said Marsha Weeks. “I used to buy wedding magazines when I was 7-years-old and dream about planning a wedding.” We have to dream before our dreams come true.

   Most kids don’t grow up to be the firemen and rock stars, much less the heroes and explorers they dreamt about. It’s a long shot when it comes to becoming a hero, or even a wedding planner. Most children, because of ups and downs, twists and turns, turn out becoming and doing something else, mechanics, working in stores, teachers, and doctors.  

   Marsha Weeks grew up in Fredericton, a small community in Queens County on Prince Edward Island. The province is Canada’s most bantam, made up of only three counties. It is the only province with a capital that isn’t a metropolis. Most islanders live in the country and small towns.

   After graduating from high school, she moved west, almost three thousand miles west, enrolling at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. She stayed for ten years. “I did hospitality management and managed restaurants,” she said. When she moved back to PEI she worked in hotels in Charlottetown, the capital, then went into sales and marketing at the Stanley Bridge Resort, not far from where she grew up.

   “I now work for the Children’s Wish Foundation,” she said. She is a wish coordinator. “We grant wishes to children from the ages of 3 to 17 who have been diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses.” Founded in 1983, the charitable organization has chapters in every province and territory of Canada. It has granted more than 25,000 wishes. The most popular ones include travel and meeting celebrities.

   Super-heroes are splashed across the pages of comic books and IMAX screens, battling super-villains and saving the world. Real heroes are usually real people helping another real person. She helps kids hitch their wagons to a shooting star.

   She also helps grown-ups get hitched to their sweethearts. Since returning to Prince Edward Island, she has become a licensed marriage commissioner and officiant. Dreaming about weddings and watching re-runs of “Say Yes to the Dress” has finally paid off.  

   “The provincial government started licensing it in 2006, because there was a demand for same-sex marriages,” said Marsha. “There was the church, too, which doesn’t allow marriages outside of the church. A priest wouldn’t be allowed to marry somebody on the beach.”

   When 90 people flew to the island last summer for the wedding of Matthew MacDonald and Katie Shaver, they landed at a wedding officiated by Marsha Weeks and staged on a red cliff overlooking the Northumberland Straight. “It was important to us to showcase the island and have a real east coast feel,” said Katie.  

   “We were blessed with perfect weather, a great late summer PEI day!” 

   Although you have to take the birds and bees into consideration, as well as inclement weather and the buffet table surviving the wind, nothing beats tying the knot outdoors. Unless you mistake the lay of the land and your car gets waylaid. “Someone from Ontario coming to a wedding here decided to drive over the dunes on to the beach,” said Marsha. “They got stuck in the sand and had to be towed out.”

   In any event, the flowers are already there – pink and purple lupins line the fields, roads, and ditches in June and July – and your photos will look great.

   Almost 900 marriage certificates were issued in the province in 2018, according to PEI Vital Statistics, nearly 400 of them going to couples with a relationship to the island, but not necessarily living there. The Marriage Act was simplified in 2016, allowing people off-island to wed with passports alone, doing away with the need for birth certificates. There are almost one hundred marriage commissioners licensed to conduct a legal marriage ceremony. Marsha Weeks is one of the busiest of them.

   One summer day last year she officiated five weddings on one Saturday.

   “I started at Cavendish, a destination wedding, went to Fox Meadows Golf Course, a farmer’s field in Brookfield, into the woods at Clinton Hills, and ended up on a back road on the Trout River, at a private residence.” 

   For once, she hired somebody to drive her. “I didn’t want to risk being late, and I wanted to be able to give them as much attention as I could,’ she said. “I didn’t want to just jump out in time for their ‘I do’s’”

   It isn’t only traditional wedding season bells, either.

   “I officiated a large wedding in western PEI,” she said. “The bride and groom chose to incorporate their children with a sand ceremony to symbolize the blending of their two families into one and presented the children with necklaces as their own special gifts. It was a reflection on how important a big happy family meant to the couple.”

    Most people, as recently as ten years ago, used to get married in a church. Nowadays most people get married in a civil ceremony. “I think it’s going to continue that way,” said fellow commissioner Marlo Dodge. “You can get married wherever you want, whenever you want. You can tailor the ceremony to the way you want.”

   So long as you include the legal parts, you can write your own ceremony. 

   Not many people, however, write their own music. There are scores of wedding ceremony songs, from the traditional to the modern. “All You Need Is Love” by the ever-popular Beatles is still popular, as are Josh Groban’s “The Prayer” and “Fairytale” by Enya. “The Wedding March” by Felix Mendelssohn has stayed a Top 10 on the soul music charts since it was first played in 1858 as a recessional for a royal wedding.

   Marsha started making soul music on her own when she moved back to Prince Edward Island. She had gotten the hang of the pump organ as a tot sitting at her grandmother’s feet. “One of the fondest memories I have growing up is of her playing hymns. She loved playing for herself. I’m like that. I get something out of it on the inside.” She started taking fiddle lessons six years ago from Gary Chipman.

   “Someone recommended him,” she said.

   She couldn’t have tied the bowstring knot with anybody better. Gary Chipman learned to play the fiddle when he was 5 years old. His father, a well-known Charlottetown-area fiddler, taught him his first tunes. By the 1960s he was being featured at local dance halls. He toured with Stompin’ Don Connors and is well known for his down east Don Messer style of fiddling.

   “The Cape Breton style is rhythmic, with Scottish cuts,” said Marsha. “The down east style is melodic, it flows, it’s a lot faster.” If Don Messer played with little ornamentation and great assurance, Gary Chipman plays with expressiveness and great assurance.

   “I was taking lessons from him, but I had not heard him play,” said Marsha. She heard him one afternoon at Remembrance Day. “I couldn’t see the stage, but I could hear a person playing. That is amazing, I thought. Who is playing that fiddle?”

   It was her music teacher. She had only ever heard him play scales. She didn’t know he had played on the folk musical TV variety show “Don Messer’s Jubilee” when he was still a youngster. “My chest swelled so much I thought it would burst, it was so exciting,” said Gary. The half-hour show at the time was second in viewership only to “Hockey Night in Canada.”

   “These are the good old days, today,” said Gary. “I’m going to keep playing until I can’t play anymore.” What Louis Armstrong said is, “Musicians don’t retire. They only stop when there’s no more music in them.”

   “The Don Messer show was near and dear to a lot of people in Atlantic Canada,” said Marsha. ”When they cancelled it, there was a huge protest. Not riots, but a huge uproar.”

   Since brainstorming is the marriage of ideas, Marsha put on her thinking cap. She went to the beach on the national seashore. She went for a walk by herself. She went home and took a hot shower. It’s where some people do their best thinking. She let her thoughts take center stage. 

   “I’ve always had an element of promotions and event planning in my career. Gary’s natural ability to play music, my entrepreneurial spirit, it was a kind of natural fusion, and I decided I wanted to organize a show.”

   They put together a performance, and then did another one, and ”it kind of blossomed after that.” They spent two seasons doing shows at Avonlea Village and two seasons after that at Stanley Bridge.

   Avonlea Village is in Cavendish, the small town that Lucy Maud Montgomery called Avonlea in “Anne of Green Gables.” It is a re-creation of the 19th century village, merging purpose-built with heritage buildings. The Women’s Institute in Stanley Bridge is 4 miles up the main drag on Route 6. There are ceilidhs at the community hall six days a week in the summer. 

   “The Stanley Bridge hall has such a soul,” said Marsha.

   Two years ago Gary Chipman spent summer nights there playing with Keelin Wedge, a hairpin turns wizard on the fiddle, and Kevin Chaisson. Last year he played Mondays with the Chaisson Family Trio and Wednesdays with the Arsenault Trio. Jordan Chowden, a world-class step-dancer, made the stage boards go percussive. The Chaisson’s from Bear River have deep roots in PEI’s music scene They are part of the spearhead keeping traditional fiddling alive and well on the island.

   Marsha hosted the shows, joining in when the opportunity arose, although keeping up with the Arsenault’s was no mean feat.

    “Their liveliness is amazing,” she said. “If we are playing ‘St Anne’s Reel,’ they definitely add more notes to it. They put their own spin on everything. It’s their Acadian style and it’s fast.” 

   Before the shows Marsha does all of the social media, organizes the schedule, takes notes during rehearsals, and types up the play list in capital letters. She makes sure the doors of the hall are open, the lights are on, and the soundboard is right on.  “I’m always so proud to hand them their play list, although by the end of the night they might have done only a few songs on the page,” she said. “It’s just the way it is. Most of the time it works.”

   During the shows Marsha is the emcee and stage manager. “Everybody likes the sound of their instruments through the monitors a certain way. They’ve got to have water. Gary has to have his guitar on his right side, or else he gets all tangled up.”

   She is also the timekeeper. “It seems like I’m the boss of it, but that’s only because they never think to look at the clock. They would keep going all night if they could. Gary is the biggest offender. I don’t necessarily want the music to stop, either, but I’m the one who knows the show has to end at 9:30.”

   Marsha’s own fiddle has become an extension of her. “I understand now what I was missing,” she said. “It’s a part of me, a part of who I am. It’s a part of what makes myself me. You don’t have to be the best. You just have to feel it.”

   It’s her own soul music.

   “I make soul music,” explained Louis Kevin Celestin, a Montreal DJ and partner in the hip hop duo the Celestics. “I don’t think of it as a genre. It’s more of a feeling.” 

   “Don Messer was my idol when I was a kid,” said Gary Chipman. “I thought his band was the best kind in the world.  I had a dream of doing my own tribute show.”

   The dream came true in 2015 when he did a tribute show at Winsloe United Church, on the road between Oyster Bed Bridge and Charlottetown. Gary’s daughter was in the band and the Charlotte Twirlers, a square dance group, hoofed it up.

   Two years later Marsha and Gary took “A PEI Salute to the Music of Don Messer and His Islanders” farther down the road. They took the toe-tapping jigs and reels to National Fiddling Day in Charlottetown and the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside. They took the show to Harvey, New Brunswick, Don Messer’s hometown.

   “It’s of real sentimental importance to me, having tried to emulate the sounds of Don Messer my entire fiddling career,” said Gary. 

   “The older the fiddle, the sweeter the sound,” is what they say.

    In September 2017 they took the show to Walter’s Dinner Theatre in Bright, Ontario. “I didn’t even know where Bright was, but we found it,” said Gary. When they got there, they sold out all the nine performances they did during their week’s run at the show hall and watering hole.

   “Gary plays old tunes in new ways,” said Marsha. “He’s the real deal. He puts his own twist on things.” 

   Sometimes Marsha puts her own twist on weddings. Sometimes stepping up to the altar and step dancing happen all on the same day. Sometimes somebody’s first dance is in the center aisle at the Stanley Bridge community hall, to the soul music of three or four island fiddlers getting the action going.

   “There were the two moms, the couple, their son, and me,” said Marsha. “It was an intimate wedding.” The couple from Alberta had come especially to PEI the middle of last summer to get married. 

   “I try to personalize it. I want them to have an amazing experience when they’re making their forever promises to each other.” There’s a diverse high kind of happiness in commitment. The first event many couples plan together is their wedding. There’s nothing unfun about it, either.

   “Marsha brought a genuine joyful vibe that is priceless. We felt she was truly happy for us. We are so glad we chose her to officiate our ceremony. That joy is something one can’t pay for.“

   Even though the sunny season is generally mild thanks to the warm water out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, summer is short, and winter is long on Prince Edward Island. When it starts to snow it lasts until April. Harbors can be frozen solid into May. 

   “I’m a bit of an old soul,” she said. “I work full-time, but in the winter, I slow down and recharge. I write, do projects, and plan for the spring. I practice my fiddle. I practice every day.” Winter is when wishes are made and organized and saved up.

   “If I could just do weddings and fiddles all the time, it would be my perfect life,” said Marsha Weeks.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”