What Am I Meant to Learn from This?: The Purpose of Pain and Suffering

The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi,

It is natural for us to ask why pain and suffering are necessary. Our answer to this question shapes our perspective on life. That perspective has the power to shape both our responses and how we experience our life situations.

Ignorance is (a Kind of) Bliss

Beautiful Infant

Adult life is largely consumed with attempts to return to a state of childlike wonder and awe. In such a state, even painful experiences are dramatically different for the simple fact that children are fully present in their experience while the overwhelming majority of adults are not. Whereas children are immersed in the sensations of their experience, adults are overcome by mental activity.

For example, when a child gets a bruise or scrape, he or she experiences the physical sensations of pain. When the pain subsides, the experience is over and the child processes the accompanying emotions. An adult in the same situation is subject instead to the activation of the mind as it constructs a story about who is to blame for the accident that caused the injury, how this injury is evidence of the cruelty of life, what this injury might mean for the future if the wound becomes infected, how God is punishing him or her for some reason, or some other narrative that removes us from the sensations of the experience itself.

Naturally, when we find ourselves longing for return to a state we once embodied, it is easy to become disillusioned. We may ask the purpose of a life spent losing and trying to regain our initial state of presence. Some spiritual traditions assert that the very point of the human experience is to lose and then regain that state.

So we have come here to forget the joy and wonder we felt as infants, and then work to return to that state? The irony of this realization can drive a person to despair. The notion that we would live through the challenges and trials of life only to return to the start is enough to leave us questioning the point of these painful experiences at all. So what are we to make of this apparently cruel irony?

The Purpose is Conscious Awareness

Church Candles

In Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, noted Jungian analyst and author Robert A. Johnson offers a beautiful perspective on the purpose of suffering.

As Johnson explains, the suffering is necessary since the quality of our state of being is radically different before and after experiencing the struggle. Namely, upon returning to a state of joy and playfulness following the resolution of a struggle, we are conscious of our bliss. Unlike an infant, fully present in the experience of this moment, but unaware that he or she is present, upon returning to this state of bliss, we feel the joy and freedom of our presence, but this time accompanied by the awareness that we are experiencing this state. The difference between these two states of being may be subtle, but it is profound.

One way we may think about this is by using the example of falling ill with a non-urgent illness like a mild fever or a sore throat. Certainly we all have experienced some form of illness that knocks us out for a few days or even weeks. Upon recovering, have you ever been aware not only that you are feeling better physically, but that you are feeling happy or grateful that you are no longer feeling sick? In addition to having regained full health, now you are also consciously aware of your state of wellness as a contrast to the experience of feeling temporarily unwell.

Yin and Yang: The Contrasts Define One Another

Contrast in life, Johnson points out, provides another element of meaning to our moments of pain and suffering. “Every single virtue in this world,” he explains, “is made valid by its opposite. Light would mean nothing without dark, masculine without feminine, care without abandon. Truths always come in pairs and one has to endure this to accord with reality. To suffer means to allow; and in this sense one suffers the mystery of duality. Whenever you do this [his emphasis], something else immediately does that. Such is reality.”

In other words, we can’t know joy as fully until we have known pain. This explanation alone, however, can lead us yet again to the conclusion that life’s pain is meaningless. If we are to suffer so that we may experience a conscious joy, but joy is only ever one half of a set of countervailing forces, does this mean that we cannot find lasting joy?

Contradiction vs. Paradox

For Johnson the ultimate answer lies in the contrast between contradiction and paradox.  Whereas contradiction places experiences in opposition to one another, paradox unifies them to create a third experience that is a composite of the two.

It is true that all natural conditions exist in pairs, each as the compliment and counterbalance to the other. Indeed, joy always will be a compliment to despair on a perfectly balanced continuum. On this continuum, the two poles represent apparently contradictory experiences of life.

Yet the conscious joy and fulfillment toward which we strive do not reside on the spectrum where the two are in constant tension. It resides as a perspective above that spectrum. In contrast to the apparent meaningless contradictions of life experiences, Johnson reminds us that all religious experience, all deeply significant events in our life bear the imprint of paradox.

“The word religion [his emphasis], ” he explains ,” stems from the Latin roots re, meaning again, and  ligare, meaning to bind, bond, or bridge… Religion means, then, to bind together again. It can never be affixed to one of a pair of opposites… There can only be a religious insight that bridges or heals. This is what restores and reconciles the opposites that have been torturing each of us. The religious faculty is the art of taking the opposites and binding them back together again, surmounting the split that has been causing so much suffering. It helps us move from the contradiction-that painful condition where things oppose each other-to the realm of paradox, where we are able to entertain simultaneously two contradictory notions and give them equal dignity. Then, and only then, is there the possibility of grace, the spiritual experience of contradictions brought into a coherent whole-giving us a unity greater than either one of them.”

Reside in the Paradox to Bind the Opposites

To attain the joy and fulfillment we have come here to know consciously, we must embody certain attributes. For one, we must demonstrate sufficient courage to sit with the discomfort that arises from the paradoxes of human existence. When the mind generates the thoughts that trigger the biochemical cascade that we experience as emotions, when the feelings of the ego generate drives and impulses, we must exercise our conscious will to refrain from action. We must be the conscious observer of the mind as it masquerades as our true identity, manipulating us to act as if our survival depended upon it. We must remain silent, still, and present, remembering that we are not the ego that compels us to react. We must recognize that we are the consciousness having the experience. Then we are empowered to respond from our conscious awareness rather than the conditioned patterns of the mind.

The courage to reside in the tension of the balancing point between apparent opposites gives us patience. With patience we gain perspective. With perspective, we rise above the seeming contradictions to view the dynamic tension of them as life sustaining energy. Consider the analogy of a rope. When you pull the two ends in opposite directions, you generate the tension that gives purpose and energy to the rope. Too much tension can snap it, but too little leaves it without purpose.

Johnson uses a pervasive image in American culture to explain the dynamic at play here: “This ideal of balance is illustrated to us every day of our American lives but rarely noticed. Observe a U.S. dollar bill, which is often in our hands. There is a pyramid with an eye at the apex. The bottom of the triangle represents the duality of our perception. On the [spectrum of life experiences], we see… pairs of opposites: right and wrong, good and evil, light and dark. As long as we concern ourselves with this scale the best we can hope for is an endless contradiction. But if our consciousness is sufficient, we can synthesize these warring elements and come to the all-knowing eye at the central point. On the dollar bill, the eye is raised above the opposites to indicate its superior position… The singleness of the eye, the center of the seesaw, is the place of enlightenment.”

We all are seeking the balance point between the seeming opposing energies at either end of the spectrum. That balance gives us the perspective to rise above the spectrum, and view the experiences of life from a divine vantage point. When we view (experience) life from that perch, we behold our life from a perspective that transcends the seesaw polarities of love and hate, good and bad, joy and despair, light and dark. Finally, then, we can have the experiences, rather than those experiences being so completely consuming that they have us.

Once we are free truly to have those experiences, we can learn from them. We can endure the alchemical process of the painful experience blending with the wisdom of perspective to yield a sort of spiritual gold. Then we see that the experience of the pain is always only temporary, while the growth it stimulates and the joy of wisdom that resides within us as a result, is forever.

No matter how painful your experience may be, no matter how meaningless it may seem, no matter how difficult the struggle feels, please know that it has a deeper purpose than you can know during the moment of suffering. Be observant. Be open. In time, or at the appropriate time, the meaning of your struggles will become apparent. At that point, the struggle will pale in comparison to the wisdom derived from it.

At your service.







What Is True Life Freedom?

On Top of the World

Ask ten different people and you are likely to get ten unique descriptions of freedom. Are some more accurate than others? I believe they are all equally valid. Our definition depends upon the type of freedom to which we are referring.

Your Inner Wealth Creates Your Material Wealth

True wealth must include spiritual fulfillment. Without gratitude and service, material success will lose its meaning. The temporary elation of receiving money or gaining power will fade as quickly it came. For us to be truly wealthy, we must live with purpose. We can still enjoy the luxuries that wealth can buy. Our material wealth however, can bring only limited joy unless it is received in the service of others.

The Elements of True Life Freedom

True life freedom comes in two primary and intimately related forms; time and finances (resources). Freedom of time consists of having the option to choose which activities and endeavors receive our energy and attention. Freedom of finances consists of possessing the means to direct resources as we see fit.

Either one alone is always only a subset of true wealth, true life freedom. Understanding the distinction and relationship between freedom of time and freedom of money is important.

The Limitations of Time Without Money

Watch Face

I know many people with varying degrees of time freedom. As a young man, I myself had enormous amounts of time freedom. I didn’t realize at that point in my life how much time I had, but how a person walks around with his head nearly constantly up his own ass is a story for another day. Nonetheless, I had plenty of time, but very little money.

Since I had the support of a loving family I didn’t need a great deal of money in order to spend my time how I wished. My problem was that I didn’t understand that the time freedom I had is a commodity. I wasted it, and my supply dwindled. However, when used wisely, it can generate more time freedom. So in squandering my time, I later encountered a shortage of it as well that other element of true life freedom; money.

The Limitations of Money Without TimeGold Bars

Just as challenging as having time but no money, I know many people with substantial material wealth, but little time with which to live fully. Regardless of the size of their paycheck, they are still trading their time for money. In fact, the larger the income, the more time they are likely to be spending doing the work that pays them so handsomely. Hopefully, they love the job. But even in the event that they do love the work, when they step away from that job, the income tends to stop flowing.

What is far too rare is to possess both time freedom and financial freedom simultaneously. So for me, true freedom is having not only considerable financial wealth, but the time to utilize and enjoy that wealth as well.

Passive Income Is True Life Freedom

To combine both elements into true life freedom, our income streams need to be residual. Of course we must do the appropriate work to build the conduit through which this stream will flow. But once we do, if we are positioned in the right field, in comparison with the initial time investment required to build the income, or in comparison with traditional work models where we trade our time for money, relatively little effort is required to maintain the stream. It becomes passive. Additionally, the accumulated wealth, itself generates an income stream. Thus our time is leveraged so that our income sustains or even grows regardless of the amount of time we put into our work.

Finding Purpose Beyond Your Own Wealth

There is one final attribute that we must include in order to build not only massive streams of residual income, but to do it in a way that is personally meaningful. In actuality, it is the most important aspect of building a life of true freedom. That attribute is purpose.

Stories abound of people who have built massive wealth for themselves and combined it with time freedom only to feel disillusioned when they discover that having a lot of money and stuff and time hasn’t fulfilled them or set them free.

The foolish ones continue to seek happiness or fulfillment in the pursuit of more stuff. They convince themselves, regardless of how much they already have, that the next acquisition will bring the satisfaction they are seeking. Or perhaps they never even pay attention to the feelings of dissatisfaction long enough to feel compelled to search for true fulfillment.

However, the wise ones will reflect on the emptiness they feel despite having built wealth and leveraged their time. The realization they will reach is that true life freedom only can come by combining the personal success of wealth and time with the fulfillment of acting in service to something greater than themselves.

This is true freedom. This is true wealth.

How May I Help You?

My purpose, in part, comes from helping others find true life freedom. Please let me know how I can help you to do so.

At your service.


The Joy Of Fulfilling Work

In the late winter of 2002, after having dropped out of college for the second time, I embarked upon a reckless and ill-conceived journey concocted by a mainlining heroin addict/crackhead/con-man/hustler. Of course at the time, I referred to him simply as my roommate and best friend. I didn’t yet know, or more accurately, hadn’t permitted myself to see the glaring flaws in his character, despite the flashing lights and blaring warning sirens all about me. At the risk of stating the painfully obvious truth, I wasn’t the finest judge of character.

My delusional and manic journey to the fringes of reason was not an experience I would choose to repeat. And while I recognize now that there are far more effective and healthy ways to glean the same truths, ways that do not hurt loved ones and leave a trail of damage and chaos, it would be foolish to dismiss this significant period of my life as offering no valuable lessons.

One lesson, quite simply, was that I recognized what I was willing to sacrifice to make my dreams reality. Yet when I realized what was actually required, it was not nearly what I had believed. There was no necessity for dramatic abandonment of family and loved ones. There was no requirement that I make some theatrical departure from my life to live as some hermit, secluded from the modern world.

When I understood what achieving my dreams was not, I also realized what it was. As much as anything else, it was just work. Plenty of it. Hard at times. Not always fun or glamorous. Sometimes demanding of my time and energy at the temporary expense of other experiences or relationships. Still, I saw that work, especially when meaningful, is not so bad after all. In fact, it can be extremely rewarding, and usually is when genuinely motivated and embraced.

In seeing this truth, I became almost a passive witness of my surrender to the reality that there was work that needed to be done, and I was the one who needed to do it if I wanted to reap the rewards, whatever form they may assume. Quite surprisingly to me, I became a person devoted to doing “my work”. Suddenly work seemed so simple and pleasurable.

Previously I had believed that I could will events and circumstances into this reality. I was correct, but I was missing an essential element of the process. The part I was missing was the fundamental truth that all actions are by-products of will. My assumption had been that thought alone was enough to make dreams manifest in this reality.

Finally I realized that desire and thought are essential, and do in fact have a life of their own. But without action as the bridge across which my will ushered my internal motivations into physical reality, these internal drives, these visions and desires only ever would remain dreams. Unfulfilled, unfulfilling, fantasies, forever trapped in the formless realm as clouds of ether. High vibration energy fields desperately trying to access the physical world, seeking a willing vessel to birth them into this world of form.

When I dropped my resistance to the solitude of individual practice and study, when I faced my fear of failure despite genuine effort, when I embraced the discomfort of challenge, and when I acted from an authentic space where doing is its own reward, I began not only to accept the work, but to derive deep joy and fulfillment from it. At that point, progress became a by-product of the joyful act of engaging in fulfilling work.

For me, the specific medium in which I learned this essential lesson, was music. However, regardless of your field(s) of endeavor, the principles are the same. We all encounter obstacles. We need them. There is no growth without resistance. Accept it. Embrace it.

You may have fear or resistance to doing what you need to do in order to manifest some desirable outcome in your life. I know for myself, every time I have embraced the work and the lessons it promises, I have been rewarded with fulfillment beyond what I could imagine prior to rolling up my sleeves and immersing myself in the work. I don’t believe myself to be unique in this regard. In all likelihood, you have experienced this in one way or another already. I am merely here to remind you of what you already know.

Is it time for you to take on the next challenge in your life? Is there one that has been calling to you for some time now? What is it?

I encourage you to take the first step. Then the next one. And the next.

Forget the questions and doubts. Just do. Make adjustments when necessary, but try to keep moving. Gain momentum. If you lose it, regain it by returning to action.

Do so, and with patience, watch how your actions multiply the changes in your life over time.


Adversity-What Do You Make It Mean?

Painful experiences are some of our greatest teachers. It can be difficult, however, to see through the pain to the wisdom awaiting us on the other side. How we interpret our experiences depends upon how we contextualize them. This is done through the questions we ask ourselves, the thoughts we think (consciously or unconsciously), and how we respond to the situation in general. All pain offers lessons. Whether the healing allows the learning or vice versa, the two are inextricably linked. Following is one of the more challenging experiences of my life, and therefore one of my greatest teachers.

Some Background

During my senior year of high school I became an avid music fan. This translated to an interest in learning the bass guitar. My desire to learn the bass was unique from earlier childhood musical experiences since it was completely intrinsically motivated. This time no adults were placing me in piano lessons. There was no school band program in which all of my friends were involved. No one was encouraging, or even suggesting that I explore this developing interest. It was all mine. So the summer before I left home for my first semester of college, I began studying bass guitar.

I studied bass on and off through my first two years of college. One month prior to completion of my sophomore year, in the midst of a major depressive episode, I left school. Upon recovering, I discovered, among other things, that I wanted to pursue music professionally. Not only did I have some catching up to do, I also realized that I wanted to study percussion as my primary instrument rather than bass.

Fast forward five years and several teachers, and I decided that I needed to go back to school.

Getting Formal, Getting Serious, Getting Kicked in the Ass

Sheet Music

In March of 1999, I auditioned for admission into the vaunted Jazz Studies program at Rutgers University’s prestigious Mason Gross School of the Arts. The audition date that I selected was the next to last one for admission for the Fall ’99 semester. I selected this date strategically to give me more time to prepare, although I wasn’t certain I even would need the additional time.

This was due to the nagging feeling that I was still so far from being qualified to study in this program, that a few extra weeks or even months would not be enough to get me ready. And the fact that I was struggling through a second major depressive episode did not help matters.

I had spent the past three years studying with master percussionist Atilla T. Engin. My level of impatience with my progress left me anxious to audition despite Atilla’s opinion that I was not ready. We had focused the majority of our attention on hand percussion, and I was to audition on drum set for admission into a fiercely competitive program. Admission would mean studying with one of the finest drummers in the world, at that time either Ralph Peterson or Tommy Igoe.

No doubt I was already studying with one of the finest percussionists in the world. But we had not been preparing me specifically for formal study on the drums in a structured jazz program. Why we weren’t doing so, I see in hindsight, was Atilla’s response to my lack of commitment. I couldn’t see it at the time, but I hardly had devoted myself to my alleged chosen path. He was struggling simply to reach me so that I could establish a solid conceptual and technical foundation.

I had not made music enough of a priority in my life to have essential habits in place. My mindset, I see now, needed to be that all the other shit in my life (work, eating, sleeping) was just stuff that happened in the down time when I wasn’t working on something music related.

That may seem extreme, but despite the psychological and emotional obstacles in my way, I knew on a deep level that what I truly wanted was mastery. And as a master musician, my mentor was a person who understood both what was required, and the intrinsic rewards of simply doing the work (let alone achieving the desired outcome).

Here was a man who had left home at eighteen, living hand to mouth, often on the streets of Istanbul, or crashing with girlfriends, just to pursue his music dreams. He was self-made. He saw in me, no doubt, a young man with a deep love for music and percussion, but a comparable amount of baggage and excuses about my life.

The result was that we never delved into a consistent course of study. No progressive curriculum that systematically covered the fundamental aspects of musicianship; reading, listening, technique, coordination, genres/styles, time-feel, etc.

To be honest, despite his astonishing musicianship, I don’t think he possessed the character traits necessary to be a true guide. I don’t know that he had the capacity for self-awareness that is a necessary prerequisite to compassion and selflessness. Those are the traits essential to being a truly great teacher; a guide and true mentor.

None of that really matters though. One of the many lessons I’ve learned in my life is that regardless of external circumstances, if my internal state is aligned with my goals, if my thoughts and deeds are in integrity with the experiences I wish to manifest; it is only a matter of time before the external circumstances match.

Regardless of where the responsibility resides, I was not ready for that audition. Yet I knew that I had to do it anyway.

Looking back I realized I had followed a basic three step process.

Step One: Put your Head Down and Take the Hits

Running Back

My memory of that day, colored no doubt as it is by my internal state at the time, is that it was a cold, gray, late winter New Jersey Saturday. I awoke early enough to shower, eat breakfast and make the forty-five minute drive from my parents’ home in North Jersey down Rt. 287 to New Brunswick.

Arriving at the appropriate building, I encountered a scene that only reinforced my growing suspicion that I was not prepared for any of the challenges I would face that day. The place was swarming with high school seniors, all of whom appeared to be pedigreed musicians. Many of them strolled confidently about the space, conversing with theirs or other prospective students’ parents, or with other applicants, discussing all of the summer programs they had attended and how they had already been studying privately with the teacher who would be there applied instrumental instructor at Rutgers, making the audition essentially a formality.

I overheard discussions of which repertoire they had prepared for their auditions, at which other top music schools they had already or were going to audition, to which programs they’d already been admitted, why this was their safety school, how they had applied to Rutgers as an appeasement to their parents despite not really wanting to study there because they didn’t like the applied instrumental teacher they would have, how they’d only brought their cheaper instrument on their auditions because they didn’t feel safe flying from Chicago with their more expensive main instrument, etc.

And here I was. Twenty five years old, with no formal experience or training, praying I wouldn’t be asked to sight read or I’d be dead in the water. I didn’t bring my own cymbals unlike most of the other drummers. It was just as well because at that point I didn’t even own appropriate cymbals for jazz. I didn’t even own a stick bag. Instead I’d tucked one pair of sticks and a pair of brushes into the pocket of the pullover parka I was wearing over my one decent dress shirt and tie. I did not belong.

After a brief greeting to the prospective students from the head of the Music Department, it was off to music theory placement exams. Struggling through a two hour exam before even getting to the heart of the matter (the actual audition) did not help my confidence in the least. Being one of the last test takers to complete the exam diminished what little confidence I had to nearly none at all.

After the theory exam, I headed to the practice rooms to warm up before my audition. Walking down a hallway of practice rooms, overhearing other applicants warming up drained my confidence further. They were playing shit I didn’t know I even should have been learning. I slipped into a practice room, happy to be alone. I tried to warm up, but it felt useless.

“Why bother,” I thought to myself. “I’m out of my league. Maybe I should leave.”

But something would not allow that.

“What if they hear something in my playing that leads them to accept me into the program? What if I am more prepared than I believe,” I asked myself. “Regardless, I can’t come all this way not to audition. I can’t succumb to the fear.”

So upstairs I went to put my name on a list and wait outside the jazz audition room for my turn.

Subway ManWhen I entered the hallway where I was to wait, I encountered a crowd of perhaps forty people. All of the prospective jazz students on all instruments auditioned in the same room, one at a time, for a single panel of jazz faculty.

For three hours I sat in a hallway filled with pedigreed jazz students awaiting my turn to enter a room and play for a panel comprised of some of the best jazz musicians in the world. These kids seemed unfazed by the prospect of playing for the top professionals in a field that they wanted to enter. Apparently they were familiar with the audition process. The were relaxed. I was not. To them it was just another playing situation. I hadn’t had many, so the same was not true for me.

We sat together, many of these kids talking casually, joking. We listened for whatever sounds we could hear from each audition leaking through the door out into the hallway. Then the playing would cease. The door would open. A student would step out, shrugging, smiling, reflecting on their performance. Compliments or questions would be exchanged. A faculty member would poke his or her head out of the room, survey the number of auditioning students remaining, call the next one in.

I was the final one to audition.

Bruised Finger

I can’t recall which of the faculty members called me into the room, and I don’t remember all of the people present, but there was one person there whose presence I never will forget. That is Kenny Barron.

In 1962, Kenny Barron was just nineteen years old when, within one year of having moved to New York City, he began playing in Dizzy Gillespie’s band. That gig may have signaled his arrival at the highest levels of the international jazz scene, but it was only one in a very long list of accomplishments for a man recognized as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. In 2010 the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him the title and prize of Jazz Master. And here I was, about to sit down to play with him.

Despite the fact that he had been sitting in a room for the past three to four hours playing with and or listening to countless prospective students audition for the program of which he was the director, he was extremely gracious, friendly, and warm. Even after hearing me “play”. Perhaps that was due to the fact that he had announced his resignation from his teaching and administrative duties at Rutgers following the spring ’99 semester. Since this was one of the final audition dates of the year, maybe he was relieved that I was one of the last auditioning students he would have to hear. I truly believe, however, that it had more to do with the type of person that he is.

Regardless, I sat down at the kit, hands visibly trembling, got out my sticks and brushes, and prepared for the ego bruising I was about to receive in front of a living legend of the music and a panel of onlooking faculty. With a gentle voice and a kind smile, possibly recognizing that I was not a jazz trained musician, and definitely aware that I was scared shitless, Mr. Barron, Kenny, called a tune for us to play. I don’t remember which one it was.

I vaguely heard some instructions.

“Let’s play a standard. Do you know blah blah blah?”

I nodded. I’m sure I didn’t know the tune at the time, but it wouldn’t have made a difference if I had.

“We’ll play the head, then I’ll solo for one chorus, we’ll trade fours for the first two A’s of the second chorus, then you take the bridge and the last A, and then we’ll take it out.”

Uh huh. Is there drool coming from both corners of my mouth or just one? What the fuck is he talking about?

He counted off the tune, and off we went. Off I went. Way off. I could feel that I had strayed almost immediately from his tempo. He smiled and tried to reel me in as I stared around the room, glancing from the panelists listening, to Kenny, to my hands, which seemed to be moving of their own accord. I don’t remember hearing much other than the pounding of my heart and the screaming internal monologue telling me how awfully I was doing.

When he stopped playing I realized that we were supposed to be trading fours (where the soloist plays four bars and then the band drops out leaving the drummer to play a four bar solo). Oops. Shit. Fucked that up.

Then he stopped altogether. As he stared patiently at me I realized that it was my turn to take an extended solo. I would have known all of this if I had the slightest knowledge of song form, but I didn’t at that time.

I played for a bit. He came back in with the melody, gently interrupting my rambling “solo statements” to indicate I had lost the form and it was time to play the melody again and end the song.

Thank fucking goodness. The song ended. He smiled.

“Ok. Good.”

Really? You are a very kind person. Yeah. Can I please leave now?

“Should we play a tune with brushes now?”

No. I should leave and crawl in a fucking hole immediately after destroying my drumset and receiving plastic surgery to change my physical identity. But we might as well since it can’t get any worse.

So he a tune that I don’t recall, but I’m sure I didn’t know since my knowledge of the repertoire was non-existent at the time.

There are many ways to learn that you do not possess a requisite skill for your field. Performing for and with one of the finest musicians in the world is not the way that a drummer wants to discover that he don’t know shit about playing with brushes. But that’s how I found out.

Ok. That didn’t go well.

“Good Jon. Do you have any questions?”

Questions? What are questions? Who is Jon. Oh yeah. That’s me.

I say no.

One of the panelists, Vic Juris, asks me if I had anything else I wanted to play for them. Any odd time grooves?

I told him I like playing “in seven”. He asked me to play something for him. I attempted, hands shaking, mind rattled. It quickly fell apart.

Vic thanked me. Kenny thanked me. Somehow I stood, my legs carried me out of the room. On the way out I could hardly bare to make eye contact with the student volunteer who was waiting outside the room and, no doubt, had heard my horrendous audition. I quickly headed to my car and made my way from the scene of one of the most humiliating experiences of my life.

Step Two: Lick the Proverbial Wounds

Ok. So now the pain has been inflicted. Wounds received. Is it that bad? For myself, pain quickly gives way to numbness. I spent the rest of the day in a daze, like I’d taken a knock out punch on the chin and awoken with a concussion. Mostly, I felt a dull, throbbing ache.

Ironically, without knowing the dates coincided, my mother had purchased tickets for her, my father, and I to attend a performance of the Japanese percussion ensemble Kodo that same evening. The timing was divine. I use the word divine intentionally here since the healing energy of that concert was precisely what I needed after the whooping my ego took earlier that day.

Step Three: Let the Healing Begin

Teddy Bear

As I stated earlier, healing for me must be accompanied by perspective. And the perspective I received from this experience was extensive.

First, I came to realize that my personal opinion is irrelevant. What I might want or believe I need from the perspective of my ego is completely inconsequential from the broader perspective of my soul. There is something far deeper compelling me to move in the direction of my authentic dreams and desires. So regardless of the pain I fearfully anticipate, or the pain I actually experience, I feel the presence of a force, a drive that carries me into, and eventually through, challenging situations. Whether my ego or mind are willing to suffer some discomfort, the authentic source of my individual psyche is willing to endure meaningful pain.

Likewise, it doesn’t matter what other people’s opinion is of me. Not in the final analysis. To be sure, if Kenny Barron does not feel that I have the skills and awareness necessary to play the drums in his jazz program, I’m going to listen to his assessment of my current abilities and deficiencies. But that is all such an assessment is worth. A critique of my current skills and abilities in comparison with where they need to be.

Someone’s opinion is no measurement on the quality of my being, nor does it predict my future in any way. The only value that another’s opinion of me has is in the learning that it offers. 

Only when I’m feeling enough confidence in myself can I take others’ opinions precisely for what they offer, nothing more or less. And if my self image is negative, it doesn’t matter who praises me. That praise won’t penetrate my own feelings of inadequacy.

The bottom line is if I’m feeling good about myself, I don’t need validation from others. If I’m feeling bad about myself, even genuine external praise won’t fill the void. So when peoples’ opinions effect me either positively or negatively, it’s really just an indication that I’m not firmly rooted in my own self love.

In my most enlightened state, anyone is free to assess me, love me, hate me, criticize me. Their feelings don’t affect me since my sense of self is derived from within.

Certainly, this is an ideal state toward which I strive, but only occasionally embody. Still, I can fall far short of full enlightenment, and continue to live out my dreams. No one other than myself determines my fate in the end.

Again, if there are skills and abilities that I need to acquire in order to reach a specific goal, I always can consult the top experts in the field to gain a comprehensive understanding of what I need to learn, and what I need to improve. Then I can begin working on mastering those skills.

There is very little in life that cannot be learned. If the desire is great enough, we will find the guides and teachers; formulate the plan; apply sustained, persistent effort; and accomplish what we feel compelled to achieve.

Overcoming Adversity

Needless to say, I was not accepted into the program that year. Or any year. Despite having been rejected, I attended Rutgers anyway, pursuing the same curriculum as a jazz major and auditioning two more times for the program. Both were unsuccessful. The reasons for these failures are too extensive for this installment of my life story. Suffice it to say that I had not yet fully committed to my goals.

However, I did get my shit together. In 2005 I received my Bachelor of Arts in Music with a concentration in Jazz Studies. Two years later I completed my Master of Music in Studio Music and Jazz at the University of Tennessee. And finally, a little over ten years after leaving Rutgers, and nearly eighteen years after dropping out of Syracuse, I completed my Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) in Jazz Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

What Did I Make it Mean?

Painful experiences can be viewed in either of two broader contexts. In one context, pain is simply a reinforcement for us of all of our negative beliefs about ourselves and life. A reminder of all of the negative thoughts we already think.

I could have chosen to view my audition as evidence that I started playing too late in life. That I didn’t have the proper background or training. That I didn’t possess the innate talent. That I couldn’t do and be what I so deeply desired to do and be.

But that’s all bullshit.

Because in the other context, the more accurate one, pain is simply the disappointment of the ego failing to have what it wants, when it wants itThe rest is simply a matter of recognizing how far short of our goal we landed, and understanding how to travel the rest of the way.

I made the pain of that experience a lesson teaching me the distance I had to travel, and the terrain I had to traverse to manifest my dreams as a musician. Ultimately, I made the pain a part of the story of how I became a full-fledged musician.

How About You?

Please ask yourself. What experiences have you had that may have left you feeling that you cannot achieve something for which you feel a deep, burning passion? If you are reading this, it probably means it is time for you to take it on, and finally conquer it.  Because nothing happens without a reason. There is an infinitely wise and intelligent part of you calling you home to yourself. Gently urging you to live the life you are meant to create.

I am here to tell you that if you are feeling that deep desire to manifest some internal vision for your life, you already have the most important ingredient. It is the one that will carry you through the challenges and doubts.

The rest is just patience, persistence, and sustained skills acquisition. Do this, and watch how your life changes. And more importantly, how you become who you are meant to be, the being you have come to manifest in this world.

At your service.