Every year, at around this time, I have a minor internal struggle trying to decide what is the latest time that I can get away with wishing someone 'Happy New Year.' The first week of January is a given. After that, well, it depends. After the end of January it is definitely too late. Today is 31st of January so I am pushing it a bit. But it is technically still Lunar New Year so here I go:
Happy New Year everybody!
It has been about six weeks since I last sent a 'Metta Letter,' - my apologies for that. I have needed to regroup a bit and during that time I have been thinking about how best to focus future letters. I think I have some ideas about how to position these going forward. I know that you all get a metric tonne of these in your inbox, many of which are awesome and from far worthier writers that me. So I want to make sure that in some way I am adding something of value and substance, with maybe a viewpoint or angle that isn't covered in other newsletters. I think I know how to do that going forward, in a way that is consistent with the themes I have been covering but which has a clearer direction. Some of the topics I cover may seem a little random, but there is a theme and a viewpoint - it has just taken me until the last few weeks to realize it myself!
I'll share that direction with you in my next letter - hopefully it will resonate with you. I am grateful for the support you have given me as I have been writing these over the last few years, and hope that I can continue to provide a different voice to help you on your path. But now, to the letter itself.
This week I have been thinking a lot about 'first times.'
I am old enough to remember the first time I heard Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody on the radio. I also remember the first time I saw the video for it. And I remember knowing that this was something special, that somehow I was witnessing something unlike anything I had ever heard or seen before. There was a buzz around it - it came just as punk was in its ascendancy and flew in the face of that by being something operatic and heavily produced - the antithesis of what was going on in popular music. For those of you younger than me (probably most of you), Bohemian Rhapsody might feel like something that has just 'always been around.' But if you can remember the before-and-after, you will know that there was something that changed, something that moved, when you heard it for the first time.
Now, I acknowledge, maybe I take music more seriously than many (or than I should), but I am sure that there is something that you can point to that had this nature of 'the time before' and 'the time after.' Maybe it was a book, or a play, or a passage, or meeting someone, or even learning a fact. Many commentators have talked about how, on Christmas Eve 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 took the stunning Earthrise picture from beyond the moon, showing the beauty and fragility of the Earth in a way humans had never seen before. Truly a 'time before' and 'time after' moment, credited by many as the start of a deeper consciousness of our responsibility to this planet.
I experienced one of these moments myself a few days ago. Now I am going to prefix this by saying that the work that was such a unique experience to me may not have the same resonance for you - that is not the point. But I did this week experience a work that, for me, was a real 'time before' and 'time after' moment. Maybe not quite at the Bohemian Rhapsody level, but at least at the 'O Superman,' 'Stan,' or Shostakovich's '8th Quartet' level. Again, for me.
The work is by an artist called Ren and is titled 'Hi Ren.' The piece is hard to describe, as it is a mix of song, poetry, rap and guitar in a structure quite unlike anything else. If you follow any internet music you will likely have come across the piece yourself, as since it was released in December it has exploded online, with millions of views and streams and it being shared everywhere. It has hit a chord with viewers and listeners partly because of it's unique structure, and partly because it addresses struggles with mental health in a way that resonates with anyone who has experienced even the smallest amount of self-doubt. It is a piece that is both disturbing and triumphant at the same time.
(note, if you do decide to watch it be prepared for some raw exploration of these themes and some bad language)
But again, this essay isn't about the work itself, but how it left me feeling. This feeling of having never experienced anything like it before. And then the feeling of now having experienced it. First time. Before and after.
It's actually quite a strange feeling - and the interesting thing is that it a common one. The internet is full of so-called 'reaction videos,' where some person - sometimes famous or noteworthy, sometimes not - posts a video of them watching something, so you can see on their faces how they react, and they can tell you what that 'first time' feels like for them. I have to admit I watched quite a few of these reaction videos to Ren's piece just to live vicariously through their experience of their own 'first time.'
There was a part of me that wanted to be able to experience the 'first time' again, something I knew I could not do. Or could I?
Contemplating this brought to mind Shunryu Suzuki's teaching “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” The question was, could I experience this piece with beginner's mind? So I tried. And sure enough, I found I could approach it with openness and awareness that almost - not quite - felt like I was experiencing it for the first time. And it underlined for me the role we play ourselves with art, how works change when we can approach them with presence and awareness.
These qualities that we cultivate in meditation can pervade our whole lives. Whether we are experiencing art, learning about the world, sweeping the floor or cleaning the toilet. We can be aware, open and present.
Just like the first time.
PS: There's an internet meme that runs around taken from the wonderful Coen Brothers movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The meme shows a still of the actor James Franco standing on the gallows with a noose around his neck, asking his fellow noosed prisoner "First Time?" It's a very funny part of the movie, and makes for a very useful meme.
PPS: I have linked below a fully guided meditation on the idea of 'beginning again' in meditation, specifically for the New Year. Please feel free to use it in your practice in whatever way helps.
Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash