“Human presence is a creative and turbulent sacrament, a visible sign of invisible grace”. John O'Donohue

Friday, 14 June 2013

On respect and the illusion of choice

When I studied Music and Theatre at School, and later at University one of the things that we learned - whether formally or through osmosis, I'm not sure- was a certain etiquette around attending performances. We learned when  it was appropriate to applaud, or not. When to stand, when to sit. When to remain silent. We learned that you don't clap between movements of a concerto, or at the beginning of a play when the cast appear on stage (unless it's pantomime) or during scene changes or blackouts, at the end of an Aria. We discovered that the audience stands during the Hallelujah Chorus, doesn't  take photographs - especially not with flash -  and most certainly doesn't engage in conversation - except in subtle whispers -  mid performance. We didn't have mobile phones then, but using one would have been unthinkable. 

We also learned to sit until the end, even if the performance was pretty dire. I didn't always stick to this rule :-)

It was a respect thing. And, even if conventions and etiquette have changed, respect is never a bad thing. 

This has changed a lot. Performances are a lot noisier. According to the "old" etiquette, applause now happens in all the "wrong" places - when the lights go down, at the end of solo flourishes, on the accomplishment of a polished pirouette. I confess to cringing I little when this happens and then promptly give myself a hard time for being so ridiculously elitist! People are not just ignoring convention, they genuinely don't know that it exists. In many ways this is a good thing because I suppose it speaks of the greater accessibility of art.  Of course, much of this has filtered over from popular music , theatre and comedy where it has always been OK, indeed encouraged, for the audience to make a noise. 

However, a couple of experiences recently have made me think a little deeper about how we consume art and entertainment, about how we consume experience in general. 

I went to see Neil Young and Crazy Horse last night in Glasgow. A much loved and admired veteran performer, He  is known for his constant exploration of new sounds,  new musical styles and for performing whole concerts of just new work - ignoring any notion of crowd pleasing.He hasn't always got away with it. He was famously booed during  concert in Glasgow for playing only new songs and nothing of his popular back catalogue. And last night I witnessed more than just gentle heckling from the crowd, some of whom no doubt expected a few of their old favourites and left disappointed - and no possibly short changed. 

And it irked me, more than a little, that the the audience expected to be able to somehow choose what they wanted to hear. And it irked me even more that they were doing it to someone who is a consummate musician and performer, someone who  has been in the business for a long time. He is, I suppose, an ELDER. 

Again, it's about respect. As Graeme said when I told him what I was writing about "If you want to listen to the songs you want to listen to, go home, open a beer and plug in your ipod."  Quite. 

And then last week, I was attending a yoga event and went to a class with a teacher who has been teaching yoga for over thirty years. A true Yoga Elder. I claim that title only because I have amassed the requisite teaching hours, but this person is the real deal. His style, like many teachers who've lived yoga for a long time, is slow, mindful, deeply embodied. It doesn't "go" anywhere. The message being there is nowhere to go but here. (There really isn't) One woman left mid-class, clearly annoyed by the lack of pace, and two people bailed out before relaxation claiming to be " all Savasana'd out". Naturally the teacher wasn't at all fazed. He has lived and practised long enough. I allowed myself to be mildly irked on his behalf.


Again - respect?

I think that this has a lot to do with consumerism. We are all so used to this illusion of choice at our fingertips that it leaks into every area of our experience, including our appreciation of art, music, even spirituality.  The consumer culture allows us to believe that we have choices as simple as a credit card transaction, a smartphone app. or a button on the remote.  It appears to give us freedom, but the reality is quite the opposite. And when it comes to the examples I have talked about, this consumer "choice" seems to validate the idea that we can somehow then dictate  how and when and  to what extent we are to be entertained, moved, educated and even enlightened!

In the way that we cherry picks songs for a playlist, we can't choose our favourite bits of experience, and expect to edit out the rest. This  illusion of choice just creates more unhappiness. In the same way that the hecklers were annoyed that Neil young didn't play "The needle and the damage done" we will always, always be let down by the reality that we really can't control anything external to ourselves. 

Nor should we try. 


“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” - Lao-Tzu







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