There are strange rivers

Hey T,

Another blog in quick succession here – I’ll just pretend that you are having an exceptionally large bowl of porridge and justify my monologue tendencies by having to fill the silence when you’re munching away. There is so much to tell from München that I don’t want to let it wait, another Joan Baez concert, a Pride parade, and thoughts on pain and the state of the world.

The concert was part of the Tollwood festival, which compressed an incredible mix of cultures and half of Münchens population (or so it felt) into a small part of the Olympiapark. Crowds are such strange rivers, you’re never quite sure where you’ll end up when you’re walking in them. Being such an experienced concert goer by now, I arrived early with my book, got a good seat in one of the front rows and settled down to read for an hour or so before the concert. At the moment I am reading a book by B. K. S. Iyengar in which he discusses life and yoga practice and how to go about both. I read a really interesting passage on how to approach pain in asana (the physical postures of yoga) as well as in life. Iyengar writes that pain is an inevitable part of yoga practice, as the body stretches and learns to hold itself with grace. The pain shows us where we need to focus, emphasise our efforts, and pay extra attention – it is there as a useful guide more than anything. It is the same with pain in life (he claims), and if we approach it as a teacher it is not unbearable but rather constructive. Crucially though, Iyengar explains that

”It is not just that yoga is causing all of this pain; the pain is already there. It is hidden. We just live with it or have learned not to be aware of it. It is as if your body is in a coma. When you begin yoga, the unrecognized pains come to the surface. When we are able to use our intelligence to purify our bodies, the the hidden pains are dispersed.”

So there I was, contemplating how we relate to pain in our lives, as Germans were eating pizza and drinking beer around me, Amnesty International going around with petitions about cyber hacking, and Dirk and others from Joan’s band were tuning their instruments on stage.What a change from the first time we saw Joan, when I was so nervous I could hardly sit still! By now, I thought, I knew the set list, knew the introductions, knew the surprises and so felt I would not be too overwhelmed by emotions during the concert. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Joan started the concert unexpectedly, for me at least, with Railroad boy – a song I haven’t heard in a very long time. The serenity with which she performed it caught me by surprise and I was once again sobbing in my seat, getting compassionate glances from the middleaged couples around me. And it continued that way. Apart from the songs they had performed in earlier concerts, Joan had added quite a few more explicitly political ones, like Jerusalem, Day After Tomorrow, and Here’s to you. Her unwavering gaze and commanding gestures when she performed these reminded me of her younger self, she has so much authority mixed with urgency – I feel sorry for anyone trying to argue with that.

She also did Strange Rivers, one of my all time favourites. The moment I enjoy the most during the concerts though, is when she performs Wenn unsere Brüder kommen. I take some time to look at the audience around me, and get some strange comfort from the teared up faces I see, some people crying rivers of sadness or joy, I’m not sure. Yesterday was no exception. Towards the end of the song, amid the roars of approval, a man stands up not far from me, waving at Joan and everyone else. Turns out it was Konstantin Wecker (the guy who wrote the song) himself! Joan called him up to the stage and gave him a big old hug – everybody was applauding, laughing, and crying, hope and despair mingled in the air – it was just great on so many levels.

I started to wonder whether it is not something to do with the pain Iyengar is talking about. We all have pain inside us for the state of the world, be it the environment, wars, poverty etc., but we learn to live as if it is not there. It is as if our awareness is trained to ignore it in hectic everyday life. It is as if our minds are in a coma.

As yoga lets us access, learn from, work with and hopefully eventually transcend the pains of the body and mind, can the music of Joan and others let us access the pains of humanity we all carry within us? I certainly feel like it. And if we are to trust Iyengar, we need to start accessing, observing, listening to and learning from that pain if we are ever going to be able to understand how to live with and beyond it. Joanna Macy has done some really interesting work on this as well. I am more and more convinced that this is how we need to approach the challenges ahead of us, like climate change – through going within and recognising the pain first of all, letting it show us how we need to relate to the world around us. Don’t think it will be the go to-approach in the Paris summit though…

Earlier on during the day, my excellent hosts had lent me a bike and I was busy trying to cycle like a local around town, past Marienplatz, Frauenkirche, Englischer Garten, and all the rest of it, when I stumbled into a Pride parade. The noise of it was deafening, and it was such a huge, diverse, and colourful (in every sense of that word) group of people. FC Bayern München, Mums and Mums, Dads and Dads, young and old, political groups, protesting groups, partying groups… My favourites were the Gray and Gay group of elderly gentlemen. I joined in for a little while, walking with the Amnesty people. Now I’m thinking, wasn’t this also a strange river. Strange river of people who had used pain and suffering in their own lives, or in their vicinty, and created something positive, joyful, and I have to say, graceful. Just shows what you can learn and create from pain, you only have to start by recognising that it’s there.

(I am publishing this the morning after I wrote it. Since then I’ve managed to go to another concert with Joan, this time in Wiblingen. The crowd was tough, but she charmed them with stories of Dr King, non-violence, and career advice for president Obama. I’m couchsurfing in Ulm with a girl in the local Amnesty group, so I hung out with the Amnesty people at the concert, and managed to get them backstage afterwards to have a chat with Joan. It was a blast, she was as cool as ever, and Blair still remembers us hitchhiking to Barcelona!

Oh, and the mandatory photo, just to make you jealous.)

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