Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

Thoughts on Servitude

Of late, I have had a tough patch.  This is the first blog in weeks, not by choice, but by circumstance, a combination of post-election blues and general malaise of psyche. I thought it was important to return to the fold to share a few of my thoughts on the nature of freedom.  In the past, Eric Fromm has been one of my heroes. Today, I take a different path.

“What is servitude?” I ask myself.  Books like Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now postulate that we are servants to our mind, to our worries and past ills that chronically return to haunt us without warning.  This process is constantly ruthless: our “pasts” stubbornly taint our “presents”.

While I write this my mind races in and out of worries, ranging from the Mueller report, to “what will happen to us here?” to “who will be in the next government?” to “will there be annexation?” to “how much longer will I and those around me survive?” Yes, alas! Many of us have reached the last stretches of golden time where our bodies are creaking. Every day seems to bring a new pain or two.

Rumor has it that philosopher and spiritual guide Thich Nhat Hanh is very ill, and has retreated to a secluded island to live out his last days in solitude.  I lie back and think of what he might be doing. Does he have any thoughts, or is he trying to clear them away until the very last sound of the meditation bell?  My hunch is that it is the latter.

Almost a decade ago, Thich Nhat Hanh gave an unbelievable talk in Jerusalem. I was one of the privileged few present to hear him.  Rather than dwell on pure Buddhist thought, he digressed and shaped his words to embrace the audience who was, by and large, Jewish.  He talked about the importance of the chain of generations. He expounded on when and how to keep that chain solid and continuous, and when it was necessary to break from it.  In the latter digression he was referring to different sicknesses, most of which were mental and attitudinal.  He spoke of being slaves to our own past illnesses and those of our parents, parents of parents, etc.  He seemed to imply: “Embrace the fond memories, but if you are able, try to reject the old, saturated with time-worn negative habits that you unfortunately inherited”.

For good or bad, we are an accumulation of generations, both biologically and psychologically.  On Passover, we gather to celebrate the good, though leaving Egypt certainly was not without its trauma, nor was our people’s stubbornness and resistance to change.  Today that might be the capacity to live a joyful and giving life embracing faith.  It might simply be to live without fear.

As a musician I have known the danger of imitating foreign voices. It took me years to develop my own instrumental sound and compositional voice. I even remember the challenge my teacher once gave me:  to go into a room and for as long as it takes, blow the garbage out of myself (meaning to say rid myself of ghosts and imitations). Such an exercise is part of the process of escaping servitude. As a creative musician this means playing and writing like ourselves rather than imitating others.

In his brilliant essay “Self Reliance” Ralph Waldo Emerson also echoes the above approach when be basically says to trust your own intuition and not heavily on the words of others.  “Create from your center.  Listen to your own voice!”, his voice echoes. Here, the matter of trust is key to his philosophy: trust in yourself, not others, certainly not the stream of gibberish and cacophony that haunts us daily, weighting us down until we sink into paralysis.

Of late, I have tried to meditate for at least 40 minutes a day, freeing myself from the haunting voices of the past. This seemingly simple practice helps and so I will continue it.  However, this is easier said than done. Maintaining freedom is much more difficult than achieving it for a nanosecond. Life bombards us from 360 degrees, so much so that we often become walking zombies. We spend all our time avoiding the cracks in the sidewalks.

So Passover, with all its stories, traditions and rituals, is not only a chance to pause, but also to renew the best of our generational chains and of ourselves.  It is a time to release ourselves from the servitude of worry and the multitudinous voices inside us, ghosts who haunt us, plague us, and constantly whisper in our ear (like Eeyore the donkey in Benjamin Hoff’s Tao of Pooh, the character who constantly tells us: “You can’t! You won’t! Be careful!, etc. etc).

I wish all of my friends, family and my faithful readers a joyous Passover/Pesach.  That you all achieve a measure of freedom, feeling it in your bodies as well as your minds, feeling it completely, without hesitation, releasing the bonds of servitude, hopefully for much longer than the length of the holiday.  Please remember, as we are all humans configured with similar “hard wiring,” we are also in the “same boat.”  We certainly deserve to give the other guy/gal sitting next to us a big hug, as well as to ourselves.  Please remember: servitude and it’s antidote, freedom, can last forever and passed on to our children, and our children’s children.  It is, after all, our choice. It is what we can and must do today, at this very moment.  As our sages also imply, it is this very moment which is precious and ultimately all that we ever really “know.”

About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and educator. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He has been a recipient of the Israel Prime Minister's Prize for Composers and the National Endowment of the Arts (USA). His teaching has included Bennington College, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; residencies at Stanford University, York University, California Institute of the Arts, and others. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
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