Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I'm here with Garrett Sawyer at Northfire Recording Studio in Amherst MA, editing the vocals of two very special Buddhist lamas: Lama Karma Drodhul and Lama Karma Thendup. In a studio where the hip young interns are used to listening to the latest rock music, it's delightful to witness how everyone is reacting to the powerful healing sounds of two monks singing "Om Mani Peme Hum" to a funky groove.  May all beings benefit!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

I'm back in the studio again!  (And I still haven't tired of the fact that I get to say "back in the studio" by the way, because I get to sound so cool, hee hee....).  I've spent the past few days at White Light Recording Studios with Anthony Molina working on all kinds of techie stuff: fixing timings and tuning vocals, replacing parts, and coming up with even more wonderful ideas for parts and transitions. Anthony is a pure genius, so mostly I'm just watching the engineering process in awe.  Because this is my first time making a record, I cannot help but compare the experience to writing a novel (a process I do know).  In both cases, there is a lot of editing involved...but the fun thing about music is that we get to tap our feet and dance and listen to Stevie Wonder (singing with a Hare Krishna back up choir) for creative inspiration during the grueling editing process.   Fun fun fun!

Here's a video of Anthony working out a new guitar part for my version of "Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Here's an inventive selfie...this is a screen shot of the legendary kirtan vocalist CC White recording background vocals of my "Govinda Hare" track at her studio in LA...I'm Skyping into the session from my office in Woodstock, NY.  I love technology! 

I'm still pinching myself when I think that CC's phenomenal voice is going to be featured on this track.  This song is a variation on a very traditional Indian melody, which my beloved friend and teacher Shyamdas used to sing all the time.  The day after Shyamdas left his body (in January 2013), this alternative melody came to me, fully formed, accompanied by a toy piano and a harmonica. Slowly the full song took shape, along with the inspiration to finally go forward with my dream to release this first CD.  

And what a dream!  I know Shyamdas-ji is smiling from the heavens as he listens to his beloved CC singing the Names.  She sounds absolutely amazing. Of course. That's why she's the queen of kirtan.  I freely admit that my voice does not even come near hers in terms of power or perfection, but I also know that we each have our own strengths and gifts.  This whole process of recording a CD is helping me find some of my own.  Finally, those years and years of practice--of yoga, mantra, meditation, prayer, setting of intention, toning, and healing--are manifesting here and now, through this process.

Thank you, CC, for sharing your beauty, talent, voice, and huge MA heart! 

Thanks also to Lynne Earls (our LA engineer), Gaura Vani Buchwald and Anthony Molina. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

My dog-in-law is going blind....

Last night I visited my good friends Mindy Pickard, Gregory Lee Pickard and their son Clayton Pickard who were among the first people I met when I moved to Woodstock in 2005. I actually met them--like many dog people do--through our dogs. Their dog Rainbow is/was my dog Chloe's "husband" (Clayton having performed a quick wedding ceremony for them a few months before Chloe unexpectedly died.) Rainbow will always hold a special place in my heart--not just because Chloe loved him above all other dogs; or because he is an English Setter mix (and I secretly love setters above all other dogs); but because he is just so extraordinarily fun and smart and expressive and exuberant. He's one of those human dogs---dog lovers will know what I mean. Anyway, I was shocked and saddened to learn that Rainbow has gone blind. Apparently he has diabetes and his family didn't realize how quickly this illness would manifest.

Rainbow was sitting outside on the front steps when I arrived at their house, but he didn't get up. I immediately went up to him and hugged him, of course, and Rainbow whined in return--but it was not the whine of sorrow; he simply recognized my voice and my smell and was happy to see me. He looked so different with his filmy, non-seeing eyes. He looked both younger and older. Older because of the filmy eyes, and younger because of his lost, somewhat uncertain expression. Rainbow has always been a bold dog--pushing through doors; leaping over fences; jumping off decks and out of second-floor windows unscathed if he objected to being left inside. Indeed, Rainbow was the one who taught Chloe how to open doors and--if need be--push through screens. Rainbow did what he wanted, when he wanted, and he did it with such exuberance and single-pointedness that you couldn't get mad at him. He had a mission and his mission was to have fun and be with the ones he loves.

I started to cry, of course--A) because seeing my Rainy-bow makes me miss Chloe and B) because everything keeps changing, and everyone I love keeps growing old. Rainbow, sensing my distress, stood up to lick my face. Then Mindy opened the door and-- being a practical no-nonsense sort of person who doesn't want people crying at her house--told me to come inside. She also told Rainbow to go make his pee-pee so that he could come inside too. "And be careful on those steps," she told him in her motherly voice. "Go slooooow."

I watched Rainbow as he made his way down the steps and out into the yard. This new Rainbow moved slowly and cautiously, the way a mole might, pushing his snout along the ground to sniff his way through any potential obstacles. He lifted his leg, did his business and then quickly returned to us, bumping into our legs as we all walked into the house. He didn't seem to mind the fact that he couldn't see, as long as we were there with him. (Greg and Clayton were still out at the grocery store but were due back any minute.)

Anyway, I could go on and on about witnessing the gestures, movements and behaviors of a newly blind dog...and maybe I will in the future, if I have the opportunity to spend more time with Rainbow. Part of me is still sad that I didn't get to witness Chloe's golden years; and part of me is grateful that she passed so quickly, from great health to poor health to death, in a matter of days. But I do finally realize that there is no such thing as perfect--no perfect way to age, no perfect way to die, no perfect way to adjust to an illness.

When Greg and Clayton returned, I saw signs of the "real" Rainbow: he ran to the door, leaped in circles, and barked with joy. As soon as Greg walked into the door, Rainbow began nipping at his (that would be Greg's) crotch. This is one of Rainbow's signature moves, and Greg wears loose jeans specifically for this reason. I was impressed that Rainbow could still find his target despite his poor vision. What moved me most last night was the way the family handled Rainbow: so tenderly. So lovingly. Mindy coached Rainbow around the furniture. Greg took him out to play fetch in the yard, but this was a new version of fetch, which Greg called "hide and seek." Greg would toss a toy duck a few yards in front of Rainbow, and Rainbow's job would be to find it (by sniffing) and bring it back to Greg. A simple task, but joyous nevertheless. Gone are the days of launching tennis balls far, far into the woods from a rocket launcher and watching the dogs tear off at full speed into the trees. Gone are the days of dog youth, I guess. But life for a dog always just goes on. Until it doesn't. The attitude never changes.

Rainbow receives his veterinary medical care from the same vet that Chloe used to see--the marvelous Dr. Rothstein at Saugerties Animal Hospital. And apparently there's a chance that they could perform cataract surgery on one or both of Rainbow's eyes. The catch is, the procedure is expensive and the family might not be able to afford to repair both eyes. They're in the process of debating all this right now. Rainbow is ten years old. First they want to get more information on the root causes of the blindness and the diabetes and then make a decision based on that. I'll keep you posted, because if they decide to go ahead with eye surgery, I said I'd help promote their Kickstarter campaign. It would be an honor to help my beloved dog-in-law and his family, in Chloe's honor. It's what she would have wanted.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

It's a wrap! We had an extraordinary and long recording session down in New York City this past Thursday.  I found a great little studio in the Flatiron District called VRCL Entertainment, which was recommended by my friend and soul sister Karen Blood.  Karen always has good instincts, and she is very tapped into the universe and the stars, so I knew this was a good lead.  Anyway, once I saw the studio and felt its energy, and then met the super-sweet and talented engineer Terry Derkach, I knew we had found a home.  Plus, there was a painting of a giant Buddha on the wall.  
The goal was to record backup vocals on two tracks: "Shiva Shakti" (which has a disco groove) and the Prajnaparamita Mantra (which has a gospel sound). For the Shiva track I really wanted to work with Kirtan Soul Revival--a group of young singers consisting of Calia Marshall, Helen Tocci and Todd Keller.  The Reverend Kim Lesley---who is a staple at Ananda Ashram and who has sung on the CDs of many of my friends, including Sruti Ram and Ishwarm Lynn Keller of Sri Kirtan and Kamaniya Devi and Keshavacharya of Prema Hara-- also joined them on this track. 
It turned out that Todd could not make it to the session because, sadly, his cat Monkey died.  We sent healing energy to Todd and Monkey before the session began.  I always like to start my vocals sessions with some group toning, so as we toned the sounds OM and NG, we sent the energy to our friends.  Have a gentle journey, Monkey!  
Anyway, it was a truly magical day.  The Shiva Shakti session was seamless (sorry for the alliteration) because these singers are such pros. I can't wait to hear the final track! We still have a lot of work to do on that one, including creating a pre-track and adding some Bollywood strings.  
A few additional singers (John James, Keith Fluitt and Rashmi Pierce) came for the second session, which was a gospel rendition of the Prajnaparamita Mantra.  I am so honored to have had this opportunity to meet and work with these singers, especially John James and Keith Fluitt. John sings with Stevie Wonder!  Ahhh!  I can't express how talented they are. They literally blew me out of my seat.  John arrived just in time to add a perfect, perfect, chilling and Shiva-esque solo to the "Shiva Shakti" chant and then we got started on Prajnaparamita.  
I began with the session with a quick talk on the meaning of the mantra and I also played a recording of the Karmapa chanting it with his sangha. (I also offered the caveat that the Dalai Lama has given three full day talks on this mantra and the Heart Sutra and that my explanation was not the be-all-end-all. By far). But I figured that, given that I was the only Buddhist practitioner in the room, it would be helpful to explain to the singers how this mantra works energetically, and how I envisioned it helping other people who happen to hear our recording.  There were seven singers in the room at that point--some were lovers of Christ, some of us were devotees of Amma, some were interfaith ministers (Kim) and interfaith practitioners, and others simply loved to sing mantras.  It was such a blessing to be with them all.
 What a day this was! We spent seven hours recording layers and layers and layers of backup vocals on this track (and honestly we did not even finish. This is a vocal-rich track)... and if you've ever chanted Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Soha for even seven minutes, you can imagine how charged we all were with the power of this mantra. I'll never forgot the looks on their faces as they sang.  I was watching the choir from the control room, viewing them through a glass panel. Everyone had their eyes closed, faces lifted, hearts open, palms held toward the heavens, and everyone was positively glowing with love and joy. I knew it was the mantra working through them, for them, with them. I can't describe how moved I was and still am.  Even though each one of us present came from different traditions and studied with different masters, we all felt the power of the mantra, which is the power of transcendence, of moving beyond our minds and, yes, into our hearts.  That's not quite a "strictly Buddhist" interpretation, but energetically that's how it feels.  This mantra brings us out of our mind-space and into what I call a heart-space.  Where pure love reins.  Where the Christ energy reins.  All these devotional practices lead us to the same place--we just have different words to describe it, I guess.
Anyway, I am so grateful to each and everyo one of these singers, and to engineers Terry Derkart and Anthony Molina, and producer Gaura Vani Buchwald, and to Lama Karma Drodul and Lama Karma Thendup (the other backup singers on Gate) and all the others who have supported this project along the way.  May all beings benefit from this gorgeous music we created together as one. 
Add caption

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Everything You Lose Comes Back in a Different Form....

Because I move around so much (we're talking like daily) I often lose things. But I'm grateful that the universe is very kind in assisting me in finding those things. On Monday, for instance, I asked the universe to help me find my 128Hz tuning fork, which I had misplaced on Sunday after attending a sound healing retreat. Then, in the meantime, I lost my Kindle charger after taking a quick day trip to New York City for school. So I asked the universe to help me find that, too.  Then, lo and behold, in my search for the Kindle charger I was led to the tuning fork. 

So my Big Epiphany of the Day is: often we lose things so that we can find other things.

It's like Rumi's beautiful quote:

Do not grieve for loss
For everything you lose
Comes back to you in a different form. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

How a Vegan Handles Having a Meat-Eating, Creature Killing Dog

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Please note that this piece was written for Bark magazine several months before my beloved Chloe passed in 2013. In her honor, I have not changed the tense, for in my heart Chloe will always be Present Tense. 

My dog Chloe is one of the sweetest-looking dogs I have ever seen. She has the brown and white markings of a spaniel and the golden, almond-shaped eyes of a lab. When she greets you, she looks you straight in the eye with an expression that says: I see right through to the heart of you, and I see that you are good. All this, combined with her cute pink mouth and big dog-smile, prompt people to call her a “lover” when they first meet her.

Upon hearing the word “lover,” Chloe will wag her tail and wiggle with joy and then start lowering herself to the floor, moving in a sort of spiral, until she is on her back, waving her legs into the air. This gesture, in a way, always reminds me of the slow-motion blossoming of a flower. Pure love. Pure sweetness.
So imagine my surprise–and horror–when I witnessed my loving dog killing a squirrel. I’m sure many of you have experienced this shocking moment when we first realize our sweetie-pies are actually natural born killers.

I myself am not a killer. On the contrary, I’m one of those militant animal lovers who practices vegetarianism, who refuses to wear leather or fur, who will not buy any product that has been tested on animals, and who will even carry humanely-trapped mice out of the house, drive them two miles away in the mini-van, and set them free near a small stream, with a few sunflowers seeds to help them start their new lives (far, far away from my house).

As an aside: please note that I’m not trying to preach here, or cast myself as some kind of saint. Refraining from killing is simply the lifestyle that I choose for myself. I try not to judge the lifestyle of others. But having said that, I did find myself judging Chloe–just for one second–after I witnessed her first kill. I mean, obviously I’d been taught that all predators are wired to hunt and kill, but I didn’t want to believe that my dog had such instincts. I wanted to, you know, believe that her DNA was on par with that of a cute stuffed animal. But then I thought of the way Chloe treated her own stuffed animals: seizing them in her jaws, shaking them, whipping them around, and finally eviscerating them with vim and vigor. Apparently all this time she had been practicing for the real thing. I did not know my dog as well as I thought.

Some would say my reaction to that squirrel’s death was extreme. I cried. I shouted. My hands shook. I wanted to run away; flee the scene of the crime, as it were. I just hate to see any living being suffer, period. I hate to hear any innocent creature cry out in pain or sorrow or fear. I felt guilty that my own dog had played part in this pain, and then I felt confused about the very state of earthly existence. Why were some creatures are born as prey animals and some as prey? What is the point of a world in which it is necessary to kill in order to survive? Meanwhile, Chloe looked at me with confusion. In her mind (yes, I always speak as if I can read her mind), she hadn’t done anything worth crying about. In fact, she had passed through a canine Rite of Passage. She was a hunting dog who had just accomplished her first official hunt–why was I acting as if she had committed a crime?

“Because you just murdered something,” I told her.

She just cocked her head in that cute way she has. So of course I forgave her.

My dog-loving friends understood my reaction–even the irrational, existential crisis part. Most of them had been through this, and through the years we have been able to form a sort of support group, sharing our experiences, offering comfort, and trying to find ways to justify or rationalize dogs’ behaviors.
First of all, there are the facts of life: that dogs are predators, and predators track and feed on prey. And while this fact is hard for those of us with domesticated animals to accept, we obviously cannot control the genetic makeup of our fellow mammals — no matter how cute and cuddly they appear to be. Secondly, there’s the fact that — at least among my friends — it’s not as though we’re encouraging our dogs to kill; or, heaven forbid, train them to kill. Again, I try not to judge people who use their dogs to hunt, but I can’t say that it doesn’t make me cringe. I even have to turn off the volume on “Downton Abbey” each time the smartly-dressed Grantham party goes off on a hunt.

Then there’s the “humans are worse than dogs” theory which my friend — also a vegetarian and an animal rights activist — puts forth. “Dogs eat meat, period,” she says. “And the dogs which are being fed commercial dog food are, in most cases, consuming the flesh of factory farm animals that have been tortured by men.

“So when my dog manages to kill and eats a squirrel,” my friend continues, “it helps to remind myself that at least the squirrel got to live a relatively painless life, unlike those poor cows.”

I suppose my friend is speaking to the quality of a prey animal’s life as opposed to the quality of its death. Either way, this is always a difficult topic for me. I honestly have a hard time feeding Chloe meat. It’s not that I would ever put her on a vegetarian diet, but I’m completely grossed out by the raw chicken and ground beef I have to handle. Often, when I’m unwrapping those packages of meat, I’m met with images of those tortured farm animals and feel wracked with guilt. The only thing I can do is say a silent prayer to the animal whose life was taken for the sake of my dog. And then leave the room so that I don’t have to hear Chloe crunching away on the chicken legs.

After that first squirrel incident, Chloe managed to kill a few more creatures — not enough to set any world records, but enough to send me into brief fits of sobbing, followed by a few hours of existential crisis. Over the years, she killed one toad (which caused her mouth to foam up and which sent me into a tizzy); a snake (which prompted me to call her Morfin Gaunt for a while –something only the Harry Potter fans will get) and a good number of insects, which she liked to swat around the way a cat would. I always tried to save these creatures, but hopping, slithering things are particularly hard to catch. Unless you’re a dog, I guess.

My previous dog Wallace (also known as Rex) was much worse in the murder department. A hunting-dog to the bone, he killed with an expertise and a blood-lust I found alarming. I won’t go into the gory details of the number of small animals he manage to capture and kill. It’s just sufficient to say he was the type of dog who would probably have taken on a gazelle or a wild boar if given the chance.

Many will point out that the simple solution would be to keep our dogs on-leash. And this, of course, is a loaded topic: the off-leash issue, which seems to crop up every day in the dog world. So let’s just say I have made the choice to allow my dog to exercise off leash. And sometimes my choice has unwanted consequences.
Recently, Chloe found a living creature and brought it to me. We were outside on the property: I was watering the flowers and Chloe was romping around in the fields, snuffling her way through the tall grasses. Suddenly I saw her trotting toward me, carrying something in her mouth. Her white plumed tail was held high, and she moved with a jaunty step which indicated she was feeling particularly proud of herself. I assumed that the object in her mouth was a long-lost toy (our woods were littered with decaying Beanie Babies and Teddy bears), but then Chloe placed the object at my feet. It was a baby bird, which I suspect it had fallen out of its nest. And it was still alive.

I started to go into panic mode. What to do? What to do? Pulling on my gardening gloves, I gently picked up the bird and carried it into the house. Chloe followed along, seeming to sense that we were on the verge of doing something important. She always liked to pretend she was in charge of such things.
Inside the house, I found a small cardboard box, lined it with tissues and towels, and carefully placed the bird inside the make-shift nest. The bird was breathing, but not moving too much. Already, I was crying. I absolutely love birds; bird-song, to me, is one of the most beautiful sounds on this planet. But I know absolutely nothing about how to care for birds. Thank goodness we have the internet, so I rushed to my computer and Googled “care” “injured” “birds.” Most instructions said to keep the bird warm and comfortable, and offer tiny bits of water if the bird seemed dehydrated. I called the local Fish and Wildlife hotline hoping for more information, but when I described the situation and the bird, I was told that it was actually illegal to help the bird. I was told that there was nothing I could do but “let it die.”

These are hard words for a militant, animal-loving vegan to hear. I wanted to do something. I wanted to save the bird. Some people, I suppose, would have put the bird “out of its misery,” but there was no way I could do that. Never ever, ever. What then could I do?

At a loss, I placed the box and the bird on my shrine. I should point out here that I live in Woodstock, New York, which is the kind of place where many of us keep shrine rooms in our houses. Mine is filled with crystals and meditation and prayer books and the scent of sandalwood incense. The altar is lined with statues of Buddha and Shiva and Lakshmi and Quan Yin and — of course — St. Francis, my favorite patron saint of animals. It was here I placed the bird — still breathing, but not doing much else. I placed a lamp near the box to keep the bird warm — one of those Tibetan crystal-salt lamps that are said to absorb negative energy. And then I prayed. Don’t worry — this is not a dogmatic or religious essay. I know that the word “prayer” means different things to many different people. For me,  “prayer” consists mainly of chanting Buddhist mantras. One in particular — Om Mani Peme Hung — cultivates compassion and well-being, and is said to be good for animals on the verge of death.

As I chanted, I heard Chloe barking at the shrine room door — her cue that she wanted to be let in. She always likes to be around when mantras are being chanted — she seems to know that there’s good energy in the room. For a second, I found myself being mad at Chloe again — for being a killer, for putting me through the pain of having to witness the suffering of a small living being, but then I reminded myself that she may have found the bird as opposed to capturing it. In fact, maybe she brought me the bird out of compassion — to allow me to save it. Ah, the things we tell ourselves.

“You can’t come in,” I called out to Chloe. “I don’t want to stress the bird.” I heard Chloe sigh, then lie down on the floor, placing her nose at the base of the door so that she could sniff through the gap. This made me smile. Everything she did was just so quintessentially dog. I couldn’t stay mad.

I chanted for another hour or so, constantly checking on the bird and unable to tell if it was getting better or worse. Next I played some Tibetan singing bowls for the bird and tried a made-up form of Reiki, which I don’t know how to do. I realized that, while there are many things I do know how to do, saving lives is not one of them. The little bird stopped breathing. And so, for a few seconds, did I.

I cried, of course, the way we all cry when we try to save something and fail. But what is “failure?”

One thing I’ve noticed about people who work in animal rescue that we all want to save everyone and everything. We want to live in a world that is free from pain, free from suffering, free from fear and cruelty. The saddest past is that most of our efforts go toward rescuing animals from human cruelty. This always makes me question just what exactly the role of the human race is in the “Natural Order of Things” mentioned above. Weren’t we put on this planet in order to care for Mother Earth and all her creatures? If so, why have so many humans strayed so far from that role? These are questions we cannot answer. I’m just so thankful for all the people who continue to try to help. Many of us who work at animal shelters have witnessed –firsthand — just what sort of suffering our animal friends can endure. We read horrible stories on the Internet; we see graphic pictures on Facebook that we wish we hadn’t seen; we feel frantic, we feel guilty, we cry, we wish that those dogs had not lived or died in pain. And yet so many of these horror stories have happy endings. The abused dogs find homes; the pit bulls forced to fight learn once again how to love. That’s the thing that always moves me to tears — that in the midst of all suffering, one bright spark of human love seems capable of purifying and nullifying any pain. Right? Is that failure?
Maybe that was the original role of humans on this planet: to show compassion amidst the ordered chaos that is life on Earth.

So getting back to the little bird who died on my shrine: both the dog and I experienced a shift after this incident. First of all, Chloe hasn’t killed a single thing since. And I swear there have been more birds on my property than ever before. I’m sure there’s a logical reason, like — duh –migration season. But I like to think that those birds are trying to tell me that everything is okay. I have heard it said that any being that dies in the presence of mantra or prayer or any kind of spiritual vibration is guaranteed to be reborn into a higher realm. Some call this realm heaven. Some even call this the human realm — because humans, unlike animals, have the capacity to change or control their instincts.

So each time I hear stories of a dog following his or her canine instincts to hunt and kill prey, I follow my human instincts and, well, pray for the prey. Every time I feed Chloe her raw meat, I chant mantras for the cows and chickens. Ever since I started thinking this way, I have felt more empowered. So we can’t prevent death, here in this land of mortality. Nor can we control the genetic makeup of our fellow mammals. What we can control is how we react.

And Chloe, she continues to charm people with her cute looks and goofy antics.

“Yes, she’s a lover,” they say.

And my response is always, “She’s a rescue.”

And that always gets a smile.