Trump and Brexit are choices and changes that present a karmic challenge

When we look back into our lives, sometimes we wish we had made different choices in hindsight. However, each decision we make is based on the beliefs we hold about our world and our lives at that moment. Each decision brings different set of life experiences and life lessons, pleasant or painful.

In reflection, the life lessons resulted from the choices we made help us become who we are today. In other words, there are no so called “good” or “bad” decisions.

The Bush administration was elected by American majority. The decision America’s chosen leader made had triggered Series of world events that shaped the world today.

These events have led to new awareness and debates and have raised global collective consciousness, which might have not happened otherwise.

I was thinking of this recently when the results of the American election came in and Donald Trump was declared the 45th President of the United States. While the vote was certainly not predicted, the result now means that Americans are on a new karmic journey which for some will look enticing and for others brings anxiety and fear.

It is very hard to say whether America or the world will be better or worse for this collective decision, and there will be a series of consequences, negative or positive. Choice and change are intertwined.
As Franz Kafka said: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
In the UK, the Brexit vote has created much the same karmic journey for all of us. It is bringing huge change, like it or not. I am one of those people who worried about the uncertainty but Could these alterations in our world path be blessings in disguise?
Understandably, these two historical events have divided the country but also brought more like-minded people together to create changes.
Perhaps – for example, with Brexit, I am starting to appreciate and consider democracy differently. Everyone should have their say towards their future. However, is it possible for everyone to make informed and rational choices? How do we sort through the conflicting information aimed to confuse and manipulate? For those disenfranchised or disappointed, can they be blamed for making the choices in anger and protest? Is this the best way to respond to the past?

When one is not in survival mode, it is easier to uphold higher principles and have hope. It is easier to maintain a faith in the future and present establishments. It is the uncertainty of the future and the loss of grounding of history that bring out the dormant prejudices and fear of survival.
Our natural response is to reject and resist the “undesirable “changes. Karma is about cause and effect, but also about accepting the present in order to make changes for the future.
The ability to shape the future still lies in our hands, and that is what matters.

Bruno Wang

Why masculinity has to change, and keep changing

What does it mean to “Be A Man” in the 21st century? Few would align that idea today with obviously outdated stereotypes: John Wayne riding into town with a rifle, Mad Men’s Don Draper discarding women at will, a Dickensian father sternly punishing his children.

Modern men are more likely to be riding bicycles, enjoying monogamy with partners of either gender, and taking paternity leave with confidence.

But even as society seems to welcome men who are more sensitive, compassionate and kind, I wonder if we ask ourselves often enough about this radically-changed view of masculinity?

We know that being a man is not easy – suicide incidence is higher among men than women across the western world. In the UK, men are three times more likely than women to end their own lives. And, according to the Department of Health, for most of the past 10 years the peak suicide rates have been in men in their mid-years. Yet hardly anyone seems to understand why this should be.

A clever report by The Samaritans finds that actual masculinity – “the way men are brought up to behave and the roles, attributes and behaviours that society expects of them” – contributes to suicide in men.

We compare ourselves against a masculine “gold standard” which prizes power, control and invincibility, and somewhat inevitably find ourselves falling short. Yet, says the charity, failure itself is non-masculine. Real men are in control of their lives at all times.

When those feelings (shame, sadness, loss of control) coalesce and spiral, men embark on risk-taking behaviours such as drugs or alcohol intake. And some, sadly, decide to end their lives.

How then to square the circle – allow men to break out of the stereotype without them feeling diminished or anxious?

At the Being A Man festival in London, these ideas are coming under scrutiny with key professionals, policy makers and experts brought in to discuss how being a man influences social life. Guests from think tanks and charities, industry, government and community initiatives discuss topics ranging from suicide rates and parental leave to young offenders and new leadership models.

One of its speakers is rapper and documentary film maker Professor Green who says: “The world’s changed, and these days a man has to be everything. You can’t just be hard, you can’t just be understanding, you have to bend and remould to each scenario.”

This fluidity in masculinity is where the future lies. Perhaps it is easier to relinquish this sense of control if we accept that we are evolving, and that the change is not yet complete. Indeed we have the power to control and describe how masculinity will look in centuries hence.

The control we have of creating a hopeful and exciting future must surely outweigh the individual and limiting control that old-school maleness afforded. Being A Man is still a work in progress.

Bruno Wang

Music behind bars

The mezzosoprano Joyce DiDonato is always so intriguing. When I heard she had presented a concert at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison, in New York, I was ready again to learn from this remarkable artist. Miss DiDonato, who is used to performing Handel, Purcell, Rossini or Donizetti for the most elite and knowledgeable of audiences, sang pieces written for her by inmates who have been studying composition as part of the Musical Connections programme, through Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.

This community-based effort is giving hope and a voice to inmates with the creation and performance of new music. Through the Carnegie Hall outreach programme – now in its eighth year of partnership with Sing Sing – select prisoners, including some of the most hardened criminals, play instruments and write songs with renowned artists. They are learning to replace their destructive behaviours with the help of music.

The men engage in a year-long learning experience. A series of workshops focused on composition and instrument skills culminates in several concerts for the facility’s general population, featuring original works and performances by the men alongside Musical Connections roster artists and special guests such as Miss DiDonato.

This is one of a set of community-based projects which links people to a variety of musical experiences created in partnership with city agencies, ranging from standalone concerts to intensive year-long creative workshops designed to have a powerful impact on participants’ daily lives.

In the UK, there are music therapy programmes for prisoners too. One called Changing Tunes, says the work is important as part of rehabilitation as it lasts “through the gate”, engaging both pre and post-release; that is the key element to creating lasting behavioural change.

Music of course is therapeutic in several ways. It can help us release our emotions – whether we play or listen, and offer a form of safe catharsis. It may help participants reach out to those from whom they feel alienated, restoring communication and helping to rebuild relationships.

According to Changing Tunes, performing and playing is vital to counteract the isolation many prisoners feel. It can lift self-esteem, engender respectful behaviour and promote more rounded, positive behaviour. And a Norwegian study in 2014 reported that music therapy in prisons reduced levels of anxiety among prisoners.

The best of these programmes recognise that those on both sides of the prison wall must be full participants for the projects to reap their full value. It is a great start to ask prisoners to play, and we must find it in ourselves to listen too.

Bruno Wang

Commit to the journey, not the outcome

Few modern mezzosopranos are more successful and acclaimed than multi Grammy award-winner Joyce DiDonato. She has been proclaimed as “perhaps the most potent female singer of her generation” by the New Yorker and “a transformative presence in the arts” by Gramophone.

Yet Miss DiDonato remains humble and modest, and deeply sensitive to others. This gentleness is perhaps unusual in one so outwardly successful but it is a lesson from which we can all learn.

An example of the way she behaves can be found in the 109th graduation address which she made to the Juilliard School of Music in 2014.

Here, she reminded students, of her own early experiences – a “star turn” as the off-stage lover in Il Tabarro with one solitary line (sung off stage); an evaluation sheet for the Houston Opera Studio which declared “not much talent” and “way more rejections and easy dismissals than actual ‘yesses’”. Indeed, she told the new graduates that she would never have gained admission to Juilliard at their age: “I simply wasn’t ready back then. That is the truth. One never, ever knows where their journey will lead them.”

Then she invited the young hopefuls to speculate on the idea You will never make it.” She told them: “That’s the bad news, but I invite you to see it as fabulous, outstanding news, for I don’t believe there is actually an ‘it’. ‘It’ doesn’t exist for an Artist. One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, right here, right now, in this single, solitary, monumental moment in your life – is to decide, without apology, to commit to the journey, and not to the outcome.

“As an artist, you will never arrive at a fixed destination. This is the glory and the reward of striving to master your craft and embarking on the path of curiosity and imagination, while being tireless in your pursuit of something greater than yourself.”

Miss DiDonato also warned the students to be self-effacing, saying: “You may not yet realise it, but you haven’t signed up for a life of glory and adulation (although that may well come) – however, that is not your destination, for glory is always transitory and will surely disappear just as fleetingly and arbitrarily as it arrived.

“The truth is, you have signed up for a life of service by going into the Arts. You are here to serve humanity.”

What inspiring words these are for artists but also for non-artists too. A life of service, a lifetime to strive and to be curious. No end to the journey. A greater triumph always over the hill. And throughout, a sense of humility. It is – as the quote from Buddha says – “Far better to travel well than to arrive.”

Bruno Wang

Through music, finding peace in the midst of chaos

The world-famous mezzosoprano Joyce DiDonato was in the middle of researching music for her next album when the terrorist attacks took place in Paris on November 13 last year.

She had been contemplating the idea “Does art matter?” – but realised in the aftermath of the massacre that the question which would not leave her was: “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?”

She says: “How could I devote immense, intensive personal and professional resources to this project and dare to bring it to 20 cities, when the music sitting in front of me felt – apologies to these fine composers – like a gimmick while the world around me continued to surge out of control?”

But then as though by fate compositions seemed to find their own serendipitous path into her hands. Handel’s haunting Lascia ch’io pianga, Dido’s Lament by Purcell.

She also picked out – for the album which she named In War & PeacePrendi quel ferro, o barbaro! (from Leo’s Andromaca) and Illustratevi, o cieli (from Monteverdi’s Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria).

Even so, the music could not simply be presented as a fait accompli. Miss DiDonato wanted to engage and challenge listeners. Our own experiences, she says, need to be an active choice – “one that isn’t arbitrary, but is informed by the darkness”.

Her words echo the dictum of Eleanor Roosevelt. “In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves,” the First Lady said. “The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.”

I believe that the spirit of music can help us make good choices. When we hear or make music, it affects us in individual and communal ways, making it a natural agent of connection and change. A shared moment of listening is the ideal time to take stock, to find a moment of peace, to make a decision – possibly shared – towards positive behaviour.

Miss DiDonato explored this idea further by approaching people from all walks of life to reveal where they found peace. A homeless woman wrote: “I imagine a small globe of light growing larger from my centre until I am surrounded by light and peace.” A young Indian boy who attends a school for children with leprosy replied: “When surrounded by chaos, I see people in need and then I find myself among the most fortunate, blessed people.”

For me, that moment comes through deep meditation and reflection. For Miss DiDonato, she admits, the music of Purcell and its simplicity brings calm. Handel, she says, soothes with his total serenity of harmony. Both offer her a compass towards internal peace in their purity.

Bruno Wang

Taking great strides to improve opportunity and care in Haiti

It’s fascinating the extraordinary ways that fate or karma can pull events together so closely with our plans.

When Canadian film director, screenwriter, and producer Paul Haggis travelled to Haiti in 2008, he met the remarkable Father Rick Frechette, an American doctor and community organiser who had been working in the slums of Port-au-Prince for more than two decades.

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, where child mortality is particularly high.  Of those that do survive, only half attend school. Unemployment is rife.

Haggis, who has won Best Picture Academy Awards for Million Dollar Baby and Crash, was moved to help, and returned to the US to set up Artists for Peace and Justice (APJ) to support and empower Haitians.

He also wanted APJ to support Frechette’s work at the St Luke Foundation which has built orphanages, medical clinics, a network of more than 25 primary schools, and a paediatric hospital that is the only free hospital serving the children of one of the largest slums in the Western Hemisphere.

What he couldn’t have foreseen was how vital his charity would suddenly become, how timely was his intervention. In 2010, barely a year later, Haiti was hit by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake; its most severe quake in 200 years. The death toll was estimated to be between 46,000 and 85,000.

Paul and some of his friends were able to get to Haiti to help almost immediately in the aftermath, bringing medicines and offering practical support.

In the years that have followed, they have done so much more. It is so impressive how Hollywood stars such as Ben Stiller, Jude Law and Susan Sarandon have all pledged their support. Funds have been gathered. Awareness has been raised.

And Academy for Peace and Justice, the first free secondary school to serve the poorest communities in Haiti has grown each year, reaching full capacity in 2016 with 2,800 students. The aim is to grow a new generation of Haiti’s leaders by providing access to quality secondary and higher education. Every student at the Academy receives a scholarship which includes full tuition, uniforms, and year-round access to St Luke’s medical services.

Moreover, APJ is also supporting the growth of Haiti’s talented youth and new creative industries through the Artists Institute, Haiti’s first free arts and technical college. Haggis has said: “As artists, we have to be brave. If we aren’t brave, we aren’t artists.”

This could be equally true of humanitarians – it takes courage and strength to work for others, especially when the need grows rather than diminishes. Yet courage and strength – and bravery – are very human qualities. Perhaps we just need fate to intervene and remind us of that sometimes.

Bruno Wang

Wonder of miracles is Mother Teresa’s work after death

When Mother Teresa was canonised as St Teresa of Calcutta last month by Pope Francis at the Vatican, there was much discussion of the work she carried out during her lifetime. She is known for establishing the Missionaries of Charity in two rooms in a Calcutta side street, to minister to “the poorest of the poor”, caring for abandoned children and the truly desperate. These were the people among whom she lived until her death in 1997 at the age of 87.

But in Rome, where the ceremony took place – and which I was honoured to attend – more significance was placed on Mother Teresa’s works after her death. Before someone can be considered for sainthood, the Roman Catholic Church demands a thorough assessment of their life and work, and notably any miracles which are reported to have taken place as a result of intercessionary prayers.

In this case there was no shortage of reports. Canadian priest Father Brian Kolodiejchuk, who was charged with acquiring and examining the evidence, received almost 900 reports of “graces and favours” attributed to Mother Teresa. Most were answered prayers – in connection with simple things such as an exam or a new job. Three stood out.

One concerned a sister of the Missionaries of Charity in India paralysed from the waist down after a hernia operation. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, two days after Mother Teresa’s death, a friend of the nun had prayed before her body and touched it with a piece of white cloth. This cloth was pinned to the paralysed body of the nun, and she was cured.

The second miracle concerned an eight-year-old girl in Palestine who was suffering from bone cancer, and who was said to have recovered after Mother Teresa appeared in her dreams and declared, “Child, you are cured.”

The most significant miracle affected a 30-year-old mother of five from west Bengal who had an ovarian tumour. On September 5, 1998, the first anniversary of Mother Teresa’s death, a medallion which had touched the body of Mother Teresa was placed on the woman’s body, and prayers offered for her life. Eight hours later, the tumour had vanished. It was this case which was ratified as a miracle by the Pope last December.

That Mother Teresa’s life conformed to the Church’s standards of “heroic Christian virtue” is in no doubt. But why should we also need to see proof of something beyond human virtue? Why do we need miracles?

Perhaps it is to do with our need for wonder, to experience the joy of the inexplicable and extraordinary, which in turn mean anything is possible. Regardless of faith, humans have always dreamed of and yearned for more than what they see day to day. 

Yet we do not have to be passive recipients of the phenomenal. The lucky ones manage to relish the impossible and unbelievable in every moment. As Albert Einstein said: “There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; or you can live as if everything is a miracle.” And that is a wonderful way to exist.

Bruno Wang

The devotion of St Teresa

When Pope Francis proclaimed Mother Teresa of Calcutta a saint in September, he said she had defended the unborn, sick and abandoned, and had shamed world leaders for the crimes of poverty they themselves created.

It was a powerful message that I was honoured to witness at the ceremony in the Vatican.

This was an extraordinary event, attracting tens of thousands of pilgrims to St Peter’s Square. Hundreds of sisters from the Missionaries of Charity – the order St Teresa founded – attended the event, along with 13 heads of state or government.

And 1,500 homeless people across Italy were also brought to Rome in buses to be given seats of honour at the celebration, and then a pizza lunch served by 250 nuns and priests of the Sisters of Charity order.

After the pope had canonised St Teresa, the community prayed and I took a moment to meditate on this remarkable woman and her work.

Born in 1910 to ethnic Albanian parents, Agnese Gonxha Bojaxhiu had grown up in what is now the Macedonian capital, Skopje, but was then part of the Ottoman Empire. Aged 19, she joined the Irish order of Loreto and in 1929 was sent to India, where she taught at a school in Darjeeling under the name of Therese.

In 1946, she moved to the Calcutta slums where she established the community of nuns, whom she worked alongside until she died in 1997 aged 87. She dedicated herself to helping the destitute, including many abandoned children.

The Pope described her as having spent her life bowing down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity. And she rightly won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work.

But when asked why she helped the poor, St Teresa once said: “There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in that we do it to God, to Christ, and that’s why we try to do it as beautifully as possible.

In my meditation, I focused on this quality of devotion. And as I did, I saw her kneeling before God, basked in light, in complete quietness. I started to pray for the things that I wanted in my life, but that prayer was taken from me.

Instead, I found myself praying for strength to have the resource and capacity to do good for more people. As I focused on this, I felt a sensation of support and of St Teresa’s intervention. I felt uplifted by this new saint and I remain deeply touched by my experience in Rome.

Bruno Wang

The paths not taken are best left to the storytellers

Venice Film Festival is the oldest film festival in the world and a great chance to see bold, innovative moviemaking from some of the world’s finest and most promising directors. I always enjoy my time there.

The setting is a key part too – who cannot fail to be seduced by the old Italian city’s canals and its otherworldly architecture? To wander the honey-coloured walkways and cross ancient stumbling bridges is to feel as though one is on a film set, and part of a mystical story.

Another, rather different but no less mystical, location is at the heart of La La Land, the opening film of the 73rd Biennale this year.

The film, directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), is a clever, thoughtful musical and has won huge plaudits already both for its story and the performances of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling

It’s a bitter sweet tale – full of joy and tenderness, but also some moments of heart rending sadness. I particularly enjoyed the way the plot was supported with perfectly judged music and old-fashioned dancing. At times, it recalls the classic musical An American in Paris, taking us into another world, turning brash Los Angeles into the City of Light.

This complements one of the central messages in La La Land: what happens when we take the road less travelled, and how often have we more than one potential future? It’s provoking to reflect on how much chance plays a pivotal role in our long-term happiness.  

It’s interesting to note too – as the film does – that these alternate realities are not just fanciful dreaming. When we look back at our past, it is always possible to see “what might have been”. Because it can be fun – perhaps dangerously so – to look into a world of “What Ifs”; it can even be vital to the creative process. The writer John Irving said: “I think there is often a ‘what if’ proposition that gets me thinking about all my novels.

Other films, too, have explored this idea – Sliding Doors (which starred Gwyneth Paltrow as the protagonist leading two lives separated by a chance event) and Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda. The German film Run Lola Run allows its eponymous heroine three attempts to get a life event right, exploring the consequences of failure.

Still I try to remember that stories are not real life. None of us wants to be burdened with regret and the secret to contentment is surely not envy of the other road but making peace with the person we are now and the roads that we did travel. We should stay focused in the moment, and not allow ourselves to wallow in What Ifs? at the risk of sabotaging the exciting and hopeful possibilities of tomorrow.

Bruno Wang

An infinite light in sacred music that touches us all

“I can’t disconnect the act of writing music from the act of prayer,” said British composer Sir John Tavener. “If anyone tries to stop me working, it feels like someone is trying to stop me from taking communion.”

I understand what he means. Sacred music – whatever faith you follow – can be a way of touching the divine and revealing the spirit.

All religions understand this, with many using chanted words and instrumental rhythms as often as choral works and melodic compositions. In Pure Land Buddhism, the name Amitabha, which means infinite light, is repeated; in Tibetan Buddhism, throat singing is an integral part of worship.

For Roman Catholics, the equivalent sound is Gregorian or plainchant, which developed mainly in western and central Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries. It was substantially revived and renewed in the 19th century at Solesmes Abbey in France, where an official Vatican copy was produced.

But while Gregorian chant may be used in the liturgy, choral music is used to inspire the heart and lift the soul. And there have been choirs based at all the major sites of worship from the moment of their creation. Singing has ranged from the plainsong Offices sung by the monks of the tenth-century monastic foundation to the daily choral services sung by the Choir at Westminster Abbey for more than 1,000 years.

The oldest continuous choir in the world is the Cappella Musicale Pontificia or Papal Choir – in existence since about 600. After the renovation of the Sistine Chapel in 1483, the chapel became its home, and the choir became commonly known as the Sistina. The work of the choir is to be discussed at an event organised by the Pure Land Foundation for China Exchange series in London in October 2016.

The choir itself – which consists of twenty adult singers and thirty unpaid boy choristers – practises three hours a day to produce its sublime sound. One of them is British baritone Mark Spyropoulos, who will be speaking about his experiences as a Papal singer for the Pure Land Foundation.

Spyropoulos has said that he is “fascinated” by working at the very heart of the Church and that it touches his faith. He also speaks of being ambushed by unexpected spirituality: “We were singing one of the Palestrina motifs to the empty chapel at 10 o’clock at night. This music goes incredibly deep. It is spiritual, meditative, reflective, mysterious. I had this feeling of being completely transported, somewhere far away. It was almost like an out-of-body experience. That has never happened to me before.”

Such is the transformative power of sacred music that it touches all of us anew, over and over. And it happens even to those most accustomed to hearing and making its sounds.

Bruno Wang