Meditations & Meditation - Reflections on Aurelius and Robert Cunningham
There are few things in life more wonderful than discovering something that appeals to both the heart and the mind. Many forms of art appeal to at least one of these senses. I've read many branches of philosophy that have challenged my intellect, and a large body of music has appealed to the part of me that desires sentimentality. However, artistic expression that portrays both intellectual and emotional clarity at a profound level is rare. Being able to fuse these two seemingly different qualities together is difficult because often times they are seen as being incompatible. However, when guided through the right vessel, reason and passion can harmonize to become one in the same thing. In a sense, they are the same thing. It is simply the way in which they are perceived that gives these two abstract concepts an air of discrepancy. Today I had the pleasure of experiencing the best of both worlds in the classic literary work "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius, and in "Meditation" by Robert Cunningham, a contemporary piano piece. Both compositions contain immense intellectual depth, as well as an intuitive beauty that sings loud to any soul that desires to discover it.
Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor who reigned from 161-180 A.D. He is most famous today for his work "Meditations" and for his timeless contributions to Stoic philosophy. The Meditations are a set of diary entries that Aurelius wrote that chronicle different times of his life. The central theme of the work is that one can achieve fulfillment through a high understanding of the world. The Meditations also argued that it was crucial to work through one's problems with strength and dignity, rather than falling into a pit of negative feelings. Stoicism was an ideology that cherished reason as the most valuable essence on earth. Hope and other "excessive" emotions were regarded as horrible and even evil because they were thought to have been born from faulty judgment and would inevitably drive one into deep despair. Stoicism was all about removing one's personal presuppositions of what it meant to be happy and fulfilled. A Stoic endured trial and despair by relying on reason.
Stoicism was one of the first branches of philosophy that attempted (somewhat) to abandon The Tao. Derived from ancient Chinese philosophy, The Tao (or The Way) is what many would think of as "Objective Ethics" or "Christian Morality." It is an invisible, supernatural force that acts as humanity's ultimate reference for absolute principles such as right, wrong, love, beauty, etc... By relying on reason to make a decision, one would seemingly abandon The Tao because The Tao references ideas which don't have strictly logical premises. The Tao's values are derived from this supernatural force which in of itself is the final end.
However, upon closer inspection, one will come to realize that The Tao cannot be absent from one's philosophy. The Tao simply becomes covered with a thin piece of semantic fabric that diverts the thinker away from the underlying principle which is The Tao. It isn't actually removed. To uncover this veil, all one must do is go through some simple steps of inquiry.
The big question that one must ask is: " Why do I reason? " The most common answer to this question is that reason is the best way to find truth. Very well, then. Upon even closer scrutiny one will see that there is an invisible aesthetic appeal to truth. A truth is strong, noble, and has a sacred quality to it. In the same way, a strong truth appeals more than a weak one. A soldier who dies fighting for his country is a stronger truth than a soldier who hides during gunfire. But even though the latter itself doesn't contain an ounce of strength or nobility, one knows that an ugly truth is still a truth. Truth itself contains a certain innate moral value. It directly appeals right back to The Tao which so many philosophies try to avoid. In attempting to partially abandon this traditional paradigm of thought, Aurelius, and the other stoics essentially appealed to it in a totally new way.
I see many similarities between the unconventional philosophy of Aurelius and the music of Robert Cunningham, specifically from his piece entitled "Meditation." The work is wonderfully written, and certainly contains moments of melodic and directional stasis. But there are also moments of great turbulence and agitation. The atmosphere and musical narrative of this piece suggest a different form of expression from what one would expect to see or hear in a "meditation." When thinking of meditation today, one usually conjures up ideas of a process that involves emptying one's mind and removing as much of one's consciousness/awareness as possible in order to achieve some sort of "deeper connection with reality." It's almost as if the modern idea of meditation is to achieve peace through a kind of emotional and mental suppression. However, in a way similar to The Meditations by Aurelius, Cunningham does not stifle emotional turbulence in his work, but rather opens up to various difficulties and develops his way through them.
Awhile back, I had a conversation with Mr. Cunningham about meditation, and he made a very beautiful and meaningful comment. He said something along the lines of: "I see meditation as a way in which one achieves peace through being completely aware of the world." This remark carries so much weight because it perfectly reflects the ideas presented in his own composition. Through his Meditation for solo piano, Cunningham stares down and embraces the tensions of life. And because of that, he can peacefully resolve them as well. To me, the work finally submits to a world of peace and acceptance in MM.71, when a startling yet hushed C Major chord gives a final inquiry before working its way back to B Major. His work is a great study in rebellion that tips its hat to tradition. To write in a late romantic style in this day and age is generally seen as a taboo by compositional academia. The piece references history, yet puts a new and fresh stamp on it, similar to the way in which Stoic Philosophy seems to reference The Tao by attempting to let go of it.
Cunningham's work is bold, intuitive, and has an air of transparency that allows one to look through the material itself to see a new world where endless amounts of hope and imaginative possibilities await. It surprises, yet comforts; and it says something new of the old. Just like The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Robert's meditation rebels yet obeys a certain symmetry which we could call The Musical Tao.