Though I am pretty much always listening to bands while I am working, I never give the albums I like a lot of mental attention, and as a result, song lyrics usually just wash over me. I end up walking around a grocery store, softly singing to myself a version of “Realiti” by Grimes that makes the lyrics sound like avant-garde poetry:
Oh baby I’ve been wondering
There are thousands of TV guides
Taking all my time, oh but why
Get up, this is what I see
Welcome 2 reality
Those are probably not the correct lyrics, but I don’t care enough to look them up online.
Back in the fall of 2015, an album I was listening to, Death Magic by the band HEALTH, an American noise group from Los Angeles, managed, somehow, to break this cycle. I found myself obsessing a little over the lyrics, which I would describe as “awkwardly spiritual,” and even going as far as listening to the album without doing something else at the same time, an extreme rarity for me. While I’ve been listening to HEALTH on and off since maybe 2008 or 2009, I didn’t have strong feelings about them as artists until Death Magic, though I did admire, on maybe a subconscious level, how they were a band of contradictions, one that, it seemed, wanted to make both hostile noise music as well as sweet, danceable pop music. Their artistic career felt, to me, like it was trying to illustrate how you don’t always have to choose between polar opposites or contradictory impulses. You can do both. You can choose to create hostile noise music while also making sweet, danceable pop music, even if that doesn’t make sense.
During the period Death Magic was dominating my iTunes, I was also reading a lot of entry-level books about Zen Buddhism, an experience that felt complementary to me, almost as if the texts were indirectly speaking with one another. Though I am not much of a spiritual person, I am interested in the practical side of spirituality. Books about Zen Buddhism usually contain good life advice, and the language that Zen masters rely on to describe abstract, theoretical mind concepts (“the Yoga of Knowledge,” “the Super Essential No-Thing,” “the Sublime Refuge”) often feels more creatively inspiring to me than most poetry I come across. I also like stories in Zen Buddhism that end with a person being “instantly enlightened,” which seems more useful to me than “living happily ever after.”
To stop thinking about Death Magic, I tried writing an essay about it, but I ended up being unable to separate the lyrics from other texts I was reading at the time. The final result, which is this, is a messy, “awkwardly spiritual,” seemingly thesis-less essay that seems to be partly about what Death Magic means to me, and partly about nothing.
The floating world
Death Magic is, I feel, written from a detached perspective, one in which death and life are considered equally meaningful/meaningless, and everything is connected. The album’s songs are all titled things like “Drug Exists,” “Hurt Yourself,” “Flesh World” or “Courtship II,” which makes me think of the way a poet like Melissa Broder usually titles her poems, giving them names like “Astral Locket” simply because “Astral Locket” sounds cool. In The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley comments on this, sort of, when he says, “Beauty in art or nature is a matter of relationships between things not in themselves intrinsically beautiful.” In other words, titles like “Astral Locket” or “Flesh World” sound intriguing not because of the individual words they contain, but because of the relationships these words create.
Here’s an excerpt from the song “Flesh World”:
There's nothing else
We're not here to find ourselves
Follow your lust
There's no need for forgiveness
Do what you want
Don't hurt the ones you love
Follow your lust
There's no one here to judge us
Do all the drugs
We die, so what?
I can’t think of another pop song that encourages me to “do all the drugs” or cultivate an indifferent approach towards death, and I kind of don’t hate it. Though the excerpt above could be read as straightforward hedonism, I find it interesting that the lyrics in this section carefully resists using words like “I,” “me” or “mine.” In Perennial Philosophy, Huxley says that words like “I” or “me” tend to function as a kind of Pavlovian bell for the ego, conditioning me to take my “loose and separate selfhood for granted.” Instead, Huxley says, I should try following the example of monks and start of referring to myself as “this sinner” or “this unprofitable servant.” Instead of thinking, “It’s Tuesday, I haven’t done laundry in over a month, I need to do laundry, this week is the week I finally heroically do laundry,” I should reframe my perspective and think, “It’s Tuesday, this sinner hasn’t done laundry in over a month, this sinner needs to do laundry, this week is the week this sinner finally heroically does laundry.”
“This sinner is going to do all the drugs.”
Also in Perennial Philosophy, Huxley mentions that, “The popular philosophy of life […] is now molded by the writers of advertising copy, whose one idea is to persuade everybody to be as extraverted and uninhibitedly greedy as possible, since of course it is only the possessive, the restless, the distracted, who spend money on the things that advertisers want to sell.” In Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo, Kodo Sawaki calls this state “ukiyo” or “the floating world,” by which he means people who spend their lives “floundering and wasting time doing random things […] halfheartedly and incompletely, alienated from [their] lives, rather than living with determination in a decisive direction.”
As a white, unmarried, heterosexual, relatively healthy adult male living in North America, I often feel like I am living in “the floating world,” a kind of daze in which my desires, goals and pursuits feel totally arbitrary or unclear to me, and exist primarily because I have to do something, I guess, while I am alive. In this context, the first three lines of the song excerpt above (“We’re here / There’s nothing else / We're not here to find ourselves”) feel like a kind of recalibration to me. They remind me that that my life is stupid and that my perceptions and the things I think are flawed and limited. More often than not, my thoughts are just stories I create in my head, mini-narratives to fool myself into thinking my life has a general direction instead of admitting to myself that maybe I am not entitled to a life that “makes sense.”
Going back to the song excerpt above, I feel like I also want to highlight the line, “Don't hurt the ones you love,” which seems to function as a kind of fun reversal of the line that precedes it (“Do what you want”). The more I look at those two lines together, the more they read like a kind of Zen koan to me, an attempt to confuse the intellect and move me into a non-conceptual experience of emptiness. Is it even possible to “follow your lust” and “do what you want” without “hurting the ones you love”? Maybe not, or maybe it is, but only in the same way that it’s possible for a noise band to also play sweet, danceable pop music, not by obeying both commandments at the same time, but by seeking a kind of equilibrium between two conflicting ideas.
Disappointment is a great teacher
I want to move on to the song “Life,” whose lyrics read:
Life is strange
We die, and we don't know why
I don’t know what I want,
Know that I don’t know what I want
No, nobody knows, nobody does,
We lie awake at night
We're tired of waiting
Yeah, life is pain
But I'm afraid to die
The idea of “not knowing what you want” comes up a few times throughout Death Magic (In another song: “We cheat / Why not? / It’s hard to know what you want”), though always, it seems, in a neutral and non-judgmental context, which is a good reminder that not knowing what you want isn’t inherently negative. There’s a section in Homeless Kodo in which Kodo Sawaki talks about how the opposite, thinking that you know what you want, can be even more damaging. “Just because we become a bride or bridegroom doesn’t mean we automatically get a clear view of our lives,” Sawaki says. “Life is still full of questions. Yet when a foolish man who doesn’t understand life marries a foolish woman who doesn’t understand life, everyone says, ‘Congratulations!’ This is most incomprehensible to me.”
Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says that, “Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all,” and I kind of feel like what HEALTH is trying to articulate in this song is that not only I am not entitled to a life that “makes sense,” I am also not entitled to comfort. In Zen Heart, American writer Ezra Bayda writes that, “Our capacity to understand that life itself doesn’t have an agenda, particularly our agenda, seems to be very limited. We insist on our sense of entitlement that life gives us comfort, pleasure and ease. Why can’t we understand that the fullest and richest experiences of life are often the result of difficulties that life presents, where we’re forced to go deeper? Isn’t disappointment our greatest teacher?”
While this sounds okay in theory, recognizing pain and confusion as an inevitable part of life isn’t a magic spell that makes them go away, which is probably why they re-surface several times throughout Death Magic.
In the song “Courtship II”:
You hurt so much, you hurt someone
You hurt someone for what you want
In “Hurt Yourself”:
You learn to love to hurt yourself
In the song “Life,” quoted earlier in this text, the central contradiction that HEALTH wrestles with involves experiencing pain, but still being afraid to die. Kodo Sawaki addresses this when he says, “A real flower is beautiful because of its impermanence, which a plastic flower lacks.”
Being stuck with myself
I want to conclude this essay by examining the lyrics of “L.A. Looks,” which go:
Are we alone here
No matter who we're with?
Am I stuck with myself
Along with everyone else?
But it's not love
It's not love but I still want you
Are we torn like this?
Are we stuck in our skin?
Am I sick of myself?
I'll never be anyone else
I often feel like I am trapped in a kind of never-ending civil war with my self-esteem. One day I sincerely believe I should win the Nobel Prize for Literature, then the next I feel small, worthless and pathetic. I want to leave myself like a mess you leave behind for someone else to clean up, get as far away from myself as possible, maybe get a restraining order against myself.
If I think about this for a little bit, I’ll realize that maybe the root of my problem isn’t that I feel “stuck with myself,” it’s that I interact with society primarily by comparing myself to people around me. If someone I know gets a teaching job and I think I am a “better writer” than that person, I feel, all at once, frustrated, underappreciated and worried about my financial future. Why is that? Shohaku Okumura talks about this in Homeless Kodo when he says, “When we feel more successful than others, we’re in heaven. When we feel others are more successful, we’re in hell.”
One of my biggest problems in life is my ego. Growing up, I was an outcast with low self-esteem and no obvious talent, so to give myself hope, I latched onto “being intelligent” as the one character trait that could separate me from my peers. I interpreted the world around me in a strategic manner, feeding this myth of myself as an intelligent, but misunderstood human being, and ignoring any counter-evidence. Over time, my personality became a kind of precarious Jenga tower in which I was afraid of failure, because to fail, for me, meant having to admit to myself that maybe there was nothing special about me after all, that maybe I was only a normal, unexceptional person of average intelligence.
Through adversity, I learned what should have been obvious, that though I could think creatively and be insightful sometimes, my “intelligence,” whatever it was, was actually totally useless in many aspects of life, like trying to use a pineapple to unlock a door. To quote Kodo Sawaki, “There’s only one moon, but sometimes it looks happy, sometimes sad.” Though I began to view my failures with more detachment, and even curiosity and optimism, something inside me still craved validation, still wanted to cling onto this image of myself as a rational, intelligent human being. I’ve quit jobs, friendships and even relationships partly because they threatened my self-image. This is, by far, the worst, darkest and most destructive aspect of my personality.
Though Buddhist texts have helped me curb this part of myself a little, I still feel like I am in a constant battle with myself to avoid taking myself seriously, to allow myself to make mistakes and feel dumb, which is often the smartest thing I can do. I love spending time alone partly because it frees me from chasing other people’s approval, and while I can go days without interacting with anyone, I always eventually get bored of myself, almost like I am waiting for myself to leave, and I go back out into the world looking for validation, for someone to tell me, “You are a rational, intelligent human being.”
Tibetan lama Thubten Yeshe says that I should avoid “holding a self-pitying image of myself,” while Eckhart Tolle advised me to “stick to the facts,” which are neutral. Instead of thinking, “It’s sad and unfair that people I view as less talented than me hold stable, well-paying jobs as Creative Writing teachers at various universities,” I should think something like, “This sinner currently has some free time, which he can use to either write or look for a job. This sinner’s economic future is risky, but his best chance to improve his situation is probably by being kind and passionate about what he does, whatever that is.” If worrying about money paralyzes me, I should remember an anecdote from Homeless Kodo, which goes: “There was a village where people were so lazy that they were in extreme poverty. A person came to the village and tried to teach them that they should work hard for a better life. The villagers asked, ‘What’s the point of working hard?’ The person answered, ‘So you can make money and become rich.’ The villagers asked, ‘What’s the point of being rich?’ The person replied, ‘If you have a lot of money, you won’t need to work.’ The villagers said, ‘But that’s what we do now.’”
Thoughts like these are what come to mind when I think about “being stuck with myself,” which makes me feel like HEALTH should maybe consider changing its band name to MENTAL HEALTH. Lyrically, Death Magic is an album that seems profoundly human to me because of its willingness to accept contradictions and its desire to reconcile ideas that seem incompatible or incongruous: Indifference with togetherness, loving hurting yourself, having desires and a sense of direction in life but still feeling like you’re chasing a cloud that could evaporate any day now, etc. As a whole, the album’s lyrics remind me of a quote from Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, which goes: “A flower falls, even though we love it, and a weed grows, even though we don’t love it. In this way, our life should be understood. Then there is no problem.”
Guillaume Morissette is the author of the novel New Tab (Véhicule Press, 2014). He lives in Montreal.
Illustration by Jamie Wolfe - from her film Roommates.