Amanda Palmer On Mindfulness And Gender

"I'd sooner write a song than buy a gun", Amanda Palmer tells Erin Lyndal Martin

Mindfulness can make adolescence easier

My best friend and mentor is Anthony (who got sick with cancer and was the reason I had to postpone my UK tour). I grew up next door to him. He was the safe haven away from my crazy family life and he introduced me to mindfulness, yoga, meditation, compassion, empathy, all of these relatively foreign concepts. He was a real guiding force in my younger years. When I left home at 17 or 18, I just continued down that path and kept experimenting and exploring things that might help keep my life in balance. I struggled in college a lot with depression and a general feeling of unease and panic – not that that’s totally gone away, especially nowadays, but I noticed that as I did yoga and mindfulness practice, it was incredibly grounding.

Then, in my mid-twenties, I started a regular yoga practice instead of just dabbling now and then. I started a really committed regular practice. Anthony was really encouraging. He was more or less my spiritual parent, and he – I can’t remember how old I was, but I was probably 22 or 23, fresh out of college – and he gave me the gift, if I wanted it, of a weekend retreat, a silent meditation retreat in a beautiful centre in western Massachusetts called the Insight Meditation Society. A very, very simple existence and a sliding scale payment, a totally silent retreat for two and a half days. I can’t say: "Oh my god, it blew my mind, my life was changed forever!" But it created a subtle enough shift to sit and walk and meditate for two full days for me to realise that this was a really important practice, because a lot of little realisations of how I was being mindless in my everyday life came to light. It’s sort of been an ongoing on and off practice and I can’t say I’m a really great, disciplined meditator. There are times, especially on the road, where I sometimes go three or four weeks without sitting at all. Which is ironic because it’s usually in those times of exhaustion and tumult that I could use it, but my discipline goes down the drain.

But I continued to go on retreats. I went on a week-long silent retreat a few years after that, and another one a few years later. I’ve gone on lots of yoga retreats that are not silent, but there’s a big meditation component in the mornings and evenings. I have found it infinitely useful in my life and my existence as a human being and a musician and a communicator.

Choose your books carefully, especially if you get arrested in Australia

When people come to me in times of real trouble, and sometimes they do, there’s a couple of books I recommend as a way to feel grounded. One of them is a book by a Korean Zen Buddhist named Seung Sahn. It’s a series of letters between him and his students. I read that book. Anthony gave me that book when I was about 23, and I took it on a trip to Australia, where I was going to street performances and try to make some money on the Adelaide street fringe. It’s a long story, way too long for your article. But when I was in Australia I got accidentally arrested. I had just been reading that book that morning and the previous day. In the morning of sitting and talking to a bunch of Australian police, I really had the experience of watching my own mind battle myself and want to defend myself and get angry and revert to my old patterns of behavior. And instead I just calmly sat there explaining what had happened and feeling the power in non-reactivity and the power of not getting angry and the power of realising that these guys were just doing their jobs. And that was one of those life-changing moments. I’ve probably bought that book a dozen times and gifted it to people who were in need. I don’t give them [a copy of] How To Understand The Music Business; I give them the Seung Sahn letters.

Really, you should start with his letters

He also wrote this book, The Compass Of Zen. I wouldn’t recommend starting with The Compass Of Zen. I would recommend starting with the letters. Because you have totally normal people dealing with totally normal problems. "I don’t know what to do with my life. My parents don’t fucking understand me. I keep being distracted." These are kids in the sixties and seventies. The problems are all the same. It takes no intellectual stretch to read these letters that these kids wrote to their Zen teacher, or a teacher they saw at a talk. And he writes back these beautiful, considered, really great, no-bullshit answers about what’s important. He actually influenced my correspondence style. I read those books often, and I notice when my writing style tries to mimic it. I start speaking in these short, terse sentences as if I were a Korean monk who didn’t speak great English.

No matter how mindful you are, you still have a gendered body

I’ve used my body a lot. I’ve used and abused it. I don’t know a single [person] who hasn’t used and abused their body in a variety of ways. It’s very interesting being a woman because the rules out there are a little different, and you can bend them, and you can flaunt them, and you can express frustration at them. But the fact is, if you’re born into this world with tits, there’s a different set of assumptions around you, and that is something I’ve been fascinated with all my life. What would the situation be like if I weren’t a woman? Would it be any different? Am I taking advantage of the situation because I am a woman? All of these deep, complex, layered questions.

Stripping can be done mindfully

And it’s not surprising to me, but when I look back into my early twenties, there were a lot of things happening at once. I was deepening my practice on the one hand, meditating more, trying to practice ongoing mindfulness. On the other side, I was starting a rock & roll band and signing up for a particular kind of lifestyle and a particular path that I knew would be a messy path, but I was starting to embrace the mess with both arms. I knew what I was in for. I could have done a lot of things. But I chose to be a rock singer. And I knew more or less what that lifestyle would dictate if I was to really go for it.

At the same time to make ends meet while the band was just starting out and not making lots of money, I was a stripper. I spent a long time wondering whether I was strong enough to do that job because I knew I would be doing psychic battle in a strip joint and I knew I would have to go in fully armed and ostensibly ready to be myself and stay straight, for lack of a better word. Because it was such a deliriously weird place to be. I went in there thinking, "I can do this because I am a feminist and I can do this job compassionately." And that means having compassion for myself and for whatever fucked up people I run into. And that means I ran into a lot of fucked up people, on and off stage, practically every night. Everyone in that joint was somewhat fucked up. I was fucked up. I was 24 and scrambling to keep my life together. But the majority of the work I did in that strip joint wasn’t up on stage grinding on a pole. It was sitting at a bar having hundred dollar bottles of champagne bought for me and talking to some of the loneliest human beings on the planet. And really with compassion for them, and awareness for this situation. This place we’re in. The trappings of that strip club don’t matter to me. I am honoured to be connecting with this person in this fucked-up way. That’s how I approached this entire job. It was weird. But it worked! I was sort of alone in my approach toward stripping. I didn’t have a lot in common with the other chicks in the strip club.

Try everything and see what you like

I really believe there are all these different styles [of meditation]; they’re probably all pretty good. I did a little bit of charity work a few years ago for Transcendental Meditation not knowing anything about them, good or bad, just thinking, "If these people are meditators, they’re probably pretty cool." As long as it’s not too complicated and the idea is to pay attention to the moment, then it’s probably helpful. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing swimming meditation, walking meditation, transcendental meditation, knitting meditation. The practice is towards compassion. It’s just meditation, not to disparage any particular style. It’s a lot like yoga. People ask me what kind of yoga they should do. I tell them to try everything and see what they like. I know people who can’t stand certain styles of yoga but love others. They need to be gently ushered in through one kind of yoga if they can get it.

Mindfulness and death wishes co-exist sometimes

If there ever was a manifestation of the id, it’s a song like ‘The Killing Type’. I am very proud and unapologetic of the art that I make, especially when its purpose, at least for me, is to work through and deal with inner conflict. I believe that if I didn’t have art as an outlet, and if we didn’t collectively have art as an outlet, the overall result in our lives might not be so pretty. Art is really important to help us work through the conflicts we feel, the total paradoxes we feel as human beings. ‘The Killing Type’ is about that crazy paradox you can feel as a human being where everything is driving you toward wanting to feel compassion but anger still arises and you have to face it, and what do you do? In my case, I write a song. I’d rather write a song than buy a gun. This is why I think it’s so important, especially now because I see the hammer coming down, to let people make art when they are angry and frustrated and confused. It is the most important time because art can really help safely sort out conflicted feelings because art can sort out conflicted feelings and confusion. I may not listen to death metal and I may not like the idea of a band covering themselves with blood and screaming into microphones that they want to kill children and kill their mothers, but I would so much rather they do that than actually commit real acts of violence. It’s so much safer. I’m a huge advocate of free art-making.

Taking time for yourself makes you more compassionate to others

We are in seriously confusing times as women. We are faced with massive decisions and choices and we’re drunk on a new kind of wonderful freedom, but that also means that we need to define ourselves without a rulebook. Life as a woman right now in the Western world… if you’re of the demographic that’s reading this article, you’re in an incredible position. Life in the modern world is overwhelming. It is good to stop and feel your body and tune in to the moment, especially given all the choices now. As women especially, we’re just passionate connecters – not to generalise – and the tools of the Internet and smart phones and Facebook, it is like an explosive smorgasboard of excitement but also terror. I don’t know a single woman who isn’t overwhelmed right now by the combination of her personal life, her work and the number of buzzings in her back pocket or her purse – I don’t actually know any fucking chick who carries a purse – we’re going so fast and it requires quiet moments, so we need to create them, so we don’t go crazy. Carving that time out for yourself and understanding that the very act of carving out that time actually helps you to serve and be a more helpful human being, and a more compassionate human being, god willing.

Amanda Palmer plays Glastonbury’s Other Stage this Friday, June 28, and tours the UK with her Grand Theft Orchestra from July 11-17

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