This article originally appeared in the fall 2012 Harker Quarterly.
Good morning. I’d like to welcome the board of Trustees, administration, faculty, staff, and the classes of 2016, 2015, 2014 and 2013 to today’s matriculation ceremony. Matriculation is a tradition at the Harker upper school during which all freshmen and new students commit themselves, by signature and oath, to the values of honesty and fellowship, among others. You can walk the halls of the campus knowing that all of your classmates have committed themselves to these values.
Mr. Keller and I have the privilege of offering a few words today. Most of the time these brief addresses take the form of an aspiration we have for the student body, something we hope you will keep in mind during the year.
You will be relieved to hear that I am continuing the tradition of confining my aspiration for you to one page of single-space, size 12 font.
Today I want to talk about jam sessions and my hope that you will have many of them this year. What do I mean by jam sessions? They have nothing to do with jelly. On good days, when I have the fortitude, I begin my day with a short run in my neighborhood and a brief meditation on my front balcony. Meditation, it has been said, is an activity done for its own sake. If you are meditating to become a better person or some other purpose then you are not meditating. The philosopher Alan Watts describes meditation as a sort of digging the present moment. Getting with the universe. Perhaps Will Smith would call meditation, “Getting jiggy with it.”
When I meditate I face east, where I am from, and often my thoughts drift to my past. Recently while I was meditating, thoughts of my friends from junior high and high school floated up. I recalled how we used to have what we called “jam sessions,” by which we meant two distinct activities. First, and most obvious, we held musical jam sessions, during which we improvised, or jammed, and played rock songs popular at the time. I played the drums and a little bass guitar while my friends played other instruments. They were all more skillful musicians than I was but none of that mattered at the time. We played music just to play music, to swing with it, to get with the universe.
The second activity, less obvious, was getting together and talking all night, just to talk. We talked about everything: music, authors, teachers, parents, friends, the future, girls and more girls. We talked just to talk, and this, too, was a form of improvisation, a digging the moment.
This is what I hope for you in your high school career, many jam sessions, and not necessarily in the form of music or discussion although those are perfectly fine ways to jam. What I want for you is the spirit of jam sessions, getting lost in an activity for its own sake.
This is the point of most religions, though an often forgotten point. It is also the meaning of music and dance. Alan Watts points out that music and dance are activities done for their own sakes, that music and dance are significant of themselves, not something else. We don’t dance to get to a specific place in the room, nor do we play music to reach the end of the song. The original spirit of religious activity is to put you in touch with the powers of the life so that you understand that those powers are you. That is why people sing in church, to “get with it,” “it” meaning everything. That is a jam session.
I remember chaperoning a sick student on a bus in Washington, D.C. He was sleeping in the back and two local bus drivers were in the front bantering about who was the best prophet in the bible. One bus driver said that Ezekiel was the best prophet there ever was. The two started working themselves up in a religious frenzy, right there. One said he was having a moment. The two didn’t need a church or a preacher. The bus was their church, the spirit of the moment their preacher.
The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this “flow,” when the doer and the deed, the actor and the activity are one. My friends and I called them jam sessions. Whatever you call them, I wish for you today that you get lost in some activity for its own sake, without regard to grades, popularity, college admissions or outcomes of any kind. It is hard to do and probably unrealistic to want to be this way all the time. But if you taste it once or more, as many of you have, you will at least get a glimpse of what it is like to not exist, to be one with an activity, a cause, something greater than yourself. If you have a jam session you may find something bigger than yourself to love, or you may find that you yourself are more, way more, than you ever imagined. Thank you.