The Restless Wind Words & Music by Rex Benson & Steve Gillette
The Highwaymen was an American country music supergroup, composed of four of country's biggest artists: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. They recorded three albums between 1985 and 1995. As Rex Benson and I were working on our song "The Restless Wind" we began to think that it might be a good pitch for those guys. Waylon had recorded two of our songs, and we'd had some contact with the others, and we thought 'who would be more suited to record a song that took on some of the issues of mortality and the longer view of life?'
As we worked with the song, a theme of transcendence seemed to develop. The song led us into the realm of the cyclical nature of existence as expressed in the philosophies of the ancients, along with modern Eastern thought. But, we admit, it may be that the subject of reincarnation is hard to reconcile with contemporary songwriting, especially in the case of American country music.
Sometimes in our introduction to this song in performance, I'd joke about sending the song to the Highwaymen. The premise of my joke was 'who better to sing about embracing their mortality than these four giants who have experienced it all, from rehab to open-heart surgery.' The punch line was, 'but no, they decided to make a whole album of honky-tonk drinking songs, which, I'm sure, was much appreciated by the record company.'
No disrespect was meant; I thought it might be a good way to soften the introduction of an idea such as reincarnation into a context which people mostly assume to be traditional and Christian in its philosophy. Successful songwriters especially in country music have long known the importance of honoring the mythology of Christian tradition and stories. But it's my belief that writing and singing about an aspect of ourselves continuing on is very consistent with Christian values, and especially with the folklore of country music as it pertains to heroes and beloved performers.
Wikipedia offers this: "Reincarnation refers to the belief that an aspect of every human being (or all living beings in some cultures) continues to exist after death, this aspect may be the soul or mind or consciousness or something transcendent which is reborn in an interconnected cycle of existence; the transmigration belief varies by culture, and is envisioned to be in the form of a newly born human being, or animal, or plant, or spirit, or as a being in some other non-human realm of existence. Another Greek term sometimes used synonymously is palingenesis, 'being born again.'"
John Harwood Hick, the eminent philosopher of religion, said "There is the possibility of life after death in some form. Ultimately we have to wait and see. All of the great world faiths do believe that this life we're now living is only a small part of our total existence. There's the traditional Christian view that at death we go either to heaven or hell, or if you're a Catholic, heaven or hell or purgatory.
"I find that very difficult to believe because I don't think that any of us are good enough to go to anything you would call heaven, I don't think any of us are bad enough to go to anything you would call hell. I'm inclined to favor something that is slightly more like purgatory than heaven or hell, namely multiple lives; reincarnation in other words."
He continues, "I don't believe this in the traditional Western sense in which it is the present, conscious self that lives again, and may remember a previous life. But it is a deeper element within us, I would describe it as a dispositional structure, where we're rather like runners in a relay race. We at the moment carry the torch. It was handed off to us from a previous human life, and we now carry the dispositional structure that that person had, and that person modified it for better or worse and we in our lives are again modifying it and handing it on to some future individual personality.
"All the great religions teach us that we have to be willing to give ourselves completely. In Christianity we give ourselves to Christ, give ourselves to God. In Islam, particularly in the Sufi tradition you merge yourself with God. In Buddhism you eliminate the ego. It is the challenge of all the great world religions that we are to be willing to die; that we are to be willing to give ourselves up. I'd like to live forever, but I'm not going to. And I should be glad that I am contributing in this way to the long, long process."
Some Christian theologians interpret certain Biblical passages as referring to reincarnation. These passages include the questioning of Jesus as to whether he is Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah, or another prophet (Matthew 16:13-15 and John 1:21-22) and, less clearly (while Elijah was said not to have died, but to have been taken up to heaven), John the Baptist being asked if he is not Elijah (John 1:25).
Geddes MacGregor, an Episcopal priest and professor of philosophy, has made a case for the compatibility of Christian doctrine and reincarnation. There is evidence that Origen, a Church father in early Christian times, taught reincarnation in his lifetime but that when his works were translated into Latin these references were concealed.
Deepak Chopra said that: "I look at death as part of a creative process. In biology we use the term 'apoptosis' a form of programmed cell death that occurs in multicellular organisms. Every cell in your body gives way to a new version of itself every few days or weeks. Your skin cells have to die once a month, your stomach cells have to die every five days. Your immune cells die, like your blood cells, every hundred and twenty days or so, but they remember how to attack the bacterium. The function of the previous cell is recycled in the memory of the new cell."
"DNA is the repository of the memory of evolution, but its actual stuff comes and goes every six weeks. Consciousness is not in your brain, and not in your body. It's non loca, it has no location, space and time. So we are a recycling of consciousness. The word reincarnation gets lost in religious controversy, but there is no question that everything is recycled. Everything."
He goes on to say, "Memory is illusional. Once you find out that your real identity is way beyond anything in space-time, then there is no birth and there is no death, there is only the continuum of birth and death as punctuated points in the grammar of life. When you expand your consciousness to feel the experience of yourself as part of the greater universe, you will see how you are experiencing it in this small, vulnerable form that you are today. As long as you don't confuse yourself with the role you are playing today, you are free. If you get attached to the role, then you are in the melodrama of fear and crisis. You are like a guy in a movie theater who has forgotten that he is watching a movie. It's your destiny to play an infinity of roles, but you're not the roles you play. You are a witness to eternity and that sense of witness is your ticket to reality, it's your ticket to freedom, it's your ticket to immortality."
"I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray." - Stanley Kunitz
The Dalai Lama is believed by Buddhists to be able to choose the body into which he is reincarnated. That person, when found, will then become the next Dalai Lama. According to Buddhist scholars it is the responsibility of the High Lamas of the Gelgupa tradition and the Tibetan government to seek out and find the next Dalai Lama following the death of the incumbent. The process can take a long time. It took four years to find the 14th (current) Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. The search is generally limited to Tibet, although the current Dalai Lama has said that there is a chance that he will not be reborn, and that if he is, it would not be in a country under Chinese rule.
He wrote: "My life is outside Tibet, therefore my reincarnation will logically be found outside. But then, the next question: Will the Chinese accept this or not? China will not accept. The Chinese government most probably will appoint another Dalai Lama, like it did with the Panchen Lama. Then there will be two Dalai Lamas: one, the Dalai Lama of the Tibetan heart, and one that is officially appointed."
Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "In China, it's not easy to become a "living Buddha." First come the years of meditation and discipline. Then comes the bureaucracy. Although the ruling Communist Party is an officially atheist organization — officials are barred from practicing religion — it is perennially uncomfortable with forces outside of its control, and has for years demanded the power to regulate the supernatural affairs of Tibetan Buddhist figures, determining who can and cannot be reincarnated."
To study about reincarnation can be liberating. It might be that the concept is not so much about having another life as it is about having this one. It's that liberation that I believe we were seeking to express in our song.
The water metaphors, 'up where the rivers of my childhood begin,' and 'free as the ripples on the water again,' are purposely chosen. And of course, the water is rippled by the restless (never resting) wind. And think about why we would choose to say 'where the rivers of my childhood begin' instead of began. The meaning is different, and the former compels the acknowledgment of cyclical time, a time which returns on itself, which is a deliberate way of reinforcing the idea of recurrence and rebirth.
There is a play on words, a device that takes advantage of the sequence of phrases in the second verse. The lines are:
When the stars bring my journey to an end.
I'll make my peace with the darkness
And watch the candle flicker into doubt, and go out,
On the restless wind.
Ambiguity is not always your friend. Usually one of the meanings is off the mark. But in this case the double meaning functions in the phrase 'and go out.' It's the candle going out, but also the person checking out, or going out, as in going out on a high note. The line hopefully expresses the person's willingness to embrace death as a natural part of the life that it brackets. So many lives, so little time.
Speaking of time, it is a short song. Writing today, we might have felt the need for a bridge, or pre-chorus, or other addition to make the structure more interesting. Having sung the song for years, I've come to feel that it has a simple strength which is more about creating a spiritual moment with the harmony and the mantra-like syllables. It's never quite clear if a song is complete, but it may have more power for saying less. Just say what you mean, that should be enough.
Here's a video I made of the song:
"The Restless Wind" Performed by Steve & Cindy; Video by Steve
Here is a video of Cindy and me performing "The Restless Wind" at the Rose Garden Coffeehouse:
Steve Gillette & Cindy Mangsen perform "The Restless Wind"
The song is on the CD The Light of the Day, available from Steve & Cindy's online store here.
Here are the lyrics the way we sing it.
Way off in the distance there's a long train runnin' There's a stillness like a storm's comin' in. There's the lonesome sound of a radio somewhere Fadin' in and out, come and gone, on the restless wind. High on the restless wind Up where the rivers of my childhood begin. Free as the ripples on the water again High on the restless wind. I've seen enough to know what a gift my life has been, And when the stars bring my journey to an end I'll make my peace with the darkness And watch the candle flicker into doubt, and go out, On the restless wind. High, high on the restless wind Up where the rivers of my childhood begin. Free as the ripples on the water again High on the restless wind.
© 1995, Compass Rose Music / Rex Benson Music, BMI