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Forman: Amadeus

In celebrating the life and work of Milos Forman today, I return to his thoughts on defining the Czech government after the Velvet Revolution, as quoted in an interview for CNN:

“You know, you have to really decide where you want to live: if you want to live in the jungle or in the zoo. Because if you want the beauty, if you want freedom, the jungle is… that's your world. But you're in danger there, you have to live with snakes, sharks, tigers… You want to be safe, you have to live in the zoo. You are protected.… You have to work hard, but you live behind the bars, and what's wonderful — you live there behind the bars and you dream about the beauty of the jungle.”

In contemplating the preference that many people have for the zoo versus the jungle, I think of Forman’s Amadeus: “I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes at an absolute beauty,” says Salieri of an early encounter with Mozart’s music. In some of the most beautiful words about music ever preserved on film, Salieri (played by F. Murray Abraham) is shown leaving through the sheet music, almost obscured by it from the camera angle, as he describes “such longing, such unfulfillable longing,” as if he were hearing “the very voice of God.”

Longing drives much of Salieri’s actions in Amadeus — his own longing to compose a work of greatness that is thwarted by Mozart’s natural genius. And yet, at face value, Salieri is more successful than his rival. He’s the court composer in Emperor Joseph II’s Vienna; Mozart struggles to make ends meet and constantly goes up against authority. Salieri lived in the security of the zoo, but lacked the freedom that Mozart had in the jungle.

In lovingkindness meditation, we look at our own longings as humans and see that they are, at their roots, connected to the longings of all other sentient beings. We wish to be happy, healthy, safe, and  — perhaps most pointedly — free. Free from suffering and the causes of suffering. The idea behind this practice is freedom. As Sharon Salzberg (who literally wrote the book on Lovingkindness) writes, it’s about “freeing ourselves from the illusion of separation allows us to live in a natural freedom rather than be driven by preconceptions about our own boundaries and limitations.… This is the true nature of love and the source of healing for ourselves and our world. This is the ground of freedom.”

The jungle may provoke fear, but the freedom that comes with it gives us a tool for working with, even smiling at, the fear. Perhaps this is why we remember Mozart more readily than Salieri.


Today’s Contemplation: Consider yourself and all of the multitudes that you contain. Make for yourself the aspiration that you may be happy, healthy, safe, and free. Consider those that you love, see them sitting in front of you, and continue to stoke the feeling of lovingkindness, of open-heartedness, by aspiring towards their happiness, health, safety, and freedom. Consider those people you know in passing, or those that you may not even know but see from time to time — your barista, your doorman, the reception desk at your doctor’s office — and make the same aspiration towards them. Now begin to consider the people with whom you’re not seeing eye-to-eye at the moment. The Salieris to your Mozart. Drop the storyline around your difficulties with these people, and wish them the same benefits in life: May they, too, be happy, healthy, safe, and free. Turn those aspirations out further and further — your block, your city, your state, your country, the world. Can you sit in this sense of equanimity? Can you sit in this aspiration for collective freedom? Can you continue throughout your day as a representative of that intention?