Reggae Dhamma

Until last Friday, I had never paid any attention to this pop song.  Its strongest association in my mind was with a car commercial that I must have seen a thousand times when I was younger.  Merely background music.  But last week, when it came on the jazz radio station in a café, I listened, really listened, for the first time.  And would you believe it — not only is it beautiful, but it also contains some great Reggae Dhamma.

For real, people, this is exactly what I’ve been learning through meditation. Four parts in particular really get to the root of things:

In every life we have some trouble

But when you worry, you make it double!

This is the difference between pain and suffering.  A pain is just a pain.  But when our minds turn it into a ‘problem,’ then it creates suffering for us.  Rather than accepting the reality of the situation, we immediately feel desire (tanha) for something else: either for the pain to go away (aversion), or for a pleasant feeling to come (craving).

Some people misinterpret Buddhist principles (and Bobby McFerrin’s song) to mean that it is possible to ignore or escape pain and just be euphoric all the time.  Well, of course not.  Pain is bound to come, as McFerrin says, in every life.  So the question is, how do we respond?  We can’t run away from pain, but we can free ourselves from suffering (dukkha).


‘Cause when you worry your face will frown

And that will bring everybody down

Haha!  I love this.  One of the signature qualities of dhamma (what my teacher calls a “yardstick”) is that it is beneficial for you, and also for others.  The premise is simple.  When we are unhappy or negative, we make others unhappy.  We spread negativity all around us, whether overtly or in more subtle ways.  We exude tension.  Conversely, when we are genuinely joyful, we spread joy.  It’s impossible to keep it to ourselves.  Once we realize that states of being (happy, unhappy; peaceful, tense) are not individualized and isolated, then it becomes easy to see that working to make oneself happy is neither selfish nor self-indulgent.  It’s a prerequisite for spreading well-being to others.  After all, you can’t share what you don’t have.

Third is this little spoken bit at the end — you have to pay attention to catch it:

Don’t worry: It will soon pass, whatever it is!

Classic anicca, one of the three fundamental insights of the Buddha’s enlightenment: everything changes.  Everything is constantly changing: arising, staying for some time, and then passing away.  In the case of an unpleasant experience, then, you can arrive at McFerrin’s conclusion: “it will soon pass.”  As my meditation teacher says, when the students get all squirmy from sitting still for hours, “No itch is eternal.”  Why make a fuss?  Just accept it and ride it out.  We save ourselves the stress, and what once seemed interminable becomes just another phenomenon destined to die away.

The fourth one is a bit of a stretch, I admit, but I kind of adore it, so here it is.  It’s another little aside McFerrin makes, almost mumbling:

Here, I give you my phone number —

If you worry, call me, I make you happy.

Nobody can do this all alone, y’all.  Whether you’re part of a “flock,” a sangha, or an AA support group, you gotta have someone to call when worry attacks and you need some help!  (Note: encouragement from the dead counts, too.  :) )

So there you have it, friends.  Pearls in the pop-tune-turned-ad-jingle.  The song’s Wikipedia article, in addition to schooling me on the award-winningness of the joint, also confirmed its roots in wisdom:


The Indian mystic and sage Meher Baba (1894-1969) often used the expression “Don’t worry, be happy” when cabling his followers in the West.[1] Later, in the 1960s, this well used expression by Baba was printed up on inspiration cards and posters of the era. In 1988, McFerrin noticed a similar poster in the apartment of the jazz band Tuck & Patti in San Francisco. Inspired by the expression’s charm and simplicity, McFerrin wrote the now famous song, which was included in the soundtrack of the movie Cocktail, and became a hit single the following year. In an interview by Bruce Fessier for USA Weekend Magazine in 1988 McFerrin said, “Whenever you see a poster of Meher Baba, it usually says ‘Don’t worry, be happy,’ which is a pretty neat philosophy in four words, I think.”[2]

5 thoughts on “Reggae Dhamma

  1. Shayda July 9, 2009 / 4:03 am

    This is my absolute favorite song! Thanks so much for the insights and history. Stay happy beautiful! :)

  2. Noa July 15, 2009 / 9:39 am

    i love this posting, katie! thank you for it!

  3. Barry Loncke August 4, 2009 / 12:23 pm

    Does this work for everybody or only for those so fortunate that survival issues do not persist in their lives?

  4. Barry Loncke August 4, 2009 / 12:26 pm

    For the poor it sounds like Marie Antoinette’s cake.

  5. kloncke August 4, 2009 / 4:39 pm

    Good question. Aren’t some problems so serious that they’re worth worrying over?

    I struggled with that a lot, myself, and here’s my take on it at this point. Let me know if it makes sense.

    First of all, most of the people I know personally — myself included — are blessed to lead lives that are not under immediate threat. Our basic needs (and more) are met (in my case, in large part thanks to you and Mom), and our mental health is such that we do not severely endanger our own safety. All the more reason to be grateful and happy.

    Still, even in the lives of the middle and upper-class, trouble is bound to come. Often it’s relatively superficial, but sometimes it *can* be an issue of survival — i.e. a terminal or chronic illness, or serious accident. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has not, at one point or another, encountered a matter of life and death that touched them deeply. So all of us have to learn to deal with deep pain sooner or later. I think this aphorism can help us with that.

    The real beauty of the philosophy, though, and why I think it applies to everyone, is that it’s not at all about “cake” — having it, not having it, eating it, or no. It’s not about ‘having’ anything — it’s about the *attitude* one takes toward whatever one has. And toward what one fundamentally *is* — which can never be diminished by poverty, oppression, sickness, or any life condition.

    How is it possible that some poor people can be happier than some rich people? Have you ever met someone who embodies this?

    Similarly, how is it possible that some terminally ill people can be more at peace than some high-octane health nuts?

    And how is it possible that a torture victim’s biggest fear could be “losing compassion for his torturers“?

    I think it’s possible because we can separate our condition, or what Eckhart Tolle calls our “life situation,” from our attitude toward it. So the question is not whether we should remain complacent in the face of poverty, torture, and injustice. The philosophy “Don’t worry; be happy” doesn’t mean we should ignore harm or throw up our hands — this would mean denying the life situation, which doesn’t do anyone any good.

    Instead, the real question is: given the situations we face, does worry help us, or does it hurt us?

    Do anger, anxiety, and righteousness improve our lives and the lives of those around us?

    Sometimes it might seem like anger or worry motivate us to work harder. Inspire us to new heights. But from what I’ve seen and felt myself, as well as what many people wiser than I have said, when anxiety or righteousness motivate productivity, even if the ‘product’ itself is successful, there’s usually an enormous sideline toll. All the stress and unease is bound to manifest in some area or another: usually in “private,” personal relationships with lovers, family, or even one’s own mental and/or physical well-being. Even in my mere 23 years on earth, I’ve seen marriages fall apart, parenting self-destruct (no, not talking about yours! ;) ), and individuals totally burn out because of lots of well-intentioned worry, anger, or anxiety. This goes for poor folks and rich folks alike.

    Now, the alternative to worry doesn’t have to be, literally, “happiness” — it would be unrealistic to expect ourselves to be happy in the face of torture, for example. But the monk’s self-protection, in that case, came from acceptance and internal peace. Maintaining compassion, not fear or animosity.

    It’s probably one of my biggest inspirations in life, at this point.

    Anyway, long-winded way of saying: poor/oppressed people have enough problems. Why add worry to the list?

    love you, daddy. thank you for talking with your odd-ball daughter. :)

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