Un Limosna por Amor del Dios

[In line with my posts on humility, I’d like to disclaim that I am posting the video of a performance that is certainly not flawless… the point was to provide a musical example to illustrate a “contemplative impression”, not to capture perfection-of-sound.]

So, the story goes…

In May of 1944 in El Salvador, across the street from where Agustín Barrios Mangoré was living at the time, there was a beggar who positioned himself there every morning and recited the phrase “Una limosna por el amor Dios?” (“Alms for the Love of God?”: apparently a common phrase used by beggars throughout Latin America). Upon hearing this repetitive call for charity, Barrios composed this work. It’s bass line is persistent, even stubbornly so (much like the repeated phrase of the mendicant) and the melody utilizes a technique on classical guitar call “tremolo”: a fast repetition of singles notes so as to give the illusion that it is sustaining.

Ol’ Agustín was a little eccentric. In addition to being incredibly artistically gifted (he was a prodigy guitarist and a very talented calligrapher and sketch-artist), he was also quite a performer — from 1930-1934, he changed his name to:

“Chief Nitsuga Mangoré, the Paganini of the Guitar from the jungles of Paraguay”

“Nitsuga” = “Agustín” spelled backwards

“Mangoré” = as I understand it, he was a famous Latin American chief (Barrios would sometimes perform with a rather large and gaudy Indian headdress)

“Paganini” = probably the most famous violin virtuoso in history

So… he was a fun guy.

Unfortunately all but forgotten by the time of his death, Barrios composed what has now become some of the most well-loved guitar pieces in the classical repertoire.


Part of why I love this piece so much is the way the “sustaining” melody soars above the steady bass pattern — these complementary elements fill the sound-space with a finely woven textured fabric of harmony.

More specifically, the “sustain” of the tremolo effect feels very similar to the way we may think about how the human self behaves: actually composed of multiple components that typically fall together, our steady stream of experience through time gives way to the impression that there is a permanent, limited, and solid “THING” that is who we are.

And there is, in fact, a sense of self that we should take care to nurture and protect in life — it just happens to be there and not be there (just like Barrios’ singing tremolo melody).

Melody is one of the most important elements of music (in addition to things like rhythm, harmony, and timbre); and, much like melody to music, our sense of self is a central part of being alive.

Making sense, finding meaning, and building wholesome habits of mind and behavior are some of the things that we all have to do in order to build a fulfilling life for ourselves.

In addition to that, however, a very paradoxical way of finding fulfillment is to train oneself to see through the sense of self that is doing the sense-making, meaning-finding, and habit-building.

Enter contemplative practice…

Our survival on this earth depends on the assumption that “we” are solid, coherent, and consistent over time — this isn’t something we should strive to get rid of (for several reasons). But, considering the fact that most of us live in safe enough societies to not have to constantly worry about survival, we have the evolutionary privilege to spend some of our time setting the habit of “selfing” down to just rest in the state of an “unselfed self” [see Martin Laird].

What’s funny (and blessed and beautiful and fortunate and miraculous) is that it is from that “unselfed” perspective (hard-won and only humbly “achieved”) that loving, compassionate, and graceful presence emerges quite naturally.

Now, this may only arise for blips or slivers of time even after quite a lot of effort sitting in contemplative practice — that’s ok. The “unproductive”, “disappointing”, “unskillful”, “poorly-sat”, and “chaotically-driven” sessions of meditation are the very moments that provide the best history for those slivers of surrender that show us the salvific simultaneity of self-love and self-forgetting.

But that’s not the goal…

The goal is to sit. To be present. To want by not-wanting. To open and allow. To fail and to love.

This is the work of life.

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