Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Making Music as Meditation

       Several years ago, my spirituality group engaged in an exercise that is similar to Lectio Divina, but is a slightly different take on it.  Participants could choose to do either a Visio Divina exercise or an Audio Divina exercise.  For those of you for whom this is Greek (or Latin, as the case may be), what this meant is that we would do a meditation exercise on an image of some kind (Imago or Visio Divina) or a piece of music (Audio Divina). Since I am not a visual person at all, I chose to do the meditation on a piece of music.  We were supposed to pick a piece that touched us in some way.  The exercise called us to listen to it the first time by just closing our eyes and allowing it to be. After a short period of silence, we would listen to it a second time for images, feelings, memories that come forward.  Again, after silence, we would listen to it a third time for how we are called in some way to respond to what had been arising for us.  And finally, we would listen to it a last time and rest in whatever message and whatever gifts came through this exercise.
      We were doing these exercises during lent, a time that is extremely busy for most pastors.  Add to this that I had a number of parishioners in the hospital or recovering from surgery during that time, and I found that finding time to do the exercise had been challenging.  I would try.  Usually I would sit in my office (because I would arrive at church an hour before everyone else), try to close my door and attempt to start the day with this exercise. But inevitably, someone would stop by (knowing I'm at church by 8am), or someone would call, or something else would arise which needed my attention right now and...  Well, you get the idea.  But I'm also a musician. I'm a musician who had the job at the time of also being the organist/pianist for my church as well as the pastor. This meant that I was practicing on a regular basis.  So I found myself contemplating if there were a way to do this exercise during my practice time.  I realized this was unusual, perhaps stretching the bounds of what was "supposed" to be done.  But even more than an audio person, I'm a kinesthetic person meaning I connect more and learn better through doing or through moving than I do any other way.    Also, I often find my practice time to be very meditative, very reflective, and most of all, very centering.  In fact, when I am not practicing regularly, I often feel cranky and disoriented.  It's necessary to my well-being to be intentional about making music. So, I wondered, what would it be like to be more purposefully meditative and reflective as I play; not just listening to the music or working on the music, but creating the music, being a part of it, feeling it in my hands and body in a very literal way and not just as a response to what I'm hearing.
       I like making music.  I especially like making music with other people, but that does require spending time alone practicing so that when we come together we can focus on the working together, the sounds we make as a unit, how to blend and make something bigger than the individual parts, rather than focusing on learning the piece.  I found that when I was intentionally meditative during playing, listening in a different way for what would emerge, that what arose for me was not at all what I expected. One of the pieces that I had been practicing was the accompaniment for a choral Good Friday service. The piano part was amazingly detailed and full: lots of running triplet 8th and 16th notes, intermixed with quieter 8th note melodies...  I could go on.  It's beautiful.  But when I really listened to how I was feeling as I played the piece, I felt impatient and, what surprised me more, confined.  I didn't like that the G below middle C was written in so very often.  I didn't like the structure of where the music required me to go.  I didn't agree with all of the dynamic markings.  I didn't like that even as I inevitably put my own style on everything that I play, that there was so much direction in the music, and that included the very notes.  I felt boxed, contained, by the music.  There was no way around this.  As I said, this was a choral piece which we were doing for a very specific service.  But the exercise of Audio Divina is not one of "fixing" things anyway.  It is one of listening and learning.  So I sat with it for awhile longer. What was the lesson here?  Where was this going within me?
       It went to the deeper level: in that moment I realized I felt not only confined by the music, but confined by my role, by the structure of my work, by the daily schedule that I am required to follow every week.  And then it went deeper still: I felt confined by my life.  My life consisted of working,  and caring for my children. As the solo parent to three, making sure that they had what they needed for school, helping them stay caught up on their homework, checking in with them emotionally as well as caring for their physical needs, taking them to lessons, working out the financial needs of three kids who I hope will go to college, and who had orthodontia and lessons and other expenses... There is a schedule to my life, a rhythm, a structure: kids, work, kids, work.  And that structure felt, at least during this particular exercise, increasingly constraining. I imagine many (all?) of us have moments when we would like to get in the car and run away, when we would like to chuck it all and start again, when we'd like to allow our imaginations and our creativity to determine the way our life should go in any moment.  But for some of us perhaps that dream becomes even sharper, even stronger, when the responsibilities and realities of our daily existence have very little space, very little play, very little deviation.  We do what we must, every day, every hour.  And when I found that even within the creative exercise of making music, I was constrained and contained and directed by the written music in front of me, suddenly it was just one area too much.
       I found myself thinking about the people who go through mid-life crises and are able to change their lives in some dramatic way.  They change jobs, they change location, sometimes (less healthy perhaps, but it happens) people change their primary relationships.  And I thought about the luxury that is involved in those choices, those decisions. Solo parents of children (and by "solo parents" I mean people who truly are raising their kids without that other parent) just do not have that luxury. We do what we have to do to make sure our children are fed and housed and have the best opportunities they can have.  Many other people also don't have that luxury: those who are limited financially or by other constraints, those limited by necessity, by restricted opportunities, by family of any kind.  It is a luxury to dream out of the box, to envision a different life, to step into what may feel like freedom at a moment when one's current life feels confining.
       The next step in the Audio Divina exercise is listening for what to do or where to go with the feelings and insights we've been given.  So I went deeper again.  The restlessness I felt, the impatience, the burn-out, the fear of not being able to provide what my kids needed, and the sense of imprisonment in responsibilities: all of these feelings are gifts when one is willing to dig deeper: packages to be opened for their wisdom, for the information they provide, and for deeper clues as to what to do and where to go next.  So I listened again, more deeply still.  And found an invitation in the structure and in the responsibilities to put them down for a few minutes and instead to dream.  What would I really like to be doing right now? If I had that ultimate freedom, where would I want to go?  What would I want to be doing with my day?  With my work?  With my life?
        What emerged from that deep place surprised me even more... what I would choose, could I choose to be anything, do anything, spend my time with anyone, is...amazingly, what I am doing now.  I would choose to preach and to speak about the things that I believe so deeply and the changes that I believe we are all called to be part of making: creating a more just, more loving, more compassionate world. I would play music, especially with others, becoming more one with others through the amazing magical gift of this type of art.  I would write: write about the things I value, write about injustice, write about faith, write stories, write poems.  I would visit with people and walk with people in their journeys.  I would dream and plan ways for involving people in caring for others, especially those who have less privilege.  Mostly, I would spend time with the people I love most: my three amazing children, especially, but also the rest of my family, my friends, my church community. I would take my family places, I would explore new places and ideas, I would intentionally learn and read and study different things.  I would hike as much as possible.
       The final step in the Audio Divina then is to listen again to the music, to step back once more and experience it from the place of having traveled a journey into and through the music.  As I played for a final time, the process of having worked through those feelings of restlessness, impatience, fear, confinement... all of it eased.  The music became once again the beautiful piece that it was.  I was able to move within the structure of the piece in a new way: loving what was there to love, accepting with grace what I did not like as much, offering all of it my best playing and my best self.
      The point?  We avoid going deep so many times because the feelings we face are uncomfortable, are challenging, and we worry that we will discover things that we cannot change but that we also cannot bear.  David Henry Thoreau is noted for saying, "The mass of men [sic] lead lives of quiet desperation."  There is enough truth in this that we fear facing that desperation within ourselves.  But as with most painful experiences (grief, despair, loneliness), when we are willing to go deep, we often find that it is a way of moving through that allows us to emerge on the other side with greater wisdom, understanding and peace.  If I had not taken the time to do this exercise, I would have continued to feel a an unexamined anxiety and restlessness in playing the piece.  Working through the hard stuff allowed me to play it more fully with grace and joy.  This life is a journey, not only outwards, but inwards.  We miss half of it when we are too afraid to look inside and to take the steps to walk through our internal challenges as well as our external ones.  Walk your path with intentionality and a willingness to go deep.  There is great beauty to be found there.