A bit of a confession: I’ve been spending a bit more time playing piano then anything else lately. Why does this feel like a confession that I have to whisper? I’ve been stirring this around in my head and been facing all sorts of guilt cycles and queries into what my yoga practice is about.
I always thought I needed silence. I’ve spent a lot of time engrossed in spiritual texts and disciplines that ask me to in some way or another to transcend the transient movements of thoughts and emotions and find an inner stillness and quiet. My self-practice, as I’ve chronicled in these practice diaries, has peaks and valleys just like anyone else (and especially like those who live in as opposed to retreat from the modern world). This search for silence, for me, is the progression onward from my postural practice, which steadies my nervous system and improves my emotional resilience. I see it even beyond my restorative yoga practice, which helps me dive even deeper into rest when everything in the world around me stimulates and excites me into a constant state of anxiety.
So I do my postures, and spend a bit of time on the bolster, and I come to my breath and meditation practice. And, sure, it works. It calms me. It helps me sleep. But for better or worse, diving deeper into formal seated meditation hasn’t really interested me lately. And I’ve been loathe to admit that. I’m a good yoga teacher, right? I mean, let’s be clear: I’m not giving meditation up. I know it’s value, as science proves, of keeping my brain healthy and reducing my stress and anxiety. But as of now I see it more as functional rather than spiritual and magical. This is of course not everyone’s experience and I know will shift over time. I do and will continue to meditate regularly. However, one of the guiding principles of yoga is that you have to experiment and find the practice that works for you. I always thought I needed silence, but what I needed was music.
I started on the guitar when I was about six years old. My first piece of published writing, chronicling how my Dad and I would take our guitars and play as a part of a music group to senior centres, came out in a kids magazine when I wasn’t much older than that. I moved on to the piano when I was eight and never really turned back.
As a shy, closeted, and pretty socially awkward kid, music was my way of communicating to and with others. I played for family, for choirs, and school recitals. I accompanied friends who sang. Looking back, it was my way of being in the world when so much of me was confused and unable to express emotion.
When I moved to London and had to give up my keyboard, which had followed me from dorm room to small studio apartments in Queens, my partner surprised me with a new keyboard on arrival. I cried and knew I’d love him forever.
I began piano lessons again last year and devote about an hour a day. Much like my postural practice, I constantly face my ego and perceived sense of inadequacy and have to find a way through. I have to stay disciplined. Much like my meditation time I have to be supremely focused mentally and physically to sustain difficult pieces. But unlike meditation, at least for me at this point in my life, I feel magic is happening as I play. It is intangible and beyond words. But it is the emotion of music running through me and colouring my life. Perri Knize in her book on the piano, Grand Obsession, summarises how training in music can actually affect our emotions and nervous systems:
musical vibrations entrain our motor and physiological functions, changing heart rate, respiration, and mood. When listeners experience ‘chills down the spine’ in response to music, neuroimaging shows that the same area of the brain is stimulated that responds to food and sex.
Music, and the vibrations it delivers, pack a punch.
As I speak to others about how music is becoming more magical to me it is forcing me to reevaluate how I view this piano time. Even though I have been loving every minute of it, I had a little negative voice telling me that it wasn’t quite right that I had started spending a bit more time reading about piano and practicing piano than on my more traditional spiritual pursuits. That little negative voice was telling me that maybe it was taking me away from the path.
But f-off negative voice! When did I stop thinking that the creative path wasn’t sacred? I’m sure if I looked back at my admissions essays for theatre school or graduate level theses on the power of music and story I’d mourn the lost sincerity and creative enchantment.
I need to remember my attitude of self-friendship and tell myself this is what I need right now. That my music path is aligning me to what is sacred and profound. As I play I not only play something pleasing musically, I commune with those who wrote the music from the depths of their souls centuries ago. I commune with everyone else who has played it or listened to it. I offer my music to my partner and my friends who listen to me play (and let’s be clear, I’m not destined for a concert stage) and share something deep from within myself. Is this not too dissimilar from those who use kirtan, a form of musical Divine praise, to deepen their path?
As I write about this, I know this isn’t about music or piano, because that’s of course not for everybody. But this is about finding what is sacred in one’s life. The path doesn’t have to be separate from your life, it can run straight through it. This is about finding whatever path we can into the wonder and magic of the present moment.
Chogyam Trungpa, of the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, writes that there is ‘unlimited sound, unlimited sight, unlimited taste, unlimited feeling and so on’ and that when we allow its vastness to touch us, we invoke ‘magic.’
Knize beautifully summarises research and philosophy on music and mindfulness:
The twentieth century physicist and philosopher David Bohm spent his life seeking to understand the nature of reality. In his 1980 book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, he posits that music makes time’s passage audible, and thus gives us a direct experience of reality. In listening to the movement of individual notes played across time, yet making up a whole of the music, we experience the reality of one moment yielding to the next, to the next, to the next. The motion of the ever-present now becomes an immediate experience, something we can feel with every aspect of our beings. When we play or intently listen to music, we are brought fully into the present, into the funding of the now to the now to the now.
Bohm wrote wrote of how ordinary reality is nothing more than static pictures on the screen of our minds, a distortion, a delusion that reality is unchanging, that the past and the future, which actually do not exist, are alive in the present. Music connects us to the “implicate order,” the enfoldment of one moment into the next. We must release the notes that have just passed to be fully present with the notes that are being born. We must learn to be in the present.
This is the work music performs on us, leading our consciousness to a more perceptive state. The philosopher Hegel thought of music as an analogue of our inner lives – continuously flowing streams of sounds in relation to each other, moving through time.
So instead of just limiting my piano playing to just a personal and pleasurable exploration of what is beautiful, I’m choosing to see it as my entry point into the magical and vast experience of reality beyond our mental constructions. It’s as close as I’m getting right now.
Where do you find magic?