Archive for the ‘spirituality’ category

Definitions

January 22, 2017

First, thanks to everyone who read yesterday, and I know someone did …

I’ve had this site a long time, and a lot has changed in the duration. I started thinking about definitions, who we say we are, what we think is the “core” of who we are.

As I said yesterday, I work in an office now five, sometimes six days a week. I never thought I’d do that. I thought I would always be able to define myself as “concert pianist” or “piano teacher”. Perhaps I still can because I still do those things. But they aren’t what I do for most of my waking hours anymore.

Sometimes this makes me sad. We make choices because we must always do that. Consider: We have the choice, every day, to get out of bed or not. Really! It’s just that most of us, most of the time, just get up without thinking we’re choosing.

So we choose, and maybe a way down the road we think: “Man, I wish I could go back.”

We can’t, not in the way we think we want to. We’ve changed. I’ve changed. At least for the foreseeable future, because of the choices I have made, I will not be flying overseas to play concerts. I won’t be driving cross-country to exhibit dairy goats. I won’t be learning to shoot from a dear friend in Kansas. (Wait, what?!) OK, I better explain that.

Some people, including me, thought this lady was crazy to teach a totally blind person to shoot. Well, she started. She did the most important part, teaching how to handle a gun safely. Her son was the one who actually taught me to shoot. And now that I’ve done it once, I have no desire to do it again. I know I could if I had to. And I know she wasn’t crazy. She just believed so entirely in my capability as a human being that she didn’t even think twice about teaching me what anyone else would have wanted to learn.

She, more than anyone, exemplifies what I’m trying to say. She didn’t see blindness as my defining characteristic, even if it did have an impact on how I did (and do) a lot of things. She remade me as a pianist, stripping away my whole technique and building it over into something better. Do I wish I was playing more piano these days? Definitely! Will I always have such a crazy schedule that I can’t? Probably not.

So: Our lives are like books. There are chapters. They’re all connected because they’re part of the book. In some cases, our book might seem like more of a collection of short stories. But they’re all connected. The “I” is what connects them, unifies them. The same “I” that kept goats is the same “I” that sits at a desk most weekdays in a downtown office building. The same “I” that went down a spiral staircase in a Prague cathedral doubled over in laughter at my brother’s monkey screeches that frightened a gaggle of British tourists is the same “I” who kept a promise to a friend that she would not die alone in a hospital or a nursing home.

That “I” isn’t something that can be put into words. It’s just the outward circumstances that can be enumerated.

My circumstances now are that I fit my music-making and music teaching into the spaces left after the full-time office thing is done. And on that note I’ll close. I’ve got a bunch of students coming in less than two hours to study for upcoming music exams. We’re going to have a contest to see how many different scales they know. It should be a blast. (Wait, what?!) Yeah, I know, scales aren’t “supposed” to be fun. Well, that’s just the stereotype. But that’s a subject for another post.

New Words for a New Year

January 21, 2017

I haven’t written for ages here. Life became very busy–new job, less time at home–and a lot of things got put aside. Music was one, writing another. But working in an office every day, I find that my creative spirit needs exercise, otherwise it shrivels up and something happens to my heart …

So once again, I try to begin. I must play the music I can find time for and appreciate the people who play with me. I can strive to write more, put my thoughts down in some concrete form. Sure, everybody is doing it these days. The noise level is astounding! And who am I to think I have anything important to say to anyone else?

Well, I’m safe on that score! I only have my own experiences and perspective to draw on. But we’re all human beings sharing a seemingly shrinking planet. Too often, it feels to me like everyone is yelling louder and louder in an effort to convince anyone within earshot (including themselves) that they’re right.

We all have the capacity to be right or wrong, just as we all have the capacity to treat each other with gentleness. One can be civil without having to agree with someone. One can be compassionate without saying one condones another’s actions or decisions. One can listen instead of always trying to speak.

If we–and in that pronoun I’m including myself as the first person being addressed–would all do a bit more of these things, perhaps the rhetoric wouldn’t reach such a fever pitch. Conversations could occur. Compromises aren’t always comfortable because everyone is giving ground. But this is where I think we all must begin each day, even if we fall short by the second hour of our time awake (or earlier, as when I react with irritation to some small thing my partner does or says or neglects to do or say).

So I begin again today. It’s evening here in the northeastern United States, but it’s morning somewhere else on earth. Every moment in our lives can be counted as the first moment of something. This can bring a keen sense of renewal and refreshment. It doesn’t absolve one of past mistakes. But it does open the way for trying again. Compassion for others must begin with compassion for oneself. If I can’t give myself a second or fifth or hundredth chance, how can I do so for another?

If you are still reading, may you feel that renewal yourself. It is a small thing, not a all-encompassing sweeping away. But in the quiet I am trying to cultivate, the small things are just as profound and majestic and lovely as the grand ones.

Peace of the Sunday Morning Stable

March 23, 2009

I spent the weekend at my parents’ home, the place I grew up in. They were out of town, visiting a brother of mine.

Life this time of year can be stressful for everyone, because it seems that everything is due “right now”–taxes, forms, insurance payments, reports, results.

Lately, I’ve gotten so caught up in all the tasks I think I have to do that I’ve let the time for quietness get pushed dangerously low. This, I think to myself, will help me get more done, and then I’ll feel better.

But it only makes me feel more frantic, and then I get less done, and feel worse!

On Sunday morning, I did chores by myself. My younger sister was at home, too–she’s still in high school, but she’s an accomplished horsewoman, and the mantle of caregiver has been passed from me to her.

I grew up among goats–milking, delivering babies, bringing in hay, walking pastures. Someday, I tell myself, I may return to it, because it is a life of hard work, but it is also one of intense peacefulness, deep connection to the land and the animals. There is no escaping the spirituality of seeing a creature born, or of standing beside one as it breathes its last. Among the goats, beneath the open sky, you can’t hide from what’s in your heart and mind.

There was no milking to be done this weekend, and there were three horses where there had once been only one. There were two newish barn cats, Pickles and Pepperoni, who had arrived feral and were now all too anxious to twine themselves between your legs as you walked, demanding to be picked up and petted.

It’s amazing: If an animal knows it is wanted, loved, and cared for, fear gradually subsides and is replaced by an abiding trust.

I saw this firsthand with my dogs, Kiefer and Ecko, who each came to me a bit mistrustful of people, but who are both totally devoted to me. Kiefer, at 15, doesn’t follow me around everywhere anymore. His hearing is failing, so he won’t respond if I just call him. But when he wants me, he wants to be right close by, where he can smell me and feel my presence.

As for Ecko, he’s the follower now, the watcher. Wherever I am, he wants to be, especially if the surroundings are out of the ordinary. And he knows my emotional weather better than anyone. He won’t let me get away with leaving things in my heart unexamined. He’ll lean his head against me, then his whole body, and he’ll demand that I first pay attention to him, and then sort out my own internal ambiguities.

Anyway, there was deep healing and comfort for me in the barn yesterday morning. The goats bleated to me and stood up with their front legs on the fence rail, craning their necks to be petted, nuzzling me for kisses, even though I’d just filled their manger.

The horses whinnied to me and kicked up their heels on the way out to pasture–luckily, I was behind a stall door, well away from their friskiness.

The cats meowed at me until I fed them, ate their fill, and came and meowed some more, just to let me know they were still there.

I stayed out there until my hands were good and frosty and I was certain I’d begin to make the people in the house wonder if I’d gotten into trouble. On my way out, I made sure to pet every four-legged creature and thank them for their attention.

It’s Monday morning, and I can think of a long list of things I really have to do–taxes, bills, reports. None of it thrills me, but all of it is necessary.

But just for a bit longer, I’ll stay here, quiet and still, and savor the peace of the Sunday morning stable.

True Intent

March 22, 2009

I was studying my Chopin recital program this afternoon, minding my own business, savoring the Sarabande from Bach’s English Suite No. 5 as played by Andras Schiff. In my opinion, this is the most beautiful dance in the suite, with plenty of room for expressiveness. I haven’t started to learn notes for it myself yet–I’m still somewhere about halfway through the previous dance, the Courante.

But ever since the first time I listened through this program, I’ve had a special affinity for the Sarabande. It feels very intuitive to me, as if it just floated out of my mind and materialized before me without any interference or effort. I feel as if I’ve already played it, and every harmonic turn holds a feeling of nostalgia.

It’s an easy piece for me to get drawn into, lose myself, and leave all the mundane stuff of life behind. It’s meditative, contemplative music, and I want to savor every moment of it.

I was drifting in that peaceful place, my mind free and open, enjoying every note when–

“TRUUUUUUE INTENT!”

A voice came blasting into my thoughts, completely shattering the tranquility.

“What the hell was that?” I thought. The phrase was odd, and had absolutely nothing to do with anything. “OK, I must just be tired, and my mind is playing–”

“TRUUUUUUUUUUUUUE INTENT!!!”

“Oh, come on, concentrate,” I told myself. “This is good practice for distractions during your recitals next year. You never know what–”

“TRUUUUUUUUUUE INTENT! TRUE INTENT IS THE SPLIT SECOND BEFORE THE PERSON MOVES. THAT IS THE KEY TO EVERYTHING! TELL HIM!”

It was as if a bright orange splotch had suddenly appeared while I was looking at a delicate watercolor print of fog rising off a lake at dawn. I wasn’t really alarmed–I didn’t think I was “hearing voices” in the clichéd way that people do in movies when they’re losing their minds. I’d received too many messages from the universe, and I figured this was just another one.

“Crap,” I muttered, and started the track on the CD from the beginning again. It was getting harder to ignore whoever was saying this stuff. I was still going over these things in my mind when the voice broke in again.

“TELL HIM! TELL HIM TRUE INTENT IS THE KEY!”

“I’ll do it later–I’m sure I won’t forget.” I was getting annoyed. I’d had a weekend away from home, hadn’t had time to sit at the piano, and today, at about one, I’d finally had a few moments to listen to my practice disc. And now, the dogs were resting quietly, my husband was reading, and I was–

“TELL HIM NOW! YOU HAVE TO TELL HIM RIGHT NOW!”

“Fine,” I said internally, and then, because I figured that part of the message was in the delivery, I shouted:

“TRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUE INTENT!”

Ah, that felt better, even if I had no idea what I was talking about. (“I don’t have to understand it–I only work here!”)

“What?” My husband was perhaps just as surprised to have his wife blurt something random while he was trying to read.

“You know your Daitoryu?”

“Yeah. What about it?”

“Apparently, I’m supposed to tell you that true intent is something that comes a fraction of a second before someone moves. And it’s the key to everything.”

“How do you know that?”

To put it charitably, the only thing I know about martial arts is how to spell “martial arts”. It would be like my husband, a non-musician whose background is in engineering, computers, and, at least lately, shiatsu and Oriental medicine, giving me a twenty-minute dissertation on the evolution and execution of mordents in Baroque music.

“I don’t know anything. But while I was listening to this Bach Sarabande, someone kept saying this and wouldn’t quit until I told you.”

I handed him headphones and the CD player.

“Here,” I said. “This is what I was trying to listen to.”

I waited until I knew the piece had begun, then shouted:

“TRUUUUUUUUUUUUE INTENT!”

“Stop,” he said, laughing a little.

I waited a few more seconds, then repeated:

“TRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUE INTENT! THAT IS THE KEY TO EVERYTHING!”

I don’t remember what his response to that was, but I didn’t interrupt again. When the music had ended, he handed back the CD player.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “That is a really beautiful piece.”

Yes, I know it is. If played right, it can be heartbreakingly tender. It is such a great contrast to the mischievous, light and cheerful Passepied that follows.

“Well, at least the message got to its intended recipient,” I said. After all, that’s all that was happening. My mind was open, and whoever wanted my husband to know about “true intent” knew I was a reliable messenger.

Art and the transmission of art, the craft and knowledge of it being transferred from one person to another, is a deeply mysterious thing. You can read all the books in the world about an art, cram your head with facts and figures, theories on how things are done a certain way and why.

Yet without that person-to-person connection, the knowledge is meaningless and useless.

I’ve discovered that, if you are passionate about your art, you will be given a teacher that can transmit that art in the most perfect way for you to absorb it.

At other times, though, the transmissions come from unlikely directions. Today, I was responsible for transmitting something of an art form totally foreign to me. For me, it will always be a good story. For my husband, whose art is impacted by the message I passed, it is something valuable.

I could have ignored the voice–and believe me, I really wanted to! Couldn’t the universe find some other way to send this information without bothering me?

Maybe not. Often, a message has more import when it’s received and delivered by someone who couldn’t possibly make it up if they tried.

I’ve got at least a day or two of learning before I begin the Sarabande. When I listened to the piece later this afternoon, there were no interruptions. But even if I never hear that voice again, whenever I play the piece, somewhere deep in my mind, the words will ring out along with the notes:

“TRUUUUUUUUUUUUUE INTENT!”

The Mind of a Composer

February 25, 2009

I never thought, as a piano performance major in college, that I’d spend a good percentage of my professional time composing.

As a concert pianist, I’m immersed in the ideas of other composers, and I love the intellectual challenge of trying to figure them out. Most of the time, it’s fun, although there are stretches that are just plain hard. Like now, as I painstakingly make my way through the Allemande from Bach’s fifth English Suite. There are so many changes in harmony that don’t quite seem logical to me–but, hey, I’m just the player. Yesterday’s practice session got me to the end of the first half, and it’s always interesting to see what stayed in memory a day later when the piece pushes my mind to its limits like this.

On another level, I’ve earned a good portion of my annual income from composing. My “Soul Essence” pieces have continued to sell steadily, and I passed the hundred-song mark sometime last December. Besides these individual portraits in sound, there has been the “Five Elements” series of music for healing, meditation or plain enjoyment, and I’ve written lots of things to enhance my piano teaching.

Perhaps the most fun, though, is my teaching composition to students. These range in age from five to their late teens (pretty much K-12 kids). So many kids tell me, “I can’t compose,” because they’ve never tried it and, to a lesser extent, their creativity hasn’t been stimulated.

Every year, I hold a series of competitions for my students called the Piano Olympics, and one of the categories is for composition. Once kids discover that they can be creative, that, with the technological advantage of a digital keyboard hooked up to a computer and software that not only creates lots of different sounds but can also correct uneven rhythm and otherwise produce a very polished end result, and that there is no such thing as a “wrong” composition, they often surprise themselves.

Often, this process takes a few years to unfold. Students who only composed the first year because I made them do it decide they want to try something bigger their second time around. And they’re not content to do two songs that sound alike. They begin exploring different moods, styles, and national traditions–music with an Asian flavor is popular.

There’s a different frame of mind for each of these. As a pianist, if I’m interpreting someone else’s music, there is room for my own personal sound, and this is what sets me apart from the other thousands of pianists out there–it’s what distinguishes Pianist A from Pianist B and both of them from Pianist C. But, the composer’s ideas must take precedence and guide what I do.

Writing for students, with a pedagogical goal, requires me to work within sometimes very strict limits. A first-year piano student won’t be able to play what a third-year student can, and yet, both deserve engaging music that is enjoyable to play, teach, and listen to. How, for instance, do I create a full, rich harmonic landscape without moving beyond the scope of what a 5-year-old’s hand can reach?

Finally, music for healing or as an expression of a person’s humanity, perhaps more than the other two forms, demands that I, as an individual, step aside, make room for the “song of the spirit” to come through. It’s the same tenet that should guide healing of any kind: “It’s not about me”.

One of the things that gives me the most satisfaction as a teacher is that all my students don’t sound like me. They don’t even sound too much like one another! We produce a CD of their Piano Olympics compositions every year, and it’s always fascinating to me to listen to the whole thing, as a group, and hear just how diverse the music is.

We’re heading into “crunch time” now–the deadline for the composition competition is April 1, and some of my longtime students, who can usually be counted on to produce very interesting pieces, haven’t even started yet. As I write this, two kids are just about done, and two more have the main content of their work finished. A fifth has a melody, but nothing beyond that.

Over the next few weeks, guiding students in what to listen for as they create, how to balance repetition and change, using instrumentation to highlight their ideas, and coming up with a title that fits the piece, I’ll be challenging them and challenging myself to think and hear in new ways.

Let the games begin.

Potent Words: Surviving Versus Living

November 8, 2008

If you’re “making a living,” that’s a good thing, right? The bills (mostly) get paid on time, there’s food on the table, warm clothes for winter and a roof overhead. Maybe there are good schools for the kids and good health care for grandparents.

But what if you hate your job, are unhappy with the person you’ve become, dissatisfied with where you’ve ended up and long for change? Are you still “making a living”? And what does that mean, “living”? Isn’t it more like “surviving”?

Two words, meaning similar things, but with big differences.

“Survival” is when our basic needs for food and shelter are met and we have some sense of security. It’s the bare minimum required for a human being to exist. There is no thought beyond the moment you are going through right now, since the tasks associated with keeping yourself and your family fed and sheltered dominate your energy. They are so immediate that there is no room for anything else.

In survival mode, people stop listening to their hearts and the dreams that are carried there. Life becomes too busy, too full of necessaries until it is empty of everything else.

“Living” is what happens when we make time, even among the demands of basic needs, for hope, for grace, for things beyond the next meal. We truly live when we remember what our passion, our purpose in life is and pursue it, so that we get carried along on the universe’s stream, always moving closer to our dream.

In survival, there is just enough to make it through the day. In living, we have abundance, the faith that we have more than enough to see through to tomorrow and beyond.

All of us do both—survive and live. We all want to live, but it’s often very difficult to shift our outlook if we are surrounded on all sides by examples of survival and are constantly being given the message that dreaming is for kids and we’d better grow up and face reality and just do our job and stay in our places.

And yet, some of the happiest people are the poorest. Their physical circumstances are certainly challenging, but they don’t see them as a final destination. They are the ones who fiercely hold on to the belief that education will allow their children to rise above where they’re currently stationed in life. All they ask is for the chance to try.

In this light, simply surviving is no way to live.

Potent Words: Pity Versus Compassion

November 7, 2008

Language is powerful. It is the trait that sets us apart from other animals, although there are other species who you could say have some form of “language” (dolphins and whales, for instance). The distinction between those other species and us, though, is that we humans seem to have countless ways of expressing abstract concepts, and often, gradations within those concepts.

It’s been widely portrayed that the native peoples of Alaska have hundreds of words for snow. Actually, they have varying forms of similar linguistic bases that describe different snow-and-ice characteristics, something like our “slush,” “sleet,” “snow”.

Language is a potent communicator between people, but it’s just as powerful within the mind of an individual. We talk to ourselves constantly, from the moment we awaken each morning to the moment we fall asleep at the end of the day—even after that, if you count dreams, and I do.

We can never leave our inner voice, and the messages it conveys to us do more to shape our lives than any other influence.

The words we use, whether we’re thinking to ourselves or speaking out loud, carry layers of context. A single word brings with it a whole set of underlying perceptions, often dictated by the particular culture and community we are part of.

All this is simply a foundation for the point of these next few posts, namely, that words we often think of as having the same or very similar meanings, that we use interchangeably, are really vastly different when considered from the perspective of their underlying contextual layers. These layers are frequently based on emotional reactions, and whether we realize it or not, the word we use in a particular situation can deeply color how we respond to others in that situation.

This series is certainly not complete, but I’ve tried to focus on a few instances that I feel are particularly important, especially in light of healing.

That’s why I begin the discussion with “compassion” versus “pity”.

When we are confronted with circumstances in our own lives or the lives of others that highlight the challenges we all face as human beings, particularly in responding to pain (emotional, physical, etc.), we are given the choice to engage in many ways, depending on how we relate to those circumstances. Often, these circumstances produce a deep resonance within us. We can relate to having similar experiences, or we simply see the need for some sort of response from us.

In these instances, people often talk about feeling compassion or pity. The words are often used without regard to what each implies, simply to denote a desire to have a helpful or comforting interaction with the person involved in the situation. For example, someone’s house burns down, and we might say, “What a pity,” or comment that a particular gesture was “compassionate”.

Or, in another example, if you happen to meet someone who can’t see, can’t walk well, or has great difficulty speaking clearly enough to make themselves understood, you’re faced with an illustration of someone who is trying to go through life without the benefit of a trait (seeing, walking, speaking) that you usually take for granted.

Compassion and pity are, I believe, on opposite ends of a spectrum of responses to these types of situations. I think that, if you look at the word itself, how it’s spelled, it’s easy to keep the two straight.

“Pity” is an emotional response based on fear and misunderstanding. We “look down into a pit” and see someone in a condition very different from ourselves. From our vantage point far above them, we can enumerate all the things that separate “us” from “them”. We work to keep “them” at arm’s length, throwing things into the proverbial pit that we think will alleviate the misery down there, but not considering how we might help the person get out. We focus so much on the current condition they’re in that we don’t look at the potential of where they might be. We become so consumed by fear (“Oh, what if that were me—thank God that’s not me—I couldn’t imagine living like that!” that it restricts our response to actions that will preserve our position of power. We think that, if we can maintain that “higher ground,” we’ll somehow insulate ourselves from the possibility of future challenges for ourselves.

“Compassion,” by contrast, is “coming alongside another human being”. The “passion” at the end of the word implies that, somehow, the heart has to be deeply engaged. From this perspective, we see someone eye to eye, even when that’s uncomfortable for us. We don’t let ourselves get bogged down or overwhelmed by the other’s circumstances, but we don’t shy away from “getting our hands dirty” in order to help them help themselves. We relate to and interact with them on the basis of our shared humanity, always working to preserve their dignity and maintaining a respect for them. This respect and love for a fellow human being are the roots of compassion.

In a healing situation, the pity response is when we simply give pills or patches for pain management, increasing the dosage as the pain gets worse, without any deeper consideration of the other, non-physical components of pain as well as the non-clinical aspects of drugs (i.e., how they affect the mind and how those effects feed into a person’s self-concept and interactions with the world). Pity says, “It’s not my problem” once the meds have been given, and caps off any change in prescription with, “There, that should take care of it”.

The compassionate response involves actually listening to someone talk about pain, even if they’ve already gotten a pill for it. Why isn’t the pill working as well as it’s supposed to? How does the patch make them feel on an emotional level, and does the person believe they have adequate opportunities for dealing with these emotional and psychological parts of their treatment? Are there other, non-pharmaceutical, alternatives that could be tried? Is the person receptive to those? Am I, as a healer, open to the fact that I may not be the one who can best provide help to a particular person, and if not, how do I respond to that?

Compassion is a process, not a single action. It’s a series of questions that engages two people in response to a situation, not a desire to simply have all the answers so you can tie up all the loose ends and move on to the next project. Pity is easy and doesn’t require self-examination or thought, but compassion challenges us to discover what we think and then often further encourages us to expand our perspective to include ideas we never would have considered before.

When we “have pity on” another person, we rob them of their essential humanity. Putting anything “on” someone else implies that we are the ones in control. “Having compassion for” someone is completely different. It preserves the common ground between us and them. To me at least, “for” is more active, more interactive, than “on” when other people are involved. You, as the person responding in compassion, must decide how involved “for” is going to be, and you also must accept that the other person’s response to “for them” might not be what you expect.

One of the most wonderful consequences of a compassionate response is the opportunity it provides for us to see others grow. I have seen this over and over in my own experiences. Once, I was working with someone who was in severe pain, facing death sooner than planned. Fear, hopelessness, anger, mistrust and loneliness were all making things even more unbearable. The individual wasn’t sure if reiki would help, didn’t put much faith in “weird” stuff like that, and didn’t even know if they wanted to have to interact with yet another person.

Sometimes, the best sessions occur when we simply let things take their own natural course. I spent a majority of the time I had with this client talking—no, let me change that, it was mostly listening, seeing where the conversation was headed, and asking a question that would keep it moving. Anyone who was observing, thinking about reiki in the “traditional” sense would have thought I’d just wasted over an hour and called something a session that was no such thing.

When this client did, in fact, die, the comments I received from those close to them at the end and who had seen the session all focused on a few things—disappearance of pain that had been unresponsive to any other treatment, laughter, and peace.

When I’m coming to the end of my own journey here on earth, I hope there is someone who won’t just pity me and hand me a pill and say, “Call me in the morning”. I’ve got to get through the night, and so do those around me!

No, I want a compassionate response, someone who isn’t afraid of my crying, who will talk about anything or nothing, even laugh, as I make my peace and take my leave.