A new post! Hurrah! Having successfully navigated the psychological minefield that is a music degree, I've found more time for myself and thus more time for reflection and introspection. I've been listening to a lot to the great Bodhisattva Alan Watts lately. Anyone who is familiar with Watts' work will be aware that he is a scholar well learned in Eastern mysticism and philosophy. Listening to Watt's lectures on Taoism and the works of Lao Tzu, I've come to realise that my journey as a musician and my works and thoughts on music education have deep parallels to the Tao (translated most commonly as "the Way").
Many years ago, due to my interest in martial arts, I became familiar with Eastern philosophical concepts such as Taoism, Confucianism and Zen Buddhism. I was eager to learn about these traditions as I assumed that any self-respecting martial artist needed to know about these things to be taken seriously. Youthful exuberance lends itself well to many things but philosophical musing is probably not one of those things! As such I found the lessons within these traditions to be abstract, uninformative and without context. Thus I put these things aside, returning only to them in recent times. Of course with retrospect I now know that I lacked the necessary life experience to provide a context for these philosophies. When I now pick up the Tao Te Ching, I find within it's pages, countless accounts of eternal wisdom and many lessons that the modern day musician, or any artist of that matter, could potentially find invaluable.
What is the Tao? The Tao is the totality of the universe and all that occurs within it, from the formations of galaxies to the interaction of human beings. It is nameless, formless and the nature of all things. The 'how' is not important, the 'is' is the important part. Our bodies breathe and make our heart beat, not by the power of our will, but involuntarily. This is the Tao, the natural order of things. It is in aligning with the Tao that a person becomes unlimited and capable of anything, just as the athlete can perform powerful feats of athleticism by harnessing the power of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, but is unable to control them. The bird and the sailor do not control the wind, but by aligning themselves with it, they can travel wherever they please. The Tao is with everything and thus with everything is the Tao.
Duality is a very important concept in Taoism. We see this expressed as the Yin-Yang. Up is only up because it is not down. Good is only good because it is not evil. They may seem mutually exclusive at first, but without one the other cannot exist. The teacher can only teach in the presence of a student, and thus a student can only learn from a teacher. Without students, we would have no need of teachers, yet a teacher can also be a student and can often learn from the student. Often times the student is his own teacher. Just as up can become down and left can become right with a simple change of perspective, students become teachers and good can become evil. Within everything is the possibility to become what it is not, thus it is the same, it is totality, it is unity. This is the Tao.
Aligning yourself with the Tao essentially means getting out of the way of yourself. The very thing that is stopping you from becoming exactly what you want to be is your desire to be it! There is a lot of rhetoric that gets bandied about in the New-Age Psychology/Spirituality movement regarding the ego and how we can only achieve Nirvana/Samadhi/Self-Actualisation/Individuation/Enlightenment (take your pick!) by letting go of the ego. What most fail to realise is that by desperately clinging on to your desire to lose the ego, you fuel the ego even more, by creating a desire to be someone which you are not! It is the eternal game of chase your own tail, akin to trying to bite your own teeth! This is what Karma really is, it is not the law of cause and effect, it is the state of being where we are directly responsible for our current state of being. In other words, you are the way you are because of the way you are. Do you want to be a famous musician? A great martial artist? A legendary dancer? Then stop trying to be. By trying to be something we create an acute sense of what we are not. Alan Watt's uses the phrase "identity necessarily involves difference. That is to say I am what I am because of what I am not". This is the Yin-Yang.
For many years I struggled with the weight of expectation and desire to be a great guitarist. For the sake of my happiness, I poured everything I had into learning everything I thought I needed to learn in order to be a great guitarist. 6 years of music education, thousands of hours of practice, 7 years of real-world experience, yet still I felt I wasn't improving. Finally after much reading, musing and meditation I finally let go of the desire to be a great guitarist. In doing so I became so much happier. Now i'm not saying in doing so I became a great guitar player, but I did become happy in not being a great guitar player, because I let go of the depressing baggage that went along with the desire to be great and in doing so opened myself up to the possibility of actually becoming great. Which when you boil it down, is essentially the same thing! This is the Tao. Will I become great? It doesn't matter. That's the beauty of the Tao. I'm free to enjoy the journey of music rather than worrying about the end product. This is why the Tao is called "the Way" and not "the Destination". An old martial arts proverb reads: "With one eye on the destination, we have but one eye left to make the journey".
Richard Wagner spoke of the Tao when he said:
"I have very definite impressions while in that trance-like condition, which is the prerequisite of all true creative effort. I feel that I am one with this vibrating Force, that it is omniscient, and that I can draw upon it to an extent that is limited only by my own capacity to do so".
Strauss speaks of it from a more spiritual point of view:
"When in my most inspired moods, I have definite compelling visions, involving a higher self-hood. I feel at such moments that I am tapping the source of Infinite and Eternal energy from which you, I and all things proceed. Religion calls it God.
"We composers are projectors of the infinite into the finite".
No great composer, artist or craftsman ever created something innovative with the desire to create something innovative. That's a paradox. How can one try to do something that's never been done before? It's impossible, because you don't know what you're trying to do! So you see it's the desire to be something, that immediately extinguishes the potential to be it. This is what Zen masters mean when they say "Empty your Cup". An empty cup is Mushin, without-mind, the place where the potential for anything is facilitated by the presence of no-thing. This is the state where the masters operate from, the place of non-detachment, of formlessness, of infinite potential. By the principle of the Tao, they can create anything because they operate from a state of no-thing. In a state of no-thing there is no judgement, no comparison, no guilt, no expectation and no doubt. Can you imagine creating a piece of music or any art for that matter, free from all these restrictions? This is the space that Stephen Nachmanovitch calls "Free Play". Where there is no attachment to outcome, there is only play. Infinite expression, unburdened and unshaped by desire. This is what true art really is. In martial arts, there is a posture called Shizen. Shizen means nature, or natural state. It is a posture of neutrality, neither offensive nor defensive and is perfectly symmetrical. Shizen offers no intention and has no desire, it is unreadable, unknowable and therefore completely unpredictable. It is from Shizen that the master martial artist expresses his/her inspiration. Ready to receive anything in every way possible.
In every art form, every once in a while an innovator comes along that completely redefines the
paradigm, unshackling their creativity and leaving their contemporaries for dust. Bruce Lee, Igor Stravinsky, Jackson Pollock, Louis Armstrong. The list is endless. But what did they all have in common? Formlessness, malleability, fearlessness. They aligned themselves with the Tao, emptied their minds, and abandoned all expectation and attachment to outcome. So how can you be like this?
1: Abandon Labels.
(Not record labels. But maybe we should abandon them too?) When teaching my students, I always advise them to abandon any labels that they define themselves with. Labels are useful when we're looking for work or advertising our services, but that's where it should end. As soon as you begin to define yourself with a label, you also define yourself by what you are not. Attaching a label means creating a beginning and an end, which in turn serves only to limit you. Guitarist, drummer, song-writer, vocalist, arranger, composer? It doesn't matter. These are professional titles only, you weren't born a musician. It's just a word, stop desperately clinging to this identity. Remember identity necessarily involves difference, which means what you are not becomes just as important as what you are. And that's a minefield of neurosis what you don't want to be in!
2: Stop Getting In Your Own Way:
Kenny Werner instructs his students to repeat the mantra "be kind to yourself" on a daily basis. This means stop being hard on yourself when things don't go your way. You are your own worst enemy, your own worst critic and things will never be as bad as they seem in your own mind. Stop worrying about everything. Getting in the way all the time means you have absolutely no time to enjoy the experience. Present moment awareness is the key to a fulfilling experience. In a musical situation this arises most often when a player is required to improvise. Players are often so gripped by the need to sound good that they don't even really hear what they're playing. If the sound they play doesn't match their expectation, they wince and writhe in agony! The 'mistake' becomes so painful that the fear of another grows exponentially and the situation deteriorates rapidly. A mistake is only a mistake if it was intended otherwise and if there was no intention all along, then there are no mistakes! This is real improvisation. As such real improvisation can only emerge from a state of no-mind or a state of non-doing. Lao-Tzu called this wei-wu-wei and it is the perfect representation of the Tao.
3: Get Peaceful
The state of non-doing or no-mind can only be cultivated with practicing stillness. Stillness can be practiced with meditation, surrounding yourself with nature or engaging in any activity that doesn't require a lot of conscious thought. Playing with children or animals are other ways of cultivating this. The most important thing is to enjoy the moment! Experience is all that matters. Let go of expectation. The Tao can also be interpreted as "to act without acting" in the sense of performing without a performance. We see this reflected in the saying "dance like no one is watching". This is a great way of getting into an experience, without the burden of expectation.
4: Form Is Only One Half of The Whole
I see this problem in music and martial arts. Form is there to facilitate, not encapsulate. Too many artists stagnate because they believe the form and the technique is the art. Technique and form are just tools. Just as vocabulary is the vehicle for poetry and scales are the vehicle for melody, form is the vehicle for art. In Greek esoteric tradition, inspiration was carried by the Muses from the divine realm to man. But the Muses were brought into being by the union of Mnemosyne (Wisdom, Memory) and Apollo (Skill, Technique, Form). Therefore inspiration could not be imparted to mankind without the union of form and wisdom.
To conceptualise all of the above and to put it into lay mans terms a little: Stop taking life so seriously, just go with the flow and enjoy the ride! If you can learn to do this, to trust that all will be well, you'll find that life has a funny way or working out for you. This is the Tao.