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Posts Tagged ‘music’

Bliss

Last night I had the opportunity to do something I hadn’t done in almost 20 years. I was able to play with Pan Fried Steel, a community based steel drum band based out of Yarmouth Maine. The high school I attended was fortunate enough to have  a steel drum band and I spent countless hours practicing and playing those drums. It was some of the most fun I ever had playing music. It was great to listen to and fun to play. Audiences always loved it and it taught me just how amazing music can be. Since leaving high school, I have really missed playing. Now, I have found another opportunity to have this great experience.

I was amazed at how quickly it came back to me. I haven’t read much music since I was forced to stop playing back in college. I still knew every note and all the musical notations felt like old friends. I think the best experience was being able to hold my own on two of the songs. I had no expectations of coming in and being able to play but these two particular pieces were simple enough that after a quick overview of the music and a survey of where the notes were on the drums I was playing, I was able to keep up and feel like I really played and participated in the group. After I left rehearsal, I was lightheaded with happiness. It was like a drug. I’m still smiling as I think about the experience.

I played drums like these

This was an experience I wasn’t planning on having. I didn’t specifically go and seek it out. It was one of those things that just happened. One day, I saw a flyer for upcoming performances at an event hall and noticed that there was a steel drum band from Yarmouth playing. I had no idea how they operated or if I could even participate. On a whim, I contacted them and asked about what it takes to be a member. It turns out, all that was needed was a willingness to play. I’ve got that in abundance so I attended the rehearsal last night and had a blast. As I said in my previous post about learning to play the guitar, focusing on music is an amazing meditative practice. I had a very similar experience to the one I wrote about in that post but much more intense. The single mindedness that comes when playing music is the state that a Zen practice cultivates. When playing music, you are just playing. You are with a group of other people who are of a similar mind and are just playing. It is the most visceral example of what Zen Master Seung Sahn called “together action” that I have ever experienced. While I was playing and reading and experiencing music I wasn’t worried about work, I wasn’t struggling with depression, I didn’t feel the need to stuff my face with junk. I just played and it was the most natural thing in the universe. I lost sight of my “I, my me” mind. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing Samadhi. Now, I am forced to leave that behind as it was in the past. If I try to keep holding onto it, I will only suffer as the rest of my experiences don’t add up to it. I cannot build up expectations of next week’s rehearsal either as it will set me up for suffering if things do not go according to all of the imaginary scenarios I have made. Each practice will be its own experience. Just as each moment is its own moment. Last night I had a beautiful experience and it made me happy. Today, I sit at a computer and type. What is the difference?

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The past week I’ve been playing Rocksmith. It’s a music “game” that aims to teach you how to play the guitar. Unlike the other music games that have come out over the past few years, this one doesn’t just give you a plastic instrument that you push buttons to make what they call music. This game uses a real, honest to goodness electric guitar. It plugs right into my XBox and knows exactly what strings and what frets my fingers are on. It’s been the most fun I’ve ever had learning how to play a new instrument. If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to play but been afraid to make the commitment, this is a great way to get started.

Like any good guitar player, I’ve also been putting the fingers on my left hand through quite a workout. While I don’t really have blisters on them, I am getting some nice callouses. It’s been a great experience to spend a little time each day playing music and watching myself get better over time. When I started, I had a hard time playing for very long and I couldn’t keep up with the songs. Now, I don’t really have any stamina problems and the number of songs I can play is growing more and more.

The practice mind that one develops when learning a new instrument is similar to the practice mind that one gets from a dedicated Buddhist practice. In both cases, one must develop a solid set of routines that serve to enhance the practice. With music practice, a person learns to play more challenging songs and develops stamina and the ability to think in new ways about songs. In a committed Buddhist practice, the challenges faces are the ones that we all face on a daily basis. The problems of suffering and pain and sorrow are slowly overcome while endurance is built up in a solid meditative practice. This past weekend, for example, I started my day off with a solid hour of meditation. This is something I never would have been able to do when I began to practice.

Another interesting parallel that I have noted is that in playing the guitar, I’m trying to build up a strong layer of callous that makes pushing down on the strings easier to do. In my Buddhist practice, I am trying to wear down the mental callouses that have built up over years of exposure to illusion and suffering and attachment. It feels like two sides of the same coin. Building something up or tearing something down with the end result being a stronger practice and greater ability to perform.

With all of that in mind, I’m trying to approach living a healthy lifestyle the same way. It is something I need to work on each day. It is hard to make a lot of headway at first. It seems like something that is almost impossible to do. It will require building up of new habits and tearing down of old ones. In the end, with repetition and diligence, I will see valuable results.

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Make Some Noise

New Beastie Boys track just dropped. Enjoy the awesome here. Looks like I’ve got a new track for my exercise mix list.

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Today when I got into the car, I was able to get reception from the only radio station in the area to play jazz. It’s a pretty low powered station but sometimes I can get it. As I turned it on, the DJ announced he was about to play a song by Thelonious Monk. He’s one of my favorite jazz pianists so it was great to get a chance to hear some of his music unexpectedly. I really love listening to Monk because even though he was a virtuoso player, he wasn’t driven to fill every song with as many notes as possible. Monk understood that not only were the notes he played important, the silence between the notes was an important part of the composition. He was so laid back when he played that he made it seem simple. It’s sparse and there is an emptiness in his music that can be deceptive. If you try to play a Monk piece, you quickly realize that there’s a lot more going on that you think.

Monk would often play slightly behind the beat and would leave almost uncomfortable pauses in his music. As you listen to him play you begin to learn to appreciate those pauses because they provide the structure to the music. It wasn’t just his notes that made him so amazing, it was the way he worked with pauses and spaces that made him a master. I get the same impression from those who have earned a title of teacher or master in the Zen tradition.

Zen is all about working with the silence and emptiness that gives structure to our lives. Sitting quietly in meditation or walking mindfully in meditation make us aware of how much emptiness is in our own lives. The normal response is to try to fill that emptiness up with thoughts or entertainment or work or food or anything else we use to identify ourselves. Zen won’t let us do that. Zen demands that we see ourselves as we really are: emptiness and all. Once we do this we begin to see that it’s not a bad thing. We realize that there is a beauty in emptiness. Our emptiness is a source of strength that we can draw on for sustenance. Just like Monk would draw on the emptiness between the notes to build up a work of art we rely on our emptiness to give form to ourselves. Without emptiness, we would have no room to grow. We would be a solid lump of stuff only identifiable by our outward appearance. Imagine a tree with no space between the branches and the leaves; without the emptiness inside of it, it’s not a tree and without emptiness inside us we aren’t ourselves. Learn to understand that our emptiness isn’t a drawback. It’s not an imperfection to be blotted out. We should embrace our emptiness and see how it adds shape to our lives. Then, we can become the beautiful works of art we really are.

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