Music of the Spheres and Your Brain

Because I am taking a course on meditation and the brain, I have been thinking about how miraculous our continually changing human brains really are. I try to remind myself that even though we have names for parts of the complex brain, that does not mean we understand all that is going on. Could it … Continue reading “Music of the Spheres and Your Brain”

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Because I am taking a course on meditation and the brain, I have been thinking about how miraculous our continually changing human brains really are. I try to remind myself that even though we have names for parts of the complex brain, that does not mean we understand all that is going on.

Could it be that our brains are singing meaning along with the universe?

For example, articles make broad claims about the benefits of singing, and my experience would agree. But studies also make clear that a better understanding of specific aspects might lead to useful practical applications. I began to wonder about whether the rhythms and compositions I intuitively frame in my close-up photos make use of skills enhanced by neuronal connections formed during many years of singing. My ability to detect and relate to subtle nuances in tone of voice certainly grew over that time.

Recently while meditating, I had the feeling that the fact that everything is constantly changing is not just an annoyance. It seemed a fundamental building block of reality and, in fact, worthy of awe. I had the odd thought that when our sun consumes our planet, that transience will still be vitally “alive.” I found that oddly reassuring.

Toward the end of this talk on the brain, Keith Kendrick mentions that the time series of activity in the brain carries meaning, not just the structure or individual signals. This resonated with the musical quality that physicists seem to find at all scales including the probability waves at the heart of quantum theory.

Of all the problematic human undertakings, we can be proud of the music we make using our miraculous brains and bodies. As this article on modern physics and music describes: “Music resonates, it pulses, it leaps into our psyches. It offers a safe space for scientists and musicians alike to work through the paradoxes of modern physics.”

Noticing Stones

It is the rare child who does not like stones. Some of us never stop picking them up. It is not just the stones but the process – the adventures involved in finding them and the friendships.

These evocative examples lined up above my monitor speak of the larger natural world, a quality that is much appreciated by the Asian scholar.

Viewing stones on shelf

A close looks provides access to amazing colors, details and dreams:

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Floating Flower Petals

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Floating flower petals took on special meaning during our video conference to share tea and dialogue on May 23rd, 2018.

At my suggestion, the other two contributed tea flowers:

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And I hung a tea scroll with an image of floating flower petals within camera range:

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Given we were actually in separate locations, each of us would need to act as both host and guest in preparing tea for ourselves. That is quite possible. It can be important, especially in cultures where taking time to offer oneself both respectful nurturing and gratitude is not given priority. In the context of our virtual meeting, listening for the sound as we poured hot water would connect us in generosity as much as if we were pouring for each other.

Remembering that humans tend to take things in best in sound bites, I paused frequently as I read aloud from William Scott Wilson’s wonderful book on tea scroll sayings, The One Taste of Truth, Zen and the Art of Drinking Tea:

Ichigo ichi’e ‘Each meeting a once-in-a-lifetime event’…is included among the fundamental concepts…because it is the guiding life not only of Tea but of Zen Buddhism and the martial arts as well. Ichigo refers to a person’s life, from birth to death – something never to be repeated – while ichi’e is a coming together or an assembly of people. The world is transient, and it is natural that whomever you meet, you will part from. Every meeting is special and unique, and will never happen again in the same way. Thus, you should put your entire body and spirit into the encounter, whether it be in the tea room, a chance meeting in the street, in martial conflict, or in your own solitary thought. The message extends to everyday behavior: one should pay attention to things and events as though none will ever be repeated. Let happiness as well as sorrow be complete, and experienced with attention and nonattachment” (p. 19-20).

I suggested we focus on the “Pause” guideline from Gregory Kramer’s powerful Insight Dialogue guidelines as the pause brings one home to present moment awareness.

Once they had their tea in hand, I made my tea using traditional Japanese tea ceremony utensils holding them up so they could see:

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I opened the container and placed two scoops of tea powder into the bowl. After pouring in hot water, I whisked the bright green matcha tea into suspension.

As we drank, I spoke of the warmth, the look, and the smell of the tea as well as how the taste is different with each sip. I gratefully acknowledged the energy of the sun captured by the tea leaves, the sustaining waters flowing through the tea plant and through us, and the effort of all those who planted, tended, plucked, dried, processed, packaged and transported the tea. Then there were also others who supported them, the ones who supported those others and so on…

After drinking our tea, we spoke making use of all of the Insight Dialogue guidelines – Pause, Relax, Open, Trust Emergence (since changed to Attune to Emergence), Listen Deeply and Speak the Truth. One of them commented on how rarely we slow down to really pay attention but when we do, we can notice so many sensory details. Another comment was about all the moments involved in the causes and conditions that led up to our being able to share tea. I mentioned how slowly time seemed to be passing.

As we approached the time limit for a meeting with a free Zoom account, I requested that these two experienced Insight Dialogue facilitators send me their comments via email. But they wanted to provide feedback right away and had the time, so we signed out and signed back in again for another meeting. I expressed my deep appreciation for any comments they cared to share.

One of them said that the “relaxed friendliness” stood out the most for her. To me it had a quality like the direct simplicity and freedom of children playing. They told me I had managed to bring in the meditative, relational and wisdom elements of Insight Dialogue. I was glad to receive confirmation that phrases used for the Zen art of Japanese tea ceremony are appropriate.

When I asked what I could improve, one of them told me she had felt the giving as host and the receiving as guest in her body as I spoke about each of us performing both roles as we served ourselves tea. She would have liked a reminder about that before we drank our tea. The other suggested it would be better to invite participants to continue the practice as we moved into dialogue rather than using the words, “commence dialogue.” I can definitely make use of both those improvements for future virtual tea and dialogue sessions.

I was not surprised when one of them spoke about her impression that Japanese tea ceremony is about perfection. I explained that while there are practical reasons for the order of the procedures, the true spirit of Japanese tea ceremony transcends perfection. Its values of harmony, purity, respect and tranquility ideally make it possible for all participants to be truly present forgetting “the dust of the world.” I thought of how sharing tea is used as a focus for convivial interaction in many cultures.

The short video,“A Tea Gathering at San Francisco’s Urasenke Society” explains there is freedom in Japanese tea ceremony’s structure, and the focus on process serves a number of important purposes including bringing participants very close to each other.

As I watched that film again, I noticed that rapidly-fading flowers were mentioned as appropriate for display during tea ceremony. I thought of the petals on the flowers in their vases, and those floating downstream in the image on the scroll we used (see photos above).

We truly connected for a time even as the three of us, like petals ourselves, floated downstream. Sharing tea and dialogue via video conference seemed to work – opening a whole world of interesting possibilities for sharing that way…

The Dragon on the Ceiling

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I know I could happily continue writing posts about various forms of radiant refuge while trying out blog features. I feel a strong pull in that direction. But it is time to pause and consider all is not joy and light. My research into whether blogging can be a skillful means for mindful communication is revealing serious risks. Because of how our minds work, potential for harm can hover outside our normal range of awareness, like that dragon on the ceiling in the image above.

This post considers how tendencies of our human minds contribute to the potential for causing and/or ignoring harm. Here are examples along with questions they raised for me regarding the implications for bloggers:

Cognitive psychologist Mariana Funes discusses how we tend to attribute good and bad behavior to personal traits – however as she notes, studies show we actually respond more to situational factors. What situations or technical affordances do bloggers encounter that might lead them to cause (or ignore) harm?

Yale psychology professor, Paul Bloom stresses the priority we give to conforming with perceived social pressure given our desire for esteem even if that requires we inflict or suffer harm. Can bloggers natural desire for followers and standing with their imagined audience cause them to overlook or downplay harm?

Researchers Tappin and McKay confirmed we have a tendency for a deluded sense of moral superiority. Does this mean there is less motivation for bloggers to acknowledge and work to change harmful structures, norms or behavior?

Francesca Gino discusses research that demonstrates we often cause harm without knowing it. Given the amplified speed and reach of online communication, what should bloggers do and advocate that others do to stay on top of potential harm before it spreads?

Geoff Shullenberger discusses troubling implications of mimetic theory – that our tendency to mimic others in determining what we desire leads to harmful behavior online: “the platforms’ basic social architecture, by concentrating mimetic behavior, also stokes the tendencies toward envy, rivalry, hatred of the other that feed online violence.” (or offline violence) Yikes! I don’t want to agree with this theory even though our behavior appears to confirm it is true. I will keep that as a worthy one to consider. Even if mimetic behavior like that is an undeniable tendency of the human mind, that might make accessible radiant refuges like nature that support clear thinking and human wellbeing all the more important.

Our minds also make it easy to share personal information without considering the associated risks:

Scientific American presented the neuroscience behind why we find such great pleasure in talking about ourselves. Those with a stake in advertising revenue, have reason to encourage this tendency as well as our vulnerability to forming habits so we continue to contribute free labor that draws attention to advertisements.

Naiveté about these kinds of mind tendencies can be particularly dangerous when we interact with online technology. The recent Facebook scandal is a case in point.

Bloggers are not immune to issues that apply to social media. For example, platforms that offer blogs for free also depend on advertising revenue. Even independent bloggers who pay for the blogging services they use and do not seek income from their blogging need to consider the economic implications of their generous impulse (another mind tendency). Putting valuable information and art out there for free has serious implications for those trying to earn a living using their creative talents.

While we are distracted and stressed by information overload, our planet’s capacity to support us is being strained and we face serious problems that need our attention, wisdom and creativity. In the online environment, it is becoming all we can do to pay brief attention to the next thing that comes up while turning to what feels familiar for some sense of comfort, even when what feels familiar may be causing harm.

My personal commitment to mindfulness requires that I make a good faith effort to ensure that the benefits of my blogging outweigh the harm it might cause. That includes considering the level of effort and the time that requires. There are other communication options available. Since I hope to inspire my readers to actualize and protect the best of which they are capable, it is important that I not undermine my message by how I say it – the benefits of my blogging must outweigh the risks of its causing even indirect harm.

Regardless of any external controls that are put in place or the platform, those who share online will always be ultimately responsible for the content they place there. The tendency to take technological affordances for granted, to welcome new ones, and to be drawn in by the benefits of their use is another reason for considering the risks of using them. Making intentional choices while blogging requires insight into what we are capable of as we interact with technology-mediated forms of communication.

Addendum:

This blog post was originally titled “Issues and Downsides.” I decided to change that since the central point of this article is the importance of awareness of potentially harmful mind tendencies (that hovering dragon metaphor). The examples of research and writing about such mind tendencies have been updated for clarity, questions bloggers might want to consider, and the discussion of Schulenberger’s mimetic theory was added.

Voice Lessons

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I met Joanna Porackova (left), several years ago when she was rehearsing for a concert. My choir director and talented composer, Jeffrey Brody (right), was accompanying her. The sanctuary where they practiced looked like a large overturned wooden boat with pews lined up under it. Sound bounced all around inside that space and musicians loved performing there.

I sat a few pews back. I was hoping for some feedback on a PR piece I had written for the local newspaper. When Joanna noticed me sitting there, she asked Jeffrey to start over again, so I could hear the piece they were rehearsing from the beginning. Joanna said, “She worked so hard on that article.” I was to learn that kind of thoughtfulness was typical of her. I do not take it for granted. I still feel honored that she did that.

Then the two of them performed just for me. Time stopped. Awe is no stranger to me. But the glorious sound of her voice took me over. They were in perfect accord about what the music should do. I knew at the time, I would never forget that experience.

When I came in early for choir rehearsal, I would sometimes see them in the sanctuary. At times, she was giving voice lessons to one of her students with Jeffrey accompanying. Other times, he would be coaching her on a new opera role, or a solo part in a major classical work. It was obvious they were good friends. An expert on Wagner’s music, Jeffrey  coaches opera singers on Wagnerian roles, including Joanna whose voice is well suited to that music. It was clear they both know the world of opera from the inside out, and enjoy talking about it.

Jeffrey suggested that I take a few voice lessons with Joanna. I did not take him up on the idea. I had been singing in one choir or another most of my life. I loved choral singing, but I knew I was no soloist. However, when a choir friend suggested I join her for the warmup portion of her lessons with Joanna, I could not resist. That is how I started formal voice lessons in a limited kind of way,  with a kind opera singer whose voice awed me.

The vocal warmups we did might look quite peculiar to someone observing us. We would position ourselves some distance apart on the strip of carpet in the center of the sanctuary. We held our heads up while lying on our stomachs in the Cobra position, practicing ever higher scales and coming back down again. We paid attention to filling our lower back with air in the Child Resting position. We ended by singing scales on various vowels while standing on one leg in the King of Dance and Tree positions. Then my friend would work on singing various pieces, and I would watch.

As I learned, early voice lessons are all about letting go of tension that shows up in the voice. Unlearning deeply ingrained habits can take time. Each person’s body, mind and experiences are different. It is the voice teacher’s job to figure out what would be most helpful. The routine she taught was how Joanna’s teacher taught her to do vocal practice. That made sense to me. Yoga is a way to free up energy in the body that works for many people. The sound I made was usually richer and stronger when I was in one of those odd positions, especially the arching ones that opened up the air way.

When I mentioned her kindness, Joanna told me she had intentionally chosen kindness as her way of coping in the world. She even used it during the unnerving auditions that all professional singers endure. To manage her fear, she uses her singing to send healing energy to those who are judging her.

By her kindness, Joanna made herself totally trust worthy.

That kind of trust is useful for voice students since a high degree of exposed openness is involved in singing well with one’s whole heart. Before I started lessons, one of her professional students told me that all of her students love her. I have no doubt of that, even regarding any of her future students who have not met her yet.

My choir friend stopped taking voice lessons, so I began taking them on my own once a month. I explored a bit, discovering haunting Celtic songs that seemed a good match to my vocal quality, and my heritage.

For one of my lessons, Joanna asked if I minded if another person joined us for the warm up. I was happy to accommodate him. I sensed she wanted to help this young man in some way using the healing power of music. After the lesson, I said, “If you were not a professional singer, you could be a healer.” That was when she told me she had spent much of her career as a pediatric nurse.

Someone working in the hospital overheard Joanna singing to one of her young patients and suggested she contact a voice teacher he knew. By the time she had advanced to teaching nursing, her singing career was really taking off. She had a choice to make, and she chose music. She then performed opera roles and solos all around the world as well as appearing in radio programs and in recordings.

She became known for her sense for the inner drama of the music and her wide vocal range. Those of us who know her well, however, would add kindness to her list of outstanding talents. Joanna told me that she still visits shut in senior clients in their homes and sings to and with them.

I stopped taking voice lessons when I became a graduate student in Lesley’s Mindfulness Studies program. I learned about many wonderful mindfulness practices and tried them all. Nonetheless, I consider singing one of my favorite mindfulness practices. I continue to sing with my choir friends. And I keep in touch with Joanna. I still wonder at the fact that I have a famous opera singer as a friend. But why not? She and I have many common interests including music, spirituality and healing.

Although I have not discussed the subject with her in detail, I am sure she would agree that singing is advanced mindfulness practice. While learning a new piece takes thought and voice lessons take effort, with singing itself, there is no time to stop and think about anything. One is aware of one’s breath, the nuances of the music, the words and their pronunciation, and the pitch and the quality of one’s sound, but it all flows. Letting go, over and over again like that is excellent mindfulness practice.

When a group of singers who like each other also like the music they are singing, a very strong communal awareness can arise. This sensitive and dynamic awareness is very much alive in its own right. The audience senses it when it is there in the sound. It is not guaranteed. Everything has to come together. I find singing in the midst of strong communal awareness to be a fundamental bottomed-out joy with freedom to it, a bit like taking flight.

Eventually we were able to find a slot of time when Joanna could join me in the tea hut I had installed in a mossy corner of my yard. I also invited a new friend who practices Tibetan Buddhism sensing that the two of them would like each other. I explained a little about Japanese tea ceremony and poured them bowls of tea in an informal version of the practice. Afterwards, we spoke of many things including the importance of making time to slow down and share like we were doing.

Joanna mentioned that she did not think she had told me she had learned to chant the Heart Sutra from a friend. My new Tibetan Buddhist friend asked if we could hear a bit of it. The three of us were standing in a triangle only three feet away from each other on the tatami mats in my small tea hut as she began. Time stopped.

Her vocal quality was entirely different from that time when I was first transfixed by her voice in the church sanctuary years earlier. There was an unexpected gruffness of tone that only enhanced the spiritual depth as she chanted the words. It was incredibly powerful. It was as if she were channeling an enlightened medieval monk.

It is not unusual for time to slow way down when I am in my tea hut sharing tea. But this was different. She told us there were tears in her eyes as she chanted because she knew that the two of us would understand.

Where Node Lines Cross

A radiant refuge is not just a matter of finding a beautiful spot in nature, or creating a special corner in a home (although those are both good), it is about our relationship with the refuge and how that evolves.  Over time, we may sense a wider connection, with ripples going outward from its still center.

Through our relationship with our personal refuge, we can begin to recognize the same energy when we encounter it whether in a beautiful fall leaf, or the smile of a stranger or even a blog.  We can bring this deeper perception that partakes of peace to our actions, and our dreams, and our refuge is there for us to return to when all of life’s challenges and distractions get to us.