Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Experts, Wisdom and Experience

I have been struggling with the fascination our world has with experts. Please understand, I, too, am also amazed at the facts experts bring to light: studies that reveal the previously unknown, or theories that explain phenomena we don't understand. But what about a personal experience you may have had years ago that's only just now receiving confirming "expert" research?

A book I've been reading called "Seven Thousand Ways to Listen" by Mark Nepo helped me in the paradox. What Mark Nepo refers to as "saging" -- being wise -- holds a certain truth about experts that I feel is relevant today.

As Mark Nepo tells it, in ancient Greece, seven sages were identified as the wisest of all thought leaders. Everyone agreed...and then began to debate which of the seven was greatest. In Western civilization, this marked the beginning of the sagacious "middleman" and the demise of wisdom based on direct experience.

There's still plenty of saging based on direct experience these days. But when it comes to "acceptable" fact, don't we still look to the great writers and thinkers and poets and philosophers and scientists and researchers for the conventional wisdumb, instead of going to the well ourselves? It's convenient, I suppose, to take someone else's word for it as opposed to actually doing the hard work of self-saging. Whole religions are built on this model, and schools, and even governments. Certainly businesses in the industrial age are working models of how a wise middleman can massively change the world and profit from doing so, perhaps to the detriment of the ones who borrow wisdom instead of winning it for themselves...

...and the detractors, especially those who are themselves educated scientists, are still maligned for daring to doubt the mass acceptance of the "fact," whatever it may be: the world is flat, the Earth is the center of the solar system, the atom is the smallest particle, nothing travels faster than the speed of light, etc.

Also this last week an email arrived wondering whether I have any music "programs" for sale. It would be nice to have a shelf full of ready-made programs with music wisdom in them -- click to add to your shopping cart, free delivery in five to seven business days. Or better yet, streamed online to your mobile device. There's probably a business model there somewhere. I could probably make a lot of money doing it. There's only one flaw: I can't give you the music you need. I could teach you something about how to listen to your own inner musical wisdom, but even at the moment I put that into a "program" and offer it to you for sale, I've foreclosed part of the magic of your own experience of discovery -- and caring for your self is as much about the experience of learning how to do that as it is actually giving yourself care.

It rankles me that some yoga teachers feel the need to license their methods, and then prosecute other yoga teachers who they feel are teaching something proprietary without a specific license. I worry that Music Therapy may be headed in this direction, and that, at some not-so-far-off day, music venues will have to pay a fee to some licensing board somewhere in order to cover the possible transformative experience some in the audience might have....

How does it serve you if I compact all of what I know about music and transformation into a 12-minute TED talk? Even if that was both feasible and marketable, your momentary thrill of hearing the talk wouldn't last, and would definitely never take the place of your own self-aware transformation. There are already plenty such talks, and while mine might be a little different, what I want for you is to spark your own inquiry into the power of music, not to give you all the answers. I want you to learn to sage yourself.

Does it serve you to soak up expert knowledge? Of course it does. But recall the paradox: Buddha may have had it right when he turned his followers away from him and toward his teaching. If the expert you trust opens you to your own experience of his or her knowledge, your trust is well placed. If the expert you trust has you convinced that he or she is the only arbiter of the wisdom you want, in my humble opinion, that expert is suspect.

I believe an expert -- a sage -- ought to open you to questions. A true expert can lead you right up to the paradox and show you great grace as you begin to wrestle with it. But no study or theory or religion or science can take your place at that moment, and neither can any expert, no matter how wise. Only you, armed with whatever inspires you and gives you courage and strength, can wrestle with your personal paradox, and either you will win the deepening you want...or not. No sage (or therapist or doctor or minister or guru!) no matter how wise, can do this for you, and anyone who claims to have that ability -- again, in my humble opinion, -- ought to be regarded with suspicion.

I know how heretical this sounds, but please think carefully about what you believe: can you prove it for yourself? Are you content to lean on the purported wisdom of others without testing it? Is it even possible to test your own beliefs? These are big questions. They are hard to answer without a lot of thought -- without a lot of experience. Maybe it's easier to let the experts do the thinking.......?

And that, too, is a paradox.

Why does any of this matter to you?

Simply because the quality of the music you choose, just like quality of the food you eat, the water you drink and the air you breathe, is fundamental to your quality of life.

I know this fact because I have experienced it, and I'm passionate about it because I want you to experience it for yourself. Research and expert opinion have weighed in on it; "anecdotal evidence" is plentiful. When your own experience matches the expert opinion -- especially when you can prove that opinion for yourself at will -- well, that, my friend, is the best kind of wisdom, because you won it for yourself. That is self saging.

It doesn't take a PhD or a board certification in Music Therapy to experience the  wisdom of music for yourself. All it takes is becoming aware of the "music" that is around you, and how it impacts you. If you can distinguish between how you respond to the sound of a jackhammer and how you respond to utter silence you have made a start. If you can put together a list of the music you like to hear when you work out or bike or run or swim versus a list of the music you use to relax, you are more than halfway there. To go all the way, simply become more conscious and make informed choices about your sound track. That's it.

Can this simple starting point open you to an experience of transformation that is uniquely yours? Try it and see. Choose music you can use to amplify every single aspect of your life: mental, emotional, physical, spiritual. If you are healing, music will help. If you are hurting, music will help. If you need answers, music can open them up to you. If you are alone, music can care for you. If you are with others, music can connect you more deeply than you can imagine. Using music, perhaps, is a way toward self saging. Or not. You decide.

The world needs your wisdom, your well of feeling, your strength, your insight. If you prove for yourself that music -- or anything else you can find! -- has power to open these four aspects of your being, you will meet the paradox of expert versus experience more skillfully, from a place of deeper trust in your self, and you will come to trust your own wisdom more powerfully, and become a powerful voice of reason in the world, perhaps even an expert. Or not.

You decide.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Life, Death and Music

There was something else on my mind until I learned about the Oklahoma tornado and the lives lost to it.

How do you deal with the death of a loved one?

The closest I have been to the passing of a loved one was when my Mom died. Although there had been time during her illness to anticipate that she might not survive, and though I was blessed to have family and friends around me for comfort, I couldn't cry for a few weeks. Not until the day Mom's ashes were scattered at sea. The Neptune Society provides this service, and there were perhaps twenty of us -- several families -- gathered at Shelter Island as the motor yacht with the remains of our loved ones cruised slowly by, then headed out of the harbor to the open ocean. That did it. I watched that boat until I couldn't see it any more for my tears and when I couldn't cry any more I watched until it disappeared beyond the horizon.

It took even longer for me to mourn the death of my friend who took his own life by self-immolation in the presence of his parents, wife and kids.

I had no rules for how to mourn, or grieve. I knew I was supposed to, but I didn't know how. I've learned that some societies have such rules and that makes a lot of sense to me now that I've been at a loss for them. But at those two times, I held deeper sorrow in my body than I'd ever felt before, and I had to invent a way to experience it fully. I wasn't able to do that right away.

It helps to have loved ones around you as you let go of your connections to one who has died...but they, too, may be in mourning. Shared grief is powerful, but it's not your grief -- your specific, unique connections to the one who has gone. My sister had a different relationship to Mom, and her experience of Mom's passing was different than mine because of that. We both miss Mom in the thousands of ways Mom was privately special to each of us, and while the tears on each of our faces are the same, in each tear are the memories of a mother's individual love for her daughter or for her son. Somehow each of us has to put our arms around our own grief -- no one else can.

Losing a loved one suddenly can create a shared shock. We have seen this publicly when entire communities react to mass shootings, horrors of war, terrorist attacks. Coming together in this way helps us to open to grief: strangers brought to awareness of our shared humanity by a forceful, tragic intrusion. But what happens next, after the memorials and homilies, when we return to our homes that are empty of the presence of the one we mourn?

After the shock, after the funeral, after the long drive back home, what then?

David Whyte, a poet I admire, has written that, at the bottom of the well of grief, there is treasure ("The Well of Grief"). I believe he is correct: when I have really worked at grief, it has a certain reward. I do this by using music.

Music connect us safely and instantly to emotion -- to feeling. I prefer to "find the bottom" of feelings such as grief rather than wallowing in it. And, when I have difficulty letting grief take me, music can ease me in to the journey.

Mom's memorial had music -- Amazing Grace -- but I didn't cry then. As beautiful as that music is, it didn't open the safe place for me to really experience the loss and sorrow I was holding inside.

My friend's memorial had music -- I don't remember what it was because I was still in shock at his suicide. It was only years later when I thought again of taking my own life that I came to terms with the music I needed to deeply feel the loss of my friend. It was a single piece of piano music I've played many times that came to mind me, and in it I finally managed to swim to the bottom of the well that held all the grief I had stored for my friend.

This takes time: time to be patient with one's sorrow. I have great respect for the societies whose rules put mourning on a timeline, but that isn't how I grieve. I have to wait for the right music -- looking for the trigger, some might say -- to release me into that safe place of utter loss. No sense shedding a tear here or there: I only want to go with the full desperate Monty and have done.

The bottom of that well came sooner with Mom than with my friend, and that was all right with me.

The point here is that there's no hurrying this experience of grief -- and there's no point in just sweeping these feelings away for another day. Yes, it's better (I think) if we can experience a kind of communal sorrow, and funerals are good for that, but the real impact of the passing of a loved one -- for whatever reason -- goes on for much longer. Even grieving fully doesn't remove the melancholy of memories shared with the one who's gone. There's a kind of slow transformation from the piercing sharpness of loss to an emptiness that lives within us. My emptiness sometimes reminds me of happy moments with Mom, and sometimes trying ones, but it is never full the way it was while Mom was alive. It is the same with my friend: the way his son looks sometimes, or when I speak to his parents about him and their grand kids.

The beauty of such pain is that we are not alone. In my grief, I have a sense of belonging somehow to a tribe of strangers who also knew Mom, loved her, and miss her. Closer in, my Dad and I experience Mom's passing in ways we can share, memories we can relive. My kids and I sometimes remember "GM" together in beautiful ways that keep her alive: my singer/songwriter daughter wrote and performed a song for Mom, shared with the family on YouTube. My son the lawyer keeps Mom's memory alive in the way he chooses to show his compassion for animals, or when his eyes soften as he speaks of her. These little things are tributes to Mom. I share such things with my friend's parents, too.

So as I think of Oklahoma, my own midwestern roots kick in and remind me that the ones who love each of the ones lost will mind their passing with shared grief, yes, but also with resilience -- with the fortitude that keeps us strong, with the stiff upper lip I've come to know and accept about myself -- with strength to rebuild and quiet honor to persevere in memory of those who died. May a beautiful song find each of us in our mourning to ease us gently through our loss, and may we share that music together as together we share our grief.

Monday, May 13, 2013

"Don't Leave Before the Miracle"

One of the things I get to do as a volunteer is present graduates of the Guitars for Vets program with brand new guitars. I was doing that this evening at Veterans Village of San Diego (VVSD), and I stuck around to hear a couple of VVSD alumni talk to the 150+ VVSD residents about the incredible place they're in.

(VVSD is incredible -- for residential treatment and recovery, for job search and career counseling, for providing an opportunity for folks who have served their country to make a fresh start, free of addiction.)

One of the alumni spoke of the amazing place VVSD is, especially for Veterans who graduate. Her point, and the reason for this blog, was simple: "Don't leave before the miracle."

If you visited VVSD, you would find Veterans there in various stages of "recovery." That's the world's term for it. I think there's a better one: 'authenticity.' Dealing successfully with addiction is not pleasant, but it comes down to one thing: rock bottom. When you're at that place, you get authentic real quick. The average new VVSD resident has been homeless, involved with the criminal justice system and addicted to one or more mind-altering substances. Deciding to change all that is a choice made in a very raw place -- a place where the only options left are few. Deciding to enter the VVSD program is the first step toward a new life, and it is a hard step to take.

I have met new residents in their first few days of "coming home" to VVSD.

One of them joined the Guitars for Vets program within his first week; he took the practice guitar issued to him and sat there in the courtyard alone, just playin' and singin' like there was no tomorrow. Now he's the leader of a Veterans rock band composed mostly of VVSD residents and graduates.

Another VVSD resident who had never played the guitar joined the Guitars for Vets program, practiced hours every day, graduated Guitars for Vets with distinction and was given his brand new guitar. He then left the VVSD program before completion. He hasn't been heard from since.

The effort made by both of these Veterans was exemplary.

A VVSD resident can either graduate the program employed and recovered, leave voluntarily before graduation, or be "exited" for failing to remain clean and sober during treatment. By far the hardest choice is to stay in the program. It's the hardest choice because, in the middle of transformation, the easiest choice is to relapse.

When nothing is left -- rock bottom -- and a tiny part of you decides that there is a chance of something better, that's only the beginning. It won't be until a long time later that you can even look back and know that transformation happened. Sure, you'll see signs, but during the process, it's hard to believe the miracle that is really taking place.

That miracle is YOU, becoming authentic. Stripping away the stuff that was how you behaved but wasn't you. Laying off all the ways of being that aren't the core -- the real you. Coming to understand, maybe for the first time, how the real you looks, feels, acts. In that place, where it is all new for the first time, there's no kind of trust that a miracle will happen -- it's enough for the next day to happen. It takes time to feel the power of leaning into the change -- starting to open your arms and your mind and your heart to the possibility that something -- anything other than same the old crap -- could happen to you. It's a tough place to be.

It's not a place where a miracle seems likely.

I promise you: being authentic is hard work, but it's hard work that pays off in ways you never notice when you're less than authentic. Rescuing a fledgling bird that somehow found itself stunned in a busy walkway takes on a whole new urgency when you're authentic. Being called "brother" by a fellow addict becomes a firm foothold for the next step forward. Watching a brother fall off the wagon again is like a death in the family. Authenticity can suck.

It's also the only way forward. It hurts to change. It's supposed to. Some of us humans are good at learning facts and figures; some of us only learn when there is pain involved. It's a good motivator: pain. It forces us to make clear choices: more pain, or less pain. In places like VVSD, the option of less pain can be a better one...and it can also be painful.

As a piano player, I'm fairly useless when it comes to teaching guitar, but as a musician, I share some attributes with guitar players. Some of those are the way we respond to music...the way it changes us. Observing the change that happens to guitar players at VVSD is remarkable. The VVSD program is opening all the wounds and cleansing them; the Guitars for Vets program is soothing the rawness. It's unbelievable to watch this happen. It affects me mentally, emotionally, sometimes physically. I cry when VVSD loses a resident who has been in the Guitars for Vets program; I'm overjoyed when someone graduates. You can't make music together and not respond to another's experience. Music allows for that -- it's all about a different sort of connection. It's all about the miracle.

Of course, I'm powerless to force anything to happen. Music isn't like that: it's subjective. You make music, whether together or for some listeners, and things happen. Sometimes they're what you wish would happen; sometimes they're not. The authentic musicians just keep on making music, hoping for the miracle.

A musical project I am in is like that. Three of us -- guitar, bass, keyboard -- mostly improvise behind a singer who also improvises melodies, using as her lyrics the words of the poet Rumi. There's no way to practice for this except to be the best you can at what you do and show up to see what happens. It only works when all of us are completely raw -- completely authentic -- and open to the inspiration of the moment and to each other's authenticity. No sensible musician would take that chance on stage in an ensemble, but somehow we do. It's like cliff jumping without a rope: you never know how far down the ground is or whether it's water, or sand, or snow, or rock. It's like choosing to enter VVSD: no promises of a soft landing.

The miracle is that, if we are all raw enough and open enough and authentic enough and lean in together just enough to feel each other's presence...I can hear the guitar moving in just such a way and the bass boiling up under it, that a chord here or a melody there is just right. The singer takes it to another place and we all follow; the words inspire us to mirror some poetic nuance...and the miracle happens.

It can only happen when there's no safety net. It can only happen when there's no looking back. It can only happen when there's no ego. It can only happen when...there is no other way left.

It can only happen when we show up -- as raw as we can be and as ready as we can be -- and anticipate the miracle. We can't predict it; we just take the leap and trust that it will be there.

And do you know what? Many times, we don't really know what happened. Something we did might have worked -- seemed OK at the time as we played -- but it's only afterwards when the perspective of time has worked on us that we really get it -- really appreciate the risk that was taken and how it paid off in some miraculous way that none of us on stage that night could have scripted or anticipated. These moments don't shake the earth; they are intimate and appreciated only by the few of us who were there, but they happen. Often.

In hindsight.

Being aware enough to say as the miracle happens -- like it could make its entrance on cue -- "And now, my friends, here is the miracle!" is fallacious. I suspect we aren't supposed to know until later -- maybe years later -- the magic that happened to us at that moment. Usually it just feels benign. Only later, momentous. The bird was rescued from the busy walkway. The Veteran graduated VVSD. Some musical moment happened.

In that place, where, much later, we will look back and say "That was a miracle!" -- that place is where the real work happens. VVSD is one such place.  The paradox is that, until you are a VVSD graduate -- sometimes many years afterwards -- you won't know that a miracle happened to you at VVSD. Only people who have been there before can tell you that, until. somehow, some day, by some personal miracle of your own, you realize that it happened to you.

I wish for everyone who read this that, sometime later, perhaps, you will look back into your life and know with the surety of your being that you have been blessed with such a miracle. Or maybe a few of them. If you have done the work, you are ready: you deserve it.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Experts and Leaders

It's really more about whom we choose to follow, isn't it?
  • The impressive academic, research or clinical professional with lots of letters after their name...or the poet who faced down cancer and is quietly changing the world one insight at a time.
  • The CEO of a huge company...or the five orphaned kids whose string quintet in their parents' honor helps open new possibilities for at-risk kids and adults.
  • The minister of a world-wide mega-church...or an almost-unknown nun whose simple advocacy made her a legend in her own lifetime.
  • The decorated bureaucrat or the soldier finally returning to his family after too many deployments, often without one or more limbs.
What really matters is authenticity...what's real. This is not to say that folks with advanced degrees, Fortune-500 CEOs and mega-ministers aren't authentic -- some of them are -- but rather to note that some experts come from a different kind of school, learn their skills in a crucible rather than a classroom and forge their insight from experience.

Both kinds of experts are necessary. We need experts asking the hard questions now more than ever...and we need experts courageous enough to ask world-shifting questions to which no clear answer is yet known. We need experts brave enough to say "I don't know" and with conviction lead us to the unknown answer.

Leaders must have the will to ask the hard questions. Courageous leaders must challenge followers to look for better solutions...and inspire followers to stay the course when no good options appear, even if that means rejecting "expert" advice, taking a risk, being wrong.

My head respects the experts, but my heart years for an authentic leader.
  • I want a leader who isn't afraid to ask questions the experts think are foolish, and who doesn't bash those who ask truly foolish questions.
  • I want a leader who's resume includes recovery from addiction, or cancer, or loss of a limb or two, and who has had real results since then. 
  • I want a leader who has survived being blown up, watched buddies die and inspires my will to end the wars that result in such violence, and I want a leader with the strength of will to defend and enforce peace.
  • I want a leader who strongly defends my freedom to choose his or her leadership, and has compassion and grace for my friends who chose someone else.
  • Most of all, I want to know that my leader didn't result from a popularity contest or 10-best survey.
This isn't about politics, government, religion or capitalism. It's about being a member of some skillful multi-million-member orchestra auditioning conductors. Anyone can wave a baton; to really invite a miraculous performance takes a maestro -- an expert -- with a studied, hard-won authenticity that even the newest concert-goer can feel when such a conductor takes the stage. I imagine great musicians can see it in the movement of the the baton...how its silent tracing outlines, inspires and welcomes the possibility for sublime sound...leading member of the orchestra to a new potential.

With such a leader, great things become possible.

With such leadership, even the least of us achieve.

Led in this way, each of us aspire to inspire -- to be examples for each another -- to create a culture in which potential becomes common currency and individuals are valued without the sickness of individualism.

Yes, there will be detractors, and nay-sayers, and even violent resistors. There will be loss of life, both for those who assail such an ideal leader and those who protect him or her. I could give my life either to defend or to serve a leader like that.

What about you?