I was like a child going to my first day of school today at CIIS. I packed a lunch, a snack, my bag full of books, new notebooks, new pens, and a new folder with dividers to hold all of the new handouts.

The syllabus said that today we would have Trungpa Rinpoche as our guest lecturer. Turned out we had a native American drummer named Dennis, who was very spiritually connected with his indigo blue “poncho”-like shirt, his shoulder-length hair, blondish gray mustache and beard, and his royal blue Sigg water bottle. He played two earthenware jugs, balanced slightly askew in saucers, and called “udu” drums from Nigeria.

We sat on meditation cushions on the floor, and a single row of chairs with foldable desks formed a ring around the room.

First exercise – 20 minutes of chanting which lasted over an hour

The demographics of the class: 43 students, 5 of which were men. I was the only Asian person. One black woman from LA. The rest white. Most from San Francisco, but one from Modesto, one other from Menlo Park, two others from Palo Alto and Mountain View. The girl next to me was from Belgium, who arrived in this country last September to complete her bachelor’s degree in Creative Movement Therapy at Tamalpais Institute. Also a weird concentration of certain first names – 3 Elise’s, 2 Alisa’s, 2 Lisa’s, 3 Mary’s, 2 Monica’s, 2 Monique’s, 2 Maria’s.

Guy to my left – Todd – was a massage therapist and guitarist from some Hot Sprng area an hour north of San Francisco. I was amazed by the commutes, and a little ashamed of my inner whining about the distance from Menlo Park. I still wondered how I was going to make it from my studio, where I officially finished teaching at 4:45 on Tuesdays, to CIIS, in the heart of the Mission, by 6:15. But I’d make do.

The number of women with dred locks was 3. All 3 had colored dred locks, meaning fabrics or dyes woven into their “hair”. They all had tattoos also.

The thing that annoyed me about Todd was his insistence on singing louder than anyone around him, whether he knew what the syllables were or not. Like he had to prove his musicianship to those immediately around him. Maybe he was trying to impress the teacher, since he did sit front and center. I couldn’t hear myself sing at all.

The other annoying and astonishing thing was the number of women who had no problem – were eager in fact – to share their mystical revelations and near out-of-body experiences at every opportunity in front of the class. As if revealing their ability to experience “amazing”, “transcendant” things after each and every moment in the class displayed their spiritual advancement at a level equivalent to “AP” in high school.

The most pronounced incident of this came after a guided imagery meditation with Dennis. He lulled us into relaxation with the steady beat of his udu drums, along with the rhythmic shake of a bead-filled vessel strapped with a rubber band to his left foot, which he tapped at regular intervals along with the drum beat. Over this rhythmic drone, he spoke in a low, calm voice about taking a journey down a path, to a meadow, where a ring of trees surrounded a fire. We were to picture throwing our fears into the fire, watching them dissolve, and then continue on the path. Later we would arrive at a village and be greeted by a group of people. This is where I lost track of what he was saying. It was a total of about 30 minutes of guided imagery and drumming. Most of that time I spent trying to keep my left leg from falling asleep and thinking about the excruciating pain in my left buttock. I tried to avoid shifting my leg position around too much, but I was just in so much pain. I finally found a way to contract my lower abs and support my back enough to stay seated and still for the last 10 minutes of the meditation. I don’t remember hearing anything during those few minutes. I just remember complete stillness, rest, calm, and mental emptiness. I suppose they would call this the ultimate feminine receptivity state that one is looking to achieve in deep relaxation.

So when I reluctantly opened my eyes, sensing – correctly – that everyone else had already “returned” from their meditative states, I felt embarrassed when Silvia (our course director and leader) asked for volunteers to share “where we had traveled” on our journeys.

One by one, I listened as women said things like, “I felt as if I was embraced and welcomed by everyone I had ever known in my entire life. Thank you.” and “I was walking along the path with a bear. I looked into a pond and saw that in my reflection, I actually WAS a bear.” and “I saw angels flying down from the heavens. They were fixing something in my brain.” and “I was a swan. I felt myself looking beautfiul and graceful.”

I heaved a sigh of relief when Todd, sitting next to me, spoke up and said, “I have to tell you with all due respect that I have difficulty with these guided experiences. I didn’t see any images. In fact I caught myself falling asleep several times and had to wake myself up. So while I can’t tell you where I went on the journey, I have what I would call a wordless appreciation for it.”

I picked up my pen and wrote in my notebook what I didn’t have the courage to say out loud was my experience: “quiet, empty mind” In truth, I had achieved a calm, restful state in my body that had been elusive to me during any of the other periods of sitting that day. I had not been able to divert my focus away from how uncomfortable my butt and left leg were feeling…not until the last 10 minutes of that meditation. And that was my journey. But how could I raise my hand and say that after all those women’s earnest accounts of seeing bears, swans, and angels on their journeys?

Todd’s comment helped me see that it is often these vocal participants – the equivalent of those “gunners” in medical school who sat in the front row of every lecture and raised their hand at every rare but precious opportunity to impress the professor with their knowledge and enthusiasm – falsely shaped others’ expectations of what “normal” should be. The fact is that everyone’s experience is valid for what it is. I was relieved to hear Dennis say this too. He said that the meditation does for you what it needs to do. If you need rest, it brings you rest. If you need to travel somewhere and meet certain people or things, it allows you to go there too. It reinforced Silvia’s message that healing music is not all about pleasant and pretty sounding melodies. As practitioners of music healing, we are playing the sacred role of selecting the sound that will serve as accompaniment for someone else’s journey. What will enable that right journey to happen? Often the most primordial sounds – first, the human voice, and second, the drum beat – can serve as backdrop for the most profound revelations of the soul.

From Silvia’s “open sounding” exercise, I noticed how uncomfortable I am with exploring the range of sounds that can be produced by my own voice. I am very tied to making meaning with every expression – whether it is words or the classical music on which I was trained. I have little desire to improvise, or to play anything that has not already been composed, mainly because I feel that my role as a performer or interpreter of music is clearly defined.

When it comes to my voice, I have rarely found it comfortable to listen to recorded versions of my normal speaking voice. I remember a sixth grade drama class exercise called “Gibberish” that called for us to play a particular scene in a drama without using any real words. We could vocalize only “gibberish” but had to find ways to convey meaning through gestures, vocal inflections, facial expressions, etc. I remember feeling totally lost in that exercise. Frozen. Unable to come up with any forms of communication from my body that didn’t first pass through my well-trained brain.

But I have so many nostalgic memories of music from my childhood. I was surrounded by Western classical music from the age of three. I knew the meaning of “rasa” from a very young age, watching different soloists play their interpretations of the same piece. I felt when someone was playing “with fire”, or just playing the notes. I gathered meaning from all the sounds that enveloped me, even though I didn’t have language for it. I stored it in my body as love. I came to revisit it on this journey of creating The Music Within Us.

Only now do I begin to excavate the many layers in me that will come out of doing what Silvia suggests: find a corner of your house where no one will listen to you or judge you, and do ten minutes of “open sounds” per day. Essentially, she is asking us to do 10 minutes of the gibberish exercise – no words or “music” allowed, just sounds made with your own voice. What will that be like outside the safety of the group? When there were 42 other voices doing their crazy thing around me – especially my vociferous neighbor Todd – it felt OK. I was hidden. But what will I think when I actually hear my own voice? Silvia reminded us today of this: “Your voice has nothing to do with any of your personal issues. Your voice is not your stories. Your voice is your voice. It is not you.”

What a subtle nuance between Gail Larsen’s encouraging us to find our own voice and be ourselves (equating our selves with our ability to speak about ourselves), and Silvia’s reminder that the voice is merely an instrument of expression that can take on any element of the universe that we allow it. Is the voice infinite, like Silvia suggests, or is it, as Gail seems to say, infinitely particular to who we are – and what our truth is in the moment?

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