Lots to say, not a lotta time to say it. I’m in a phase of things piling up, where I need to keep shoveling through without thinking too much, keep breathing, doing what I can, and pretty soon I’ll have cleared through the pile of crap. I once had a yoga teacher who read from a book written by a Zen Buddhist monk entitled, “Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?” I immediately bought the book. It was filled with those impossibly Zen stories of staying calm through extremely frustrating situations, finding the good in the apparently bad, treating your supposed enemies as friends, etc. The kinds of stories that you know will take a lifetime to really understand, if you so choose. But the one that resonated with me was about doing the work of shoveling your own truckload of dung, which was dumped on your doorstep by Life, the Universe, God, whatever you want to call your own Mystery. We can either complain about the smell, the foulness, the fact that we wish the pile weren’t sitting right there blocking the door to our own home, or we can spend our lives trying to figure out WHO ordered it in the first place! Because it certainly wasn’t ME! I didn’t ask for this heap of putrid-smelling hot and steamy pile of waste. But I DO want to get inside my own home. I like it there. I feel peaceful and free there. I am joy when I am there. So let me in!

But the only way in is to roll up your sleeves and start shoveling. One stroke at a time, you just chip away at it. You don’t complain, you don’t worry, you don’t spend time just admiring the sheer magnitude of crap sitting there. You just take your shovel and work. Pretty soon, you’ll look up and one day the door to your home will be right there, and you can just walk right through, take off your crap-smelling clothes, and enjoy a nice, long, hot shower. Maybe a cool drink. And then a seat on your own back porch, where the sun shines just so.

The point of this was reflected in Jerry Seinfeld’s Three Rules for Life, which I think he gave in an interview with Oprah several years ago. Here they are:

  1. Work hard. (No matter what it is, bust your ass.)
  2. Pay attention. (Listen, listen, listen. You can learn from anyone and anything.)
  3. Fall in love. (I don’t care what you fall in love with, just love something with all your heart.)

I’ve discovered that pretty much, these are the lessons repeated in all spiritual teachings.

I wrote a few lines of poetry last night after my two full days and one night of “The Art of Improvisation”. An aside: Isn’t all of life an improvisation? We aren’t all stand-up comics, but what if we carried ourselves through our daily lives with the skills and mindset of stand-up comedians or artists? What if we valued ourselves to the extent that we believed we are all artists, and our greatest piece of art is made by the sum of how we show up in each moment of our lives?

Anyways, here’s the poem I wrote last night:

Music is a spiritual practice.

Sound is a spiritual practice.

Pay attention to the sounds you make, and you pay attention to your spirit.

So much of improvisation is LISTENING. Listen like mad. Always listening. This is simple to say, but much harder to put in practice. Often when we think we are listening to the environment (reality in this moment), we are actually hearing the mental chatter in our own heads: “I can’t do this! I look like an idiot! I’ve never done this before! People will think I’m a freak for doing this! I don’t sound good! I don’t know how to do this! I’m not good at this!”

When true artists talk about “inner listening” or “listening to your inner voice”, they don’t mean this mental chatter. That’s an important distinction that I think is often not mentioned. We are told to get silent and wait for the sounds to come. But how many of us really know what silence is? I can say I’ve experience a few very brief moments of complete silence – not just the absence of talking or noise, but a sense of completeness and peace – during meditation and when I have been in nature, studying the sky or the water or the light.

But getting to silence on a daily basis is WORK. Learning to listen for inner silence, then waiting for the truth of the heart to emerge, is a deep practice. Basic listening is work. So often we are not even aware of what we are listening to. We go through life with an agenda, and filter out the things that don’t match it. Then we struggle. We wonder why things turned out the way they did. What we must have done to deserve those things. Or who else we might have to blame for the truckload of dung sitting on our doorstep, when all we want to do is get home.

Home is freedom. Some of us never find it. But it’s always right here inside of us, no matter what the circumstances of our lives. When we practice loving every single – EVERY single – circumstance of our life as something that has brought us clearer vision and attention, and therefore closer to seeing the home within our hearts, we are truly free in each moment. Free to act according to the source of pure joy and creativity that we are born with.

I tried it today and I noticed how hard it is for people to really listen. How much time and quiet and space it takes to really relax and listen. But the desire is there. We all want to hear the music. We want to feel the music in our hearts. We want to drown out all the noise that is drowning us.

I was part of three improvisation groups this weekend, and they taught me about taking risks. Being well-trained is something that happens to manifest itself for me on the violin. But I am actually quite loose still – thankfully – in other areas, such as my voice. I have longed to use my voice for such a long time. I have no preconceptions about what I can and cannot do with my singing voice. I just do it. I put myself out there using my speaking voice five years ago to create a school. Now I want to go in a new direction, and I am finding my voice stuck, not able to work for me in the same way it did to set a stake in the ground. My voice has not been as useful lately as a shovel to dig something up and replant it in a sunnier place. But I set some new stakes in the ground this weekend:

  • I publicly did a jazz improv over cello accompaniment with our instructor, David Darling. I laughed so hard! And for the first time I knew I wasn’t laughing AT myself. I was laughing with joy that I had actually dared to do something BADLY! I hesitate to use the word “bad” because that’s not how I felt. For ME, who doesn’t listen to jazz and had never played a note of it on my violin or even sung it in my head, IT WAS GREAT! It didn’t sound like Aletha, the awesome woman who sang right before me in her night club sultry voice. But I had to let that go as my aspiration for this moment. My aspiration for this moment was to not be afraid. To try something totally different and know that there was no failure possible. Just picking up my violin and making ANY sound in that setting was a huge leap forward for me. And I loved it! One shovel of dung thrown over my shoulder. Now on to the next…
  • I saw a group of ladies playing random notes at the piano and a vocalist walked up to join them. I could have sat in my chair and just waited for class to begin, but instead I walked over with my violin and started to play along. I didn’t think I had anything meaningful musically to add, or rather I didn’t think I knew what to add, but I just played anyway. Kept playing. And they kept listening and playing. And we all kept doing that together. That is improvisation. Everyone doing their thing together.
  • Finally, we were the very last group of the weekend to perform our 4-person “voice and body” improvisation. The rule was to work with people you had never worked with before. Very true in this case. Roman is a one-man show performer and all-around self-taught musician who lives life in his world of music. He doesn’t say much usually but when he does, he speaks in long strings of ideas and words that reflect his stream of consciousness and fluidity of thoughts. Let’s just say he won’t be in charge of writing any corporate memos any time soon. Thank god for people like Roman, because his musical vocabulary and artistry are AMAZING. He is just that kind of “genius”. I worked hard to empty my mind of all the imaginations of what might happen in our group. We were all tired, and I kept thinking I hope we do something lively and upbeat because I am going to fall asleep otherwise. I was looking forward to singing though. So my first contribution to the group – after a bunch of the others started with primal rumblings and breath sounds – was a sung melody. I did it three times, hoping for call and response. Finally getting one, I then froze and caught myself so surprised and happy at the response that my next call was lame. So I abandoned that and turned my attention to listening and feeling what was going on with the others. Roman was doing some kind of primal fit of screaming on my left. I turned and started to imitate, releasing some of that earlier frustration through my body. Then he kept going and I realized he sounded like he was suffering. I started breathing and sending him the calming, soothing, “maternal” sounds that flowed through me as a human being in the presence of another human being in that state. I kept going. The other women eventually joined me. Roman – or his improvisational character – calmed down, eventually cooing with us like a little baby. The rest of it I don’t remember as well, because it was like magic after that. We were four beings in each other’s presence. The rest created itself. We were in harmony.

The room erupted in applause after we finished, and one of our classmates commented on how she had never seen this “primal thing going on” with me before, but that she loved it. Shortly after her comment, my violin case fell out of its chair. Literally. Nothing was damaged, don’t worry. But we like to think of that moment as something of a message from the spirits about my finding my voice. Or rather, giving myself permission to search for my true voice. My violin is a little surprised – or maybe feeling left out – by my foray into such primal things as the voice. Poor violin will just have to get used to it.