Tuning up in a Down Time
By Molly Scott ©2003
Every day we wake up empty and frightened
Don't go to the study and pull out a book,
Take down a musical instrument instead.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are a hundred ways
To kneel and kiss the ground.
Jalaloddin Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
When Jalaloddin Rumi woke one morning in 13th century Anatolia and wrote Every day we wake up empty and frightened,the world outside his window must have seemed as violent and brutal to him as our world does now to us. How did Rumi, this Sufi mystic, lover, poet-dancer to God, deal with his feelings of fear and isolation? Don't go to the study and pull out a book, he says. Take down a musical instrument instead.
Since I’m a musician, you might expect me to say that this is what I do, and further, to suggest that you do it as well. However, although I know in my heart that taking down a musical instrument is an effective way to keep fear at bay, it is not what I have been doing in these war dark days.
The truth is that through this long winter, as the political situation– despite our marches, our Peace Trains, our prayers– boiled into war and its caustic afterburn, I have found no music in me. Even at the rallies and marches that I did attend, I sang little and noticed that there was not much singing around me. New songs that could enliven us and bring our energies together did not arise and the old songs generated reflective warmth, not new flame. Grief for my country, for my world, muffled my voice and stopped my song. I felt like my vocal tubes were tied.
But there has been something moving in me that has been an antidote for my grief, rage, and sadness. I want to share this with you, not to suggest that you do likewise, for each of us has our own path into and out of the dark, but because hearing my story might give you some insight into your own choices.
Ironically, what I have felt impelled to do these days on waking seems like what Rumi counsels not to do: I’ve have been going to the study and pulling out books, lots of books, and reading them with a kind of voracious, driven appetite that has perplexed and amazed me. I grew up with books around me and books have always been a source of comfort but the range and density of my reading in this short time has been out of the ordinary. Retrospectively, I seem to have been engaged in a form of deep and soul changing scholarship, which has recalibrated my worldview and allowed me to walk in my life with renewed curiosity, hopefulness and joy.
Let me be clear: this is not something that I consciously decided to do to feel better. It is something that I was impelled to do. Day after day, as this country moved inexorably into war, I woke filled with a numbing despair. At the same time, I began to be drawn, just as inexorably, into this healing process which has now constellated into practice.
Here’s how it goes: For about seven months, I have been rising earlier in the morning than my usual time, coming down to sit in front of a stone Buddha backed by a view of the forest. I light a candle, write briefly and then sit in meditation. And then I read books. Not just any book but books that seem to come off the shelves and into my hands with a directive attached, like the mushrooms in Alice in Wonderland that commanded "Eat Me!". These books say "Read Me!" and so I do: books on General Systems Theory and non-linear causality, books on Buddhist psychology, interdependency and mindfulness practice, books on the systemic roots of war and violence, books on peace education and conflict resolution, books on neuropsychology and the synaptic brain, on the limbic system and the neuro-resonance of relationship And poetry: Rilke, Rumi, the Psalms.
Alice’s mind was in an altered state in Wonderland, and I am altered too, sitting in front of my altar for hours at a time, recreating my view of the world. Through the deep of this long winter, when the view past my Buddha was endless snow, into the lingering melt of spring, the steamy green of July, the endless rains of August, I have been engaged in this passionate, joyous, compelling process: rise, write, sit, read, and then go to work.
Going to work is important. I work long hours as a therapist at a counseling agency often with people in crisis. The work is engrossing, difficult and occasionally transformative.. Sometimes the feelings of compassion that I cultivate in my morning practice threaten to overwhelm and engulf me. Along with the encroaching news of the world, the painful stories and systemic problems of the people I sit with can leave me feeling that I care too much and do too little. Then it is good to back off into the resonance that my morning practice has created in me and come into my body, noticing, focusing, breathing through. Present to myself, I can be more present for others, more open and permeable, not turning away.
These months of intensive reading have widened my perspective on the nature of healing and amplified my continuing questions : What is healing and who is being healed? If healing is the restoration of flow in harmonic human systems, then how does conflict, like musical dissonance, resolve between people, nations, or within myself? My clients and I share a world and when I remember and can acknowledge that, something spacious and infinitely flexible moves between us like music.
We all act and react according to the stories we believe about ourselves. When those stories are shared in an open system, when they are about “us”, the view widens and new possibilities emerge. Tuning my awareness in this way I listen to people’s stories with the ears of my heart. My readings – particularly on the principle of Patticca Samuppada or interdependency, the relational flow that continually forms and reforms the world– support and literally in-form all aspects of my life and work.
And so it goes: I rise, write, sit, read, go to work. That I have chosen to begin my days this way doesn’t mean that I don't then read the news, get on the internet and involve myself in the politics of activism to the extent that I am able. It just means that I begin the day in this simple way, tuning this instrument to a resonance deeper than the cris de jour, more luminous than the corrosive fires of my fear and indignation.
I do this, because, at this time in my life, it seems to be the most authentic thing I can do. It brings me joy; it fills me with hope and connection. It allows me to be present in my life with all the problems and the anguish and injustice I see and feel around me. I am not doing this to be a better person or to save my soul or because I can’t think of anything better to do. I sit and deepen because it feels right. And I read and read because that feels right too.
I understand that, from the moment I enter the morning space and intentionally make it special by lighting the candle, I am heightening the vibratory frequency of my awareness so that everything that follows flows in that current. When I write, it is in that space. When I read, it is in that space. Truly, my meditation begins at the point when I sit and focus my attention in to this energetic frequency. The changes I can make in the “outside” world are limited, although I do not cease to work towards them. The changes I make in my inner world are mediated through my intention and my letting go. They resonate through everything I do by changing who I am.
When I enter this morning process, I am a harp in the wind. Offering myself to be played in this way, even if just for a moment, I am present to my life, serving and rejoicing in it. Then the thunder of the outside world subsides, and the great quiet, the great beauty is present and flows through me. I am learning to trust that, in this process of being a conduit, I might alleviate suffering which my direct intervention cannot touch.
So it is about music after all. Waking, opening to my day, I am the instrument I take down. The books I read are like music manuscript that informs and transforms me. In the luminous presence of this practice, my fear and despair dissolve. Not forever, perhaps, but more and more as my trust in this shifted reality deepens.
And, of course, nothing stays the same. Tomorrow I may wake and be moved to pick up a musical instruments and my books will stay on the shelf. Or perhaps another book, another idea will call me and I will start a new synapse in this continuing synthesis of my understanding and vision. After all, as Rumi reminds us, There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
May I be a guard for those who are protectorless,
A guide for those who journey on the road
For those who wish to go across the water,
May I be a boat, a raft, a bridge.
May I be an isle for those who yearn for landfall,
And a lamp for those who long for light;
For those who need a resting place, a bed;
For all who need a servant, may I be a slave.
May I be the wishing jewel, the vase of plenty,
A word of power, and the supreme remedy.
May I be the trees of miracles,
And for every being, the abundant cow.
Like the great earth and the other elements
Enduring as the sky itself endures,
For the boundless multitude of living beings,
May I be the ground and vessel of their life.
Thus, for every single thing that lives,
In number like the boundless reaches of the sky,
May I be their sustenance and nourishment
Until they pass beyond the bounds of suffering.
From "A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night: a guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life", commentary by the Dalai Lama on Shantideva’s Bohdhicharyavatara