Sound and Silence

I live to be immersed in the deep silent waters of divine sound.  Music has always been a companion for me. I grew up around music and musicians. Band rehearsals, studio sessions, gigs, and jam sessions were as much a part of my childhood as baseball practice and video games are for most children.

Music has meant many things for me – intimacy, love, play, education, debate, passion, family, but also poverty, suffering, despair, disappointment, and discipline.

Music is also where I first met God. So, music has also become my religion…

It was in church – the kind of church where the music is happening, people are standing and dancing in the aisles, and the minister and the choir are so filled with spirit that their whole being is lit from within. And so were we – lit from within. You could tell because we had lost any sense of what it was to be “civilized” and inhibited. While we may have started out just singing quietly, under our breath, our lips barely moving, when God came into that church – we lost any sense of ourselves, we were only there to revel in the glory of divinity. We sang out loud, and the goosebumps were all over our bodies. The chills kept running up our spines and through the tops of our heads. You knew God was in the room. It didn’t require faith. At that moment, it could be nothing else.

A reunion with God at the Ace Hardware

A reunion with God at the Ace Hardware

Somehow, I forgot about this experience for many years – and so I had no religion. It wasn’t until I was living on my own, in an apartment over an ACE hardware store in Columbus, Ohio, that God and I met again.

It was purely by accident. I had acquired  a few plastic 5-gallon buckets and coffee cans from the restaurant where I worked. (There was a Levi’s 501 jeans commercial that featured a New York street musician that could make amazing rhythmic sound on just a 5-gallon bucket – I wanted to try it myself.)  That evening was hot, and as was their custom that summer, a few of my friends from high school stopped by to hang out. We didn’t have any air conditioning, and no breeze from the open windows trespassed on the still air in my little studio apartment. The only relief we had was in the form of a box fan in the window, and it was only intermittently operational .

In humorous desperation, someone suggested we should play for the fan goddess so she would  bless us with an operational fan. I don’t remember if it worked, but what did happen was unexpected. Most of my friends were musically inclined, and so even on buckets and coffee cans the sound had a semblance of some raw musicality, Somehow this primitive cacophony evolved into something that got its own groove and momentum. Gradually, I found myself experiencing silence in the midst of the music. The moments between the notes seemed to stretch out forever – not just in the horizontal stream of time but also in the vertical sense of a boundless Now. At the core of the moment was a sense of peace and joy that I hadn’t experienced since I had been in church as a child.

I don’t know how long we played. It could have been minutes or it might have been hours. When we finally stopped, there was a feeling in me (and at least one other person there) that we had just touched something profound.  Because I had no context in which to understand how banging on buckets and cans could be a religious experience, the change that took place in me was subtle at first. I didn’t know what it meant; I just knew I wanted more of that hypnotic rhythm.

Within a few months of that experience over the Ace Hardware store, I decided that I was committing my life to music. Within a couple of years, I had moved to southern Indiana where I became a teacher (see Sacred Space for the beginning of this next step in transformation).

Globally, there are various traditions where music/sound play a fundamental role – both in the symbology (“In the beginning was the word”)  and in the practice. Music is a form of meditation for musicians all around the world, whether it is chanting, drum circles, or simply the experience of being transported through the process of creation. The Indian tradition of Nada yoga, and the Sufi tradition of zhikr, are particularly interesting from the point of view of music as part of the practice of mysticism. It’s also notable that many western musicians have found their way into an exploration of mysticism through music (John Coltrane, John McLaughlin, and Carlos Santana to name a few).

For me, the  experience has been about Silence – the silence between the notes, the silence to which all sound returns, and most importantly, the silence of the mind when immersed in music. Various meditation traditions focus on clearing the mind of concept and thought. The spontaneous creation of music has always been the path of least resistance to that clarity for many musicians. Complete immersion in the creative process leaves no room for egoic thought; it is the emptying of the self of everything but the sound that moves through us. In a co-creative setting, this process can happen on a large scale where common mystical experiences of one-ness, unity, and transcendence of the egoic sense of self can be shared. Over the last eighteen years I have had many beautiful musical experiences, ranging from the merely creative, to the transcendent. Each experience is a lesson, a journey, an infinite moment of beauty, and  a journey into silence and peace through sound.