Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Emotional Strengthening

The semester is drawing to a close, and so things have been extremely busy lately. Also, I have my concert soon, and so any extra time I am able to eke out gets channeled into extra time to practice. It's been hard to find time to write here. But I would like to take a little time now to do so.

I would like to talk about how spiritual disciplines can help strengthen us emotionally.

It seems that a lot of people think that our emotional natures are relatively fixed, and cannot change very much. I used to think so myself. Even another word for emotions, "passions," suggests that we are passive in relation to our emotions -- they happen to us. The most we can do is decide how to respond to them. Should we unquestionably obey them? Should we struggle against them? We may be passive in relation to them, unable to control how they beset us, but what's irritating about them is that they do try to drive us to action -- e-motion, to put into motion. Emotions move us. They come upon us and try to bypass all our rationality and get us to do things that we may later regret.

At least, that is the sense we get from much of Western philosophy.

I've long been interested in trying to understand emotions in new, more positive ways. And I've long wanted to move away from feeling in perpetual conflict with my emotions. I've especially struggled with fear and anxiety. For a time, I thought I was doomed to struggle with these forever.

But over time, I've learned to establish a new relationship with fear and anxiety, and that is what makes me optimistic about the possibility of emotional strengthening. It is not that I have vanquished fear and anxiety, even though it is true that they don't afflict me as much as they used to. It's that I've become less afraid of them! It's that I've learned to question these emotions and interact with them instead of just being controlled by them.

Emotional strengthening then is all about learning how to handle one's own and other people's emotions better. Having emotional strength means that you are not trying to run away from intense emotions, either postive ones or negative ones, but can face them without feeling threatened or hurt.

I think there are two major arenas for this: one is learning how to be compassionate, even towards those you may have difficulty feeling compassionate towards (including, possibly, yourself!). The other is learning how to deal with fear without being cowed and controlled by it, but also without becoming reckless and foolhardy in some misguided attempt to "dominate" it.

How can spiritual discipline help with these? We can learn to become more aware of our emotions, and to pause and reflect on them. It takes discipline, for example, not to immediately act on them. It takes discipline not to judge them. It takes discipline to be open-minded about what they may mean. It takes discipline to fully face them and experience them, especially when they are difficult. But that turns out to be what helps us become strong. When we fully experience the difficult emotions, and realize that this experiencing of them did not destroy us, we then change in a profound way. Those emotions cannot frighten us anymore in quite the way they did before.

Spiritual discipline also helps us learn to be compassionate towards the people we may find difficult in our lives. Again, this requires discipline. So much in our world now teaches us how to blame and punish. People even feel justified in harshly judging each other -- as if it's our moral duty to keep each other in line! But if we adopt a spiritual discipline of always asking the question, "why would that person think they were doing the right thing?" (because most people, most of the time, do think they are doing the right thing, even if it doesn't look that way to us), then we can learn how to see the world through others' eyes, which is what "compassion" is really all about. This doesn't require us to agree with everything everyone else says or does, but it does position us to engage our disagreements more effectively -- from a basic grounding in respect, from a humble desire to understand, instead of from a habit of judging negatively all who refuse to act in ways we want them to act!

I am not the center of the universe. This is a shared reality, and it is filled with all of these fascinating beings each with her or his own autonomy! Why not celebrate how amazing this is?

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Personal Energy

I've been thinking a lot about personal energy, lately. Today I'll talk about it first with reference to music (as promised last time), and then more generally.

Really inspiring musicians are inspiring in part because of a kind of energy they have. To be good requires focus, and the focus creates a kind of concentrated power that carries the listener into the music in a vivid way. Sometimes this kind of energy is also called presence.

Sometimes less experienced musicians do not yet have this kind of energy. They still might produce fine, well-executed music. The skilled listener can still get a lot out of such performances. Less-skilled listeners may find their attention flagging.

Many people want to label the good energy "charisma," and want to attribute it to some mysterious talent that people either have or they don't have. Because it is a quality that is hard to teach, it is tempting to dismiss it as something that cannot be taught, nor self-cultivated.

But I wonder. More and more I think it comes down to a quality of attention. And I believe that our powers of attention and perceptiveness can be cultivated. Again, a good way to cultivate this is through some kind of spiritual discipline. If you want to develop this good energy in terms of your musical performance, then you can cultivate it through practicing the the right kinds of perception and attention while you practice your music. You learn how to really listen -- both to how you want the music to sound, and to what it actually sounds like. But you also keep listening for more and more in the music than you may originally have noticed. As your awareness of all that is in the music deepens, so too do you become more and more able to bring out these additional layers of the music in your own playing.

But I also think that this kind of energy is not limited to musical performance, nor even to "performance" more generally. I think there are people who can bring this kind of energy into other human activities, experiences, and relationships as well. And again, the origin of this kind of energy is perceptiveness and awareness. Those who conduct their lives with constant thoughtful attentiveness are the ones who develop this kind of energy.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

My Instruments


Here are my instruments. Actually, the crumhorn is not mine -- I'm borrowing it for an upcoming performance. From the top down, these are: a flute modified from a 19th century Rudall & Rose design (made by Terry McGee); a baroque Rottenburgh style flute (made by Peter Noy); a tenor recorder, an alto recorder, a soprano recorder, a sopranino recorder, and an alto crumhorn. I'm playing all of the recorders and crumhorn in a concert soon. I use the Rudall & Rose style flute for Irish traditional playing. Posted by Hello

Music as Meditation

Continuing on the theme of "Music as Spiritual Discipline":

Music is also meditative. Playing music demands your total focus, and so it has the cleansing effect of forcing your attention away from everything else you might be worrying about, which in turn helps prevent you from falling into ruts of unproductive worry. When, after playing music, you do then turn your attention back to your matters of concern, you can do so afresh now that you have taken a genuine break. You feel better after a good music session, and so that brings you into a better (stronger, clearer) attitude, and puts things into perspective.

It is, of course, possible to fall into bad habits of inattentive playing, especially after you have reached a basic level of competence in your playing. You can go through your scales and other rote exercises mechanically, with part of your mind turned on other things. But this is not good. It's not good for your musical development, and it prevents the refreshing power of good meditation practice (mentioned in the previous paragraph) to take effect. Good musicians keep their attention focused on the music. They are always listening carefully and fully engaged in all dimensions of feeling the music, in a way that integrates both the physical feeling (their breathing, the feel of the instrument in their hands, feeling their fingers moving, etc.) and the emotional feeling (perceiving the emotional flow of the music).

While the repetition of certain practice exercises can seem to become boring once they become pretty easy, it is really at this stage that you are ready to really begin to develop musically. Now that you have mastered the basics of technique, you are ready to move to the new levels of awareness and experience necessary to truly communicate what the music is really all about. Even in playing scales, there are new ways to develop your powers of perception and your ability to better control the nuances of your playing.

Many meditation practices are repetitious for exactly this kind of reason. Repetition enables us, over time, to appreciate how much more there is in something than we may first have noticed. Repetition trains us to perceive in a deeper and more complex way. Repetition strengthens us to be able to perceive more and more and tolerate that increased complexity (that is, not be tempted to shut down some of our awareness because it is too overwhelming).

Next time, I'll continue this discussion by talking about energy.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Music as Spiritual Discipline

One of my spiritual disciplines is music. I play 18th and 19th century flutes, recorders, and sometimes crumhorns. I perform with an early music group, and have been thinking about finding or starting a group in (mostly Irish) traditional music.

For a long time I struggled with the question of the role of music in my life. I have been as consistently fascinated by it and dedicated to it as a professional musican would need to be. Why did I not place music at the very center of my life then? It's a long and complicated story. I'll sum it all up by saying that it was a combination of my fatal lack of self-confidence coupled with what initially seemed like competing career interests in academic study and teaching, and/or possibly pursuing some form of ministry.

Happily, I've been able to bring together all of my strong interests into a well-integrated life -- by studying, teaching, and writing philosophy, from my contemplative angle; by focusing my "care about people" energies into my teaching and into my various forms of service to the campus community; and by joining the music group I mentioned above.

So the question of the role of music in my life was answered: the discipline of regularly practicing music and occasionally performing is part of my spiritual discipline. Here's why:

First of all, it does something good to me emotionally. It keeps me in touch with my emotions, and stabilizes them. It's hard to describe what I mean by "stabilizing them" -- maybe what I mean is that it allows me to have my strong emotional nature without my being too frightened by it all. I can live my emotions, fully experience them, have an outlet for expressing them. It brings me into a good relationship with the full range of emotions -- even the difficult ones.

Secondly, it keeps me in touch with a transcendent dimension of reality. I've finally learned that in teaching philosophy the best way to teach about Plato's theory of Forms is to talk about a musical piece as a Form. It is real, but what exactly is its reality? Is its reality the notes on the page? No -- they are but a representation, and a representation that never captures all that is involved in an actual performance of the piece. So, is it a given performance? No, because each performance itself is fleeting -- it happens and then is over, but the piece, as a piece of music, remains real. Would it be a recording, then? Not really -- every recording filters aspects out from the original performance. And then there are different recordings by different musicians of the same piece -- which is the "real" one? None. They are all real as instances -- but different from each other. It is the musical piece that has the enduring and transcendent reality. So, in playing music, you reach for this. You connect with something beyond yourself.

Thirdly, the quest to play music well is a quest for a kind of excellence. Seeking excellence is always spiritually good for a person. The discipline of reaching for this on a regular basis makes you a better person. You develop important qualities of critical self-reflection, humility, awareness of your impact on the world, and seeking through your life and work to bring something good into the world for the benefit of others. How can this not pervade the rest of your life in positive ways?

There is more I could say, but this is a start.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Experience and Education

A perceptive student of mine made a comment in class today that really caught my attention. She said that Americans tend not to trust anything that does not connect with their own personal experience. Is this true?

Then, later, in an independent study session with another student, I shared this insight with that student. He thought it might be true of people in general. I found myself saying, in response, that there is a theory of education that claims that the purpose of education is to expand one's intellectual and emotional horizons beyond the limits of one's own personal experiences. The well-educated person is able to believe that there are parts of the world unlike anything he or she has actually seen, and is able to care for those who suffer in ways that that person has not suffered.

It is true that personal experience is very powerful, and that much of what we most effectively learn comes from experience. But our own experience will always be limited. And maybe we cannot even learn well from our own experience until we can interpret it within a larger context of human experience and human knowledge more generally.

Why have we largely lost that vision of what education can be? Can we re-claim it?

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Fear and Violence

Is fear at the root of all violence? When people engage in violence (verbal or physical), their justifications can always be translated back to some form of fear. But does fear justify violence? If we are scared enough, or hurt enough, is it then okay to lash out in violence? Why?

Or are there other ways to deal with fear?

And is it possible to teach people positive and effective ways of dealing with their fear and anxiety?

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Self as Disputed Territory

What is strange for me about transitioning from pre-tenure life to post-tenure life is my realizing how hard it is for me to truly and fully claim who I really am, and project that unapologetically into the world.

Is this a gender issue? Is it harder for women to center their lives around their work than it is for men?

Or, is this a societal problem in our culture today? We have built a culture so based on putting pressure on each other that, as a culture, we undervalue (or even feel threatened by) true self-determination?

Or, is this just my own personal problem?

Perhaps I need to explain a bit more what I mean. I found pre-tenure life challenging because, even though I am strongly self-motivated, and I was motivated to do exactly the things that tenure-review pressures me to do, having that external pressure bearing down so hard on me felt like a kind of constant, distracting background noise that made it hard for me to find the contemplative silence I needed to focus truly on my work. Still, I tried to remind myself that I was very fortunate that the external pressure corresponded with my internal motivation, and tried to convince myself to let that help empower me. It was a good idea. Did it work? Yes and no. Yes, because I did get tenure. No, because I still didn't myself get quite where I really wanted to be. But lately, I am realizing a new kind of "yes" that now I have lost -- because the world is so oriented towards coping with external pressures, I actually was successful in claiming time to write by saying with panic in my voice, "I must make time to write or I won't get tenure!" and people then respected that and left me alone.

Now, the most common question/comment I receive when people hear that I got tenure was along the lines of "now you can relax."

But I don't want to relax. Now, undistracted by the background noise of tenure-anxiety, I'm finally ready to begin. But my writing time has become a contested zone. My writing identity has become a contested zone. The nature of my true self has become disputed territory.

People will respect your need to do things they might not want you to do if it is because some powerful other demands it of you. But when it is inner motivation that compels you, an inner sense of calling, many people don't seem to understand that or respect that -- or they interpret it as "selfishness." I know that it is not selfishness, but still, from moment to moment, if I am in the presence of someone who wants my attention, it is hard in those moments to turn to the solitude I need for writing, even though writing is actually relational too.

So, again, I wonder if this is somewhat gender-related. Have I been acculturated, because I am a woman, to give immediately-present relationships priority over activities conducted in apparent solitude? Or have I chosen this because I do in fact care about the real people in my life?

Other questions: is feeling a sense of calling so rare that most people cannot relate to this?

And finally: how do I find the strength, and build the right kinds of supportive relationships, to enable me to live more fully from the center of who I know myself to be, even though many important people in my life want me to relax now and spend more time with them? And I do care very much about these people! I treasure their presence in my life. And yet I do feel called to other work too in the world.

The world is so full of urgent problems, and yet I don't want to say, "Leave me alone, I'm trying to solve the world's problems," because, well, that sounds so pretentious, not to mention hopeless! When I've tried (a bit less baldly) to say that to some people, they hint that maybe I suffer delusions of grandeur and ought to get counseling. At this, a fatal flaw in my self-confidence throbs, I think to myself, "how silly of me!" and I immediately shift my attention away from myself and back into being attentive and supportive of that person, and then "peace" is restored in that relationship, at least for the moment.

One hint I have of a solution is that the bulk of the problem rests in me. If I could give myself full permission to care about the world and to try to address significant problems, fully realizing that my net impact in the end may be nil, and yet my struggle matters anyway, because my caring for the world is real, and really is about the world and not about me at all -- if I can get fully to this conviction within myself, then maybe the outer will take care of itself. Maybe my self has become a contested zone because I have let it. Maybe I can learn to live in a way that people will no longer dare to dispute with me who I really am, but will simply respect who I really am, because I will be projecting it in such a way that people will realize it's not up for questioning. I don't know. But I'm guessing that I'm not alone in this kind of struggle. We are interdependent beings, and so everyone's self is disputed territory, to some extent.