Buddhism

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On our June vacation last year,  to the Pacific Northwest coast of the US, and a weekend spent in Massachusetts, I was delightfully thrown into nature. On a walk through the Hoh Rainforest (part of the Olympic National Forest), I was struck both by the silence and the sounds. The coast gave me the roar of water. The trees brought the sound of birds, and leaves being blown like the sound of a blustering river. And I became aware of the huffing and puffing of my breathing as a struggled up a hill, and the floating voices ahead of me and behind me, being carried by the wind.

This trip was like a vacation for my ears – on my return, I could hear everything anew again. The sounds of nature have a way of re-setting our senses, readying us for our return to human-made sounds. John Cage has written about his experiences of listening after sitting in meditation. He has explained how meditative states can help us to stop reacting in our usual way to sounds, and just listen. With this fresh hearing, even the sound of a car alarm can become like a sound sculpture to our ears.

There is inspiration for me as a therapist in this reflection about Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk : “Even under the sound of helicopters – and this is a man who buried many children in Vietnam to the roar of helicopters and bombs – he can say, ‘Listen, listen; this sound brings me back to my true self’” (Nachmanovitch, 1990, p. 93).

When I am with my clients, I am listening as deeply as I would as for the sound of a rare bird in the forest. I am listening as deeply as I would for the buzzing of an insect in the night air. I am listening as fully as when I lie down in the dark and take in the roar of the ocean. Even the most traumatized sounds can be sculptures of sound. When was the last time you were listened to as if you were that bird? As if you were the ocean? Don’t we all deserve to be heard as if our sounds were works of art? The sounds we make – our voices, our music, our words – are as precious as those sounds that fill our natural world.

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Helen Bonny died on May 25th, 2010.  She was a pioneer in the field of music therapy, leading the way in using western classical music to expand explorations of consciousness, through developing Guided Imagery and Music. She was a wonderful example to us all, whatever our calling –  following her bliss, unafraid of criticism, and using her love for music in service of others. I am deeply honored to be a second-generation student, studying under Helen’s own student and friend, Lisa Summer. And I feel Helen Bonny’s legacy in all that I do, re-discovering her brilliance as I experience more and more of the power of her music programs, for myself and for my clients.

Recently, my book club discussed Helen Bonny’s article entitled “The Language of Immediacy”. As she understood it, music brings us, with immediacy, into the present moment. It is a language which is experienced in the now – a language which integrates the past and the future in this moment. And it speaks so much to what I experience with my adult clients in psychotherapy work. I am learning that the integrative healing happens when a person is helped to slow down,  supported in deepening their awareness of their feelings in the moment, and guided to an increased level of consciousness in the here-and-now. Music can be a powerful key in bringing a client into this type of experience. Music is immediate in a way that few experiences are.

And what is the healing potential of the immediacy of music? Ken Wilber writes in his 2001 book, No Boundary, about eliminating the self-imposed boundary between the hearer and what is heard. I think this has implications for the experience of music in music therapy:

“Close your eyes and attend to the actual process of hearing. Notice all the odd sounds floating around – birds singing, cars rumbling, crickets chirping…But with all those sounds, notice that there is one thing which you cannot hear, no matter how carefully you attend to every sound. You cannot hear the hearer…You can’t hear a hearer because there isn’t one. What you have been taught to call a ‘hearer’ is actually just he experience of hearing itself, and you don’t hear hearing…There is no boundary here…

If you let the sensation of being a ‘hearer’ inside the skull dissolve into hearing itself, you might find your ‘self’ merging with the entire world of ‘outside sounds.’ As one Zen Master exclaimed upon his enlightenment, ‘When I heard the temple bell ring, suddenly there was no bell and no I, just the ringing’…When you try to hear the subjective hearer, all you find are objective sounds. And that means that you do not hear sounds, you are those sounds. The hearer is every sound which is heard…”  (pp. 46-47)

This is not unlike T.S. Eliot’s famous line in The Four Quartets which nests in the these lines –

“…For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning
Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts…”

In one of my most recent personal experiences in my own GIM therapy, I experienced the truly transformative power of music – the experience of being one with the music. There was no me as hearer – the music was inside of me, and I inside of it. This deeply felt and real-time experience of music is able to transform a person, forever. In one short piece of the music program, I was able to experience myself in a completely new way.  And the music didn’t just bring a new part of myself to my awareness – I was the music – the music offered me a lived experience of this, previously hidden, part of myself. The music brought me fully into the living, feeling, breathing, present moment. What was previously an unconscious part of me, is now a constant here-and-now experience.

Thank you, Helen, for being so open to the transformative, transpersonal aspects of music and finding a way to share it with the world and me. May we all have the courage to do what we are called to do in this lifetime, as you did.

For those who are interested, there is a new edition of Voices online, commemorating Helen Bonny: https://normt.uib.no/index.php/voices/issue/current

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