I don’t know about you, but my mind is usually Grand Central Station at rush hour, thoughts hurrying by like people with their heads down late for their train. Where do they come from? Where are they going? Who sent them? Such questions have been the stuff of Hindu and Buddhist investigation for millennium and as anyone who has ever tried to meditate can tell you, when you make the time and space to actually notice what’s going on in your head, it’s worse than you thought. At the beginning of a meditation retreat, it’s even busier than Grand Central, more like the L.A. freeway. But for me, sometime around the fifth day, I find myself for a moment on a lonely country road and have even managed to get out of the car, inhale some fresh air and sit down for a moment of genuine peace and tranquility.
In my life as an artistic teacher and pedagogical artist, my goal is not to stop the flow of thoughts, but to disintuish between them and note when a worthy one passes through. I know this is Buddhist blasphemy to discriminate like this, but it is the practice of the artist to stay alert to visitations from the Muse. Because my answer to where thoughts come from definitely includes a voice from somewhere else that calls to you. Not a general you, but a specific you who is partner to a presence from some other world. The Greeks used to call it the Daimon, your invisible twin who shadows you through life and tries to guide you to fulfill your particular image and destiny. Yeat’s captures that image beautifully: “It had become a glimmering girl, who called me by my name and ran, and faded through the brightening air…” The detail of calling his specific name is significant, as is the fact that she ran away and faded out of sight.
Yeats continues with “…I will find where she has gone and kiss her lips and take her hands… “ suggesting that when you hear a call like this, you would do well to pay attention. Not only in the sense of dedicating your life to search, but also suggesting that in each visit, no matter how small or big, you stop what you’re doing and pay attention.
For example, I was improvising on a tune on the piano the other day and hit on a little phrase that caught my ear. I repeated it many times until I remembered it and then decided to write it down. It was a big deal, because I had to interrupt my playing, find manuscript paper, get a pencil sharp enough to write and notate what I played. From there, it seemed logical to keep developing it and before I knew it, I had written a little jazz tune. It sounds like a jazz standard from the 30’s or 40’s and for all I know, it could be! Sometimes the Muse appears to be delivering original material when it fact it is the distant echo made audible of a tune you’ve heard before but forgotten you knew! But at any rate, I had myself a little composition, which surprised me because it has been years since I attempted to compose something other than a nursery rhyme arrangement for kids.
Now on another day, I might have decided not to write it down, thinking I’d remember it or an equally inspired theme would come my way. But it ain’t true. The Muse is merciless—if you don’t grab the opportunity in the moment, it’s not going to come again. Well, yes, something else might, but you will have lost that particular combination of words or tones or dance gestures and that is a loss indeed. That’s why I’ve carried a $.99 Mead Memo book in my front pocket these past twenty years or so. From front to back is the list of things I need to do, from back to front, those inspired ideas or phrases that visit at the most inconvenient times. (In the British Museum are Paul McCartney’s first-draft lyrics to Yesterday written on a piece of scrap paper. I’m sure others have a collection of restaurant napkins or paper towels with brilliant things scribbled on them.)
Of course, writing it down is just the first step. Then comes the next task of shaping it into form, editing, revising, bringing it to a full-blown creation. No wonder there are so few artists in the world! Everyone has an artistic possibility, but to be at the mercy of your Muse and do all the work necessary to attend to the moment of inspiration requires a dedication and commitment that must be carefully chosen. And I recognize that one reason not to choose it is you’re following the scientific inspiration or new business model or new insight as to how to nurture your family. It’s a long list of human potential to choose from. But no matter what your passion or craft, pay attention to those light-bulb moments and write it down!
Now just yesterday, I had the most amazing idea for a blog, but since I didn’t write it down, I got stuck with this.