“From true emptiness, the wondrous being appears.” -Suzuki Roshi
The poet facing the blank page. The artist in front of the empty canvas. The jazz pianist seated with 88 silent keys waiting. The Zen meditator sitting down with nothing but breath and body.
This is how it begins. One word, one splash of color, one sound, one inhale and exhale and we’re off. If we’re lucky, each impulse leads inexorably to the next and some kind of coherent design begins to emerge. The wondrous beings appear. Our job is not to judge too early, just follow and let them have their voice and see where they lead. We’re along for the ride and best to let the paddles rest, just flow with the current. Until it slows to a halt or we get stuck in an eddy.
Later, we will look back and adjust and shift and paddle so that others might share the journey. With the artists, it’s the next step in creating a work— a poem, a painting, a composition/ recorded improvisation— that can be heard or seen by others, with the Zen student, we are the work we are creating and re-creating, still to be shared with others through the quality of our presence.
All require some measure of stillness, some mindful attention, some unshakeable faith that there is gold underneath that needs us to bring it forth. And that’s precisely why gold is more valuable than granite. It is hidden, it is rare, it takes a special effort to sift through the silt to discover it, it takes a special desire to find it.
The mistake is to take it literally. Literal gold digging created centuries of suffering in the form of ecological ravage, Indian genocide, African slavery, Wall Street billionaires foreclosing homes, shutting down Unions and hoarding resources. That kind of gold-digging is a disaster. That’s fool’s gold, like the pyrite mineral that miners uncovered that shone liked gold, but would flake, powder or crumble when poked with the metal point of true wealth and spiritual happiness. As King Midas discovered, that’s the gold that you can’t eat, can’t hug like a child, can’t take with you to the other side.
But what if one could take that hunger for gold, that desire for the rare, that yearning for wealth, and in a deft aikido move, flip it over from the outer gold to the inner gold? Ah, there’s a thought. What would that look like?
In my field of music education, it means working with the gold of artistic creation. This is the idea between one of my more fruitful music lessons I created called “The Secret Song.” The 5-year-olds (or any age) come in and gather around the xylophone set up in the pentatonic scale. In hushed tones, I say:
“Kids, I’m going to tell you an important secret. Come, gather closer. (dramatic pause) Inside these wooden bars is a secret song that’s waiting for you. Like gold that’s hidden in the earth that you have to dig it out. But instead of shovels, you’re going to use mallets to try to get your song to come out. If you listen, you might find your song coming out from its hiding place. Then you need to keep it singing long enough for you to remember, because later, you will come back to share with others. If you use your hands, ears and mind the right way, the golden song will appear. Good luck!”
And I send them off to the corners of the room, each with a xylophone, walk around and check in with them and then we gather back together to share. And lo and behold, everyone indeed finds a “secret song” that is musical and worthy of being heard.
Note how the xylophone was like their blank canvas. With the intention to make it come to life, time to explore and the expectation of sharing, each child indeed brings forth the gold of her or his inner musician. Yes, some may shine more brightly than others (though next time maybe not), but it’s not a competition. It’s a way for each child to discover—and for the teacher to notice—precisely how they’re thinking musically. And for them to be inspired by how other classmates are thinking musically, both affirming their innate musicality and encouraging them to consider new paths to expression.
Note also that the gold is not meant to be hoarded, but freely given away in the sharing. And in the next “secret song” class, the idea is to find a new one, to perpetually renew and keep the flow of one’s golden musicality moving. Yes, we also might repeat some, work on them, further elaborate on them and turn spontaneous improvisation into a more fixed composition. That’s also part of artistic development.
But it’s always a good idea to return to emptiness as an ongoing practice. The great jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz revealed that he began every practice session with a free improvisation on the piano. No preconceived chords or tunes or rhythms, just set the hands down and begin from the first sounds that emerge. (Also interesting that he chose piano instead of his more familiar instrument, the saxophone).
So the next time you feel stuck in any kind of endeavor (especially a creative endeavor), just stop, be still, stop planning, just attend to the moment and then see what emerges. And then watch and hear your Secret Song emerge.
P.S. The Secret Song is also the title of a film that has been made about my last year at The San Francisco School, now being submitted to various film festivals. I’ll let you know if and when it gets accepted. Stay tuned!