I wrote the following about my approach to playing the piano. But I think it’s applicable to any creative endeavor whether it’s music, art, writing, cooking or even moving through your day. It’s about being present, showing up fully, breathing and expressing what you know and listening for what’s next.
I love to improvise. When I’m playing for myself that is mostly what I do. Also about 50% of my live concerts are improvised. When improvising I’m just exploring certain ideas or emotions and expressing them without an agenda other than just to explore and express them. I sit at the piano, take a few deep breaths and clear my head and I usually get an image in my mind as to where to start. It’s usually a certain key or pattern of notes. Just a beginning. I have no idea where it’s going. It’s only a starting point. I play what I was “shown” and then I listen to it. Then I receive another “idea” or “impulse”. Then I play that and again, I listen.
My intention is to respond to each impulse, each spark, fully, without hesitation and then immediately let it go, moving onto the next and the next. When I say “impulse” or “spark” I mean it’s like an “idea flash”. They happen very quickly. It’s a quickly passing thought or impulse. It’s clear but swift and they come one at a time. It’s so important to act and respond to the first initial idea. Because if I don’t express the first impulse without hesitation then immediately following that is a “second guess” doubting the first impulse. I believe that the initial spark comes from something higher than my ego mind. You could say that it comes from my Muse, the Universe or God, whatever you want to call it. Or you could call it some kind of guidance or intuition. The “second guess” comes from my ego in fear that the initial spark was incorrect or not good enough. This might sound funny, but I’ve talked to many other musicians (my peers and mentors) about this and they all concur. The first impulse is that “still small voice” that we need to practice listening to. It happens so fast and then our egos are so quick to respond with compensating thoughts and distractions. It’s like we want to believe in an ultimate universal perfection and intelligence (call it what you will) but our doubt and fear is sometimes louder and more frequent.
For me, it’s like following a trail of breadcrumbs. I don’t see the whole picture but I know what’s next and next and next. And if my trust and swift response is solid and consistent then it just becomes one continuous inspired pulse. It’s like a series of sparks igniting quickly enough to where a fire starts to burn on it’s own and then I’m just in the experience and expression of that creative flame. Breathing into it. Listening to and witnessing it. Enjoying it as a participant and an observer. And it burns and burns until it’s finished. No longer, no shorter.
It’s important not to judge the impulse or spark. Don't question if it’s the right one. Embrace it, express it and then let it go. Staying present is key to the process. Thinking about the future (the next passage) is just as counterproductive as is lingering on a misplaced note in the recent past. Both are not about the present. Play each note or line with totality and then immediately let it go. Let it go if it's a perceived mistake or even if it’s perceived genius. It's over. Let it go. Any thoughts invite our egos and separate us from source and take us out of the moment. Something new is presenting itself now. And now. The past or future is not important. What’s important is being present with each note, phrase, nuance and spark of inspiration.
In the past in concerts I would get so flustered and annoyed with myself for making a mistake, hitting a wrong note or chord; a clam that I would be thinking about for seconds or even minutes afterwards. In the past, one mistake would sometimes ruin a whole song for me because I could no longer be present in the song afterwards because I’d be thinking about it or feeling embarrassed. Again, if I’m thinking about something I did a few seconds or minutes ago then I can't be present with what I’m doing now.
Fortunately now, after many many years of practice in presence (and forgiveness and compassion), I leave an error behind in just a few notes. We all make mistakes. Perfection is a human-made concept that doesn’t really exist. Compassion and forgiveness are actually key attributes to letting go of perceived “mistakes” and staying present with what “is”. This is obviously true both creatively and in life in general.
I also really like to record my improvisations. As a professional musician it’s good to be recording as often as possible. Even if I’m just playing around and improvising for myself. Not only is good to have the recordings to listen back to if something “inspired” happens. But it’s also good to get used to relaxing and playing freely while in “record” mode to help get over the “I’m recording so I better not make a mistake” perspective.
Presence is sometimes harder to achieve when other’s are watching/listening or when something perceived as “special” is going on. So it’s good to practice presence in all kinds of situations, not just the easy ones when we’re alone by our selves. Then it becomes easier to drop into it in any and all circumstances. Enjoy!!
When I first moved to Maui in 2007 I learned to paddle board and I can honestly say that the ocean experiences I’ve had since have changed my life. Here is a recap of one of my first such adventures.
I headed out on my paddle board very early one morning looking for . . . an experience. The ocean and winds were calm so I ventured further out than normal and probably further than would have been advisable given that the sun had not yet risen and I was the only one on the water as far as I could see. But I REALLY wanted . . . an experience.
I paddled for a while, breathing deeply into the fears that sometimes surfaced in my mind and stomach. Fears about sharks and unexpected winds and my own vulnerability and mortality. As soon as one set of inner "disturbances" or "ripples" of fear dispersed, another surfaced. But I kept breathing into them and relaxing my body and mind. Setting my sights on the horizon as I paddled forward I kept breathing, waiting patiently for the layers of my thoughts to disintegrate so that I could simply be "present". And finally this thought surfaced . . . “But I'm so far from shore!”. That struck me as an obvious but interesting thought to have. I looked down at my feet standing on top of my beautiful red striped board and I thought . . . “But I am HERE, standing on my board!".
Life isn't on the shore. Life isn't elsewhere. It's here. Like it or not, where ever we go, there we are. And I was here, simply standing on my board, holding my paddle, somewhere out on the ocean with Maui’s shore far in the distance. And that is all. And that was the last of my distracting thoughts for that morning. And finally . . . I was present.
I asked myself what was I was searching for out here on the ocean, alone, so early in the morning? And the thought occurred to me . . . "something sacred . . . something free". I wanted to touch on something that was intrinsically just it-Self. Something completely free and wild. Something that was not defined by it's productivity or assigned some relative value or worth based on what it did or didn't do. Something that didn't need to practice "being". I wanted an experience that could remind and reconnect me with the essential part of my self that existed before all the concepts, ideals and values have been layered and layered upon me. I wanted to experience the part of me that transcends even the loftiest and most well-meaning of spiritual aspirations. Spiritual ideals, values and concepts are merely vehicles to guide and transport us to a place where they are no longer useful or relevant. They are only stepping stones, not a destination. I wanted to experience something natural. Something sacred . . . something free.
I wanted to feel true freedom. I wanted to experience my essence. Any thoughts or rational thinking of what our experience of true essence and presence may look or feel like are often just distractions and obstacles to experiencing the real thing. We can "Ohm" and "affirm" all we want but until we throw our spiritual concepts and emotional attachments away we're still going be just "Ohming" and “affirming". It's like we can swing on that swing over and over again until we go higher and higher, but then if we don't jump off that swing at just the right time and soar freely through the air, then we're just clinging to a rope tied to a tree. Do we want to experience life as a kite from the end of a string or do we want to soar and fly free?
We hug our concepts and beliefs close to ourselves like a favorite soft blanket, protecting us from the cold. We hug it so close we don't even realize that we've blanketed our eyes and hearts as well. Even the most comforting, well-meaning thoughts and intentions can blind and separate us from what is present and right in front of us. It's like now it’s Spring we forget that we’re still carrying the blanket and snow boots we needed in winter. I'm realizing that "here" is very different than anywhere I've ever been so far in my life. And being "here" is requiring a lot more breathing and letting go.
We can not take all our "knowing" with us to a new place! We can't wrap all our "knowing" around us and then expect to be touched by a greater experience of wonderment and awe! True inspiration doesn't come from a place of "knowing"! Quite the opposite. True inspiration comes from venturing into unknowing, new territory. Letting go into a new awareness. A new breath. An experience of "grace" can't survive an inquisition or desire to sustain it. You have to be unquestionably standing in the presence and experience of it. You have to be willing to let go of what you know, of what is familiar to relinquish control and experience something new with open eyes and hearts.
I started paddling out on my board hugging my identity, concepts, fears and aspirations close to me. And one by one I dropped them into the ocean and they submerged. I became more and more vulnerable and present as I disarmed myself of my illusion of separateness and of my identity. And finally there I stood alone, just me and my board a mile or more off-shore watching the sunrise shimmering brightly over the crater peak of Maui. And then I heard it. A huge, wet exhale. The sound of water and air spraying out with one giant breath into the atmosphere. Compared to the quiet lapping of water on my board this new sound was like a freight train blowing it's whistle into the dawn. And I then I heard it again and I turned to look and saw it! It's dark long rolling back, surfacing up along the water and then, many yards later, rolling back down into the ocean. It rolled and rolled, submerging like a giant sea serpent from some mythological fairytale. It's body was maybe 45ft. to 50ft. long and it's huge tail fins were wider than the full length of my board. It gracefully sliced through the water until it completely submerged with a playful SLAP of it's tail fin! This beautiful humpback whale, less than 30 ft. away, was now heading directly towards me!
I dropped to my hands and knees on my board looking for more stability. It was once again quiet. Very quiet. For several minutes again there was that sense of just me out there on top of the water. But now, not alone. In fact, I had tons of company, literally. This is what I was looking for! First an encounter with myself and then with a living breathing ambassador for something sacred and free. A mascot of my inherent desire and right to freedom. Freedom of Self, freedom of thought, freedom to “be”. Transcending concepts and logic and the need to justify or define oneself. The whale just “is”. A giant symbol of the "unknown" from a world I can only peer into for a few seconds at a time. A creature that is so foreign to the world I live in, so free from the goals, aspirations and ailments of the culture that I've adopted and invested most of my life into, but yet, at this moment, we share the same water and breathe the same air.
It finally surfaced again on the other side of my board. It swam underneath me and was now heading away from me. Then, with a sudden surge of energy, blind enthusiasm and fearless motivation, I jumped to my feet and paddled hard and deep after my new found ocean companion. I hoped that I could keep up for at least a few minutes before it disappeared into the ocean again. I felt it's salty exhale spray on my face and cringed at the smell of it’s fishy krill breath. I saw it's huge amazing body slice thru the water over and over again. In-between paddling hard to keep up with it I also sat patiently, quietly, waiting for it to resurface again for the air that we both shared. In some ways the waiting and listening was my favorite part.
The air was thick with mystery and anticipation. I submerged my head into the water to listen to it's whale song and couldn't believe how loud and clear it was. The whale surfaced and submerged a few more times before heading further out to sea. I had gone as far out as my mind could tolerate and slowly paddled back to shore. I was and still am completely moved by the grace of this animal and humbled by it's magnificence. Something about it's very existence has me spell bound.
That was one of my very first experiences with the Humpback Whales that migrate from Alaska to Maui from December to April every year to mate and have their offspring. Since then I’ve had dozens and dozens of beautiful amazing experiences with them. Their ancient intelligence is palpable as is the beautiful “aloha” energy of Maui. I am grateful to live in a place where their presence is so strong and frequent. It has changed my life. I’ll tell another whale story in a future blog. Thanks for reading.
One of the many things I love about being in nature is that it gives me the opportunity to be truly present and to slow way down. And the more I slow down the more I see and experience. For example, I arrive at the beach or a park and set up my blanket and get situated and I finally sit down and start to relax. You can do this in any natural setting. And if you don’t even have a part, then you can look up at the sky (birds and clouds). I mostly go to the beach so I’ll focus this blog there but you can do this really in any location. At first I’m looking around at everything in general. I’m enjoying seeing the sky and clouds, the beach and ocean. I take a few deep breaths and let go just a little more. After a while I notice the little sand crabs that are exactly the same color as the sand. At first I see one. Then another. And as I relax more into it I notice that the whole beach is full of dozens and dozens of sand crabs peaking their heads out of their holes, slowly and inconspicuously moving around from one hole to another. At first I didn’t see them at all but now they’re everywhere. Even just a few inches from me.
I’ve already noticed the clouds in the sky. But as I relax more into looking at them I notice that they’re moving slowly in one direction. But after a while longer I notice that there’s another layer of clouds moving in the opposite direction above them. I relax into observing them and finally notice that there is another higher layer of clouds moving in yet a different direction. The feeling of opening up my vision and perception to see the clouds in the sky moving in layers in different directions is very interesting. I have a very tangible experience in my head, in my awareness and actually in my body observing this. I not only see and experience it outside of me, but I also feel and experience the movement inside of me.
I notice a butterfly passing by. And then a bird sitting in the tree near me. Suddenly I see another butterfly and a tree gecko. The bird is chirping and I notice it’s in conversation with another bird across the beach. The breeze moves the palms and they make a subtle clicking/rattling sound. It almost sounds like rain. And then I notice more sounds. More birds. So many different kinds of birds and sounds. I listen closer, deeper. My peripheral vision looks straight out in front of me.
Without focusing on anything in particular, using my soft gaze, I gradually perceive more and more of what’s going on all around me. Actually, I not only see but I can “feel” the layers of clouds above me moving in different directions. Yes, I can feel it inside of me. In my awareness I “sense” the movement of the crabs on the beach. Different birds and butterflies pass through my field of vision. I start to feel the sensation of movement in my subtle body. My energy body. Yes, it’s real. As I expand my perception and relax into my sensitivity my energy body expands as well and it feels more and more as if the clouds are moving through me. The birds are swooping through me. The trees softly sway and as I observe and hear them it is as if they are massaging my senses, massaging me. I can feel it and so can you.
The more I relax and allow and just perceive (with less and less thought) the more I feel my senses expand out into the world around me and the more I can let in. It’s a simultaneous experience of expanding my energy, my senses, my perception while letting the environment enter, penetrate and pass into and through me. There is less and less distinction between me and the world around me. I am myself, I am the space around me and I am that which is within the space around me. In this moment I am all that I perceive. All that is. There is no inside or outside, space or distance, me or other. There is only perception or awareness and movement and now.
I love to do this kind of meditation with my eyes open. Obviously this is pleasing to do in a beautiful natural environment but it will work anywhere. It’s an experience of being fully present. I’m not trying to be “spiritual” or do my daily “discipline”. I’m not trying to do anything. It’s more like an “undoing”. There is no agenda other than to be present. Be here, now, fully. Once I’ve had some time relaxing into this awareness I can take it even further into the awareness of touch. I can touch my blanket, the sand, my skin, someone else’s skin with amazing sensitivity and feeling. The texture, the color, the weight, the lightness, the taste.
It’s about slowing down. And the more we slow down the more there is to take in and the larger and more tangible the experience becomes. The more present we become, the more there is to be present with and the more we become a part of everything in our presence. Personally I feel this is one of the most rewarding experiences available to us. And we can have it anytime and anywhere. How cool is that?