The Eightfold Path - a Musical Practice.
The Eightfold Path as a Guide for a Musical Practice
The Eightfold Path
The “Eightfold Path” is a set of practices as laid out in Buddhism as part of the greater concept of Buddhist Dharma. While in the middle of the worst period of the pandemic last summer I found myself drawn to this concept of personal practices as something I could do, or at least aspire to do. Maybe it was an overall sense of questioning everything and a lack of center that many of us were experiencing at that time that prompted me to return to these ideas I had first encountered as a comparative religion student at Oberlin College years ago. These ideas drew me in last summer in as a guide for doing something rather than a grand scheme of understanding – Often the road to understanding is paved with doing in life, and in music.
I like the word “practice” – Yes, musical practice, but also used the way a doctor or a lawyer or a yogi has a “practice”. In that usage, “practice” is not something done to improve one’s skills, or attain a specific goal. Rather, it is something that one does because of who one is – that’s it. Over the years I have developed a musical “practice” routine that feels more like that usage of the word, rather than the sense of “I’ve got to practice” today.
Applying Dharma to your own Musical Practice
In preparing music for a very spontaneous recording outside (in the rain) with my “Sunwatcher” quartet last summer (Jamie Saft keyboards, Matt Wilson drums and guest Steve Swallow on bass) I made quick musical sketches based on my understanding of the Eightfold Path, mostly through my reading of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Naat Than. I believe that each of these eight practices, or ways of doing as part of a total personal practice can also be applied in very specific ways to musical “practice” sessions. Rather than striving for specific goals, these prescriptions for conduct can be applied in order to gain more understanding, through doing. Here are my own thoughts on each of the eight steps on the path applied to musical practice as I understand them,
1. Right Concentration (samyak samadhi) “to cultivate a mind that is one- pointed”. Our minds when we play music can behave in the way called “Monkey mind” in Buddhist writings, unsettled and shifting from one thing to the next. The most difficult thing to do sometimes is to do just ONE thing. To prepare this attitude, it is most important to begin a practice session with ONE note, and really learn to live in that one note. This is why we do long tones. There is a physical element to it as well of course, but for me the fundamental benefit of playing long tones is to put the mind into that one note, and live and breath there for as long as it takes until you are really there. Only then can you begin to think about connecting notes together.
2. Right Speech (samyak vac) “to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering” When we are playing alone, in our own “practice”, it is important to both speak, and listen carefully. In a practice session, we are both the speaker and the listener and both roles are equally important. If we speak without listening, we lose the opportunity to know ourselves better. It is important to say that listening is not the same as judging, and constant self-evaluation can be one of the most destructive impulses for a musician. Rather, if we speak/play in a loving way, and listen deeply and without judgment, we can bring joy and happiness to ourselves and begin to relieve suffering for others as well.
3. Right Effort (samyak pradhana) “if we have joy, ease and interest our effort will come naturally”. Many of us have been told throughout our entire musical training that learning to make music is hard work, which will be rewarded by mastery, or control of our instrument. The paradigm in the third law of Dharma is entirely contrary to that idea – If we play with joy, ease and curiosity in our practice, we will exude those characteristics in our performance as well. Are you practicing something you are not interested in? That doesn’t bring you joy? With an un-easy attitude? If so, you might be doing more harm to yourself and others, and be a part of increasing suffering in the world.
4. Right Action (samyak karmanta) “ Protect life, practice generosity, behave responsibly, and consume mindfully” As we walk the pathway of a musicial life, there will be many occasions when we will easily fall into thoughts and actions that increase suffering for ourselves and for others. How can we reinforce the values of personal and social responsibility in our own practice? When we bring a sound into the world, it has an impact – sonically, socially, spiritually and morally. John Coltrane knew this when he chanted “Om”, and with every sound he made as a force for good. While it may appear to some to be overly self-important or pompous I do believe that the sounds we make impact our world in a direct way and we have a duty to be responsible with the kinds of sounds we bring into the world. This doesn’t mean we should only make beautiful sounds, but it does mean that we should make thoughtful sounds, with intention, responsibility and mindfulness.
5. Right Resolve (samyak samkalpa) “dwell deeply in the present moment, where you can touch seeds of joy, peace, and liberation , heal and transform your suffering”. Some degree of suffering is a part of all of our shared existence on earth. Music is one of the transformative practices we have through which we can begin to turn suffering into liberation. For me, “resolve” here is not the same as a determination to achieve something, or as in being resolved/accepting of the inescapable boundaries of our existence, or even the way that ii-V-I progressions resolve. Resolve as used here feels more like beginning with presence in the moment, allowing ourselves to experience it fully, and realizing what can be possible in that moment. That is at least a step on the pathway towards liberation. Try creating the most unresolved harmony that you can, and then write a short melody that reframes that dissonance as a resolved center. I asked John Medeski to end a song with a min7(b9) chord on a recording last year – he made it sound very resolved.
6. Right View (samyak drishti) “all views are wrong views, no view can ever be the truth”. Between the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Western scientific thinking finally caught up to what some cultures have known for centuries – that all viewpoints are colored by the location and identity of the viewer, there is no absolute truth. In our music making, we can feel driven to know what and how as if there was one view, and one pathway to understanding. Unfortunately, or fortunately, that does not exist in music or in life. For example, contrary to what you may have heard, there are not two kinds of clave, 2/3 and 3/2 but rather there is one rhythmic formation that can be viewed from the 2 side, or from the 3 side. This is a simple example, but there are many other examples of this such as how we hear a harmony relative to the root, or even what beat the Tina Brooks tune “True Blue” starts on. It is in accepting multiple viewpoints as equally truthful that we can begin to live in this world as it is. Shifting your perception of the downbeat while practicing scales with a metronome is one simple exercise to bring awareness to right view.
7. Right Livelihood (samyak aviva) “find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion”. The direct application of this conduct in a musical life can be challenging. I know that for many years I played all kinds of music I did not necessarily connect with aesthetically as part of earning my living – I am lucky to no longer find myself in that position, but I recognize all that I gained by saying “Yes” to every gig as a young musician. And in retrospect, I don’t think I did any harm in the world or caused much suffering to others due to my decisions (you may want to check with the leader of my wedding band on that one). I can say that for me teaching, performing and writing are the three legs of my world that support me and I try to do all three in a way that maximizes love and compassion, and tries to walk in the way of joy and liberation. At the very least I try to honor the Hippocratic oath and “do no harm”.
8. Right Mindfulness (samyak smriti) “ remembering to come back to the present moment” This is really the most important of the eight steps on the path, and could certainly have been presented first. Without mindfulness and being in the moment, there is no benefit to the musical practice at all and none of the other steps on the path are possible. But it is also good to remind ourselves at the end of our practice session to repeat our sense of Right Concentration from the first step – to remember to be able to play one note, and really live inside that note with our whole selves. If we can do this, we are certainly on the path away from suffering, and walking towards joy and liberation for ourselves and for others through music.