Then One Sees the World Rightly: Music and Spirituality

"Schubert" by Mary Oliver
He takes such small steps
To express our longings.
Thank you, Schubert.

How many hours
Do I sit here
Aching to do

What I do not do
When, suddenly,
He throws a single note

Higher than the others
So that I feel
The green field of hope,

And then, descending,
All this world’s sorrow,
So deadly, so beautiful.
* * *
There is a wisdom, a one-ness, a mystery, and a love that is beyond words -- for words are tools by which we pursue our purposes. Words are not reality, nor do they represent reality except in that highly selective and distorting way that fits a strategy for getting what we want.

When our schemes and designs fall away – when those tyrant dictators, desire and aversion, are deposed, if only for a while – we enter the love that is beyond words. Music is beyond words – therein lies its power. In instrumental music, we enter the wordless place, and in singing, the power of the wordless is added to the words. Still, our minds have such a habit of turning to words that it is helpful to have some words that help turn us sometimes away from words for a while.

Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is 80 dense pages written as a series of bullet points. The last sentence of the Tractatus, the last bullet point, is:
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.
After 80 pages limning the limits of language, he meets the limit, and at that point, there is nothing for it but silence. In fact, his next-to-last bullet point is:
Whoever understands me will recognize that all my propositions are senseless. One must surmount these propositions; then one sees the world rightly.
What is this "seeing the world rightly"? That, evidently, can’t be said – we must remain silent. Another philosopher, Frank Ramsey, famously rejoined, “What we can’t say, we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.”

Whistle it? Oh, maybe we can.Or if human lips and tongue are insufficient instruments, perhaps we can flute it or violin it or piano it. The deepest awareness – the awareness to which we are drawn beyond the concerns of our separate personalities, the awareness of connection – cannot be said. Can it be played?

Many of us have experienced a rapture in music that feels rather like the end-times “Left Behind” rapture: we are lifted up right out of this world. Poet Lorraine Duggin gives us some more words for evoking the wordless wonder:
Heaven is a real place.
I have heard its sweet, harmonic,
emancipating sounds
many times in symphony concert
halls, magnificent vibrations
of melodic strings:
violins, violas, harps, dulcimers,
even voices. I’ve witnessed these,
been transported to astral regions
beyond ecstasy, visited ethereal, immortal
realms, though not reaching
those pinnacles using my own bow,
bridge, frets, or fingering.
Heaven is music; music is dance,
song, language, poetry, artistic freedom,
and to find our special rhythms, to stretch,
extend, connect, express who we are,
striving to vibrate, touch strings
of hearts, spirits listening must be world’s
greatest calling ever bestowed on frail human
forms, we groundlings continuously reaching
beyond our grasp for sun, moon, stars.
The prominent role of music in religion is not an accident. The origin of religion probably lies in competition between tribes. To survive required success in defense and battle, and success in battle required high social cohesion. The sharing of rituals, participating together in ritualized behavior -- and the sharing of stories about the origin of your people – this created the cohesion that tribal competition made necessary. Shared ritual plus shared origin story: that’s religion. I’ve mentioned that before, and what I left out before is the role of music probably had in creating that social cohesion.
One of the most obvious features of music the world over is that it tends to be a group activity. (Phillip Ball, The Music Instinct, 2010, p. 25)
Groups make music together more readily, easily, and naturally than a group can paint a painting or write a poem. Only dance – which is so intertwined with music that in many cultures they aren’t distinguished – is an art form so given to creating in groups. And even when there is just a solitary performer, music commonly happens in contexts and places that foster a sense of cohesion among the audience and with the performer. Music psychologist Juan Roederer (What? You didn’t know there was such a profession as “music psychologist”? Neither did I a month ago) says music is
a means of establishing behavioral coherency in masses of people. In the distant past this would indeed have had an important survival value, as an increasingly complex human environment demanded coherent, collective actions on the parts of groups of human society. (J.G. Roederer, “The Search for a Survival Value of Music,” Musical Perception 1. 1984. p. 356)
Rhythmic sounds are a great way to get people to clap or drum along, synchronizing and coordinating their activity. Many of you have had vivid experience of music promoting a lasting sense of togetherness. Notes Phillip Ball:
Adolescent subcultures establish their identity through allegiance and shared listening to specific modes of music. (The Music Instinct, 2010, p. 27)
The signature event of the 1960s was a music festival called Woodstock that brought together so many with a resolve to live in harmony. If religion originates in the tribal need for social cohesion, and music is also a very powerful force in connecting people together, then it’s no wonder that music and religion are as intertwined as they are, from the church music so prominent in the history of European music, to drumming and dancing at religious festivals in cultures all over the world.

For many of us, music is more than social cohesion: it is directly communing with the divine. According to Johann Sebastian Bach:
The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of god and the refreshment of the soul. If heed is not paid to this, it is not true music but a diabolical bawling and twanging.
In one of our hymns, we sing:
When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried
The language of Bach’s religious tradition, echoed in our hymn – glorifying God in music – may not be language that all of us would use. Some of us would. Either way, the language is an attempt to point to a certain kind of experience. The language doesn’t work for all of us, but the experience that language is trying to point toward is something for all of us. The words "glorifying God" are a way of pointing toward an experience of dropping your separate, isolated and isolating concerns, your defenses – submerging in a wider reality, connecting outside yourself. The words are an invitation beckoning you simply to love this life and this world in its infinity and ultimate unknowability – for then such adoration will leave no room for the pride that separates us. Open yourself to a way of presence in which every sight and sound seems to be there for the purpose of joining with you in celebration: "It is as though the whole creation cried alleluia!"

Music and spirituality have in common that they are nonrational, where “rational” refers to the range of human activities that involve the logic of putting words together for problem-solving, for pursuing our purposes. The brain’s capacity for musical experience and its capacity for spiritual experience both involve feelings and awarenesses outside the realm of words and reason, outside of any conscious purpose other than itself. Though they ultimately touch the wordless, we quickly begin constructing words all around them – words to describe related parts that can be described.

Both musical and spiritual experience connect us with others, and then feed upon that very connection to grow more intense. In both cases we can learn, we can expand and strengthen our capacities, through study and practice. Practice, practice, practice is how one gets to Carnegie hall as a musician – and practice, practice, practice is how we develop those capacities we call spiritual: capacities for tapping into the right brain, living in the present moment, more fully present to the uniqueness of each situation and creatively responding to it outside of your personality type, with a joyful and peaceful energy, with an easy and natural compassion.

Musical practice, like playing the piano, and spiritual practice, like meditating, change the brain: and those who put in hours every day for many years get the most substantial changes.While music and spirituality are distinct capacities – some musical experience is quite different from the kind of experience we might call spiritual, and some spiritual experience doesn’t involve music – there are ways they overlap, not just as experiences, but ways to combine them as practice.

For example, there’s a practice called singing meditation which I recently learned is becoming a part of the congregational life and programming at some Unitarian Universalist congregations. Skinner House books, an imprint of the Unitarian Universalist Association, last year published a helpful guide: Singing Meditation: Together in Sound and Silence by Ruthie Rosauer and Liz Hill. A group gets together, and they sing, either a capella or drumming as they sing, a short simple interfaith song – like our “Come, Come Whoever You Are” or one of the doxology verses to the tune Old Hundredth or a Native American chant. The periods of singing alternate with 5-minute periods of sitting together in silence. Each song – just one or two lines long – they sing together over and over – give themselves a chance to really settle into it, get the power of repetition. Marlys Brinkman, choir director at Boulder Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Lafayette, Colorado, describes it this way:
First time: it’s new, you are concentrating on singing it right. Second time: you’re starting to get a handle on singing it right. Third time: you’re feeling a sense of accomplishment. Fourth time: You can sing it right without much effort. You begin to think now what? Fifth time: You feel a bit of annoyance. Hey, I’ve got this down. We can stop now. Sixth time: You are bored, tired of it, you mind is objecting to this waste of time. “This is stupid.” You might get stuck at that phase for several repetitions, but if you stay with it, your mind will go to the seventh time after a few more repetitions. Seventh time: You give up, mentally throw your hands up, and think, “Oh well, we’re probably going to go on forever, so I guess I’ll just relax.” Eighth time: You feel that relaxation, and sort of enjoy it. Ninth time: As you continue to enjoy the relaxation, you begin to feel something deeper now. Your mind is quiet, taking a mini-vacation, while you are doing this boring (to its way of thinking) activity.
Tenth time: You continue to relax, feel the ebb and flow of the song. Without noticing it, you are opening to a larger part of yourself, and the singing is the doorway. A whole new way of experiencing is just beyond the threshold of this door. You feel more relaxed and more at peace, and you feel healing energy flowing within you as you sing this simple short song....The trick is knowing that the tenth time is the beginning of the work, not the end.

In singing meditation practice, there is no predetermined number of repetitions and there is no signal to stop. A leader helps carry the group to keep going long enough to get through those twinges of annoyance or boredom into the place of relaxation and opening. After that, the group’s energy collectively determines when to wind down and dissolve into silence. Yes, there will sometimes be that one guy who launches into it again when no else was. It’s OK. The others hum or sing along for support one more time through. Then the silence, as meaningful as the singing.
Sit in the silence and breathe. See if you can feel the vibrations of energy set in movement by the chant reverberating in the space around you and inside your own body. Drink in the subtle presence that often seems to linger in the room. (Robert Gass, Chanting. Quoted in Rosauer and Hill, Singing Meditation. p. 66)
Does that sound nice? Listening to music can be wonderful. Making music – simply singing, if nothing else – is also a great enrichment to life – a part of what it means to have music in our lives. Friedrich Nietzsche said:
Without music, life would be a mistake.
Yet, with the rise of the recording industry, we have become the first culture in human history to so abandon music making to professionals. As Philip Ball writes:
The case for musical education should not rest on its ‘improving’ qualities, however, even if these are real. The fact is that music no less than literacy gives access to endless wonders. To cultivate those avenues is to facilitate life-enhancing experience. But what usually happens instead? Children stop singing and dancing, they get embarrassed about their piano lessons (if they’re lucky enough to be offered them) and frustrated that they don’t sound like the stars on MTV. As adults, they deny that they possess having any musicality (despite the extraordinary skills needed to listen to and appreciate just about any music), they jokingly attribute to themselves the rare clinical condition of tone-deafness. They probably do not know that there are cultures in the world where to say "I’m not musical" would be meaningless, akin to saying, "I’m not alive."
There is such a thing as “congenital amusia” commonly known as tone deafness, and it affects about 4 percent of the population. People who suffer from congenital amusia lack pitch discrmination, are unable to recognize or hum familiar tunes, do not show sensitivity to dissonant chords in a melodic context, and cannot pick out a wrong note in a given familiar melody. Music consists largely of relatively small pitch changes, which amusics cannot detect, and this makes it extremely difficult for them to enjoy and appreciate music.

There may also be – I am speculating, and haven’t seen any research on this – a congenital condition analogous to amusia – a sort of tone-deafness about spiritual experience. As true amusia renders a person unable in a fundamental way to get what music is all about, there may be a small percentage of people whose brains are wired so that they cannot get what spiritual experience is all about. It may seem to them senseless in the way that music seems like noise to the amusic.

At their heights, music and spirituality are senseless from the point of view of reason’s schemes in pursuit of purposes. It's true that there are things we can say about what musical practice and spiritual practice are good for: they both happen to be helpful for lowering stress, or enhancing this or that other mental function. But this misses the essential point. In important ways, neither music nor spirituality is a means to an end. They are the ends.

For that matter, reason’s cherished words and propositions are also, at the end of the day, senseless. Wittgenstein labored to lay out propositions that point us the way beyond all propositions:
Whoever understands me will recognize that all my propositions are senseless.
One must surmount these propositions; then one sees the world rightly.
You can be morally upright without music or spirituality. You can be a good person. You can have a rich and full emotional life; you can have a brilliant intellectual career. There is, however, in this life, more than thoughts, more than emotions, more than social skills and good morals.

There is something else. And it sings. It is music -- the capacity to take it in, to listen appreciatively to music and be fulfilled -- and the capacity to manifest the skills of melody, harmony, and rhythm for ourselves, for others, and often with others.

There's also another something else. It sings, too, in its own way. It is spirituality -- the capacity to take it in, to attend appreciatively to experience and be fulfilled -- and the capacity to manifest the virtues of peace, love, and wisdom for ourselves, for others, and with others.

These two are worth practicing at. Unless you happen to have one of those rare congenital conditions, both music and spirituality, together and separately, are worth cultivating, and getting better at.

Then one sees the world rightly.

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