against the supernatural

Visiting the San Francisco Zen Center, 2018 (   Doug Hanson   )

Visiting the San Francisco Zen Center, 2018 (Doug Hanson)


Now that I've stepped out of traditional (classical-style) music performance, the world of sound baths has put one of my feet inside the "holistic healing/wellness" area. The explosion of this industry in my lifetime is no surprise; an increasingly unhealthy and all-around draining world has us trying desperately to step outside of it every once in a while. But it's an interesting industry in part because of its striking resemblance to so many things we try to avoid by entering it. If you take time to look, you'll see any "wellness" content machine peddling the familiar tropes: diet, fast, pray, admonish, self-flagellate, rinse, repeat…  

Obsession with purification is as old as time. Whether it is eating, sex, leisure, or any other pleasurable activity, there is at least one institution out there saying it's ruining our lives. Aspirations toward better health would be fine on their own, but consider the marketing, reproaches, and half-truths that accompany them, and it's easy to see the pattern. There is always a feeling: if only I were more holistic, more spiritual, more dedicated, more "attuned"; if I had less of an impact, a smaller footprint, a smaller space, a smaller body… Never mind that "detoxing" is not really a thing (all those herbal drinks are just laxatives, by the way); one of the most harmful outcomes of all this marketing is that we have trained ourselves to walk around thinking that we are full of poison and "negative energies", imbalanced, impure, and in constant need of "healing" of all kinds. Just as we can convince ourselves of the efficacy of placebo treatments, we can convince ourselves of our need for them.

When I first became interested in Buddhist ideology, it came, as it does for many, as a reaction to my Catholic upbringing. For some time, I harbored the notion that these tenets of simplification and discipline were the antidote to a childhood of emotionally intense devotion and disappointment. In reality, the underlying precepts are basically the same: self-mortification as moral virtue, silence and conformity as comfort, suspension of critical faculties in favor of faith. But there are still some ideas of Zen that hold: primarily the meditation practice of "just sitting."

The New Yorker (1980)

There's a Gahan Wilson cartoon from The New Yorker that's well-known in meditation circles. Two monks, one old and one young, sit next to each other on their cushions. The caption reads, "Nothing happens next. This is it." Meditation practitioners like to use it as a cheeky retort to the people who expect personal transformation to be big and flashy every time. Could our desire for cosmic energies, clairvoyance, and divinely-guided synchronicities be escapism dressed as insight? And is this impulse toward otherworldly sin/salvation really any different from the messiahs of the Bronze Age, or the extraterrestrial claims of Scientology?

Psychologist John Welwood first coined the term "spiritual bypassing", a process by which "we often use the goal of awakening or liberation to rationalize what I call premature transcendence: trying to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness before we have fully faced and made peace with it." There is no doubt that prayers, talismans, and the laying on of hands provide comfort to many people, but to my mind, there is no greater (or more challenging) exercise than seeing things exactly as they are – just sitting, just seeing. Aside from many supernatural ideologies' tenuous relation to the truth, they have proven themselves to be distractions from the wonder of actual reality – the power of sloughing off stories and getting to the essence. 

In music education, I spent a good deal of energy trying to combat the common tactic of promoting music because of its ancillary benefits. Yes, children who play music tend to perform better on standardized tests, but they should play music because art is an essential part of the human experience, not because it may help them get into college. Similarly, you should listen to sound because it moves you, and because it is fully 20 percent of the way our bodies experience the world. You should drink tea because it tastes good and feels good. You should pay attention because there are incredible things around you. Experiences beyond those facts are just gravy.  

So it's difficult for me to find myself intersecting an industry that markets itself this way – because I'm not offering a "sound journey to clear chakras and raise vibrational frequency through psychic detox of past lives [insert other buzzwords here]". The reality of sound, of your brain, of your emotional faculties, is much more interesting than that.  

There is nothing dangerous in being completely, unconditionally what is.
— Toni Packer