This post represents a cross between two of the larger facets of my life story: Music and meditation. Because I work as a facilitator of both studies, I thought it might be interesting for vocalists and other musicians, as well as artists or athletes who rely on the cycle of the breath to facilitate their activities. This particular narrative focuses on the singing process, but it can easily be applied to other practices.
The more a person engages in a meditative practice, the more the experience changes. No session is ever exactly the same (although it may sometimes seem that we are doing the same thing over and over again). Of course, this can be said of anything that we devote ourselves to in a systematic way: Sports, painting, acting, building, working, fitness, etc. Moreover, if we are engaging in a meditative practice in conjunction with some other kind of focused activity, we begin to find places where the processes overlap, where what happens within meditation isn't limited to a finite period of time. We start to realize that we can bring insights from our silent sitting, which can seem so separate from the rest of our lives, into our daily activities.
The closest parallel in my own life has been vocal music, so we'll be taking a view through that lens in this post. More specifically, we'll be talking about what I call the "Zero Point": The point of suspension following an inhale, and the point of release at the end of phonation. We'll just focus on the somatic, felt-sense experience for now, leaving the specific psychological and emotional implications that come along with it for another time.
As musicians, it is easy for us to become quite focused on-- and sometimes myopically caught up in-- the mechanical use of our instruments. After all, one of the the points of music is to create sound, and as professional musicians we endeavor to do this in as refined a way as possible. Developing a healthy, sustainable technique as a vocalist is of paramount importance as we grow as singers, and it is the foundation of what we are talking about in this article. There is plenty of thinking, concentrating, and analyzing to be done when it comes to building a solid technique.
That being said, many of us (especially in the professional operatic world) focus so much on the quality and volume of sound when we actually get to singing a piece that we miss the Zero Point and, subsequently, the opportunity it gives us to realign between phrases. This means our breath can easily begin to stack on itself, leaving us feeling over-pressurized. As a potential remedy, there are many meditation techniques that advise us to look at the space between breaths as one of the most important pointers we can have during practice. Once this idea is applied to the art of singing, it can greatly clarify what is happening within every phrase, and applying a mindful lens to these incredibly brief and important moments of our technique can be of great technical benefit.
First Zero Point: Suspended Fullness
With every inhale of every phrase, before phonation starts, there is a period of suspension--air has entered the lungs, but the exhalation hasn't begun yet. On the physical level, this is the moment when many of us do everything else we need to in order to make a balanced, healthy sound:
-Prepare the vocal resonating spaces, whatever that means within our technique
-Engage the body in preparation for a controlled release of air, whatever that means within our technique
-Bring aware attention to our body, the music, and our surroundings
Once all of those things have happened, however, there is a total pause, a kind of alert readiness. In this brief fraction of a second, there is openness and fullness--literal, physical openness, in the space we intend to sing with and through, and fullness in the lungs and the body. If we are attentive to this open-fullness when it happens and maintain it throughout phonation, singing doesn't feel like a lot of work. If we allow it to collapse anywhere along the way, we have to compensate. How many of us have found this Zero Point, and then immediately compressed or contracted rather than riding the wave of freedom it provides? I practically made a career out of it!
Being present and attentive to this suspension, the place where our inhale is nothing but potential, can help guide our phonation toward a healthy and sustainable expression.
Second Zero Point: Suspended Emptiness
On the other side of every phrase we reach the Zero Point again, but in a different presentation: Where the inhale suspension gave us openness and fullness, the landing suspension gives us release and emptiness.
The body, which has remained engaged throughout a phrase in order to keep the ribcage open and expanded, the body active, the spine aligned, etc., briefly releases into neutrality. The lungs are empty of breath. The resonating chambers, filled just seconds before with oscillating air sounding as thousands of vibrations, are silent. Not even breathing has begun again, as an inhale has yet to start.
This moment is also pure potential-- not the full, expansive potential of a focused, prepared, and suspended breath, but rather the absence of any focus or preparation whatsoever, an open space where anything can happen. This deep, neutral, restful place is where we are free without any conditions whatsoever. After all, whether we sing the next phrase or not, our breath doesn't need our permission or effort to keep cycling. However, if we do sing the next phrase, the rest afforded to us here is what will make forward momentum possible.
As we sing, we oscillate between these suspensions, these Zero Points: Expansion, release. Focus, neutrality. Sound, silence. Activity, rest. Our attention can become more and more sensitive to what is happening--and what is not happening--within each pause. We begin to understand that our open observation and presence through our singing is just as important as the focused technical forethought and practice.
As one of my vocal teachers said to me a long time ago:
"If you aren't always returning to zero at the end of each phrase, you're attached to something that isn't happening now. Come back to now. Come back to zero."
In a recent meditation talk-back session, a fellow practitioner made a very insightful comment that brought the fallibility of conceptual language to light
--she said that the term "stillness" has sometimes been difficult for her to implement in the way it may be intended during meditation, because we are so often given a directive to "be still" that infers some kind of effort or resistance.
I can certainly relate! I recall plenty of instances when that phrase was used as a kind of veiled language for other commands, usually along the lines of:
"Get it together."
"You're too much."
Whether it comes from caretakers as a child or your yoga teacher as an adult, having someone tell you to "be still" can set off a cycle of effort or self-judgment that can feel distracting at best and shame-inducing at worst, neither of which is an ideal environment for the kind of process we are (hopefully) facilitating with meditation.
If it happens, it happens, but some clarity before sitting might take this variable out altogether. The question now is--how? It would seem there are a couple of options:
1. Use alternative conceptual language
2. Clarify what "stillness" means in the context of meditative experience
In the first approach, simply changing the wording could ease the problem. For example, saying "allow your attention to come to rest" rather than "allow your attention to find stillness" could read as a less imperative statement, and might better facilitate the movement of attention.
On the other hand, the second option may allow some clarity regarding what is meant by "stillness" within the meditative framework along with the additional possibility of undoing mental conditioning we may have acquired regarding the word from earlier experiences in life.
Before we proceed any further, it's important to note that trying to describe stillness is much like describing silence or space-- most of the language won't be entirely accurate because we are describing the formless. That being said, let's do the best we can with the linguistically-limited brains we have.
A helpful place to start is what stillness in meditation is not:
-It is not effortful
-It is not rigid
-It is not static or inert
-It is not a moral or behavioral imperative
-It is not a reprimand
-It is not just a concept, though we have to speak about it using the conceptual limitation of language
So what is stillness?
To date, I have found four distinct ways that stillness can be experienced. While these terms may not fit for everyone, they served me as a decent roadmap early in my practice. These can occur during and/or outside of meditation.
-Mental stillness: The verbal commentary of the brain slows down. Most humans over the age of 3 have some form of steadily operating, self-referential narrative running in the background during the waking state. Mental stillness implies that this narrative has slowed or stopped for a period of time, and is what many people consider the goal of meditation.
-Emotional stillness: The habitual energetic expansions and contractions within the body caused by internal and external stimuli (what we refer to as "emotions" or "feelings") lessen in intensity or become absent for a period of time. The resulting functional flow of energy is often felt as stillness.
-Somatic stillness: Habitual rigidity, guarding, contraction, or resistance in the body begins to release or is released completely for a period of time. The resulting openness/somatic relaxation is often perceived as stillness.
-Total stillness: Although it seems that this type of stillness would be dependent on the above three experiences, they actually only unveil it. This stillness is always present. While mental, emotional, and somatic experiences may reveal stillness, they only do so because they are already taking place within that very stillness. Total stillness is the background within which all thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions occur. This means, paradoxically, that even the things written above concerning what stillness is not are held within total stillness-- it's just that they don't seem to be effective ways for one to experience it, generally speaking.
Total stillness is what I reference in guided practices and in whatever writing you may see here. It is not something to be done, learned, or earned, as it is already an inherent quality of who you are. All we do is provide conditions to facilitate small glimpses of it as frequently as we can, so it can eventually be recognized for what it is: A deep, fundamental foundation of your true nature.