As some of you may already know, throughout my life I’ve had some mental health issues. The DSM terminology provides a good compression algorithm, and I’m comfortable stating that the main problem is generalized anxiety disorder. Major depressive disorder and panic disorder have also appeared from time to time.
Years ago, a psychologist recommended mindfulness (a popular type of meditation which is about paying close attention to the present moment) as an intervention, and I tried it a little bit, although perhaps not seriously enough. However, earlier this year I read two excellent books on meditation: 10% Happier by Dan Harris, and Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris, which rekindled my interest in these practices. These two books are part of an encouraging trend towards separating useful and/or interesting techniques (which arose in ancient religious traditions) from unjustified woo (which persists in said traditions and in new age culture). I found the Dan Harris book more accessible, while the Sam Harris one strongly emphasised various insights that I had never experienced (most notably, that the sense of being a ‘separate self’ located inside your head, is an illusion), which presented a challenge to me as a novice meditator. To try to make greater sense of this I started a daily practice. Since then, my mental health has significantly improved, although I did also switch medications around the same time (if any readers are undergoing treatment: this is the 7th antidepressant I’ve tried. There is hope).
Since I started the daily practice I believe I have experienced (albeit fleetingly) some of the things described in Waking Up. As a novice I shouldn’t be certain here, so please take this post with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, I will proceed to describe two analogies I came up with that are personally compelling, in the vague hope that they might be interesting or useful to someone else. The first relates to no-self and the difference between knowing something and feeling as though it’s true. The second relates to effective practice.
The Earth is a planet which is approximately spherical and has a diameter of about 12,000 kilometres. Human beings are a species of animal living on this planet.
These are relatively uncontroversial (your mileage may vary depending on where you live) facts that are known to anyone with some science education. Yet there is a huge difference between intellectually knowing something to be true, and feeling as though you have directly experienced or felt its truth. As a partial astrophysicist I think about planets, stars, galaxies, and so on more than the average person, yet I hardly ever actually feel like I’m an animal living on a planet in space. Instead my mind is occupied with “normal”, “everyday” thoughts like tasks I have to do for work, what to have for dinner, credit cards, and stuff like that. Once in a while (usually when on top of a big hill looking out at a view) I’m struck by the realisation: holy shit, I live on a planet. Emotionally coming into contact with this is a totally different experience from knowing the evidence for it or having read about it in books.
Similarly, it’s easy enough to read Waking Up and think “Okay, my head isn’t in my field of vision (obviously), and it is possible to notice thoughts arising, and I can only notice things if they arise in consciousness, but I don’t feel like this is the center of the bullseye of spirituality'”. It’s another thing to have developed enough concentration to feel that these things are true: that your head is only subjectively present in the form of a few faint sensations plus the thought of a head which can arises the instant you decide to focus on your head; that sounds subjectively have little to do with your ears; that an object I can see is more a part of ‘me’ in that specific moment than a body part that I cannot feel; and so on.
A technique must have the intended effect immediately otherwise it is not being done correctly.
This is a quote from Complete Vocal Technique (CVT) by Catherine Sadolin, one of my favourite books. Certain skills are not particularly complicated, yet are often perceived as difficult to learn. Singing is one, and meditation is another. Practicing well, and being taught well, can make all the difference. There’s a part in Waking Up that I remember about the difference between being guided with precision by an expert, being nudged in the general direction, and being utterly misled by a teacher or a teaching. It rang extremely true from my experience as an amateur hobbyist singer.
Growing up, I had an interest in music but was quite a terrible singer. To improve the situation I decided to take singing seriously the best part of a decade ago, and made almost no progress for the first six or so years. This was despite several teachers and many hours trying and failing to sing my favourite songs (most of which go into the range above F4, which was totally impossible and mysterious to me, not to mention that the notes below that also sounded bad). Unfortunately most teachers I saw during those years just nudged me in the general direction, at best. I was frustrated, and went searching online for answers.
I ordered Cathrine Sadolin’s book as ‘retail therapy’ during a mental-health-related hospital stay.
It was a fascinating read but I found it difficult to put into practice. Here was the best singing pedagogy book I’ve ever read, giving clear directions (for once) on how to achieve certain sounds, and it wasn’t working (note: I was out of the hospital when the book arrived!). Either the instructions were wrong or I wasn’t implementing them correctly.
A while later I had a work trip to New York, and had also learned there was a newly certified CVT teacher in Baltimore (Claudia SanSoucie), which is only a couple of hours away by bus. So I booked the bus and a two hour lesson on a spare Saturday. I was very glad I did. Within minutes it became clear that my singing wasn’t working because I had misinterpreted something in the book (it just happened to be the first and most fundamental principle, support), and thought I was doing it when I wasn’t really. After about half an hour discussing and practicing this, Claudia had me sing single notes as we went up a scale. C4 (middle C). C#4. D4. D#4. E4. F4. F#4. G4. G#4. A4. A#4. At this point I said, “what note is that? It sounds pretty high”. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised at the answer.
Of course, once something has been achieved once, that doesn’t mean it’s readily available whenever you want. You have to practice, but having achieved it once with guidance is a huge help to achieving it again. If I’m not misunderstanding things, this is the key element of the Dzogchen tradition in Buddhism at least as interpreted by Sam Harris. Meditation is not a matter of accumulating hours. The hours can help, but aren’t strictly necessary; what you’re looking for is already there, you just have to practice looking correctly. It’s the same in singing. There’s no reason in principle why someone with no experience couldn’t walk into a lesson and sing an amazing high C by the end of it. In practice the only thing preventing this is ingrained habits and the fact that only a small subset of teachers know the efficient path.