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Dealing with Despair

Updated: Apr 9, 2020

"For is it not true that human progress is but a mighty growing pattern woven together by the tenuous single threads united in a common effort?" —Soong Mei-ling

Despair is a big word -- it's full, all-encompassing, heavy. It means giving up hope.

When situations are difficult, emotions are intense, or our mindset is misaligned, despair can take root, leaving us with a feeling that hope and resilience are impossible to find or perhaps don't even exist anymore.

Our world is experiencing a time of uncertainty and fear, sequestering and social distancing, worrying and wondering how we'll come out on the other side of a worldwide pandemic.

It's easy to slip into despair.

I listened to an interview with Zen Buddhist monk Thich That Hahn in which he answered the question, "Do you ever despair for the world?"

He said two things that renewed my hope today:

1. Meditation teaches us that nothing is permanent and all things will change.

2. If there is a dying tree in your garden, you must acknowledge it (perhaps even try to save it) but you don't let all the other trees in your garden die because one is dying.

Some find the concept of impermanence sad, but I find great hope in impermanence. Sure, joy can't last forever but then neither can grief. Yes, happy times will pass but so will times of discouragement. Impermanence encourages us to live the only true life we can experience -- the life of the present moment.

Why am I, a horn teacher, writing about despair, meditation, and impermanence?

Because of the trees that are still living, despite the one dying tree.

Because of my students, who will live beyond me.

I believe that our individual consciousness impacts the greater world -- group consciousness, after all, is made up of individuals. If each of us could find a way to let go of and be free from fear and despair; if each of us could cultivate our awareness and presence, we would shine a bit more light into the dark places.

Music can help us learn how to let go of fear and despair, work toward improving what is good, and connect us with each other. Music -- specifically learning to practice and perform -- can illuminate what scares us, ask us to face our fears, and help us deal with them so that we recognize our strengths instead of just our weaknesses. That won't just make us better musicians or performers -- it will make us better people.

When I practice by myself, I can fall into the trap of focusing on what is wrong to the exclusion of all else -- I focus on the one dying tree. If I remember to keep my awareness in the preset moment, I am positively realistic -- I see the tree that needs help, but I also see all the other healthy trees. I recognize what I need to improve but I also acknowledge what I can build upon. I remember that my improvement doesn't just help me, it will help my students.

It's easy, too, as musicians (and humans!) to compare ourselves -- either to other people or to our selves-of-the-past. "I used to be able to play this without so much effort!" "I wish I could sound like she does when I play that piece."

Comparing pulls us out of the present moment and our mind becomes obsessed with the past or the future. It also tells us that things are permanent -- "I will never be good enough," or "They are always so amazing," are both thoughts of permanence. But the rule of impermanence tells us that everything changes. And if we can stay in the present moment, accept what is happening, and work with the positive aspects (the living trees), we are ultimately happier and more at peace.

We can all cultivate more hope and peace in ourselves. I don't believe that those efforts are a luxury, best left to when we have more time or the world feels easier -- I believe they are vital to our physical, mental, and emotional health and will impact our communities (local and global) in real and necessary ways. Right. Now.

Why music? I have my students ask that question to help them deal with performance nerves. Why do we do this thing that requires us to be vulnerable in front of others and put ourselves in a position of discomfort? Is it really that important in times of environmental disaster, disease, war, and death?

The answer, for me, is the same as Master Hahn's response to despair -- but I'll add my own take on it:

1. Music, like meditation, teaches me to appreciate the moment and open myself up to the world.

2. Music contains the ugly and the beautiful, the dying and the living, the weaknesses and the strengths. It can hold it all. It allows me to touch and feel the entirety of being human -- the whole messy, gorgeous, difficult adventure of being human.

So, yes -- it's really that important. It will fight my despair. It will cultivate my peace. It will help those around me. It will change the world -- because it will change me. And you.

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