"The whole spiritual journey might be summed up as humble hope." Thomas Keating

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Music and The Spiritual Experience

Once upon a time I was a Grateful Dead fan. OK, scratch that… I was, and still am, a huge Deadhead. For most of my life I was following this group around the country, going from place to place, seeing America… if America were limited to a concert arena because that's all I really saw back then.

So the other day I was driving in to work and listening to the Dead and cranking the volume. I was cruising and singing at the top of my lungs, having a fantastic morning. Suddenly it it hit me, as epiphanies are wanton to do, that the way I have felt about the Grateful Dead's music and specifically what it does to me, is a spiritual experience. Moreover I experience their music spiritually and it has been instrumental in helping me overcome drinking…. just like Appendix 2 says it should.

Right now I can hear people screaming "BLASPHEMY!" Relax, because what I am about to explain is no more blasphemous than telling people that they can have their own conception of God.

We are encouraged to seek a relationship with a Power Greater Than Ourselves through prayer and meditation, right? We are even open to the many different types of meditation. We encourage members to seek God, to try different things on and see if they fit. We tell people to take walks in the woods to commune with nature. We suggest they check out different churches. We tell them about different books to read. We quote song lyrics. And of course we listen to music.

There are many types of spiritual music. Music that has been dubbed by the establishment as spiritual can be found in the spiritual section of your local CD store. There are hymns and compositions played in and out of churches around the world. Then there is our every day music. Composed by everyday people, about everyday experiences. Why is this any less spiritual?

An artist writes music out of need to write and out of their daily experience. To watch an artist play at times, you can see the pure ecstasy on their face. And watch a true virtuoso, head back, eyes closed, fingers moving on their own accord… is to watch someone being lead by spirit.

What about the listener? Is their experience any less transcendent? Ask anyone what their favorite song is, and why. Then watch their face light up as their tell you about it. Ask anyone sitting in their driveway, listening to the end of a song why they don't just shut it off before they go in the house and you will find a litany of reasons, all of which relate to them not wanting to break a connection it had made with their spirit.

For years I listened to the Dead, and for years I drank. And for years the two went hand in hand. Then one day (many years before I got sober) I decided that going to the concerts drunk was not worth it. I lost something when I was drunk. I couldn't remember the show the next day, I went pee a lot.

But here was the big reason: For years I drank and used drugs at concerts to get "out there". I wanted to have the big psychedelic experience, and drugs were supposed to help me there. But the thing is, somewhere along the line I was able to let the music take me there, and the drugs started to get in the way. Then one day, I realized I wanted to go "there" more than I wanted to be high or drunk. In fact I needed to go "there" in order to feel whole again. I stopped drinking at concerts originally so I could experience the spiritual. Am I alone in this?

Pete Townsend of The Who once said "When I am onstage, I feel this incredible, almost spiritual experience. Those great rock 'n roll experiences are getting harder and harder to come by, because they have to transcend a lot of drug-induced stupor. But when they occur, they are sacred."

The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia said: "When we get onstage, we really want to be transformed from ordinary players to extraordinary ones, like forces of a larger consciousness. So maybe it's that seat-of-the-pants shamanism that keeps the audience coming back and that keeps it fascinating for us too."

And so, on the way to work the other day I realized that when I am in a bad space, having a bad day, or I am depressed angry or confused, the Big Book tells me I need to have "a profound alteration in my reaction to life; and that such a change could hardly have been brought about by myself alone." And it tells me this in the Second Appendix, the Appendix on The Spiritual Experience. I realized can turn to the music that already has a direct connection of my soul. I can use this as yet another form of meditation to help make the connection to a spiritual life that I need to change how I am reacting to the world. It's the soundtrack to the design for living that works in the rough going.


  1. Thanks for posting this, Dave! The whole relationship between art and the spiritual path is a fascinating topic. Just think about the number of people who either take up or renew their interest in an art after getting sober. I have no doubt that for many people music and other arts are essential parts of their 11th Step work. I know that for me photography was very much a tool for learning to really look at and appreciate what I was seeing.

  2. Music is a major meditative tool for me. I also strongly believe in a spiritual connection and art, specifically music. For many years i sought escape through a bottle and it didn't work out so well. I still seek escape, but i have found a healthy avenue through music. I have been doing this for years now, and it takes some practice, but i listen to classical music, Mozart in particular seems to work best; I listen to a familiar piece and visualize the instruments, and try to concentrate on a single (generally harmony) instrument and visualize it. The more specific i get in the process the deeper my meditative state gets. I go from listening to the music, to the harmony, to a specific instrument playing a part of the harmony, and am visualizing and hearing the music. I get to a point where i can almost see and feel the music. This to me is the most relaxing meditative state i can acheive.

  3. It's interesting that you mention Mozart. The first really dramatic spiritual experience I can remember was when I first saw The Magic Flute. I was practically in tears through the whole overture. Three of my cats are named Sarastro, Pamina, and Tamino, so I was obviously permanently affected.

    I've branched out from there and in my very eclectic way I can get serious spiritual lifts from various artists, including Mozart, John Dowland, John Coltrane, Bach, Wagner, The Dead, Gregorian Chant... Zappa and ZZ Top don't get me all Spiritual but they always make me smile, which I often really need.