On suffering

A conversation with a friend yesterday had me thinking about Buddhist teaching, most notable the first noble truth, which is most often translated as “Life is suffering” which, let’s face it, doesn’t seem to be the most encouraging opening salvo for a philosophical tenet. In truth, it’s something of a mistranslation, as the Pali word dukkha has much more subtlety and nuance than mere suffering.

Without getting too deeply into Buddhist belief, dukkha can be divided into three basic categories: the physical and mental pain of old age, illness and death; the vexation when faced with impermanence and change; and the kind of existential distress of being human, of being alive. When describing these to my friend, she was struck with what she perceived to be the inherent pessimism in codifying suffering.

But to me it feels ultimately optimistic, because when we acknowledge and name our sufferings, we’re better able to coexist with them, to integrate them in our understanding of life, and to establish a kind of detente with them. We suffer when we are reactive to our suffering, and we suffer when we try to run away from it.

When I think of the first category of dukkha, the physical and mental pain of our corporeal fragility, I’m reminded of a minor surfing accident (yep, I grew up in Hawaii) during my early teens, causing injury to a lumbar vertebra, which then became the source of sciatic pain that I’ve experience, on and off, to this day. Chronic pain, even the manageable kind, is not simply physically wearing; it permanently inhabits the spaces of our consciousness and tugs down on one’s sense of vitality. It can be exhausting. And early on in my life, I was faced with the prospect of the lifelong energy-sap of chronic pain.

I don’t think it was any actual wisdom that led me to almost immediately accept that this particular physical pain would become part of my experience of life; I think it was more that there were things I wanted to do, and the only way to do them was to move on (after I recovered as much as I could from the original injury) from the idea of the permanence of this physical pain. As I look back now on young me, I realize that I didn’t have the imprint of decades of experiencing my own pain, or observing the pain of others, so I didn’t have a basis of true understanding or comparison. Or more succinctly, the neuroplasticity of my inexperienced young brain allowed it to say “Oh, OK, this is how it is now”, and to move on.

Kids seem (and actually are) a lot more adaptable than adults; a huge part of that, of course, is that when we’re young we’re still constructing our sense of reality and the world through our developing perceptions. It takes experience to understand the repercussion of actions (e.g. the hand on the hot stove), and when the aggregate experiences are few, we have less precedent to refer to. We’re not bogged down by our own expectations. We adults could learn A LOT from this. I’m still grateful for the unexpected wisdom of my youth, of my ability to let go of any expectations of how my body was supposed to feel, and to accept it for what it was.

It’s only as we gather life experience that we start to feel distress at the thought of change, the second category of suffering. On one hand, I’ve often looked forward to certain change; starting a new and exciting job, moving here to San Francisco to be near my brother, feeling my endurance improving during marathon training. Positive change, of course, is easy to accept. Negative change – not so much!

Last year, right before Covid, I sold my mom’s house, the one I grew up in, and moved her into a condo. The prospect of letting go of my childhood home was fraught with attachment to a sense of familiarity and safety, and the fear of losing a tangible touchstone, a direct path to my youth. The thought of never again being in that house made me feel unmoored years before it was put on market. Losing that physical connection to my childhood, my youth, filled me with deep sadness, and dread.

Impermanence is the most fundamental characteristic of life, yet humans long for the comfort of an unchanging familiar. We cling to the idea of permanence as if we need those external anchors to stabilize our sense of ourselves. And my heart clung to the idea of that house.

What helped me, over the course of nearly six months and several visits to help mom pack, was to take videos of the house, the property, the neighborhood, the road I ran on almost daily for nearly a decade, all while talking about the thoughts and memories and feelings those places conjured. I still have hours of recordings on my phone, working through all of my internal expectations and emotions that made me cling so powerfully to this house, this object. And I discovered that the pain was not about the object itself, but all of those memories and feelings I attached to it. Letting go of the house felt like letting go of my past, which I realized of course was not true. And with that realization my feelings shifted, loosened. Changed.

That’s not to say it was easy when the movers packed the last box, and my mom and I got in her car to drive to her new home. But I felt, acutely, the impermanence of things – of external objects – and understood quite viscerally the fluidity of my own emotions. Just as much as things around us change, things within us change. Everything changes. Everything is changing. Always. And in that moment, as I drove up the driveway for the last time, I was present with change, with the movement of time, with the beautiful mutability of life.

Category three is a tough one, and I would be lying to say that I’ve even touched the surface of it, but here goes.

“The suffering of being alive” – the suffering of our humanness – is sometimes described as background suffering, suffering that is just there. It’s the fathomless unsatisfactoriness of mere existence, which in itself exists because of mere existence (try to wrap your head around that one!).

Covid and the effective shutting down of the world for many, many months forced me, as it did all of us, to face this “mere existence”. Stripped of everything that gave me a sense of self in the world – my work, my interactions, my travel, my socializing, my yoga classes, everything – I was faced with the prospect of just…being. And there is an inherent underlying dissatisfying nature to the conditions of the world we inhabit.

I think that we all have those points in life where we aren’t questioning any particular event or state; but rather, we look up to the sky with an existential “why?”. And I guess the best answer is simply (and ambiguously) “because”. And although I think it’s contingent on ourselves to define that “because” in some meaningful way, I think that, fundamentally, the “because” is simply our existence itself. I know that feels like a circular argument, but isn’t that really the nature of life?

A few night ago I watched a documentary on fungi (“Fantastic Fungi”, HIGHLY recommend). It was fascinating on so may levels – biological, psychological, medicinal, philosophical – but the biggest takeaway for me was the existence of the mycelium network that branches beneath the surface of the earth. It’s essentially an immense underground network of fungi filaments that connect plants together, almost like a kind of botanical internet that transports water and nutrients and chemicals to keep trees and plants alive and communicating with each other. Yes, communicating with each other. It’s kind of amazing and profound and too much for me to explain, so watch the doc.

Mycelium allow plants to share resources, to funnel nutrients to those in need, to send chemical signals warning of attack from insects. It runs between different species of plants; scientists believe that 92% of all plants on earth form a mycorrhizal relationship in the soil. It is everywhere. It connects everything.

Why do I bring up fungi?

On one level, I think it’s beautiful because it shows us the value of sharing resources, creating efficient ways to move them, and forming close, mutually supportive partnerships. But on a more profound level, it shows us that the natural world is quite literally all connected. Nothing is separate from anything else. It is a united entity.

And that is powerful. Because, as creatures on this planet, we’re part of that natural world as well, and if most of everything growing on the earth is somehow connected – well, by the transitive property (and more technically, by ingesting those things growing on earth), WE – we humans – are all somehow linked. We are literally – not is some ethereal philosophical way, but in a grounded, material way – all connected to each other.

When I question the “why” of mere existence – the challenge of simply being alive – I think of the mycelium. I think that we are never alone. I think that the filaments of all humankind are intertwined with mine. I think that whatever “it” is, we’re all in it together. And that helps me to be at peace with uncertainty, with pain, with impermanence. With suffering.

Just one more

Early on in the pandemic, as the first lockdown dragged on, I relied on daily routines to give me a sense of safety and stability. Waking up at the same time every morning. Writing a post for this blog. Going for a run in the park.

Pouring the first glass of wine after dinner.

Alcohol consumption has risen over the course of the last 18+ months; a survey conducted this February by the American Psychological Association found that nearly one in four adults reported drinking more to manage pandemic stress. The increase is notably higher for women, which is problematic in that because women metabolize alcohol differently; similar quantities of alcohol affect us more adversely than men.

In non-pandemic times, drinking was most frequently a social activity – the happy hour with colleagues, champagne at a birthday party, a bottle of wine shared over a beautiful meal. Covid changed all of that; drinking – and solitary drinking at that – became a coping mechanism.

People drink to alleviate anxiety, depression, the prickling stress of uncertainty. And while it may temporarily calm the fight or flight surges in our amygdala, alcohol is at its core a depressant. We may feel some temporary relief and relaxation, but it ultimately increases our distress.

My relationship with alcohol started quite early. My late father was a wine connoisseur who allowed my brother and I a few sips of wine regularly, starting when I was 9 or 10. Early exposure (and some fantastic vintages) soured me on the amateurish drinking I witnessed but in which I rarely took part during my teen years; for my peers, drinking was an enticing forbidden world. For me it felt old hat – it held no draw, no novelty.

Alcohol was a casual acquaintance through my early 20’s. As any young person, there were of course instances of excess – exuberant New Years Eves, house parties with my music conservatory housemates, overindulging at a favorite martini bar. Occasionally, it was a way to unwind after a particularly stressful day, but even then I was wary of feeling any reliance on that first drink, of feeling that a cocktail was a need rather than a want.

Drinking took on a different tenor in the year proceeding my wedding, particularly as I distanced myself from my father. Perhaps at some point I’ll be able to write about this need for distance itself. For now, suffice it so say that I needed to pull away, and that in itself caused me deep anxiety, and alcohol stepped into a more prominent role in my life.

My husband and I moved to a wonderful little apartment in a lively part of Philadelphia, across the street from a bagel shop, a Peruvian restaurant, and an Irish bar, O’Neal’s. We were both freelance musicians with jumbled schedules and jobs that sometimes took us hours outside the city. O’Neal’s became a comforting source of consistency, a familiar place to frequent on those nights when my husband was out on a late gig. Adding to those solitary hours was the deepening anxiety over my father, and it’s no surprise that the shot of Jamesons and that first pint of Guinness held more and more allure.

10 months after I got married my father jumped off the 16th floor of his office building with a picture of me in his pocket, and my life was forever changed.

To say I was traumatized doesn’t begin to describe the sudden and extreme sense of utter instability into which I felt plunged. The evening I flew to my hometown of Honolulu for the funeral, I remember sitting with my brother in the kitchen of the house we grew up in, drinking glass after glass of wine as we wrote our eulogies. Everything felt out of control, but the feeling of wine as it entered my system – that was familiar, understood, and somehow safe. At one point I felt nearly out of my body, looking down at the two of us at the kitchen table, empty bottles between us. I’m not sure how we could string sentences together on paper, but we did.

Statistically, women more than men are more liable to use alcohol as a means to cope with anxiety and depression, and that was certainly my case; alcohol could temporarily soften the cutting edge of anxiety and briefly fill those hollow spaces of sadness resonating in me. But at the same time, while I’d experienced depression and mild hypomania in my early adulthood, in retrospect it occurs to me that the heightening of those symptoms coincided with the aftermath of my father’s suicide and the sudden escalation of my drinking. Bipolar and alcoholism often present together – both can be tied to genetic predispositions – a complicated topic for a later time.

I spent the first few years after my father’s death skirting the borders of alcoholism; drinking wasn’t a daily ritual, but close. It was a predictable component of my weekends, which often featured binge drinking (generally characterized as more than 4 drinks in 2 hours for women) after concerts. I could easily toss down a six pack, or four vodka martinis (with a twist, not olives), or the second bottle of wine.

I would anticipate that first post-gig drink for hours. At first came the radiating warmth as I gulped to the bottom of the first glass. Then came that loosening of the spot between my shoulder blades, the imperceptible drop of my shoulders. And after that, the soaring sensation of everything around me lifting, gliding upward. And finally, the beautiful numbness, the world fuzzy around the edges, a jumble of sound.

I was put on antidepressants around the same time, and years later the older, responsible me cringes at the bad judgment, and the danger of combining medication with heavy alcohol use. There were a handful of instances in which I was close to black-out drunk, stumbling home on the narrow brick sidewalks of the historical area of Philadelphia. Too ofter I awoke on our couch, my eyes gritty, a half-eaten slice of pizza from Lorenzo’s (open until 2:30 am) on the coffee table, my arm still in a coat sleeve and the steely taste of last night’s vodka in my mouth, on my breath. I frequently didn’t remember how I got there.

Waking up like that, with a headache like a vise crushing my temples, weekend after weekend (and on an occasional Thursday) was unfortunately no deterrent to the binge drinking; more captivating were those moments of blissful numbness when I felt nothing at all, relieved of the burden of my emotions. During those years, when my husband was away on his regular Christmas Eve gig, I developed a solitary tradition; crossing the street to O’Neal’s for a shot and a pint, and then another shot and another pint. And another. And then I didn’t feel so alone anymore.

The bell of the church down the street tolled midnight – Christmas, my father’s favorite holiday – and through my haze I would lay a wad of bills on the bar and crunch across the snow to our apartment, fumbling the keys with fingers that refused to work.

It took nearly five years, but a move to a different city and a more regular work schedule helped disrupt that pattern. We bought a starter home, contributed to our 403(b), established some security in our livers – and bit by bit the binge drinking lessened. The heavy drinking of those first years of marriage, in retrospect, exacerbated the bipolar symptoms that emerged during that time, and pulling back from alcohol tempered both my depression and hypomania. I entered several years of relative stability, both in my drinking and in my mental health.

In 2011 a summer-long tour with Sting precipitated a descent into eating disorders (read more about that story here) which was soon followed by severe depression, punctuated by brief periods of hypomania. I may have been starving myself of food, but I allowed myself alcohol, which I more and more frequently imbibed in increasingly copious amounts.

Drinking of course always made everything worse, even if it seemed a momentary relief. And my chronically empty stomach and withered frame meant that the effects of alcohol were intensified. I would hold off on drinking for days and days (lots of calories in alcohol, after all) as my anxiety rose exponentially. And when it became too much to bear, I would take the precipitous tumble into the comforting pool of inebriation, not realizing that I was slowly drowning.

Depression begat binge drinking which begat depression. My brief periods of mania were frightening in their heightened emotions, so I drank to quash them. My dwindling daily energy was dedicated to maintaining the illusion of normalcy in my work life; few people knew the depths of my despair, and my dread of the uncontrollable punctuations of panicked hypomania.

But yet again a move to a different city marked the beginning of another behavioral shift. I started seeing a therapist that I really liked. I was closer to family. My work became more wide-ranging and meaningful and took me to fascinating cities around the globe. I began writing more, and launched my first blog. Excessive drinking was still a feature in my life, but more and more it felt like a troublesome habit and not a need.

The final nail of the coffin was a correct diagnosis of bipolar (I write more about my experience here ), and the resulting awareness and medication began to mitigate the worst of my symptoms. Slowly, drinking lost its primacy as a maladaptive coping mechanism; I was learning to manage my emotions without it. The pull of alcohol as savior and solution has receded into a past horizon.

Drinking and I have reached an uneasy detente. In times of stress, and when I sink into depression (which, while far milder, is still a permanent fixture in my life) I begin to hear the distant siren call of excessive drinking, the insidious enticement that if a drink or two is kind of nice, then 5 or 6 will definitely make me feel better. I acknowledge the impulse, and on most days reject its fallacy. Now I aim to drink to celebrate, not obliterate. I don’t drink alone.

The post-dinner glass of wine in those early days of lockdown mostly stayed at a single glass, even as my husband and I, together on our couch, tried not to doom scroll, in near paralysis over the crushing anxiety of that initial uncertainty. But I didn’t need it then; I don’t need it now. It doesn’t solve anything. And tonight, as I contemplate an evening cocktail with friends, it occurs to me that I haven’t had a drink in nearly two weeks .

And tonight, I know that I’ll be OK. That I don’t need a drink to shut out my life. That I’ll never need just one more.

Fatigue

A few months ago I was able to conduct maskless in front of a maskless orchestra. This week, with the Cincinnati Symphony, I’ve donned my mask again, as have the strings and percussion sections. I can’t see everyone’s face again – nor can they see mine. The little bit of normalcy I was finally able to experience at work has yet again been taken away.

It felt like we were collectively on the right track, moving towards a future with some sense of certainty, only to be thrust back to where that hopeful horizon again seems a distant blur. And to have that bit of expectation, of hope, yanked away again is not simply frustrating, but disillusioning.

I think we’re all battling that sense of fatigue; hope is energizing, and the loss of hope feels as much a physiological let down as it is an emotional one. And I know that I’ve found it increasingly difficult not to be pulled back into the defensive crouch in which I spent a great deal of the last 18 months. Which has led me to ponder, how do I move forward? How do I make progress when the world seems to be regressing?

A wonderful mindfulness teacher once told me that fostering feelings about what should or should not be happening keeps us from accepting things as they are. And I’ve been thinking a lot about this a lot the last few weeks, as I’ve been lost in my “shoulds” – we should be in a better state, we should be moving towards higher vaccination numbers, there shouldn’t be a record number of Covid hospitalizations, my friends in the medical field shouldn’t be thrust back into the frantic despair of the beginning of this pandemic.

Yet here we are.

At one point I felt that letting go of shoulds/shouldn’ts meant I was giving up on a better future. Accepting the present as it is doesn’t feel aspirational – it’s hard not to think of it abandoning the possibility of improvement. But I’ve realized that I was approaching it the wrong way.

The same teacher told me that every moment is a moment of evolution, and I think everything is contingent on this truth. Because accepting our present as it is doesn’t imply a static state; it simply means that we are moving through the present, moment by passing moment, and moving to all of the upcoming moments that hold the possibility of change.

The present may be challenging, but the only way to move forward to accept it as it is, because it’s this acceptance that allows us to move forward. When we are grasping at our “shoulds”, we are stuck in the sense that our lives betraying us. We are static in this constantly frustrated state. And that’s a painful – and exhausting – state in which to be.

I’m exhausted of my exhaustion, and so I’ve decided to focus on the things immediately at hand; planning for tomorrow’s rehearsal. Feeding Pinkerton. Spending a few minutes stretching because I never seem to stretch enough, and I have 10 minutes now, right now, in this present. And feeling connected to this continuous cascade of moments slows me down enough to let go of my anger towards the world, to accept that regardless of the choices that have brought us to this point we are still at this point, and that we still need to live through today.

And so today, after a long day of work, I feel tired, but not exhausted. I feel that I’ve at least shifted the needle from my neural groove of my frustration, and that I’m ready for a different tune.

Musical Mindfulness: A harmonious practice, session 1

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-cq4jy-10d7aa4

Music has often been used as a backdrop to a mindfulness practice; this series uses it as the sole focus. When we open our ears to each sound, each note, as it leads to the next, we’re able to slow our thoughts and bring us back into ourselves and to the beauty of each moment.

Join me in a mindfulness practice as we explore the gorgeous sonorities of the cello and focus on a selection by J.S. Bach. 

Movie magic

Last week I did something that I hadn’t done since February of 2020; I conducted a live-to-film concert. (ie, a movie shown with a live orchestra playing the entire soundtrack. For those of you who have never been, I can’t recommend it enough – it adds immeasurably to the movie experience!)

Live-to-film is my specialty as a conductor, and if 20-21 were a normal performance season, I would most likely have spent 10-12 weeks on these kinds of shows. They are my bread and butter. I can’t express to you how much I’ve missed doing them.

I have over 30 films in my repertoire!

While I really enjoy these concerts as a performer, what brings me true gratification is seeing audience members in the concert hall (or in this case an outdoor amphitheater) who have had little or no previous exposure to live orchestral music. The whole orchestra experience is foreign, and they aren’t entirely sure what to expect. But invariably, when we start to play, people are absolutely thrilled by the glorious sounds emanating from the stage.

And the audience that night was thrilled. The movie was Toy Story, with an absolute delight of a score by Randy Newman. And as I glimpsed the elated faces as the orchestra and I faced the applause, I was struck how much I missed creating moments of joy for others.

Humans are communal creatures, yet 21st century culture has us spending less and less time gathering in person – I often say that religion, sports and music are the last communal activities left to us. And of course the social isolation of the pandemic has exacerbated this separation from each other. We need to be together to thrive.

I’m often told “oh it must be so wonderful to do something you love”, and I don’t deny that making music is deeply fulfilling for myself, personally! But it is also an act of service, because our charge as musicians is to craft moving and meaningful experiences for our audiences. Live music provides the space for celebration, for contemplation, for illumination, and creating this space is both the most essential function and the greatest satisfaction of us artists.

These last 18 months have been an extraordinary challenge on so many levels, but losing these moments of joy and reflection and connection has been by far the most crushing. And to witness this possibility again last week – it’s impossible to express how exhilarating it was for everyone present, both onstage and in the amphitheater. The evening was clear and cool, the film tugged at our hearts, the music was full of life, the energy was palpable. We were together, and for those two hours, everything was right with the world.

Musical Mindfulness

Hi friends, and sorry for the spotty posting – real life has indeed become busier and made it a bit more challenging to keep up with virtual life!

That being said, as we all attempt to transition to more in-person activities under the shadow of the delta variant, we’re continuing to experience that same sense of stress and uncertainty that has plagued us (pun intended) for the last 18 months. I’ve been working on ways to support our collective mindfulness and mental health, and I’m delighted to announce the first episode in a YouTube series I’ve been meaning to create for months.

Musical Mindfulness uses music not as a backdrop to a mindfulness practice, but as the focus. As musicians we talk a lot about flow state – a sense of being hyper-present as music continuously unfurls. It’s wonderful when it happens, because of the sense of both grounding and freedom. Musical Mindfulness is an attempt to create a similar experience as we listen to music, by being aware of each moment as we encounter it, and each sound as we hear it.

Check it out below, and send me your comments as I continue to develop this idea!

Daring dairy

I was filming an interview a few days back and a questions was posed about the tension between divulging personal struggles and maintaining an image as a public person. Did I ever feel pressure to present a “pasteurized” version of myself?

I rather loved that notion of personality pasteurization – a “process of partial sterilization making the product safe for consumption and improving its keeping quality.” What a perfect description.

What does it mean for any of us to be “safe for consumption”? That we fit a certain mold, that we maintain a sense of decorum, that we keep the more complex and controversial elements of ourselves out of the public eye?

And what do we mean when we talk about safety? Avoiding any possibility of offense? Negating challenging emotions? Keeping ourselves contained so we don’t spill over into someone else’s psychic space?

For many years it was difficult for me to discuss my mental health challenges. To be fair, part of that was because I was often too far into depression to be able to have any sort of objective view of myself. But a lot of it hinged around wanting to appear strong and controlled. Depression felt like a weakness, a flaw.

Although it took me longer than I would have liked, in the last few years I’ve fully accept that acknowledging every part of myself – even those parts that felt challenging, fragile, less than perfect – was critical in feeling like a complete, integrated human being. The shift was in approaching everything with neutrality, of not attaching any judgment or value. Mental illness is not a failing on my part, simply a reality, something that exists in me, something that I live with, something with which I’ve made my peace.

And so it’s become very straightforward for me to discuss the inner workings of my mind, in all of its intricacy. It doesn’t make me better or worse, or stronger or weaker. Instead, it’s utterly liberating, and I can’t recommend it enough. So my invitation for you today: dare to be unpasteurized.