(Posted by Rob)
There I was, dangling from a cliff on a burning rope over a pit of tigers. I looked off to one side and there, growing from a crack in the rock, was a bramble bush. I reached out a hand (why worry about falling now?) and grabbed a berry, scratching my hand slightly on the prickles. How vivid the berry tasted. How much more alive I felt when this present moment was all I had, when the inevitability of death was not just a theoretical truth but RIGHT THERE.
That’s the way the Zen Buddhist parable has it, anyway. Of course, I’m not a proper Zen Buddhist. Not the bowl-of-rice-porridge-and-thirty-blows-from-the-roshi-with-a-stick-every-morning kind of Zen Buddhist. Not even a practising-sitting-meditation-thirty-minutes-a-day Zen Buddhist, though I did that for a bit and still meditate sporadically (these days usually walking meditation rather than sitting).
In fact, most of the time I’m not any kind of Zen Buddhist, though the part of me that grew up on Kerouac and Ginsberg would love to be able to claim I was. But sometimes – just occasionally – “living in the heart of the moment” has been more than a line from an Al Stewart song, and “Be Here Now” more than a disappointing Oasis album. Just a few times I’ve had a glimpse of what life might be like if I simply got out of my own way. If I stopped thinking of myself as an individual, personal ego wrapped up in a bag of skin and bones, and managed to identify myself with the whole of reality. No me, no you. No “me” being born, no “me” to die. What it would be like if I let that greater reality (call it God if it makes you happy) – which manages to grow my hair and push shit through my bowels without any conscious intervention from little “me” – take over the rest of my life, and the illusion that is Rob Saunders just would just shut the fuck up.
How very mystical and airy-fairy that sounds, as though I sat there going “OMMMMMM” and fasting while pondering the secrets of the universe until I became a Perfect Master. And how far that is from the reality (heh – the reality of reality). As it happens, I can tell you what it was like. As in so many of my blog posts, dear reader, the answer lies in music.
Let me take you to a rehearsal hall in Stockbridge, Edinburgh. Date: some time during 1999 or 2000. We are at a rehearsal of the Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra, and I am leading the second violins (the lovely Emma had yet to join us). We run through a piece (I forget what) with no unusual occurrence. Then we come to the main item in the programme, which is Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. No need for me to describe it in any detail: it’s in two movements, technically quite challenging, and I’d played it once before some years earlier. The important thing isn’t anything to do with the sharps and flats, or the tricky counting. It’s that as we start playing the music, I begin to have the strangest feeling that I simply cannot play a wrong note. I can not go wrong. I certainly am not in fact playing any wrong notes: the music is coming out perfectly, the best I’ve ever played. And it isn’t “me” doing it. I am there, watching with fascination, but the music is…it seems a cliché, but let’s go for it: the music is playing itself. It lasts all the way through the first movement, and also the second. It lasts through all the stops, starts, and running over things that make up a rehearsal. And when we reach the end of the Sibelius and play something else? Back to “normal”. Back to “everyday reality”. I play OK, but it’s Rob the Bald Guy doing it, not The Force taking over.
And for all the other rehearsals of the Sibelius, and in the concert itself? Same story. Only for that one piece, but the instant we start playing, “I” vanish.
When I describe the feeling it sometimes feels pretentious to use Buddhist metaphors, as though I’m trying to give myself airs. So sometimes I say it’s like something out of “The Inner Game Of Music” (which it is). Or perhaps I use a jokey Star Wars analogy (as I did in the last paragraph). Or I describe it as like an out-of-body experience except that I hung around to watch. But that’s just window-dressing, to cover up the fact that if I’m honest I haven’t a clue what was going on. It felt as though some…..thing…. that knew much more about the music than I did had taken over for a while, as if on the dual controls in an aircraft. I was still completely aware of my surroundings, of the sensations of playing, of the sound; “I” just wasn’t interfering with them. The eminent Japanese Buddhist D T Suzuki described enlightenment as “exactly like normal life, but a few inches off the ground”, and that hits the mark. It felt: scary; exhilarating; wonderful. I wanted it to carry on, but it only happened for the one piece. Every time I played it, but only the one piece.
I often wonder what will happen if I come to play the Sibelius Fifth Symphony again. Some smart Buddhist (maybe Suzuki again) once said that much of mankind’s unhappiness comes from the doomed attempt to make reality repeatable. I know I shouldn’t expect a burst of cosmic consciousness the next time, but human nature being what it is, I suspect I will be disappointed if this time it’s just like playing any other piece. Like a child who hasn’t fathomed why last time he turned on the TV it was the Teletubbies, but this time it’s the news.
So I wait, and I wonder.