“Dynamic stabilization” is a term that I recently learned from watching “Art of Motion” pilates videos on YouTube. I love this term because it is about being centered in the midst of constant flux, living in a reality that is moving in time and ever ready to respond to the ambush of rogue thoughts. It is the essence of performing well. It is, perhaps, also a means to a higher end.
The pandemic has introduced the term “brain fog,” the opposite of performing well. Whether it’s exacerbated by an overload of electronic devices, or an excess of sugar, or the shock over our common denominator falling so low that civility is no longer even expected, brain fog is a slow curse. To combat my own brain fog, I have been listening to talks on education and health. One successful professional speaker talked about spending all his spare moments (such as commuting) listening to nonfiction audiobooks rather than listening to music, implying that music is not a valuable way to spend his time. That made me sad. In a society that prioritizes productivity, why should anyone bother listening to music?
Multidimensional experiences seem to have been intentionally made scarce by the combination of social media (so well illustrated in the documentary “The Social Dilemma”) and the designers of smartphones. Today’s technology is so effective at stealing my attention and reducing my awareness into pixels or sound bites, that despite my protests I still turn involuntarily to this capitalist pied piper. I struggle to maintain my childlike wonder in a modern world that no longer has a direct cause and effect, and is intentionally too opaque to fathom. Even as the pandemic is coming to an end, disruptions such as internet outages force me to make constant contingency plans on the fly. I worry that one day I will stop trying to fight against the constant bombardment of interruptions and just become a zombie without will power. While I have the immense luxury of doing exactly what I want with my life, clarifying my mission and my next steps, and working with people I admire, too often I worry about the immediate future. As my daughter put it, the flip side of seeing that a goal is achievable, is the expectation that it will be achieved at all costs. One huge cost is losing our multidimensional sensations of being alive and being connected to others.
The hardest part of managing a household and a business at the same time is that everything is so time-sensitive. To coordinate the various tasks into one schedule is almost an art form in itself. It is this sense of scarcity that flattens my day into "what can I accomplish before I get distracted?" It takes a lot of energy and practice to keep a space for myself in the midst of constant, global, dynamic changes. The positive thoughts are just as destabilizing - I wake up with a million little ideas that I scribble down frantically to get out of my mind. I care too much about each of them. I feel frazzled until I find the right place and time for each thought or task, until I create order out of chaos again. So, I choose to slowly release my desire for order and turn to face the “not yet” state of reality.
Our country has made significant progress in the past few decades to explore the emotional frontier, led by pioneers including the president of Yale University, Peter Salovey, and continued by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence led by Prof. Marc Brackett. (See my book review blog.) These days, the new frontier is our nervous system and our bodies. Neurologists are writing books on everything from controlling anxiety to criminal justice reform, and the realm of music theory is expanding into how the body responds to listening and making music. Too often missing from the conversations on the intersection of education and health is an emphasis on creativity. What I love about being human is not just the ability to be aware and to be meta about our awareness, but to then create wonderful alternative times and spaces in our mind. To connect with them emotionally and physically through our breath, to play with our agility to respond, and to adapt in multiple ways. When kids daydream or play house, they are connecting with their imagination and creativity. Making up a story or a piece of art “empowers” our spirit, as opposed to a guided visualization meditation that “restores” our spirit. The abstraction we find in music is not just an antidote for anxiety but a tool to create space - a space for making intentions of where we want to be mentally and emotionally. If each of us can imagine multiple outcomes, think of how much more we would be willing to collaborate and connect with others, and how we could reframe the “win or lose imperative” into “artful cooperation”. Cooperation requires a baseline of creative thinking skills.
A complicating factor to experiencing reality is that, like most people I know, I unconsciously have issues to avoid, and I am very focused on avoiding them. There are those unwanted thoughts of having to compare myself to everybody else, and the nastier thoughts of other people comparing me to everybody else. We as a country are so successful at avoiding unpleasant feelings that our democracy is in crisis. The podcaster Sam Harris believes that shameless politicians become popular precisely because their followers want to be absolved of their own guilt, especially when juxtaposed with the judges of a cancel culture (who are also avoiding guilt). The poet and author David Whyte brings up a lament that honesty is often used as a weapon, and that we don’t always own our “close and necessary relationship” with not wanting to know the truth. Don't let other people define me, I remind myself. I would propose that we need creativity and imagination even more than ever, because we need to envision a bigger, more generous version of ourselves than reality has shown or would predict.
Listening consciously to the many dimensions of great music, music with design and form and written after years of refinement and contemplation, is an activity that I hope we would all do to stay in shape creatively. The arts that happen in the space of time challenge us to experience the different sizes, shapes, and colors of, well, space and time. We can explore multiple lines of sound, elements like rhythm and harmony, and emotions that happen either separately or simultaneously. We can choose to turn our focus from this to that, and with one giant breath, take in a bundle of reality all at once. Without any permanent consequence, and without a “if you fail you didn’t try hard enough” Darwinian mindset. This one giant breath for mankind is the kind of lucid “state of being” experience in which I often find my stability. It requires a tremendous focus from not just the composer and the performer, but also the consumer – the listener. The abstraction of music facilitates this superpower of intuition. Give it a try. Listen to a single musical chord, keep it in your mind’s ear, and just stay there until you find your creative space. Feel free to mentally alter it, to play with it.
These are the ideas riding my train of thought as I put the finishing touches on my upcoming live webinar series, “Midday Musical Moments,” in June and July. I am striving to connect education, arts, and health, which are the three branches of programming at the Yale-China Association, my sponsor. As a family friendly outreach program, it will be “welcoming and playful.” As an artistic presentation, it will also be “deep and slow”. That is the challenge of sharing musical experiences in an intentional way, while dealing with the surprises of live streaming and connecting to the Chinese-American, classical-pianist, and compassionate-educator sides of me. Luckily, once the show starts, there will be nothing left to do but dynamic stabilization, with multiple dimensions. Countdown 3…2…1…
Hsing-ay Hsu ©2021 June