Music and spirituality are intricately related. When I’m in a funk, I generally feed into it and make it worse. Once we are in a rut it is easy to continue the spiral downward. I’m good at admonishing myself for lacking gratitude when I feel this way. It might be a Catholic guilt thing. But what I’ve discovered, once I gave myself permission to acknowledge it, is that music is a significant source of spirituality for me. In fact, it is the greatest source.
A few days ago, I was in a dark place; but this time I tried to own my sadness, acknowledge it, and let it go. The only thing I could think to do in hopes of shifting my emotions was to put on music – something up beat that would allow me to transcend the moment.
I listened to a live version of “Stay” by The Dave Matthews Band, a song about embracing the beauty of our lives and the idea that those moments where it feels like we are just wasting time are often our most precious; the ones that allow us to connect with each other and ourselves. It was the “sermon” I needed — and an important lesson my uncle taught me — but more on that shortly.
Music & Spiritual Experience
I often say that I think music is the sound of my spirit — our spirits. As I started writing this, I struggled with finding the words to articulate the feeling music provokes within me. There is little else that creates such an indescribable experience; one that is felt physically, emotionally, and allows a transcendent moment. It seems appropriate to describe it as sacred and is where I find connection to spirituality.
Music invokes spirituality. It has the ability to convey messages of greater meaning that can unify and allow us to recognize one another’s humanity. A song is a shared story, an opportunity to know we are not alone, and to learn from one another. It can be perceived as a prayer, a prophetic message, a call to action, and a life philosophy.
For me, music has always been a source to cope with suffering, connect deeply with others, and celebrate or observe significant moments. It invokes nostalgia and can carry us to a place that allows us to re-experience meaningful times we might not recall in the same way. For instance, I recently received this message from a friend about a moment we shared in high school…twenty eight years ago.
I laughed and cried at the same time as I read it and found myself back in that moment — two teenage girls laughing, dancing, and singing to one of our favorite songs that played over a speaker in the town square. Without the Doors, hanging out with a friend on a bench one random evening would likely had been forgotten.
I love that Joan Baez points out that so many of us are stuck in the daily grind. She asks: “All of us alive are survivors, but how many of us transcend survival?” Music can take us there. It takes me there. I can’t always articulate it, but I know it when I feel it.
Music as a conduit of spirituality makes sense to me. I’ve come to define spirituality as that which is life giving and connects us to one another. Engaging with our spiritual selves gives us the opportunity to do more than simply survive the daily grind. It enables us to find joy in those moments we sometimes overlook and offers the ability to experience sacredness within our relationships with ourselves and one another.
Too often we discount our physicality in favor of a spiritual after all. While music allows us to transcend, we are not transcending our bodily existence; but instead, it empowers us to experience the spiritual as physical beings. It reconnects these two aspects of ourselves that we sometimes pin against one another; and in doing so we recognize ourselves as sacred and become whole.
Music, Spirituality, Creativity & Connection
I’ve never thought of myself as a creative person. But a shared love for music inspired me to attempt to make a gift for a dear friend — who is also an artist. I wanted to create something that represented one of our many bonds. Although I feared the end result would look like a kindergartner’s project; I decided to at least try. I found that engaging in creative practice around music was cathartic and I’ve started making sound wave art from songs that are the “sermons” I’ve needed to hear. I’ve listened to them more times than I can count, I just didn’t know how to process them.
When I visited my uncle in hospice I wanted to take him something meaningful. I wanted to put the time and effort in so that he would feel my love for him. I didn’t know what music he liked other than to guess it included “the oldies” and I spent a lot of time thinking about what song would be fitting in a moment where words generally fail us. I finally decided on “Over the Rainbow” by Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole. I chose this because it was my mom’s favorite song — his sister — and their cousin knew IZ in life and has a strong spiritual connection to him. That said, I wasn’t even sure my uncle had ever heard it.
Within moments of beginning to work on the piece, my uncle sent me a text message of a picture of himself wearing a lei and playing a ukulele that read, “Look, I’m just like IZ on an island in my own paradise.” I cried. God was there.
The next day I went to see my uncle and gave him a framed image of the sound wave art eager to tell him about the timing of his message. He looked stunned and asked, “how did you know?” I wasn’t sure what he meant. As I held my uncle’s hand he said to me, “this is my very favorite song. I listen to it every day.”
Forever the comedian, my uncle has always been known for making everyone laugh. He told me that as he sat and looked out at his yard, the garden he and my aunt spent so much time caring for over the last forty years, and all that they created with their two children, he finally realized that what sometimes seemed like wasted time produced the most precious moments in his life. He said, “I always thought that laughter is the best medicine. I was wrong. Love is the best medicine.”
In my dear uncle, I saw God. And so, when I listened to “Stay” in my car, I thought about him and I felt the spirit of the infinite within me.
We experience our spirituality in so many different ways. For me, music is where I find life giving energy and a connection to the people in my life. As with all social structures, when we try to fit into a defined framework we stifle all that gives us life. We cannot force a connection with God through a faulty conduit. What is important is that we affirm ourselves when we find it — when we feel it. Embrace those experiences, name them for what they are and recognize that you are sacred and the divine – whatever that means to you – is present.