Studio Samsara

the creative process

I found this on Francis Prève‘s Facebook page.  To this I would add step 7, “I am awesome,” and then step 8, “Go back to step 1.”  Then it would be an even better representation of what I like to call “Studio samsara.”

The Buddha used the term samsara to refer to the endless cycle of birth, aging, sickness, and death that beings get stuck in, generating suffering through many lifetimes.  In the culture I grew up in, people tend to read this as a reference to previous and future lifetimes that they don’t really believe in.  We tend to read birth and death in the most narrow sense, as the day when our mothers delivered us and the day we draw our last breath.

But the Buddha’s understanding of birth and death was more subtle than that.  We go through many cycles of birth and death in between the day we were literally born and the day we literally die.  We know this is true on a molecular level, but it’s also true in ways that modern science can’t measure quite so clearly.  What I like about this image is how it captures what science cannot define in succinct form, and shows those of us who do creative work how we create suffering in the process.

Working on a creative project brings a flood of reactions to raw sensory experience – to the sounds in particular, in the case of music.  You can react to the same sounds as pleasant, (awesome), unpleasant, (shit), or neutral, (tricky,) all within a single recording session or performance.  Every time I’ve ever worked on a project, I cycle through these impressions countless times. Sometimes, the strength of the pleasant impressions seem to lead directly to the force on the unpleasant ones.  A marriage of opposites.  Based upon these immediate reactions, a chain of thoughts arise.

First, as it says in the image, is a thought like “This is awesome,” “This is tricky,” or “This is shit.”  This is already a cognitive distortion in itself – the sound is just what it is, without any evaluation needed.  But the real sticking point is when we form a construct like “I am awesome,” or “I am shit” based on that judgement about the stream of sound itself.  We take birth when we move from “This is awesome” to “I am awesome.”  We feel exalted, though we have arrived somewhere, achieved something, become somebody.

The problem is that the root of that birth is a fleeting perception of the sounds as pleasant.  The Buddha taught that all sensory impressions, including the impressions made by thoughts in our minds, are impermanent conditions that are inherently unstable.  To attach to them as “me” or “mine” drives the wheel of samsara.  We take on that instability.

The above list shows this in cliff notes form.  It’s the same song, give or take a track or two.  But one minute it sounds great, and the next minute we hate it.  When the first impression changes from “awesome” to “shit,” it triggers a cognitive chain that leads to the death of the person who was born when we thought, “I am awesome.”  Out of the ashes of that death, a new person is born when the thought  “I am shit” follows from “This is shit.”  We feel dejected, deflated, angry at the song for failing to provide a constant source of pleasant feeling.  We move into a new identity that all the world – or at least our immediate colleagues in the studio – can see, much to our horror.

Hanging around music I’ve heard and seen lots of versions of this.  When I saw the documentary film Nothing Can Hurt Me about Big Star, it didn’t surprise me to read that Chris Bell was found in Ardent Studios in Memphis erasing the master tapes to the band’s first record after it flopped commercially.  A few scenes earlier I’d seen an interview with his brother where he described being moved to tears when he heard that very same record before it came out.  I bet Chris felt that way too when he shared it with his brother.  It’s the same record.  The extreme difference between the reaction to hearing it can be very disorienting, because we have identified ourselves with it so closely.

I was in a record company meeting once where the label’s representative talked about the lead singer for The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, a band that was one of the main artists on their roster at that point in time.  (1998 ish.)  She described being backstage with him at a concert and hearing him say continually, “I’m Elvis – no, I’m shit!  I’m Elvis, I’m shit! I’m shit, I’m Elvis. I’m Elvis, I’m shit.”  His sense of humor about that cycle was impressive, but you could hear the pain of the familiar roller coaster too.

Later that year I ran into Nate, the band’s guitarist, at a concert at the Green Street Grille in Cambridge.  Nate was the first baseman on my little league team, and I enjoyed reminding him of our days on the Dodgers.  I told him that I had heard one of their hits during a World Series broadcast, and we talked about how weird that felt based on a similar experience I had hearing one of our songs during the pregame show to an NFC championship game.  He shook his head in a really cool way.  A year later Lou ran into him at a festival show and Nate said, “Yeah, you can come check out our show if you have time.  You know, we have our thing and we’ve been doing it for awhile.”  Lou said he was impressed that Nate didn’t sound like he was too high or too low about what he was doing.  I think he had a sense of how fleeting it all was.

A few months later Lou commented on hearing Natural One after not having heard it for quite some time.  “I didn’t like it – I didn’t like the way it sounded, and I didn’t like the way it made me feel.”  He seemed to practically shudder.  I remembered how elated he looked the day we made that song at Fort Apache and Cambridge.  I could relate to both experiences because I’d been there myself.  I saw the same swinging back and forth with respect to my “comeback” record Spare Parts that came out last year.  It was brought into even more stark relief by the fact that I hadn’t put out a record in a baker’s dozen years.  I think it helped me take it a little less personally, though it didn’t change the experience in itself very much.

The most helpful thing I’ve found when navigating the steps of this process is to return from getting caught up in thoughts like “This is awesome/This is shit” or “I am awesome/I am shit” by shifting focus to the question, “What next?”  This seems to reduce thinking, or papaňca (conceptual proliferation) in Buddhist terminology.  It’s much easier for me to decide what the next step needs to be while working on a record than to figure out whether it’s inherently good or not, or which side of that fence I myself have landed on.

The late Thai monk and Dhamma teacher Ajahn Chah once traveled to give a lecture near the University of Oxford during one of his first trips to the UK in the 1970s.  As it happened, the dhamma talk was delivered next door to a rock club.  A teacher I studied with, Thanissara, was present on that occasion, and just starting to explore her interest in Buddhism.  She told us that it was pretty much impossible for people in the audience to hear anything that Ajahn Chah said because of the deafening sounds coming from the club next door.  At the very end of the talk, the concert stopped.  Ajahn Chah smiled and said, “Now, did those sounds disturb you?  Or did you go out and disturb them?”

The implication was that if you could look at your reactions to the disruption of your expectations in the light of the Buddha’s teachings, you wouldn’t have missed a thing at the lecture, even if the last sentence was the only one you heard.

So when I step into my little home studio tomorrow, I’ll try not to disturb whatever I hear.  But I probably will!



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