The Courage to Sing

The Courage to Sing

Emily is singing the chant solo to the Kirtan workshop participants. She is also one of the participants, but it is her turn to sing the Call. Emily has a lovely voice. She knows the chant by heart. She sings the Call beautifully. We then sing the Response, repeating what she has just sung. We sound pretty good, even though some of us can't carry a tune or stay on the beat. Not so long ago, I would have been one of them. But this workshop is not about perfection, it's about using your voice to get out of your head. It's about sharing your voice in community, about finding your inner truth while chanting in a room filled with erstwhile strangers. This is the kind of crazy stuff that regularly happens at Esalen Institute.

I am up next to sing the call after Emily. This is a weekend workshop:  Friday evening through Sunday morning. Not a lot of time to get to know someone very well. In spite of that, close bonds are formed during a weekend at Esalen. Emily and I have gotten to know each other a little bit over the course of the weekend - she has told me some of her fears as well as some hopes and dreams. This is a place where people come to be vulnerable. To explore their fears. To live on the wild side for a change.

 David Newman doing what he loves.

David Newman doing what he loves.

I came to Esalen to relax - I know it well and find it restorative and transformative. There are only two workshops available this weekend, one on shamanism, and one called Awakening Through Love. I knew something about the leader of the shamanism class, having read and enjoyed one of his books. But for some reason, I chose this one with David Newman, a man totally unknown to me. Based on the description in the course catalog, I think we are going to be exploring spirituality through meditation, or something along those lines. I know that if it sucks, I can just hang out at the baths, hike in the woods, read, sunbathe, get a massage, or look for whales. Not a high-risk proposition in my book.

But now it is my turn to chant the call. My eyes are closed. Actually, many eyes are closed, but it feels like I am naked on a stage. Singing was not something I was encouraged to do as a child, except at church. My first exposure to singing in community was probably in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School. Southern Baptists are all over the school thing: teach your children well, and they won't go to hell. You may laugh at this, but let me tell you about the sign in front of the Church of Christ in Lubbock, Texas, where I lived for a time. Their message for the week was, "If things are going well, perhaps you're on the road to hell."

Even though my mother could play the piano, and even though she sang at church, she really wasn't that good at carrying a tune. I knew that even as a young child. But I couldn't tell whether I could carry a tune. It wasn't until middle school that it was made clear to me. I was standing in the back row of the church choir next to the father of one of my friends. When we finished the hymn, Joe leaned down and whispered in my ear, "Richard, when are you going to start singing the notes?"

I never sang in the choir again. I was too embarrassed and ashamed. Now, to be fair, it's not all the responsibility of my friend's father that I chose to stop singing in public. There was a lot of shaming in my household. Part of making sure your kids don't go to hell is making sure you don't spare the rod and spoil the child. To be really sure you don't spoil your child, it's best to make sure he is humiliated and beaten on a fairly regular basis so he does not become uppity.

There is a lot of wisdom in this approach. When I was in public school, it was quite common to punish children by beating their hands with a ruler, or by paddling their butts with a board while bent over in front of the class. My mother would regularly beat me with a belt. Surely she learned the power of this from her mother. Only the extremely defiant and self-resilient refuse to waver under such an assault. The rest of us turn to anger, resentment, depression, or some combination thereof.

Even so, it is ultimately my responsibility that I chose to stop singing in front of others. My mother wasn't even in the picture when most of my opportunities to sing in public presented themselves. I chose to believe what my body had learned: if I fail, if I stick out, if I am noticed, if I let my true nature show, I will be punished and humiliated. And punishment will be swift and furious. Logically, that is nonsense. But the part of my body's nervous system that keeps me alive and breathing believes it, and my more modern (in an evolutionary sense), cognitive brain has no power over it. So, as my turn to sing the call has approached, I have started sweating bullets.

And I have started shedding Bhakti tears. David has talked to us about Bhakti tears. Said he has shed quite a few of them. Says they are healing. My tears started early in the chant, soon after the first person sang the call. Perhaps I am touched by the bravery of these people. Several of them have spoken of their own shaming experiences that led them to choose silence over singing. Perhaps I am moved to tears when Juan sings the call off-key and off-tempo. Throughout the workshop, his sense of timing has been spectacularly wide of the mark. What is bold and bracing is that he does it. It wasn't required. He could have passed, simply by touching the knee of the person to his left. But he chose to share his voice with us, in all its unmusical glory. This speaks to me of him caring more about us than about whether he can sing, or whether someone might laugh at him, or write about him.

Juan is not the only one in the group whose sense of pitch and timing will forever keep them off Broadway. Yet, everyone has chosen to sing rather than take a pass. This is one brave group of humans. I am moved to tears again and again, as each one sings. Through it all, I have been struggling with my emotions. At times I am overpowered and can't sing the response. But, at other times, I can sing, and it doesn't sound awful. For this, I must thank Angela Winter. She is a voice coach and friend. I have had four or five lessons with her over the last couple of months. These lessons have transformed my voice and my life.

At my first lesson with Angela, she worked only on teaching me how to breathe. Turns out, most of us don't breathe naturally. A natural inhale begins low in the abdomen, not far from what Eastern culture knows as the power center or Dan Tien. She works on teaching me how to connect with and use the part of my body below my rib cage. As it turns out, this is the part of me that is most locked up with the emotions of shame, rage, humiliation, powerlessness, confusion, and fear. Somehow the ancients knew that to destroy someone's sense of self-esteem, the power center of the body must be energetically mutilated. A beating with a belt on a naked butt is an effective way to do this.

But this is a voice lesson, so Angela asks me to make noises as I learn to breathe. Silly noises. Horse lips. Sirens. Motor boats. This is exactly the sort of thing I do not want to do. Being child-like in front of an adult peer is not my idea of a good time. Don't get me wrong - I know the power of humor, so being silly in front of adults is something I can do when it suits my purpose. But what Angela wants me to do feels like an act of insanity. It seems designed to bring up all those ancient fears and humiliations. And it does. As I do the exercise, I am overcome with emotion. My throat locks up. Tears stream down my face, threatening to flood the room. Angela puts on her life vest. I reach for a tissue.

This sort of emotion occurs at every lesson I have with Angela. Sometimes it is the emotion of anger being released, other times it is simply relief at finally getting in touch with the parts of me that I have buried deep and held in check. This latter emotion seems to result from feelings of hope - maybe I can sing, after all? And then there are the times when I have no idea what the emotion is about. But it doesn't matter, because what I have noticed after these lessons is how much better I feel, how much my voice has changed, how much more relaxed I am around my wife and friends. At the bottom of this newfound relaxed state is the awareness that I am finally beginning to believe in and trust myself at a level that has so far eluded me during my adult life.

Back at Esalen, it is still my turn to chant the call. Throughout the chant, I have been teetering between being paralyzed with emotion and actually having some ability to hit the notes at the right time. I have noticed that Angela's silly little exercises have taught me a lot. So much so, that I have actually enjoyed the workshop. I have made a lot of new friends, and have had many interesting conversations. But the workshop is nearly over and David has chosen to give each of us this opportunity to share our voice with the group. He's done hundreds of workshops and seen the magic that can happen when one puts one's voice into the air for others to hear. Each of us gets to make this choice: do I risk whatever I believe is at stake and put my voice out there, or do I play it safe and pass?

That afternoon, after the workshop is over and after lunch, I’m talking with David. He compliments me on my participation in the workshop, and says he enjoyed hearing my voice when I sang the call solo. I smile and tell him that I just wanted to be within shouting distance of the notes and not screw up the timing. He laughs and tells me I did great. Later on, while recalling this conversation, I realize that I lied to David. What I really wanted to do when I sang solo was to show up for myself, to honor the part of me that is coming back to life, the part that was suppressed by violence and shaming. To give that part of me its true voice, and to share it with my new friends so they can hear and see the real me.

“Can you see the real me, can you, can you?” 

David Newman 

Angela Winter

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