We caught up with her before the workshop to discuss art as a spiritual practice and the pervasive sense of busyness that so many of us seem to feel these days. Monk was in New Mexico when we spoke by phone in late October. She spends time on her land there every year, to escape from the activity of New York City, compose music, and meditate.
You’ve written about music as being able to conjure the unnamable and going beyond language. So, um, what should we talk about?
[Laughter] Well, I love to write, too. And in my life when I’m not on stage, I really enjoy conversation and the power of words. But in my work with the voice, I’m trying to find a more universal language. The voice is a very direct connection to different shades of feelings. It’s a primordial kind of instrument. I think that’s why we’ve been able to tour all over the world all these years. Music is very direct. We don’t have to go through the filter of language and lyrics for people to get an emotional experience from it.
Instrumental music has that same power, a kind of universal appeal. It’s not as particular as anything is that’s dealing with narrative. It allows each person to have their own experience of the music.
In your workshops you explore the voice as practice.
Yes, because I’ve never really felt that there was a separation between art and life. My meditation practice and my art practice seem to have become even more woven together over time. Much of my meditation practice is connected to the breath, and the voice is an extension of the breath. When I was up in Gampo Abbey, I taught monastics ways to embody the breath into the voice. It helped with the energy of the chanting. Breath is a bridge between the body and the mind.
Can you tell me about the structure of these workshops?
I start with a regular sitting meditation practice for about ten minutes. Then we do some walking exercises in the room to energize the space in a way that involves the body before we add the voice to it. Then we do a very simple physical warmup for the whole body, then a vocal warm-up. In this process you really start to realize that space is an ally.
Then I’ll often come back and work on very fundamental vocal gestures, like rhythm, sustained notes, sustained tone, different kinds of textures, and different ways of using the voice. This allows each person to discover what it is that they have within them. Later in the day we usually sing together, which is a whole different kind of experience. I always say, if you can just hear yourself singing, then you’re singing too loudly. So while singing with other people, you actually learn how to listen.
Then usually in the afternoon we work more improvisationally—with images, characters, sonic landscapes, and what I call archetypal songs, which are song forms that exist in every culture, such as lullabies or work songs or songs of grieving.
So all these exercises are not classical Buddhist practice exercises, but I think that all of them have something to do with openheartedness, being awake in the moment, trusting yourself, centering, and aligning.
When we talk about art and practice, do you find that there is some tension between developing focus through self-discipline and then also being playful and open in the moment?
I think the performances that I remember in my lifetime are the ones where I have experienced a sense of pinpoint focus and then, at the same time, the deep relaxation that comes with being able to accept anything that happens in the moment. It’s a combination of openness and pinpoint focus. But that’s within the performance situation, which always has an elevated sense of energy. You’re on a tightrope, basically, and you are very vulnerable. I think the beauty of those performances is that there was no tension between the openness and focus in those moments. They were both happening at exactly the same time.
But you can also bring this balance into your daily life and your creative process. Creating something involves being patient with yourself and hanging out in the unknown. Speaking for myself, even after 50 years, I’m still just terrified with every piece that I start. I’m basically fumbling around in the dark. I might have a little intuition about where something should start, but I really don’t know where I am for a while, and so there’s an accompanying sense of anxiety or fear.
When you really are patient with yourself then, at one moment, a little discovery might happen. You might find a little seed. And then, little by little, that fear turns into curiosity and interest. In the process, you’ve really walked through fear. I’ve always felt like that process is something close to meditating. You have to keep coming back to it and keep your balance in the process. If I’m working on something, then the next day I’m looking at it again, which is very much like being on the meditation cushion.
It’s not uncommon for people to describe their spiritual experiences in terms of transcendence, of getting above and beyond their daily circumstances and mentality. Do we overemphasize these awesome experiences at the expense of ordinary day-to-day life?
I don’t know if we overemphasize awesome experiences, but I really feel that what we need these days is wonder. We need to have experiences of wonder. And sometimes wonder is just looking at something that you look at every single day of your life in a new way. You might see it for what it really is, what you’re usually missing.
I don’t really want to create pieces where everything is going up, in terms of transcendence. I want to create pieces that are multidimensional, that provoke the sense that maybe you haven’t heard something in this way before, or there’s magic or a kind of mystery. And yet, though these feelings are heightened during the performance, when you leave the concert hall or the theater, you might notice something mundane that you never noticed before.
I do feel like we just are walking around asleep most of the time. There’s so much going on that we’re not noticing the details. We’re so wrapped up in our own stories and obsessions that we miss some of that magic. What I want to do is offer people experiences that allow them to rest in wonder.
Everyone I know seems to be insanely busy.
Oh, it’s everybody. It’s me, too, you know. I always have the sense that I can never catch up. We’re all living in this state of overwhelm. I’d like my artwork to be a kind of antidote to this, where a person can rest their mind for like an hour and a half. Because I think the speed and fragmentation in life are making it difficult for people to dive into and concentrate on something for a while. And again, this is where meditation practice comes in, too.
So not only are creating art and meditating similar practices for you personally, but you want your performances to be contemplative experiences for the audience.
Sometimes I feel like a dinosaur, but, yes, I actually still believe in the healing power of art. I think it does have that power. You can have an experience and you can call it transcendent or just something that changes in your mind. You leave feeling very enriched, then maybe you’ll go home and want to try to think about your life in terms of having more experiences like that. Or it might bring up memories, or subtle feelings that support us in not always giving in to all of this speed. Gary Snyder calls our tools “weapons of mass distraction.” We’re an addicted society now.
It seems like we’re moving faster and faster—and producing more and more—even as we enter an age of environmental catastrophe and resource depletion. Why can’t we just lay low, use less, make art, and meditate?
I think it’s partly that economic demands have increased. But I also think that it is these tools, these devices, start using us instead of us using them. A few people are really making a fortune from many people’s addiction to these devices. When I talk in colleges, I always say: We’ve all been had. There’s nothing wrong with the devices themselves, but they just grab onto you and are portals to another reality. There’s no way that any of us can ever keep up with that. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.
I’m still trying to figure it out. I mean, that’s why I come out here for two months every year. It’s like going cold turkey from this incredible speed and demand. I just don’t know what else to do, so I just basically go away. Is this the way that it always been? I don’t remember it being like this.
Do you think you have to leave the city in order to slow down?
My nervous system can’t survive without solitude. That’s how I connect to the essence of myself. Without periods away from the busyness, I start short-circuiting. In the city we’re just so disconnected from our inner worlds. We’ve been bombarded on every level by people trying to get our attention.
Then again, I remember years ago when Trungpa Rinpoche was alive, he was giving a talk at Naropa and somebody in the audience said, “I can’t meditate because it’s too noisy in New York City.” Trungpa said, “Think of the sounds of taxis honking as monkeys in the jungle.” He was saying that one can meditate anywhere.