Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance.
– Wynton Marsalis
Last July I began taking harmonica lessons, learning how to play the blues. It has sparked an exciting new passion for me and provided me with a creative outlet that has been an invaluable tool to help support my well-being during this ongoing pandemic. Here we are in February, a month notoriously cold and dark and known for bringing on the blues within. Will playing the blues on my harmonica counteract the blues felt inside my body or add to it? Time will tell I guess.
I’ve become increasingly interested in learning about my experience with hard feelings and how I deal with them. What is trying to present itself amidst the bouts of challenges in my life, the ebbs and flows of suffering? What’s trying to reveal itself through these practices that help us ground, achieve calmness, strengthen our abilities to focus and concentrate, build open heartedness, and release us from our gripping onto the judgement of self and others. All that time, energy, and effort that we dedicate to support our well-being, be it on the cushion, in running shoes, through diet, therapy, yoga with goats… it’s lots of hard work! What’s the big picture here?
Almost 20 years ago I sustained a life-changing spinal cord injury that completely altered the way I move around the physical world. For years afterwards I unknowingly kept my emotional pain, grief, and sadness at bay by busying myself with work and boozy social engagements, an unconscious distraction technique. It didn’t work well. The busyness modality had allowed me to numb my suffering but it came with a price. My relationships with myself and others lacked depth and authenticity. Then one day about five years ago the door on the over-packed storage locker burst open and its contents were revealed. Years of accumulated items that I didn’t know what to do with or want to deal with spilled out onto the bare concrete floor of awareness.
Around that time, a friend introduced me to meditation and I attended my first Monday night CEC gathering. That milestone marked the beginning of a new and different way of life for me, a directional adjustment and re-calibration that now included the feeling realm and a curiosity to explore it.
This curiosity brought me back every Monday night and inspired me to connect with other wacky communities studying different and equally wacky meditative practices. Most meditations at that time would leave me feeling confused and I remember feeling particularly baffled after a weekend long “awakening the third eye” workshop. Yeah, I was generally feeling a sense of calm and groundedness after my meditation practice but I was also holding onto some questions deep inside. What was the point of all of this work? What the fuck does the light being projected on the back of my closed eyelids mean?!
I asked these questions to the facilitator of the weekend workshop and his response was… “Answers will come to you”. Um, thanks. I thought that maybe I wasn’t asking the right questions or perhaps the “answers“ are only privy to those with the key to the door of the secret underground Bavarian illuminati meeting room. Were the facilitator and maybe even Jeff Warren members of the illuminati? The Bavarian illuminati.
But as I continued my practice my curiosity grew and my scepticism decreased. Especially after… IT happened. An answer finally came to me, a so-called “insight”.
It didn’t happen while meditating, which was interesting, but while telling a friend about my life-changing crash. I had told this story a kabillion times but suddenly there was a different feeling tone to the storytelling. Normally there would be a tone of sadness, tragedy, guilt, and shame, but not this time. Instead there was a sense of perfection, magic, awe, wow’ness, and beauty. I had been met with the understanding that any slight variation to the speed, angle, temperature, lighting, soundscape, and mood at that moment almost 20 years ago and I wouldn’t be who I am, writing these words. There was a quality of gift giving, gratitude, and joy. Confusingly incredible.
What had happened to allow for such a profound insight to land?
In my opinion, the calm, presence building, concentrated focus and sense of groundedness that often meets us in our meditation practices is akin to tending to a seed that we’ve planted in a pot, giving it water and putting it in a warm sunny place. We are courageously choosing to tend to our hard feelings, our blues, our suffering. If it feels safe we patiently get closer, sit next to, and put our arm around the pain, fear, anger, anxiety, shame, or guilt that lives within. The seed starts to sprout and reach up out of the soil towards the sunlight and we get to learn how much water and warmth it likes. Leaves start to form and new branches extend out of the original stem. With stability, verticality, and readiness a blossom forms and soon after it opens into a beautiful flower, a flower radiating acceptance and joy, imbued in a rich quality of wisdom and meaning. Whoa.
The tools and practices we employ to help support and promote our well-being, be they musical, meditative, contemplative, creative, active or ingestible, open us to recognize and receive the insights that emerge. Sometimes in surprising ways. What I had originally thought was just a simple noise making toy, the harmonica, is actually incredibly complex. Inhaling and exhaling through each hole vibrates respective delicate brass reeds that create specific musical notes. Altering tongue positions and intensity of the inhale or exhale through a hole can bend its reed in a specific way to in turn bend the note played, and when assembled together skillfully can create a bluesy sound. It’s not easy but I’m committed and will welcome the month of February with a (maybe horrible) rendition of harmonica legend Sonny Terry’s Beautiful City. Holding my harmonica up to my mouth with one hand I will put my other arm around my pain. I might get a firm elbow delivered to the side of my rib cage, an insight telling me to play something else, or not to play anything at all. That’s cool, I will wait for the answer to come.
*Luke is co-founder and Executive Director of Toronto’s StopGap Foundation, working with communities across Canada to raise awareness about the importance of accessibility, inclusion, and barrier free spaces.