Songwriting and the Dharma: wake me up before you go-go
By Jim Infantino
I started writing and playing songs on my guitar when I was 13 as a way to express my teenage frustration and sadness, and as a way to become popular. To that end, I wrote mostly humorous songs, or breakup songs. And to a large extent, this has not changed.
Songs have a direct access to the mind that is unparalleled. They simultaneously engage us intellectually, physically and emotionally. TV shows and movies cannot engage us in the same the way. In fact these media require music to give their stories the proper dramatic impact. Unlike TV shows, or motion pictures, songs can turn our everyday humdrum world into something dramatic. A walk to the gym, and an hour on the treadmill can become something heroic, or tragic, or funky, or sexy, or funny with the right playlist on our iPod. A bus ride becomes a scene from a movie in which we are the stars, and everyone around us is an extra.
Songs are like candy for the ego.
And I write them. I’ve written hundreds of them, most of which I would gladly play you if you asked, some of which I would not, or could not. Some have mercifully fallen from my memory. Some I can’t get out of my head sometimes.
There is a fantasy shared by many of the songwriters that I know, that writing songs is like panning for gold. If you just come up with the perfect song for the right demographic at the perfect time, you can become rich, spending days by the pool, cashing the royalty checks as come in. The fantasy is fueled by true stories of this kind of success. We know some of these success stories by name. We have heard them on the radio, we hum their songs in the shower. Some of them bask in the spotlight, traveling around the world to entertain thousands of adoring others. Some of them are more anonymous, leasing their creations to more popular performers. This fantasy has driven me to drive to Nashville, and fly to LA, and back to NYC, to hock my tunes before bigwigs, hoping for the nod of approval that will start my fantastic career of being absolutely, undeniably special.
12 years into my life as a singer songwriter, when I was 25, I met a girl named Molly who’s mom, Nancy had been very close with the original sangha in Vermont. Molly had grown up, on and off at Karme Chöling, and she had a big picture of the Karmapa on the wall of her South Boston living room. She told me all about growing up Buddhist in America, meeting Chögyam Trungpa as a child, attending warrior’s assembly as a teenager. I was intrigued. I grew up in Manhattan, around all kinds of people, but had never met an American Buddhist. I began to read - starting with Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and then Shambhala: Sacred Path of the Warrior. I visited Karme Chöling, and spent time listening to Molly and her mom Nancy tell of their own experiences with meditation. I started practicing as much as I could manage, and wrote a song called “cut off your head” a teasing, and humorous songs about how hard it was to get over your own neurotic tendancies. I had always wanting to write songs that were not just a means to temporarily make “ME” the center of the universe. I wanted to write songs that would nudge this way, and then pull that way - with humor and gentleness, but never allow you to get lost in a fantasy without pointing back to the here and now.
I suddenly saw many of my past songs in this light. I was writing these dharma songs for years without a context in which to put them. A song I had written a few years earlier, “Stress” was a funny tune about forever keeping busy, at an increasingly insane pace. The song showed a person stuck in their suffering, comfortable in an unbearable situation, and yet, it could be any of us, living in the modern workaday world. A song about suffering became a song about liberation from suffering, because we could see it, and identify with it, and then point, and laugh. Another song called “the world of particulars” was a song imagining a time between death and birth, and viewing one’s sadness from that perspective. More somber in tone, it was trying to coax open the heart, encourage a softer approach to personal pain. I had found a mission for my art. It was possible to write songs that could gently shock us more awake instead of lulling us into a self-centered delusion.
In a music world full of candy, I wanted to write spinach.
And mostly, that’s what I’ve been trying to do. I am certainly not the first to try this - and I am by far the most successful at it. Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Laurie Anderson, Elvis Costello, and Jane Siberry are all examples I turn to for inspiration. Everyone has their own list. Songwriters that help open our hearts without encouraging us to shut out the world.
In the same way that no song can pull us kicking a screaming from our cocoon without our willingness, any song can be used to help us become more mindful, if we are willing to hear it in that way. For example, Lady Gaga’s lyrics to “again and again” - a song about longing, desire, and addictive behavior, could seem different to a dharma practitioner, than to someone who feels less stuck in Samsara:
Again and Again, again, again, again, again,
Again and Again, again, again, again, again,
never stop — oh
You may laugh, but doesn’t this capture the desperation to put an end to our suffering, by feeding our immediate desires, even though that end is only temporary and has to be repeated over and over and over, and never fully satisfies? Honestly, I don’t think I ever captured that kind of raw truth in any thing I have written or sung. And then again, perhaps it is easier to see the dharma in one of Leonard Cohen’s lyrics from “the Faith”:
The sea so deep and blind
The sun, the wild regret
The club, the wheel, the mind,
O love, aren’t you tired yet?
The intention of the songwriter is more clear to us. First off, we know that he is a practitioner himself. We know that Mr Cohen would like us to awaken more fully. And Leonard Cohen listeners tend to be the sorts of people who hear it this way. But that says something about the limits of how much any song can really effect us. Each listener will hear their favorite songs as calls to mindfulness only to the extent to which they are inclined. We songwriters are simply powerless providers of variously sweetened opportunities.
One thing I notice in my own practice, is that the more time I spend on the cushion, the less time I spend with earbuds in my ears. The sounds of the cars on the street near my apartment grab my interest more and more. Listening to other people speak, the sounds of birds or the wind are much less background than they used to be. I walk to the bus, and take the ride without a soundtrack now. I’m a little less eager to be swept away into a new dramatic score than I used to be. Still, I keep finding things to write about, and I still want to write about this life. So, shall we have another chorus about the indescribable suffering of suffering?
One more time, with feeling.
Jim is a singer, songwriter, and rockstar geek who lives in Boston.
Read Jim’s blog and learn more about his rockstar activities: JIMINFANTINO.COM
Article originally from the Boston Shambhala Center’s Community Life News Blog