Untitled, for Steve (2008/2012)
I wrote this piece as a gift for Steve Pavlina in December 2008, and revised it some three years later.
In mid-2008 I was beginning to realise how much I’d been living in a fog. It took catching glimpses of clarity to understand the fog was even there. There’s an old saying about a fish not knowing it’s wet, because it’s lived its whole life in water. It wouldn’t know what it’s like to be dry. I didn’t know what it’d be like to live with incisive clarity.
I was just starting to be honest with myself about my lifelong desire to write music professionally. I had written a string quartet, Farwell My Good I. Forever, which was as it turns out the last work I ‘needed’ to write to convince myself that the tiny number of great pieces I had composed over the years were not flukes, but proof of a permanent, reliable talent.
This is the thing about fear. It’s plain irrational. You can do something wonderful, but still focus on how it was luck that made it turn out well. And you tell yourself, you got away with it that time, better not to tempt fate again.
It’s true that you only encounter what you need when you’re ready for it. I was clearly ready to discover Steve Pavlina’s great essay The Courage to Live Consciously. It read like it was written just for me.
The analogy of a mouse really hit home with me.
The essay describes someone who lives by society’s definition of safety and security: have a ‘good’ job, be in a relationship regardless of whether it brings happiness, take no risks unless there’s a virtual guarantee it’ll pay off. But all the while, there’s a little voice in the person’s head, saying there’s a more fulfilling life to be had. And the voice won’t shut up. So this person silences it with watching TV, working long hours, addictions like alcohol, caffeine, sugar or sex.
“But”, Steve writes, “whenever you do this, you lower your level of consciousness. You sink closer towards an instinctive animal and move away from becoming a fully conscious human being. You react to life instead of proactively going after your goals. You fall into a state of learned helplessness, where you begin to believe that your goals are no longer possible or practical for you. You become more and more like a mouse, even trying to convince yourself that life as a mouse might not be so bad after all, since everyone around you seems to be OK with it. You surround yourself with your fellow mice, and on the rare occasions that you encounter a fully conscious human being, it scares the hell out of you to remember how much of your own courage has been lost.”
In Steve’s article was the first time I read the famous sentence from Ambrose Hollingworth Redmoon’s No Peaceful Warriors! – “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than one’s fear.”
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that courage and fear could – and should – peacefully coexist. For as long as the spiritual beings that we are are having a human experience, anyway. Not only is it fine for both to be present, but because growth only happens at the edge of your comfort zone, truly new experiences only happen at the interplay of the two. All my life I mistakenly assumed that courageous people feel no fear. I learned instead that fear is the true compass showing you where you have surrendered power that’s left for you to reclaim.
I read several of Steve’s other essays, on everything from entrepreneurship to subjective reality. They prepared me for the other inspiring people who would show up in my life. And I liked the person he was, down to his being a science fiction nerd (me who fell in love with classical music on account of The Empire Strikes Back‘s soundtrack).
In gratitude, I wrote this piano piece. Then I asked Steve permission to send it to him (overpoliteness does no harm, I always say). He replied enthusiastically, so I sent it. And received this response.
“Thanks so much for sharing this, Lyle. Honestly I think it’s beautiful. Listening to it put my mind in a relaxed, alpha state. Your piece gives me an image of someone walking through a fog, looking for clarity.”
The accuracy of that last sentence was uncanny. As much as the fog was lifting at the time, it was still there, and he sensed it. I knew that before I published the music, I had to do something about that aspect.
So in January this year, I made some very simple but important revisions.
What I know now that I didn’t know then was that I was a little afraid of how beautiful I could make music be. This sounds strange, but I was embarrassed by the beauty in my music, and I would ‘tone it down’ before presenting it to people. Does this sound strange? It should. Yet as Marianne Williamson wrote, “It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us…. Playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.” I was afraid that the beauty I could express would make others feel unsafe. And I was afraid of how people would react when feeling unsafe, that they could misunderstand the beauty and mistake it for a calculated effect, like a cheap trick to tug on the heartstrings.
Beauty is a very intense thing to experience. It makes me feel vulnerable. And to receive beauty, I have to unshield my senses, leave them wide open, so that anything at all, from ecstasy to hurt, can touch them. I think this is why people will cry when they experience great beauty, because they suddenly know how good it feels to be touched. The state of perceiving beauty can feel perilous, but there’s no other way to perceive beauty.
As an artist, the greatest courage of all is to say what’s on your mind. In my case, it’s writing what I want to hear myself say, not what I think others want me to write or say. The greatest courage is honesty, which leads to authenticity, which leads to beauty.
When I came to revise this piece of music, I removed the fog and replaced it with clarity; I replaced a fear of how beautiful my music could be, with that beauty itself.
I’m not sending this revised version directly to Steve. But I think he’ll notice.
Postscript: Not formally trained in music, Steve recently completed a 30-day trial to learn to write music. I’ve heard some of the results, and speaking as a professional composer, I’m impressed!
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