music

‘Yoga meditation music helps cats relax’

Cats relax better if they are played yoga meditation music. When they are unwell, cats become less stressed when they listen to relaxing music, a study shows.

Student veterinary nurse Sian Barr carried out the research on cats being treated at a vet’s surgery.

She found that those who were played yoga meditation music and “Om Shanti” tunes calmed down and began to breathe more slowly while in cages at the practice in Powys, Wales, reports the Telegraph.

Barr, who has just graduated from veterinary school with a first class honours degree, said: “Stress in small doses can be a good thing, such as if a cat is under stress to eat, then it can perform better.”

“But otherwise, it will have a negative effect, such as in a veterinary practice,” Barr said.

“This is because a cat is in a cage and isn’t able to do what it will like to do, so stress levels will increase and it will become angry,” she said.

“This is bad for not only its behaviour, becoming difficult for staff to handle, but also for its immune system and ability to heal,” Barr said.

Barr, of Waterlooville, Hants, studied cats when they were first admitted by assessing their ear and eye activity, how they were communicating and respiration levels.

The 21-year-old then split them into two groups, only one of which was played the relaxation CDs.

She added: “I then repeated the test after 40 minutes and was able to assign each cat a cat stress score.”

“By comparing the scores, I found the music had a dramatic effect on respiration rates, with those exposed to the music decreasing to a relaxed rate much quicker than those not exposed.”

[via South East Asia Mail]
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Moby on meditation

Moby has spoken out in favour of Transcendental Meditation, or TM, as it’s often abbreviated to. He explained that he had avoided it for a long time because it “scared the shit” out of him, saying “I thought that TM involved ritual animal sacrifice and moving to some country and renouncing wealth and materialism”.

He continued: “One of the things that impressed me so much about TM when I finally learned it was its simplicity. It’s a simple practice that calms the mind… and the thing that won me over about TM, apart from having my hero David Lynch as its vocal practitioner, was its effectiveness. Nothing else helped me quiet my mind and go to a calm, centred place. The thing that makes it effective is you don’t have to do all that much, and, as a profoundly lazy person, I appreciate that”.

CMU Music News

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Mindfulness and authentic creativity

Every time Sunada watches Bobby McFerrin or Yo-Yo Ma perform, she’s left in awe. It’s not just their amazing musicianship, she says. What uniquely comes through in their music is their generosity of spirit and totally engaging way of expressing their individuality. As a musician herself, she muses on what it takes to cultivate that kind of open-hearted spontaneity and creativity.

I recently read an interesting discussion that’s given shape to my thinking on this subject. It was about the difference between spontaneity and impulsivity. While the two terms are often used interchangeably, there are some subtle but important differences.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, “spontaneous” means

  • Happening or arising without apparent external cause; self-generated.
  • Unconstrained and unstudied in manner or behavior.

To illustrate, it uses this quote from Woodrow Wilson: “The highest and best form of efficiency is the spontaneous cooperation of a free people.” So the implication is that a spontaneous act is something positive that expresses one’s higher nature.

The same dictionary defines “impulsivity” as:

  • …a sudden urge or feeling not governed by reason

Even more telling are the synonyms I found in the related thesaurus: brash, foolhardy, hasty, ill-considered, impetuous, rash, reckless, and unconsidered!

Spontaneity arises out of studied mindfulness.

So, yes, both spontaneity and impulsivity are about unplanned, in-the-moment actions. But the implication is that impulsivity is a reaction to something, and arises from an irrational place ruled by our baser emotions. Spontaneity, on the other hand, arises on its own from a deeper and nobler place. It’s governed by reason and experience, but is still perfectly natural and uncontrived. I get an image of someone who is fully present, and able to marshal his knowledge, skills, experience, and values in the moment as a springboard for a focused and creative response. In short, spontaneity arises out of studied mindfulness.

So there are some clear parallels to meditation here. Impulsivity is the product of our ordinary reactive mind. Anyone who meditates knows that this is what our minds are like more often than we like to admit. It’s like a runaway train, spinning off on its own stories and daydreams, obsessing over self-centered desires and fears, or just plain chattering away for no apparent reason other than to occupy itself. Most of the time it’s operating in this mode without our awareness, sitting in the driver’s seat of our lives! (YIKES!)

Now seriously, would you want to settle for this lesser side of you as the basis for your creative endeavors? For those of us for whom our craft is synonymous with an expression of who we are, we want and expect something much more of ourselves.

I believe that the mind is also inherently creative. The more we can get out of the way, the more it works its own magic.

But how we do that? Obviously it’s a contradiction in terms to TRY to be spontaneous. Again, I see a lot of parallels to meditation. When we meditate, we can’t make our minds calm down on command. But we can set the proper conditions – i.e. step back and allow our minds to return to their natural state of calm. The less we interfere, and the more we trust in the mind’s inherent ability to do its own thing, the better off we are. I believe that the mind is also inherently creative. The more we can get out of the way, the more it works its own magic.

And how do we set conducive conditions? First, it’s really important to start by tuning into our bodies and settling in. Particularly if you’re engaging in a physical activity like playing an instrument or dancing, it’s vitally important to stretch and liven up one’s energy. But there’s another reason. If we slap dash jump right in, we’re still caught up in our reactive, impulsive mind. By taking the time to slow down and mindfully turn our attention to our physical bodies, we bring ourselves more fully into our present experience. We settle into a quieter place beneath the chattering mind and touch a deeper core within us. This brings us closer to our totality as a person – including our bodies, perceptions, and feelings — and all the richness they hold.

Our life experiences and values, and all the intuitions and emotions associated with them reside much more as inchoate inklings and gut feelings, not neat words or concepts. Our hearts and bodies know things at a level that our heads cannot. So creativity needs to begin with a foundation of opening ourselves up to all these things. We’re preparing the fertile soil for our creativity to arise.

Our hearts and bodies know things at a level that our heads cannot. So creativity needs to begin with a foundation of opening ourselves up to all these things.

Next, it’s critical to tune into our hearts. When we sit down to do something creative, chances are we’re arriving with a lot of extraneous baggage. We may be stressed out, maybe anxious over deadline pressures, or perhaps tired, bored, and lethargic about this task that we need to get done. Anyone who practices a musical instrument daily knows that it can seem like a real chore at times.

But these are all objections from our impulsive mind. So let’s stop and ask ourselves why we’re doing this in the first place. I do it because I love it and can’t imagine life without it. How can I reconnect with that inspiration every time I sit down to practice? How can I get back in touch with the warm and vital humanity within me that wants to create? What’s helped me is to shift my thinking from “I have to practice” to “I’m going to sing the music I love.” See the difference?

Thirdly, while practicing I find it really helpful to focus in on my senses and stay as openly curious as I can. As a singer, I can pay attention to the vibrations in my throat and body as I sing, or experience in detail the qualities of sound within my voice. I know a painter who lovingly feels each brush stroke as it works the canvas. The idea is to bring our attention fully into what we’re doing, without adding any extra judgments, interpretations, or effort. Just stay 100% present to what’s happening.

What’s the point? When I stay intimately engaged and yet refrain from trying to “do” anything in particular, a different side of me starts to come forward. I’ve had times when the feeling tone of my voice prompted me to shape my phrases in a new way. Floating the lyrics on top of the natural ebb and flow of my breath gave it more life. Neither of these were conceptual ideas that my mind decided to “do”. It’s as if my body wordlessly and instantaneously knew and just did it.

Paradoxically, it seems that the times I stop trying are the times when I’m at my best. All the ways I struggle — trying to get it right, be perfect, do it beautifully — are ways my impulsive mind muscles in and gets in the way. If I just step back and be simple – i.e. just sing — that’s when things start to happen. I’m told that’s when I’m most engaging, authentic, and seemingly most comfortably who I am. Mistakes and imperfections? Well, that’s all part of the package of who I am right now. It makes me more real and human, I’m told.

Ultimately, I think that any creative endeavor is a form of meditation. It’s about staying completely focused on what you’re doing, free of distractions. But at its best it’s also about being so relaxed and open that your true inner nature shines through. My music and meditation practices have informed each other for years. Both continually challenge me to nurture that higher being within me and bring it more out into the world.

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A creative encounter in the Vortex

Jazz player Vajradaka looks back on a meeting in a smoky Jazz club and explores the mystery of empathetic communication between artist and audience.

I once had a chance encounter with a jazz musician that had a big effect on me and characterized some of the important qualities of living a creative life. At the time I was living up in the hills of Wales and coming down to London periodically. During one such visit I went to a jazz gig at the old Vortex in Stoke Newington, as part of the London Jazz Festival. It was smoky and dark with only a dozen people in the audience. We did not need much empathy to realize that the turnout was dispiriting for the musicians. They were a jazz trio from LA and had just flown over for the jazz festival and a few other gigs.

In the first set it became clear that they were really good musicians, very competent and experienced, but while they were playing it became clear something essential was missing. The way that I thought of it at the time was that there was no creativity in their improvisation or set pieces. At the end of the set the drummer with a tone of desperation pleaded with us not to leave during the interval. I’m sure that quite a few people had thought about it, but everyone stayed.

I went to the bar to get some drinks for my friends and got into conversation with the main man who was a saxophonist. He was English but lived in LA and worked full-time playing music. He had his own trio and also worked as a session musician with some of the big and famous groups. When I told him I lived in a Buddhist retreat centre in North Wales he became quite animated. He sometimes meditated at a Zen Center in LA and went on Zen retreats. He found it made a big difference to his creativity, particularly when he was practicing his instrument or had a gig. He said that when he meditated during the days that he had a performance his jazz was far more fluid and creative.

He said he experienced an important relationship between the discipline of doing the scales diligently day after day and the creativity that happened during improvised performance. Practice and performance were intimately connected, one feeding the other. He was quite clear that his ability to express creativity at the highest level during performance came out of all the hours honing his musical skills and keeping a creative frame of mind.

He started to explain how he experienced creativity in performance. At the actual moment of creativity he didn’t have to try at all, there was effortless effort; it just flowed out of him. It was like being in an open dimension, without limitation, the music just arose and passed away. Nothing was contrived and the notes arose spontaneously within the chosen “tune.” He was there playing but not identifying with himself, nor was he “self-conscious” about playing. The music came through him and used all the skills that he had developed over years of disciplined practice. There was no separation between creativity and him.

When he entered into that state of creativity in a performance, even in a big venue with thousands of people everyone knew when he was there in that creativity. There was something noticeably different in the atmosphere. The audience’s awareness of his creativity affected him, which in turn plunged him deeper into the flow of creativity. At a certain point there would be no difference between him and the audience, it was as if everybody was participating in the creative process. For him this was the greatest prize of being a professional performer and what he valued most was maintaining that creative state of mind and following it wherever it went in the music

He was slightly sad for a moment and said he was aware that he was out of touch with all of that in the last set. It seemed to take a long time for the drinks to come, so we carried on talking about this relationship between the spirit of meditation and creativity. He saw a direct relationship between entering into an open state of mind in meditation and being open to creativity when he played the saxophone. He had a really good feeling for it and as we talked we both entered into that open vibrancy of mind that can happen in both meditation and creativity.

Creative improvisation was happening in communication between us. There was inspiration in our words and we entered into a world of exploring what was of real value and significance to us. A sense of freedom and potential flowed between us. I suppose he felt supported and engaged in what was most important for him and for my part I felt as if I had met a soul brother. The vibrancy and aliveness that existed between us in that moment of communication is also at the heart of both creative improvisation and the spirit of meditation.

At the beginning of the next set when he came on stage he asked for requests I immediately put up my hand and mentioned a tune from one of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue album. He knew exactly what I was talking about and hummed it to the group and gave them a few instructions. When he started playing everything was different. He had arrived in that creative place where the music just flowed out of him.

I found myself becoming completely captivated, but when early on I took a brief glance at the audience, they were all completely with him. That creative interchange between performer and audience was growing deeper by the moment. He had arrived at the place of creative improvisation that he most valued and we all were right there with him.

The music took me to a place of freedom and infinite possibility that stays with me still. I couldn’t tell how long the set was, as there was no sense of time. It seemed to me that he knew I was there and I was completely there with him, the concept of us being apart dissolved. My whole being seemed to vibrate with the resonance of the saxophone, He was taking me on a long journey through every kind of emotion. It was as if we went everywhere in the universe and then gradually and very gently we came back to earth and the Vortex club. After a pause the audience went ecstatic, he looked directly at me, smiled and winked.


VajradakaVajradaka has been a full-time Dharma practitioner and meditation teacher since the beginning of 1973, and started practicing meditation in Japan in the late 1960’s.

Vajradaka lived for 21 years in a meditation retreat center in Wales called Vajraloka. He recently finished a year-long writing sabbatical and now lives in a Buddhist community in London. You can read Vajradaka’s blog here.

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Waking up in the midst of loss

Flower

When life pulls the rug out from under us, we have a choice. We can either look backward at it as a disaster, or look forward through it as an opening toward something new. Sunada tells her own story of how she woke up in the midst of a personal crisis.

This week, I closed a major chapter of my life. I watched as my beloved Bösendorfer grand piano, which I had just sold, was wrapped up and carted off to its new home. This piano had once represented my dreams. It was no ordinary grand piano. It was a top of the line, artist’s instrument. Beautiful to the eyes as well as the ears. But now there is an empty space in my living room where it once stood.

I loved playing piano — I started when I was 8 years old, and studied classical music through my adult years. And I had long dreamed of having a piano like this. When I bought it, I was working in high tech, working my way up the corporate ladder and making good money. I thought I had it all – successful career, happy marriage, and a serious sideline hobby playing Chopin and Beethoven in my spare time. When a business windfall brought me some unexpected cash, I jumped at the chance to buy my dream piano. Music had always been my passion, and a golden opportunity fell into my lap. And in a way, this piano stood for many strands of my life coming together – a nice home, financial security, living out my musical dreams.

As irony would have it, I barely ever got to play my dream piano. About the time I bought it, I was pounding on a computer keyboard by day and playing the piano by night, so those hands rarely got to rest. And with that, my whole perfect world came crashing down. Within a matter of weeks, both wrists grew so painfully swollen from severe tendonitis that I had to stop using my hands almost entirely. When the injury was at its worst, I couldn’t even hold up a book or a coffee mug. It was too much strain. Playing the piano was out of the question. Permanently, as it turned out. I was at least feeling grateful that I could keep working and still had an income. But then after the events of 9/11, my fledgling business consultancy pretty much dried up, too. So much for my perfect world.

There’s a saying that when one door in life closes, a new one opens. It’s taken 13 years to recover from my injury and unplanned career change. And even today I live with lasting physical repercussions in my wrists, not to mention less financial security. But my life veered in a completely different direction because of this turn of events. It was what woke me up — and to this day I’m really grateful that it happened. The way I’m living now — as an ordained Buddhist, meditation teacher, and life coach – bears little resemblance to what it was back then.

What’s deceiving about such a condensed story told in retrospect is that it all sounds so neat and tidy. It glosses over the bumps in the road, the false turns and dead ends, and the terror of feeling forced to step out into the unknown with no guarantees that anything will work out. Even as recently as a few months ago, I wondered if I should just throw in the towel and go back to my high tech career so I wouldn’t have to sit with all the uncertainty and money worries. The compulsion to retreat into the comfort and security of the old and familiar is unbelievably powerful!

What I’ve learned is that when life pulls the rug out from under us, we have a choice. We can either look backward at it as a disaster and a loss, or look forward through it as an opportunity and opening toward something new. Which view we take makes all the difference in the world. And the key ingredient in making the wiser choice is a willingness to sit mindfully with everything, no matter what. I remember telling my friends that I felt like I was a trapeze artist suspended in mid-air: I had just let go of the swing behind me and was stuck in that moment where I couldn’t even see the swing in front of me yet, let alone grab it. And I didn’t want to look down because I knew there was no safety net under me. At moments like that, the pull of our fears and aversions can be overwhelming. But something told me I had no real option but to keep looking ahead. I had to trust that the forward momentum of my trapeze leap would carry me to a safe landing.

When we sit mindfully in the midst of our own chaos and confusion, something different starts to happen. When we stop the reflexive reaction of our fear-based choices and instead allow the moment to unfold on its own, we shift in a new direction. We’re no longer ruled by our thoughts and habits from the past, but instead applying our open curiosity and creative energy toward building something new. One small step at a time, we start changing the trajectory of our lives.

As I said before, my life looks very different today. I’m now a mezzo soprano and singing with a jazz/pop a cappella group that’s just starting to perform publicly. I love singing – to me it’s a much more direct and joyful experience to have my own body be my musical instrument, rather than to manipulate a complex contraption of piano keys and hammers. I think singing jazz and pop music is much better suited to me than playing classical piano ever was. And I love teaching meditation and coaching people toward living happier lives. It’s so much more fulfilling to me than building software programs!

But you know what? I never would have gotten here if that rug hadn’t been pulled out from under me. The thought of leaving behind my “perfect world” wouldn’t have even occurred to me. And what a great lesson I learned from it.

I also see now that these opportunities for waking up don’t only come along in once-in-a-lifetime personal crises. They’re happening all the time. Every moment we live is an opportunity to stop, look, and start afresh. I was just so soundly asleep that I needed something big and dramatic to grab my attention!

My living room is now more spacious since I’ve rearranged the furniture, sans piano. The room actually feels more comfy, more inviting. My husband and I — and our friends too — seem to gravitate to it more than we used to. I’m not sure what new things will come into this space that’s opened up, but I’ll be mindfully watching for what it might be.

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Ravenna Michalsen: Jumpstarting Buddhist music in America

Ravenna Michalsen Dharmasong

Ravenna Michalsen is a Dharma songstress with ambitions to start an “American Buddhist music movement.” Her second CD of Buddhist-inspired songs, appropriately named Dharmasong, has just been released. We talked to Ravenna about her message, her music, and the challenge of remaining egoless in the spotlight.

Also see Sunada’s review of Dharmasong.

***

Wildmind: You’ve said that you want to “jumpstart the American Buddhist music movement.” That sounds very ambitious!

Ravenna: Yes! America has such a long, diverse, and wonderful musical tradition. Our society is very music-oriented. It is very hard to go anywhere without hearing music, which is one of the reasons retreat centers can feel so peaceful. Much of the constant music in our world can be mentally tiring, chock full of thoughts, emotions, and conceptual chitter-chatter.

Dharma-inspired music can both play into our society’s deep love and obsession with music and shift its aural orientation from something often deeply klesha-based* to something less harmful. Both “Dharmasong” and “Bloom,” my first album, are devotional albums that feature songs about various figures from ancient Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. My hope is that these songs turn the listener’s mind toward the teachings of the Buddha, which is essentially anything that holds us back from unskillful action.

(*Editor’s Note: Kleshas are negative mental states that cloud the mind’s nature and manifest in various forms as unskillful actions of body, speech, and mind.)

W: So how would you define the “American Buddhist music movement”?

R: Hm, well, that is a bit complicated. I like the term “American Buddhist” because I find it a bit more culturally accurate than “Tibetan Buddhist” or “Burmese Buddhist,” etc., if the practitioner is actually an American…

So, while traditional Buddhist cultures all have their own musical traditions, which then have informed their Buddhist musical traditions, the United States doesn’t quite quite have that yet. People tend to assume that because I write Buddhist-inspired music, my music must sound “eastern” or something. I would like to change that assumption! I would like people to be comfortable owning the fact that the United States at this point has a deep and wonderful Buddhist tradition and that thus Buddhist-inspired music written here in the west has permission to sound “American”! Does that make sense?

W: It makes perfect sense. When I listen to Alison Krauss singing “Down to the River to Pray” I find myself yearning for Buddhist spirituals!

R: Completely. When I listen to Aretha Franklin sing “A Change Is Gonna Come,” I feel the exact same way!

W: So, with apologies for the clichéd question, what would you say are the main influences on your music?

R: Well, I love love love to listen to Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, Mariah Carey, Mirah, Amy Winehouse — all singers who really put so much heart into their singing. But I don’t really sound like any of them, sadly! People often say I sound a bit Celtic, but that is totally unintentional. It’s a hard question to answer! I listen to a lot of music, but I can’t really say I try to sound like anyone.

W: What got you started in Dharma practice?

R: Well, through my mom who did some searching herself and finally stumbled upon Trungpa Rinpoche and Pema Chodron and so she introduced me to them as well…

W: I guess I was meaning something more like what was your personal motivation in taking up Dharma practice.

R: I guess feeling sad and wanting to explore my mind. Meditation and the Dharma can feel really good when you do a bunch of it — I got into it, really into the whole thing, on retreat, so right away I associated feeling good with practicing a lot. After that first month retreat that faded though — of course! Since then it’s been much more up and down, cycles of “good” and cycles of “not-so-good” practice.

It makes me feel more aware of being alive, more in touch with reality I guess. But it was sadness that really brought me to practice, rather than casual interest.

W: And when did you start consciously bringing together your music and your practice?

R: I was on a retreat in 2002 with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (of the Shambhala community) and he heard me sing a song called “The Contemplation Song” (originally by Milarepa, but adapted and set to music by Winfield Clark). The next day his editor brought me a poem-like song that Rinpoche had written for me to set to music, so I did that and sang it and then she brought another and I sang that and thus the idea was planted.

I went home and started writing little songs about Dharma – some kind of hybrid between the kind of music I was doing before and what I do now. But slowly I started to really consciously write Dharmic songs, usually before or after a practice session. It wasn’t until I went in to record “Bloom” that I had to truly think about the combination of whatever kind of music I write with these dharma-inspired topics.

W: Were you already performing at that time and if so what was your music like?

R: Yes, well, I started playing classical cello when I was eight and so was performing classical music — solo, orchestra, chamber — until I was 21, when I developed arthritis. When I was a sophomore in college I started playing with an indie rock band (cello) and starting writing music with them – just cello parts at first, then little messy songs, then more fully formed ones. I just went and found some of those older songs actually! They are kind of sweet poppy sad songs — fun to sing and play.

W: At least two of the songs on your new CD deal with what might be termed “feminist” issues. “Marpa” evokes the question of where are the female gurus in Tibetan history, and “A-Dron” celebrates the female lineage-holder Machig Labdron. To what extent do you see a feminist perspective as being central to your artistic work?

R: Completely central in that I am a feminist! I believe that the essential nature of both women and men is Buddhanature and that both genders have equal ability to achieve complete perfect enlightenment. However, due to historical prejudices female practitioners have been devalued and left out of the historical Buddhist cannon — which is in part why I try to include them in my songs. I also include them because I personally find their lives and stories so utterly compelling, remarkable and inspirational.

W: You’ve said that Tsultrim Allione, the author of Women of Wisdom and founder of the retreat center Tara Mandala, encouraged you to record your first CD, Bloom. Has she been a source of encouragement in helping to highlight the discrimination women teachers have faced in the past?

R: Her “Women of Wisdom” is a remarkable work in that it introduces the life stories of various great female practitioners and teachers from Tibetan Buddhism. These are stories that are largely unknown and Tsultrim did a great service bringing these stories to a wider audience. She is a very spacious person who is not particularly saddled by the idea of gender, but recognizes that others are and that that has affected the treatment of women over history.

W: So apart from wanting to promote an awareness of feminist issues in relation to practice, are there other contemporary issues that you try to bring into your work?

R: Hm, I don’t think so. I do want the music to make people think a bit, but I also want them people to have something peaceful to listen to.

W: You mentioned earlier something about modern music being klesha-based and mentally tiring. Could you say more about that problem and how your music seeks to be different?

R: I think music — like anything — can often be very klesha-based and in the end that can really tire you out. It can be fun and exhilarating for a bit, particularly as you identify with whatever passion, aggression, etc., comes up in the song. But stepping back a bit, identifying with the thoughts or emotions generally leads us to believe them and then act based on those thoughts and emotions, rather than seeing the thoughts and emotions as just arising and passing away at their own rate. Believing our thoughts tends to lead to believing more of our thoughts and having our actions based upon those beliefs — and that generally leads to lots of samsara!

I definitely aspire to have my music be a bit different – but of course it isn’t! Maybe the subject matter is different — not so overtly packed with klesha — but in the end it depends on the mind that listens to it.

W: What does the rest of your practice look like — the stuff that isn’t directly connected with music?

R: I try to go on retreat a few times a year and practice daily in some form, not always the same practice — I tend to do the practice that fits what is going on in my life. Right now I am co-teaching a class at the New Haven Shambhala Center called “Taming the Mind,” which is a great way to verbalize what my practice has brought up for me.

W: Performing can be a very ego-based thing, being literally in the spotlight and having everyone paying attention to you. Is that something you’ve had to work with as part of your practice?

R: Excellent question. This is an issue that I have had to work with pretty much constantly, and it is rich! When I actually sing, it is not really a problem, because I am concentrating on the object of singing. But it comes up more when people come to a concert and then don’t donate or the center is (as it seems to me) stingy with paying or sharing donations. Then I get a real flare of both ego and the sort of ego-based, but also reasonable, question of why people think that art should just be free. That it is OK to listen for an hour and walk away without offering anything by way of support or to burn CDs without thinking about how that artist lives — actually lives: buys gas, groceries, rent, clothes, etc. I don’t charge a fee to sing and very much struggle with whether I should, and somewhere in there is a mix of ego, figuring out how to survive financially and self-worth.

I am very shy in some ways, so hanging out after shows hearing praise and such makes me uncomfortable. But I do like (and even crave) people to be quiet and appear to really listen when I sing. It’s a great profession to be in if you want to be reminded of all your edges!!

W: What are you working on at the moment? Are you working on new material, or are you still caught up in promoting the new CD?

R: Not yet! Dharmasong, in the scheme of things, only just came out! So I will be plugging it for a while! I spend a lot of time arranging concerts — so if there is a center/group out there looking for a concert of dharma music, email away!

But then again, I am always sort of writing – but not in a concentrated way, just letting things come up.

W: Thanks very much, Ravenna. It’s been good talking to you.

R: Thanks so much. It’s been enjoyable.

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“Dharmasong” by Ravenna Michalsen

Ravenna Michalsen Dharmasong

Ravenna Michalsen’s new CD of dharma-inspired songs is gutsy, powerful, and deeply devotional. Reviewer Sunada gives her ringing endorsement of this original and inspirational music.

(Also see Bodhipaksa’s interview with Ravenna).

From the very opening bars of Dharmasong, I was immediately captivated. The first track, “Ki Ki So So” begins with a gentle, rhythmic chant reminiscent of a trotting horse — it’s Ravenna’s multi-tracked voice in a compelling percussion loop that becomes the backdrop for her soaring a cappella vocals that follow. It immediately brought to my mind’s eye images of the wild and rugged beauty of Tibet, and a bird of prey sailing through the sky. I learned from the artist’s website that the chant originates from Tibet, and is used to rouse our windhorse energy. The windhorse is a mythic Tibetan creature that combines the strength of a horse with the swiftness of the wind, and represents a powerful and fearless energy that overcomes all obstacles.

This was my introduction to the totally original and wonderfully imaginative vocal artist, Ravenna Michalsen. Dharmasong is her second CD, a collection of eight original and ancient dharma-inspired songs. (Her first CD, Bloom, came out about two years ago.) This is definitely not the kind of namby-pamby wallpaper music you hear while getting a massage at your local spa. It’s gutsy, powerful, colorful, and as deeply devotional singing as you’ll ever hear. Think Buddhist gospel music and that’s what Ravenna does. Her pure and clear voice is skillfully combined with a lush and atmospheric soundscape, and the sparse textures help to spotlight the breadth of her emotional range.

Two of the songs, “The Contemplation Song” and “The Departing Aspiration Prayer” are original settings of ancient lyrics written by Milarepa, an 11th century Tibetan mystic. Another is an original devotional chant for Tara, the bodhisattva of compassion. On this track, Ravenna’s improvisational-style vocals expand into an aerial four-part harmony, accompanied by a background of softly ringing wind chimes. Other songs are completely original music, lyrics, and inspired performances featuring Buddhist figures such as Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava, the man who brought Buddhism to Tibet), Yeshe Tsogyal (Padmasambhava’s consort, main compiler of his teachings, and a master in her own right), Machig Labdron (one of very few female lineage holders in the Tibetan tradition, and who lived in the 11th/12th century), and Marpa Lotsawa (the great teacher and translator credited with transmitting many Buddhist teachings from India to Tibet). Each of these songs traces yet another journey through Ravenna’s many devotional moods.

Ravenna is really in a class of her own. It’s her intent to try to jumpstart an American Buddhist music movement. This is totally in keeping with Buddhist tradition. Wherever Buddhism traveled and encountered a new culture, it transformed itself by melding with the customs and aesthetic sensibilities that it met. And it’s that transformation that allowed the dharma to take hold and flower in each new place. So I think it’s a wonderful development to see this starting to happen here in America – the hopeful beginnings of a new, home-grown style of music inspired by the dharma. May her music flower and grow, inspiring others to find the dharma in their hearts!

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Tibetan chant wins Grammy

BBC: Buddhist monks at a monastery in the Indian Himalayas have won a Grammy award for their Tibetan chants.

The monks’ CD, Sacred Tibetan Chant: The Monks of Sherab Ling Monastery, won best traditional world music album at the Grammys, which are to music what Oscars are to films.

The CD, released last year, features senior chanting masters Kalzang Yeshe, Norbu Gyaltsen, Tinley Gyurme and six other monks.

A spokesman for the Tibet government-in-exile said he was delighted at the news from Los Angeles.

“It is international recognition of the rich spiritual music of Tibet,” spokesman Thupten Samphel told the AFP news agency.

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