Unbutton, Ye!

I often feel like a 300-pound man, ready to burst into tears of joy.

Let me explain.

About five years ago I started taking piano lessons. I’m a highly trained and experienced classical musician, but most of my training was directed toward the cello (plus music history, theory and analysis, ear training, and all the rest). Piano, not so much. Decades ago I had to take “secondary piano” in college, meaning basic training for non-piano majors. Much to my regret, the “secondary” part of it dominated my mind back then, and I paid the price. Until recently, my piano playing was awkward, insufficient, upside-down, banana-peel, and I-want-my-mommy.

I have a wonderful piano teacher, my friend and brother Alexandre Mion. Besides the helpful lessons Alexandre has given me these past five years, I’ve also embarked on a project of my own: the development of a new piano method, designed to help a pianist—any pianist—connect with the Creative Source and become happy and healthy.

A concert pianist listening to my piano playing might think that I’m a hopeless banana-peel case. “You ain’t no Horowitz,” he or she’ll think. But I’m playing so much better than five years ago that I can barely explain how I feel about it. The 300-pound man used to weight 600 pounds. He’s still overweight and handicapped, but, wow! He’s made so much progress! He feels so much better! He’s, like, 50% unburdened! That’s a lot! Let’s shed tears of joy!

Believe it or not, this post isn’t about my piano playing, or my piano method in development. It’s about the archetypal voyage from hurting to healing.

Let’s quote, or misquote, or paraphrase, or invent a saying, and let’s attribute it to Gustave Flaubert. “If you have survived your adolescence, you have a story to tell.” Now let’s imagine a silly-ass Zen teacher re-thinking our dear Flaubert. “If you were born, you’re hurting. Life is the hurt, and life is the healing.”

We’re all trying to figure it out, to feel good or to feel better, to shed if not pounds then resentments. Life is challenging but wonderful, wonderful but challenging. If life weren’t challenging, the following people would be out of their jobs: doctors, osteopaths, priests, psychoanalysts, nurses, preachers, surgeons, firemen, cops, lawyers, judges, prison wardens, and bakers.

The bakers: that was a joke, by the way.

The life voyage from hurting to healing is universal in its need and importance and urgency, but no two people travel in the same way. Do your brother and your sister mirror your journey? Nah. You’ve been diverging for half a century. Your stuff is unique to you, and that’s cause for celebration! Call the bakers and order a cake, gluten-free and sugar-free if you know what’s good for you.


In healing, the symbolic dimension is often stronger than the material dimension. Many years ago, I took some ballroom dance classes. A Canadian woman showed up and participated from time to time. She was a pursed-lips blonde in a man’s button-down white shirt. To my eyes, she seemed to be trying to hold it all in, afraid of looking good, afraid of the swing of life. One day in the middle of class, she unbuttoned her collar. To my eyes, it was a really big deal, as close to a striptease as she could get at that point—or ever. Healing is the healing that’s going to happen, to jerry-rig an expression. “Less fear and more love, to the extent that you can.

It’s not possible to know what the other person is thinking and feeling, where she comes from, how she got to be the way she is. “I know exactly what you’re going through.” No, you don’t! “What you’re going through resonates with me.” Okay, that’s plausible. I may be totally wrong about that Canadian woman, but the unbuttoning—this was more than 25 years ago—has stayed in my psyche as a meaningful moment, on account of its symbolic power.

Each hurt is individual. And each healing is individual, too. For some people, piano lessons heal. For others, piano lessons hurt. For some, healing comes from doing something; for others, from stopping something. A dear person in my inner circle closed a business he had spent 20 years building up, and struggling with. Difficult as it was, the closing—which was both a letting go and an abandoning—was part of a healing processes.

When you engage in the healing process, you don’t know what the results will be. Closing a business, opening a business? Unbuttoned shirt collar? Sex-change operation? Learning to smile? It isn’t possible to know in advance. This is one of the reasons we often hesitate to get started on the healing journey: fear of the unknown. It takes courage.

The journey is akin to martial-arts training: a battle of wills between the old and the new, the bruise and the Band-Aid, the fear and the hope. As Gustave Flaubert famously didn’t say, “We’re all in it. We might as well go all in.”

 ©2018, Pedro de Alcantara