Before Everything Else, Do Nothing

An excerpt from The Integrated String Player

Daily living, in its small details as well as in its larger moments, requires you to refresh and renew your energies. You wake up from a night’s sleep, the sun rises, you reboot your computer, you open your cello case and take the instrument out. And the day is reborn, the computer is reborn, the cello is reborn; you are reborn. It’s the most wonderful thing in the world.

Practical needs drive these activities, and it’s possible to perform some or most of them with hardly a thought. Yet they all share a deep psychological and metaphysical dimension, and becoming aware of it could be useful to you.

When you let go of a beloved shirt or dress, frayed from years of pleasurable use, you “mourn” the shirt’s passing away, so to speak. Then another shirt (or dress or jacket) becomes “your new you,” a favorite object that makes you feel good about yourself and about going out, seeing other people, and being seen by them. The new shirt represents a rebirth, although it’s perhaps more accurate to say that the rebirth isn’t in the shirt itself but in your feelings about yourself, triggered by the new shirt.

For a new shirt to make you feel good about yourself, however, the old shirt must die. In other words, every rebirth requires a death. To be reborn in the morning, the sun must die at night. For the vegetables to grow in your garden, the weeds must die. The cello case is a tomb at the end of the day, so that it can be like a womb in the morning. Death and rebirth, then, are an absolutely constant theme in everyone’s life.

For you to make music in a new way—a healthy, meaningful, connected, celebratory way—the old way must die. You must clear your musical closet and weed your musical garden, so to speak. You must let go of a great many things, some cherished, others unloved for so long that your “unlove” has become a mighty force, seemingly with a will of its own; and of that, too, you’ll have to let go. You must let go of habits, assumptions, and memories; you must let go of misdirected ambitions and desires; sometimes you must let go of works in your repertory and even actual instruments and bows. You must let go of ways of practicing, ways of thinking about music, ways of presenting yourself in public, ways of expressing yourself, ways of being.

If something blocks your path, and if you wish for a free path, then you must let go of the blocks. Needless to say, you’re welcome to keep any one thing that helps you on your path. You only need to let go of the weeds, the old clothes, the clutter, the garbage, the hurts, and the pains!

Rebirth and renewal require cleaning, clearing, cleansing, and otherwise creating a space in which the new can dwell. Empty your closet before deciding on what new clothes to buy. Clear the garage to make room for the restored 1960 Corvette you inherited from your uncle. Weed the garden before planting the season’s vegetables. Wipe your hard drive clean and install a new OS. Take the garbage out, open doors and windows to let the house breathe, sort, fold, and put away the laundry, remake the bed with clean sheets, and brush your teeth before your new lover comes to your house for the first time.

This clearing process, which you do many times a day over things small and big, is both practical and symbolic. It facilitates rebirth; in many cases, without it rebirth can’t happen.

Death >> rebirth

Death >> clearing >> rebirth

Clearing and cleansing create an empty space, be it in your closet, in your garden, in your bookshelf . . . or in your mind, which is the most important space for you to manage. Ultimately, it’s where you play the game—that is, the game of death and rebirth.

What is empty space? “Nothing.” Even if we’re talking not about your mind but about a material object like a bookcase, inside the object there can be a void—the cleared bookshelf.

And this is the most important thing for all of us: nothing! By that I mean the ability to do nothing, to think nothing, to judge nothing, to anticipate nothing, to fear nothing. Empty space is “nothing,” and thanks to it you can put things in—new clothes, new books, new violins, new scores, new interpretations, new careers. Silence is “nothing,” and thanks to it you can make music. A calm mind is “nothing,” and thanks to it you can have new thoughts, thoughts of discovery, thoughts of freedom and joy.

Suppose you’re a college student, and you go take your weekly cello lesson. With no notice, no preparation, no previous hints, your teacher suggests that you might consider switching to the bass. You get mad right away. “Whaaat? You don’t think I’m good enough to play the cello? What kind of teacher are you anyway?” Your mind and heart are made up already; “you know perfectly well who you are and what you think,” and you don’t even need to find out what your teacher means. Plus, you definitely think that a bassist is a sort of inferior cellist.

Now suppose that you know how to do nothing— how to wait and see, how to listen without reacting, how to ponder ideas freshly, as if you didn’t have a history or an agenda. It turns out that your teacher, who is very experienced and empathetic, quite likes your cello playing, but she feels that you have the physical type and temperament for playing the bass. She knows you have a good mind for music theory, harmony, and counterpoint, and she imagines that you might like to arrange, compose, and orchestrate besides playing the bass. And there’s an opening in the school’s big band, which will be going on tour soon. There are bursaries, prizes, the possibility of playing some fancy venues in New York and Chicago. That’s just for starters.

Not every new idea is good, and perhaps very few ideas are ever so life-changing as the one I’ve just described. But it’s the principle behind the anecdote that is important: There’s a difference between reacting to an idea and reacting to your predisposition regarding the idea. And to become able to meet the idea itself, you need to do nothing; to think nothing, to suppose nothing, to desire nothing. Your cleared mind meets the idea itself, ponders it, and makes a decision: yes, no, perhaps, not now, next semester, thank you, wow.

In sum, musical rebirth and renewal require the passing away of habit and its minions: supposition, fear, desire, resentment, and a thousand other fiends. For the new to arise, there must be a space in which it can dwell. And the space is “nothing.”

©2015, Pedro de Alcantara