Rob Schmidt and I have recently become involved in a fascinating experiment in conversation called The Seekers Café. Conversation participants are senior spiritual practitioners primarily, though not exclusively, drawn from The Fourth Way tradition. Currently, members of this group meet on a weekly basis for a Zoom video conference to explore matters of interest in the Work as well as planning for the introduction of a public website to offer what the Café has been creating to a larger community. What distinguishes these group discussions from the many other forms of group conversations that I encounter in everyday life is the ability of the participants to listen and receive communications from others, the willingness to make space for all participants to express their views, the shared intention for the conversation to ascend the scale of meaning, and the leavening of all of this with a sense of humor born of decades of intensive study into the vacuous nature of ordinary mind.
In addition, The Seekers Café is providing a rich source of guests for The Mystical Positivist radio show and podcast. For example, recent Mystical Positivist guest Richard Webb demonstrated a remarkable combination of edginess and vulnerability in his recounting of his extensive spiritual training in the Sufi tradition of Reshad Feild, his initiation and practice within a Shamanic community, and his initiation into the Tibetan Chöd tradition. What made this an engaging conversation was in part the sense of danger that it elicited, as we weren’t sure where Richard might go next. It was like sitting on the knife’s edge between a richly sensitive vulnerability and the transformative potency of a gruff and brutal honesty. In short, the conversation recounted, and effectively evoked, the flavor of genuine spiritual apprenticeship and the products of such apprenticeship.
As I was describing this conversation to the other members of the Seekers Café this last Saturday, I was reminded of a lesson from my Shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) teacher, Masayuki Koga. On a number of occasions, Koga-sensei has described the quality of sound that can be conveyed when one pulls one’s lips back slightly from the edge of the Shakuhachi at the end of one note, before bringing one’s lips back forward for the initiation of the following note. Sonically this action has the sense of a slight increase in pitch coupled with the diminishing of breath at the end of the first note, a letting go of the sound, and the arising of the subsequent note out of the space left by the previous one.
The Shakuhachi is a very sensitive instrument and has a reputation for being difficult to play. Small variations in the air stream, the angle of the flute, and the tension of the lips translate into profoundly different expressions of sound. Because of this sensitivity, it is very easy to lose the thread of the sound entirely; in other words, for a note to be lost entirely. An audience can detect this sensitivity at a feeling level even if they might not be able to articulate it at a cognitive level. This quality of feeling that Koga-sensei has described, which can be evoked with this technique of almost losing the sound at the end of one note before proceeding with another note, is that of danger. When the audience senses the risk that the performer is in and the danger that the performer may lose the sound in the next moment, audience attention perks up. The audience is drawn into the performer’s willingness to stretch out the tension between safety and danger, and the performance becomes interesting at a feeling and instinctive level for the audience.
In contrast to this dangerous sound is a safe sound. I know from my work with the Shakuhachi that the closer my lips are to the edge of the flute, the more reliably I can be assured of making a sound and controlling the note. As my lessons with Koga-sensei have given me ample opportunity to observe over the years, the majority of the blocks I have in expressing greater subtlety with the instrument arise from the many micro tensions throughout my face, neck, and torso that collectively operate to keep me in the safe zone where I can reliably make noise. The downside of this safe zone is a flatness of tone, and a dullness that in subtle ways lets audience attention wander.
And there is a further difficulty due to the unique construction of the Shakuhachi. Musical expression requires modulation of dynamics, lest the sound take on the mechanical quality of a player piano. An expressive note often has the sonic shape of a tear drop. There is an initial attack, a subsequent rising of the sound, and the smooth diminishment of the sound into empty space. To make this initial attack requires the lips pressed more closely to the edge of the Shakuhachi with greater air pressure. This is relatively easy to do, and at least with respect to my own practice, lies more in the safe zone. However, to attain the elegance of the end of the tear drop requires that the air pressure diminish, ultimately to zero. With the Shakuhachi, pitch is both a function of air pressure and the distance of one’s lips from the edge of the flute. The higher the pressure, the higher the pitch. The closer the lips, the lower the pitch. And herein lies the challenge. To effectively convey an elegant diminishment of sound requires both the reducing of air pressure and the increasing of the distance between one’s lips and the edge of the flute. This combination takes one uncomfortably into the danger zone. If one plays it safe and substitutes security for elegance, the pitch of the note will go down, the tone descends.
This same principle holds in the art and practice of conversation. What made our conversation with Richard Webb interesting and engaging on our podcast is precisely his willingness to stay in the danger zone where certainty is sacrificed in the interests of possibility. Our ongoing conversations with The Seekers Café, at their best, embody this principle when participants set aside the tropes with which they are most comfortable for the possibility that something new can enter into the mix. This is certainly the quality of conversation that Rob and I aspire to create mutually with our guests on The Mystical Positivist podcast. Our favorite guests are those who are most comfortable hanging out in the danger zone because it is in that space where passion, enthusiasm, and vulnerability conspire (as in “breath together”) to produce something truly new.