The Crossroads of Music and Peace

The Crossroads of Music and Peaceby Phil Circle


How the Culture of Music Intersects and Merges with the Culture of Peace



Humans have a complicated relationship with both music and peace. The former usually leads to arguments over the best guitar solo or greatest R&B vocalist, but rarely goes so far as to even challenge a friendship. The latter has led to wars in the name of keeping it. The former has countless versions of itself and demands ever-widening lists of adjectives to give anyone a comfortable and close description of what they’re about to experience when they hit the play button. The latter is so ambiguous and esoteric a concept and so rife with socio-political and religious dogma, it would appear at times impossible to or dangerous to define it. But, I love a good challenge and encourage a great dialogue. Let’s give a shot. Here’s my thoughts.


Music. And. Peace. Coexist. They complement each other. They share space in the same place in our hearts. They are practically symbiotic. Music can bring peace by temporarily freeing one from one’s sufferings. Isn’t that a fine definition of peace? Freedom from suffering? Doesn’t this lead us to a sense of where peace happens? The concept of peace would appear to have little to do with the cultures of society, politics, and religion, because it seems nobody can agree on what peace is. That, or they have their own version of it. The problem is in the apparently servile nature of most of these institutions. Governments and religions and societal mores should be of service to the people. Music does this. Doesn’t it? Music offers us a service. And in a genuine, non-servile way. That’s the trick. How can we demonstrate through music an ideal of peace that can be almost tangible?


I’ve done it, haven’t I? I’ve managed, in the first few minutes of this talk, to speak about the things we’re warned never to bring up in polite conversation: Politics and religion. But, it’s an absolute necessity. I’ve been given no choice.   We need to get way beyond our comfort zones in order to deal with the problems in our world. Now watch this. Listen carefully. When we talk about musical styles and get into those seemingly trivial little spats with our friends over who’s the best musical artist, we’re actually treating each other to cultural change through an expanding of our comfort zones that we can actually contend with. When we mention the concept of peace, however, we’re just asking for it! Don’t screw with my happy little corner of the planet and the shelter I’ve created around it with my iPhone and a good video game console. Besides, I get out all my angst from the safety of my Facebook profile. It’s either that or we’re met with any number of other negative responses that may include poisonous pessimism, icy indifference, dismissive disdain, or just outright vicious, or very uncomfortable laughter. Why is that? Well, since we can’t define peace, we react to it with fear. But didn’t I just mention that we can’t often define music? And yet we remain free to discuss our favorite genres and artists. Couldn’t we just do that with peace? Just discuss our favorite ideas of what it could be? Or what it means to each of us as individuals? It’s back to that, now is it? The individual. How personal is music to you? How personal is peace? What gives you as a person, peace? Let’s go there.


I’d like for you to think for a moment about a favorite song. Any one will do. It’s okay to have more than one. I think we all have many favorites. I believe our favorite songs change and can depend on our mood or mindset at any given moment. Therefore, any song that truly moves you when you hear it, will do. Now let’s do this. Think about a favorite song. Give it a moment. Let it sink in. Pay attention to how it makes you feel as you breathe and listen to it in your mind’s ear.


Now, expand your awareness slowly to bring the rest of the world into it, to include all 7.5 billion people on this little spinning planet. Now imagine just one of these people. But wait! Don’t give any thought to where they are, who they worship, what they do for work, their looks or sexual orientation, whether or not they may or may not like you. Just keep them a completely ambiguous human. Leave them mysterious, an enigma. Now, I’m going to give you one quality about that person and I want you to pay attention to your emotional reaction as you let it sink into your awareness. You ready? Here’s one quality of this ambiguous human: They love this same song you were just thinking about and feeling. 


How did that make you feel about this person? If that were all you knew about them, how would you feel about knowing them? Now pretend this individual is suddenly standing before you. I know it’s hard when I said to keep them ambiguous, but bare with me. You knew nothing about them, but that they love this same song that you love. Now, as their identity begins to materialize, you learn some things about them. At least a few things they believe or do or say or represent, or perhaps the place they come from or people they live with, or work they do or god they worship, potentially make you uncomfortable. Now stop! Before you let yourself get uncomfortable. Remember, you both love this amazing song that speaks to your individuality and lives in your heart of hearts. Before you react to this person, ask yourself this: Why do these other aspects of this other human being make you uncomfortable? Do you truly know everything about them and who they are? Now that you’ve come to know that this song that you believe so deeply represents your ideal emotional and spiritual self, is also a favorite of theirs, can you really change your views based on more superficial things? Maybe you didn’t really know that much to begin with. Haven’t you ever met someone who you thought represented something you disliked or didn’t approve of, only to find they were completely different from what you expected, in the best possible ways?


Now, I’d like to give definition to the concept of peace. Peace is a very fluid idea and is defined differently by different people. So, I’d like to begin with a sense of personal peace. How do you feel when you are at peace? What brings it? How do you create it? Does it involve other people? Peace on the planet will be unattainable without peace in the lives of individuals. Can we share this personal peace? I dunno, can we share music? Of course we can!


The sharing aspect of music is analogous to the fact that joy shared brings personal peace. When we find joy in overcoming hardship, rather than investing energy in who to blame for our hardship, we accomplish something akin to the emotional freedom that comes when we play or listen to great music. Music, in fact, is joy. The emotion a musician feels, while often tapping into the authentic emotion of the subject matter in a song, is more than anything the pure joy that comes from creating in the moment; literally bringing something forth from nothing. As the 20th century teacher-philosopher Joseph Campbell said, when we create music we come closest to our gods. If we're capable of creating such a profound joy with something as accessible as music, something so close to our spirit, why then should it be so difficult to create peace? How can peace be anything but accessible? If we can access joy in our personal lives, often through overcoming hardship and then inspiring others to do the same, how can it possibly be out or our reach to develop a wider peace in the world. Even if it’s just one person at a time, isn’t it worth every effort?


Humans have so much more power than they think, and as we look to the many cultures of society that are changing around us at this very moment in history, it should be clear that changing cultures is the way to changing powers from authoritarian to humanistic. 


Peace advocate, educator, and Buddhist leader Daisaku Ikeda said:


"Nothing is more powerful than culture, which makes us fully human. It is a light that illuminates society and changes it for the better... It represents the essential freedom of the human spirit.”


Regarding the arts, he says:


“The poetic spirit encourages people in all ranks and places to return to their naked humanity. Neither sentimental nor fantastic, it embraces and affirms the whole world and all its inhabitants; it imparts the will to remain optimistic and unbending in the face of all hardships.”


“Optimistic and unbending in the face of hardships.” That’s pretty powerful. When we remain open to the struggles we’re all dealing with and turn to each other to say, “Hey, I’ve been there. You got this,” we are actually offering the same service that music does. We’re giving an element of support, a space full of warmth and free emotional expression that will “impart the will to remain optimistic and unbending in the face of all hardships.” Stepping out on the other side of this, we begin to find a personal peace in our world.


There’s also a diversity in music that represents the diversity of humans. Sometimes I wonder if music isn’t the only place where diversity doesn’t cause some people to twitch with fear. If someone can stand the diversity of music, then they can stand the diversity of humanity. Seeing as this diversity in music has proven extremely valuable, even crucial to our ever-evolving cultures, we’re probably a lot better at dealing with it than we think. Today, we deal with a breakneck pace of change in the world’s marketplace. Diversity is almost impossible to avoid there. So, what are we so afraid of? Why not just do this. Diversity has made music an amazing thing. Diversity will make the marketplace an amazing thing. Musicians are more likely to argue over interpretation of a song than who’s allowed on stage. The diverse creative ideas of the art form have created more genres and sub-genres than we can count. I’ll tell you what. With my little record label or coaching business, the last thing I need is another guy just like me involved. My experiences are limited to my life and upbringing. I need as many viewpoints as possible. These come from diverse upbringings and lives lived in different ways. I may think I’m pretty worldly, but I’m just one human among billions, and have grown old among some of the most fortunate of them. The only way to tip the balance in favor of the rest of the world is for me to step aside and trust. I learned this playing music. I trust my bandmates. I trust my students’ interpretations of songs. And I have learned finally to trust myself in letting go.


Music does not change per se. At its core, it remains a means to tell stories of love and frustration, of victory and defeat, of life’s journey. It only evolves, growing new branches of expression, new means of creation and preservation. It survives. It is a living, breathing thing, and this is why we all gravitate to it. It is our most consistent symbiosis.


Human needs do not change per se. We all have stories of love and frustration, of victory and defeat, and a life journey. Our selves and cultures evolve, growing new branches of expression, new means of creation and preservation. We survive with our planet. We are becoming one world culture, and it is a living, breathing thing, and this is why we are all gravitating to it. It is our most consistent symbiosis. 


What about the powers that be?


Money is a means of exchanging goods that we’ve put a fictional value on. In fact, anthropologists call it just that; a fiction. It is also one of the greatest sources of power on the planet. We may not have had this exact fiction at the time of early humans. But we did place value on things. The very roots of power among our animal selves have always been based in an exchange of favors in order for larger human groups to cooperate. This simply evolved into money. Religious power, another of the great influences on human cultures and socio-political systems, has also been around from the earliest days of the modern human. The first evidence of humans building structures appears to have been for use by early nature-based religions. Empire is considered the other of the three greatest sources of power over humans. This one popped up last. In fact, empire came along way after the one power that anthropologists seem to ignore; music. I think music may not be looked at from a power standpoint because it’s hard or impossible to quantify emotional power. But if we consider that it’s enjoyed or at the very least utilized by all humans from the first to fourth worlds, and that it can unify people faster than a political cause or a stack of cash, I think we can agree; Music is pretty powerful. How might we be utilizing this mutual power for change?


Creating a climate of provisions for all through embracing the creative and diverse ideas of many, we are far more likely to survive the upheavals that are imminent in our world today. Our needs remain. The climate and economies change around us. Our ability to improvise and adapt, like a jazz musician, are going to be extremely helpful in the years to come. I like what jazz great Herbie Hancock said:


“The dialogue embodied in jazz is very serious, even when it’s playful. In many ways, it’s a celebration of the joy of life. It is a pure and direct method of communication, a cry issued from the depths of human emotion.”


He also said:


“Sharing and openness are also characteristics of jazz. It enthusiastically adopts influences from other cultures and genres while at the same time strongly influencing them. These traits—sharing, openness, and turning suffering into joy—are the core of human spirituality.”


Turning suffering into joy only happens when we’ve undergone and survived hardships. Music is giving us the means to do this and is, like Joseph Campbell implied, bringing us closer to our Spirits—whatever you call yours. As we continue to turn to music for a day to day source of entertainment, we’re also making it a source of comfort in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. More than ever before in human history, we've made music accessible to ourselves. We can, if we like, have music in our ears at any time and in any place. I don’t see it as coincidental that our need for music has increased as our societies have become more deeply connected and change has become something that happens faster than most of us can easily adapt to. I see it as part and parcel to humanity’s biological and cultural evolution that music keeps pace with change. Otherwise, we might not survive. As music brings us peace and we gradually do adapt to change more easily, I can only hope to see the human species come to understand and accept the peace that each of us finds as individuals. Like a song loved by two strangers, we can come together in a common and shared song of peace.


What’s the power of peace? Well, here’s another thing we can’t easily quantify. But we can certainly give it a quality. Again, if we work from the quality of peace any one of us feels when we are feeling peaceful, feeling full or complete, enjoying a knowledge of oneness with all others, we’re on the right track. Now, add to this the compassion to understand that the person who’s being a jerk is not feeling this peace in their life, we’re less likely to react. We’re more likely to question why. We’re more likely to see them as someone who’s suffering, not just some random jackass. That allows us to respond in a completely different way. Our response has just acknowledged their potential to grow. This creates value. It creates opportunity instead of creating anger. It’s also given us growth and thereby the power to achieve a more empowered self. This is called human revolution. 


When I was twenty years old, I was very upset with the world. Then I realized something that gave me hope. I thought about all the people I knew. I did an inventory of them. Maybe a couple of them were capable of being total jackasses, but none of them struck me as sociopathic. I then considered whether this could be used as a sample of the entire world. While there are clearly people who appear to be just plain bad, even evil, it occurred to me that they were a small group when compared to the total. I then realized that if every human being who wanted peace in the world simply stood up and said, “No, we will not condone war. We will not allow violence. We will not stand by while you take lives and livelihoods, or degrade another person, a fellow human being,” we would completely overwhelm those who consider violence and the like a productive way to run things. Of course, I also found one issue almost as quickly. We had to define peace. It’s only been 33 years since that moment. I hope I’m getting closer. I’m sure enjoying trying. I’m not the map maker. I’m just a fellow traveler. I hope we can walk together in our search for a definition of peace.


You know that feeling you have when music calms you? You remember the way that favorite song of yours lightens up the weight of the world? That’s a form of peace. Now, I’d like you to turn to someone near you and shake their hand. Say nothing. Just look them in the eye, as if you both love the same song. Feel that peace you just shared, that followed a tiny moment of discomfort? Don’t ever forget it. Repeat it as often as you can. Peace.

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