Picture of people choosing musical instruments

Tibetan Mind Training in the Sandbox

I have met many of you at Shambhala meditation center, where I have been doing mind training at Monday Night Sangha. I’ve noticed a lot of connections between the Lojong (the Tibetan word for mind training) and the work I’ve been doing with Sonic Sandbox. I thought I’d share my thoughts about Monday’s Lojong slogan.

The most recent slogan at Monday Night Sangha (MNS) was “Be grateful to everyone.” This slogan is about acceptance. The gratefulness is for what we can learn from the impact another person’s actions has on us. I am reminded that we can only control our own actions. What we do has an impact on others, but we can’t control that impact in the same way we can control ourselves. We can influence others, but that’s not the same as control.

“Be grateful to everyone” is an attitude the Lojong suggests as a strategy for interactions with others. I think the main question is that since we have no control over others, what is the most useful way to interact with them? If we try to control them, we will inevitably have less of an influence than we want, and this can easily feel like failure. We’ll feel bad about ourselves. We’ll take responsibility for things that are outside our control. We’ll blame ourselves for not being good enough.

Does it help us to feel bad about ourselves? Does it help to feel ineffective? Like a failure?

On the other hand, if we acknowledge we have no control, and instead treat the actions of others as a force of nature — a kind of structure or boundary within our lives that we cannot violate, then we could cultivate another attitude. We could even be grateful. Grateful for what, though? Grateful for what this structure in our lives can teach us.

Do we seek to control gravity? Maybe, but if we do, we will fail. Should we feel bad about failing? Or can we learn from the experience? If we are grateful to gravity, then it is easier to learn about gravity and how it is an immutable force affecting our lives. We can’t do anything about gravity except learn to live with it the way it affects us. In doing so, we learn about gravity, and how it affects us and other things. We learn about the air and water and solid matter, all of which are attracted towards other masses by the force we call gravity. We can use this knowledge to make it possible to pursue our own agendas.

The same attitude can be cultivated towards other people. Other people are like forces of nature. They are themselves. They do what they do. We can be grateful to them, and learn to live with how their actions affect us. If we learn from each person, we can use this knowledge to make it possible to pursue our own agendas. If we keep on trying to deny other people and trying to make them into something other than what they are, it is the same as trying to turn gravity into something other than what it is. As we all know, that doesn’t work. That is like banging our heads against the wall and expecting the wall not to resist and not to hurt when we hit our heads against it. But if we accept the wall and are grateful to it, and accept our heads and skulls and nerves and are grateful to them, we may decide there’s little point in banging our heads against the wall.

So if we accept other people as they are, according to their established patterns of activity, we can learn from that. If we are grateful for what we learn, we will be better able to interact with them in ways that move us towards our own goals. We won’t try to change them. We’ll work with them, instead, using their patterns of behavior as best we can to help us, instead of trying to change their patterns, which, we know, will probably make them resist us.

In the Sonic Sandbox, we use sound and acceptance of what is in order to demonstrate this principle. Instead of trying to change people, by, say, judging them, and telling them the sound they are making is wrong or ineffective or not pretty, we simply accept whatever sounds they make. If we accept all sounds, then how can we pursue our own agendas? We are not in control. We can’t make anyone create a different sound than the one they are making. So how can we influence what is happening?

One way to influence what is happening is to be grateful for the sounds that others are making. How can we show our gratefulness? One way is to copy that sound. What happens when we copy the sound of someone else? When I ask people to reflect on the experience of being in the Sonic Sandbox, most people report feeling supported when other people copy them. They feel like leaders. They feel liked. Appreciated. Like others are grateful to them. This gives them a flush of pleasure and validation. And then what?

Being validated seems to encourage people to validate others. They get copied, and then they copy others, in return. The Sonic Sandbox can set up a positive feedback loop where people take turns supporting each other — being grateful to each other. What happens to the sounds people make when we are interested in each other and then show our gratefulness for what they do by copying them? Sounds converge. New things happen. A rhythm starts happening. A harmony happens. A sound texture happens. Maybe a melody happens. Sometimes everyone converges on the same thing. Sometimes different groups of people form, some doing a rhythm, others a harmony, and others a melody. Sometimes one person is off on their own while everyone else keeps a rhythm going. What happens? Music happens!

Sonic Sandbox is a live, interactive demonstration of many of the mind training ideas presented in the Lojong. Sonic Sandbox is also a fun, freeing experience where people can just be themselves without worry of judgment, and take joy in connecting sonically with others.

Tonglen (Sending and Taking) in the Sonic Sandbox

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of Lojong or “mind training” there is a special form of meditation called Tonglen, which is a practice of thinking of sending and taking. On the outbreath, you imagine sending the things you want in the world out into the world. The things to think about add benefit to the world, so they probably include compassion, love, gentleness, getting what you need to live, and so on. On the inbreath, you take away the things in the world that you don’t want to be there; things like pain, pollution, isolation, unmet need and so on.

In the Sonic Sandbox, the basic improvisation exercise (also called toning) is a practical demonstration of the experience of dynamic (or interactive) sending and taking. We all take a breath together and initiate our own sound together. This sound is an expression of our feelings in the moment. It can be made either with or without intention or much thought. It really doesn’t matter what the sound is. All that really matters is that everyone contributes. Each person’s sound is a gift to the group, without which, music cannot happen.

I ask that people hold their sound for the length of one breath. I also ask that they listen to their sound in combination with all the other sounds, just letting them be, without needing to judge the sounds, instead noticing what happens when all the sounds coexist, and if they like, noticing interactions that interest them.

We do this two times for the length of one breath. Then, the third time, I ask people to keep making sounds, which means they have to continue to take breaths in order to be able to make sounds. I also ask them to start copying the sounds that interest them, and to move back and forth between making their own sound and copying the sounds that interest them. I ask them to do this on their own time, following their own impulse to either offer sound or copy sound. We need make no attempt to consciously or deliberately try to coordinate ourselves. If we just follow our impulses, that coordination seems to start to happening without effort.

Making sounds is sending. Copying is sending. When we breathe in, we are taking — offering a cessation of sound production (which also makes a small sound that can be heard if everyone is doing the same thing). The taking is the preparation for the sending. But the sending can be something primarily from our own impulse, or it can be something primarily taken from another’s impulse (copying).

The copying is often experienced as support by those who are copied. By switching between sound initiation and copying each of the others who make sounds, we can create a group where everyone feels like they are a part of the group and are being supported by everyone else. By doing so without a plan to do so, the support feels fortuitous, which is different that if we deliberately take turns copying everyone else, one after the other. However, whether we plan the support or it happens fortuitously, being a leader supported by other people’s copying often gives people confidence in their sounds and that makes them more willing to both lead and follow, solo and support, all of which add interesting changes when improvising music.

Meditation is typically practiced with a primary focus on one’s own experience, even if we are meditating in a room full of other meditators. When we add sound, we create another form of collective meditation, where we can observe the impact of our actions on others. We can observe all kinds of different ways of interacting with others.

In most social interactions, people take a lot of care to make sure they do not harm others with their behavior, and the Sonic Sandbox is no different. However, when making music from nothing, where we have no instructions about what kind of sounds we should make, people often crave instruction. We want to fit in. But how do we fit in when we don’t know what we are doing? How do we fit in when we have no prior agreement about how we are going to fit together?

Traditionally, most social groups have a history, and it is a settled issue of who will lead and who will follow. But in the Sonic Sandbox, we have no prior agreement — except that the facilitator will provide a signal (a breath) that indicates we are to start. Other than that, the facilitator is no different from any other member of the group. In a group where everyone is pretty much equal (other than the agreement about who will start the effort), we have to quickly solve the problem of leading and following, giving and taking, if we want to connect with others and build trust with them and create a sense of cohesion of the group.

Sonic Sandbox is a dynamic experiment in the solution of that problem that is based on the principle that everyone can lead and everyone can follow and be supportive and that all roles are equally important and that everyone is equally capable of filling any role at any time. All we need to do is figure out, for each moment, who is playing what role. The amazing thing is that if we all listen, and we all have faith that the process will be equally supportive for all of us, we quickly find ourselves making amazing sounds that can, indeed, be labeled as “music,” should we choose to do so. Of course, by that time, we’re having so much fun, it really doesn’t matter what label we apply to our efforts.

Once people learn that the process is trustworthy, it stops being necessary to agree that someone should play the role of the facilitator. All that is required is that we agree we get together for the purpose of sonic giving and taking. As soon as we get together, people are aware that the process depends on listening and copying, and so they start doing so, even without instruction or permission. It becomes the process of the group and people move into awareness of and implementation of actions consonant with these rules at the agreed on time and place.

The consequences of playing by these rules include fun, but aren’t limited to fun. Some of the consequences have an effect on the way we think. I can’t describe these changes at this point. I know they’re there, but I’m not exactly sure what they are. However, one impact this work has on me is that I feel a sense of connection to others that feels very close and is quite surprising compared to the way I feel most of the rest of the time.

The toning exercise seems to create invisible and satisfying bonds between people. These are not restrictive bonds, but welcome bonds. I think they are welcome because we know if they start to seem restrictive, we can easily introduce some new sound and that will quickly change what is going on. Others will copy and the music will change and it will always be a collective reflection of what is going on individually for each person. No one will ever be stifled and no one will ever be dominant for very long, and this is the closest we can get to collective self actuation.

I love this process and I love playing with people this way — and then, my mind often takes another step, and I wonder what it would be like if this way of interacting with others could be incorporated in other ways that humans organize themselves. What if these principles of dynamic leadership and supportership were applied in other kinds of organizations, such as community groups or corporations? Could these principles help organizations of people become more adept at reaching their goals? Could these principle ameliorate some of the more dehumanizing aspects of corporations and other organizations? Could they make relationships more satisfying in any group of people, no matter what its purpose — whether organizations of people who are blood relations or organization brought together around projects or for social purposes?

Let me know what you think. Let me know if you would like to try these techniques. At this point, I would be happy to go anywhere and work with any group to see how this form of play affects trust, connection, creativity, problem solving and cohesiveness within that group.

Sonic Sandbox topics I want to think and write about

There are a number of topics I want to write about related to Sonic Sandbox. Some of what I want to write about is about how Sonic Sandbox works. Some pieces will be about the theory behind the exercises/games I use. Some will cover my long terms plans. Some will lament (maybe even whinge) about my struggles in building Sonic Sandbox. Some will describe and reflect on my personal experiences. I’m using this post to provide an outline for topics I want to write about in the future within each of these subject headings. I will return to this post from time to time to update it as I think of new ideas or as I write some of the pieces, so I can add links.

How Sonic Sandbox works

  • The exercises
    • Meditation
    • Making sounds together without judging (toning)
    • Sustained sound with change through copying
    • Laughter “meditation”
    • Moving with our music
    • Sound mirroring
    • Sound infection
    • Name game
    • Drum circle
    • Call and response
    • Sound conversation
    • Life opera
  • Theoretical issues
    • What happens in our brains: the different ways we think
    • Characteristics of the sensate and conscious minds (feeling self and thinking self)
    • How sound creates connection
    • Consequences of connection
    • Authenticity or “speaking” from one’s feeling self
    • Eyes closed or open
    • The role of movement
    • Interaction types: group, dyad, solo
    • Rhythm, harmony, melody
    • How to teach listening
    • How to teach people to support each other
    • How to create safety
    • How the experience can be used in psychological recovery
    • How the experience can be used as a model for relationships in other areas of life
    • Supporting people to be safely transparent in as many aspects of life as possible — eliminating self-destructive shame/reducing the need for secrets/increasing tolerance for variation in human behavior
    • The survival value of cooperation, the need to appear to be someone others can cooperate with, and the consequences of diverging too far from your true self in order to appear to be someone others can cooperate with (homo-cooperability vs hetero-cooperability)
    • How Sonic Sandbox widens the range of hetero-cooperability through example and experience and how to create a wider range of hetero-cooperability in other aspects of life
  • Plans
    • Building a sustainable workshop
    • Expanding workshops to other areas
      • Using the workshop for team building in formal organizations
      • Teaching youngsters alternative ways to relate to each other
      • Giving music therapists additional tools
      • Rituals for community building
      • Aiding community problem solving
      • Personal growth
      • A mechanism useful for changing habits of thought and creating psychological wellness
    • The Sonic Sandbox Institute
    • Integration into life in many kinds of institutions and across cultures
  • Struggles
    • Marketing, oh marketing
    • I HATE Facebook (and don’t get me started about Twitter)
    • Doubting my business skills and my energy and focus
    • Finding allies and helpers
  • My musical experiences
    • Peak moments
    • Reflections on the last workshop (what it was like; what I learned)
    • Sonic Sandbox at conferences
    • The original testing ground Sonic Sandbox “Band” experiences
    • Me and my trumpet
    • Improvisation in the wild (typewriter story)
    • Music, mental dysfunction, and recovery

And…. we’re off!

DSC_7097My first official Sonic Sandbox Workshop is behind me. I rented space. I advertised. Hung up flyers. Got totally frustrated with the idiocy they call Facebook. Used my email lists. Tried to contact everybody I know, and even paid for some Facebook outreach. When they talk about targeted marketing on Facebook, I now know what they mean, because I tried to target my outreach.

We had a great time at the West Philly Suzuki Piano Studio. It’s a wonderful space. My son took some pictures and a video which I hope to post soon. Sometimes, even though I really believe in Sonic Sandbox, I’m amazed at how well it works. I look around at the group, and see the smiles on people’s faces and see how much they are into it and how free they are, and then I check in with myself, and even I’m not worrying about how things are going or whether I need to tweak something here or there, and I start relaxing and letting myself go, just like I created this for. I stop being facilitator; stop feeling like I’m always watchful, and trust the process and let myself go, because it’s working! You can sign up for it here.

I was hoping and predicting that, based on the response to my initial marketing, I’d have five to eight people there, but there were three. That means I still have lots of marketing to do. It’s not my favorite thing because of the struggles managing lists and of course, dealing with Facebook. Can anyone explain how Facebook managed to take over the world with such a non-intuitive, crappy interface? It is the very definition of kludge. You can barely say it works, and yet, it has taken over the world. One can only hope that the competitors in China or India or elsewhere will manage to establish roots in the US and show Facebook how things really should be.

The amazing thing is that with four of us, the energy was incredible! We did a kind of debriefing afterwards, because I wanted to know what people thought about both the workshop and my outreach, and the folks there were really helpful. Honestly, I don’t really remember what people said about the workshop itself, but my impression was that it really matters what I say to set up people’s expectations. When I say that we are here to support each other to freely express ourselves, people believe me and actually take that to be true — simply because that’s what we really want to do. Who wants to live constantly worrying about whether what they do is acceptable?

I think some people might fear that if we all just let loose, it’ll be chaos. The thing is, Sonic Sandbox isn’t chaos because of the emphasis on listening and copying. There’s space both to let loose and be all in with your energy, but also to be supportive and create a strong foundation for others to let loose. If we take turns, and share in the responsibility for caring for everyone else, what happens is not chaos. It’s beautiful, but with an authentic energy I haven’t really heard anywhere else.

The feedback I got about marketing was that the thirty-something generation is more of a “drop-in” generation. In uncertain times, it’s hard to make a commitment to ten sessions, knowing that you’ll probably not be able to make it sometimes. As a result, I think I’m going to open my sessions up to drop-ins.

I really want people to come regularly because in my experience, when we work with the same people again and again, and we practice regularly, we get to know each other better (which is mostly the point of these workshops) and we can take more risks and express ourselves ever more deeply. When people take risks, the music gets more and more incredible! When we know each other better, we can start to predict what others are going to do, and that anticipation means we are more in tune with the energy of the moment and everyone latches on to a new direction that the music takes more quickly and more powerfully.

Still, even without knowing each other, the workshop works well. I’ve taken it to several conferences now, including one international conference, and while my groups seem small to me (fifteen people at best), the energy people experience and the high they get from the work/play seems really deep.  I’m almost afraid to have a big group because I don’t know if it could be the  same — I’d have to learn how to break it into smaller groups, I think. But still, that would be a wonderful problem to have.

So I need help. I need help reaching out to more people in Philadelphia. I need help figuring out how to price the workshops in a way that makes it easier for people to participate, but also encourages people to make it a practice. Obviously, if I have people coming regularly, it generates more income for me, but I truly believe that practice is also going to make the impact these workshops have on individuals much stronger.

One suggestion at the confab after the workshop was that I could charge a regular individual workshop price (which is currently $25) and then offer people discounts if they are willing to pay in advance.

In any case, one person signed up for the ten sessions, and one person gave a donation, which covers my space rental for the month. I still have expenses related to marketing and instrument purchases that will take more income to cover. I share this because I want people to know where I’m at, financially. I also have expenses related to the conference attendance. So far, I’ve been able to get funding to cover my attendance at these conferences. I had thought that maybe they pay for presenters, but it turns out that’s not the case, but I feel like breaking even is a decent goal for me at the moment, since I do love this work.

In the works is a letter of inquiry for a grant proposal where this Foundation that is interested in supporting community-building arts work would do a documentary about Sonic Sandbox. If I get that, then people who participate would have a chance to have their participation filmed. I’m sure that for some that would be a great inducement to participate, although others might find that a bit scary. Ideally, I want to be able to find ways to help everyone be comfortable, and I hope I will always be open to suggestions to make the experience better and to meet people’s individual needs. That doesn’t mean I can succeed at all that, but I want to be open to feedback, and I think I will be, as long as it follows the Sonic Sandbox guidelines in terms of being supportive.

That’s a lot more news that I was expecting to impart when I sat down to write this. One more thing on my schedule is the iNAPS conference in Phoenix on October 16-18th. I’ll be doing a workshop there on the 16th, in case anyone will be there, too.

What happens at a Sonic Sandbox Improvisational Music Workshop?

Having Fun, Creating Meaning, Doing What I Love

I teach improvisational music and I support peers. For me, everything is about improvisation. My job is to understand where people are, and take their impulses and channel them into a learning experience using my knowledge and ability to make stuff up on the spot.

Last night, I was talking to someone from a support group. He told me that he felt like he was having trouble feeling things. He would touch something with his fingers, but it didn’t seem like it was really there. I asked him if he thought there was a way he could learn to feel things. He said he had this idea that he could have a bunch of things in a bag, and he’d stick his hand in, and see if he could identify them.

I asked him how he could get a bag of things he could do this with. He had the idea that he could collect things while walking around. I used his idea as an opportunity to talk about being present, and how he could practice expanding his awareness of the present by trying to notice things as he walked. I then took him and gave him a mini tour of my garden and talked about the things I noticed. I ended up talking about the grass that grows under a tree where nothing else seems to be able to grow. Not much water gets through the tree to the ground there.

I asked him to pick a piece of grass and just try to notice things about it. I picked another grass stem and started doing it myself. I was expecting him to start at the top, because with this kind of grass, there’s a kind of furry, pussy-willow shape at the top, which is why I let that kind of grass grow there. It’s a lot more specific than other kinds of wild grasses.

Instead, he started feeling the roots he had pulled out, and talking about how they felt kind of undifferentiated to him. He couldn’t really describe them. I asked him to feel the stem part. He told me it was harder and smoother. We then felt a leaf, which surprised me, because it was soft and floppy. I wasn’t expecting that.

I believe there are opportunities to learn how to be present at every place and time. It’s all about noticing things. A lot of people don’t seem to notice things, or the things they notice are not things they necessarily believe. Sometimes they hear things, but they aren’t sure those things are there, so they nervously ask someone else if they hear it, too.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to do an improv workshop. I was expecting maybe ten people to participate, but when I walked in, there were more than twenty-five people there, with more arriving. This made me a bit nervous because it meant I couldn’t follow my plan, which involves a rather time intensive exercise where people take turns making up a song and movement with their name. There’s a lot of repetition, and doing that with twenty-five people would take up a lot more than the time I had. Plus I had to introduce them to the topic and get them out of their chairs and moving around before I could get to that exercise.

I always start by telling my story so they understand how I developed the workshops — how they come from my background in music, but were developed to help me cope with depression. Then I lead a meditation designed to help people relax and feel more comfortable with themselves and what we are doing. Normally, I ask them to focus on a few parts of their body and imagine their breath flowing through those parts.

However, I noticed a few people laughing uncomfortably, so I incorporated that into my meditation. “Notice the laughter. Notice the sound of the fan.” It was actually kind of amazing. The people noticed their own laughter and stopped making sounds, and I felt like they started being more present instead of being uncomfortable about being present.

Then, after we did the toning exercise, someone asked me about the laughter. This reminded me that there are laughter meditations, and that I had just seen a role model of mine, Mike Veny, do this laughter meditation as an ice breaker. He had told me that it really helps to get people out of their chairs to move around. It helps them get past their fears and get involved.

So, never having done this before, I decided to answer the participants question about laughter by mentioning the laughter meditation or laughter yoga, whatever it is called. People hadn’t heard of it, so I just started them with fake laughter. I had them walk around the room, make eye contact, and go “HA HA HA,” in a fake way to each other. Before I knew it, it transformed into real laughter, and the energy in the room completely changed.

For me, that was using whatever was available to me to achieve my goals. I matched an interest of the group with an exercise I knew about to take them from where they are gently to another place. I had had no plan to do that, but the group gave me the idea, and I was paying attention enough to notice the idea and then go with it.

I think that education, at its best, uses what they call “teachable moments” as a way to provide information in a way that is responsive to the students’ curiosity. You’re not really abandoning the lesson plan. You still know the goals you have for your lesson, but you aren’t attached to how you reach that goal. It is far better to take students from where they are to another place, than to try to force them to stand in two lines, like Madeline, and make them walk there in lock step.

That’s because students are much happier to do something if it is their idea. If it satisfies their curiosity. Many teachers, I think, are afraid to improvise. They are more concerned about controlling their students, because they know that when students are quiet and appear attentive, then it looks like the image most people have of education.

In fact, there is a huge difference between the appearance of attentiveness and actual attentiveness. Actual attentiveness is usually a lot more messy. Students are each pursuing their own way along the lesson plan. Perhaps everyone isn’t doing the same thing at the same time. Yet, if you honor their curiosity and respect them the way adult learners are accustomed to, then it becomes much easier to teach them what you want to teach simply by matching their curiosity to your lesson plan.

Children are not so different from adult learners. They also crave respect, but are generally used to not getting it. They’ve been told children don’t know enough to guide themselves, so they have to be guided and regimented if they are to learn anything. This probably feels pretty bad for most children, but they are good at sucking it up and conforming because they know their lives depend on being able to get along.

Some adults know better. Some expect respect. Perhaps that is more difficult for teachers, because it means they can’t write out everything they are going to say, and then say it.

It’s even worse with the kind of teaching I do. I want to give people experiences that they can learn from. I’m not going to tell them what they are going to learn. It’s not that I don’t know what I want them to learn nor how I can teach them. However, I know that they guide their own learning. They will tell me how best to teach them, if only I find a way to listen. So their questions guide me. Their behavior guides me. I just need to notice how people are acting, and then use their energy to guide them towards the lesson. Their behavior tells me how to formulate the experience so they can then evaluate it, and learn what they learn.

Some people say the work is relaxing or fun. Some see a little bit about listening and connecting. Sometimes the most surprising students are those who seem to have the least attention. Once, there was an older man in a workshop, who didn’t talk much, and when he did, he slurred his words and spoke slowly. I figured he was on heavy duty medications.

At the end of the workshop, he said the most amazing thing. He said, “This gives me meaning in my life. Most days, I sit in front of the TV all day and nothing else. Making the music makes me feel like there’s something to look forward to. It’s meaningful.”

In the end, that’s exactly what I want to teach. Accepting yourself as you are, and making your own sounds while listening to others. That’s meaningful. That’s connection. That’s both speaking out and being heard, as well as feeling like you’re part of something larger than yourself. That’s meaningful! That’s the work that makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile while doing what I love to do.