Learning to let go
How Stoicism completely altered my approach to making music
All it took was a long walk in nature, Stoicism's Dichotomy of Control, and asking myself some tough questions to completely alter my perspective when it comes to making music and sharing it online.
Changes came quickly
With how badly I wanted help for my anger issues as I had pointed out in my previous reflection, the few changes in perspective that I embraced took hold quickly and began this momentum to work on myself. I was starting to see results in my attitude, my anger started to subside, and life was slowly starting to feel more manageable. I thought to myself, if this works for stuff in my life, I really should put my music under the same evaluation and experimentation.
So to recap for those who missed the first day of Stoicism class, there’s a tool in the Stoic’s playbook that is immensely helpful for determining where your energy ought be directed and help identify when you’re needlessly spinning your wheels at what may never materialize. That tool is: the Dichotomy of Control. The Dichotomy of Control is this: evaluating something and determining whether or not we have control over that thing. If we have control (or some level of), then it’s fine to expend energy on that thing and trying to change it. But if we don’t have control (or very little), it’s a waste of our energy, our time, our mental health. Leave it.
The list of things under our control is very, very small, finite, and best of all, manageable. Those things are our opinions, our beliefs, our thoughts (for the most part), our actions, our speech. If it emanates from your being as a willful outward expression, it’s likely something you can control. You might also elaborate on this list by including your reactions or responses to things, your attachments, your aversions, and your attitudes. Small list, manageable. Difficult no doubt, but manageable.
The list of things outside your control? Everything else! How others see you. How you’re perceived. What people’s opinions of you are. How much they’ll like you. Whether or not they can be bothered to listen to your music. Agree with you on your stance on Coldplay. It’s all outside your control, and to devote time and energy to try and change things in this category will lead to self-inflicted suffering.
This whole concept of focusing on just what was within my control was pretty life-altering. It’s funny, because the concept is pretty straight forward. If you can’t really do anything about it, don’t sweat it. If you can, then roll up your sleeves and get to work.
And I did just that with my assorted history with music squarely in my sights.
I pulled up to the Eastman Nature Preserve, got out of the car, and set out for a chilly late autumn walk — all by myself and out in nature. My goal was pretty concrete: take my music and all that it’s been and has become, and inspect ALL OF IT under the lens of “is this under my control, or is this something I shouldn’t bother with?” So on my walk, and talking out loud (because that’s what I just have to do sometimes when I’m processing heavier stuff), and mentally making a checklist. OK, now to create a list of the things outside of my control — whether or not people will like my music, whether or not I can make it through the algorithms, how many people will buy my music, let alone sell any at all, I can’t control how people perceive me or my music, or how many will find me on the streaming platforms, or watch my videos on YouTube. All of that, and infinitely more, is outside of my control.
Then I went to verbally write out my list of things within my control. No surprise, that list was pretty short. The themes of things I could control pertained to how much I practiced, the level of attention to detail and care that I put into my compositions, making my music a true piece of artistic expression, being motivated by love for the process and not on outcomes, and other things that have everything to do with my attitudes, my opinions, my aversions, my attachments.
A cure for the suffering
In Taoism, they elude to this in the 46th entry in the Tao Te Ching, where it’s said that there is no greater sin than desire, no greater misfortune than discontent, and no greater calamity than greed. Desire, discontentment, greed — that just leads to suffering. But the balance to that sort of energy, desirelessness, contentment, self-control — that leads you away from suffering.
A lot of my life I’d been holding onto this dream of being a career musician, to make money from my music — enough to earn a living. A familiar voice from the back yells, “pipe dream!” It’s not that these things aren’t attainable, but where you place all your hopes, expectations, money, and energy into matters quite a bit. If the outcome matters to me, then I’m caught, I’m stuck. For if my music doesn’t sell like I hope, the doorway opens to things like imposter syndrome, self-doubt, and a whole load of gross feelings. But if my attention is simply placed on me being present now, as a musician, as an artist and a creator, and simply doing and being as would a musician and an artist does. That’s it.
As a musician, I create music that moves me. I want it to evoke a feeling, to ignite my imagination and invite it to create its own little universe inside my head, and I want it to say something, something personal. Of course I mix and master, do the things, release it on the services, promote it; but that’s just administrative work to me. And what of the outcome of all of this, the sum of my labor? How much I make? How many streams? Who cares? I created, I am creating, and I’m going to continue to create and find ways to tap in deeper into the Universe’s frequencies and rhythms — to observe, to meditate, and to respond.
That change in focus is liberating for the one who’s simply trying to be an artist making art. All of the administrative work is just a distraction from the art, and is simply a tool and a means to widening the base of how many people can hear about your work. But if you’re a career musician, like it’s literally your career and your only source of income, then yeah, you have to balance in the practical financial matters with running a business. Even still, I’d argue that the business end of things should never outweigh the purity in your art. Because when it becomes more about making money, you’re straying into territory that is outside your control and will set you up for a more emotionally volatile future.
The changes in me
So I evaluated my world of making music and trying to “make money” with my hobby. To the degree that I am invested in or attached to me making money off selling my music, will affect the degree of suffering that I experience. If I am really hung up on making money from my music, or gaining popularity, or becoming more well known, I am setting myself up for suffering. But if I alter my focus to things within my control — like double-checking my motives for making music, inspecting and changing my opinions about what I deem important — I can start to find the healthier path for me and not the one that we’ve been sold by the recording industry for decades.
I remember walking up a hill where it emptied to a vast opening in the field, and I remember resolving to myself: I choose to focus on making great art, to be content with whatever the outcome, and to find deep joy and satisfaction in the simple act of creating and living in the present moment, regardless if others hear my music or not. There were no angels, no angelic host, or any profound music filling my head, but my resolve was certain: this area of my life had to change, too.
It has not been an easy road, living out this change. Perhaps one of the greatest obstructions along the way has been my ego, and in all its forms — like leaving behind a legacy when I die, or to have my music be remembered by others, or to get my music heard on radio shows or on other playlists. Over the past three or four years I have been intensely exploring my ego, understanding it, exploring ego reduction, and ultimately ego death. I’ve had a very healthy diet of philosophers and mystics including Alan Watts, Ram Dass, and others challenging many of my long-held ideas, and challenging me to explore other possibilities of thought. One common theme in Eastern mysticism is the reduction or altogether dissolution of ego, to see your identity as part of the source — you’re one with whatever source, consciousness, energy, quark particles — whatever it is, you’re part of it. This means that your ego stuff is kind of irrelevant, it takes on new meaning (and a lesser value), and it shifts your priorities around to much healthier directions.
So when I sit down to create music now, there is very little regard for the end product, the outcome, if it’ll be liked, if I’ll make any money off it. If I dwell there, I am NOT present in this moment and not in the thick of it with the music. I lose myself into the vibrations, into the resonance of the music when I’m composing, and I respond to what I see, feel, and experience from the Universe. That sort of feeling — that was the heart of my long-form 64-minute album “ATMOS” — like a stream of consciousness in musical form and passing through layer after layer in the cosmos.
Learning to let go
Many of my meditation times become a time of letting go, where I take something I’m suffering over and work it over in my mind and inspect it from as many angles as I can possibly see. I’ll then just sort of sit with it and not make any judgments about it, and then when I feel ready I just say “I let it go — I let ____ go and it’s no longer interesting to me.” At the risk of this meditation starting to sound like a New Age Infomercial, it has worked immensely well for me, and even on some tough issues that I’ve held onto for far too long.
Letting go of my attachments to how well my music does, of my old models of what being an artist looks like, and of my old ideas that were all rooted in the game of preserving my ego — letting go has meant freedom. It’s been entirely liberating, letting go of the commodity model for music and just focusing on making great art. It sure is cool when I sell a few albums here and there or when I find out others love my music, but I don’t spend much time in that space. I’d rather stay present, here and now. I still get caught once in a while in the way it’s always been done or commonly accepted, but I’m getting much better at maintaining a more conscious approach to making art, to being an artist, and just doing what artists do.
I’m curious how this meditation sits with you. Let me know how you feel about the role of our ego in music and to the degree we should let go. Post your thoughts in the comments below.