The Religion of Listening

When people ask me what my religion is I usually say Taoist, although Taoism is more of a philosophy than a religion since there is essentially no god involved and no real dogma associated with it. I do not believe in any specific god or set of gods and I consider myself a skeptic in terms of all things supernatural or magical. That said, there is now only one form of magic that I know of, only one religion that I believe in, and that is the magic/religion of group musical performance. 

I had studied eastern philosophy through most of my youth and I had an inherent belief in the concept that everything was connected by a certain energy. I had read things like "The Dancing Wu Li Masters" and "The Tao of Physics" and they had reinforced the idea that a belief that everything was connected did not necessarily involve magical or supernatural thinking. It was somehow backed up by science (science that was way over my head... but apparently real). I had also studied and practiced some Taoist meditation techniques hoping that they would help clarify and amplify my feeling of connection to the universe.  

But it was one very specific experience that truly broke down my skepticism and exposed me to the one thing I now consider to be the only real magic. It is a difficult experience to explain, but I will try. 

I was playing in the high school marching band drum line and I had just been moved from playing bass drum to playing snare drum. There were five other guys playing in the snare line and I was certainly not the best dummer of the group. I was adequate at best. I had had a year of lessons and learned the rudiments and techniques and I could play all of the required parts. But the real goal of playing in a snare line was to play "clean". That is to play the exact same part as the five other guys and make them sound as if it is only one person playing them. To do that, every hit of stick on drumhead had to occur at precisely the same time. You can listen to any decent drum corp snare line and clearly hear it happening but if you stop and think of the logistics involved, it simply should not be possible. The parts are complex and there are hundreds, if not thousands of stick to drum head hits that must happen precisely together. If you are a drummer and try to do this with other drummers without having the experience of playing in this kind of drumline, you will fail.  

On one cold Pennsylvania night, very early in the marching band season, before a competition the drumline was warming up in a parking lot. Most of us were new to the snare line so, as we worked through the warm up exercise of paradiddles and fives, it sounded like a literal  train wreck. The assistant drum instructor stood in front of the snare line with his head down in disgust as we played. He stopped us and told us that we had to stop "trying to play clean" and just listen. Do nothing at all except listen. We started again and as we played it got a little better. I was still not quite getting it though and the instructor began yelling over the drum noise "LISTEN! LISTEN!" over and over. Then it happened. I stoped trying to do anything other than listen. And the magic occurred. With all five of us locked into listening mode the playing magically became clean. A smile came over the face of the instructor and the newbies like myself went into a kind of mild shock. What the fuck had just happened? What had we just experienced? We did it again with a different warm up exercise and then with one of the two drum solos in the show. They were by no means perfect, but there were sections that were actually "clean". And it happened by simply listening. It was truly magic and it would, over the years, become the basis of my religion. 

A few years later I was playing rhythm guitar in a seven piece folk rock band. Once again, I was, at best, an ok rhythm guitarist and certainly the least proficient musician in this band. But having experienced the magic of letting go and listening before, and focusing on it in this situation, a new type of magic emerged. Now listening didn't result in playing "clean" (though it did facilitate a certain tightness in the rhythm section), now it resulted in expressive tempo and dynamic changes occurring naturally amongst all of the band members. Now, as a soloist soared the band would compliment his playing and if the band naturally began a dynamic build the soloist would ride on top of that wave. Changes were communicated through the listening process and everyone experiencing that connection. 

This type of listening/connection was even more powerfully addictive than the drumline listening and the experience quickly became both the core of my religion and the my drug of choice. Over the years I would play with different people and bands all in search of that specific religious euphoria. Sometimes it would happen often, sometimes it would happen sparsely but whenever it happened it brought the high with it. It was the high of rebirth, returning to a place where you were fully connected to everything. Returning to a place before you began to create illusions of a separate self. It was magic that was provable through experience. It was a religion that did not require any faith after that first experience. You knew it was real and repeatable because you did it... as much and as often as you could.  

In Taoist philosophy you try to attain a kind of enlightenment through some meditative practice that allows you to break down the illusion of a separate self. That meditative practice can involve sitting or kneeling or standing or moving. It can involve counting breaths, or accepting and throwing away thoughts, or focusing on body movements, or visualizations. It can be achieved through breathing or playing an instrument or performing an athletic activity or reading a book or even watching TV. Anything that allows you to "lose your self" can be a step towards breaking down the illusion of separation and aid in the feeling of unification with the infinite. But, for me, nothing makes clear ones complete connection to everything, nothing breaks down the illusion of a separate self more than performing music with a group people and allowing yourself to let go and really listen.  

It is a beautiful and pure experience and it is my one and only religious belief. 

So, now if/when people ask me what religion I practice, I will say, "I practice the religion of Listening."