Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Dissonant Note

I learned something important last week about harmony and dissonance.  I've had enough musical theory in my life that the lesson shouldn't have come as a surprise.  But what I knew about music hadn't  yet translated into a metaphor for life.  Beautiful music doesn't exist without some dissonance.  A 7 chord isn't always what my ear wants to hear, but without it, there is no transformation from one key to another.  And transformation is, in the end, what it's all about.

As I move through my ordinary days, sometimes I encounter a brooding, pervasive, deep sadness.  This overpowering sensation sometimes moves me to tears, always turns me toward introspection, and often disrupts my functioning in the outer world.  For all of my life, I've heard a running narrative that says this sadness means something is wrong with me.  So I go to war with myself, trying to figure out where the sadness is coming from and fix it.  Because God forbid that it's okay to just be sad. When there is no obvious reason for the sadness, I often choose the most convenient target.  Or I try to pin the wash of emotion on something from my past.  Sometimes, I engage in one of any number of mind-numbing, awareness blocking activities.  Watching endless baseball games, volunteering for more than I can possibly do, running from one activity to another, a good margarita or setting a new life goal.  All of these things offer a temporary distraction.  But they never solve the problem.  If I can manage to sit with the sadness for a bit of time, the result is often a replay of the harshest, most negative voice I own, convincing me that this sadness is somehow a flaw.

But I discovered something new this week, walking among old growth trees in the heart of the beautiful state of Oregon.  We had taken a break from the group work of the retreat I attended to hike up to and behind a beautiful waterfall.  Usually, being out in nature makes me feel connected, grounded, peaceful, blessed.  But this walk didn't provide any of those harmonious notes.  Instead, the further I walked, the sadder I became.  My heart grew heavy and my thoughts turned somber.  And the inner dialogue about my faults and failures cranked up.  But this time, something different happened.

As we continued the work we'd been doing as a group, we listened to a piece of music.  I had tried to process what I was experiencing through some writing and some drawing before we began, but I was still deeply sad.  When the music started, I almost could not sit still and listen.  It hurt.  The music didn't soothe me, or take away the depth of the emotion I was feeling.  Instead, my feelings only intensified, along with that negative narrative.  I knew we would be sharing our experiences of listening to this piece, and I dreaded sharing what was happening for me, because it didn't measure up or meet the mark of the exercise.

As we began to talk about our experiences of listening to the music, I gathered up my courage to speak.  When I shared my reaction, the response was one of deep empathy, a holding of both my sadness and my discomfort with the music which helped quiet that vicious inner voice.  And something else happened.  Others shared that the walk among the trees had impacted them in a similar way, creating within them an overpowering sorrow.  And in that moment, the dissonance shifted, the key changed, and I recognized something I had never noticed before.

We are all connected, at a subterranean level, with one another and with the world around us.  The profound sense of sadness that sometimes overtakes me comes from a collective place.  It's not only my sadness.  It's not a flaw.  It is a recognition that I am part of something larger than myself, a connection with the soul of another and with the soul of the earth, the trees, the water and the sky.  This sadness was a resonance with the vibration of the trees that have stood for centuries and with those who have shed tears sheltered in their shade.  The sadness roots me like the trees to something bigger, something more, something beyond my comprehension.  And if I can simply hold the dissonance for a while, sometimes I get to be a part of the next movement in a new key.

Weeping, They Stand

The roar of water rushing over the edge of rock,
falling in curtains covering caves.

Old growth trees, dripping moss, rooted to the center of the earth,
standing as sentinels.

The water moves, new each moment, 
headed toward an ocean's destiny.

The trees stand, bound in time,
silent witnesses to all that have passed this way before.

Water, where do you go? When will you be back again?
What song is it that you sing?

Trees, who have you seen pass this way? What suffering and joy have you borne witness?
To whom do you whisper your secrets when the winds blow?


  1. This is so beautifully true - the simplicity and the complexity.

    And sadness, I've found, can lead to strength, individually and collectively. Thanks for bringing this to all of us, Renae.

    1. Thank you Christa. It is both simple and complex. I'm glad you are here.

  2. "It is not a flaw." Reading that single sentence I catch my breath and tears well and trickle. Too often I've been chided for not shoving sadness and melancholy aside with a bright, chirpy smile. Too early I was taught that sadness is a flaw, an indication of my unworthiness and inability to live Right. It's hard - even now - to shed this conditioning. Terribly hard. Thank you for being willing to share honestly, beautifully.

    1. Jeanne, we are not flawed or broken. But hearing the truth amidst the noise can be difficult.

  3. What a beautiful meditation -- the collective unconscious. Someone told me as a child, "Accept the sadness, and it will get easier." For a long time later, I railed against this advice, thinking it irresponsible and inappropriate. Until I stopped railing, and accepted it.

    1. Jena, thank you. I'm glad you got that message as I child. I'm finally just learning to stop the railing.

  4. This is beautiful, Renae. Wise and true. Your experience shows so much about how our individual and collective experiences are braided together, strand to strand. It is always so.
    So glad to read your words, again.
    Love, Julie

  5. Thank you Julie. Braided together. I like that image.