SF Medicine Article: Music & Medicine

“Love and intimacy are the root of what makes us sick and what makes well, what causes sadness and what brings happiness, what makes us suffer and what leads to healing.”

Dean Ornish

 

There’s an old adage that says the most significant journey we’ll ever

make in this life is when we travel the distance from our minds to the region of our hearts. Throughout the world’s spiritual disciplines, the act of deepening our relationship to the Heart and to the many expressions of Love is considered the epicenter of all true healing. It is my belief that music, especially when played or created with an intent to soothe, inspire, and heal, has the power to awaken us to this inherent birthright we all share, this innate capacity to love and be loved.

After nearly fifty years of creating music, I’d like to share a bit of what I’ve learned about its healing power, especially when the music is intended to serve as a catalyst for the feelings associated with love, forgiveness, compassion, and gratefulness, to name a few—resulting in a palpable connection with ourselves and others in ways that can measurably accelerate healing on many levels.

 

The Primacy of Listening

Of all the art forms, music is an astonishing emotional language that communicates to us in the most visceral and immediate of ways. Through powerful vibrational frequencies, timbres, harmonies, rhythms, and melodies, we innately respond to music in ways that we’re only just beginning to understand. From the Big Bang to the vibrational frequency of the earth to every sound and word we’ve ever heard or spoken, everything we are and everything we know is a kind of music, based on vibrations. In fact, vibration is the common denominator of the universe.

Therefore, I find it no mere coincidence that the very first sense humans develop in utero is hearing, and the very last sense to go before we take our last breath is hearing as well. This biological fact has always suggested to me that, for human beings at least, there is a kind of primacy to our listening sense. Music allows us to experience life’s complexities in a language all its own, especially effective when attempting to explore our relationship to the unseen worlds, with Great Mystery, and with Love itself.

Our Obsession with Visual Stimulation

When you look at the contemporary modalities for healing (conventional and integrative), specifically regarding proactive strategies that have been shown to inspire emotional states of contentment, connection, and deep relaxation (which can be useful in the midst of healing crises), these psychosocial strategies are often completely ignored, or, at best, regarded as superfluous.  A cursory look at the very design of most hospital rooms, with the ubiquitous television sets protruding out of every wall, demonstrates what health care’s priorities are, with respect to creating environments that are suitable for healing. And why are televisions literally everywhere in health care environments, while institutional music-playing devices are often in rare supply? Our eyes (in cahoots with the parts of our brain that process information) use 90 percent of our linear discriminative faculties, constantly seeking data that can funnel through our optic nerves, endlessly ravenous for stimulation.

This cultural obsession with our visual portals often successfully distracts us from what we’re feeling, preventing us from ever uncovering the partial truth that we are, in essence, existentially alone, and that we are, in fact, going to die one day. Ironically, what this cultural bias toward constant visual information also does is deprive us of the simple beauty of presence and silence, of reverie and of a wordless connection with others, and with

the remarkable atmospheric and emotional benefits of music. Therefore within health care, despite best intentions, very rarely are the emotional and spiritual dimensions and their correlation to healing addressed in effective and meaningful ways. Somehow, the absence of sound that awakens our hearts and spirits is often overlooked and, even disregarded.

 

Love as an Immune System Tonic

While there are reams of evidence supporting the revelations in the field of mind/body medicine, and of the value of feeling connected to something larger than ourselves, our culture’s institutions have relegated these heretofore-unquantifiable matters of the heart to the more analytical mental health fields, or to our faith-based institutions. Historically, rarely have the twain (the realms of health care and experiential modalities designed to inspire feelings of Love and well-being) formally overlapped.  In fact, the thought that any obstructions to feeling love could in any way undermine our ability to respond to healing protocols is something that has been viewed with cynicism and derision.  However, the times are changing.

 

One Family’s Story

A few years ago, I received a call from a man who had just lost his wife through a protracted illness and end-of-life process. It was a day after the memorial service, and from the sound of the elation in his voice, one would not have thought that this man had just lost his life partner of fifty years. But he proceeded to share with me a deeply moving story. 

This man, whom I will call Bernie, had four sons, all embroiled in a nasty feud.  This feud was of such proportion that not one of his sons would tolerate being in one another’s presence, including in their mother’s hospital room, even though their mother, Sarah, was seriously ill. This feud had been going on for years, and I can only imagine the despair, frustration, and exhaustion Bernie was going through. There was his beloved wife, sick with a life challenging illness, probably on the threshold of an end-of-life process, while all of his sons remained staunchly committed to their anger, to their self-righteousness, and to their determination not to “cave in.”

During this time, a dear friend came to the hospital room to visit while one of the sons was present. This friend came in, turned off the television, and, as luck would have it, brought with him a small CD player, on which he started playing the instrumental music from Graceful Passages, one of the projects for which I created music specifically to assist people in soothing fears while traversing life’s transitions and challenges.

After a few minutes of allowing the music to gently permeate the room’s ambience, something barely perceptible started to shift the room’s emotional tonality, subtly calling forth feelings from deep within the son who was present. He quietly started to cry, feeling the weight of his mother’s illness, perhaps for the first time. And then, something surprising occurred. He woke up to the horror of what he and his brothers were perpetuating by remaining out of contact with one another during this challenging time. Within a few hours, he summoned the courage to contact the one brother with whom he had a tiny opening, asking him if he would be willing to just listen to some music together. In that room, they sat together for the first time in years, listening quietly to this music. And as they did, they mutually acknowledged the shifting tectonic plates within their hearts, gradually moving toward one another in spite of themselves.

Bernie told me that one by one, a different brother was invited to listen to this music. It took all of forty-eight hours for each of the four sons to come to their senses and get out of their petty positions in order to show up for an event in their family’s life that would be remembered forever. For the next month, they laughed together, cried together, forgave one another together, listened to music together, and, most important, loved their mother together as she found her way home.

While telling me this story on the phone, Bernie was by now in tears. Tears of gratitude to me for creating this music that had become an indelible part of their journey, tears of joy for being a part of helping his family heal its wounds, and tears of fulfillment for helping them all learn to be a family together again. And I was in tears, not only because of the enormous honor he had bestowed upon me by sharing his story, but also because of the extraordinary gift I’ve been given to use music as a language for loving, for healing, and for supporting people to remember what matters most in this life.

 

Healing Environments with Music

We live in a time when revelations in neuroscience, quantum physics, and molecular biology have simply not yet been integrated into the way we live and the way we approach healing. We now know that there are subtle yet significant factors that can affect how we think, feel, learn, grow, and relate to one another. However, we’ve lived in a Cartesian paradigm for so long (“I think, therefore I am”) that cavalier skepticism still automatically greets any suggestion that our emotional and spiritual states can significantly influence our immune system’s capacities to recover from dis-ease, and actually assist in our healing process.

Music is one of the most underestimated healing modalities, especially when used subtly as an environmental support tool, the way that it was used in Sarah’s hospital room. When the right music is integrated sensitively it can help us unravel our fears, soften our ability to feel again and become open to looking at the glass as half full for a change. And as you’ve seen with Bernie’s family, it can induce emotional states of being that could dramatically and beneficially influence the outcome of seemingly intractable situations and circumstances.

When you can use music, subliminally or overtly, to instill direct experiences of what cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien calls “the Arms of Love”—compassion, service, kindness, appreciation, forgiveness, and presence, for example—chances are you’ve significantly increased the propensity for healing, if not of the body, then most assuredly of the heart and soul.

Next time you find yourself in an environment where dis-ease is present, allow yourself to experiment with this phenomenon by integrating, however subtly, deeply soothing music that you truly love into the environment. You’ll see that music can provide a powerful support tool for the healing journey, keeping us open, porous, humane, and grateful for being alive.

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