I used to believe that intense focus and concentration were the best way of being. I would spend hours practicing music, hours meditating, hours focusing on just one little thing. The more the world disappeared around me, the better I was supposed to be.
Capitalism and patriarchy train us to work really hard and excel at one skill in order to be worthy and recognized. But all of this work to be specialized and great at something cuts us off from our sense of interconnection. We are taught to compete rather than collaborate, to be alone and industrious in order to produce a result that is better than that of others.
In undergrad music school, I would walk up and down the hallways and see people in their practice spaces, for hours upon hours, directing all of their energy and attention onto one single thing. Each of us used individual practice rooms where, instead of playing with people, we were training to excel at our craft. I learned that individual mastery of one instrument was the way to be. I practiced all of the time.
When I tried to look at the larger world around me, I got easily overwhelmed, scared, sad, anxious, lost, hopeless. So to cope, I would simply zoom in and ignore all the background noise, erase any thought that didn’t pertain to this one single thing. This scale. This piece.
I have realized that my coping mechanism was also what led me into deep bouts of depression, narcissism, self-absorption, and intense crying from feeling a disconnection from the world around me. Then, to alleviate my sadness, I would dive back into music in order to escape, continuing the cycle.
Depression is losing sight of the whole — falling into one mental space that feels as though it always was and always will be.
Depression is only seeing one thing — being trapped in one experience, one repeating and repeating thought.
I spent so many years narrowing my focus that my mind got into the pattern of hard fixation.
I spent hours deep in my imagination, but then I wouldn’t be able to come out from the intense focus. I mistook this focus for depth, but depth is not narrow. It expands and has breadth. I was digging a tunnel that ended how it began:
For the past two years, I have been taking anti-depressants as well as practicing the Alexander Technique. Through this technique, I have learned about a soft gaze and a light awareness. It has been two years of unlearning the habits of zooming in. It has been two years of expanding out, seeing more.
Yes, I am home inside my body and aware of my sensations, I hear my thoughts, but I am also aware of my surroundings. Just as I feel my feet, I feel my feet touching the ground.
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When writing a piece of music, I used to think about it so hard that my brain would hurt from all the grasping, and I would get a headache. Now, I hope to approach art-making as less thinking hard and more softening around an idea. I clear space and watch the tendency of the mind and body to grip; but instead of gripping, I let go. I soften my gaze so I see more than what’s in front of me. I let the subtle colors of the periphery be a part of my expanded experience.
I remember a point at which my awareness started to shift. I was sitting in Prospect Park, writing music as I often did, but instead of writing in my notebook, I was looking up and around. Everywhere I looked, there were black women pushing strollers with white babies.
I had often looked out into the world and interpreted it through my story — a story built upon a fortress of privilege. I could not see the layers and layers of structural racism because that wasn’t a problem that affected me. The very essence of being white means you don’t have to make fighting racism your priority since it isn’t affecting you in the way it suffocates people of color (PoC) every day.
When I looked out into the world at Prospect Park that day, the narrow lens that I had been given imploded and shattered. Since then, I have widened my vision and reconstructed my reality in order to see and hear more. I changed my media, books, and podcasts to make sure I was listening to the voices of PoC. I started a performance series, The Moon Show, which promotes artists who are PoC, women, and trans. I went to events and shows that featured PoC and expanded my social group. I realized that PoC are not safe anywhere: on the streets, in their houses, or even in church.
I feel a bit like a born-again anti-racist activist because I truly believe that, if more white people woke up to the reality that we uphold and maintain white supremacy, that we are responsible for the system that created the Charleston massacre, something big could shift. Racial injustices exist because so many white people are passively part of a structure that squashes and oppresses PoC. Our reality is simply what we choose to pay attention to, so if we all started to really pay attention to structural racism and how it is built upon white inaction, it might begin to break down.
Since learning the Alexander Technique, taking antidepressants, and having this shift in awareness, I have found that I am rarely swallowed by severe bouts of depression. Yes, having a daily awareness of the suffering in the world can be extremely discouraging, but it also means I’m connected empathically to other people. Seeing more and allowing more of the world into my experience makes my life bigger than me. There are moments, days even, when my old depression comes storming in: the old stories of heartbreak, loneliness, and isolation. But then I step back — and step back — and step back — until my life becomes a sliver of a dot in this great mass of people. My pain is still there, but I keep widening my perspective to see the lives of other people and how our lives are intertwined.
What I pay attention to and how I live affects everyone else.
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[Headline image: The image show a black rectangle with a circle in the center. In the circle is a photograph of two people are standing on a beach with the ocean visible. It is as though one were looking into the viewfinder of a camera or telescope. Photograph copyright Mariel Berger.]