One of the most difficult things for me to learn as a musician has been the practice of non-aggression. This can be a tricky concept and there is often aversion to it when it is explained. But, as Chögyam Trungpa says “transcending aggression is the root of all the artistic talent one can ever imagine.¹”
It is fair to say that, until recently, most of my music has been aggressive. When I was younger, I thought the purpose of my songs was to tell people exactly where the world was going wrong. I grew out of that, mainly because it stopped feeling right. Instead, my songs became focussed on how we should be nice to each other. This, I realise now, was equally aggressive.
Essentially, being aggressive in an artistic sense is attempting to manipulate your audience into thinking or feeling in the way you want. Even if your message is one of love and peace, it is fundamentally aggressive. That’s a lot to take in, isn’t it?
Non-aggression, on the other hand, is simply presenting reality as it is, without filtering it through your own viewpoint.
When you start to be aware of the ways in which one can be artistically aggressive, you see how many traps there are for the unwary. If you want people to like/admire/desire/envy you, or think that you’re a hot sax player or a genius, but tortured, singer and you play to that end, you are being aggressive.
Another pitfall is in making your work too obvious, too delineated, because you are concerned with your message being received in the way you want. Chögyam Trungpa again:
Spelling things out proves one’s legitimacy, wisdom or artistry. But according to Buddhist tradition, the only thing you can do is hint. If you want to demonstrate something very badly and you achieve that, your work of art is a dead one².
We usually think of spelling things out as a mental process, but you can also spell things out emotionally. We’ve all seen performers put emotion “into” the music. You see their emotions first and foremost and they upstage the music. That is a huge imposition onto the music and onto the audience who are denied their own emotional reaction to the music.
Even the popular viewpoint of art as self-expression can be problematic, unless that self-expression is clear of neurosis and able to express reality as it is.
Some may think that this is a lifeless, dry approach to performing music. This is not so. Let us play music as it is, without trying to change, inform or manipulate and we will be playing not “our music” but Music.
¹&² Trungpa, Chögyam, True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art, 1996, page 105