Some musings on science, subjectivity, and inner authority

Some musings on science, subjectivity, and inner authority

You know when the title begins with "Some musings on..." that we're in for a bumpy ride. This is another one of those "winding path" posts...which, as an academic (of sorts) make me extremely uncomfortable. I am much more comfortable with the everything-tied-up-in-a-neat-little-bow style of writing. Nevertheless, this has been fruitful to write and I hope you'll find something that resonates.

But before we meander, a small personal announcement: I'm headed to Vancouver next week for the first part of a 7-week meditation teacher training (officially "Meditation Facilitation Mentorship" -- fancy) with Michael Stone. Michael is wonderful teacher and master synthesizer whose work brings together insights from Western psychology, Buddhist psychology, yoga philosophy, and social justice. The training is designed for people wanting to offer meditation  in educational or clinical settings. I'm looking forward to deepening my own meditation practice and exploring ways to effectively guide others on this path. 

Moving on...

Recently, I have been doing a lot of research related to topics I'd like to explore in the coming weeks and months. Here's a glimpse of some of what I have been looking at:

Since there isn't (yet) much research specifically pertaining to mindfulness for musicians, I have been reading a lot of studies about the unique physical and psychological challenges faced by musicians and a lot of studies about the possible impact of mindfulness on these physical and psychological symptoms. I have also been trying to get a better handle on the current state of mindfulness research, particularly research related to the possible neural mechanisms of mindfulness. To that end, one of my projects has been slogging my way through this bad boy:


Not an easy read! But so worth it. Siegel is a clinical psychiatrist based at UCLA where he is also one of the founding directors of the Mindful Awareness Research Center. Although it was published in 2007, The Mindful Brain is still widely regarded as one of the most -- perhaps the most -- comprehensive reviews of mindfulness research to date. In it Siegel uses data from neuroscience and clinical psychology and insights gleaned first-hand from his own experience as a meditator to build a model of the possible functions, effects, and practical applications of mindfulness. It's great stuff.

Science and subjectivity

This reliance on both experimental data and subjective experience characterizes a lot of the mindfulness research I have encountered. Of course, many mindfulness studies rely on self-report as a tool for gathering data, but that's not really what I'm referring to here. Rather, I am struck by how many of the scientists at the forefront of mindfulness research have long-standing meditation practices and by the ways in which personal practice seems to inform and guide their work. Also staggering is the level of dialogue between scientists and practitioners from various wisdom traditions, and that these exchanges are so collaborative in both nature and spirit. Take for example the Mind & Life Institute's Dialogues with the Dalai Lama. These "...joint dialogues between scientists, philosophers, and contemplatives to investigate the mind, develop a more complete understanding of the nature of reality, and promote well-being on the planet." have been going on for 30 years and have opened up new areas of exploration for both science and contemplative practice. My sense is that both the scientific community and the contemplative community view this undertaking very much as a shared enterprise and one that doesn't just benefit from but requires the particular perspective that each side represents.

I find this cross-pollination so interesting. To me it speaks to both the potential and the limits of what we can know through either science or subjective experience alone.


One of the things I encountered in the course of this research, was a term I hadn't heard before: blobology. It refers to the over-interpretation -- by scientists and non-scientists -- of those colourful blobs on brain scan images that supposedly explain why we think, feel, and act as we do. Scientists can, on occasion, over-state the conclusions that can reasonably be drawn from bran scan imagery. Meanwhile, at least according to this study, non-scientists tend to uncritically gobble up almost anything that is accompanied by a colourful image of the brain. 

And who can blame us for latching on to what seems like such a handy tool for self-understanding? What's the alternative: meditate in a cave for 20 years? 

[Incidentally, this article nicely breaks down what brain scan blobs can and can't tell us, and what they may be able to tell us in the future.]

Outer technology vs inner technology

In the video below, Willoughby Britton, a contemplative scientist and long-time meditator based at Brown University offers a provocative take on what she calls The Blobology Effect.

In case you can't spare the 5 1/2 minutes to watch the video, I'll summarize the provocative part. (But there is lots of good stuff in there that is not provocative!)

Britton says, "When people see colourful blobs on a brain scan, they can be convinced of anything" and, more disturbing, that "...people will believe brain scans over their own experience..." 


But wait -- there's more! She goes further and suggests that:

"...the blobology effect on a deeper level is really a symbol of the imbalance between the inner and outer technologies. Our sense of ourselves, what's going on in our own minds and bodies, is so impoverished that we have to look to colourful blobs on a brain scan to tell us whether we're in love or in pain."

Yowza! That's a bold statement. 

Clearly, it rings true for me or I wouldn't have included it here. I do think that, as a culture, we tend to look disproportionately outside ourselves -- to science, to experts, to media, to our Facebook new feeds -- for cues about how to think, feel, and act. And I think that can be dangerous.

But, I don't really want to debate that point. (Well, I do...just not right now...) 

What I want to do is briefly look at the idea of "inner technology" and how it might relate to being a musician. 

Artistry and Inner Authority

I understand Britton's term "inner technology" to refer to the process or processes by which one might arrive at a sense of inner authority. I don't want to get into what those process might be (cough, cough...mindfulness!...cough). Instead I want to skip right to inner authority.

By inner authority, I mean the deep and unshakeable sense of being able to think, feel, and act on one's own...not necessarily without reference to any external authority but with the full and mature understanding that the buck. stops. here. -- with you and you alone. 

Inner authority is not a devil-may-care attitude or a wholesale flouting of authority. 

Nor is it, necessarily, characterized by certainty. As often as not, inner authority requires us to hold conflicting positions and to act in the face of doubt. 

It is a willingness to be vulnerable, a willingness to be wrong, a willingness to be brilliant -- and maybe all of these in the blink of an eye. 

As musicians, we spend a lot of time on outer technologies -- from technique and interpretation to marketing and self-promotion -- with perhaps the view that from them an inner authority -- an authentic voice -- will naturally grow. 

It might. But I think more likely inner authority involves both a choice and an ongoing nurturing. 

We can apprentice ourselves to various teachers, schools, and methods but, at a certain point, we have to let go of the hand that we are holding. That hand might be a mentor's approval, a good review, or perfect technique. It might be a feeling of not being good enough or it might be a feeling of being great. Whatever it is, we eventually have to let go in order for our own voice to emerge.

Or not. I mean, can any one even tell if you are making music from a place of inner authority? I don't know...maybe. But maybe not.

But I guess the important question is: Can you tell the difference within yourself? 

In the wise words of the great Dolly Parton, 

"Find out who you are and then do it on purpose."


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