When we lost Aretha Franklin, we lost an American icon, a towering genius of musical prowess. But in an important way, her beauty never left – it lives within us, and when we listen to her music, all of the power and magic is fully present. Music doesn’t die. Nothing real ever does. There’s a timeless essence hidden just beneath the surface of the waves of impermanence. Music reveals that eternal realm and draws us into accord with it.
When words, doctrines, and explanations fail us, songs salve our wounds and bind our broken places. As Beethoven said, “Music is a higher truth than philosophy.”
At the heart of every great wisdom tradition lies one core idea: ineffability. The ultimate source or ground of being is beyond words and thoughts. We cannot name it or describe it. We cannot even think it. Language and conceptual thought are wonderful tools, but they only get you so far. There’s a glass ceiling even they cannot penetrate. But what lies beyond that glass ceiling can be apprehended, experienced, and felt. And music is a powerful catalyst for that apprehension.
In the weave of melody, in the dance of chords, in the breath and beat of rhythm there is an alchemy that binds the threads of our souls into the web of being around us. Of course we can’t talk about it. But the tears in our eyes don’t lie.
Who hasn’t driven home, turned off the car, and sat in the garage unable to tear yourself away from a beautiful piece of music? This is home now.
In Plato’s masterpiece The Republic, he argues that knowledge has four levels. The lowest level consists of images, say, the image of a tiger in your mind. The next level, slightly more real, is seeing an actual tiger. The third level is the rational level, beyond the sensory realm. Here, real knowledge begins to take shape, utilizing logic, evidence, and rational discourse. But even this isn’t the highest level of knowledge. There is a fourth level called noesis – intuitive grasping or awareness. At this level we no longer use logic, language, or concepts – just pure, formless, concept-free awareness. Plato, like mystics the world over, says that the highest truths and realities elude the grasp of the conceptual mind. We know them only when we transcend linear thought.
In Buddhist philosophy, Nagarjuna makes a similar claim. For him there are two levels of knowledge: ordinary knowledge and transcendent knowledge, or prajna. Ordinary knowledge is comprised of concepts, analogies, logic, and categorization. Then there is a higher form of knowledge called prajna which has little to do with conceptual thought or language. It is direct seeing into the nature of things, without conceptualization. In Buddhism this is sometimes likened to “awakening” or “enlightenment,” although those are just analogies, and as we have seen, analogical thinking exists at the level of ordinary knowledge.
In the ancient Chinese wisdom tradition of Daoism, Laozi begins his magnum opus The Daodejing with the famous line, “The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao.” With this warning, Laozi emphasizes the gulf between conceptual thought and reality. Our concepts, no matter how subtle, sophisticated, and well-wrought are pictures of a plum, never the plum itself.
Zhaungzi, another Daoist teacher who lived a few hundred years after Laozi put it this way: “A fish trap is for catching fish. When the fish is caught, the trap is forgotten. A rabbit snare is for catching rabbits. When the rabbit is caught, the snare is forgotten. Words are for capturing ideas. When the idea is caught, the words are forgotten.” Like Laozi before him, Zhuangzi delights in the playful use of provocative language, but never as an endpoint – only as a starting point. Words and concepts are tools that help us construct a bridge to meaning. But they can never be the meaning itself.
In a famous Zen story, one day the Buddha gathered his whole company together to deliver a talk. On this day, instead of saying a word he simply held up a flower. Only one man, Kashyapa, signaled with his eyes that he understood what was being said. For Zen Buddhists this is the origin story of their tradition – the origin of the wordless transmission: that wisdom or prajna is conveyed directly, not at the level of language and concepts, but at the level of experience. No scriptures or rituals needed. Just open hearts and deep surrender to what is.
This is why music, and all art for that matter, is so powerfully effective at opening us to the cosmic mystery that we are. It administers to our whole being, not just our intellect. As wave after wave of powerful, beautiful music pours through our mind-body literally altering our energy patterns, it becomes us and we become it. The fortuitous energies of music make us over in their image, and this disappearance is exactly what our soul has been asking for. Art, especially music, disarms us and fosters that surrender.
Lori and I were just in Paris, and like many visitors we stood slack-jawed before the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral. But nothing could’ve prepared us for what happened inside. Here was a cavernous space where architecture, engineering, stained glass, sculpture, theology, liturgy, devotion, mysticism, civic identity, and human achievement comingle into a tour de force that overwhelms you. And as synchronicity would have it, a mixed men’s and boys’ choir was performing. The sound of their harmonious voices reverberating throughout the towering 12th century hall, washed in the divine light streaming through stained glass, was the very definition of ethereal.
One song came to an end. When the conductor spread his arms like wings, the choir began to sing a choral arrangement of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” As Barber’s mournful ascension began, something broke open inside of me – a resistance, a practiced façade, an artifice. I can never describe the wave after wave of knowing that rushed through me in those timeless moments – it was dumbfounding. The hairs on my arms stood up.
As the music bathed the room, another sound rose up through the strains of music, an all too human sound, the sound of scores of people around me weeping. We were all drowning in a sea of beauty and nobody wanted to be saved.
This is how music works. It strips away all of your worldly cleverness and leaves you washed clean, innocent, newborn, and free; back in the Garden of Eden before it all went wrong. Music doesn’t explain itself. It doesn’t have any answers. But it lifts you past the place where the questions have power, where finally everything seems right with the world. Music heals. Music restores. Music transcends and liberates. Music sets us aloft in the space between heaven and earth, where we taste the eternal right here in the realm of embodied forms. Aretha could do that. And she still can.