Reflections on a Shakuhachi Lesson
I was taking a lesson recently with my shakuhachi (Japanese Bamboo Flute) teacher, Masayuki Koga. Koga-sensei's teaching style emphasizes among many other things activating the body through the direction of attention on specific areas at specific times. For instance, students of Koga-sensei might be guided to attend to the muscles at the sides of the hip to provide support. Or we might be instructed to open up the muscles near the eyes and forehead to better open the sound. We release the tension in our fingers, hands, forearms, to allow the energy so constrained to be freed up to contribute to the sound. Lessons with Koga-sensei are a constant process of tuning up our organisms so that we can convey a freedom and expansiveness through the shakuhachi.
One recurring theme in this process is for students to open the third eye as a key means to take to an entirely different level the quality in the sound that the organism can produce. Physiologically, this action is in part achieved by relaxing and opening the muscles of the forehead. In addition, this direction of attention induces an expansive action whereby the head remains upright and the mind keeps an upward or soaring trend of attention. Practically this action allows for a more expressive sound and the holding of a continuous tone, even when the breath pressure reduces and the sound softens. This approach also has the technical benefit of allowing the pitch of even difficult-to-achieve notes to remain true.
But although the approach of opening the third eye and "looking to the sky" can be analyzed physiologically and practically, experientially it is an integrative approach. By opening the third eye and connecting attention with something higher outside ourselves, we don't have to be concerned with controlling the details of the micro-movements of the organism: the organism aligns and configures itself naturally in response the to quality of attention we are invoking.
Attempts to control the sound or to control the position of the body tend toward a reification of tension in the body, which closes down the sound and results in a more mechanical sort of playing. In my recent lesson I had a vivid demonstration of this observation. I was playing a particular phrase in an orignal composition by Koga-sensei, and he was observing and commenting on my struggle with a particular progression of notes that would normally require a coordinated movement of the fingers, neck, and breath to achieve. He noted that I had tension in my upper lip. His suggestion was for me to connect my upper lip to my third eye while I was playing. I did this and immediately the difficulty of the particular progression was gone and I was able to return to a consistent expansive playing of the phrase. The distinction was quite apparant to me and was typical of the many such epiphanies that I have been privileged to enjoy through the brilliance of Koga-sensei.
As I was enjoying the freedom of that very subtle interior gesture of connecting my upper lip to my third eye, I looked at the root of the tension I had been holding in my lip. Describing the ensuing impression in words does not capture the instantaneous impression of my seeing the root of this tension, because my seeing of it was not a product of analysis. It simply was what it was. What I saw was the tension arising from a fear of missing the note and the corresponding mechanical attempt to compensate for this fear by overcontrolling the muscles of my upper lip to make sure that I did not miss the next note in the progression. This seemed like a left-over habit from my early years of practice and the resulting tension was functioning like an energy block or a unresponsive knot (all very subtle however). When I connected my lips to my third eye, this energy had a place to go and the fear and corresponding tension simply went away. A suppleness had returned to that part of my body.
In seeing this particular mechanism of tension revealed, I appreciated the occasion to reflect on the pervasiveness of micro and macro tension throughout the body. These tensions are created as defensive responses to a myriad of perceived threats. I perceived how these tensions enslave energies in service of mechanical reactions to circumstances in all aspects of our lives. The insights and discoveries that Koga-sensei teaches about liberating the Self in the performance of shakuhachi apply equally well to other aspects of life. The key elements amount to striving toward a higher octave of energy, while at the same time being mindful, at the level of sensing, of the activities of the organism as a whole.