Melody vs. Meditation

There are two sides to singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls: the “just sitting” meditator and the crazed composer.

Amanda Palmer
1 May 2008
Amanda Palmer. Photo by M. McIntyre

When I meditate, I do not have a hard time letting go of films, grudges, or grocery lists. But I can’t let go of music. A song is different. A song has special status, doesn’t it? Let me clarify: I don’t mean a pre-existing song, but a glimmer of inspiration, a little tuneful embryo waiting to be born into a full-fledged ballad. An idea. I am a songwriter. I need these moments bad.

As an artist, I’ve unwittingly prioritized my life to keep the inspiration-receiver in my head tuned to a clear frequency. This both braces me to receive brilliant and clever ideas at any moment and makes me an impractical idiot who admires the beauty, poetry, and irony of the piano about to fall on my head instead of getting out of the damn way.

The songwriter in me struggles like mad when meditating. The rules of my conditioned art-mind say that nothing must stand in the way of a developing idea. When inspiration calls, follow. If I should be struggling with anything in my life, it should be taking that impossibly disciplined step from thought to pen to paper, from seed to full song.

I watch this mental boxing match take place with interest. In one corner sits a meditator, who calmly suggests that good ideas will linger if they are worthwhile. And so what if they don’t? The songs are not happening; only sitting is happening. In the other corner paces the crazed composer with the mind specifically cultivated to jump from image to word to melody in an effort to create a work of art that will move her fellow humans.

A perfect song, to me, is a captured moment of inspiration barely touched. When a good idea hits, it’s as if I’ve thrown a set of colored juggling balls in the air and taken a blurred (yet beautiful) photograph. If I develop that photo unaltered, I will have a perfect image. If I am convinced that I can get a better photo (just a little better) by juggling again before it gets dark and the light changes, I’m screwed. This is where sitting and art-making go hand in hand. Spending hour after hour laboring on finding the perfect line or the perfect arrangement of notes is about as productive as wandering the world seeking the perfect tree under which you’ll find enlightenment.

Some years ago, I was on retreat at the Insight Meditation Center and I was outside exploring the grounds. The air was just beginning to carry that sugary spring scent, the rot of winter leftovers drifting up from the dampening ground. Away from the city, no tangles of pipe and concrete were between me and the crust of the earth. There was just my feet taking steps, my eyes adjusting in the light, my nose taking in the thaw, my mind hooked on a beautiful melody that floated into my head—a melody that I was trying desperately to ignore and trying desperately to hang on to.

There’s no end
To the Love
You can Give
When you change your point of view
To Underfoot

The best songs come like this, the melody and the words landing on the brain’s sunlit kitchen table like a singing telegram, a complete and precise little package of information. In that telegram is encoded the entire blueprint for the verses and chorus, a musical strand of DNA. I cannot recognize the words, the length, or even the subject of the song, but I can detect something about how the song will feel when finished. I’ve always suspected that this glimpse of the whole from the part offers an excellent metaphor for life and death.

The problem with meditation, I thought, is that it unlocks the door to inspiration, and the problem with me is that I am in love with my own inspiration.

The match was on, and the artist knocked out the meditator with a single left hook. I let the singing in my head continue at full volume (I think I even let it out of my mouth occasionally and scared some squirrels). Then I returned to the center where I broke my no-writing-and-reading vows and jotted the whole song down. Barely edited from that moment, it is now called “Delilah,” and it wound up being a key track on my band’s last album.

I shared this anecdote with a friend, and he pointed out that creativity isn’t necessarily an obstacle to meditation but, rather, its fruit. Only now, several years later, do I realize the obvious. The moment of divine inspiration may strike at any time; the true meditation is to have the power and clarity to decide when, where, how, and even if I want to be struck.

Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer is a singer, pianist, and composer for the “punk cabaret” duet The Dresden Dolls. She’s been studying meditation since a wonderful neighbor turned her on to the practice at age fifteen, and she recently began training to teach yoga.