Journey With Di

“Di” is a late middle-aged lady, one of the group members I was privileged to meet last year.

I started individual sessions with her last year, grateful that my then-supervisors trusted me enough to allow me to work with her alone, and let me continue with her this year.

Di’s goals started out as simply wanting to learn the keyboard, to play the songs she enjoys listening to. Underneath that surface, we discussed her therapeutic goals to be increasing confidence, self-esteem and allowing expression. As the sessions progressed, so has our therapeutic relationship. Di is normally a very private person, and the fact that she is opening up during sessions, telling me about her emotional issues, talking about the way she was “just after my accident”, has been very humbling for me. In addition to learning songs on the keyboard, we started including a short improvisation segment at the start of every session, as a form of warm-up, and also as a platform for her to express any thoughts or emotions she might have been feeling. Even though she wasn’t the one who initiated them, she expressed enjoyment at these improvisations, as she realised them to be a chance for her to explore the range, sounds and dynamics of the keys without being confined to a song structure, or the “right” and “wrong” notes. When we first started, the improvisations were usually based on generic themes, like “trees”, or “clouds” – nature-related images which she often said she could relate to. This year, she surprised me by indicating that she was comfortable with the idea of exploring her emotions during her improvisations. I had no intention of going there so soon, but was happy to support her since she seemed ready.

And so, the recent session we had was exceptionally profound.

After a few minutes of our usual, light, casual Aussie-small-talk chat, I asked: “So what are you thinking about this week?”, wanting to give her the opportunity to set the theme for improvisation.

She replied by saying that she had been thinking of a particular resident at the Home who had been having a rough time, becoming violent and eventually needing the police to take him away. She seemed pretty affected by it. “He seemed really angry, and I feel for him, and I hope he’s ok, wherever he is now.” She also went on to talk about how she was feeling sad for the people affected by the recent natural disaster. Her level of empathy for people she barely knew really touched me.

After she finished expressing her thoughts, I spoke slowly, forming and framing my train of thoughts at the same time: “Would you like.. We could create a piece of music. To evoke a feeling of peace. For that man, and for the world?”

Di agreed, and we started. Sometimes I think our improvisations are pretty generic themselves, and it’s actually the discussion before and after which frames the music’s context and meaning. So that day, with the goal of evoking peace in mind, we started. The improvisation flowed, with Di at the higher registers and me at the lower. I chose to use just 2 chords – a plagal cadence ostinato- to ground the bass, adding embellishments from time to time. This structure proved to be stable and safe-sounding support for Di to improvise freely at the treble. The music increased in rhythmic intensity and density, but kept it’s flow, and the tempo didn’t vary too much throughout as well. We continued this exploration for about 10 minutes. I felt that Di was allowing herself to become more open as she played, reflected in her willingness to explore playing some black keys and not just sticking to the white keys, and also in her increasing melodic range (playing notes at wider intervals).

When the music finally faded away and stopped, I sat there in silence for a second or so, wanting to let the vibrations sink in before disrupting the air. I was surprised that Di spoke almost immediately after it ended.

“That was… Rather emotional for me.”

Turning to her, I noticed that she had tears in her eyes. After gently validating her expression of emotion and offering her some tissue, we talked about the music some more before reaching a sense of closure, and then moving on to the keyboard learning segment of the session. I don’t want to feel happy that she was tearing, but I do feel really glad that the music we created touched her and helped her express her emotions.

I wish we had recorded the music we played that day. But then again, maybe the beauty of some things lies in their transience, not their preservation. I’m very grateful that I have been given the chance to work with a beautiful soul like Di, who has taught me so much about sensitivity, empathy and getting through tough times in life. She says that our musical conversations help her express herself, and learning the keyboard has put a positive spin in her life, which is really something, given her history with depression, but I think I am learning as much, or maybe even more, from her than what she is learning from me.

Who knows where this journey will bring us?
I am just so thankful to be in it.

The Habit of Smiling

Recently, I tried to get into the habit of smiling.

Why does that need to be made into a habit? Because more often than not, I realize that I wait for happiness or some form of pleasure to come before I smile.

We have been socially conditioned to think that people smile and laugh when they are happy. So we spend our whole lives waiting for something or someone to make us laugh and smile (Eg: “I will be happy once the holidays come”, “I will be happy when I find someone to settle down with”) It does not need to be that way. We have always heard about our happiness need not and should not depend on the external, and I think being able to smile without any external reason can reflect and affect our inner state.

I admit I was a little skeptical about this at first, not to mention self-conscious (and still am, lest people on campus start noticing me as the crazy girl who goes around smiling to herself). I started trying it out when I was doing yoga, in the privacy of my own space and time. Breathe in, breathe out, smile. Not the widest smile I could give, but a gentle half-smile, something that reflected and ignited a sense of peace and tranquility. I didn’t think of anything particularly happy. Just focused on the breath, and half-smiled. The facial muscles felt awkward at first – I could tell they were totally not used to this. They are used to reacting to emotions, and having them work this way without any emotional stimulation must have felt weird to them.

But gradually, as I persevered, I can feel much less of that initial awkwardness. It’s very liberating. I’ve also realized that this much is true: The brain does not differentiate between the smile we give when we are pleased, from the smile we give at a physical level. Because the brain has been conditioned to link the physical act of smiling to the emotion of pleasure, simply working our muscles into a smile can trick the brain into thinking that we are happy.

It’s definitely something worth trying, to make the world a better place. Have you smiled today?

Everything in its Time

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