Psyche, soul, self: Translating humanness into words

Throughout my social work graduate education, I’ve been struck by the limited ability of language to capture the human condition—while immersing myself in the work of the many valiant practitioners and writers who have, nonetheless, attempted to do just that. Surrounded by colleagues who, like me, “got into this work to help people,” I suddenly find myself confronting very basic existential questions: What is a person? What is the origin of human suffering? And what would “helping” look like, given the unfathomable complexity of life on Earth?

If it seems like I’m waxing particularly philosophical … that’s because I am. This year, I’ve been privileged to become someone’s therapist—several someones, actually—and my questions burn brighter than ever. As I actively work with adolescents and adults who are experiencing grief and/or trauma, once-abstract existential questions have become deeply personal.

This is precisely the reason I went back to school in the first place. This is the training ground I have been longing for! But a degree program can’t be expected to answer the deepest questions of the heart. As my graduate education has exposed me to—or more accurately, barraged me with—multiple theories of human suffering, human health, and “helping”—I’ve been engaged in a constant process of translation.

What do we call that spark of life within the human being? Is it consciousness, psyche, soul, self, mind? I read about Theravada Buddhism and Internal Family Systems therapy; classic psychoanalysis and feminist psychotherapy; Catholic Social Teaching and critical race studies. I sift through the lexicon of these different worlds, which of course are all describing the very same thing. I parse the terms they use to describe things going right in a human life—and things going wrong. I am admonished to engage in Evidence-Based Practice; I am invited to sit with my clients in “don’t-know mind”; I am encouraged to set treatment goals and objectives; I am urged to be suspicious of my own therapeutic agendas.

And then one of my dear clients comes into the room and sits down.

There are two quotes which somehow make sense out of the mess of it all:

“True art is creation,” Carl Jung wrote, “and creation is beyond all theories. That is why I say to any beginner: Learn your theories as well as you can, but put them aside when you touch the miracle of the living soul. Not theories but your own creative individuality alone must decide.”

“I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir,” Rainer Marie Rilke wrote, “to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.”

So this blog post is my own little ode to confusion. This is my white flag, planted in the midst of a dissonance which may one day melt into harmony. This is me admitting that my cognitive mind has been defeated, that my ego cannot be the one who understands all this, and that I’m very much enjoying it.

6 Hard Things About Being an Empath in Social Work Training

I just finished the first year of my master’s degree in social work. Throughout the past year, I scoured the internet for nuanced, first-person accounts of the emotional impact this experience has had on others. I didn’t find too many. However, as I was preparing this post today, I re-discovered Danna Bodenheimer’s awesome Real World Clinical Social Work blog over at New Social Worker. In one post, Danna writes: “I wish that social workers could talk more openly with each other about [how the work affects us] ... But I don’t think it is easy. We habituate to keeping things to ourselves; the rules of confidentiality support us in doing that.”

So with foundation year behind me and the privilege of a more relaxed summer schedule ahead of me, I wanted to share some of my own reflections. Here are some of the emotional experiences I found most challenging, and unexpected, during my foundation year.  

1. I felt haunted by my clients, especially at the beginning. My internship placement was a group home for teen moms in the foster care system. Some of them haunted me, especially when we first met. I would close my eyes at night and see their faces. Sometimes, I would dream about them. They had faced traumas and challenges that most of us will never truly understand. When I left work, I did not find them easy to forget.

2. The limitations of my field agency were difficult to bear. Everyone in the social service agency where I worked was a caring person, doing their best. I learned so much from each of them, and we did a lot of good. Still, it was hard to bear those times that I felt the agency just wasn’t helping, and was being held back by dysfunction and brokenness. When I finally finished my internship, one of the primary emotions I felt towards the organization was anger. Being an intern involves a lot of smiling, nodding, and keeping things to yourself … and that takes a toll!

A selfie I took while riding the bus home from my internship.

A selfie I took while riding the bus home from my internship.

3. I was hard on myself as I did the work. My critical inner dialogue was subtle—more like a whisper than a shout. But over time, I realized that I often believed I was failing. Thankfully, my supervisors helped me to challenge those beliefs. It’s pretty difficult to engage successfully with your clients when you’re telling yourself that you suck!  

4. I was working closely with people whose experiences are practically invisible in mainstream society. Most of my friends, family, and acquaintances had never known anyone who became a teenage mother while in foster care. Before this work, I hadn’t either! I occasionally felt like I was living on another planet, far away from the more privileged one I occupy in my personal life. I didn’t want to be a downer in casual conversations, but I couldn’t “un-see” or “un-know” what was I learning.

5. Class, field, and paying my bills made it almost impossible to live a balanced life. Yeah … that about covers it. While professors may encourage self-care, depending on your financial situation, it can be very difficult to carve out time for yourself while meeting the program demands. In my case, even with the support of my wife (and her job, and her health insurance), I would routinely go weeks and weeks without a day off.  

6. When it was all over, I completely crashed. The weeks after I finished my foundation year were full of depression, tears, exhaustion, and disorientation. I found I couldn’t just throw my books into the air and start celebrating. I had a huge stockpile of unprocessed feelings, and straight-up exhaustion, that needed to be dealt with first. And after talking with lots of my classmates, I know I wasn’t alone in this experience.


Of course, this post is about challenges. It doesn’t cover all the amazing rewards and benefits I reaped from my program! In spite of everything I just wrote, I would absolutely recommend getting an MSW. Below are a few of the things that I think have helped me bounce back from the most hard-working year I can remember:

1. I made the investment in personal therapy. During the year, I saw a trainee at the counseling center on campus—for free—and it really helped. But you know what? Now that I’m learning how to do therapy myself, it’s time to pony up and pay someone who is seasoned and experienced (and expensive). I’m currently seeing an Internal Family Systems Therapist and it’s making a profound difference in my life.

2. I deliberately cultivated friendships, new and old, with soulful people who can help me process at a deep level. I made a point of texting those friends when I had a rough day in the field. I scheduled Skype dates with friends in other cities who were also training as therapists. It is such a relief to spend time with people who understand the vulnerability inherent in the work! Again, I would quote Danna Bodenheimer: “Our level of introversion or extroversion is really measured by the psychological-mindedness of those around us. If we are around others who seem to really “get it,” the relief is endless and energizing. If we are around others who seem particularly misattuned, our tanks can actually feel as if they are leaking, leaving us solidly empty.”

Having an amazing partner really helps, too.

Having an amazing partner really helps, too.

Okay, my fellow social workers (and other aspiring world-healers): what have been the hardest and most unexpected aspects of your journey so far?

On the eve of trauma-sensitive yoga training

Tomorrow, I'm heading to Kripalu for a five-day training in trauma-sensitive yoga and its uses in clinical practice. It's dawning on me today what a full-circle moment this is.

Three years ago, I was suffering from (comparatively mild) PTSD symptoms, and had no idea what was going on with me. I was fortunate to stumble across Bessel Van Der Kolk's work around trauma and the nervous system. Like many people, I recognized myself in his work, and was transformed and inspired by what I learned. That book was the beginning of an amazing journey not only towards my own healing, but also towards a new dimension of my professional life.

Today, I'm a social work graduate student. I'm an intern in a residential facility for teen mothers, two of whom are my psychotherapy clients. Almost all of our residents have suffered enormous traumas in their young lives—things I'm not sure I myself could have survived. My clients struggle mightily with the burdens of these experiences. And just as Van Der Kolk and so many other advocates have described, traditional trauma treatment pretty much ignores their physical bodies.

As soon as I started working at my internship, this training began to call to me. Very loudly. And repeatedly. So I put the damn thing on my credit card and I'm missing a week of class and internship to do it.

Every day I ask myself where exactly I am going. I wonder constantly how these threads of art-making, creativity, music, service, contemplation, embodiment, healing, and justice—all so important to me—will weave themselves together in my life and work. At times it creates a lot of anxiety, but at this point I'm trying to give up my analysis and just follow my nose.

Every day while at Kripalu, I will visit my mom's memorial bench and give profound thanks for the gifts of life, growth, spirit, and renewal.

The Pearl, vol. 86: Perfection will do you in

Dear Oysters,

I got back from meditation retreat more than three weeks ago. A week of silent practice, bookended by sweet time with my Dad and stepmom. These should have been the perfect circumstances to write to you—the ideal, gritty conditions that yield a Pearl. And yet each time I considered writing, the keyboard seemed too cold to approach. 

The truth is, I'm a little more discerning about what I send you than I once was, Oysters. You're a pretty smart crew, all told. I can't just squeeze something out for the sake of it. You'll notice. 

With my reticence, I'm also protecting myself. What if the deepest, most important little Pearls aren't ready to share yet? What if they need to take a few more spins around inside the shell, growing bigger and brighter and more sure? 

Apparently it's a fine line between pompous productiveness and paralyzed perfectionism.

Speaking of which. Here's a beautiful poem I encountered while reading Krista Tippett's latest book, Becoming Wise. It's by Father Kilian McDonnell. 

Perfection, Perfection

I have had it with perfection.
I have packed my bags,
I am out of here.

As certain as rain
will make you wet,
perfection will do you

It droppeth not as dew
upon the summer grass
to give liberty and green

Perfection straineth out
the quality of mercy,
withers rapture at its

Before the battle is half begun,
cold probity thinks
it can't be won, concedes the

I've handed in my notice,
given back my keys,
signed my severance check, I

Hints I could have taken:
Even the perfect chiseled form of
Michelangelo's radiant David

the Venus de Milo
has no arms,
the Liberty Bell is


This morning, I sat outside in my backyard, meditating. I sat on a somewhat dilapidated wooden bench, facing a stagnant little man-made pond, which hasn't been "turned on" in weeks and has a layer of green scum growing on its the surface. The late rush-hour traffic whizzed along Piney Branch Road, just behind our rickety wooden fence. My iPhone timer ticked down from 30 minutes. I only sat for 20. A delicious breeze tickled the leaves of the sycamore tree next door, and I carried my cushion back inside. 

It was good enough.

May we delight in the present moment and be free from perfectionism. Also, may I take my own advice, and may the fruits of this advice include writing y'all a little more consistently. :) 




Contemplative, embodied, transcendent, feminist: Hell yeah, MinSoc 2017

I just returned from what was, I think, my first “academic” conference ever: the Society for Minimalist Music's 2017 conference at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. MinSoc was hosted this year by Nief-Norf Summer Festival, an annual festival which gathers young composers and performers to study and perform together. The whole thing was masterminded by my friend Kerry O’Brien and her awesome partner in crime, Andy Bliss, percussion professor at UTK.

My collaborator Sam Scranton and I—also known as Handful of Smoke—gave our first joint talk. We talked about auditory scene analysis, Buddhist meditation pedagogy, Pauline Oliveros, and our music. People laughed at Sam's jokes as hard as I usually do. Then we played a 20-minute set. 

Celebrating our foray into musicology. <3 

Celebrating our foray into musicology. <3 

This was my favorite conference I’ve ever attended. Here are some takeaways:

Performers and composers can gain a tremendous amount of insight from the work that music scholars do. Throughout the conference, I was deeply impressed by the rigor, commitment, and diversity of scholarship being done on music. This was an environment where it really felt like music mattered—but in a completely different way than it might in a “performance-only” environment. While the Minimalism Society conference was a special event, Nief-Norf has a scholarly component every year, bringing the performance and composition fellows together in dialogue with the scholars.

My personal feeling is that this kind of gathering is deeply important and should happen much more often. For those of us who wear more than one hat—performer, composer, scholar, critic, entrepreneur—these gatherings give us the space to relate to music in a multi-dimensional way. For me as a performer, it’s inspiring to glimpse the big picture of how my musical labor relates to the bigger discourse that surrounds the art. I’m now inspired to see how I can help facilitate interdisciplinary gatherings like this in D.C.

Minimalism has been, and is, a deeply important repertoire for me. Although I didn’t realize it when I went to the festival, minimalism has had a profound influence on my musical development. When I was six years old, my father traveled to Australia to sing the role of Zhou Enlai in John Adams’ Nixon in China. Several years later, my mother mail-ordered the double-disc set of The Death of Klinghoffer; she and I both fell in love with its opening choruses. My violin teacher in high school, Rohan Gregory, coached my violin quartet and taught us Violin Phase.

The old standby returns! Patti Kilroy gave a GREAT talk on using Ableton to execute this piece.

The old standby returns! Patti Kilroy gave a GREAT talk on using Ableton to execute this piece.

The ethos of minimalism is, to paint with a broad brush, contemplative and embodied. It intersects with my deepest interests in all kinds of interesting ways. Dear friend Eddie Davis gave a great talk which changed my understanding of silence. My new friend Tysen Dauer shared his fascinating work, which here weaves minimalist reception history together with collaborative EEG experiments. This shot might tempt me to make a sexy summary of his project as "this is your brain on minimaism", but Tysen is much more rigorous than that. 

But still ... everyone wants to see Their Brains On Minimalism.&nbsp;

But still ... everyone wants to see Their Brains On Minimalism. 

It's also, as my scholar friends revealed to me this week, a complex dance of collaboration. Ryan Ebright beautifully illuminated how Meredith Monk's working methods (hint: barely anything written down; tons of rehearsal time) landed with Houston Grand Opera when they commissioned her work Atlas. Patrick Nickleson shared different ways that ensemble members influenced the work of La Monte Young (controversially, without being credited). 

Why had I forgotten my love for this repertoire? Why do I feel slightly squeamish even talking about this? To be totally honest, I think my years in Chicago had a distancing effect on my relationship with minimalist music. As I perceived what the “cool kids” in Chicago were doing (and attempted to fit in), minimalism was definitely not it. I developed an aesthetic value judgment system which, looking back, was deeply influenced by the value systems of the musicians around me. It was influenced even more so by my own insecurities and my own lack of connection to what I liked.

In my early experiences with the Chicago scene, all-male groups of improvisers were wailing inscrutably away at some of the only experimental venues in town. Bearded men sat across from each other in stoic silence, fiddling with electronic contraptions I didn’t understand. “Hard Music, Hard Liquor” was the name of a concert series. For me, the transcendent, the tonal, and the feminine often felt taboo.  

I believe Chicago is changing, opening up both in terms of its friendliness to women artists and its aesthetic openness. No condemnation is intended here; I’m just unpacking my own experience. As an artist, it’s important for me to acknowledge how I’ve related to various artistic contexts and how I can develop the muscle to create (and locate) contexts I’m passionate about.

But this brings me to my next point.

Seeing the work of women artists in this setting was a life-changing experience for me.   

The keynote speakers and headlining artists were Amy Cimini (talking about her work on Maryanne Amacher), composer Mary Jane Leach, and Ellen Fullman, inventor and virtuoso of the Long String Instrument.

Rebecca Lentjes gave an awesome talk on Eliane Radigue called “Womb and Doom.” Charissa Noble presented on the work of Pamela Z. Ted Gordon gave a fascinating paper on Pauline Oliveros.

Pauline was everywhere at this festival, because she’s awesome, and also because of the expertise and advocacy of Kerry O’Brien. In fact, Kerry and I led mindfulness meditation and sonic meditation each morning of the festival. At 8 a.m. And people came.

In a dreamlike moment, the group gathers around Sam and my instruments for Pauline Oliveros'&nbsp; Teach Yourself to Fly.&nbsp;

In a dreamlike moment, the group gathers around Sam and my instruments for Pauline Oliveros' Teach Yourself to Fly. 

I still grieve the years I spent thinking that musicianship had to look a certain way. It doesn’t. If the scene you’re in doesn’t feel friendly to women, I recommend spending as much time as possible in a scene that does. And if I learned anything at this festival, it’s that there are so many ways to be an artist, to be a scholar. You gotta do your thing.

Stay on it.


PS: I send out an email letter every couple of weeks. It's about life. Sometimes it's even about music. You can sign up for it here.  



Invitation to Unplug, #1: Pen and Paper

Recommendation: Get a piece of paper. Get a pen. Put your phone in Airplane mode. Sit and write in silence for twenty minutes. Write something, anything, or nothing. See what happens. 

Because: In the past couple of weeks, my notebook—a basic, spiral-bound, college-ruled notebook from CVS—has emerged as an actual place that I can reside. It is a life raft. It is a quiet room before anyone has entered it. Most importantly, my notebook is a portal into the tactile experience of a simpler time. 


If the Internet demands that our every thought become public, the notebook allows us privacy. If smartphones are teleportation devices—blasting us instantaneously from city to city, from war zone to beach resort, from Congress to our friend's apartment, from Ferguson to Syria—a pile of lined paper does the opposite of that. It sits still. It waits in silence. It is a place where there is nothing to consume; there is only space to create.

Before I was capable of teleportation, before I was omniscient, before I could reach any of my friends at any time, I had my notebook.

I was a college student, walking across campus at dusk, taking in the tall magnolias the whisper of Spanish moss, my heart brimming over with the poetry of it all, my fingers itching to open the notebook and write.

I was a teenager on a trip to Vermont with my family, sitting on a fallen log, scribbling. 

I was a ten-year-old, in love with my new porcelain doll, singing her praises in the pages of my new soft-covered journal. 

For me, a notebook is youth, it is freedom, it is undistractedness. Paper and pen is where I learned to say my piece. And, just as we will return faithfully to the place where we first found a sense of God—for ourselves, not for anyone else—we will return to the place where we first learned to speak truth. 

Even now, writing these words in my notebook, I can feel the impact of the last ten years. I know that these words are destined for "my audience," "my networks," my website. These words will find new life in the digital realm. 

My generation is not made up of digital natives. We had analog childhoods, after all. We have adapted quickly to all this new technology. We've learned to reach out to each other through magic and teleportation. But we still need a little help reaching out to ourselves. Remembering our true home.

Let me know if you try it. Or if your handwriting has deteriorated. Or if you're already happily living in your notebook ... or your Macbook. <3

Need more creative confidence? Make a Praise File.

If I've learned one thing from my own creative endeavors, and from coaching others, it's this: Engaging in a major creative project, on your own, for months and even years, is not an easy task. And one of the hardest things about it is that in order to move forward, you must actually believe in yourself. Confidence, gusto, and—dare I say it—swagger are key ingredients that keep the creative cylinders firing. If you don't have a little swagger in your tank, it's hard to make the project GO.  

So the essential question becomes: what gives us confidence, gusto, and swagger? How about ... a little love? 

I'm only one day late.&nbsp;

I'm only one day late. 

This week, I was in a meeting with one of my coaching clients—a brilliant writer in the midst of a major project. I wanted to help boost her confidence and belief in her work, and had an idea that I thought might be helpful, but I was a little nervous to suggest it. I gathered up my courage, and began. 

"Have you ever heard of a Praise File?" I asked her. 

"No. What's that?" she replied. 

The Praise File is a concept I learned from The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron's seminal book on creative "unblocking." As she describes it, you create a file—whether digital, or hard-copy—of all the best, nice things people have ever said about you. You gather these bits of praise into a single place. And then, whenever you need a boost, you read it. 

If you're cringing internally at the idea of doing this, you aren't alone. As psychologist Rick Hanson has demonstrated through his research, the human brain is like Velcro for criticism and Teflon for praise. Negativity cuts to our core, while positivity rolls off us as quickly as it arrived. We often dismiss our fan mail, or forget it altogether. The Praise File is a way to counteract this pesky evolutionary bug. 

Ready to give it a try? 

1. Sit down and make a list of (at least) ten important moments, in which you were praised, affirmed, or validated by someone you respect. If these are emails, texts, or Facebook messages, retrieve them. If they are memories that you haven't yet recorded, write down what each person said to you, as accurately as you can. Gather these memories into a single document. For each entry, include a brief note about the date and circumstance of the praise.

2. Review this Praise File each morning for the rest of the week. If more memories of affirmation come to you, jot them down as well. 

3. Feelings of being egotistical, or a phony, or "coddling" yourself may come up. For now, set these reservations aside. See this as an experiment, noticing how positive affirmation affects your ability to work. 

I'm going to do it, too. If I ever had a Praise File to begin with, it's been years since I looked at it. I'll update you on how this goes for me, and I look forward to hearing how it goes for you too!

Speaking of positivity: look how my amazing wife helped me countdown to the GRE!

Speaking of positivity: look how my amazing wife helped me countdown to the GRE!

PS: If you're ready for a creative cheerleader—someone dedicated to keeping you creatively accountable and inspired—please get in touch. I have a few more spots on my client roster right now, and it's some of the most fun work you (or I) will ever do! <3


Can music education help with kids' chronic pain & disembodiment?

This past weekend, I finished my 200-hour yoga teacher training. Over the past five months, I had an amazing experience training at Flow Yoga Center. What I especially loved about my training was simply the chance to understand the human body better: from anatomy and alignment to our bodies’ capacity for change; from diet and digestion to the physical impact of stress.

My wonderful teacher training classmates and teachers

My wonderful teacher training classmates and teachers

I’ve come to see myself not just as a yoga student and yoga teacher, but as a lifelong student of the body—and as a mind-body educator, both inside and outside the field of music.

One of the most empowering things we can do for ourselves is to increase our knowledge about, and respect for, our bodies. I truly believe that some of our biggest physical and mental health problems as a society can be traced down to a basic misunderstanding—and maybe even a rejection, a denial—of how the human body functions. We have a pretty messed-up view of how the body “should” function: working as long as possible; sleeping as little as possible; never getting old, sick or injured. And when our bodies “fail” us, we’re annoyed.

With our adversarial, do-what-I-say attitude towards our minds and bodies, it’s no wonder we’re facing epidemics of anxiety, depression, pain, chronic stress, and dependence on all kinds of drugs to get us through our days and our lives.

But what’s been really grabbing my attention lately is that it’s not just adults who are suffering major pain and discomfort in their own bodies. It’s children. Specifically, my students.

Each week, I see about 13 violin students, from third grade through ninth grade, in a variety of settings. About 50% of them regularly report some kind of chronic pain. Three have persistent low back pain (fifth and sixth graders); another regularly takes 600mg of Ibuprofen for muscular pain. Several—especially my middle schoolers—arrive to class exhausted, sleep-deprived, and poorly nourished. Admittedly, my sample size is small, but the proliferation of orthopedic problems in children from, say, extended sitting and poorly designed school furniture is well-documented.

I usually make them stand up.&nbsp;But sometimes we sit ... and sometimes this happens.&nbsp;

I usually make them stand up. But sometimes we sit ... and sometimes this happens. 

As a musician and a yogi, I know that the overall health of the body is essential to being able to live fully—never mind learning to play the violin. So, I’ve come to feel that I’m not doing my job if I don’t attempt to address some of the overall body issues that my students are bringing to their lessons. Not as a doctor, but simply as a body educator.

Music education is rarely talked about in this way. But is it possible that music teachers actually have a fantastic opportunity to bring greater embodiment to our students’ lives? I think yes. In part, because:

  • We teach an embodied practice. We have an opportunity to teach healthy movement: to shape and observe how our students’ brain, bones, joints, muscles, breath, and voice are interacting.

  • We teach an active, movement-rich subject. Our students don’t need to be trapped at desks or computers. Many instruments can accommodate sitting, standing, and walking.  

  • We teach a joyful, creative practice that can get positive hormones flowing in our students’ bodies, helping to counteract the adrenaline and cortisol created by high-stress, high-stakes educational settings.

  • If we’re lucky, we have the chance to work with students one-on-one. We can offer them personalized feedback and give them healthy practices to take home.


My challenge to us as music teachers is to check in about whether we are making the most of this opportunity to build healthy embodiment into music education.

  • Are we merely replicating traditional classroom circumstances (prolonged sitting, sedentary learning, poor attention to body mechanics) that cause our students pain?

  • Do we understand children’s need to move? Are we staying conscious of the “movement diet” of our classes?

  • Are we listening to, and taking seriously, our students’ reports of pain and discomfort?

  • Are we telling ourselves that we “don’t have time” for movement breaks, stretching, and even periods of quiet rest?

Some people have more time to stretch than others.

Some people have more time to stretch than others.

For me, this is really the beginning of what I hope will be a life-long inquiry, and I look forward to hearing your ideas. Some good resources I’ve enjoyed checking out:

  • The Gokhale Method, also known as Primal Posture. The amazing anthropologist and physical therapist Esther Gokhale traveled all over the world, learning the principles of movement still present in those communities that don’t have chronic pain epidemics. I’ve used a couple of her sitting principles myself, with great results, and have also shared them with my back-pain students. I hope to eventually take a full Gokhale course.

  • Stand up Kids. This organization is dedicated to creating healthier, “movement-rich” classrooms, and has an awesome list of movement breaks that you can try with your students. The founder was interviewed on Liberated Body, too.

  • Another episode of the Liberated Body Podcast, on movement-friendly classrooms.