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Spiritual Life & Music Therapy – Gillian Stephens Langdon

I work as a music therapist in a long-term state psychiatric hospital. I am also a member of Cafh. It is difficult to speak of work and spiritual life separately. As in life in general, they are intertwined or, one could say, my life is my spiritual life.

What I can share is a little about the changes I have noticed since joining Cafh and then I can guide you through a typical day.

Many of the ways I work are the same as before I joined Cafh, but the inner sense of things is different. I use improvisation, songs and words to address the clients’ treatment goals. These often include increasing socialization, deepening trust, developing impulse control, and increasing self-esteem. There are also specific individual goals. I usually begin with an opening activity to gather the group together, a middle section to work on group and individual goals and a closing section. Before following the path of Cafh, I spent a lot of energy judging whether an activity had been successful or not, and I spent time thinking about my shortcomings. I also spent a lot of time checking in verbally with the clients about what we played with the sense that if it were not verbalized it was not valid.

As I learned to meditate, I began to respect silence. In my music therapy groups, after a musical activity or musical improvisation, I began to be silent for a moment. I discovered that sometimes when I was silent the patients would be silent too. I remember a small group I led with patients with diagnoses of schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorders. We improvised music for a while. I played the guitar to support them as they played on a variety of percussion and melodic percussion instruments. Everyone appeared to be listening to each other, creating an improvisation that was quite harmonious. At the end I waited silently, savoring the feeling of togetherness and leaving room for the patients to let me know the direction in which to take the group. They were all silent. Then one woman said, “It’s like praying.” Then she said, “Let’s sing the hymn ‘Amazing Grace.'” I asked the group how they felt about singing this and they all said yes. We sang quietly together. I don’t mean to imply by this anecdote that all silences are prayer, but if one leaves the space open there may be a deepening of experience.

Another thing I have realized since joining Cafh is that I am more receptive and a better listener. Sometimes the experiences I hear of are very traumatic and difficult to take in: sorrow, pain, abuse, hopelessness or even death. In the past I would be filled with all my personal reactions and my ongoing internal dialogue. When I heard about trauma or death, I would panic inside and not really want to listen for fear of not being able to handle it. I would listen, of course. That was my job, but I wouldn’t be at peace inside. Now, I find I go to the place of love in my heart where I feel present, loving and centered. There is nothing that I can’t hear because I feel the strength and support of the Divine. It is not I myself taking another’s burden on my shoulder but, instead, the divine presence holding us both in the warmth of love and compassion.

Through the path of Cafh, I am encouraged to make of my day a spiritual work. I would like to show you how that works itself out in my day-an ordinary day.

Every weekday morning my alarm rings early and I get dressed and meditate using various themes and images throughout the week. I always meditate. Sometimes I meditate for half an hour, but if I don’t have enough time for that, I will meditate for even three minutes. I want to begin my day centered in the Divine and with a clear intention. I want to do this before the day grabs me and throws me blindly into its needs. Next, I walk my dog and then I wake up the kids. My husband is up now and we eat a hurried breakfast. Sometimes we are actually sitting down all together. My husband runs for the bus and I try not to yell too much as I herd the kids out the door. “Do you have your violin?” “Where’s your lunch?” “Do you have your homework?” “Stop petting the dog. Let’s go!” We race out the door, I get them to school and then I drive to work.

As I walk from the car to the entrance to the hospital where I work, sometimes I remember the image of the meditation of the morning and become centered again. “Divine Mother, help me to listen,” or “the Divine Mother holds me in her arms,” or “I feel the joy of seeing the divine light shining everywhere.”

The hospital and the center where I work are surrounded by high fences. The clients who have privileges to come off the wards where they reside come on their own to a sheltered workshop, an education program, a MICA (mentally ill chemical abuse) program, and a community life skills or creative arts therapies center. As I enter the building I am greeted by patients ready for a music therapy group or asking what group to go to. Another one is sleeping in a chair. I wake him up and remind him that he has music therapy. A woman from my program is yelling in the hall. I try to guide her upstairs to the group.

Then everyone comes in. I open the window a crack to let in some fresh air and I close the door. The instruments are already set out: xylophones, congas, tambourines, maracas, etc. I ask myself, How is the group today? Are they already playing? Are they joyful or silent? Are they angry or disorganized?

I use my music therapy skills and experience to decide on activities to channel their energy or to stimulate interaction.

It is interesting how remembering the morning’s meditation can influence how I enter the group. One can often have the stereotype of what living spiritual life is like. I might picture someone who is silently prayerful all the time and try to walk around silently listening and praying myself. But I remember one occasion very clearly. Before I entered the building I had prayed deeply, “Divine Mother, help me to really listen today.” Then I walked in. I was late and my students had already set up the room and let the patients in. As I entered, they all shouted my name as loud as they could. In response I jumped into the center of the room, threw out my hands, shouted “Ta da!” and took a big bow. They all laughed. I am not usually so outgoing. Where did this come from? I wondered. Then I realized, yes, today I was “really listening.”

Sometimes I have difficulties with a patient. I may encounter someone who really presses my buttons and I become short with them or angry. I guess it’s just like anywhere else. However, I think the path of Cafh helps me to not let things stay that way. At the end of the day, we do a “retrospective examination,” which means spending a couple of minutes looking back on the day. In this way, I will always see what has happened, whether it’s good or bad, without being judgmental of myself.

There was one client who would talk nonstop whether I was busy, on the phone, or talking to someone. I had worked with him long ago, so he knew me. He was becoming incredibly annoying, and I found myself resorting to saying, “Stop. Leave me alone,” or closing the door in his face. One day he said, in response to my behavior, “At least I can tell you heard me.” I felt struck to the core, thinking of this man going through his day in the hospital, annoying people enough that he would be yelled at, just so that he would know they acknowledged his existence. This stayed with me all day, and at the end of the day, in the retrospective examination, I could see that my behavior was not the model of respect that I aspired to. But I didn’t have time to sit with him or be his therapist, and he was not assigned to my program.

The next day an idea came to me as he began again outside my office door. I got up and stood in front of him. I listened intently for a while, giving him my total attention. He said, “I know you’re a very busy person.” I said, “I am. I’m often very busy, but I’ll make a deal with you. If you promise to wait if I’m on the phone or talking to someone, or come back later if I can’t be free, I will listen to you every day for two minutes.”
I guess it wasn’t much to offer, but he agreed. Every day he would come to my office. If I was on the phone, I would put up my hand to show him. When I got off the phone, I would get up, face him, and be there totally for him, for two minutes. Everything and everyone else had to wait. He would tell me what had happened on the ward, or would say, in his schizophrenic way, “I like the color of your sweater. It’s blue. Like the blues. Charlie Parker. You’re a music therapist.” Then he would say, “My time is up. I have to let you go.” “Yes it is. Have a nice day. It was good to talk to you,” I would reply, and I would mean it.
There have also been unbelievable times in my groups. After the World Trade Center attack on 9/11, the patients wanted to sing songs in prayer for the people who had died and for the families who had lost loved ones. Who would guess that these people, the poorest in New York City, with terrible histories, locked up in a mental hospital for three months, a year, or ten years, would be praying for the suffering people of the world!
I think that being on a spiritual path allows one to be centered in love. I can perhaps be a channel of the Divine Mother’s love. About a month ago, one of my patients, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, came in saying that a close friend of his on the ward, a group member, had tried to commit suicide. He said, “Don’t play any of that Santeria music-nothing from Cuba. It’s bad luck. It’s evil that made this happen.” I asked him what he needed. He wanted quiet music. I played him a quiet song, but the group wasn’t there at all. They were loud, disorganized, raucous and needy. His words made them very anxious. And it is a big group-about ten patients, with diagnoses of schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. One was playing, loudly and continuously on a conga, his version of the salsa tune that was playing in his head. Another patient was saying, “I want to sing my song. Now!” Some were silent. Others were playing randomly. I ran the group as I often do, with a lot of structure: singing patients’ names at the beginning, following a rhythm of one of the clients and supporting it on the piano, telling the conga player to wait and listen, then listening to his song.
Somehow we achieved some order and some sense of listening to one another. But I was still filled with the ache of the first patient in witnessing the suicide attempt of one of his only friends in the hospital. I held this ache in my heart, and near the end of the session, I asked one of the quieter members what song we should close with. Immediately he chose “No Woman, No Cry,” the Bob Marley song. I thought, “Yes, this is the answer to this patient’s cry.” I began to play and sing: “No woman, no cry. . . . I remember when we used to sit. . . . No woman, no cry.” I played from my heart, the dwelling place of the Divine Mother’s love. I do not own the music. The feeling travels through me. I guess this is what we call “renouncement” in Cafh. The group was completely silent, soaking up the beautiful consolation of Bob Marley’s words: “In this great future, you can’t forget your past. So dry your tears, I say. No woman, no cry. . . . Everything’s gonna be all right, everything’s gonna be all right.”
Well, my husband has the car. He’ll be picking me up soon with the kids, and we’ll head home. “Any ideas for dinner?” We’ll run into the house, as the dark comes in, like millions of families. We’ll rush through dinner, homework, practicing, showers, and go to bed. I’ll try not to yell too much. “Did you brush your teeth?” “Did you wash your face?” “Just one more chapter, no more, then lights out, I’m serious!” Make lunches, sort through the pile of papers from the kids’ school, take the dog for a walk in the moonlight after everyone’s in bed. Late again. Take a shower. Say a few prayers. Retrospective examination. Gather the whole day into my heart-the Divine Mother’s love-and let the day go completely. Then fast asleep in an instant. The alarm will go off-early-and we’ll start all over again tomorrow.