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“By the end of the week, we’ll have turned you into a blues band.” Gulp. I could feel the anxiety rise when I heard those words. A blues band?! Me?! I have no musical talent and my Mennonite body is rhythmically stunted from all of those “dancing is sin” messages I heard growing up. How could I contribute to a blues band?
That statement still stands as one of the most intimidating things I’ve ever heard from the facilitator of a leadership workshop. Not surprisingly, it also turned out to be one of the most life-changing. Of course, in order for it to become life-changing, I had to get out of my own way first. I had to loosen my grip on some beliefs about myself and be willing to be uncomfortable for a while. By the end of the week, I had indeed written a verse for a blues song and performed it together with a rag-tag bunch of other equally intimidated participants over dinner in front of hundreds of people.
The invitation came from Jerry Granelli, a famous jazz drummer best known for the soundtrack of Charlie Brown’s Christmas movie. He was teaching the workshop together with Margaret Wheatley and Jim Gimian, as part of the annual leadership intensive program of ALIA (Authentic Leadership in Action, formerly Shambala Institute). I’d signed up because I was a fan of Margaret Wheatley’s work. I left a fan of Jerry Granelli’s.
Last week, I re-listened to an interview that Jerry had done with CBC radio in the year before he died. And then I listened to it again and wrote down notes. Next I found a documentary about him and watched that. Then I watched an hour-long workshop that Jerry taught two days before his death (in 2021). Posthumously, Jerry had returned to be my teacher once more. Although I learned a lot back in 2010 when I was part of that blues band, I find myself even more tuned in to what his teachings offer me now.
Here’s some of what I took notes about:
1. Years and years of practice brings you closer to your own voice.
“It takes forever to sound like yourself,” Jerry said in the interview. “If you put a seed in the ground, it takes a lot of water to get a tree. So why should you wake up one day and find your voice? You practice in order to find your own voice, but at first you have to try to sound like other people.”
In the early years, Jerry rose in prominence as a drummer because he’d gotten so good at emulating other drummers. But then one of those drummers stopped him and said he had to figure out what “Jerry’s sound” was. From then on, he got clearer and clearer about what was uniquely his to put into the world. He’s now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being a pioneer of psychedelic jazz. He’s also well known as an innovative teacher of Buddhist practices.
Jerry’s words were resonant for this moment partly because of the book I have coming out, Where Tenderness Lives: On healing, liberation and holding space for oneself. Even more than my first book, The Art of Holding Space, this book feels like a fine-tuning of my own voice. Like a sculptor, I feel like I’ve spent years chipping away at all of the “not-Heather” words to get closer and closer to the essence of the “pure-Heather” voice – the voice that’s less weighted down with other people’s expectations and my own self-imposed limitations. Perhaps when I’m eighty, as Jerry was, I’ll be as close as I can get.
2. Our habitual patterns limit our capacity to make beautiful music.
“On a good day,” Jerry said, “we have the least amount of habitual patterns, so we’re completely spontaneous.” That spontaneity and freedom from the old patterns allows us to make innovative music. Unfortunately, a lot of days are not so good and our habitual patterns keep us stuck in mediocre melodies.
In my upcoming book, I unravelled some of those habitual patterns in myself in order to release myself from them and become more free to be spontaneously and authentically myself (at least… on a good day). Like Jerry, I want to be a channel for the music, not get in the way with my own hang-ups, self-doubt and ego stories.
I believe that this is such important work that I’ve also created a course where I provide tools and practices for witnessing and releasing those habitual patterns, because I want to help others get closer and closer to free, authentic and joyful living. If you’re noticing patterns of self-sabotage, perhaps that’s related to the way you’ve been taught to treat yourself by your family of origin. If there are shame stories you can’t let go of, perhaps there’s a thread that’s connected back to your religion of origin. If you’re driven by perfectionism and a value system rooted in performance and productivity, perhaps that can be traced back to grind culture and capitalism. Once you see those patterns and the threads that tie them back to their roots, they’re easier to let go. (Maybe one day I’ll even be able to dance as though the habitual patterns of a Mennonite childhood are no longer in my body.)
3. Practice is a life-long commitment.
“Last week,” Jerry said to the interviewer, “I had to keep from setting fire to my drums… I couldn’t make love to it… I went looking for salvation and the drum said ‘oh no, you can’t use me like that.’” At eighty years of age, he was still wrestling with the demons that got between him and the music, between his ego and his own voice. He was still humbled by the process. He was still slipping back into his own habitual patterns.
Unravelling and releasing those habitual patterns is never a “once and done” story – we still live within the systems that shaped us and we are still inescapably human, so it’s an ongoing, never-ending practice. There is always new information, there are always new ways to examine our patterns, and there are always more fumbles to keep us humble and in the practice.
4. Making beautiful music requires our willingness to be uncomfortable.
“What makes him special,” Jerry’s son said in the documentary, “is his willingness to be uncomfortable.” It’s clear in both the documentary and the interview how much Jerry pushed the edges of the music, and pushed the edges in himself, to allow something truly unique and revolutionary to emerge. That requires courage and a willingness to be unsettled – both individually and collectively.
In the documentary, Jerry can be seen creating rhythm with all manner of sound-making objects. He didn’t limit his imagination or playful spirit to what is conventionally known as a drum kit. During one of our plenary sessions at ALIA, the year after we’d created the blues band, I was puzzled to see a collection of pots, bowls and buckets on the stage, until I realized that Jerry was part of a team inviting us into a collective act of creation. Soon, he was making sounds and rhythm with that random collection and inviting us all to make music with him.
5. Music requires us to be willing to spend time with ourselves.
“Here’s a new way to make art – to start with myself. Start with my own mind, being brave enough, being willing to spend time with myself. Without the instrument.” In the workshop, Jerry goes on to say that “this (pointing to himself) is the instrument”.
A healthy, ongoing, honest relationship with ourselves is what allows us to access our own voices and to make beautiful music. As a Buddhist, Jerry nurtured that relationship by committing to an ongoing seated mindfulness practice. You can do a seated practice together with Jerry if you watch the workshop video.
My mindfulness practice has been less attached to seated meditation than Jerry’s, but it is still very much a part of how I spend time with myself. I practise mindful self-reflection in my journal, and regularly take myself out for mindful walks in the woods. On social media, I have, somewhat jokingly, said that one of my goals for 2024 is to spend more time sitting on things in nature. It’s not really a joke, though – it’s part of my practice. It lets me spend time with myself and it helps me see myself as part of the landscape. (I teach more about my practices in Know Yourself, Free Yourself.)
6. Our music is meant for the collective.
“What does it take to play music with another human being? Interestingly enough, what it takes is the same things to live together as human beings.” – Jerry Granelli
As much as the interview and documentary focused on the unique genius of Jerry Granelli, none of it is really about individual genius. As a drummer, Jerry didn’t make music that was meant to stand alone – he was always part of an ensemble. He committed himself to his practice and to releasing his own habitual patterns not to become a solitary superstar, but to make beautiful, spontaneous music together with other people with a similar commitment. He did his individual work to find his own voice, and trusted other members to do their work to find their own voices, and together they created the conditions for magic.
As I develop my own work, I find myself in a similar dance – often creating independently, and yet always with the collective in my heart and mind. As much as I can, I try to remember that my voice is part of an ensemble.
The music was always much bigger than Jerry Granelli, just as this work that I do is much bigger than me. The work that you are called to do, the art that you are called to create, is always bigger than you.
7. Change the way you make music and you’ll change the system.
During that plenary session where Jerry was playing on pots and buckets, and a few hundred people were making sounds with their voices and bodies, there were other things going on as well. Arawana Hayashi invited some participants into an unchoreographed dance, and Barbara Bash invited a few to pick up brushes to make a massive collaborative art piece at the front of the room. I volunteered to be part of the brush work, and I can honestly tell you that few experiences have ever been more moving. For an hour or two, that conference room was buzzing with possibility and promise as we all contributed to creating something fully embodied and fully collaborative that had never existed before (and seemingly had no “purpose” in the way capitalism has taught us to understand purpose). (You can see a similar spontaneous co-creation by Jerry, Barbara, and Susanne Chui in this video.)
Not only do we often get stuck in individual habitual patterns, we get stuck in collective ones. Those habitual patterns end up becoming our systems (and driving our systems) and they exist on the micro level and the macro level. We are part of family systems, religious systems, economic systems, cultural systems, and political systems. All of those systems continue to function – often in increasingly destructive ways – because we fail to examine the habitual patterns at the root and we resist the discomfort of co-creating something new.
We can’t make jazz together when we accept the status quo as the only way to make music. How many conference rooms have you been in where nothing new was being created, where the only voices allowed to speak were telling the same old stories, harnessed to the same old habitual patterns? What will it take to change what’s happening in that room?
Systems are only as strong as the commitment people make to upholding them. When we unravel our codependence with those systems, shift our habitual patterns, and stop treating ourselves the way those systems have taught us, they have no choice but to evolve or die. Then, out of the compost, something new can be born.
We all have an opportunity to be in the magic of that conference room, where something new is being created. We have opportunities to unlearn our habitual patterns, find our unique voices, and create new music.
That music might seem a little amateurish at first, like the blues band I was part of when I first met Jerry, but that’s only a place to start. With time, we’ll each get more and more clear about our own voices so that together we can make something beautiful.
Thank you Jerry, for being my teacher.
p.s. Want to be in conversations about what it means to release habitual patterns and co-create the conditions for something new to emerge? Join me for Know Yourself, Free Yourself. It starts March 5.