Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The role of music in the healing of Gabrielle Giffords

Yesterday morning, in a weekly class on Jewish mysticism that I teach in the local community, we were concluding our study of the ten psalms that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav selected for the practice of the Tikkun haKlali - the Complete Repair.  Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810) was referring to a spiritual repair - healing at a cosmic level - in which all that was broken would be healed and the flow of Divine energy through the sephirotic system found in the teachings of Kabbalah would come down to us unhindered.  This system consisted of 10 Divine attributes which, together, form the kabbalistic Tree of Life.  There are a multitude of explanations and allegorical images used in kabbalistic tradition to try and convey something of the nature of these 10 attributes.  Among them, Rabbi Nachman spoke of 10 melodies - 10 kinds of sound resonance that, when unblocked, would vibrate in perfect harmony with each other, bringing perfection and wholeness to the world.

I sometimes liken the teachings of Kabbalah to that of theoretical or particle physics, not only because there are some truly amazing resonances between some of the teachings in each discipline, but because Kabbalah is very abstract and requires translation into something that we can respond to in the here and now.  Rabbi Nachman, by proposing a ritual practice of the recitation of 10 psalms, sought to provide a spiritual methodology by which even an individual could make a small contribution to the greater Tikkun by speaking words that he believed carried the resonances of the ten kinds of melody.  At the very least, these might help to release some of our own blockages as we seek to be more 'in tune' with ourselves and with others.

The last of the ten psalms is Psalm 150:
Hallelujah. Praise God in His sanctuary; praise Him in the firmament of His power.
Praise Him for His mighty acts; praise Him according to His abundant greatness.
Praise Him with the blast of the horn; praise Him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise Him with the timbrel and dance; praise Him with stringed instruments and the pipe.
Praise Him with the loud-sounding cymbals; praise Him with the clanging cymbals.
Let every thing that has breath praise Yah. Hallelujah. (JPS, 1917)

In the context of Rabbi Nachman's Tikkun HaKlali, this psalm literally vibrates with the sounds of the instruments played in the ancient Temple of Jerusalem.  Rabbi Nachman taught about the spiritual importance of fostering joy, and the power of music and of singing to lift oneself up, even from the most difficult of circumstances.  Our study group considered the power of song and of music at multiple levels.

It was in this context that a member of our study group thought of the example of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the role that music and song has played quite literally in her physical healing.  If sound has the power to shatter glass, might it not also have a literal potential to heal, in addition to the emotional and spiritual sustenance that it can provide?

Rep. Giffords has been working with a music therapist, among others also tending to her treatment and recovery.  Music has had the power to tap into her memory, and assisted with regaining language mastery, as the music appears to help the brain to access new ways to communicate.  Her therapist, Morrow, explains: "It's creating new pathways in the brain ... Language isn't going to work anymore, so we have to go to another area and start singing and create a new pathway for speech... 

Music is also linked to brains areas that control memory, emotions, and even movement. "The thing about music is that it's something that's very automatic -- part of our old brain system," Morrow said. "If I play a rhythm, I can affect the rest of the body. The body naturally aligns with a rhythm in the environment."

Throughout my childhood I often accompanied my mother who would go and sing at Assisted Living and Nursing Homes.  And time and time again, I would witness residents who would not or could not easily speak or communicate any more literally return to full life when the music began.  Intentionally singing a repertoire of music that would be familiar from their youth, my mother would have residents singing along, moving their bodies - even getting up to dance.

The enormous power of music and sound, working at the physical, emotional and spiritual level, has always been evident to me.  It has been an integral part of my Jewish spirituality as I have found ways to access the meaning of our rituals and our prayers through the vehicle of the melodies we bring to them.  Rabbi Nachman understood this two hundred years ago.  We're just beginning to tap into the potential that vibration, sound, and song have to bring healing to our lives.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

What happens next? Reflections on Steve Jobs' last words

In the last few days, many people have been talking about the eulogy that Mona Simpson, Steve Jobs' sister, gave at his funeral. More specifically, her sharing of his last words:

The Huffington Post reported: In a stirring eulogy delivered at Jobs' memorial, held at Standford University's Memorial Church on October 16, Simpson revealed the last words Jobs uttered mere hours before he died. Her tribute to her brother was reprinted by the New York Times on October 30. According to the Times' printed version, Simpson said Jobs had been looking at the members of his family, gathered around his bed, when he gazed past them and said," OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW."

Much has been said by media pundits, blogged, and talked about in homes, over coffee and around water coolers, about what those last words might have meant. I'm not going to provide 'the answer', or even 'a Jewish answer'. We simply don't know. Way back in the Talmud (compilation of Rabbinic writings from approx. 0-500 CE), Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania said, 'When they come to life again, we will consult about the matter.' (Niddah 70b). Of course, this in itself might be understand as the declaration of a particular belief - that one day the dead will rise again. But this quote came to mind because, in effect, ben Chanania is also saying that we simply aren't able to say with any certainty what happens after we die and until someone comes back to our world to tell us how it is, we're not going to be able to reach any conclusions.

What is interesting to me is the widespread response to Steve Jobs' last words. A few weeks ago I was discussing beliefs about God with some of my eighth grade class. One group that I was talking to largely expressed that they didn't think they believed in something after death, but that they wished they did - they liked the idea, and found it comforting. In a recent discussion about death and dying at Fairfield University where I was a guest speaker, some students expressed belief in a heaven, but they no longer held to the idea that one would be judged and one's destination depended on choices in this world. Perhaps there was just one 'place' where we all went, and perhaps it was more a transferral of energy or awareness, but not an actual physical place. Some expressed that it was in actions, family, and memory that we 'lived on', but only in those kinds of realms in this world.

While we may not be able to achieve clarity of answer, both the ideas we have and the questions we have about life after death are core questions that human beings have pondered since we walked on this earth. Every culture, every civilization, and every religion has had one or more ways of responding to the question. The great Jewish teacher and philosopher of the twelfth century, Maimonides, wrote extensively of the ideas found among the Jewish people in his introduction to Perek Helek. Maimonides was largely dismissive of most the mainstream ideas of his time, and implied that they taught us more about what people valued in this world than informed us of the truth of what happens when we die.
As a Rabbi, I've had enough exchanges with people about near death experiences, or the sense of presence of a loved one after they have died, that I have come to believe that something continues after our physical death on this earth. I've had personal experiences that have brought me to that place of believing in an energy - what some might call the Soul - that goes on. And, while I know those same experiences could be explained in other ways, I find my belief comforting and I believe it is comforting to others. An important part of my faith involves being able to live in the space of 'not knowing'. I am able to experience the mystery of life and Creation in a deep and visceral way when I am able to occupy that space of not knowing. This is an important part of my spiritual awareness.

And so, while I don't know what Steve Jobs, may he rest in peace, saw or felt in his last breaths, I hope his soul is united again with the energetic source of all existence. I hope it is quite incredible - the kind of incredible to which we might only be able to utter 'Oh wow!'
Rachel Gurevitz