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  • John Thomas Dodson

The Work of the Crucible

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The human heart is the crucible of the cosmos. When you realize this, a shift in consciousness occurs. You begin to see that inner life is not necessarily private life. Your inner life belongs to the world.

Catherine MacCoun: On Becoming an Alchemist: A Guide for the Modern Magician


Since I've been an orchestral conductor all of my professional life, it would be easy to think of my work as a very public job. There are concerts, interviews, reviews, speeches, fundraising events and on and on. But actually most of the work is private. Learning the music, making rehearsal plans, reading about the composer, absorbing the ethos of the era and taking in anything else that may inform how the music might go. All of that is done alone at the desk. It is actually a very solitary profession.

In addition, the public side of the job has a shadow to it. Conductors have a certain degree of volition in rehearsal. We can decide how fast the music will go, we can set the tone for the orchestra (polite or intimidating), we can rehearse minutia until the orchestra is going crazy, or we can ignore things that are clearly falling apart and just keep conducting. Our volition can lead to a sense that we have power, and the sense of power can lead us to revel in our egos. If unchecked, the egos can grow and grow. Our very identity is replaced by our role. People don't address us by our first names. Instead we are called "maestro".

Lots of people are drawn to conducting because that ego trip can seem so enticing, so it might come as a surprise to hear that much of my work on the Path has been to confront that aspect of the work. I've asked myself why I became a conductor, why I continue to do it, how it fits into my practice of mindfulness, and many, many more questions that challenge my inner world to grow. This period of questioning has been a time when I have known that my heart has become a "crucible of the cosmos". This path of introspection has not been part of the public face of my work. Instead it has been an intensely private journey, sometimes helped along by therapists and coaches, and it has altered me in ways that I never could have imagined when I first sat down to meditate.

So now, when I step onto the podium, I'm mindful that the reason I am there isn't about power. I remember that the appearance of power, in the shadow's sense, is an illusion. And, while it's true that a conductor has to have strong ideas and a sense of "doing", there is also a sense of "what will happen next?" and inner stillness. I know that the beauty that we will make is not mine. It isn't me. It is impermanent and selfless. I have noticed that the old reference points have fallen away. The artistic police that I allowed to limit the music - they are gone. They were nothing but an obstacle in the road. As the music making becomes less and less about "me", there is something intensely authentic that arises instead. Whatever it is, I bow to that sacred way, and I let it be as it is. I have learned to trust it and to let it speak. That "allowing" is a result of my inner work, of the crucible, but it manifests outwardly, as sound and as behavior. And so it turns out that my inner life, to use MacCoun's words, "belongs to the world."

This is the conundrum of the mindful musician. We need a strong ego, a sense of our artistic self, clear ideas, a bent toward leadership. We need technique and self-confidence and a great base of knowledge. And we need their opposites in equal measure. This path teaches non-self, beginner's mind, and the way of water flowing where it will. It values intuition and emptiness. It challenges the prevailing culture.

Having gone through the crucible, I cannot return to the earlier way. I have learned how to disappear, even in a very public profession.

What is left is the music itself - unfolding in the ever-present moment - simply the beauty of now. And that is more than enough.

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