Soft wood, flexible strings ... sympathetic strings?

In a meditation a half-dozen years ago, I realized the personal usefulness of a metaphor of self: I am a stringed instrument, and the quality that I seek as that instrument could be characterized as “soft wood, flexible strings.”

My image of the instrument in question was modern western. I am a life-long guitarist and, more recently, a cellist. In the context of these two instruments, the phrase, “soft wood, flexible strings” suggests a relationship with self and others that is resonant (like soft wood) and malleable (like flexible strings).

My meditations on this metaphor broadened as I imagined myself as an instrument being played by the Great Musician. Immediately apparent is that, were I actually to be considered an instrument, I’m far more complex than a guitar or a cello. Of course, it makes utter sense that the Great Luthier of the instrument that I am is far grander than the more modest luthiers that created my Martin 00028 or the cello that was once my father’s and now lives with me. So, I have come to see myself as a sacred and wildly complex instrument that functions best when my wood is soft and my strings are flexible.

Last weekend, in another meditation, I came to see that this metaphor continues to evolve. Just about a year ago, I bought for my bride’s birthday an Indian instrument, an esraj. The esraj has four strings that are played and 15 “sympathetic” strings that run below the four played strings. The four strings are played by a bow usually used to play the double bass. The 15 other strings are untouched by hand or bow, but not unplayed. Rather, they are played by the vibrations created by the playing of the other strings, vibrations that are conveyed to the sympathetic strings through the bridge and lambskin on which the bridge rests and through the air that shimmers with the vibrations of the played strings.

All of the sympathetic strings are very fine. For one who is exploring the metaphor of “flexible strings”, they are the perfect size. These strings are so flexible that vibrating air sends such strings into a sympathetic vibration. This is important for the esraj, as the wood is not as soft and flexible as that of an acoustic guitar or a cello. The strings do nearly all of the resonating for this instrument.

Back to exploring the metaphor -- what would it be like, who would I get to be, if I were a holy instrument of infinite complexity that had, as a part of my essential nature, a bunch of fine gauge strings that could feel and reflect back the vibrations of a nearby string?

I’m chuckling as I write this at the obviousness of at least part of the answer to this question, hidden in plain sight in the name of the esraj’s resonant strings: “sympathetic.” The more like an esraj I am, the more sympathetic I’ll be. To be esraj-like is to “hear” another being’s vibration and, to the extent that vibration matches something within me, to then vibrate in response to that vibration.

What are the implications of this evolving metaphor for my day-to-day living? I seems to me that they are many. Here are a few that have occurred to me over the past week:

  • When I am functioning as a sympathetic string, I need to be true to my flexible nature in order to “hear” the vibrations of the played strings. Toughening up -- an oft-evoked encouragement, particularly directed at men -- will not help. In fact, toughening is counter-productive for this role. I must be flexible.

  • One of the obligations of each of the 19 strings is to be in tune with its unique function. A string that is out-of-tune with where it is on the esraj means that the full set of harmonics that are the responsibility of that string is not represented in the total universe of the esraj’s harmonics. No other string has precisely the same array of harmonics as does each string. My chief obligation to this principle is to do my best to be in tune with my unique self.

  • In those moments when the Great Player is playing someone else as the primary note and my function is secondary and resonant, the entirety of the note is served by my ability to hear and vibrate in sympathy with all the notes being played through the other person that are mine with which I am to vibrate. Note that I’m not required to vibrate with all the notes that the other string/person is playing — just those that resonate with my unique tuning. I can trust if a note is being played that doesn’t cause me to vibrate musically, another string will provide the appropriate sympathetic response.

  • On the other hand, when I am the primary note and others are taking up the role of sympathetic string, my job is to be as tuneful as I can be and to trust that the sympathetic strings that are tuned to my vibration will do their job and vibrate, and that those that are not tuned to my vibration will do their job and not vibrate with me. It is not mine to worry about who is vibrating with my music. It is simply mine to sound as good as I can sound.

  • Nothing is personal. Whether a sympathetic string is vibrating with me is not about whether that string is my friend, or is a good string. That string’s vibration with me is the natural product of the string’s unique function and the external circumstances that modify the expression of that function within the music, circumstances like whether it has been tuned and how well it is being played.

These are but a few of the implications of the metaphor, which becomes even more complex when I weave in myself as a participant in the tuning of the strings and the skillful use of the bow in evoking the sound. I am not separate from the Great Player, so I am directly involved in the making of the music through the instrument that I am.

Furthermore, when I realize that the instrument-being that I am is not a fixed object but instead is in an ongoing process of being created, moment to moment, I realize I am not separate from the Great Luthier, either. So, I’m in an ongoing process of creating this instrument every day. How I eat, rest, exercise, and otherwise care for myself is an essential part of the process of creating the unique instrument that births my unique music.

Finally, the esraj experience is both utterly individual — each of us is a unique instrument — and utterly social — all of us are in the same orchestra. So, we can explore the great mystery of the ever-evolving complexity of our own instrument in the context of an ensemble of beings who are all doing a similar exploration while trying to make music together. There is no sheet music — this is all improvisation.

Let’s play!