Back in the late sixth century BCE, the Greek polymath Pythagoras taught that the great crystalline spheres carrying our moon, the planets, and distant stars constituted a celestial musical harmony. His was perhaps the first conception of the cosmos to envision all things as comprising a “universe,” in the sense of a single coordinated system of being and time. Since then, the idea has continued to fascinate and inspire artists, scientists, philosophers, and politicians alike.
To explore it further, let’s consider your life as composed on such a musical design by using the organic metaphor of a tree as our unifying image.
As it happens, trees also have a long history as archetypes of existence, models in their own way of the universe and our place in it. Basic to any such ancient and perennial image is an understanding that everything is connected, “all is one,” and that our own flourishing as inhabitants of this greater reality is a function of how intentionally we can live our lives in agreement, or in harmony, with the way things truly are.
We will begin our meditation by directing attention “out here,” into the complex of your life and the countless connections, interactions, and reciprocal relations that are together the participatory environment of your existence. This complex, or “complicated whole,” corresponds to the canopy of our great cosmic tree with its diversified articulation of branches and leaves.
Musically, it is where your life participates in – and at times falls out of harmony with – the higher wholeness and complementary unity of being.
In harmony, it is not that you must find your fit in what’s going on, but that in being true to yourself and listening to your life, you are unselfconsciously lifted into the greater chorus of voices.
Your life and life-story invite our descent, deeper into that harmonic structure, following a single branch with its unique phrasing of twigs and leaves. As a formal element in the “music of the spheres,” harmony exists only by the complementary melody lines that lift and support each other, conspiring to create a complicated whole (i.e., a complex) rather than a confused mess (i.e., chaos).
The relational field of your life with the many other human and non-human, living and nonliving melody lines around you is what we identify as the ethical realm. This is where your energy, spirit, agency, and behavior proceed to affect, for good or ill, the larger community in which you participate – whether or not you are ready to acknowledge that fact.
Many people – millions and millions over the course of human history – conduct themselves with very little awareness of how and in what degree their attitudes and actions impact the “commonweal” of everything around them.
The melody of your life and life-story is not something you can fully appreciate, given that you are, in this very moment, still trying to figure it out. To be sure, its shape and character are much easier to discern looking back, than they are to imagine looking ahead. Hard knots are all that remain of broken dreams, lost loves, and gambits that didn’t pay off, making you tougher and a little less flexible in places where life didn’t go the ways you thought, or hoped, it would.
And yet, these too are precious parts of the melody that have shaped you into the person you are today.
Just as harmony doesn’t exist outside the complementarity and mutual support of distinct melody lines, melody itself is a temporal sequence of individual notes, or tones. As we descend further into the music of your life, this formal element of tone invites us into the sound dynamics of loud (forte) and quiet (piano), short (staccato) and sustained (legato) – but always and necessarily now, now, now.
The longer stretch of your life in time can be appreciated as a more or less continuous flow of such single, momentary tones.
This is the present moment, and the melody of your life and life-story consists of a virtually infinite number of such fleeting yet timeless moments, since the brevity (or staccato) of its duration can be mathematically halved and halved again, ad infinitum.
Like the rest of us, you have been frequently deluded into believing that the present is a stretch (literally a “tense”) of time sandwiched between the past and the future. (Whether it comes before the past or before the future is a matter of perspective.) In anticipation, the present is still future; upon reflection, it is already past. When is it, then?
In reality, it is timeless: a moment without duration, a vanishing intersection of time and being.
Tone is what gives melody its mood – the pitch, timbre, octave, the unnatural half-steps of worry (sharp) or regret (flat), the dynamics of amplitude, volume, and length. In this very moment, you are sounding a tone that sits somewhere on the musical scale and either conserves the prevailing mood of your life-story or else may serve to shift it to a new key.
The perennial wisdom traditions remind us that you see the world not as it is, but as you are.
Another step deeper into the formal element of tone reveals it to be a cycle of sound, rising and falling, flooding the vibrational sphere and sinking away in the next instant. This is what we call rhythm – the “beat,” the resonance interval, the length of a sound-wave between the prenatal and postmortem silence. Rhythm is what carries the tones in their articulation as melody. It gives music its “measure” as it resounds from underneath and keeps the whole arrangement “in time.”
A “beat” of rhythm is only heard or felt in its compression phase; in rarefaction it falls away into silence, nothingness. We notice that the phenomenal sound (or perceptible tone) is not the opposite of silence. Sound does not exist by virtue of defeating or overcoming the quiet, but only as it gathers up and surrenders again to its essential ground – that prenatal and postmortem silence mentioned above.
As it relates to the music of your life, you might imagine the energy cycle of rhythm compressing in the production of self-conscious awareness (ego), and dissolving back again into the grounding mystery of consciousness itself – what you are before who you are arrives.
Silence, then, is the essential ground of music. It is present not only “before” and “after,” but within and throughout the entire musical composition of rhythm, tone, melody, and harmony. Again, as it pertains to your life and life-story, silence is not a mere absence or sterile abyss, but the grounding mystery of your being, here and now. It is the mystical-inner realm which underlies and informs the ethical-outer realm of your life in harmony with others and the world around you.
And precisely because it is a present mystery and not the absence of something missing, you can only find the serenity of this silence by dropping, contemplatively, through the center of your own existence.