Imperfect Instrument, Perfect Message
I’ve been thinking about our free weekly videos that come out every Sunday morning. Starting during Covid, because all our workshops and retreats were cancelled, Joyce and I wanted to stay connected with people. There are now over a hundred of these little videos on YouTube (search “Joyce and Barry Vissell”). When we resumed our retreats, we thought about stopping, or cutting down to every other week or once a month, but folks begged us to continue. Many have said these Sunday mornings with us are a highlight of their week.
In these videos, Joyce loves to tell a little story to illustrate a spiritual principle. I usually say a few things, but I mostly love to share one of my songs, accompanying myself on my harmonium, followed by a short prayer or meditation.
I realize that speaking comes easy to me, but singing is one of my greatest vulnerabilities. Sometimes I feel more naked while singing than if I had no clothes on. Especially when I sing a song that I have written. Then I’m doubly naked and fully exposed, both in the song I have created and in the delivery. It’s also vulnerable for both of us to speak to a camera on a tripod, rather than live people in our room. We take some minutes before starting the video to visualize as many of you as possible, both those we have met and those we haven’t yet met in this life.
I know my singing voice is not technically the best. Of all the positive and wonderful comments about my singing and songs, there has only been one that has been critical. The writer told me I needed singing lessons. Nothing positive, just singing lessons! Of course, he was right in one way. Lessons could possibly improve my technique. But do I really want to improve my technique? Or do I want to simply, and perhaps even crudely, sing directly from my heart to the Divine Beloved, and lose myself in the music?
I hope before I sing that whoever watches these videos sings along with me, so it’s not just me singing and the audience watching and listening. But my greatest hope is to let Spirit come through my voice. That can be a tall order and a cause for real vulnerability. All of the 37 songs that I have written so far are either directly to God or to the divine coming through my beloved Joyce. Either way, they are all love songs.
The Sufis say, “Ishq Allah, Mabud Li’Allah.” It means that God, Spirit, Source is the highest love, invisible to the eyes, the energy filling everything. That is Ishq. But God is also the beloved, Mabud, that which we can see and touch, God made visible.
I have been re-reading one of our favorite books, The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. In this book, Yogananda tells stories about Babaji, one of India’s greatest saints. Babaji is a very common name in India. Even someone’s grandpa might be called Babaji. But this particular Babaji is unique. He was a fully enlightened being who had no need to be born into a body on earth. The work he was doing as a divine being could just as easily be done in the heavenly realms. But he chose to also be a “mabud,” a beloved, in a body on earth, seen, heard, and felt by other people. He has been in the same youthful body for centuries, usually described as having copper-colored hair. He chooses not to make a big splash or attract multitudes of followers, but people have described immense blessings and healings by being in his presence.
Then there’s me. I’m far from the self-realization of Babaji. But I long for the merging of Ishq and Mabud, divine love coming through my human form. I want so much to allow God to come through my voice. I realize it’s not an all-or-none kind of thing. There are ordinary moments when, to my ears, it’s just my imperfect vocal instrument. But then there are moments, maybe it’s the words I’m singing, or the sound of a chord change on my harmonium, that lift me to a higher place and carry the presence of a higher power and love. I believe it is these moments that make the song or chant, and deliver a divine message, a perfect message coming through an imperfect instrument. My greatest prayer is to be an instrument of peace and love.