Step off the battlefield.
As you may know, I have been working as a professional singer and musician for some time, and have many notes from the field to share. Especially on how to weather the various conflicts of heart and mind that come up around our singing.
I have sensed for the longest time that something crucial was missing from our musical lives. It was more like an unquenched desire for a better-aligned creative outlet. Plus a community in which your contribution was seen, recognized, and valued irrelevant of your perceived talent, skill, and confidence level.
I never had a sufficient answer for anyone. But I held this question close to my heart for several years, knowing there must be some kind of perfect solution. I must be patient, then. (If I’ve learned anything about the creative process, it’s that creative solutions must never be rushed.)
And in the silence of the waiting process, there comes the ripple in the ocean of creative force that finally breaks into a wave on the shore of our conscious understanding.
The realization of what I had been seeking came when I was intuitively summoned to a bookshelf at my local library and saw Dr. Elaine Aron’s influential book, The Highly Sensitive Person.
Ah, I had heard about this research on the “HSP” before, but previously swatted it away, self-conscious of how silly, overly-sensitive, and navel-gazing that it seemed.
I want to put that all to bed. When I read the first sentence of this book, I completely freaking lost it. I tapped into a well of repressed suffering that I had not truly understood or recognized until it gushed open, in the safe company of my snoozing cats.
If you are not familiar with the trait of being Highly-Sensitive, I guarantee that you know someone who is. According to the research, about 15-20% of the population (and in some studies, up to 30% of people) are considered Highly-Sensitive.
It is an inherited personality trait—not a syndrome or disorder—that amplifies a person’s response to stimuli, such as their environment, other people and/or their emotions, and the spiritual realm, to name a few. HSPs feel more strongly, react more strongly, and respond more strongly to the world and all of its… provocations.
(You can read more about this trait here.)
After my initial reservations, I now fully accept that I am a shining, classic, textbook example of a Highly-Sensitive Person (HSP). And that it is truly one of the most important aspects of my being, defining every moment of my life in relation to the world and the creative pathway I have chosen.
And thank goodness, because now I am able to reframe a lifetime of experience of feeling hopelessly flawed, recognizing that I was simply operating within a culture that does not have time, space, or desire for a person with, well, #feelings.
I also recognize that I will never realize my true vocation until I reconcile some very fundamental beliefs about my own sensitive gifts (and wounds tied up with sensitivity) as sources of inspired service, rather than fatal flaws.
If this topic speaks to you, may this be a call to reframe your own experiences as an HSP (or someone you may know who is an HSP) in a culture that does not readily support and understand the heightened states of sensory and emotional response that you may experience.
My own career as a musician has offered quite the playing field for Lessons in Sensitivity (or lack thereof).
My sensitivity (which was and remains extreme) was disdained, overlooked, and oftentimes ridiculed, and was most definitely considered seriously problematic. I had to adapt, and quick. I had to become more stoic and thick-skinned. I had to not feel so much. I had to blend in. I had to get it together, or else.
And at face value, as a student, then a music student, then an aspiring professional, and then an actual professional in the classical music industry, I needed to “function” in order to audition, get jobs, get paid, grow my reputation, and become successful.
This worked fairly well for some time, until I began to experience massive blows to my self-esteem in the form of botched auditions, painful rejections, mean-spirited critiques, and the very worst… being replaced by other singers with more desirable talent, skills, and confidence than myself.
This poisonous comparison trap was the last nail in the Pro Soprano coffin: See, I had *proof* that I really, truly, simply am not good enough!
For an HSP, these stressful situations cause a tidal wave of “over-arousal.” (Terrible clinical wording, but accurate.) My negative experiences eventually became the red flags for my nervous system which finally said: “Please stop. I know it’s important to get this right, but please, just sit here for a sec. We will work it out.”
Does any of this relate? Ok, let’s shift a moment and get some higher perspective.
I am going to be honest. If you are an HSP, you may never feel truly at home in the current environment of our culture, notably the musical culture. Because you are subject to rules that are not designed to protect you, nor to see you thrive, nor to appreciate your gifts of creativity, innovation, intuition, deep feeling, empathy, self-knowledge, divine connection, and wisdom.
I know that is a bold statement, but it has absolutely been my experience as both participant and observer of the culture for over 30 years.
But seriously, those are truly wonderful gifts. So how to appreciate them?
First, acknowledge their inherent value. Then place them in a new context. Let me explain.
Two Ruling Classes
According to Dr. Aron, the role of the HSP is a vital component of humanity’s survival. Consider the prevalence of our society’s leadership and its desire to extend outwards, to expand, to compete, and to win. This determination predates capitalism, and originally stems from the encounter of one early nomadic culture with another. The more dominant culture will ultimately win and conquer, thus controlling the resources. She states:
“Expansion, freedom, and fame are good. Those are the values of the warrior-kings.”
However, this is a tentative, grasping, disempowering kind of governance.
The most long-lasting, harmonious cultures throughout history maintain a certain balance of authority structures, in which the “warrior-kings” maintain connection with the “priest-judge-advisor” class. This latter group needs to stop and think in order to direct the warrior-kings into right action, and serve to protect all classes (including the powerless), rather than simply dominate the weak in pursuit of personal power.
Our culture at large is dominated by warrior-kings. In my experience, the classical musical culture (not to mention academia and almost all other creative fields) has become (non-intuitively) overrun by warrior-kings.
It has become a veritable battlefield out there: find your place in the ranks, fight and win and continue to advance, or fight and lose and get tossed out.
Of course, there are many wildly capable and talented artists who also step down, their own nervous systems’ waving red flags for a damn good reason. At least, if you choose to step away from the entire professional battlefield, you are still able to exercise a modicum of personal authority in the midst of chaos. (A brave, sensible, life-saving choice, if you ask me. )
The dominant culture advances warrior-kings who can admirably manage the field. It has, to its blind detriment, snuffed out and sidelined the mages, sages, judges, thinkers, wizards, and witches (the HSPs) who can guide the culture from destroying itself and everyone else around it for the sake of staying in power.
This Advisor Class knows how to read between the lines, create new forms, foster inclusivity, sense change on the wind, and ultimately advance the cause for the good of all, rather than the benefit of some.
And while HSPs are clearly not warrior-kings, they make profoundly wise and capable leaders, when given the opportunity to exercise their genius.
Love is Not a Battlefield
At a critical point in my own career, I simply needed to walk off the battlefield. I didn’t want to fight anymore. I was tired, bloodied, confused, and downtrodden. So I chose to step off into the wilderness to let my strength—and my sense—return so I could understand what was really going on.
My suffering was rooted in the belief that I had so very much to offer, but the dominant culture did not place any value on the gift. I certainly couldn’t go back to the status quo. There was no obvious viable outlet for my offering.
If you are an HSP, I would venture to guess that you have had a deep and painful struggle with finding your own place with your voice, too.
You have been operating in a cultural environment that was originally borne by the acts on the fringes (the troubadours, jugglers, monks, and magicians), but has since been supplanted by the kings who want to rule, and their willing knights of derring-do.
So, if you are tired of fighting, you can leave the battlefield. Wash yourself off, and rest a moment. You are not a failure.
You can put down your sword. Instead, pick up your staff. Because when you make an empowering choice that honors your energy, your gifts, and your body, you become a standard-bearer.
Maybe that battlefield is not your place after all, even after all of that fighting, the hard-won victories, and the vicious losses suffered in the trenches.
Maybe you are not a warrior-king. But you still have a noble heart.
Because you know that you have the creative power to envision a future that supports, admires, and expresses your gifts, and appreciates and empowers the gifts of others.
My personal vision is a culture in balance, where warrior-kings leave room and hold space for their Advisors. Where every voice has a place in the celestial symphony. Because even though the cultural norms may wear you down, don’t be fooled: your voice remains unconditionally worthy.
Begin by removing yourself from the insanity of warfare. Then ask yourself…
When I have permission to follow my heart and honor my inner voice, without the trappings of armor, weaponry, and stripes: where is Love guiding me to lead?
Listen closely. Be of good courage, excruciating patience, deep faith, and steadfast will. Because I know you have it, and you are going to need it.
When you leave the battlefield, you are finally able to recognize and realize a much higher truth. And that, Dear One, is the only place where you will truly belong, right at home in your own heart.