The Musicality of Being

Photo by Trung Thanh on Unsplash


Space, ground, breath & sound




Is there a formula for feeling connected – to yourself, to other people, and your world?

No, not exactly. 

But there are certain signals that show up consistently in your experience that you can learn to recognize and put to wise use within all the wide variety of activities that make up your daily life.

The following framework is something that I’ve developed through a decade of personal practice and my work with hundreds of different students and individual clients.

There are (at least) four essential elements of your relationship to the environment that are always present

  • the movement of your breath,
  • your connection to the surfaces that support your weight, 
  • the feeling of surrounding space, and
  • the sonic landscape.

In short, breath, ground, space and sound.


Each of these elements provides a universe for deep study, but even the most basic awareness of their presence – and how they are alway in dynamic interaction – can give you valuable insight into why you feel the way you do at any given moment.

  • The movement of your breath broadcasts the exact state of your nervous system in each moment. It flows – or it doesn’t. It expands globally, in all directions – or finds itself limited by deeply ingrained patterns of strain that inhibit movement.
  • Sometimes you seem to sink into the ground as if it were quicksand. Other times you rise away from it, as if from a rebounding trampoline.To make effective use of ground forces for leverage, first you must be able to trust your support. When you are masterful, your skeleton becomes an extension of the ground and you feel weightless.
  • Sometimes the surrounding space seems to open to welcome you. You find yourself expanding outwards. Other times, space can feel closed to you – you realize that you are shrinking away from it and contracting into yourself, as if to hide somewhere inside your skin.
    (This feeling shows up differently in different body parts and in relation to different spatial directions. Our orientation is influenced by the memories of how we have historically reacted – or responded – to outside stimuli.)
  • Sound resonates in your throat to carry your voice out into the world. The world’s voice resonates in your ears. But some sounds have more resonance than others. Sometimes you experience harmony, at other times, dissonance.

(There are, of course, many more elements that continuously impact your experience: such as the interplay of light and shadow, temperature, odor, etc. While each of these could also be the basis for fruitful inquiry, I have found that the four elements described here already provide sufficient basis for transformative practice.)

In the descriptions above you’ll notice how each relational element can be considered from two different points of view – from the inside or the outside.

In the act of self-inquiry one can usefully shift between these viewpoints, alternately placing one in the foreground and the other in the  background. At other times, when presence is forfeited to the play of long term habits, one of these perspectives may persistently dominate.

A third perspective is also possible – where the boundaries between insides and outsides become much more fluid. In such a flow state, you can experience yourself as being so seamlessly embedded in your environment that you and your surroundings feel like parts of one continuous organism.

(Here I’m mainly talking about how you relate to your local environment, but these three perspectives might also help to describe your worldview.)

Shifting from one perspective to the another is accomplished through the movement of your attention.

Your attention can move inside your body or out into your surroundings. The overall scope of your attention can narrow or widen. Within the envelope of your attention, you can choose to foreground certain elements and background others.

Shifting perspective intentionally this way might be thought of as something that you do from the inside. When events beyond your control suddenly demand your attention – or at least distract you from your intended focus – you might feel as if you are being commanded from the outside.

The difference between acting from the inside-out or experiencing stimuli arriving from the outside-in can feel like the difference between being an autonomous actor or having the sense that life happens “to me.” 

In the flow state – where insides and outsides become unified and one has a sense of being one with the environment – it might be more accurate to say that life happens “through me.”

In a “complete” experience, the gestalt of these elements shows up not only in your actions, but also in your sensing, thinking, and feeling.

The four elements described above (breath, ground, space and sound) can be said to relate to each other musically because they are present simultaneously. The combination of their layered rhythms, tones, and sensations produces the overall state that you experience as the way this moment feels. 

The experiential gestalt that emerges from the relationship of all these elements – within your body, mind, and the surrounding environment – always has a unique character that is much more than the sum of its parts. It can be difficult to capture with words

But since the dawn of known history, in every culture, humans have produced another form of communication that speaks at a level that words can’t reach. I’m referring, of course, to music.

Music can be produced by a single voice as a series of sounds, something we call melody. Yet the musical universe also affords the possibility of the simultaneous yet ordered sounding of multiple voices, something we call harmony when we find it pleasing to the ear. 

As each sound appears, it emerges from silence. The alternation of sounds and silence (presence and absence) creates the phenomena we call rhythm. The simultaneous sounding of multiple rhythms results in polyrhythm – which may be ordered when they share a common pulse or disordered when they don’t.

It’s worth noting that tone and rhythm are combined in the phenomenon we call resonance. What we hear as tone is a pattern of vibration at certain frequency. When the vibration is faster, we perceive a higher tone, when it’s slower we perceive a lower tone. 

(20th Century electronic musician Karlheinz Stockhausen discovered that speeding up beating patterns with different rhythms resulted in different tone colors or “timbres” – this word can be used to describe the difference in the sound quality between two different instruments playing the same tone).

While musical tastes vary widely, most people prefer to hear combinations of tones that seem to be in tune. Likewise, they generally find it more agreeable when simultaneous rhythms are in sync – that is, they relate to a shared pulse. A musician can explain these concepts in mathematical terms, but you don’t need to be a musician to feel them.

(Those that immerse their ears in avant-garde and experimental music may seem to have more tolerance for dissonance and disorder than other listeners. Or, one might say they are simply willing to wait longer for harmony and order to appear – and enjoy observing the process of how that happens).

These qualities of being in tune and in sync – that we associate with sound patterns that vibrate agreeably – also provide a convenient metaphor for the experience of joyful human relationships, what we call connection.

To tie the two ideas together, imagine being in the audience of a concert where one of the musicians is playing out of tune or out of sync. Notice how the sounds from that instrument seem to clash with the rest of the music, diminishing your experience. Now suppose that musician was you. Imagine the embarrassment and isolation you would feel if you were  responsible for disrupting the sense of unity in the soundscape.

We can also use this basic criteria of musical connection – being in sync and in tune – to describe other kinds of human interaction.

To make this point, it might be enough to point out that tone and rhythm are essential qualities of human speech that frame the meaning of the words that are spoken. We’re unlikely to feel a connection to someone speaking in unaccented monotone. On the other hand, when we enjoy the sound of  someone’s voice, we might describe it as “melodious.”

What is the sound of conversation between two people who feel deeply connected?

Does it sound different if they are antagonists? 

While I’d still stop short of proposing a “formula for connection,” I’d like to suggest that paying closer attention to the “music” of our speech – and the speech of others – opens a doorway into a potent field of inquiry.

With a nod to the cognitive scientist and philosopher John Vervaeke, let’s call it the musicality of being.

It begins with the relationship to one’s self and one’s world – what Vervaeke might call the vertical axis of our experience – which fits nicely with the way we organize our bodies in gravity as “two-leggeds*.” 

(*In this case, I nod to animist philosopher David Abram.)

With the vocabulary I have been using here, we can study our vertical relationship moment-by-moment by tuning into the elements of space, ground, breath, and sound.

Sound – the name of the umbrella category into which we place both “noise” and “music” – bridges the vertical and horizontal axes of experience. 

For Vervaeke, when we talk about our relationship to other people, we are describing the horizontal axis. This axis nicely maps onto the trajectories of the movement of your voice, the gaze of your eyes, and the movement of your arms as you go to embrace someone or shake their hand, – all movements that relate to human connection.

As a basic organism that wants to survive and not die, your first essential consideration on both axes is your physical safety and integrity. Your confidence in your ability to defend your existence in each moment is inseparable from  your state of emotional dignity and mental clarityWithout this kind of biological fitness*, nothing else is possible.

(*with a nod to Feldenkrais trainer Jeff Haller, who also taught me about “ground forces” and “global breathing.”)

However, when this aspect of existence becomes our only concern, our view of other people becomes distorted by only looking through the lens of what Vervaeke calls “the having mode.”

(I believe he attributes this phrase in turn to Erich Fromm).

In the “having mode”, we’re most concerned with what we have. We want things to consume and are more likely to treat other people as commodities (such as when love is reduced to little more than sex).

But in the “being mode” we look beyond survival to the experience of meaning which we find through connection – above all with other human beings, but also through our relationships with nature and societal institutions.

This is where the musicality of being – or, we might say, the musicality of being togethercomes fully alive..

Returning to the elements I originally placed on the vertical  – or individual – axis, we might watch them spill out into the horizontal – or social – axis:

  • How do you breathe in the presence of strangers? In the presence of your children? In the presence of your beloved? Who makes you tense and inhibit your breath? Who makes you feel welcome, allowing your body to relax and your breath to be free?
  • In the light of another’s gaze, do you find yourself sinking into the ground, making yourself smaller? Or do you feel light, as if you were growing upward? Do you keep company that uplifts you? Are there certain people who seem to drag you down?
  • How do you relate to the space between you and this person that faces you? Are you expanding into it, as if to bridge the gap between you? Or do you shrink back to widen the breach?
  • How do you resonate with fellow humans? How evenly do you balance your speech and your listening? Are you capable of making enough room inside yourself to hold space for another? How well do you work, play, or dance with others? 

Recognizing, then consciously practicing,  the musicality of being allows you to make music with people who live at different tempos than you or who may see things from a different point of view. 

In daily life this starts by simply observing – both in one’s self and in others – the key elements I have been describing here (on both the vertical and horizontal axes):

  • Breath
  • Ground
  • Space
  • Sound*
  • Resonance
  • Musicality 

*From this point of view, it might make more sense why I previously said that sound connects these two axes.

Unlike our eyes, which only tell us about the world in front of us, our ears can simultaneously listen to the space on both sides, above and below us, in front and behind us. In the womb we were surrounded by sound. We first discovered movement by feeling vibrations when our being was entirely contained inside the being of our mother. 

(Further recommended reading on this subject: “On the Primacy of Hearing”, by Moshe Feldenkrais)

In quieter moments we can meditate on any of these individual elements or use them for experimentation.

With others, we can use these elements to engage in “serious play,” as Vervaeke would say.

Listen to John Vervaeke in conversation with Guy Sengstock on the musicality of being

(Of course, we can build these skills merely for the sake of winning. Or, as author James Carse would say, we can play “infinite games” where the point isn’t winning, but continuing to play.)

The more you pay attention to this general feeling of musicality, the less you’ll need to worry about the minutiae of all its various elements. (Vervaeke might say, “beware of combinatorial explosion!”) You learn to simply sense more deeply into comfort or discomfort, to become more aware of whether you are in tune, or out of sync.

But if you have studied the elements that create the architecture of these feelings, then you can become increasingly artful in your capacity to make small adjustments that afford you a deeper and more continuous sense of connection.

This is why a framework for connection is so much better than a formula.

To organize your posture or your thinking based on prescribed set of rules and axioms will handicap you in the act of relationship, which always depends on the willingness and capacity for give and take (what musicians refer to as “call and response”).

All these words give only the barest meaning of the musicality of being.

A little more of that meaning can be found if you read with an ear for the rhythms and melodies, if you listen to the spaces between the words, taking account of the other sounds in your environment as you read.

But the best understanding come through participation in the practice,

(Read: serious play).

The practice of the musicality of being together – with ourselves, our world, and our fellow human beings.

Live Musicality of Being workshops in Rock Creek Park, Washington DC – Learn more here