Over the course of the last year I have had the pleasure of being around a group of people that have a genuine sense of kindness and respect for one other and for others, and a positive attitude even in extremely trying situations. So much so that I have wondered ‘how do they do it”? Abigail Washburn and the Village is a new band from Nashville. Abigail has had several other successful bands including Uncle Earl and Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet, but her new venture takes her music in a different direction, blending her old-timey- string focused- artsy bluegrass roots with an Indy rock sound that is beautiful, energetic and wonderfully complex.
Every time I am with these guys I have a blast, they have so much fun together and it is contagious! When spending time with them I think, “this (being their attitude and way of being in the world), is what everyone seems to be looking for but is out of the realm of how many people naturally think and communicate.” It comes through in their shows too where there is a wellspring of excitement and aliveness; it is evident they are having a great time doing what they do. More than once this year I had the thought that if we all had what they have it could literally change the world!
These strong words for such basic personality traits motivated me to have a conversation with Abigail to try to understand how she creates this environment. She was happy to talk with me as Abigail feels things are shifting and changing psychologically for her and for the band and she was interested in being able to understand and articulate this for herself as well. Our conversation seemed to be about both the most simple and basic things but also carried a profundity with it; better yet I could relate the things we were talking about to tenants of body-psychotherapy and recent findings in the field of interpersonal neurobiology.
Abigail did not set out to be a musician, it happened quite unexpectedly. In some ways the journey has been conflicting because her deepest desire is to be of service in the world. This means the focus must always be on the music and not on her per se. I wonder aloud how she facilitates this. She states that “The feedback I get is that our music is honest and real and it inspires that in others. The passion for making art and music creates tons of energy, and connecting to people gives me so much energy; especially the fact that I am inspiring people and giving them something. We meet people to see ourselves, others are our mirror and to be able to do that for an audience, that really can create a new sense of security in the world!”
From what I can tell, Abigail’s ability to keep this intention, and to follow the thread of songs that want to be sung and feel their healing power in her own life and via the relationships with her band is a big part of the “magic”. She recalls one intense song writing session with co-writer Kai Welch*. They were sitting at the piano together and she was aware of an “amazing sense of open creativity, an experience of such expansion…” that it led her to say out loud, “Maybe things will better now.” As she recalls the moment to me she notes, “I don’t think I have had as much negativity since then.”
Abby’s experience brings to mind a recent study published by Scientific American called The Willpower Paradox (by Wray Herbert, July 26, 2010, pg. 22) which explored how setting your mind on a goal may be counterproductive when compared to thinking about what you want to accomplish as an open question. The study demonstrates that people with “wondering minds” were more goal-directed and more motivated than those who declared their objectives to themselves. I picture this place that Abby and Kai were able to create as an open plane of existence where anything is possible, similar to that of the “wondering mind”. Having this experience can actually make changes in the patterns of neural networks in their brains. Neuroplasticity is the ability for the mind to create new neural networks. Usually the patterns of the mind go down familiar well-worn paths created from past experience. When we can create new pathways, small tributaries in the old riverbeds, we begin to facilitate psychological transformation. This leads to new journeys of the mind, new perceptions and new behaviors, it changes the internal world. There is a lot of information on how the brain works and how to facilitate this kind of change that I believe Abigail and Kai had stumbled upon naturally. They weren’t consciously working for psychological transformation at that time but they were working with emotional material in a creative way that may have allowed a pendulum swing, moving the energy attached to the old images they were writing about to a new place that creates solid change**. Their ability to go to this level of creativity facilitated it.
I asked questions about Abby’s relationships, did she have to work at them like so many of us do? Abigail states that in the early stages of their working relationship she and Kai were able to share their concerns with one another, and to really hear them and check if their reactions were coming from the here and now or “based on the old information we both carried”. It may not have always been easy but the way they did it made the difference that enhanced the wonderful creative link with one another. When Abigail expressed that “maybe everything would be different now”, she was referring to her own intra and interpersonal experiences.
She also notes an experience with a friend that taught her a different way of interacting that is integral to how she lives her life now: that sometimes not pondering problems can also be a way to heal. The friend was having major life problems and it was evident to and affected everyone around. Yet the friend’s attitude about her problem was, as often as possible, to realize “I am having a hard time, but why don’t I just try to have a good time right now.” Abigail saw the gift in this mindset and has made a point of applying it at times to her own circumstances.
Daniel Siegel,M.D. is a neurobiologist who is a pioneer in discovering and applying similar concepts in his work. His “Mindsight Meditation” found in the book Mindsight (Random House, New York, NY 2010) is a tool for developing this skill of objectivity in regards to our experience. It allows us to identify with ourselves in a context larger than our experience. He depicts a hub at the center of a wheel that has spokes going out to our experience in the different levels of inner perception; our body, thoughts, emotions, and relational activity. If we can view our experience from the hub we can experience it without identifying with it, knowing there is more to who we really are. This is consistent with how healing is viewed in body-psychotherapy, that it is has to be congruent in all these levels of being. A big part of our therapeutic work is to not be overly identified with the experiences we have had and how they have shaped us in the past. Once we accomplish this perception we have more choices about our reactions in life.
Abigail Washburn has been able to apply this even further when she finds herself in a difficult situation. At one point in her life when she had a problem with a specific person she found herself perseverating on the issue. Finally, with support from a cranial sacral therapist, she asked herself “what would I like this (situation) to look like?” She imagined a different situation, a realistic one that didn’t involve a demand on others. Again using that creative aspect of her brain she allowed herself to picture something other than her old story and her old experience. While doing this she felt a shift happen in her body, a release in her abdomen. It was more than just a cognitive shift and it created the space for her to approach the situation with more openness that worked really well with the person in question. She states,
“Now when negativity creeps in and I ruminate on something I say, “what if I sigh and breathe and let-go”? I can feel it all loosen up, I observe it especially on a body level when it actually shifts.” She integrates her learning from this when working with the band by constantly asking them “how would you like this to look?” And she often finds herself saying “let’s see how we can make that happen.” Isn’t that just the kind of work and family situation that we all long for?
During our conversation I thought about the momentum I get when working with groups or in workshops or even individuals that allows me to get in an energized zone; it feels similar to what Abigail describes in talking about her work. But I realized that I have never had to maintain this momentum for more than 4 or 5 long days in a row. Abby and her band spend weeks and months in a small van together travelling the country. Playing music and entertaining until late at night, tearing down the stage, talking with fans, sleeping short hours, getting up early to do radio interviews and workshops, driving driving driving or taking planes at odd hours to countries all over the world, then doing it all over again. They spend all day every day together and when they are on the road even laundry stops are few and far between. They are constantly interacting with people from venues hosting their shows, soundmen, people providing home stays and other fans. They are perpetually interacting from their professional selves and they don’t get to go home at the end of the day. I wondered how they could possibly maintain the positive momentum. This led us into a conversation about life in the van.
Abigail states “we definitely have our ups and downs. One time one of the members was having a very difficult time due to lack of sleep with no relief in sight. She was sobbing and crying and expressing what a hard time she was having. But she was also able to articulate that she didn’t feel any negativity to anyone in particular, she was able to maintain the perspective that it was “just what she was going through”. “We all understand that it is just energy,” Abby explains, “there is no attachment to it.” She reflects on her forays into Buddhist thought and articulates, “you are going to suffer anyway, so why be attached to it!” Again this aligns with the principles of my work, energy is just energy. My teacher used to say “water from a spring doesn’t care if it comes out of the ground and gets admired for its wonder and beauty or if it flows down to the cow trough and gets trampled into mud. It just flows”. If we can allow the physical and emotional energy that arises in any given situation without assigning meaning to it or acting it out, we can more easily stay in flow with the situations in which we find ourselves.
Another interesting thing I have noticed is an incredible irreverence in the “Village” in the way the band interacts when not on stage. Abigail states that this comes in part from the long hours they spend together in the van and how they joke about it. They are all “in each other’s business all the time” and this has turned into something to laugh about. Pretty soon this humor started to shape the personality of the band. Abigail notes:
“Jamie Dick the drummer, has an amazing gift with humor and is able to use it to perpetuate positivity. Mix that with Kai’s “openness” and my ability to laugh and laugh and laugh, we can talk or explore anything –there is a sense of being kids together. When we laugh it is a body-happiness thing!”
And this humor is also used inadvertently to heal old wounds and old patterns. During one particularly long drive Jamie and Kai started imitating people acting badly. For hours on end they acted like they were yelling and cussing at one another. Everyone couldn’t help but see the absurdity in how people sometimes act. Every time one of them opened their mouth escalating the drama, the whole van (6 people total) broke into incurable laughter. Abigail explained that it was so funny, and so cathartic, and had so much meaning for each of them. Just talking about this with her allowed me to also feel the healing and release this game facilitated. I could feel it in my body and in my mind, changing my perceptions about things I had done and experienced in my life, and in it was an emotional release that felt like a spiritual experience that demonstrates what Abby had said earlier, ‘it’s just energy”. This spontaneous healing incorporates the backbone of body-psychotherapy; that issues have to be resolved by allowing the energy caught up in old experiences to move on 5 levels of being, the body, mind, emotions, will (the actions we take based on the experience) and the underlying spiritual implications. I thought about my recent visit to a laughing yoga class and realized why I didn’t find it satisfying. It opened up my physical body, allowing me to breathe more deeply, but it didn’t have any context, it didn’t touch the other levels and meet the deeper need. Back in the van the healing touches many arenas. Abigail states:
“Whenever anyone does anything remotely embarrassing or socially awkward Jaime has a way of making it so funny that it becomes an act of greatness. The person ends up feeling proud!” From this wonderful way of coping with the lack of privacy the name “the Village” was derived. “It was a term we used to describe how we acted when we are in each other’s business so much. We use the word as a verb, to “village something” is to make whatever everyone is doing a group topic!”
At the same time we had been looking for a name for the band and that is how the name came about.” Of course in current culture the word village is inseparable from the saying “it takes a village”. In this case Abigail Washburn appears to be accomplishing her vision; the service work of the Village is to foster life-changing positive esteem in its member’s and in turn effect the audiences. And there is also one other important hallmark of good mental health that the band does naturally; thankfulness.
“We all have so much gratitude for what we get to do, making art with amazing people and sharing it with the world, it’s a miracle!” I agree, thank you Abby for your time and your good work.
* Kai is my son, which is why I have had the good fortune to spend time with this wonderful group
** for an expanded discussion of this concept read my article “The Body’s Cycle of Learning”
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