A few nights ago I saw the documentary “Birth of the Cool” about the life-and-music (inseparable to him) of Miles Davis.
At one point in the film, Miles says to his bandmates as they explore new musical forms: “Don’t play what you know – play what you don’t know.”
This phrase crystallized something for me – moments where I realized I don’t really know anything – that any conceptual form of knowing is itself a kind of movie overlaid on the surface of the unknown, projections dancing in a life-giving darkness.
“Walking” – what really is that, apart from the word? And what’s a “breath”? Are two ever the same? What is the “present moment” – that idea I keep trying to live within? Where does it start or end? Does it even actually exist? And then this feeling called sadness – what is that?
And then, in this space where the question lives, in the midst of not knowing – freedom. To really be in touch with this leaf, this play of light, this tree trunk, this quality of air, not knowing what “it” really is, where “it” starts or ends, or where or what “I” am, not remembering the sheet music at all (or else remembering and seeing it as beautiful lines and dots on a page) – playing what I don’t know.
What compelled me so much about Miles Davis’ life was how relentlessly he sought that moment of contact/discovery, how he sought to live in the real by out-creating the un-alive, and how he found reality in a spontaneous communion of hearts with his bandmates, not-knowing their way together into the next form of listening, the next wave of creativity-aliveness.
It was one more way to see this exploration we’re in – how in a sense words are always in danger of becoming dead idols, because there’s this compulsive quality to chasing what seems attached to them, as if to repeat a phrase in my head or grasp a concept would give me control, conjuring a certain experience over and over again.
An experience which doesn’t exist – which never existed, at least not in the way I’d dreamed. It’s always been a mystery. The word “tree” has never been that living encounter with the deep mystery of swirling aliveness breathing color into my veins that there are no words for. Same for the present moment. Same for my hand. Same for anything I try to nail down – unconsciously, innocently- conditioned like this to seek ultimate reality in the movie of my mind.
And, for me, this is especially true with spiritual awakening, my life’s most severe addiction. Never a thing there though – as far as I can tell, there’s only mystery all the way down (and mystery, of course, is another concept that dissolves on contact in the all-immersing weirdness of what is).
So in other words: what you already know, but neither of us really have words for, dissolving as we forget together in the endless play of dark and light.
And all this is just to share my little spark with you all, as it disappears into the air, hopefully leaving us all here breathing and being this music-oxygen together, no one knowing more really than anyone else – knowing itself falling apart among us, in a liberation of wild aliveness – playing what we don’t know.
(2019 Ben Ross. All Rights Reserved.)