I have a strong memory of a profound experience from about twenty years ago. I had just finished Dead In Dreams, a very ambitious music album with a hip-hop/jazz/rock project called Miscellaneous Flux. Coming home at the end of that final long, tedious day of mastering the project, I chose to give the album one last listen instead of resting.
I was able to relax and just experience it for what it was. I was utterly ecstatic. All this work had finally resulted in what I thought was a masterpiece. I had used every tool, instinct, ounce of energy, and focus to finally achieve this end, and I was now experiencing the result from a purely visceral place.
During the long instrumental outro of the final track, I had a shift in my consciousness as I stared out the window. The moon was full, and the sky was clear. In this timeless moment, I could see the moon very slowly moving across the sky relative to the window panes. This, the music, and being in a vulnerable, open state caused me to feel a tremendous sense of oneness with the universe.
Just for the record, I was not high. It felt as if I had participated in an act of creation as best I could at that point in my life and was plugging into a larger act of creation, a rhythm of perpetual motion in a larger context. I was utterly gobsmacked and experiencing a profound sense of a delight I had never known possible. This experience solidified the values I was already gravitating towards and helped propel me forward into the next big phase in my life—moving to New York City and eventually becoming a full-time musician and artist.
I have since had several similar experiences, some of which were equally and even more profound. As I inexorably march from youth to middle-age, I find I experience delights where I had not previously. At earlier phases of our lives, we move too fast and are often too involved to slow down and take in our surroundings. A change in routine and even setting can sometimes help to shift that perspective, but I find that aging most definitely does. One can still engage life in much the same way. I may still have the same ambitions and be able to keep pace with a busy afternoon in midtown Manhattan, but I am now more likely to take a moment to observe a bird drinking from a puddle, a child laughing, or two friends embracing before I continue on my way. These little things can go a long way.
As a lifelong, full-time musician and artist, I often reflect on the elusiveness of delight. Whether one can cultivate a consistently rewarding relationship with their process or it is based solely on the lust for results, our striving for contentment, exuberance, and even ecstasy can be tricky. I realize this phenomenon and relationship is a different experience for everyone and is by no means exclusive to the world of the arts and music. However, I believe that creative practices and processes can offer tremendous insight to anyone curious about these mechanisms within their own psyches and lives.
In a superficial sense, we all experience ephemeral delight in many things. As children, we might relish in the simple pleasures of crunching snow underneath our steps, the seductive and satisfying cutting of construction paper, a cute stuffed animal or puppet brought to life with a funny voice, a new toy, and any number of things that present novelty and illicit wonder.
There have been countless studies regarding novelty and learning in children. Previous work suggested that novelty might activate the brain’s dopamine system, while one brain study led by Sebastian Haesler found that dopamine activation might also promote associative learning.
At a young enough age, almost anything can fill us with such a charge, and whether aware of it or not, I think we all seek to hold onto that wonder as long as we can. Life, circumstances, and adversity will invariably challenge that. We can grow hardened and cynical. All adults know the world can be an equally harsh, cold, and unforgiving place. Yet most manage to still plug into that timeless sense of wonder and delight, even if in the most minor ways.
There could conceivably be course upon course taught about this aspect of the human experience and how it factors into the multitude of triumphs and tragedies scattered throughout our past and present. Education, life, and business coaching focused on novelty and mindfulness meditation can offer us structures and tools to delve deeper into these relationships in one’s own life. But if I am going to be perfectly honest, I can really only illustrate my own subjective experiences and try to access the universal through my narrow—yet hopefully expanding—reality tunnel.
It could be posed that expressions of what my father used to call “simple pleasures” offer a taste or preview of what else may be available if we can just come up with the correct formulas. Less often are we told how to pursue fulfillment but are more given directives on how to be capable adults and “well-rounded.”
Here enters the idea of lusting for results, which one could posit are inculcated in our earliest educational environments, schools, and institutions. “Do this because I say so” is replaced by “do this to work towards this that when accomplished will make you an adult, and then you will be able to do this and feel that.” A relationship to affirmation through reward as a counter to punitive retribution is set up. This is where our self-esteem is both challenged and also offered new ways to express itself. But more often than not, hindsight is 20/20, and while engaged in that process, we might only feel the struggle, tension, and insecurity.
Personally, I think the first time I experienced excitement and delight as a direct result of cumulative effort was with music. It was slow going for me to actually find the motivation to put any real work in at the start of my musical endeavors. Still, my deep love for the art form was enough to transform me from an unfocused and unmotivated adolescent to a highly focused, highly motivated young adult.
“In a broader context, there is a concept that I find myself experiencing more as I get older. Whether it’s a profound sense of joy and gratitude resulting from someone I care about finding new love, a colleague reaching new heights of success, or even a friend learning a new skill—I find myself experiencing this sensation more than ever.”
With music—as with many crafts—once you experience that first tremendously powerful time when something really clicks (I did this, and then that eventually happened as a result), the intrinsic and dynamic reward system can become intoxicating. This has been something that has carried me to the present day. I was lucky, however, and had tremendous support from my family and friends as well as the right environment to cultivate my talents and explore my curiosities during my formative years. I often reflect on this and feel a longing for everyone to experience this in their own way. Maybe they already do. To me, this phenomenon represents this idea of experiencing the ecstatic by delighting in an outcome, and the imagery of unlocking a secret compartment comes to mind. In that, I mean we often cannot anticipate the emotional consequences and fulfillment at the onset of an undertaking.
Perhaps we have all experienced a version of the profound connectivity I experienced back in 2002 listening to the then-completed Dead In Dreams album. I sometimes think of this as a sort of symbiotic joyful resonance as I sensed that I was connected to and part of something larger than myself. This is something people experience in altered and normal states, albeit undeniably heightened.
Cultivating space in our minds can open us to a broader range of these experiences without necessarily making more time for them. The results of regular meditation can help organize and push to the sides all of our various mental clutter. In my experience, doing so allows me to take more in, which offers potential for more delightful moments. I can remember getting an urgent email that required an immediate response one afternoon while lying in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, with my wife. The email asked if I could fly to LA the next day for a performance and TV show. Initially, I was irritated by the last-minute request, but I knew I had to do it. After replying yes, my instinct was to make a list, pack, and get organized.
This can be a frantic process for traveling musicians, even when it’s not last-minute. But we agreed I knew how to engage in that, so we took a few minutes to continue doing what we were doing. It was a warm breezy afternoon in September—perfect! The trees above us were swaying, leaves rustling, and our surroundings seemed to be offering a calm, soothing—almost musical—chorus of nature. It was a profoundly peaceful and joyous feeling, and I was so glad I took those few minutes—maybe even an hour—to calm my nerves before I really had to get moving. However, I found that when I did engage in the tasks at hand, I had a piece of mind and clarity that was invaluable, balanced, and healthy. There is a delight in that whole synergy that is beyond words, beyond explanation.
In a broader context, there is a concept that I find myself experiencing more as I get older. Whether it’s a profound sense of joy and gratitude resulting from someone I care about finding new love, a colleague reaching new heights of success, or even a friend learning a new skill — I find myself experiencing this sensation more than ever. In Buddhism, the Sanskrit word mudita means sympathetic or vicarious joy and is a feeling of delight witnessing another’s well-being, happiness, or success and accomplishment. Additionally, mudita is completely detached from any investment in the outcome of this other person.
It is thus the opposite of jealousy and envy. This can be a powerful source to tap into, especially when experiencing adversity and difficulty in our own lives. It is thought that this state of mudita is an infinite well-spring of universal joy that one may potentially tap into at any time. This idea of joy and delight that does not center oneself is—in my opinion—critical to both enhancing our own experiences and accomplishments and creating a more balanced, synergistic, and empathetic world for others.
Perhaps my experience from 2002 has further informed how I can hold and experience joy in the successes and triumphs of others. Knowing how precious and extraordinary these experiences are, the more I wish them for others. When we get that first taste of what that means, it can be an opportunity to bring more of that magic into the world, thus sharing it with others. Let us try to actively contemplate and cultivate that vicarious joy for others in our own lives. Who knows? We just might change the world.