In my work with Urban Voices Project, a nonprofit that provides music programs to people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles, one theme I regularly encounter in conversation with members and colleagues is how making music meets fundamental needs. These are needs for expression, connection, community, validation, and identity that can be met regardless of whether a person is housed or not.
The overarching attitude in the capitalist industrialist system would have us to view art as a luxury item, a non-essential extra. Nice to have and life-enhancing, sure, but not fundamental. Typically, the thinking is that you must have shelter, food, water, sleep, clothing, safety, and personal security, before you should, or can, ever worry about making a piece of art to express yourself.
To look to Maslow on this topic, belonging, esteem, and self-realization only enter the picture after the lower tiers of the pyramid of needs have been met. Maslow’s hierarchy is in some ways a sort of compressed, simplified version of the Eastern chakra system of seven energy centers; Maslow’s hierarchy has five sections, whereas the simple version of the Eastern chakra system has seven. More or less, they correlate, though with some variation in ordering. The chakra system puts self-esteem and other solar plexus qualities as located “below” or “before” the heart chakra qualities of love and belonging, whereas Maslow bumps esteem “above” or “after” the heart chakra. The general idea is that we have to meet certain baseline, foundational needs before we can fully self-actualize.
But it is probably a mistake to relate to any model of human health and needs in a strictly linear model, where energy only moves in one direction. This tendency toward rigid linearity is where we get the idea that the whole “goal” of spirituality it to master the animal self with the spiritual, to conquer the beast with the angel. But if you scratch beneath the surface into energy studies just a bit, the one chakra that integrates them all is consistently thought to be the heart chakra, sitting right there in the middle of the energy system — not at the “top.” The heart is the point of integration between the lower and upper chakras. Perhaps the chakras were never meant to demonstrate a linear, one-way hierarchy, but merely the places in the subtle and physical bodies (and especially the endocrine system), where these energy centers each reside and activate. And although Maslow’s Hierarchy is extraordinarily useful in many applications, even groundbreaking in its day, it can also be beneficial to reorient ourselves to a nonhierarchical view of needs.
In a recent lesson, one of my beginning guitar students, who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, kept nervously shifting in her chair and shared that she was being wracked by aggravating thought loops that were distracting her from the activity we were trying to focus on. Just as we started to get focused again, a large, heart-shaped rose quartz crystal necklace around her neck clanged into the guitar, causing her to stop again and nervously tuck it into her shirt to protect it. This quartz of course corresponds to the heart chakra, the center that integrates all the energy systems, and internally I winked at how appropriate it was for the activity at hand. We refocused again, and as she got a few repetitions of the chord progression in, something clicked.
“Oh okay, the chords are like a loop, but a nice one,” she noticed. We talked about how, using breathing to help focus her thoughts, the simple pattern of switching between two chords can become a new loop that has a more positive feel than the negative, harassing mental patterns she is used to. Integration between mind and body was happening, even if only in fits and starts.
Two of the kids who are more advanced musicians were talking one day about how it’s difficult to make time or have enough privacy to practice their music on the streets, or to take their mind off chronic concerns about getting enough food and where they will sleep that night. All of the attendant “adulting” that kids in their late teens and early twenties have to reckon with, these kids are dealing with in hyper-drive, with zero systems of support outside of circles of friends they know on the street and, thankfully, the support organizations available (like Safe Place For Youth). As one counselor said, one week is like several months on the streets, because daily life experience is so full of obstacles and stresses.
And yet, still, all of these young artists light up with esteem, confidence, and even spiritual transcendence, when they share their musical gifts and have those gifts affirmed and celebrated by others. They might not know where their next meal is coming from (root chakra, survival needs), but they are evolving emotionally, psychologically, and most definitely in their self-realization, nonetheless.
Anyone who gravitated to music during times when their heart was broken, their family was under the stress of divorce or addiction or other types of loss and trauma, anyone who found their way through depression or soothed an anxious and over-activated nervous system with music, is familiar with how humans often intuitively figure out how to meet this need, even if it isn’t charted in official diagrams. (Traditionally, the throat or fifth chakra is thought to correspond with music, singing, and public speaking, but we also activate the root chakra with repetitive drumming or rhythmic patterns, or the sacral chakra with dance, and so on.) Certainly, music is not the only art form with therapeutic benefits, but there is something particularly holistic about how musical activity integrates physical movement, patterns, breathing, and vocalizing.
Many of our students with Urban Voices Project talk about how singing or writing songs helps them self-regulate (our terminology, not theirs) and calm their nervous system (again, not the terminology they’re inclined to use, but nonetheless what they are describing).
Usually these conversations tend to break off and go into the wordless zone — music — which is exactly what they’re supposed to do. Or rather, that is exactly what the music is supposed to do. Every time, I encounter the profound gratification of seeing people who truly need music, get their needs met through song and movement. Too, there is considerable value in feeling a sense of accomplishment and excellence at creative expression, even while struggling with the everyday requirements of surviving in a capitalist system.
Music is not helping these kids survive on a material level, but it is nonetheless fundamental to their survival. None of this is to minimize the homelessness crisis, but simply to help us remember that there are values and needs that can and do operate outside of the materialist value system. Imagine for a moment that alongside our capitalist reality there is a parallel reality where, despite capitalist values not being achieved in their prescribed linear progression, human realization is still occurring — in real time, on the streets, all around us, throughout the city.
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