By Seth Dellinger, GCFPCM
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 relate to intentionally in daily life to help cultivate a deeper and more consistent experience of connection to yourself, other people, and the surrounding world. With practice, it becomes possible to notice some of the consistent features of
The following framework, which I think of as “tuning into the musicality of being,” was developed through a decade of personal practice and my work with hundreds of 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 element provides a universe for deep study, but even the most basic awareness of their presence – and how they are always in dynamic interaction – can give you valuable insight into why you feel the way you do at any given moment. Each element can be experienced all along a spectrum between two very different poles of experience – one might be tempted to call them “good” and “bad”, “positive” or “negative” although it’s not always quite so simple as that.
- 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 – you realize that you are shrinking away from it and contracting into yourself, as if to hide somewhere inside your skin.
- Sound resonates in your throat to carry your voice out into the world. The world’s voice resonates in your ears. But some sounds are more harmonious, others more dissonant. Sounds connect us through space at distances from where our limbs couldn’t reach to touch.
Each of these elements might be considered from either of two viewpoints: from the inside or the outside.
During self-study, one can usefully shift between them, 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 perspective may persistently dominate.
A third perspective is also possible – where the boundaries between insides and outsides become 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.
Shifting perspectives is accomplished through the movement of your attention. Your attention can move inside your body or out into your surroundings. Your attention can narrow or widen.
Making these moves intentionally might be thought of as something that you do from the inside. When events beyond your control suddenly demand your attention – or 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 feel unified – it might feel more accurate to say that life happens “through me.”
Breath, ground, space and sound can be said to relate to each other musically because they are present simultaneously in your experience. Like the simultaneous sounding of many instruments in an ensemble that gives you that single rich and colorful experience you call a song, so do the layered rhythms, tones, sensations of your somatic, mental and perceptual experience combine to produce your unique overall experience of how this moment feels.
What emerges from these relationships always has a unique character that is much more than the sum of its parts. It can be difficult to capture with words.
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.
Each sound emerges from silence. The alternating presence and absence of sound creates rhythm. Many simultaneous rhythms create polyrhythm – which may be ordered when they share a common pulse or disordered when they don’t.
While musical tastes vary widely, most people prefer to hear tone combinations that seem to be in tune. Likewise, they generally find it more agreeable when simultaneous rhythms are in sync. You don’t have to be a musician to know the difference.
These musical qualities – being in tune and in sync – also provide a convenient metaphor for the experience of human connection.
Imagine attending a concert where a musician is playing out of tune or out of sync. Notice how those sounds 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 realized you were responsible for disrupting the unity of the music.
We can also use musical vocabulary to describe other forms of human interaction.
For example, tone and rhythm are essential qualities of human speech that frame the meaning of spoken words. We’re unlikely to feel a connection to someone speaking in unaccented monotone. On the other hand, when we enjoy someone’s voice, we might describe it as “melodious.”
I teach a monthly outdoor workshop in Washington DC where I ask participants to track these elements in their bodies, the world, and in their relationships with each other while walking park trails and dialoguing with each other about their unfolding phenomenological experience of the present moment.
In the workshop, we learn how to pay attention to different kinds of experiences of what I call the “musicality of being”
What is the sound of conversation between two people who feel deeply connected?
Does it sound different if they are antagonists?
What happens to the rhythm of conversation if the listener is distracted by the mental voice in their own head as their partner speaks?
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. We can start to notice the relationships between your “music” and my “music” to understand why sometimes we feel harmonious together and other times we feel dissonance.
With a nod to the cognitive scientist, cognitive psychologist, 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” (with a nod to animist philosopher David Abram).
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.
When we talk about our relationship to other people, we are describing the horizontal axis. Think about the trajectories of movement of your voice, the gaze of your eyes, and the movement of your arms as you shake someone’s hand.
As an organism, your first 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 clarity.
However, when survival is our only concern, our view of others becomes distorted by only looking through the lens of what Vervaeke calls “the having mode.”
In that 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 for the experience of connection – above all with other human beings, but also through our relationships with nature and society.
This is where the musicality of being comes fully alive.
Let’s consider the four elements we’ve been discussing on the horizontal – or social – axis:
- How do you breathe in the presence of strangers? In the presence of your children? Or your beloved? With whom do you tense and inhibit your breath? Who makes you feel welcome, allowing your body to relax and your breath to be free? How do others breathe in your company?
- 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? Do you make others feel bigger or smaller?
- How do you relate to the space between you and another person? Do you expand into it, as if to bridge the gap between you? Or do you shrink back, widening the breach? Do you feel the other expanding or contracting?
- How do you resonate with fellow humans? How do you balance your speech and listening in a conversation? 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 – how your relationships reflect the musicality of being allows you to learn how 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. In other word, as you think of each element, you could inquire about how it is reflected in your experience of your own body moving through the world (vertical); or in terms of how these elements of your musicality combine with the musicality of other people in your company, and whether they combine to make harmony or dissonance, order or chaos.
*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 next to us, 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)
We can meditate on any of these individual elements or use them for experimentation or to engage with others in “serious play,” as Vervaeke would say.
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. 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 with yourself, another person, or the surrounding world.
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, thinking, or behavior based on prescribed set of rules and axioms will handicap you in the act of relationship, which depends on the willingness and capacity for give and take (what musicians refer to as “call and response”).
That’s why all these words still 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.
Do the same when you are in the company of others. The best understanding comes through participation (serious play) in the practice of the musicality of being together – with ourselves, our world, and our fellow human beings.
Experimental creativity has been a life-long source of fascination for Feldenkrais practitioner Seth Dellinger. Walking to school in 2nd grade, he spoke in tongues. Around 2000, while part of a radical musical community in Middletown, CT, centered around the saxophonist/composer/improviser Anthony Braxton, Seth invented his own imaginary language. He led several creative music ensembles before becoming an activist and working in meat factories for nearly a decade. In 2012 Seth discovered Feldenkrais ® and the deep language of movement. In 2021, he began a new practice, enrolling in a year-long training at Guy Sengstock’s Circling Institute. His website is sethdellinger.com