By Marcie Swift, M.Ed. CMP
There they were in their comfortable clothes and various states of fatigue and relaxation in a candlelit room: a group of attorneys, sitting or lying in a loose circle before me. It was day two of a retreat led by the inspiring and gifted Judi Cohen, J. D., founder of Warrior One, LLC and Essential Mindfulness for Lawyers®.
The attorneys had meditated, learned new scientific principles, done yoga and nourished themselves with solitude and wholesome foods. It was now Saturday evening and folks were unwinding and letting go bit by bit. There was a lot of laughter and yawning in the air.
Judi, an attorney herself, had challenged them to consider living life differently – one with less stress and hostility and more joy and satisfaction. She understood how working in fast-paced, combative environments could traumatize and desensitize, and she hoped to offer an alternative way to hold oneself and one’s relationship to others. All participants arrived seeking greater calm, focus, and resilience. All had contemplated ways to cope more effectively with exposure to constant stress and to live more joyfully in and out of their law practice.
I arrived that Saturday night with my own hopes of creating a healing and contemplative harp program in sync with the powerful intentions of Judi’s retreat. Originally I had planned to bring my large lever harp to “perform” and “entertain,” but memories of my past work as a psychologist kept resonating loudly within me.
In my private practice, I had witnessed the debilitating handicap of high stress and perfectionism upon self-esteem, health, self-care and relationships. When entering the court occasionally to present evaluation findings for a disabled child, I had experienced first-hand the courtroom hostility and its open battlefield of minds created by the opposing sides. And, not insignificantly, I remembered how desperately I needed to unwind and meditate alone before returning to my own domestic nest to maintain the harmony and humor we all required for healthy living.
In fact, it was these moments that prompted me to continue further research and training in stress reduction and depression through an eclectic approach. I also began to expand the “circle” I reached in my work – from individuals and families to groups. The power of therapeutic harp music, relaxation therapy, meditation, story telling, and humor seemed amplified and more harmonious with a wide circle of folks before me. It was so obvious, suddenly, that we are all connected in our search for happiness and peace, loving union, and meaningfulness. And it felt infinitely more reassuring to come together as community as a means to rise above our very human suffering.
With these flashbacks in mind, I made the decision at Judi Cohen’s retreat to come equipped with my sweet Celtic therapy harp as well as my Reverie harp which the participants could use for self-soothing. This group, I reasoned, probably had some long-standing stress factors and frustration that I hoped to help soothe through music played therapeutically.
It was William Shakespeare who wrote, “Musick has the charms to soothe a savage breast.” We often forget the precise words but the message is clear: all of us have experienced the immediate impact of music soothing us in ways we often describe as mystical and magical. Most of us happily relate our earliest musical experiences in childhood tied to some special memory. The truth is, there is indeed a science behind the process and I hoped to offer to my audience an explanation of the process that was about to begin.
Therapeutic music is processed through and by the brain, and has an exquisitely profound impact on neural functioning and hormonal activity. Research shows that played therapeutically, the harp can facilitate healthy functioning of the body’s own immune system and regenerative processes. It has also been found to enhance the immune system, lower blood pressure, stress, and pain, and alleviate depression, isolation, and insomnia. It has been proven to increase appetite in preemies and reduce nausea in chemo patients. Therapeutic music is, after all, a biological function, not magical, mystical, or inexplicable, as much as it may seem so. Like mindfulness mediation, its applications are myriad. In fact, one could easily say that therapeutic music is mindfulness meditation in action—for the listener and the musician alike.
So much of our potential for creativity and happiness can be blunted by negative thoughts and emotions that highjack our minds, bodies, and spirits. It can happen in the courtroom, the bedroom, the car, or your kid’s soccer game. The avenues to decrease stress and negative thinking are endless in the confusing playpen of traditional and alternative therapies, and the intervention of therapeutic harp is a happy complement to many of them. Like most other therapies, its first job is to open up the pathways of awareness to our present state of being.
When working with folks such as attorneys who have had long years of study and self-discipline in research and working with highly detailed information, it helps to be in sync when presenting novel information. I hoped to explain just enough of the neurophysiological underpinnings of the immune system in response to music to generate curiosity. Our incredibly sensitive and complicated auditory perceptual systems are linked to human brain function. The brain’s ability to interface with those systems that govern other domains of human behavior is what creates this magical, mystical, inexplicable sensation that we all crave in various ways. Its seemingly magical impact is actually heavily based on biomedical theory and research.
Its most profound and poignant impact can be found in work with the actively dying, when the harp indeed becomes the ladder between this world and the next, and a conduit to the ultimate experience of letting go. Each note is carved out slowly and arrhythmically to fill the gaps of silence when words fail. In the ever-widening space between each harp note, the spirit can slip gracefully into the night.
By the time the attorneys circled around me to listen to my harps, they were primed for a night of continuing deep and resonant healing. Through Judi’s program, they had become more open and receptive. My small, sweet, 23-string Westover Celtic harp rang out into the chapel in soothing cascades. The group’s energies and receptivity inspired me to create sounds to deepen their sense of self-awareness and heighten their presence in their own bodies that become instruments unto themselves.
In the final moments of the evening, I handed over to the group the oval-shaped Reverie harp. The smooth cherry wood glistens and its brass tree of life shines below the wire strings. Tuned to a pentatonic mode, all notes are soothing and harmonious. The participants each chose where to place the rounded harp against their body. Then the strings were stroked: first by me and then by each of them.
One of the very first participants was a cheerful and petite woman with an endearingly open face. When I offered the Reverie harp to her, she suddenly decided to leave her chair and quickly lie down on the very thick yoga cushions on the floor. The oval harp covered her small torso completely and she opened her arms wide. With each cascade of deep resonance her smile grew larger, her face more flushed. She had arrived at her sweet spot of joyfulness. She took my hands in hers in gratitude.
It is in these moments that I am so honored to do this work in this place and to heal and be healed in the process of deep resonance. Connecting in this space, this timeless sanctuary is the ultimate journey back to one’s true home. Traveling hand in hand makes the journey all the more meaningful and clear: we all long to be still and be at peace, we all hunger for solitude and peace within ourselves and the world, we all crave levity and light and we rejoice in the return of spring with every breath and note.
Marcie Swift, M.Ed. CMP is a Certified School Psychologist, Certified Music Practitioner of the Harp, and Board-Certified Fellow through American Association of Integrative Medicine. She will be offering the soothing sounds of the therapeutic harp in several programs at Copper Beech Institute during the 2016–2017 season, including Healing Harps, Healing Hearts, August 6 and Practicing Peace, September 11, 2016. Marcie will also accompany Copper Beech Institute’s World Labyrinth Day Celebration, May 7, 2016. For details, CLICK HERE.
© 2016 Marcie Swift