Divas & Deities
Nov 28, 2023
Welcome, and thank you for listening.
As promised, today I am going to talk about Deity practice. I would like to begin this discussion with some song lyrics from the Rogers & Hammerstein musical Cinderella, which I first experienced around the age of five or six on our black and white television:
In my own little corner, in my own little chair,
I can be whatever I want to be.
On the wings of my fancy, I can fly anywhere,
And the world will open its arms to me.
Cinderella goes on to fantasize about all sorts of experiences she would like to have, also pointing out that some of these experiences are more safely experienced in the realm of her imagination than in real life. If you are familiar with this story, you know that it ends with her most cherished wishes coming true.
This musical had a powerful formative influence on me, problematic patriarchal issues with fairy tales aside. It taught me that if there is something you want to experience, you can use your imagination and sing about it. And if you visualize it well enough, and wish hard enough, and keep singing about it, there really is the possibility of bringing your life into closer alignment with your desires!
We know that using our imaginations and focusing our awareness helps to manifest both the things we want, and the things we don't want, in our lives. Social psychologist Gabrielle Oettingen innovated a visualization technique called WOOP—the acronym stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, and Plan—that has been much studied, and shown to help practitioners realize both personal and professional desires. Studies have also shown that when there is something we fear, we can experience an objective physiological response when we imagine the thing we fear, that is similar or even identical to what we would experience actually being around the thing we fear.
So our imaginations are very powerful, and they make significant contributions to the way we create our lives and experiences in the real world.
This is exemplified by Deity practice, a component of Shingon Buddhism. The practitioner takes as their object of meditation a particular Buddhist deity, whose qualities they wish to embody. The practice includes the mental or vocal recitations of mantras associated with that deity, and also specific mudras, or hand gestures, associated with them. With committed practice, over time, the practitioner increasingly merges their sense of self with their visualization and embodiment of this deity's qualities, and comes to live and experience themselves as emulating these qualities in the real world.
Here is how Shinzen Young describes the practice: "You replace your self-image with that of an archetype, you replace your usual mental talk with the mantra of that archetype, and you take on the physical and emotional body experience of that archetype through making mudras—ritual hand gestures. If your concentration is good enough, your identity briefly shifts. You become that archetype."
When I first heard about this practice, I thought, this has incredibly strong resonance with what I experience with the roles and repertoire I sing! And no wonder: Diva is just another word for deity, after all.
When I work on a song, I immerse myself in the emotions evoked by the music and text of that song. When I study a character, I imagine what it would be like to experience and embody the qualities of that character, I create a voice for that character, I vocally channel my own desires and fantasies into the words and music of that character, and I do my best to surrender my body to that character, so that I can move and gesture as they would. I create a mental self image of that character. I feel their feelings flowing through my body and motivating my movements. And if my preparation and concentration are good enough, my identity shifts, and I become that archetype. And in that state, on the wings of my fancy, I can fly anywhere, and the world will open its arms to me.
Singers, this is why it is so important to choose your repertoire mindfully! You are inviting these stories and characters to shape your experiences and who you are becoming. You will have a much richer experience, and be so much more engaged in, and motivated to engage in, your practice, when it offers you the opportunity to become who you want to be, and feel what you most want to feel. This is why I never assign repertoire to my students. Instead, I ask them what kinds of stories they want to tell, what feelings they want to express, and then make recommendations based on their responses. Only they can know what it is that they have within them, that they truly want to give voice to.
Please don't imagine this means you shouldn't embrace and embody sad, mad, cruel, or devious characters. Quite the contrary. The more nefarious operatic archetypes provide the opportunity to process and integrate emotions like rage, anguish, and resentment. All of use experience such emotions from time to time, but in our culture it is not considered polite to express them, and even if it were, they can be very difficult to communicate compassionately while you're feeling bound up in them. Lending your voice to an archetypal villain, or an archetypal victim, can be cathartic in a way that helps you to integrate these feelings, and to feel healed by the process, without actually be exposed to the risks involved in identifying as a villain or a victim in the real world.
As Cinderella put it,
I'm a huntress on an African safari!
(It's a dangerous kind type of sport and yet it's fun)
In the night I sally forth to seek my quarry,
And I find I forgot to bring my gun!
I am lost in the jungle, all alone and unarmed,
When I meet a lioness in her lair!
Then I'm glad to be backIn my own little corner,
All alone, in my own little chair.
The practice of singing enables us to embody and give voice to characters who are living the way we would like to live, and experience the kinds of things we would like to experience. These characters also invite us to express powerful emotions and opinions, in ways that can empower us to communicate more passionately and effectively in real life.
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