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Waiting As a Spiritual Discipline
Tom Petty, Hermann Hesse, and the art of patience.
This episode of the Secret Chord Podcast is about the challenges and opportunities of waiting. To listen, click here.
Hi folks, and welcome to the 50th episode of The Secret Chord Podcast. I think it'd be appropriate to take a moment of inflection and consider what we've done for all these episodes. Our thesis has been basically that music doesn't make much sense on its own. We've wondered just how it could be that various frequencies, which are nothing but simple vibrations of the air, could possibly contain meaning and create the intense emotions that they do. We've suggested that music itself is a spiritual endeavor, and we've seen that a surprising number of highly successful musicians held or do hold spiritual views or at least wrote about them from time to time. In any event, I have sincerely enjoyed this exploration, as I hope you have, and I also look forward to the next 50 episodes as we continue to mine and savor the inner richness of the work of these great artists. Thank you for being here.
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Okay, so this week I am super excited to discuss Thomas Earl Petty, better known as Tom Petty, who was born October 20th, 1950, in Gainesville, Florida. He was a singer, songwriter, musician, record producer, and at least once an actor. He was the lead vocalist and guitarist of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, a group that was formed in 1976. He was also a member of the 1980s supergroup of the Traveling Wilburys. Tom recorded a whole bunch of hit singles with the Heartbreakers, and as a solo artist, his hit singles with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers include, Don't Do Me Like That, Refugee, Don't Come Around Here No More, and Learning To Fly—all great songs. His hit singles as a solo act include, I Won't Back Down, Free Falling, and You Don't Know How It Feels. In the course of his career, he has sold more than 80 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling musical artists of all time.
Tom and the Heartbreakers were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, and we'll get back to Tom and his work a little bit later. Today's theme is about the concept of waiting, and I'd like to approach it from three different angles musically and spiritually. I have three great songs about waiting for you.
I think it's fair to say that waiting is a confusing matter. When is it appropriate to hold out for something, and just when do we cut bait and move on? On the one hand, they say that good things come to those who wait and that patience is a virtue. Developing the ability to wait seems like a pragmatic, mature, and sensible skill to have. Recently, a friend sent me a link to a fascinating website called The Long Now Foundation which was established in “01996” to create and foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.
The zero is there on purpose to get us to think long-term. Besides offering various seminars and workshops geared towards acquiring long-term thinking, their main goal is to construct a clock that ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and releases its cuckoo once a millennium.
From another angle, the main character in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha's most common refrain is that he “can think he can wait and he can fast.” Siddhartha is a book about the eastern spirituality that Hesse observed in India when he visited there in the twenties. Obviously, waiting is one of the key pillars to spiritual development as he saw it.
So here's our first tune about waiting, and truth be told, I've been trying to figure out how to incorporate The Doors into one of these for a long time with no success until now. This is off their fifth studio album entitled Morrison Hotel. This is Waiting for The Sun by the Great Doors:
Oh man, do I love that song. Truth be told again, I've loved this song since 1985, and I used to listen to it over and over. I love the off-kilter psychedelic guitar work of Robbie Krieger. I love Ray Manzarek’s circus-like harpsichord and organ parts and the strange, evocative lyrics. And, of course, Jim Morrison's dark baritone makes all of their material great. The haunting refrain of the bridge still gives me chills, the “waiting, waiting” part. What's he waiting for? Waiting for what Jim tells us:
“At first Flash of Eden, we race down to the sea, standing there on Freedom's shore waiting for the Sun.” Eden and freedom sound pretty good. Yet we're standing on the shore waiting for the sun. Later in the slow crescendo of the bridge, he says, “waiting for you to come along, waiting for you to hear my song, waiting for you to come along, waiting for you to tell me what went wrong, and then this is the strangest life I've ever known.”
I still love that. Yes, waiting is key to spiritual and personal development, but sometimes things don't just turn out the way we had hoped. It does feel strange. There's just so much waiting for things to be different. We wait for people to change. We wait for the recognition that we feel we deserve. We wait for satisfying relationships. We wait for better health. Psalm 130 puts it this way, “my soul yearns for God among those who are longing for the dawn” or…waiting for the sun.
Now, sometimes waiting means taking no action and working on radical acceptance of one situation. Other times the end point of a waiting process has to be proactive. It's often hard to tell which is the right approach. Should I wait a few more days for things to work themselves out, or is it time to try and push things through?
The truth is that it's a largely illusory sensation that we are the masters of our proverbial ships. So much of what occurs happens without our knowledge or input. We are even mostly ignorant of the basic processes that are taking place in our bodies. We don't know what they're called or what they do unless something goes very wrong. All that said, we have no choice but to attempt to fashion our realities in a way that we would like them to be, to be sure. It's only an attempt. We don't have any actual control over the outcomes.
Deep down, if we were able to get out of our own way and could quiet the hyper analytic part of ourselves, solutions to our problems would naturally emerge, or we would at least come to a sense of clarity that there is no solution in this situation. It's time to move on. Until that happens, our action is like a tax we have to pay to make things happen, including our ability to change ourselves as people.
Here's a terrific example of a song about the decision to not wait anymore. This is Waiting Room by the Great post-hardcore band, Fugazi:
Oh my gosh. Another terrific song. Andy Kelman of All Music noted, “this song's relentless Ska, Reggae inflected drive, calling it sudden drop into silence that occurs at the 22 Second mark “attention-grabbing.” Joe Lolly’s Bass riff has been called “Funk influenced and catchy,” which it certainly is, and here are their lyrics. He says, “but I don't sit idly by. I'm planning a big surprise. I'm going to fight for what I want to be. I won't make the same mistakes because I know how much time that wastes, and function, function is the key.” And then onto the chorus.
Some people think, wait, and fast. They believe in the inherent wisdom of the order of the universe. They observe that oftentimes leaving things alone produces the best results when they are left to operate according to their own schedules and natures. How often do we become stuck trying to solve a thorny problem, only to abandon it and have the solution pop into our minds seemingly out of the blue? How does this happen? What is the ultimate cause, us or something beyond us?
Others don't want to spend too much time in the waiting room and fight for what they want to be. Which do you think is better? Maybe we need both. However you slice it, the process of waiting is a difficult one for most people. Tom Petty noticed it and, true to form, wrote a hit song about it, and this is the main feature for today. This is from Tom's 1981 album, Hard Promises. This is The Waiting by the great Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers:
Well, that's the trifecta of great songs about waiting. Tom was very influenced by the music of the Byrds and, in fact, covered several of their tunes. Like Roger McGuinn, the Byrds’ Lead singer, Tom doesn't have the world's best voice, but it's so uniquely him, strong and earnest, but his songwriting is basically perfect. He mastered the art of the three to four minute pop tune. His music is generally simple but so catchy and so real. He sings about things that people can all relate to, and he makes you feel that he gets you and has gone through the same stuff that we all do.
And on this topic, he says correctly, “the waiting is the hardest part. Every day you see one more card, you take it on faith, you take it to the heart. The waiting is the hardest part.” Well, waiting is indeed hard. It's hard. It's necessary. It's scary. It can also be exciting, and it can be a critical tool for personal and spiritual development.
And these are my thoughts on the great Tom Petty and his music and some spiritual ideas embedded in his songs, and the concept of waiting. It's been a wonderful journey taking you through these 50 different artists and 50 different songs, more than 50 songs, and I really look forward to being back next time and again and again with more music and more ideas. Thank you for being here.
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