In late February I saw Once There Were Brothers, a documentary about The Band, a group who charted new territory by melding traditional folk musical genres with rock ‘n roll to create a uniquely American sound. But before they were The Band they were a band, Bob Dylan’s back-up group for his famed European tour where he debuted his electrified sound. The change was not something the audience expected or wanted.. Everywhere Dylan and the band that became “The Band” played, they were booed.
After the tour was over, the group retreated to the mountains of upstate New York played for months in the basement, gelling their unique sound. When the time came to play for the first time in front of an audience, guitarist Robbie Robertson became violently ill and told the band he would not be able to go on. Instead of a doctor, the band’s manager called a hypnotist, who put Robbie under hypnosis and relaxed him enough that his physical symptoms abated. But the trauma of playing to Dylan’s hostile audiences still haunted him and he was terrified to go on stage. The hypnotist ushered him to the stage wings and told him that whenever he felt the fear, he should say to himself: Grow.
And so there he was, onstage and scared to death. But then he’d look over at the hypnotist in the stage wings who mouthed “Grow. Grow.”
As Robertson turned to the audience, he repeated to himself, Grow. Grow. And a strange thing happened; he lost the fear and began to grow. He even wrote a song about it, which became the hit “Stage Fright.”
This story affected me strongly, probably because I used to sing on a stage like Robbie, trying to win over audiences. The musicians I worked with played so loud that I could never hear myself as I performed. Then one night we opened to a major band and got to use their sound system and for the first time, I heard my voice, loud and powerful over the speakers and it scared me. It spooked me so much I began singing off-key and fought to remember the words of the song I knew so well.
I wish I could have said to myself, Grow. But I couldn’t. I was scared of my own voice. And so the singer I could have been stayed small and unheard.
In the times since, I have learned to accept change and the challenges it brings. I have had to come back again and again to the strength in me and grow it to let my voice sing this time, on the page, more naked and honest and freer than I ever thought I could be. To do that, I had to be willing to accept and embrace change and let it change me into someone who can find the strength to face the darkness and grow, not only in spite of it, but because of it.
Maybe you’ve felt it during these last few months. Perhaps the uncertainty and frightening rapidity of changing circumstances have forced you to the edge of the darkest places in yourself. This is where the opportunity to change yourself and your life lives.
Buddhist scholar Andrew Holecek, in his course entitled “From Obstacle to Opportunity” says, “We do not grow when we are content and full and sure in our certainty of tomorrow….We grow when we are taxed and tested and stretched and pushed.”
In Tibetan Buddhism, the Bardo is known as a place between death and rebirth. Metaphorically, this means not only literal death, but loss of what we thought to be certain and reliable. It’s the space of transition, the gap between what was and what will be. In times when we are stretched and taxed, like I was back on that stage so long ago, we either contract or we expand.
These are times that call for us to reach beyond our old conceptions of who we are – and the world we live in.
The changes are coming fast and furious now. First, the Covid pandemic followed by a wave of protests and unrest in the US after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee at the throat of George Floyd until he died. To bear witness to this is not easy and we have every reason to want to run and hide (or drink ourselves silly, which is another form of retreat). But just now, as I’m writing I hear about a standoff between protesters in Fayetteville, NC which ended when police kneeled in the crowd. Instead of confrontation, both sides were moved to tears and the standoff dissolved.
This is what turning obstacles into opportunities is all about. By not giving in to the smallest part of ourselves, but instead tapping into our inner strength, our inner knowing, our ability to take care of ourselves and this fragile world with tenderness and love.
We can be more. More accepting, more brave, more alive. We can face our fears and make a choice. We can speak to that stretched and taxed and frightened part of our self and help it transform and transcend.
We can tell ourselves: Grow.
See the trailer for Once There Were Brothers.
Listen to Andrew Holecek talk about moving From Obstacles to Opportunity. (Presented by Tricycle Magazine for free or by donation)