Human Issues

Personal responses to music

A Leg to Stand On

Surviving a terrible fall on a muddy mountainside, the young Oliver Sacks, the now renowned physician, was hospitalized with a severely broken leg. Following surgery, Sacks was unable to move his damaged leg for nearly two weeks. He had lost the sixth sense humans have that identifies them with their bodies as an integrated whole.

“One may be said to ‘own’ or ‘possess’ one’s body … by virtue of a constant flow of incoming information … from the muscles, joints, and tendons. … (Yet,) I knew not my leg. It was utterly strange, not mine, unfamiliar. I gazed upon it with absolute non-recognition. … I could no longer feel it as mine, as part of me. … It was absolutely not-me – and yet, impossibly, it was attached to me – and even more impossibly, continuous with me.”
pp. 50-51

When a friend brought a recording of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto at Sacks’ request for music, he was emotionally moved by the sounds of the selection even though this was not one of Sacks’ favorite classical pieces.

“From the first bars of the Concerto, (I was) wonderfully moved by the music. I felt, with the first bars of the music, a hope and an intimation that life would return to my leg that it would be stirred, and the stir, with original movement, and recollect or recreate its forgotten motor melody. I felt, in those first heavenly bars of music, as if the animating and creative principle of the whole world was revealed, that life itself was music; that our living, moving flesh, itself, was ‘solid’ music – music made fleshy, substantial, corporeal.
pp. 93-94

“Each time I played the Mendelssohn, on the recorder, or in my mind, and each time I had a sudden electric spasm of the muscle, this spirit of hope took hold of me again. Yet, my hope was, in some sense, theoretical – it was still not clear that I had anything to be hopeful about. I still thought of the leg, of the flesh, as ‘finished.’”
p. 94

Fourteen days after surgery, Sacks had the cast on his leg removed and the stitches taken out. His mental attitude had turned from despair to some degree of hopefulness but without appreciable physical recovery of the use of his damaged leg. Still, he had been listening to classical music whenever possible. Four days after Sacks first heard Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto during his hospitalization, he was scheduled to stand with assistance and begin placing some weight on his damaged leg as well as, possibly taking a few faltering steps.

“The reality was still extreme. It wasn’t ‘my’ leg I was walking with, but a huge, clumsy prosthesis, a bizarre appendage, a leg-shaped cylinder of chalk – a cylinder, moreover, which was still constantly altering, fluttering, in shape and size, as if I was operating a peculiarly clumsy, and unstable, robotic contraption, an absolutely ludicrous artificial leg. … It was locomotion of a sort, but unanimal, unhuman.”
p. 116

Unexpectedly, Sacks experienced a surprising miracle as he struggled forward.

“And suddenly – into the silence – came music, glorious music. Mendelssohn, fortissimo! Joy, life, intoxicating movement! And as suddenly, without thinking, without intending whatever, I find myself walking, easily, joyfully, with the music. And, as suddenly in the moment that this inner music started, the Mendelssohn which had been summoned and hallucinated in my soul, and in the very moment that my ‘motor’ music, my kinetic melody, my walking, came back – in the same moment the leg came back. Suddenly, with no warning, no transition whatever, the leg felt alive, and real, and mine; its moment of actualization precisely consonant with the spontaneous quickening, walking, and music. … And now, as suddenly, I was absolutely certain – I believed in my leg. I knew how to walk. "

Dr. Sack’s personal experience of becoming whole again through the power of music indicates, as does mine below, that happenings of this kind are not prompted by our conscious control. They come as spontaneous gifts from powers far beyond our limited consciousness. It is up to us, however, to place ourselves in spirit and circumstances where we are more likely to receive such blessings.

All quotes above are from:

Oliver Sacks, M.D.
A Leg to Stand On
New York; Harper Perennial, 1984,1993

My Personal Spiritual Experience

I had an intense, personal experience while participating in a week-long workshop in July 1987 entitled “Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) Phase I” at the Collins Retreat Center in Eagle Creek, Oregon. GIM is a therapeutic method developed by Helen Bonny, Ph.D., a professional musician and healer. The procedure utilizes selective music as a vehicle of exploration for personal growth. Toward the end of the week participants were paired off to practice Guided Imagery while listening to music. One partner, the listener, would get comfortable on the floor with pad, pillow and blanket. The other would provide a comforting presence of protection while the listener would allow themselves a degree of vulnerability so as to receive the maximum benefit fostered by the music. The music presented was the second section, “And on earth peace to men of good will,” a choral piece from Vivaldi’s Gloria in D major, RV 589. In retrospect, this six-minute piece seemed like an eternity at the time of this listening.

As the music began, I experienced an intense white light that filled the total scope of my awareness and seemed to permeate my entire body. It began slowly but soon increased in intensity where I felt like every cell in my body was on overload, infused with the light. I was completely powerless to escape this pressing sensory overload. I felt like I was rising in the air toward something high above. The further I rose, the more intense my experience became. I began crying out in anguish, “No, No!” I writhed around, struggling to gain relief and, eventually, the intensity of light began receding as I seemed to descend a bit. I felt immense relief for a few moments until I began to rise again with the intensity of the experience once again increasing. “No, Nooo!!!” I screamed amidst my weeping and agitated writhing around. Once again, the profound intensity of the light gradually diminished. Slowly returning to ordinary reality, I gently settled on the floor, exhausted and soaked in sweat. Throughout the experience, which began shortly after the music began, I could not discern whether or not my eyes were open or shut.

Afterward, during our small group debriefing I wasn’t asked what happened nor could I have explained my experience. I was too shaken to think about asking others to help me process what had happened and relieved that no one inquired further; even during the following day when the workshop ended. Afterward, I pretty much forgot about the event. At the same time, I realized something meaningful had occurred. 

I was healthy and conscious throughout the ordeal. For several years I avoided listening to that Vivaldi piece, fearing that similar events would take place. Finally, I braved the situation and was comforted that the experience didn’t repeat itself. Since the time of this profound experience, I’ve come to appreciate what happened. At the time, I was in good health as I remain to the present time, nearly thirty years later. Upon reflection, I believe I experienced a brief glimpse of the mysterious, benign force we call God. Whatever I engaged that memorable day was frightening only because I was unprepared to fathom its immense power. What moves me the most as I reflect on this very emotionally-loaded experience is, despite the enormous power of this force or entity; it was responsive to my limited abilities of tolerance. I’ve come away from this profound experience with a deeper appreciation for life and the use of healthful music for transformation beyond sensory reality.

Gene Harvey