A hiccup cure and a glimpse of zen

When I was 13 or 14, I devised a nasty plan against hiccups. I called it my psychological method. It still works.

You only need two things: concentration and a couple of minutes. It’s basically playing a trick on yourself, it involves a little bit of acting (no fancy dress required though).

1. It begins with you waiting for the next hiccup and thinking of nothing else but the next hiccup. Try to stay calm and enjoy the quality of each second that passes with no hiccup. (Those who have experience in meditation may have better luck, although I had none when I was little. The presence of a friend nearby, of distracting sounds, parasitic thoughts like “What do I eat for dinner by the way?” or “It’s such a beautiful day” are not helpful. If you think of something else, even for a split second, a hiccup is likely to happen.)

2. When you are calm and focused, “in the zone”, you should stay in it – for let’s say a minute. Observe your breath, watch for any warning sign, wait for the hiccup intensely. (This could be it. Wait for the next hiccup for a couple of minutes or so and you might not need following step 3. You could just stopBut step 3 is what I did back then so I will you about step 3)

3. Step 3 is when you should grow slightly impatient, like “I’m waiting for you, hiccup, how come you’re not already happening?”. Expect it to happen! Now the bit of acting: while still calm and concentrated on the potential emergence of a hiccup, you want to provoke it, you try to help the hiccup, you may even want to mime a hiccup, have a couple of fake ones. After a minute of this theatre, you give up: the hiccup is gone.

The method is amusing. It has similarities with hypnosis or self hypnosis tricks. Also it’s fun way to put to the test some kind of zen ethics: the more you expect something, the less likely you will see it happening; the less you expect something, the more likely you will see it happening.

At around the same age, I had a theory about headaches. Thinking of nothing at all would cure any headache. That did not work very well because I had trouble thinking of nothing. With hindsight, “thinking of nothing at all” sounds like putting too much effort into it: too wilful, too much intention, too far from meditation. Too much intention can tense you up, not the best way to lose a headache. Today, I can’t cure all my headaches but often I do make them bearable by being aware of tensions in the neck, the forehead, the jaw, behind the eyes, etc. and trying to release them, as though my awareness of that particular spot would delicately massage it.


The limits of control (of Bach)

Imagine yourself in a big gathering of witty Italians, dragged by many participants into all conversations simultaneously. Maybe a better example: imagine yourself reading a book, then being able to comment on it mentally without stopping to read, and there you go, commenting on your comment, keeping track of the book’s story and your commentary. Parallel processing, say the engineers.

Listening to music, when a part has a held note or when it makes a pause, the attention naturally focuses on the other voice played as a counterpoint: you listen to the melodic line and wonder how it was before you shifted your attention, you also wonder how it is going to develop, that is, if your attention does not get distracted by another part coming into play. Six parts may come into play, that’s a lot of parallel processing. Take one of the fugues in the Musical Offering or The Art of Fugue, it’s all about getting surrounded by voices. Once you focus on what’s happening in the music, your capacity for attention is constantly challenged, and you know you miss out a lot. There’s this voice and then that one which get intertwined, on top of it a commentary or a variation, then another melody… It seems impossible to keep track of each melodic line and admire the playful complexities woven between each other and step back to get the bigger picture all at the same time.

I believe that on some level and in some situations we are capable of parallel processing, especially when unaware of it – when accomplishing a gesture for instance that needs many different parameters adjusted (riding a bike, hammering a nail, pouring water in a glass…).

There are different ways of listening to music.

On the one hand, some of you will abandon yourselves to the blissful sensation of being overwhelmed, probably not even trying to “understand”, yet admiring the architect’s work in awe by just being receptive. It is likely that some unaware processing does take place within the body, out of reach of the intellect, but let’s be honest, any intentional processing is all but necessary here: the music is like a river and you wouldn’t even think of processing the water movements in order to enjoy the spectacle of a river. This art of listening is very close to faith, which is confidence and has not necessarily anything to do with God.

On the other hand, some want to FULLY UNDERSTAND (the capitals are ironic, I confess). Those of you belonging to this silly category of mine will be like: first things first, let’s get some historical background, some information about music at that time, etc. Fine, I get your point. If the interest is still alive after your period of research, you will eventually give it a listen and while listening to one fugue you will try like hell to keep up with the loads of data. Parallel processing, learning new things is your challenge and you may well succeed. You may end up frustrated though because once each part of any music piece is deconstructed and “understood”, the music is gone and you say: What can one learn from music anyway? Well, nothing that you could stockpile like cash, if that’s what you’re looking for. With time and patience though, you may find a renewed awareness by listening to just one fugue, over and over. You might also unlearn instant gratification patterns. You might even for an instant leave a controlling habit, make something else than your brains be the center of your body. But it all might just be too much.

The understanding of music, what a blurry concept. Darkness within darkness, really.