Sixth Sense

Sixth Sense

“..The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all..”
                                                           -6th Principle of Unitarian Universalism

If memory serves, it was July of 2004 – in a rowhouse (top floor), in the U Street corridor of NW Washington, DC.
In a city without a state, I was sitting in a state of transcending mystery and wonder.
It felt like all the world was that stage – and all the mysteries of the universe were unfolding at that supper club in that moment, by dusk’s early light.
I and my six-string on a stool, surrounded by six souls (drums, guitar, saxophone, voice, piano, and percussion) – most of whom I’d never met before and would never meet again.
One player from Egypt. One from St, Louis. Two from up north. One from down south.
A seemingly random quiver of perfect strangers.
Sufficiently soundchecked instruments and warmed-up fingers, but no set list, no charts (sheet music), no standards (existing compositions), and no preconceived parts – all by design.
I remember the saxophonist (our fearless bandleader) stepping forward from the silence at the beginning of that very first set to introduce us.
He coolly uttered something to the effect of ‘I’m me. We’re we. And this is a composition called ‘Peaceful’.
Lovely name for a tune, I thought.
Particularly a song that didn’t exist yet.

He stepped to the stage’s port side (stage left).
Leaning up against one of the lounge’s brick walls, he let a deep breath flow outward through a peaceful smile – and he left us to it.
He was a mad genius, that guy. Not a genius player, necessarily – but for me, his brilliance wasn’t in his playing.
It was in his audacity of trust.
He believed so deeply in community (and in the ingenuity of the human spirit), that his gigs were totally improvised. Process theology.
He regularly convened ensembles (worlds) of completely unfamiliar musicians and trusted them to build structures together from scratch – for four hours. Trusted that each composition would form itself. Start however it started. End however it ended.
In a sense, he was a chaos theorist.

And it felt like we were a Quaker meeting – a spiritual experience unfolding without a designated lead. Before every song-to-be, we simply sat in silence and waited for the current to rise in one of the seven of us – whichever spirit felt moved to open the portal.

Truthfully, we were as much on the edge of our seats as the audience (who usually had no idea of the spontaneous combustion they were bearing witness to).
Blank canvases blooming.

With all due respect to jam bands, these were not those.
These were ensembles of relatively high-level pro artists who could play all kinds of genres, and were not lacking in talent or experience on world stages.
And all free spirits (seekers).
The essential invitation of those evenings was for us all to let all of our knowledge go for a few hours – and trust the collective wisdom of the group’s process.
No egos or attachment to outcomes.
The invitation was to forget all the music we knew, and let our inner children become the music of that ‘now’. Come nakedly to each moment with an honest purity and availability to the flow.
He dared us to be wise.

And we all loved it. The liberty of it (the freedom). The justice of the experience’s equity. The state of unspeakable peace you’d drive home with.
I often turned down higher-paying gigs for these experiences.
What frequently emerged was world music. Organically unfiltered blends of jazz, bluegrass, punk, funk, reggae, rock, folk, latin, soul, neo-soul, neoclassical, etc.

What probably struck me the most was how much that cat (the bandleader) trusted the process – the statute of liberty. He relayed as often as he played, and sometimes he’d just bear witness.
It is one thing for a leader to bear down on the riskiness – and to obsessively micromanage a community, seeking to control the unfolding.
It is another to trust your players and your process enough to step aside – and simply be the container (the space that holds the moving parts).
What if no one played anything (silence)? What if everyone played everything (chaos)?
It was his name on the marquee, and on the line – and he trusted us.
He had more faith in us than fear of us (He’d sensed we were all seeking spirits, after all).
And it always worked out somehow. No train wrecks or awkward silences. No runaway egos. No chaos.
And those experiences shaped me (and what would become my ministry) profoundly.
Enough to be recounting this to you all in this moment (fourteen Julys later),
as an assistant minister essentially at the wheel of this congregation (and all its processes) for the summer.

And what probably strikes me most in this moment is that Paige trusts us (the staff and the process) enough to step to the side of the stage for six weeks, and let us unfold.
It’s a well-deserved respite for her, but also quite a risk.
It is (in a sense) her congregation, and name on the marquee – and her name on the line.
What if no one played anything? What if everyone played everything?
Or – what if a most peaceful kind of world music emerged from the trustful stardust?

Sapere Aude (Dare to Be Wise),
UU / U ST.


  1. Ross Martin

    Oh, to have been sitting in that room to take it all in… what a treat. I love hearing musicians entering the collective flow. And I am sitting on the edge of my seat in anticipation of hearing what that sounds like and feeling what that feels like during our six-week hiatus from adult supervision (so to speak). Thank you, Anthony!

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