Herbie Hancock’s Antidote to Burnout
“We usually define ourselves by what we do… There’s a big trip with all of that.”
By Maria Popova
We are makers of our own myths, but the more we live into them, the more we risk becoming their captives. All creativity rests upon unbelieving our own myths — seeing the world and our place in it afresh over and over, so that we may go on making what has not been made before, remaking ourselves in the process. Burnout is simply what a creative person experiences when they have begun believing their own myth too much. E.E. Cummings hinted at this in his exquisite observation that “the Artist is no other than he who unlearns what he has learned, in order to know himself.” Because the work of self-knowledge is never-ending, to trap ourselves into a static myth of who we are and what we do is to doom ourselves to creative death.
Herbie Hancock was thirty-two and just beginning to inhabit his powers, just beginning to make his myth, when he discovered Nichiren Buddhism — a spiritual tradition based on the teachings of the thirteenth-century Japanese Buddhist priest Nichiren. For decades to come, he would practice daily and devotedly. His Buddhist practice, he tells interviewer Paul Zollo in More Songwriters on Songwriting (public library), became his antidote to burnout — it gave him an ever-unfolding “new vision” for himself and the winking assurance that “seventy is the new forty.”
I’m really fortunate I was able to discover Buddhism. It helped me develop a clearer idea of my relationship with the environment. My personal relationship with everything that’s outside of my personal self. Which includes the people and circumstances that manifest themselves externally. Buddhism really helps you to understand what that is. And in doing so, you have a much better chance. If you recognize something, you stand a fighting chance of dealing with it in a more positive way. It’s when something blindsides you and you don’t see it coming, then you can be knocked over and defeated. So I continue to chant. That is where I went this morning. I went and chanted for an hour at a center that’s near here. In Buddhism we practice and we chant every day.
But the gift of his practice is something more than resilience — something closer to continual regeneration, made possible by the fundamental Buddhist attitude of non-attachment and non-identification with the self. Hancock observes:
We usually define ourselves by what we do: I’m a writer. Or I’m a doctor. Or I’m a dancer. Whatever it is. Or I do construction. That’s usually how we define ourselves. There’s a big trip with all of that.
Buddhism really promotes the truth and the fact that the human being really has limitless possibilities. And that the core of what we are is not that thing that we normally define ourselves as. The core of what we are is a human being. And when we define ourselves as a human being, it changes everything. So music now, I look at it from the standpoint of being a human being and use that as the foundation. And then I use what I do to translate what initiates from my humanity into musical terms. That’s why I’m able to make every record be different from every other record.
Complement this fragment of More Songwriters on Songwriting — which also gave us Patti Smith on listening to the creative impulse — with John Lennon on the value of meditation and Bob Dylan’s favorite rabbi teaching, then revisit John Coltrane on perseverance against rejection and David Bowie’s advice to artists.
Published December 22, 2022