For most casual fans of music, the forty-five minutes that a band spends on the stage is all they can see. However, when the guitar cases are closed and the venue’s floor is littered with empty beer cans and trash, most bands load their gear into the van and return back to their normal lives.
Mother Church Pew’s Off The Stage is a series that celebrates artists’ paths to where they are and the things they do behind the scenes to stay there.
Before creating her newest album, Shanti’s Shadow, out this June, fiddle-playing alt-folk songstress Phoebe Hunt embarked on a life-changing journey to India. “As an American, it’s an eye-opening experience, we’re so lucky that our buildings have floors and ceilings and walls and heating and cooling,” she says. “The people there are so happy and have so little, it really exposes our materialism, these things we live by, that we don’t really need to be happy. It feels like you’re in a dream when you’re there, you’re on the exact opposite side of the world from everyone you know,” she recalls. “It’s a completely different type of society; it’s such a colorful ruckus, it’s a mixture of the modern and the past. It’s crazy chaos, yet there are these deep meditative retreats happening there all the time.”
The child of parents who met at a yoga ashram in the 1970s, and who were disciples of Guru Swami Satchidananda for seven years, Hunt is no stranger to mediation. It was one such retreat that led Hunt on her second trip to the mystical land of culture and dreams, where she spent a period of ten silent days practicing Vipassana meditation. “The Buddha spent his entire life teaching this technique,” she explains. “The goal is to lead a peaceful life. When you’re in the environment, and everyone else in the room is doing it too, you just fall right in. Our human ability to adapt is so powerful, you might feel scared before, but when you’re there with a hundred other people and you’re all committed, it’s not that hard. There will hurdles that appear, but you jump over them. I’m not any more special than anyone else, I believe every single human can do it. The hardest part just might be finding ten days in our fast and furious world to unplug and get away,” she continues. “Once you’ve cleared yourself of any responsibilities, you can enjoy the silence and not worry about having to be on call. You’re able to just be there, embrace the situation, and you become grateful for it—‘Oh my gosh, I found ten days to give myself this opportunity! Let’s try this out and see what this is like!’—and then it becomes like an experiment—‘What am I like in this situation? Will I freak out or will I love it?”
Each day featured ten total hours of meditation, with meals and breaks interspersed throughout—all in silence. “You chew really slowly, savor every morsel, and realize how much actually goes into eating,” she recalls. “So often we eat mindlessly, but when you’re in silence, you can pay attention to how it tastes and how it feels in your mouth, all these sensations. You also wouldn’t think that sitting would be hard,” she continues. “But, after about 30 minutes, your ankles start to fall asleep, then you have a hip pain come up, then your shoulder might hurt—they’re called sankharas, pains or wounds from past lives or your current life, things that never fully healed,” she explains. “Some people may sit and cry because the emotional heart is where the pain is felt. Once it gets to the surface, it will pass—your body is healing itself, but you have to feel the pains before they’re released.”
The purpose of the practice is to quiet the mind, which seems like a daunting task for someone who creates as a career. Indeed, the muse began to percolate during Hunt’s silence; “I had to push song ideas away,” she recalls. ”It’s not easy, songs started to form—the song ‘Pink and Blue’ from the new album kept coming to me one line after another. You aren’t allowed to write during the retreat; I loved the song and I wanted to be attached to it, but I had to let it go,” she adds. “The moment when we were allowed to talk and write again, I grabbed my journal and wrote it all down.”
Hunt’s adventure, which shaped the spirit of her new album, led to profound moments of self-discovery. “It’s so healing,” she recalls of the retreat. “If we’d all spend time doing this, the planet might be better. Take time. Move slowly through things. Change is the only constant,” she says, listing lessons learned. “Every moment is endless possibility.”