I’m originally from Syracuse, New York, which is where I learned how to speak sarcasm and love greasy food. I’ve always had a creative bent, which is why my family was shocked when I decided to join the Army to be a military journalist (after dropping out of three high schools and finally settling for a GED in 1999, my options were limited). I spent six years in the Army, from 2002-2008 (I enlisted for five; the final year was a gift of the stop-loss policy enacted by our government) as a tool of The Man, a.k.a. “public affairs specialist,” and was deployed twice to Iraq with the mission of making the war look like it was being won. I had a brief, chaotic marriage to a fellow soldier, and was lucky to get out (of both the military and the marriage) with my sanity still partially intact.
When I got out of the Army, my “real” life (as I now call it) began. Finally free to think and do for myself, without rules, regulations and idiots breathing down my neck, I jumped headfirst into all my passions: traveling, writing, and photography. I met the man who was to become my second husband, Erik, and moved to the Bay Area, where I joined the anti-war group Iraq Veterans Against the War, cofounded a non-profit called Veteran Artists, and had my photography exhibited in a number of veterans’ art shows. My husband taught me to play music and write songs, and in 2011, I became a performing musician. I also went back to school, earning my bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley in Near Eastern Studies in May 2013. My next goal is to combine my education, activism and art through organizing a group of Iraq veterans who are musicians to go back to Iraq and collaborate with Iraqi musicians on a music project.
My personal practice is …
My personal practice is always morphing, depending on where I feel my abilities can be most effectively used. These days, I devote huge amounts of energy to songwriting, playing music, and going to see other musicians play. I make sure to get plenty of exercise, but not in a gym – hiking, swimming and dancing are my go-to methods of physical fitness (I swore off “going running” after the military). I participate in anti-war activism with Iraq Veterans Against the War. I spend time with my husband, strengthening our relationship. I smoke good medical marijuana and stay away from coffee. But the underlying practice that fuels all of my endeavors, creative and otherwise, is mindfulness meditation.
How did you discover your practice?
I feel like I’m constantly discovering my practice! I first discovered meditation through my husband bringing me to his group a couple of years ago. I was skeptical at first (“a bunch of west-coast hippie woo-woos, sitting in a circle in a room instead of getting shit done,” was one way I classified a meditation group, I admit), but I decided to give it a chance after Erik explained to me that this teacher wasn’t emphasizing any particular religious practice (I was a recently converted yet devout atheist). I started attending the group with him, and opening my mind to the possibility that Life, the Universe and Everything was not as I had understood it. It’s given me the opportunity to gain some crucial insights into the way I perceive myself and my place in the world, and has had a ripple effect on my entire life. That’s not an understatement. Everything isn’t objectively perfect – it never was and never will be – but the difference is that now I don’t expect happiness and perfection to have any particular relationship with one another. That saves me a lot of stress. Almost all of it.
Why do you practice?
I desire happiness. “Meditation, music and medical marijuana, the three M’s of my healing process,” I like to tell people, because all three things have helped me to become a happier person. Medical marijuana helps me relax my body and mind. Music helps me to express myself in a way that people can understand. Meditation helps me to relax as well, but also to grok the fact that whatever happens in my life, I shouldn’t take it personally. That last part is the most important, though – it helps me to understand that life’s just happening – it’s not happening to me. Once I figured that out, I wrote a song about it, and now it’s in my head all the time, reminding me to chill the fuck out, everything’s just happening. No need to feel guilt or self-pity, or to interpret other people’s neuroses as things that I have any control over. It’s liberating. Life is free to be awesome – literally, a thing that inspires awe, all the time.
How frequently and for how long do you practice?
I try to meditate at least 20-30 minutes a day, and when I’m home in Oakland, I still go to the weekly group. Sometimes I miss a day or two here and there, but Erik and I keep each other accountable. If we’re both in the same place, we sit together. If one or both of us is on the road, we try to check in about it regularly. Last December we both did a day-long meditation with our weekly group, and I’d like to do that more often. I felt really fucking good afterward – extremely relaxed, and ready to be okay with whatever came at me. Music, I don’t spend a particular amount of time every day, but it’s a constant. Yesterday I was just doing my daily Facebook routine (“Oh, it’s so-and-so’s birthday … kittens! … grr, politics.”) and I had a song idea. So I wrote the song, enlisted Erik and another friend who was in the room to play it with me, made a video, and put it on the internet. So that just happened. That’s basically how music and songs are with me, just like life – they just happen. The other areas of my life that I consider practice – education, activism, social interactions (yes, this is a practice!), other forms of art – they all are connected to one another, so if I’m practicing one of them, I’m essentially practicing all of them.
What’s something that gets in the way of your practice and how to you move through it?
It can be hard to be consistent with meditation when I don’t have a lot of routine in my life. I’m also not always the most focused person (another thing I’m working on through my practice), but it’s really more about forming a habit with me. If I have routine, I can designate parts of it to meditating, and generally stick with it. If not, I have to fit in my practice wherever I can, and sometimes it ends up not fitting. But I’m not too hard on myself about it, because that would be the opposite of what I’m trying to accomplish. If I find I’ve been neglecting some aspect of my practice, either meditation or my creative work, I do my best to make up for that and keep a balance. I don’t want to be obsessive over or controlled by anything I do.
What supports you in staying committed to your practice?
I get really wonderful results from my practice, in whatever form it takes at any given moment – like happiness. So that’s a big encouragement. I also have Erik’s support and participation in just about everything I do, and a loving family who encourage me to keep writing and creating and doing, even if whatever I come up with tends to be offensive to some of their friends.
What role does your practice play in your work?
My work and my practice are integrally tied. If I wasn’t taking the time to try to look inward and understand myself and my relationship to the world around me, I would be unable to make the observations and connections that inspire my songs and my art. My practice also, necessarily, has given me the ability to accept any outcome of my work – if I don’t make a million dollars through my music, for example, I am completely fine with that. I’m also fine with it if I do make a million dollars. Approaching my work with both ambition and acceptance had made it possible for me to get the most enjoyment possible out of it. Describe someone you know whose practice inspires you. Well, I draw endless inspiration from my dear husband Erik, who practices music and mindfulness alongside me. His ability to go with the flow of life while still maintaining a strong sense of self was something I didn’t think possible for myself. Because of his example and his encouragement, I’ve had the support to explore my own practice fearlessly.
A practice I’d like to explore is….
I’d like to learn some yoga, more than the very basics. I’ve been a California resident for about five years now, so I figure it’s about time. Anything else you’d like to share about practice. My practice is constantly being honed and developed to suit my needs at any given moment. I’m not devoted to my practice for its own sake, but for the way it enhances my life enormously. If I miss a day of meditation, or if my music isn’t sounding exactly the way I want it to, I don’t freak out – that would be missing the point. I just do whatever makes sense at any given moment, and above all, I forgive myself when I make mistakes. My goal is to live a life at peace with myself, and that takes priority. And I try not to take anything “bad” that happens personally – the world is a crazy place; people do fucked up things sometimes, and sometimes I get hurt. But I’ve learned to remind myself that it’s not me – it’s them. Bad things happen, good things happen, and life goes on. I’m the only one who can determine my own happiness level – so I’ve determined to set it on high.
Learn more about Emily at: www.emilyyatesdoeseverything.com