Feeling Everything: The Yoga Brain of Fiona Apple
Every single night/I endure the flight/Of little wings of white-flamed/Butterflies in my brain
These ideas of mine/Percolate the mind/Trickle down the spine/Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze
That’s when the pain comes in/Like a second skeleton/Trying to fit beneath the skin/I can’t fit the feelings in
Every single night’s a fight/With my brain
What’d I say to her/Why’d I say it to her/What does she think of me/That I’m not what I ought to be
That I’m what I try not to be/It’s got to be somebody else’s fault/I can’t get caught
If what I am is what I am, cause I does what I does/Then brother, get back, cause my breast’s gonna bust open
The rib is the shell and the heart is the yolk yoke and I just made a meal for us both to choke on
Every single night’s a fight with my brain/I just want to feel everything
So I’m gonna try to be still now/Gonna renounce the mill a little while and
If we had a double-king-sized bed/We could move in it and I’d soon forget
That what I am is what I am cause I does what I does/And maybe I’d relax, let my breast shot bust open
My heart’s made of parts of all that surround me/And that’s why the devil just can’t get around me
Every single night’s alright, every single night’s a fight/And every single fight’s alright with my brain
I just want to feel everything
There is so much yoga here—movement, postures, breathing, therapy. Anxiety and confusion converted into awakening; conflict into calm. So much cognitive neuroscience; Buddhism, too.
Questions move into discoveries. Mind, self, ego, heart and brain converge into a single, strange perspective. The way it feels isn’t how it is. The way it is isn’t how it feels.
In her new song, “Every Single Night,” Fiona Apple feels “the butterflies in her brain,” whereas most people might only notice them in their stomach. This woman knows the origins. Her mind trickles down her spine, moves into her belly. Each movement a little closer to a mysterious truth. This is a song about movement, about the mind of her body. It’s a song about trying to “fit beneath the skin,” and about love, discoveries, self-illusion and betrayal. Fiona moves, questions, confesses, dreams, surrounds, blames, opens up, stays, awakens and loves.
This is a love song to her significant other. She describes the relationship almost as a spectator; eventually we notice she is viewing and interpreting the connection from within her own body, which, as it turns out, is profoundly accurate. This love song is to her brain.
“Every Single Night” moves sublimely and swiftly through the familiar battle zones we all can understand: the brain as a troublesome lover. The suspense builds as Fiona’s affair is over shadowed by a realization she must come to terms with: she is not in control of this relationship. She is not the author of her own actions, wants, ideas, thoughts or lyrics. Through her longtime struggle with insomnia, Fiona has stumbled upon, with the significance of an epiphany, what the most recent scientific research has brought to light.
The brain is not the best friend and trusted partner we had believed. It has a mind of it’s own—and sometimes, as in Fiona’s case, will prevent us from sleeping.
In Benjamin Libets’ work on the half-second delay, it has been shown that the electrical impulse that initiates action occurs half a second before we take the conscious decision to act. The world feels like a place in which we are deliberate about what to do, then do it. Yet our actions are initiated unconsciously. The brain makes a decision, then we have the experience that we are choosing to do it.
As Libet states, “The brain evidently ‘decides’ to initiate or, at least, to prepare to initiate an act before there is any reportable subjective awareness that such a decision has taken place.”
What does she think of me/That I’m not what I ought to be/That I’m what I try not to be
A major reason we’re not aware of what we do or think we do in the way we think we do it is because so much of what our brain does occurs unconsciously. Human consciousness has very low bandwidth compared to the massive amounts that our unconscious brain stores. What we are aware of is a tiny fraction of the millions of bits of information that pass through our brain every day. Consciousness is a variable, not a constant; it’s fluctuations are essential to our sanity, not to mention survival. Artists like Apple are well aware that much of what is vitally important and creative comes about only in its absence.
The Mind is What the Brain Does
The pioneering scientist of the mind, Sigmund Freud, believed that great art expressed the unconscious thoughts that the brain generated. Although Freud was a bit of a cocaine addict and got a lot of things about our minds wrong, his idea about art and the unconscious appears to correlate with the creative life. Freud saw art as a form of sublimation, a kind of gratification that substitutes for the actual satisfaction of biological desires. He theorized that expressing ideas that were unconscious and universal led to marvelous things, such as art and science. He believed that by bringing repressed memories into conscious awareness through art we can gain greater control of our lives. When our fears or desires remain inaccessible to our conscious awareness, they build up and are then released through an anxiety attack, or those famously named slips of the tongue.
Fiona realizes that even her actions do not express her own decisions. In nearly all of life, willing decides nothing. She cannot fall asleep or get along with her own brain. In this, we are all Fiona. No degree of self-awareness can make us self-transparent. Art can be similar to meditation or yoga in that we bring to conscious awareness repressed thoughts, thus enabling us to better cope with life. Art is a science as well, in that it enables us to perceive, manipulate and confront reality. Art trains us to perceive the world around us and to feel what we may be missing.
“What we know through art is felt in our bones and nerves and muscles as well as grasped by our minds—all the sensitivity and responsiveness of the organism participates in the invention and interpretation of symbols” - Nelson Goodman
All art, but especially music, is felt in the body. Music is vibration. Sound waves, compressing molecules which travel through space and enter our bodies. Music has power; at the right pitch it can shatter glass. With the appropriate key and notes music brings us to despair or ecstasy. A song can provide an endless stream of unfolding events that surprise, transport, bring joy, depress, uplift or frighten. Such emotions provide the intimate experiences that define our personal lives.
Art and music, like science, adds clarity and depth to existence. They give meaning and value to our lives. Music appears to have saved Fiona’s life. After being raped by a stranger when she was 12 years old, she spent the next few years contemplating suicide. Not how, when. She found solace, strength and courage in art, remaining alive by feeling music. Investigating her emotions, she expressed her unconscious pain and discovered a tenacity to survive. There was a battle that took and takes place with her brain; her scars are highly visible. She is a war veteran. Like all of us she retrieves information from the deep, dark depths of ourselves. This process eventually defines our awareness. What we resist can be what we become if we don’t grapple with our unconscious selves.
In a recent NY Times article, Fiona discusses her neurotic thoughts and OCD, proclaiming that “the brain is just a machine that sometimes gets a little glitch, and this is just something that got into a loop, and it’s getting reinforced.”
She has been reading about the neural pathways in the brain, fascinated by mirror neurons. These are the neurons that create the sensation of empathy. Like a scientist, she is discovering much of what she already knew about her significant other. She even quotes the brilliant neuropsychologist Donald Hebb and explains his discovery about how neurons that fire together wire together: ”If you keep on having these negative thoughts or being angry all the time, then that area of your brain is going to get stronger.”
Through knowledge and expression, Fiona transforms anguish into something beautiful. She has discovered, through understanding her significant other better, that she needs to feel everything. No longer just the bad, and not just what feels good either. She wants to feel it all, to grow and to remain alive.
Most of us attempt to get away from feeling everything. It’s not only grief, anxiety and loneliness, but profound joy, intense sexual energy and unhinged creativity that we run from. Ironically, it’s that exact genre of feeling that we call spiritual. This is the place where Fiona and her brain live. Where her “rib is the shell and her heart is the yolk, yoke.” A structure made of various intense experiential states while remaining as conscious as possible.
Like a yogi practicing to stay in the truth of the human condition, joyful and yet very disturbing, Fiona has found a method for dismantling the myth that difficult feelings are somehow not bearable or unworkable. This is her power, her spirituality, where her art is hatched.
Human suffering often arises from observing our vulnerability. When aware of it, our primitive fight-or-flight response kicks in and we lose the ability to skillfully respond. In just this one song Fiona not only responds; she embraces panic and confusion. In every word you sense her wanting to open up to “the pain that comes in like a second skeleton” and rid herself bone by bone of everything that is not about being exactly who she is.
When her mantra, “I just want to feel everything,” is repeated, a compelling moment arises in which we realize she can, in fact, be at ease with the feelings that she’s spent most of her life avoiding. This is expression at its finest, her awakening. The convergence of art, science, yoga and spiritual states occurs. It is this—the unconscious meeting awareness—which all of these disciplines have in common.
Neuroscience adheres to Buddhist teachings in recognizing the self as a type of hallucination. Who we perceive ourselves to be is a figment of our imagination created by our brain. We have much less control over what we do than we can ever appreciate. As Libet proved in his experiments, we are not as free as our brains convince us that we are. Fiona confesses, “It’s got to be somebody else’s fault,” not hers.
“If what I am is what I am, cause I does what I does,” she admits she is not in control of her brain. Her freedom to choose is an illusion.
In his recent long essay, Free Will, the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris articulates this perception. ”Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have.”
This insight follows much of what Fiona is singing about and, in some Buddhist wisdom, relieves her from having to search for someone to blame for her behavior. Even herself.
Every Single Night a Fight
In this song many things are forgiven, even her brain’s behavior. Many things are realized: the deep empathy she has and the fact that her “heart’s made of parts of all that surround” her. She even decides she’s “gonna try to be still now.”
In the night, in the dark, is her time to meditate. In a recent interview she talks about meditating from time to time to “become myself as a child.” This is a potent insight.
There is a little known meditation practice in Tibetan Buddhism called Dark Retreat, reserved for advanced practitioners. One goes into total darkness for periods of time. Somebody slips them food through a door; other than that, there’s nothing to do. There’s no practice. They sit and look into the darkness to see what comes up. The darkness removes much of the barrier between the unconscious and conscious mind. Much of what arises is trauma or unresolved fear from childhood.
Meditation master and author Reggie Ray explains. ”There’s always a pressure in the unconscious. C.G. Jung, the great psychologist, said the nature of the unconscious is it wants to be conscious. There’s a pressure, and to maintain our egos we’re always sort of pushing things down. And what happens in a dark retreat is you’re not doing that anymore. And things begin to come up from the depths. And that’s the practice, simple relating to what comes up from the depths, from the darkness. And sometimes it comes from very, very deep places. And in the dark retreat that cycle of tremendous openness and peace and stillness and emptiness and then the eruption of unresolved trauma is the nature of the practice.”
This is the work that Fiona does in “Every Single Night.” There is so much to be learned from her art and science. There is so much yoga here. For Fiona, the artist finding the hidden life of her brain, the woman meeting the child in the depths, the person in the dark of night seeing what comes up, every single night’s alright.