Turn on most news channels or visit any social media site and it becomes distressingly obvious that we live in a world of increasingly polarized political rhetoric, with the near-constant bombardment of corporate consumerism. And yet, almost as an organic counterbalance, there’s an observable movement of people seeking a more conscious and holistic approach to living. This is evidenced by the growing popularity of yoga, meditation, organic foods and less dogmatic spirituality.
To help serve those in the music and art community searching for a more meaningful and interactive experience of self-discovery, veteran travel agents Cathleen Johnson and Michael Paul Halle have paired with Canadian guitarist David Barrett to create the Consciousness Through Music and Meditation retreat, a semi-annual gathering in Yucatán, Mexico, that focuses on a mindful approach to better living through music. A well-traveled axe man who has previously toured and/or recorded with Platinum Blonde, Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson and Saga lead vocalist Michael Sadler, Barrett sees the retreat as a natural extension of the annual weekend guitar summits he hosted at the Ravenswood Estate in his home province of Ontario.
Eschewing traditional Yucatán destinations such as Cancún and Cozumel, the retreat is located several hours inland at Sotuta de Peón, a formerly abandoned hacienda/agave plantation now converted into a living museum and resort. Unlike other “guitar boot camps,” the Consciousness Through Music and Meditation retreat is less focused on the intense practice of scales and notes and more interested in improving and refining musicians’ headspaces.
“We wanted to put together an experience where the travel has a purpose and offers an opportunity to study a new field while discovering a more introspective approach to living,” Barrett explains. “We’re cross-training the mind. The idea being that if you study a different discipline, the main discipline that you practice will improve too, by default and/or osmosis. There have been times I’ve come to a creative block and the solution for pushing past it wasn’t more practice — it was seeking outside inspiration and a new way to approach the creative process. As a result, I find that my composing more directly reflects my personality and how I’m feeling and isn’t just an exercise in technique. When your art comes from a level of higher consciousness, the audience intuitively feels it.”
Barrett says he has been inspired by Hazrat Inayat Kahn’s book The Mysticism of Sound and Music, a tome that Pete Townsend also cited as a huge influence on his approach to composing. “And even when dealing with the purely mechanical aspects of music making, consciousness training can help raise your game,” Barrett says. “For example, when playing a difficult passage in front of a live audience, our natural tendency is to become tense and activate our fight-or-flight response. By practicing meditation and visualization, we learn to relax, be present in the moment and give our full attention to the physical process we’re engaged in.”
The retreat’s de-emphasis on the mechanics of making music allows people of all skill levels to participate and benefit. Beginners and hobbyists find common ground with accomplished veterans and professionals. Steve Miller Band bassist Kenny Lee Lewis attended a previous retreat and notes, “The way I felt the spirits here was through the animals. The morning doves that woke me up seemed to be nagging me a little, saying, ‘Hey man, what are you doing? Get busy living or get busy dying. You have the talent. You have the equipment. Get back in the studio and make beautiful music.’ Meanwhile, the iguanas — which are fairly ubiquitous and fairly huge here — were like the ancient Mayan kings, calmly perched on the rocks saying, ‘We’ve been around for ages and we’ll be around long after you’re gone.’ It reminded me to make the most of my short time here on Earth.”
The hacienda of Sotuta de Peón is within traveling distance of ancient Mayan ruins and offers traditional Mayan therapies such as cenote bathing in underground limestone sinkholes, and temazcal, or sweat lodge, ceremonies. Barrett’s own connection to Spanish music goes back to the 12-string laúd he purchased in the early ’90s. A traditional Spanish variant of the lute, the laúd may be best known to guitarists as the instrument Steve Howe used during the “Your Move” section of Yes’s classic “I’ve Seen All Good People” suite, and it has become a mainstay on many of Barrett’s solo and DB3 (David Barrett Trio) releases.
On the retreat’s final night, Barrett gave an impromptu concert at the neighboring Hacienda Community of Sotuta de Peón’s town center, where I was fortunate to be able to join him and his young student Brooke Marshall-Robert on a few tunes. Our spirited jamming attracted many of the locals, including a few children who were thrilled at the opportunity to try out our guitars afterward.
The central Yucatán’s economy was once driven by the agave plant’s fibrous innards, which were used for rope making. Unfortunately, the introduction of synthetic plastics for rope brought hard times to this once-thriving region. Many of the old, abandoned haciendas have been converted into resorts, however, and locals hope tourism, as well as a market for environmentally conscious biodegradable rope, will help revitalize the area.
Barrett sees the parallel between the region’s economic transformation and his personal transformation as well. “I’ve been playing guitar for over 40 years,” he explains. “There came a point where practicing more scales and techniques was offering diminishing returns. It was here that consciousness study took me to the next level.”
He believes others will find the experience at the retreat as powerful. Kenny Lee Lewis, for one, agrees with him. “Come here with no preconceived notions,” the bassist advises. “But expect to be transformed.”
Upcoming Consciousness Through Music and Meditation retreats with David Barrett are scheduled for December 1–8, 2018, and March 5–12, 2019. For more info visit buddha.travel