With Kindly Curiosity: Steve Banks
Sharpham retreat leader Steve Banks is also an accomplished musician and composer.
As well as appearing at several Summer Open Days with his folk duo Cosgrave & Banks, and performing at Sharpham Trust staff parties in a ceilidh, Steve is an orchestral composer and arranger.
He has composed a sacred choral work inspired by the contemporary non-religious understanding of spirituality in Ken Wilber’s ‘Integral’ approach, which integrates the ancient spiritual wisdom of the East with the modern psychology and science of the West.
Blue Pearl: A One World Oratorio had its world premiere in May 2022 with a stunning concert.
We asked Steve about his inspirations - and his inspirational works.
1. How did you come to practice mindfulness?
I first picked up a book about meditation in 1990, when I was suffering with anxiety and insomnia. I thought it might help me calm down. I went to classes with what was then the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (now called Triratna) and started practising. I did a 5-week retreat at The Barn in 1996, and then started doing occasional retreats at Gaia House.
I think the meditating helped a bit with the anxiety, but I’m very clear that it was psychotherapy that really got to the bottom of it. But there was something about meditating that really called to me, and which still calls to me today: the feeling of touching into a profound and beautiful dimension of existence, a sacred dimension of tranquillity and love, which is gradually revealed as the body and mind become still.
2. What does your daily practice look like?
I am very mindful of my thoughts and emotions. After many years of meditating on-and-off, combined with therapy and personal development work, it seems as though it’s hard not be aware of what is going on in my thoughts and emotions.
Sometimes I feel very bored by the mind’s non-stop whittering. I often laugh at what it comes up with. And there are times when I catch hold of a helpful creative insight that has suddenly appeared – those seem to arrive mostly when I’m brushing my teeth, or in the shower, or out walking.
On my daily walk I often practice ‘here’ and ‘now’. As I walk, I’m always ‘here’, and it’s always ‘now’. There is a sense of the landscape moving ‘through’ my awareness. (I first came across this in one of Ken Wilber’s books). I love this wonderful seeming paradox of time, that things so obviously change over time, and yet it is always ‘now’.
3. Who or what is inspiring you currently?
Ken Wilber’s ‘Integral’ approach has inspired me for about 25 years and continues to do so. I regularly revisit his first two books, The Spectrum Of Consciousness and No Boundary, which he wrote as a young man in the 1970s. I find his contemporary expression of ancient spiritual wisdom very clear and inspiring.
4. Tell us about a book/film/story/artwork that's inspired you
I’ve just finished the book Plainsong by Kent Haruf. It follows the lives of ordinary people in a rural town in the American mid-west. The writing, and the way the people speak, has a haunting simplicity about it; an unadorned directness. I found it very moving in a quiet sort of way.
5. COMPOSER BONUS QUESTION: Tell us about the piece of work that YOU did that's inspiring others!
I have been a musician all my life; I started learning violin when I was 7.
Music is a powerful medium for expressing spirituality, the sacred. Since childhood I have known and loved many of the great classical, sacred choral works, for example Handel’s Messiah, the many Requiems by Mozart, Fauré, Brahms and Verdi, and more recently Karl Jenkin’s The Armed Man: A Mass For Peace.
In 2013 I was wondering whether there was such a piece expressing Ken Wilber’s contemporary understanding of spirituality, which I mentioned earlier, and which is a huge inspiration to me, expressing a ‘human’ spirituality that transcends individual spiritual traditions. I couldn’t find any such piece, so I thought I’d see if I could write one myself.
Six years later, Blue Pearl: A One World Oratorio was the result. It portrays the whole of evolution, including the evolution of human consciousness, to the point where humans recognise that we are the earth, this precious ‘Blue Pearl’, conscious of itself as a unity-in-diversity. It includes a diverse range of musical styles, not just ‘classical’.
Blue Pearl was performed for the first time on 14th May 2022 in London. It was an amazing concert; the audience loved it.
The journey of composing Blue Pearl was absolutely extraordinary for me; and I’m certain that my years of meditation practice helped enormously. Meditation helps us to open to creativity, to the zone where things appear out of nowhere, which is actually happening all the time, but meditation makes us more conscious of it, tunes us in to it. And meditation also tunes us in to the fundamental matters of the heart. I think those two things combined for me in writing Blue Pearl, enabling me to do something I could never have imagined was within my capabilities.
You can watch the beautiful film and read more about it here on Steve's website: www.stevebanks.info/blue-pearl-online
Steve has also recorded a special song-meditation Be Still, which you can play on YouTube here
Steve is co-leading our first Mindfulness for Beginners retreat, starting on Tuesday 17 January