Music as a Transformational Agent

By Danya River

What do you say we start with a little experiential exercise?

I invite you to recall a song that was a good friend to you during a challenging time:

  • How do you feel thinking of that song?
  • How did the song help you through that experience?

Now, think of a song that has uplifted or touched you:

  • What is the experience in your body and emotions thinking of that song?
  • How has that song shaped your experience of life?

I believe music speaks for us and expresses what we feel, which we may have no words for. Music mirrors and validates our inner struggles, inspires and invites us to grow. Music can help inform our individual identities and also connect us to something much larger than our individual selves.

I began writing songs with my guitar at the age of 14 and performing publicly at 16. An analytical — though artistic — teen, I was skeptical of anything remotely “touchy-feely.” Emotions? No thank you. God? Clearly a bunch of baloney.

As the daughter of consciousness teachers Judith Ansara and Robert Gass (who is also a New Age musician), my version of teenage rebellion was trying to be “normal”: rational, cool, success-driven, attractive, mind-over-matter… anything but “woo-woo.”

Yet, a portal to my inner world cracked open as I continued to write songs. I found a voice for vulnerabilities I barely acknowledged I possessed. Writing became a best friend, a healer. It was where I could tell my secrets without fear of judgement. It was the first way I came to know myself.

As I started to share, other high schoolers found their own voice through my music. In my youth, I wrote about the struggle to fit in, the pain of rejection, anger, infatuation. As I matured, the content of my songs developed alongside me.

Until I was 26, I pursued music as a career. I toured across the country as a self-promoted solo act. I played at festivals, coffeehouses, listening rooms, music halls.

Perhaps because I started so young, I came to see myself as inseparable from my role as a musician. I absorbed the cultural message that being a “performer” meant being a sexy young woman who sold her seductive appearance as much as her craft, a “starving artist’ paying her dues.

I would spend weeks promoting a gig, drive seven hours through a snowstorm, set up my gear, dress in a provocative outfit, “put on a show” without eating dinner. I’d chat with fans and sell CDs for two hours afterwards — pretending I was enjoying myself — while really wanting to curl up and hide. I would make $50 for the whole affair, sleep on a friendly fan’s couch and then do it all over again. I felt utterly alone and depleted.

I began to resent all the attention and wanted permission to be a real human, not the fa├žade. But I didn’t know how to escape the construct I had created. Everyone told me music was my “gift,” how much it moved them. Who was I to withhold?

My body ultimately broke down and made the decision for me. I quit playing publicly after I developed relentless chronic anxiety, nightmares, nerve pain that prevented me from lifting a guitar, and an intense hypersensitivity to noise. Common sounds like the hum of a refrigerator felt like nails on a chalkboard. I could barely leave the house for years.

One night, in the midst of my health crisis, I dreamt that light beings were coming to help develop human consciousness so we could continue inhabiting our planet. Though terrified to perform, I stepped towards a large stage, offering to sing for the sake of future generations. From the back of the stage emerged a tall light being radiating pure love. She reached out her arms to me. I realized that she, not the personality walking towards her, was the “real” Danya River.

In the dream, I felt my body-mind-heart begin to relax; I was not alone. As I took her hands, she spun me over her head and around the stage like a scarf in the breeze, and my fear dissolved completely. Celestial sounds emanated from our dance, altering reality, melting the room. The field of emerging consciousness was completely transformed through the vibration. When I woke, I recognized the dream as an important message about my life purpose.

I spent the next seven years away from music, recovering my health and developing myself personally and spiritually. I explored meditation, medication, physical therapy, psychic and coaching training, personal growth workshops. Finally I learned about the Somatic Experiencing® trauma-resolution method, which turned my world around. Slowly, I opened to life, spirit, wellbeing, my heart, community. I found my inherent self-worth separate from needing to perform.

Since then, I have become a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, helping those struggling with trauma, anxiety, rage, grief, and general nervous system dysregulation. As I healed, I also found a natural desire to share recorded music that heals, soothes, transforms, and lets people know they are not alone.

I used to write to untangle my inner struggles, but now I create music as a beacon of love to tender hearts, as a humble contribution to our collective awakening. As I write and sing, I imagine I am looking into the eyes of loved ones. I imagine their tears flowing, their armor softening as I speak to them, inviting them into safety and communion. I craft each song as a vibrational gift, infuse it with love, and send it out along the airwaves.

I am honored to share with you recordings from my heart to help us all along this human journey.

In loving kindness,

Danya River

Danya River is a Somatic Experiencing trauma healer and recording artist living in Boulder, Colorado. Click here to visit Danya’s website and listen to her new release, “Heart is Wide Open.”

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This article appears in: 2017 Catalyst, Issue 6: Plant Medicine