Turning Poison into Medicine: Herbie Hancock on Miles Davis

“Use what seems like poison as medicine. Use your personal suffering as the path to compassion for all beings.” – Pema Chodron

It’s been a long winter in New England. This is the month of ‘marching’ change, where spring starts to be felt. Already I can hear robins singing, even though it was only 3 degrees out this morning. Quixote Consulting explores this theme for teams in [change management team building and team training].

Jazz pianist and composer Herbie Hancock is this year’s Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. His first talk was on his years spent in Miles Davis’ band. You can see the video of his talk here. Herbie is a student of Buddhism and he talked about how Miles Davis helped him understand one of the classic Buddhist slogans, “turn poison into medicine.” Herbie was in Stockholm playing in Miles Davis’ quintet in 1967. Miles was building a solo to a huge climax when, in a key pause, Herbie played a huge chord that he immediately realized was wrong. In that moment, he felt crushed. However, Miles responded with a phrase that incorporated Herbie’s ‘mistake’ into the solo. Rather than judging the chord as bad, Herbie said, Miles simply “took it in as an unexpected input and reacted to it accordingly”. Herbie said, “This experience became groundbreaking for me and opened the door to the future of my performances.”

We long for perfection – I know I do. And yet we blunder through each day making mistake after mistake. These mistakes, our imperfections can either be poison or medicine for us. How might you and I make our poison our medicine today? How can they help us have compassion for all beings, including ourselves?

“Awkward in a hundred ways, clumsy in a thousand, still I go on. – “Chinese Zen master Yueh-shan

We long for perfection, a literal and metaphorical warm, sunny day, especially in the final days of winter. And yet we blunder through each imperfect day. Our mistakes, our imperfections can either be poison or medicine for us. How might you and I change our poison into our medicine this month? How can they help us have compassion for all beings, including ourselves?

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