“I am abundance welcoming ghosts,” wrote David Morris, creator of and songwriter for the folk-rock band Red River Dialect, whose newest album, Abundance Welcoming Ghosts, was released in September 2019. Shortly after recording the album, Morris began a nine-month retreat at Gampo Abbey, a monastery in Pleasant Bay, Nova Scotia, whose principal teacher is Pema Chödrön.
On retreat, Morris found inspiration for the album’s title as he looked out his dorm room window. Observing the oceanside cliffs, he sensed a dark presence moving with the strong winds that blew through the area, and he recalled a quote attributed to the 11th-century Tibetan master Machig Labdron: “In other traditions demons are expelled externally. But in my tradition demons are accepted with compassion.” Speaking of the experience, Morris said, “I didn’t have a feeling of haunting or fear. I actually felt like I wanted to give that thing a hug, whatever it was.” At that point, he took out his notebook and wrote down the phrase that would become the album’s title.
Growing up the son of an Anglican priest in Cornwall, England, Morris first encountered Buddhism as a teenager through Beat poetry. He’s now been practicing for many years, and Buddhist sentiments resonate through the album. The chorus of “Slow Rush” rings out: “Body like a mountain, mind like the sky / breath like the wind; thoughts pass by.” Meditation and music, however, remain separate for Morris. “Music is a sensual realm. There can be ways of allowing yourself to melt into that, and it can be healing,” he said. “But that’s distinct from the vipashyana (insight) approach to formless awareness. Nothing beats the breath when it comes to meditation, because you can’t build up massive story lines about your breath.”
Gampo Abbey doesn’t generally allow visiting practitioners to play musical instruments. But after six months, concerned that he would be out of practice when he returned to his life as a musician in London, Morris wrote a letter to the governing council asking if he could play guitar. For the final three months of his stay, the council gave him permission to play guitar in a solitary retreat cabin for one hour each day. The constraints of the time limit and his not having held a guitar in so long proved valuable. “It’s like letting the field lie fallow for a year,” Morris said of the hiatus. “The nutrients reaccumulate, and you can plant fresh things.”
And while Morris looked forward to the music sessions, he admitted that once he was allowed time to play, he found himself writing songs during meditation sessions. During the breaks between sitting and walking meditations, he would rush to the bathroom, get his notebook, and quickly scribble down lyrics. “I can see why they don’t allow musical instruments,” he said a bit sheepishly. After the retreat, Morris met up with some musician friends in Montreal, where together they recorded the songs he wrote on retreat. The songs are set to be released in the summer of 2020 under his own name.