Reflections on “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans”

My intent in this writing is to provide a fresh (if not unusual) perspective and provoke thought experiments for the reader.  My hope is that the reader will look for hints of relevance to our work, opportunities for improvement, and perhaps some more direct challenges.

First, I will provide a quotation from Bill Evans that can be considered on its own.  Second, I will address each sentence separately, as written, and provide key questions to consider.  Third, I will introduce a few related principles and research findings, and key questions to consider for each of those.  Fourth, I will describe some work done by Lee Feldman toward a possible future application of these notions.  Lastly, I will discuss the statement from Evans with specific relevance to our field, and take the liberty to re-write it accordingly. 


Bill Evans (famed pianist and peerless exponent of improvisational jazz) is quoted just below in an excerpt from the 1966 documentary film, “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans: The Creative Process and Self-Teaching”.  What does this quotation contain that applies to our work?  Consider that question as you read. 

I believe that all people are in possession of what might be called a universal musical mind.  Any true music speaks with this universal mind to the universal mind in all people.  The understanding that results will vary only insofar as people have or have not been conditioned to the various styles of music in which the universal mind speaks.  Consequently, often some effort and exposure is necessary in order to understand some of the music coming from a different period or a different culture than that to which the listener has been conditioned.  I do not agree that the layman’s opinion is less of a valid judgment of music than that of the professional musician.  In fact, I would often rely more on the judgment of a sensitive layman than that of a professional, since the professional, because of his constant involvement with the mechanics of music, must fight to preserve the naivety that the layman already possesses.


Here I list those sentences in turn, with questions I have added for each.

  1. I believe that all people are in possession of what might be called a universal musical mind. 
    • Music is both a quality and a function that is universal to people?  If so, does that include the capacities of creating, expressing, receiving, and understanding?
    • If the human mind has universal qualities, what qualities of mind are universal among humans, other than music?
  2. Any true music speaks with this universal mind to the universal mind in all people. 
    • “True music” is a thing?  What and why?  And what then is “False music”?
    • False music speaks with a mind different from the universal mind?
    • True music speaks to the universal mind in others, and false music does not?
    • Can the mind of the listener innately differentiate between true music and false music, or the true mind and the false mind, as a source of what it hears?
  3. The understanding that results will vary only insofar as people have or have not been conditioned to the various styles of music in which the universal mind speaks.
    • Does taste/preference function absolutely on its own, independent of conditioning – and if so, on what grounds?
    • Does understanding then, result as a function of taste/preference? Or is some understanding absolute and independent – and if so, what understanding is in fact absolute?
    • What factors promote or diminish understanding, and in what way does this differ over the lifespan, if at all?
  4. Consequently, often some effort and exposure is necessary in order to understand some of the music coming from a different period or a different culture than that to which the listener has been conditioned. 
    • Does this differ by kind of exposure: passive-natural exposure, or active-planned exposure?
    • Are effort and exposure initially necessary, or only after the listener has been conditioned?  And why?
  5. I do not agree that the layman’s opinion is less of a valid judgment of music than that of the professional musician. 
    • How is “first-mind” or “beginner’s mind” still present, even in a mind conditioned to understand?
    • In what way is “first-mind” or “beginner’s mind” diminished by professionalism, while in the context of conditioning superior to that of the layman?
  6. In fact, I would often rely more on the judgment of a sensitive layman than that of a professional, since the professional, because of his constant involvement with the mechanics of music, must fight to preserve the naivety that the layman already possesses.”
    • What advantages does naivety confer?
    • What components or mechanisms of judgment are superior in function within the layman?

It is often stated that the best challenge of practicing philosophy is in the developing or development of a good question.  Interestingly, question-asking is also taught as perhaps the critical skill of the scientific method.  I have spent many years wrestling with such subjects as:

  1. The laboratory finding1 that songbirds can lack expression of certain genes if raised without hearing the song of their own species; some genes are literally turned on by the bird hearing their own species-specific song. 
    • What are the epigenetic implications of hearing what we hear during childhood, during addiction disease, during recovery, and during our career of providing addiction counseling or recovery support? 
  2. The finding2 that epigenetics includes social-epigenetics.
    • What are the harmful or beneficial impacts of adverse childhood experiences, or hearing or socializing at mutual aid meetings, or providing a career-length of addiction counseling? And in what ways does our changing internal stance and external social stance with those narratives then also change our individual gene expression (compared to that caused by the initial impacts of those events)?
  3. The notion of the spirituality of imperfection3 (the paradox).
    • In what ways does the hearing of imperfection and vulnerability turn out to be healing? In what ways does the hearing of what is proper turn out to be wounding or not safe? And what are the implications of each, for the vocal and social aspects of evidence-based practice?
  4. That “first mind” or “beginner’s mind” is commonly regarded as a valued principle (vs the mind of the expert observer), yet the clinician is encouraged to adhere to clinical fidelity, while seeking to pursue that which is qualitatively and subjectively sound. 
    • Do we serve the person, or the therapeutic model?
    • Which is the functional equivalent of “naïve”: the recovering counselor, or non-recovering? Which is the functional equivalent of “professional”: the recovering counselor, or non-recovering?  (Naïve with regard to what, and professional with regard to what?).  And how do these distinctions matter in our work, if at all?

A few years ago, Lee Feldman4 had a number of conversations with me about the notion of rigor as applied to our work, as opposed to fidelity, and the importance of “qualia” (plural; defined as “individual instances of subjective conscious experience”) in that context.  Overall, he defined rigor as closer to a full and qualitative mapping, and differentiated it from fidelity to a protocol – that he described as more akin to mere rule following. 

His fascinating exposition concerned his interest in identifying the heuristics of complex decision making.  He described an effort to gather the components of complex decision making (by combining the results of direct observation, interviewing, and brain scans of people in the act of making complex decisions).  His goal was to capture and define a complicated decisional pathway, especially one used by someone with advanced experience and high effectiveness in a craft or skill.  Why?  Lee’s interests included the application of that area of research to advancing the skills of those providing addiction treatment and its supervision. He stated he suspected qualia were among the most critical elements in our efforts to help – more so than focusing on mere clinical technique. 

  • What do we know, and how do we decide what we do?
  • What are the specific bio-psycho-spiritual-social mechanisms of intellectual and emotional empathy5, and how does one manifest their operational value in improving attunement and effectiveness during addiction counseling?

Lee never told me if he had considered studying the live performance of improvisational jazz as a resource of persons in the act of enacting complex heuristics – that relies on both a language and a listener.


The statement by Evans intrigues me for its potential illumination of our work in several ways.  It raises the notion of the counselor’s true mind vs false mind, speaking true music vs false music, to the true mind vs false mind, of the patient – to say nothing of the differences in detectability and efficacy.  This is a potentially vast content domain concerning the conscious and the unconscious, defense function, “ghosts”6 in the room, and the supervisory lineage.  In what way do we navigate the service of the clinical model, the person, and the purpose of recovery – and why? 


Finally, a bit of “Copy and Compose”.  Perhaps we can apply a little of that linguistic technique to the Evans quotation and find something helpful to our work.  Consider the following:

I believe that all people are in possession of what might be called a universal recovery mind.  Any true addiction counseling speaks with this universal mind to the universal mind in all people.  The understanding that results will vary only insofar as people have or have not been conditioned to the various styles of recovery language in which the universal mind speaks. Consequently, often some effort and exposure is necessary in order to understand some of the recovery language coming from a different period or a different culture than that to which the listener has been conditioned. I do not agree that the layman’s opinion is less of a valid judgment of recovery language than that of the professional counselor. In fact, I would often rely more on the judgment of a sensitive layman than that of a professional counselor, since the professional counselor, because of his constant involvement with the mechanics of addiction counseling, must fight to preserve the naivety that the layman already possesses.


Can we find and apply technology currently outside our field7 to improve our notion of what it means to connect, and to help?  Can we consider a fresh look at universal aspects of the human experience and how they apply to beginning again – the beginning again of others, and of ourselves? 


1Mello, CV; Vicario, DS & Clayton, DF.  (1992).  Song Presentation Induces Gene Expression In the Songbird Forebrain.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences89:6818-6822.

2Cole, SW.  (2009).  Social Regulation of Human Gene Expression.  Current Directions In Psychological Science. 18(3):  132-137.

3Kurtz, E. & Ketcham, K.  (1992).  The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning.  Bantam Books.

4Feldman, L.  (2015).  Personal communication. 

5Sänger, J., Müller, V. & Lindenberger, U. (2012). Intra-and Inter Brain Synchronization and Network Properties When Playing Guitar In Duets.  Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 6(312):1-19.  doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00312.

6Hollis, J.  (2013).  Hauntings:  Dispelling the Ghosts Who Run Our Lives. Chiron Publications: Asheville.

7Behavioral Health Recovery Management: A Statement of Principles.  Accessed from the World Wide Web on 12/27/19 at http://www.bhrm.org/article/principles. Update 02/08/2020: apparently the BHRM website is down/absorbed into the parent company website of the organization that recently acquired Fayette Companies. Here is the BHRM Statement of Principles document from the William White Papers holdings.