Soul Curriculum: Nataly Dawn
Soul Curriculum: Nataly Dawn
with Rohan Gunatillake
About Nataly Dawn
ROHAN GUNATILLAKE: This is Soul Curriculum, the companion show to Meditative Story where we reconnect with your favorite storytellers to take a deeper look at the wisdom they shared.
In this show, we replay moments of reflection and takeaways which you can apply to your own life. Brought to you by WaitWhat. I’m your host, Rohan.
In her Meditative Story, singer/songwriter Nataly Dawn battles with the shame that often comes when she finds herself struggling when trying something new. But it’s this beginner’s mindset that she learns to harness and eventually find joy in. That’s a theme we’ll explore further with Nataly today. Listen with us and hopefully, like Nataly, there will be some inner wisdom unlocked for you too.
GUNATILLAKE: Nataly, so lovely to have you back on the show.
NATALY DAWN: Oh, it’s so good to be here. Thanks for having me.
GUNATILLAKE: With your music, you obviously share stories of your life through your songs, but I was wondering how the experience was for you to share with us on the show.
DAWN: It was really wonderful. It felt like such a privilege to get to go into a part of my life that I haven’t really thought about in a while, because when I’m writing songs, it’s, you know, I’m pulling from my life.
Sometimes elements of childhood will come back up in songwriting, but for the most part, there’s a lot of recency bias in what you’re writing. You’re writing about something that just happened to you, a feeling that you’re having right now. And so it was interesting to go a bit further back to look at my childhood in France and to look at the feelings around going to university and feeling like an outcast. It’s good to explore those again because all of those feelings are still there, and you kind of forget why they’re there.
GUNATILLAKE: Lovely. Let’s get into your story. The beginning of your story finds you in Tours, France, having moved there from Los Angeles at the age of 10. You are dropped into a completely new environment with a completely different language to learn and navigate. And in the moment we are about to hear, we travel with you to your new school far from the classroom experience you’d become used to in the U.S.
DAWN: My teacher, Madame Ritter, decides that I can fumble my way through math or science with my limited language skills. But when it’s time for French, she looks at me and motions towards the door. I get up, grab my things, and walk past the rows of desks. I cross a courtyard, then enter a small stone structure and climb a dark, wooden stairwell.
I pause, take a deep breath, and step into my new classroom. Drawings hang from the dark wood walls, and there are little kids sitting cross-legged on the floor. They send me to learn French with the first graders!
Instead of spending time with kids my own age, I’m with their little brothers and sisters. How can this be happening? What would my friends back home think? I’m forced to be an absolute beginner. It’s so embarrassing.
But over time, something interesting happens. They’re so excited to see me, and to share a book, a toy, a drawing, a song. As they surround me, my mood shifts. We develop a fondness for each other that cuts across language. I feel how much they want me to learn. I don’t feel judged by these kids. They make me feel less like an outsider and more like part of a family. They too are absolute beginners. We’re in it together in this space set up just for us.
GUNATILLAKE: Now, Nataly as a 10 year old at the time, did you have a name for how you were feeling when you started school in France? Were you able to name the awkwardness or the challenge of that moment?
DAWN: You know, the truth is that being able to say, “Ah, that’s shame; I’m experiencing shame right now,” that’s very new for me. I feel like that’s something that I’ve only really gotten good at identifying in the last year through therapy. I think that, especially when you grow up in the church, the feelings of shame were so deeply ingrained. The whole notion of even original sin, the idea that there’s something fundamentally wrong with you, that is just accepted. That’s part of your identity. And so you don’t even think of it as shame, but it’s interesting now to see how much of how I operate, and how much of how I operated back then, had to do with that feeling of “not good enough. I should be better,” which is just unfortunate. It’s not, it’s not actually true.
GUNATILLAKE: And as this story develops. your mindset about first grade, it does change. What was it about the younger kids, how they approached learning and approached you, that helped you open up to those circumstances and let go over some of that resistance.
DAWN: You know, I don’t have kids, but anytime I spend time with children, something in me sort of softens. And I think that getting to go to that classroom every day was an opportunity for me to stop trying to act like I had everything together. It was an opportunity for me to stop pretending like I knew what I was doing. It was an opportunity to just be with these kids and learn and have fun and play with puppets and draw. Yeah, I think that’s what it was.
GUNATILLAKE: And there’s a line in there I wanted to pick up with you. You said, “When you allow yourself to be a beginner and create the space for yourself to truly learn, you get the joy of discovery without the weight of your own expectations.” And that really struck me, this idea that even when we start something new and when we’re still on the ground floor, we still have such high expectations of ourselves. Why do you think it’s so easy for us to do that?
DAWN: I think it really does come back to the feeling of shame. The discomfort around bad at something and the feeling that I should be good at it. Like for me right now, it’s really hard for me to go easy on myself still. I mean, it’s funny because I had some friends who listened to the Meditative Story who came to me and were talking about how great it was to hear about my experience of accepting this beginner mindset and how I was clearly good at that. And I’m like, I’m not good at that. I’m not good at being a beginner. I’ve just had to do it over and over and over again. And I feel like I’m doing it right now.
Even just relearning the songs for tour, I have this feeling of like, “I should be better and my time should be better. I should be better at playing these songs. I wrote these songs. Why am I having to start from scratch on these things that I made a year ago?” And if I’m able to instead listen to the songs and open myself up to discovering the songs again, then I’m enjoying life again. Then I’m in the moment, and I’m actually listening to the music, and I’m singing and I’m getting to experience the newness of the song, even though I’m still technically not good at playing it. And that’s, you know, I try to get to that when I’m practicing.
GUNATILLAKE: Well, that’s a lovely note to move on to this next moment from your story. You’ve returned to the U.S. and attend Stanford university, where you major in studio art. There you become drawn to art installations and one in particular doesn’t work out so well. Which brings you to an apprenticeship at a woodworking studio under the watchful eye of Gary.
DAWN: We don’t just eyeball stuff, I measure … measure … measure … measure again. Then Gary appears to check my work.
He isn’t okay with me leaving sawdust on the floor. “Sweep it up. Keep a clean workstation,” he says. “There are no shortcuts.” I wasn’t used to the bar being this high. Actually I prided myself in trying to find the fastest shortcut. Getting the biggest pay off for the least amount of work. I hate waiting for the glue to dry completely before taking off the clamps. I’m his impatient apprentice. But Gary teaches me the devil is in the details.
I came to Gary knowing that I wanted to be a beginner. But I didn’t really want to do the work. I didn’t understand the time it takes to go from being a beginner to being skilled.
So precision and care become my own ladder to hold onto as I’m learning.
After weeks of persevering, we eventually put a small two-door cabinet right at eye-level on the redwood. There’s a tiny shelf in the middle. When you open up the cabinet doors, you see the shelf and then behind it just tree bark. It’s magnificent. There’s no back. It’s beautiful. It’s structurally sound, and it feels meaningful.
Then something unexpected happens. When I go back a week later, and open up the cabinet, someone has put some shiny coins on the shelf. I return again and see other objects: a figurine, a pine cone. It’s like a small treasure trove.
GUNATILLAKE: Now, Nataly, you say that at the start of it, you want quick results. I was wondering, could you say a little bit about how Gary’s approach to teaching or his way of approaching work, encouraged your ability to slow down and take that more patient approach?
DAWN: Yeah, it’s so frustrating when there are no shortcuts, but when there’s no other way to go, you kind of just resign yourself to it. And I think it’s similar to the classroom. When I was in the classroom, I was resigning myself to just having fun. I was resigning myself to the fact that this was where I needed to be to learn French. And when I was in the studio with Gary, I was resigning myself to, “This is the bar. This is the level of precision, the level of accuracy that is required.”
So you kind of resign yourself to the process. There are steps that you must go through in order to get to where you want to go. And you wish that you could just skip to step five, but you can’t. So you’re gonna start with step one.
GUNATILLAKE: Yeah, I hear you. And when you saw the cabinet on the Redwood tree, were you able to see all the work, all the precision and persistence, that went into it? Was that part of the joy that you experienced?
DAWN: Yeah, I mean, it’s so rare when you have an idea, and then you execute the idea, and the execution of the idea is better than what you imagined. And so getting to see the way that the cabinet fit, you know, just right up against this rounded surface, getting to see, you know, my months of apprenticeship, adding up to this piece of art, that was really gratifying. But definitely the most gratifying part of it was watching this piece of art take on a life of its own. Getting to see that it was magical to other people, and just knowing that it had gone beyond me and had meant something to other people. For me, that’s the closest you get to having a real sense of purpose in the world.
GUNATILLAKE: Well said, Nataly. So let’s move on to our final moment from your story when you channel the beginner’s mindset into your music.
DAWN: When I strum the beautiful, old instrument, I’m surprised that it’s tuned completely differently than anything I’ve used. The finger patterns I know for chords don’t work. It forces me to play around and find the sounds that I want to make. The easy thing to do is to re-tune the guitar. Instead, I embrace it. I just start to see what happens. I’m making sounds that are almost absurd. But I love how I can start from scratch and make something totally unexpected.
Once you become familiar with something, you actually have to create the space to become a beginner again, and again, and again.
When I work this way, I get to blend the mindset of being an absolute beginner with precision around each note I try and then retry. Over time, I choose to write a whole album this way.
Sometimes it’s a relief to just fully admit that we are new at something. We’re so determined to avoid shame. We want to take the easy way. But sometimes that just means not really engaging. Not getting to experience the untethered thrill of the unfamiliar.
When we let ourselves shift into a beginner mindset, and create a space where it’s okay that we don’t have any clue what we’re doing, that extinguishes our expectations. And when that happens, the world awaits.
GUNATILLAKE: Nataly, I was curious whether you were familiar with the Zen idea of beginner’s mind — when, how the freshness and curiosity that comes with naivety opens doors and makes the space for things that might not otherwise be possible, especially when we think we’ve seen it all before. Is it fair to say that’s what’s happening here?
DAWN: Yeah. And I feel like a big part of that is not judging everything that comes up. I think that’s often times where I get stuck, is I find that when I’m meditating or just when I’m moving through life, and a thought presents itself, just not judging the thought for being there and just noticing it and letting it move on. If I can skip the judging part, then I get to just be new at something and that’s okay.
GUNATILLAKE: And can you do that with frustration as well? I mean, certainly for me, like there are different thoughts and moods that I can go, “Yeah. Whatever.” And just move on from them. There’s others a bit more charged.
DAWN: Yeah, no. No, I’m very good at moving past every single thought equally. Um, yeah, it’s funny. Actually, I was thinking about this morning, the most difficult feeling for me to move past is anxiety. And my theory about anxiety is we have these feelings, and our brain just fills in the blank of the feeling and tries to make it rational, tries to justify the feeling with a thought, but really the feeling just kind of exists on its own. And the feeling gets to hang out for longer if there’s a thought that’s making it rational.
GUNATILLAKE: Yeah. It gives it more solidity. Sort of plasters over there with a storyline.
DAWN: Yes. Yes. And so for me, I’ll be thinking to myself, you’re anxious because you haven’t sold enough tickets in this area yet.
And, and I’m like, “No, that’s not true. You’re just anxious because you’re anxious. Has nothing to do with the tickets.” And then I’m like, “Oh yeah, that’s right. I am just feeling anxious right now.” And that helps me sort of let go of it.
GUNATILLAKE: And going back to your story, we heard how you picked up skills, like learning French and woodworking. Are there any other skills that you’re trying to master at the moment?
DAWN: I always feel like I’m trying to get better at my instruments. Like just this past week, I had a guitar lesson with someone who’s really good at French jazz, because I’m about to go on tour, and I’m about to be playing, not just singing in French, but also playing guitar in this French jazz style. And so I had my first lesson with this guitar teacher. And I walked away feeling demoralized. I’m like, “Maybe I should just give up the guitar.” And then I was reminded that like, “Oh no, you actually can play guitar. And this is just a new technique. And, you know, you’ll be really bad at it today, and then you’ll keep practicing it. And then a week from today, you’ll be surprisingly better.” And so that’s something that I’m trying to get better at right now.
GUNATILLAKE: That’s incredible, good luck with mastering it, I’m sure that you will. Nataly, as we move to close today’s episode, I’d really love for you to tell us about your new album “Gardenview.”
DAWN: I made this record ,and I made it about a year and a half ago. I spent probably three years writing the songs by myself during the pandemic. And then I brought them to my friends, John Schroeder and Ross Garen. And I wanted to be in a room full of people making music again, because that’s what I was really missing was just that visceral communal act of creativity. And I’m just so happy with how it turned out. And now we get to go out and be around real people and see their real faces. And it’s gonna be so fun.
GUNATILLAKE: That was great wasn’t it? Like Nataly talked about so insightfully: it can be hard being a beginner. I remember helping my son learn how to ride a bike during lockdown, and he just hated it to be honest. He hated not being good at something. He got there in the end, and we often talk about how it was for him in those early stages and how different his ability is now.
But y’know there is a flip to being an absolute beginner. The flip is that when you’re new to something, no-one expects anything of you, and that can be very freeing. Imposter syndrome is totally a thing. But when we are a genuine beginner, there is no imposter, just the intention to try something new. Just the intention to learn.
So, how about — until the next time we meet — you find something that you are totally a beginner at, and give it a go. Be that cooking a meal you’ve never had, reading an article on a topic new to you, or watching a video on to say some simple words in a language you don’t speak. And when you do it, just enjoy the pure beginner-ness of it, and let go of any unnecessary judgments that might come up.
That’s all for today’s episode, and, as always, I hope you enjoyed listening. We’d love for you to share your thoughts about what you’ve heard. You can find us on all your social media platforms via our handle @Meditative Story. Or you can email us at hello@Meditativestory.com. Take care.