Taxidermy vs Tracking: Some musings on mindfulness, performance, and musical expression

It occurs to me that rather than trying to normalize the performance experience, we could try to live more fully -- to actually experience more of our lives -- everyday. I think we often flatten out our experience so that it appears to align more closely with our preferences and expectations. But what if we actually sought out and learned to be okay with more texture, more nuance, more drama? Might the performance experience seem less fraught? 

Dignity

Playing sloppily is undignified, yes. But, in my opinion, so is the rigid striving of perfectionism. Perfectionism is a rejection of the full expression of our humanness. As a recovering perfectionist, I know this all too well! And, in a sense, we can’t reject our own humanness without also rejecting others’. But when we embrace our our shared humanness — our capacity for greatness along with our foibles and failures — we enter into a different sort of relationship with ourselves, the music, and the audience. Through our sincere effort, clear purpose, and receptivity to the moment, we dignify each other.

Reflections and Updates

Well, it’s the first blog post of 2019 and I’m going to cheat a bit (insofar as it’s possible to cheat on your own blog…) on not even write a “real” post. Instead, I’m going to recap some 2018 highlights for Music, Mind, and Movement and tell you what’s ahead for 2019.

Know Your Nervous System

The way our autonomic nervous systems assesses and respond to threat vs safety is highly individual and is conditioned by many factors including genetics, family dynamics, trauma history, experiences in educational systems, overall physical and mental health, social supports, etc., etc., etc. Another way of saying this is: Situations and events are not in themselves stressful (or not) or relaxing (or not); they are not threatening (or not) or safe (or not). It is the nervous system’s response to a situation or event that determines whether it is experienced as stressful, exciting, enlivening, relaxing, threatening, etc. One of the cool things about working with the nervous system is that we can learn to sense and, with practice, shift which how our own unique systems respond to experience. We can learn to give ourselves the support we need — and to be skilful about seeking support from others — to excel and meet our goals.

Testing the Waters

It’s true: Getting in touch with what is really going on for you — the bodily sensations that usually fly under the radar, the thought patterns that repeat so faithfully that we take them to be who we are — can be overwhelming. And not just in a “How fascinating: I had no idea I was so judgemental!” kind of way, but in more of a “I literally feel like I am drowning/I think meditation might be causing a panic attack” kind of way.

If this is you, fear not. You aren’t broken or doing it wrong. You’re not “too stressed to meditate” or doomed to remain at a distance from your embodied experience. But, your nervous system might, for any number of reasons, be on high alert and you may have to begin by taking a “touch and go” approach.

Passion, Stewardship, and Status Quo

I think a big part of the journey of being an artist is taking responsibility for the stewardship of that thing inside us — whatever it is — that makes us want to create art. According to Merriam Webster online, stewardship refers to “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.” What would it be like to carefully and responsibly manage what feels most true, essential, and valuable to you? It’s an interesting question. There is often tension between what we feel inside and what appears to be expected of us. Resolving that tension — or, more realistically, dancing with that tension — can be tricky. But it is in the midst of that dance that creativity and agency flourish.

Don't shoot the second arrow

In this post, I'd like to introduce you to one of my favourite metaphors for unhelpful reactivity -- the second arrow. The concept of the second arrow comes from a Buddhist parable, the gist of which is this: If you got shot with an arrow, it would be bad. It would hurt a lot and could be life-threatening. There are certain actions you would likely want to take immediately such as get the arrow out, stop the bleeding, go to the hospital, etc. 

What would NOT be helpful would be to get, say, angry -- either with the person who shot you or with yourself for being stupid enough to get shot. If you did get angry, you would be in physical pain (and possibly mortal danger) AND, on top of that, you would be...well, angry, which generally doesn't feel good. So, not only would your discomfort have increased (pain of arrow + pain of being angry), but your anger would likely to distract you from taking the actions that would be most helpful.

In effect, it would be like shooting yourself with a second arrow. 

The Art of Celebrating Small Victories (Or: How Not to Fail in Advance)

The art of celebrating small victories lies, to paraphrase the great Kenny Rogers, in knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Sometimes we intend to celebrate small victories but get gluttonous about improving. Something goes well and we think, “Maybe, if I keep going, I can improve even more.”

It can be good to push on, sure. But pushing on can, for some of us, lead to a feeling of never really achieving anything. Consider this: Have you ever had an experience where you achieved something that felt meaningful or significant to you and told someone — perhaps a friend or a parent or a teacher — and they said "Congratulations!” but then immediately pointed out the thing that you haven’t achieved yet? Instead of feeling great about the thing you just accomplished, you end up feeling like you failed in advance at the next thing.

The Life-Changing Magic of Knowing What Your Mind is Full Of

Developing a mindfulness practice is kind of like learning to see the water we’re swimming in. Even more than that, it involves the discipline of assuming there is almost always more going on than we can see from deep inside our habitual mental and perceptual grooves. But I’m not going to lie: It ain’t always pretty. To those embarking on a mindfulness journey in the hopes that stress and anxiety will magically melt away I say: buyer beware! Seeing what your mind is full of can be a bit sobering at first. But it’s interesting what happens when just you keep looking. Instead of being tangled in reactivity, we begin to see: Oh, this is frustration…or anger, or worry, or judgment… Seeing that we are having a reaction — and not simply reacting, out of habit — gives us an opportunity to choose a response that is in line with our values and goals.

The Window of Tolerance in Practice and Performance

My take is that our playing would get better faster AND we’d be happier, if we got into our windows of tolerance first, and then practiced. In other words, rather than thinking of being in our window as the reward for having accomplished something, we can think of being in our window — feeling alert, grounded, focused, energized, calm — as a pre-condition for accomplishing something.

Interoception, Resilience, and the Window of Tolerance

I use a Window of Tolerance model as a framework for understanding self-regulation. The term “Window of Tolerance” was coined by Dan Siegel (Siegel, 1999) to describe the zone of arousal in which we can handle stressors with relative ease and resilience. When we are operating within our window, it’s not that we don’t experience stress or elevated arousal but that, when we do, we have a feeling of “I’ve got this.” We are able to mobilize the energy and focus we need to complete the task or deal with the stressor in front of us — whether that’s giving a recital performance or simply working through a tough passage in a piece — and then quickly and smoothly return to a state of ease and equilibrium.