How I got hooked on mindfulness
Hello and welcome to Let's all meet in child's pose, a blog about the connections between music and mindfulness. I'm glad you're here.
So far, writing a blog is weird. Where do you start? I read a lot of blogs and I know that how I start will absolutely not matter once I get going. After all, nobody goes to a blog, starts at the first post, and then proceeds to read all the posts chronologically...right? But still, I feel compelled to set up some sort of context. So, I'm starting with a 3-part introductory series. Here, in Part 1, I'll briefly chronicle my own introduction to mindfulness and how it has changed my relationship to music practice and performance. Part 2 will provide a quick overview of mindfulness, describing what it is and what it isn't. Part 3 will explore how mindfulness works and why it might be useful for musicians. What happens after that is anyone's guess.
For as long as I can remember, I have been a perfectionist. From the time I was a small child, I never wanted to be okay or even pretty good at anything. I wanted to be exceptional. At everything. And if I didn't think I could be exceptional, I didn't want to do it. I was willing to work, but I needed the constant affirmation of quick and dramatic results to keep the beast of self-doubt at bay. And, even when I was getting good results, I was hounded by the voice in my head telling me I still wasn't -- would never be -- good enough.
Sub-optimal, to say the least.
No where did this dynamic play out more clearly than in practicing and performing music. For years I practiced obsessively in terms of both my mental approach and the insane hours I logged in the practice room. It was like I was trying to outrun failure and I was continually frustrated when my achievements fell short of my expectations...no matter how uncompromising those expectations may have been. But, for a long time, I thought this was all just part of the noble struggle to become an artist. After all, I grew up on such choice maxims as:
Practice makes perfect!
If you're not practicing, someone else is!
You only have to practice on the days that you eat!
And my personal favourite:
Don't practice until you get it right. Practice until you can't get it wrong!
[Sidebar: What does that even mean??? In my experience, getting it wrong is always a possibility...]
It wasn't just that I thought self-doubt and self-criticism came with the territory of being a successful musician. I believed that self-doubt and self-criticism were essential ingredients for success as a musician. How the heck else would you improve??? So, in some ways, I relished the emotional drama of practice and saw it as proof of my passion, dedication, and discipline.
The problem -- or one of them anyway -- was that the constant feelings of inadequacy made practicing at best unpleasant and at worst unbearable. Plus, because my practice time was so fraught, it was inevitable that I suffered from fairly severe performance anxiety. Practicing obsessively didn't make me a confident performer -- it made me an obsessive performer. I began reading voraciously, looking for a way to practice that 1) was effective, 2) didn't make me miserable, and 3) helped me to feel calm and confident before and during performances. I learned about "flow" -- a focused-yet-relaxed state of complete immersion in an activity. A seamless integration between mind and body, intent and action. "Yes!" I thought. "THAT'S what I want!" I read the Inner Games books as well as A Soprano on Her Head, The Performer Prepares, Performance Success, and The Perfect Wrong Note to name a few. I, possibly one of the most un-athletic souls to walk upright, devoured books about golf, tennis, baseball, skiing, archery -- you name it -- in search of a way to practice and perform at a high level with freedom, ease, and confidence. Many of these books helped -- some of them a great deal. I learned to set goals, visualize, monitor my self-talk, and program my thoughts.
But I was never able to shake the feeling that I was just kind of painting over my neuroses. My insecurities continued to bubble away just below the surface.
The logical conclusion was that there was something wrong with me. I simply wasn't cut out to be a musician. This was an unfortunate insight, especially considering that by this time I was a musician...and I was spectacularly unqualified to do anything else. What choice did I have but to keep at it? So I continued to play and to teach, hoping no one would discover that I didn't belong in the club. And I think for the most part I "passed". To all outward appearances, it probably seemed like I was flourishing. But on the inside, I was a mess.
Luckily -- cue the pan flutes! -- I discovered mindfulness!
At some point before I spiralled further into my vortex of self-doubt, I started meditating and doing yoga. In both cases, I began with clear objectives in mind. In the case of yoga, I started doing it for exercise and I was very eager to advance to the really challenging postures. I thought that doing challenging postures would be an indicator of how “good at” yoga I was. With meditation, I just wanted to get enlightened – ASAP. NBD.
Well, time went by and I didn’t get enlightened (by any definition of the word) and I fell on my face (literally) a lot while trying to execute advanced yoga postures. It was disappointing. But In yoga and meditation they emphasize -- ad nauseam -- that the quality of attention you bring to the practice is more important than the result. "Try your best and let go of the result," they say. And, "It doesn't matter what the pose looks like. What matters is staying connected to your breath." Which sounded like bullshit to me. I was like, "Let go of the results?!?!? Stay connected to my breath?!?! Are you f---ing kidding me?"
What is the point of doing ANYTHING, I thought, if it isn't to get results?
But, the yogis are quite firm on this point and I had just enough self-awareness to know that something had to give. All things considered, yoga and meditation seemed like pretty low stakes arenas in which to experiment with "non-attachment". So, I went with it. I was still skeptical, but I started worrying less about improving and more about paying attention. I began to notice to my habitual reactions to stress, discomfort, and challenge. I learned to show up on my yoga mat or meditation cushion and just work with whatever was going on that day. Muscles stiff and tight? Fine. I'd try a gentler practice to give my body a chance to open. Mind scattered and busy? No problem. I'd just watch the thoughts swirling around in my head and try not to get too caught up. I let go of the need for progress to be linear, for each day of practice to pick up where the previous one had left off. I started to develop qualities like patience, non-judgement, compassion, equanimity, and -- you guessed it -- non-attachment. Eventually, the intentional cultivation of these qualities became more important to me than my original goals of nirvana and bendiness. It got so that a successful yoga practice was not one during which I could stretch farther, balance with more ease, or muscle myself into a difficult pose (although I'm not going to pretend those things aren't pretty darn satisfying!), but one during which I was able to remain -- wait for it -- connected to my breath. What was happening to me??? But here's the cool thing: Even as I shifted my focus away from getting "getting good" at yoga and meditation, I got steadily better at both. And, I was having fun. AND, I was overall less stressed, anxious, and unhappy with myself.
I started thinking, “Hmmm…. I wonder if this way of practicing – focusing less on outcomes and more on my quality of attention (and intention) – would work in the practice room.” I began experimenting with practicing the tuba more mindfully. It was an interesting exercise. I was so used to being extremely uptight, outcome-oriented, and self-critical in the practice room (even more than I am in “real” life) that learning to lighten up and fully engage in the process was a huge shift. Fortunately, through yoga and meditation, I had had lots of practice dealing with uncomfortable physical, mental, and emotional states and I gradually began to be able to see the practice room as my own personal music lab, a place where I could explore and experiment with genuine curiosity. I learned to listen to myself in a much more nuanced way and to respond to what I heard without a lot of drama. For the first time, I could make ugly sounds learn from them, rather than recoiling from them or trying to cover them up. And…drumroll…I got better! I learned music faster and more thoroughly and I began to solve technical problems that had plagued me for years. My performances started to feel more secure and connected. Making music became fun again!
My own experience combined with a lot of reading and study about the benefits of mindfulness has convinced me that mindfulness could be enormously useful for musicians. Because here's the thing: After more than 15 years working as a professional musician and teaching in university music schools I have come to believe that my experience of both practice anxiety and performance anxiety is more the rule than the exception. I admit that I might be a wee bit farther along on the neurotic scale than most people, but I have seen countless musicians -- students and professionals alike -- struggle with mild-to-crippling self-doubt, self-criticism, impatience, frustration, perfectionism, performance anxiety...the list goes on. I think mindfulness can help.
But enough about me. If this makes any sense whatsoever, read on.