How mindfulness works

How mindfulness works

Quick recap: In Part 1, I described how I came to mindfulness practice and in Part 2, I talked about what mindfulness is and isn't. But you may be asking yourself why you should care. Great question. In this post, I'll talk a bit about how mindfulness works and why I think it can be so helpful for musicians.

The established benefits of mindfulness are many. If you don't believe me, you can google "benefits of mindfulness" and read about how mindfulness is effective for:

  • improving attention and concentration

  • improving memory

  • improving emotional self-regulation

  • increasing mental, emotional, and physical resilience

  • increasing behavioural flexibility

  • reducing stress

  • managing pain

  • and so on...

You can likely imagine how any or all of these could be handy for musicians (and regular humans, too). But what might not be clear is how mindfulness actually works to elicit these effects. If you really want to get it, I strongly suggest that you begin a mindfulness practice. As I mentioned in the previous post, mindfulness is much better understood experientially than conceptually. But, if you're interested in a bit of a framework, here's a brief look at the mechanisms of mindfulness.

This model is based on one developed by a team of researchers led by Shauna Shapiro and published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology. You can read the full text of the article here. This is not the only model of how mindfulness works and I have included a couple of links below if you would like to explore further. For the most part, these models differ in details rather than substance. The conceptualization developed by Shapiro et al is particularly economical and yet most of the elements proposed by other frameworks can be integrated into it. For these reasons, I thought it would serve as a good jumping-off point for an exploration of both the use of mindfulness in music practice and performance and the development of mindfulness through music practice and performance. 

Anyway, remember how, in the previous post, we defined mindfulness as the capacity to purposefully bring awareness to present moment experience with an attitude of openness, curiosity, and non-judgement? This, like most definitions of mindfulness, is derived from one that was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the grand-daddy of the modern secular mindfulness movement. According to Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is, "...paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally." (Kabat-Zinn, p. 4) Shapiro and her colleagues used this widely-accepted definition of mindfulness as their starting point and proposed that mindfulness has three fundamental components. They are, in case you haven't already guessed:

Intention. According to Shapiro and colleagues, mindfulness is most fruitfully cultivated in the context of a clear intention or set of intentions. The intention may be as simple as stabilizing attention by maintaining a focus on the breath or it might be as lofty as gaining insight into the nature of consciousness. Typically, one's reasons for practicing mindfulness will change over time, but intention provides the necessary fuel for the cultivation of mindfulness. 

Attention. Fundamental to the concept of mindfulness is the direction of attention towards present-moment experience. This is most often achieved through the use of an object of attention such as the breath. The object serves as an anchor between the mind and the present moment, providing a place to which the attention can return when it wanders off. 

Attitude. This element refers to how we pay attention: with friendliness, curiosity, and non-judgement. 

They assert that all three of these -- intention, attention, and attitude (or IAA) -- must be present in order for attention to qualify as mindful. In other words, you can intentionally pay attention to your moment-to-moment experience in a critical way, but that isn't mindfulness. Or, you can be daydreaming with curiosity, but if your attention is not intentionally directed with a clear purpose in mind -- for example to improve concentration, to gain self-knowledge, to decrease reactivity, etc., -- that's not mindfulness either. And, just to be clear, intention, attention, and attitude are not separate stages of practice. As Shapiro et al point out, "...they are interwoven aspects of a single cyclic process and occur simultaneously. Mindfulness is this moment-to-moment process." (Shapiro et al, p. 375)

So, not too much new information so far. But here's where it gets interesting. Observing present moment experience with curiosity and acceptance gives you some distance from that experience and that distance provides a bit of space in which you can, with practice, learn to respond skillfully to whatever arises rather than reacting out of habit. One of the clearest descriptions of this process comes from Dan Harris in his great little book, 10% Happier. Harris says:

When you repeatedly go through the cycle of feeling the breath, losing your focus, and hauling yourself back, you are building your mindfulness muscle the way dumbbell curls build your biceps. Once this muscle is just a little bit developed, you can start to see all the thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations that carom through your skull for what they really are: little squirts of psychic energy without any concrete reality of their own. Imagine how massively useful this can be. Normally, for example, when someone cuts you off in traffic or in line at Starbucks, you automatically think I'm pissed. Instantaneously, you actually become pissed. Mindfulness allows you to slow that process down. Sometimes, of course, you're right to be pissed. The question is whether you are going to react mindlessly to that anger or respond thoughtfully. Mindfulness provides space between impulse and action, so you're not a slave to whatever neurotic obsession pops into your head. (Harris, p. 230)

In other words, most of us are on auto-pilot most of the time. We are usually so highly identified with our thoughts and emotions that we mistake them for reality rather than seeing them for what they are: passing mental states. When we believe our thoughts and emotions -- that is, when we believe they have a concrete reality -- we tend to also believe that we need to act on them. And, in actual fact, it is often very difficult to differentiate between a thought or emotion and our reaction to it. We experience something -- like being cut off in traffic, as Harris describes above -- and before we know it, we are reacting -- maybe honking the horn or giving the other driver the finger. Most of this happens unconsciously. Through the practice of mindfulness, we can slow the process down and make it conscious. We can learn to be less identified with our thoughts and emotions. According to Shapiro and colleagues "...identity begins to shift from the contents of awareness to awareness itself."

Say what

Think about it...or better yet, try it: Try to focus your attention on your breath for just a couple of minutes. When a thought enters your mind, just notice it and gently return your attention to the breath. Repeat. What you will quickly realize is that you can have thoughts and witness thoughts at the same time. Amazing. But then the question arises: Which one is you? The thoughts or the observer?

Shapiro and colleagues posit that this process of detaching from thoughts by cultivating the observer consciousness constitutes a fundamental shift in perspective. Their term for this shift in perspective is reperceiving and they posit that this is the mechanism through which the benefits of mindfulness arise.

Clear as mud? Are you ready to hop on board the mindfulness bandwagon? In case not, let's look at an example of how this might play out in the practice room. 

Perhaps you have experienced this cycle: You are practicing along and you flub a passage. You think, "I'm pissed" (or frustrated, or worried, or impatient...whatever) and you automatically become pissed. Your mind is flooded with thoughts of pissed-offed-ness as well as possible spin-off thoughts like, "I will never be a good musician" or "My recital is coming up and I am screwed." Probably, tension creeps into your body in the form of a furrowed brow, tight jaw, tense shoulders, or clenched hands. This all happens in the blink of an eye. So, you do what any self-respecting musician would do and you start bashing away at the passage trying to get it right. Maybe you don't just bash away -- maybe you use "good practice strategies" like slowing the passage down, playing it in different rhythms, etc. And, after a while, the passage gets better or it doesn't, and your frustration dissipates or it doesn't. Either way, you eventually move on to other material or on to other activities. 

So, what's the problem?

Well, there are a few problems, in my opinion. First of all, it's not very fun and I tend to be of the rainbows-and-puppies mentality that practicing should be fun -- maybe not every single second, but a good bit of the time. Enjoyment is a powerful motivator and if you're in the music game for the long haul, it is going to be rough going if you are not enjoying yourself. Now, that's not to say that we should expect practice to be easy. But it is possible to learn to navigate the inevitable challenges with equanimity. 

Second, even if you use good strategies, when you practice in response to thoughts or emotions -- e.g. being pissed -- you are rarely practicing efficiently because, whether you realize it or not, a lot of your attention is on your mental state rather than what is actually going on with your playing. This may seem like a subtle distinction but I am convinced that this is one of those situations where, both attention-wise and intention-wise, missing by an inch is as good as missing by a mile. And you're probably not scoring any points for attitude either. I call this type of practicing "security blanket practicing" and I think inefficiency is only one of its downsides. The tendency when practicing this way is to view the practice session as complete when you feel better and not necessarily when you have gained any meaningful insight into your playing. Don't get me wrong -- sometimes we feel better because we sound better. But I question whether improvements made in emotional reactivity mode result in robust and lasting learning. Furthermore -- and I am still piecing together the research on this, so stay tuned -- I suspect that when you practice in response to negative emotions like anger, frustration, or fear, you validate those emotions. You basically tell your brain, "Yes, good, you were right to alert me to that danger." Over time, your brain gets the idea that playing music is a threat to your well-being and it becomes hyper-vigilant, amplifying even small blips in your emotional equilibrium. See above re: not fun.

To make this clearer, let's contrast this with a more mindful response.

You are practicing along and you flub a passage. Maybe you get pissed off. That's fine -- you're human. But you notice that you are pissed off and you pause because you know that no good can come from practicing while pissed off. You know that in order to deeply learn the material and gain meaningful insight into your playing your mind needs to be free from extraneous thoughts and emotions. So, you take a few breaths and notice how being pissed off feels in your body. You consciously release any physical tension you discover. Maybe you look at what beliefs surface along with being pissed off  -- "I will never be a good musicians" or "My recital is coming up and I'm screwed". Once you look at the pissed-offed-ness and any spin-off thoughts, there is a good chance that they will dissipate. Once you have regained your emotional and mental equilibrium, you turn back to the issue in a spirit of investigation: "Huh. That was weird. I wonder why I messed that up. I'm going to play it again and really focus on the feeling of my fingers on the keys..." (or whatever investigative approach seems most appropriate). You keep looking at the problem until you see what is causing it. Only then are you in a position to choose a practice strategy that addresses the actual problem rather than just reacting in a knee-jerk way to the mistake. Perhaps you are able to fix the problem right away or perhaps it will take more time. Either way you are 1) not pissed off (and maybe even having fun!) and 2) in possession of valuable information about your playing. You have earned a trip to the lounge.

This may sound simplistic but I really believe that practicing can be fun and productive most of the time -- even when things appear not to be going well. It is possible to train your mind to view challenges as information and to learn to operationalize that information without a lot of drama and self-reference. But, it is a process. You're not going to magically flip a mental switch and let go of all your reactivity. It takes practice. Luckily, the practice of mindfulness provides a comprehensive framework for just such mental training.

Of course, maybe you don't tend to get bogged down in negative thoughts and emotions in the practice room. Maybe you really like practicing and feel that, on the whole, your time in the practice room is productive and enjoyable. But maybe your performances lack security or communicative depth. Maybe you perform well most of the time, but not consistently at your very best. Mindfulness can help you anywhere along this spectrum. There is a growing body of research suggesting that mindfulness is a particularly effective gateway to flow. Remember flow? If you aspire to world-class musicianship, flow should interest you. But I don't think flow needs to be reserved for elite performers. No matter what your musical ambitions are, mindfulness can help you find and maintain a connection to what probably attracted you to learning an instrument in the first place.

Okay. That's probably enough for now. If you have hung in this long, thank you! In the coming weeks, I'll be posting some practices that you can try in and out of the practice room. I also have a long list of topics I plan to explore on this blog. Here are a few:

  • Establishing a mindfulness practice

  • Investigating vs fixing

  • Non-attachment and the desire for excellence

  • Cultivating responsive musicianship

  • Loving the plateau

  • Mindfulness vs CBT

  • And lots more...

If you have questions or suggestions, please let me know!  

Thanks for reading. Happy practicing!


Harris, Dan. 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-help That Actually Works : A True Story. New York: Dey Street Books, 2014.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion, 1994. 

Shapiro, Shauna L., Linda E. Carlson, John A. Astin, and Benedict Freedman. "Mechanisms of Mindfulness." Journal of Clinical Psychology J. Clin. Psychol. 62, no. 3 (2006): 373-86.

Further reading

Brown, Kirk Warren, Richard M. Ryan, and J. David Creswell. "Mindfulness: Theoretical Foundations and Evidence for Its Salutary Effects." Psychological Inquiry 18, no. 4 (2008): 211-37. 

Holzel, B. K., S. W. Lazar, T. Gard, Z. Schuman-Olivier, D. R. Vago, and U. Ott. "How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective." Perspectives on Psychological Science 6, no. 6 (2011): 537-59. 

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