Just Say Yes: Practicing Acceptance
One of the big goals of mindfulness practice is to learn to accept what is -- whether it's good, bad, or indifferent. (Another goal is to stop categorizing experience as good, bad, or indifferent...but we'll save that for another post...) But the whole idea of acceptance -- particularly the acceptance of mistakes, practice ruts, or poor performances -- can be a tough sell among classical musicians. After all, we attain mastery by refusing to accept anything but the very best, right? Well, that depends on how we define acceptance.
If we equate acceptance with "condoning" or "settling for" then no, it will probably not be of much use to us in the practice room. Learning to recognize and eliminate errors and inefficiencies in our playing is a huge part of becoming a musician. So I'm not suggesting that we all just be okay with the things in our playing that aren't working, or that we react with indifference to sub-par performances. But I do think that to realize our potential -- and to fully explore the technical and expressive invitations of the music -- it is necessary to accept the things in our playing that aren't working, to accept practice ruts, and to accept performances that don't meet our expectations.
So, what's the difference?
I have wrestled with this a lot, in music practice, yoga practice, and meditation practice...as well as in cooking, parenting, teaching...pretty much everything. As I have touched on elsewhere, I have not, historically, been a particularly accepting person, especially when it comes to my own perceived failings. For years, I kind of half-assed the whole acceptance thing. It wasn't that I didn't want to embrace acceptance -- when you listen to as many Buddhist talks and read as many books about mindfulness as I do, acceptance starts to sound pretty darn appealing -- but that I didn't know how to embrace acceptance without losing my edge (such as it is). On some level I continued to believe that acceptance really was just new-age code for settling...and that embracing it was tantamount to embracing mediocrity.
Things really changed for me when I heard a teacher of mine, Michael Stone, define acceptance this way:
To "accept" means to allow into our awareness.
Talk about a lightbulb moment! This was truly a game-changing perspective for me. For the first time, I was able to connect the dots between acceptance and improvement. To get a sense of how this works, let's use this definition to explore what lack of acceptance might look like.
If to accept something means that we allow it into our awareness, then refusing to accept something means that we don't allow it into our awareness. And when we don't allow something in our awareness, that means that we don't fully experience it or that we kind of brush it under the rug. I don't know about you, but I have seen this play out in my own practice room time and time again. I'll be playing along and I'll make a mistake -- say, a kacked note. If I'm in refusal-to-accept mode, I recoil from it and quickly try to cover it up. Usually, I accomplish this by immediately playing the note again, only this time correctly. In this way I "erase" the mistake by "proving" I can play it right. While this is nice for my ego -- See, I can play it right! -- I have just lost a golden opportunity to gain some valuable insight into what is going on in my playing. Similarly, if I play poorly in performance, I might be inclined to just put it behind me and focus on the next performance. Again, though, I have failed use the experience to further my understanding of the ways in which the unique demands of a performance situation affect my ability to play my best. In both cases, there is a pretty good chance that I will make the same mistake or encounter the same difficulties in performance at some point in the not-too-distant future. Why? In his fabulous book, The Perfect Wrong Note, William Westney writes,
Whenever we play inattentively and ignore or explain away mistakes, we suppress the learning process. ... A suppressed mistake is unfinished business. It's not gone; it's been swept under the rug, and it will likely reappear at the most inopportune time..." (Westney, p. 57-58)
If, on the other hand, I allow the mistake or the poor performance to fully inhabit my awareness -- non-judgmentally, of course -- I can quickly gather a great deal of valuable information. Here's Westney again:
Honest mistakes are not only natural, they are immensely useful. Truthful and pure, full of specific information, they show us with immediate, elegant clarity where we are right now and what we need to do next. (Westney, p. 52)
It's so clear when you look at it that way! Obviously we should be using our mistakes and failures as fodder for growth and improvement! So then, why don't we all approach our mishaps in this spirit?
Because it's really hard to do, that's why. If you grew up in a social and educational milieu in which mistakes are generally viewed as things to be avoided (which, if you're reading this, you probably did) or if you learned to play in a musical culture in which mistakes are generally viewed as things to be avoided (which, if you are reading this, you probably did...and maybe still are...), the idea that you could learn to value, nay relish, your mistakes might seem like crazy talk.
When you have been conditioned to believe that mistakes are bad (and by now I hope it's clear that I'm using "mistakes" to refer to a range of failure types, from missed notes to botched auditions) allowing them into your awareness can be quite uncomfortable and even painful. So, maybe you want to be a mistake ninja, courageously mining your failures for information and deeper understanding. But if allowing failure -- big or small -- into your awareness is intolerable, your mistakes will likely remain un-mined gold. There's a good chance that you will default to what I call "security blanket practicing" -- practicing in response to your reaction to a mistake, rather than the mistake itself. (For more on that phenomenon, check out this post and this post.)
So, what's the solution? My suggestion is to start with a very simple acceptance practice that I call "Just Say Yes". It's a great way to begin "cuddling up" to your mistakes instead of rejecting or recoiling from them. Here's how you do it:
- Set aside 5 minutes and decide that for those 5 minutes, you will be working on acceptance and not on getting better at your instrument.
- Choose a short passage or section of a piece to focus on. It should be something that you know reasonably well. You don't want to be stumbling through something that you're just beginning to work on.
- Begin to play the passage and, whenever something doesn't go the way you want it to -- whether you miss a note or you play out of tune or you don't observe the articulation marks or whatever: Stop. And say -- out loud -- "Yes".
- Notice how it feels to stop and not scramble to immediately correct or cover up a mistake. Notice how it feels to say "Yes" to a mistake.
- Move on. Don't go back and try to process the mistake. You can do that later, when you resume your regular practicing. At this stage, you're just working on getting used the feeling of allowing a mistake into your awareness.
That's it! Does this sound far too simplistic to be even remotely useful? Try it first, then decide. Like most mindfulness practices this one is simple, but not necessarily easy. At the very least it is a handy diagnostic tool: If you find that there is some discomfort in saying "Yes" to your mistakes, then you might want to work with this until that discomfort dissipates somewhat. And trust me, if you bring awareness to the discomfort, it will dissipate. If you find that there is no discomfort in admitting mistakes fully into your awareness, then ask yourself if you are currently getting all you can from your mistakes.
And, by the way, the word doesn't have to be "Yes." It could be any short, reasonably neutral word or phrase: "Okay" or "That happened" would also work. Choose something that, for you, helps to bring about an attitude of receptivity.
I'll write more about using mistakes and failure as tools for growth. In the meantime, I highly recommend William Westney's The Perfect Wrong Note for great insight and advice on this topic and many more.
Thanks for reading. Happy practicing!
Westney, William. The Perfect Wrong Note. Newark: Amadeus Press, 2006. iBook.