I have decided to continue on from last week's post and write a little Mind/Body Tools series outlining my basic approach to working with musicians on mindfulness, nervous system regulation, etc. I think this will provide some helpful context so that you engage more deeply with the material and information elsewhere on this site and on social media.
Last week I talked about cultivating self-compassion as a foundational skill. Actually, more than a skill (or tool), I would say that I advocate for the cultivation of self-compassion as a lens or a way of orienting to experience. And I know I said it last week, but it bears repeating: This is a practice that requires ongoing tending, like a garden.
While you’re nurturing your self-compassion habit, it can also be very helpful to develop the habit of tuning in to the felt sense of your internal experience. By felt sense, I mean the way experience feels in the body.
The term "felt sense" was popularized by Eugene Gendlin who was an American philosopher and psychotherapist. During his long career at the University of Chicago, much of his research explored humans' ability to perceive the ways in which thoughts and emotions manifest as bodily sensations, for example a feeling of tightness in the chest accompanying anger, or a sinking feeling in the belly signalling fear or dread.
And here's a fun fact: The Buddha also talked about the felt sense, but he called it vedana (commonly translated as "feeing tone"). More recently, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett has explored how emotions, instead of being "hardwired" into our brains, are actually concepts we apply to physiological process that usually run beneath the radar of our conscious awareness. I think she and the Buddha would have hit it off.
All this is to say that the idea of a felt sense has some street cred in both contemplative and academic circles. However, it is something that many of us don't consider as a source of information and agency...if we can even access it at all, which is what this post is about.
The ability to sense our internal experience in an embodied way -- as opposed to thinking about our experience in a conceptual way -- is an important first step in learning to regulate our nervous systems for optimal learning and confident performing. We can't regulate what we can't feel.
More than that, though, if we can learn to sense (and therefore respond to) the subtle signals our bodies are sending us all the time we are less likely to get hijacked by overwhelm. For example, you all know about hangry, right? Hungry + angry? Well, usually, we don't strike out in hanger at the first rumblings in the belly. More likely, our hanger rears its ugly head in response to one of two scenarios: 1) Our bodies have been sending us signals that we're hungry -- maybe an energy dip or a bit of brain fog -- which we failed to notice until we lashed out at someone. In this scenario, it's the hanger itself that clues us in to the fact that we're hungry. Or: 2) Sometimes we're perfectly aware that we're hungry but ignore the feeling until it becomes un-ignorable and we find ourselves unable to play nice with others. In both cases, when we didn’t respond to the subtle hunger cues our body provided, our system produced a less subtle, more disruptive signal as a way of saying, "EAT SOMETHING!!!"
I think performance anxiety often works in a similar way. Often, we practice along for weeks or months with a certain level of stress or dysregulation running in the background. This can show up as high activation or arousal, but it can also show up as dullness or low arousal. I’ll talk more about that next week. But for now, let’s say we have some stress around an upcoming performance or even just some non-specific stress related more generally to not being as skilled as we would like to be. This is all normal. From here, a couple of things can happen. Often, we don’t even notice this background hum of dysregulation because it is so normalized either in our own experience or in the environment we work in, or both. Or, maybe we do notice it and we ignore it or, more likely, we address it by practicing more.
Now, I don’t want to under-rate the value of thorough preparation as a strategy for mitigating performance anxiety…or as a strategy for becoming a better player. Thorough preparation is essential if we are going to play well and perform with confidence. But, I would liken simply practicing more as a response to practice/performance stress to going grocery shopping as a response to hunger. It’s an important — perhaps necessary — step, but not the whole picture. You need to get the food into your belly. When it comes to our playing, we need to take care of our playing AND we need to take care of the stress surrounding our playing. I think it can be a mistake, for some of us at least, to assume that taking care of the playing will automatically take care of the stress.
To do this, it can be very helpful to learn to work directly with our nervous systems and experience our capacity to regulate ourselves on an ongoing basis. The overwhelming sensations of performance anxiety that some of us experience -- sweating, shaking, dry mouth, nausea, etc. -- are kind of like hanger. Your nervous system has, via low-level background stress (or general sluggishness and lack of motivation), been trying to tell you something -- "Hey, going out and performing in front of all those people sounds kinda scary!" or “Man, all this practicing alone in this little room day after day is kind of intense and exhausting.” -- and you haven't responded. Well, maybe you’ve responded by practicing more but, as noted above, that’s an indirect and incomplete response. Now you're in an intense situation, about to go out on stage, and suddenly you feel all the feels. Your system dials up the intensity on the anxiety to make sure you really understand that there is DANGER ahead. (Your nervous system doesn't know that there are no sabre toothed tigers on stage.)
This is also holds for the more cognitive aspects of performance anxiety -- catastrophizing, fear of judgment, self-criticism, etc. These cognitive processes are, in most cases, the result of physiological processes. They are your ego's way of contextualizing or rationalizing your body's stress response. But, because we're often not aware of the body's stress response, it feels like these thoughts are just who we are, or that they point to some objective truth about the situation we're in.
Do you see what I'm getting at here?
Let me try to rein it in and just suggest that you start by making a practice of tuning in to your internal experience and noticing what you notice. Sense your mood, energy , hunger vs fullness, stress level, etc. and, most importantly, see if you can sense how your body gives you information about these things. One of my amazing teachers, Jane Clapp, often asks, "How are you feeling?" followed by "How does your body tell you?"
But here's the thing: You might try to tune in to your felt sense and not feel anything. This was my experience for a long time. I was so identified with my thoughts and so disconnected from my body that when I turned inward, I couldn't really sense much of anything. I was aware of what I thought I should feel and what I wanted to feel, but as for actual feeling? There was a lot of static. It was like being dropped into a wilderness with no map and no compass and trying to find my way home. Where do you even start?
Here are a couple simple practices you can use to get a feel for this:
1) When You Feel Like You Need to Pee, Pee
I know, I know...pee is a funny word. And this is a goofy exercise, but sometimes goofy things work. I got this one from Irene Lyon and I think it is brilliant, in part because sensing our need to pee is often something we give up when we go to school and have to raise our hand and announce to the class that we need to use the washroom. Not everyone is comfortable sharing this intimate information with classmates and some people learn to shut these bodily signals out until they become urgent.
Anyway, here’s how it goes: Practice noticing the first signs that you need to pee, and then stop what you're doing and go pee! Simple. You can also practice the following variations:
When You Feel Like You Need to Eat, Eat
When You Feel Like You Need to Move, Move
When You Feel Like You Need to Rest, Rest
Notice what it feels like to tune into and respond to your internal experience, even in very small ways. If you’re tired in the middle of the day, you might not be able to stop everything and take a nap (but wouldn’t that be amazing????). What does it feel like, though, to pause for a minute or two, maybe go outside and breathe some fresh air? If you body craves movement, you might not be able to suit up and go for a run right that second, but what about a short walk around the building or a big, full-body stretch?
2) Label It
When you tune in, see if you can label anything that you feel. Here are labels that might be helpful in describing your felt experience:
Note that you don't need to go any further than labelling. No need to make up a story about why there is, say, a rushing sensation in your head or a dullness in your chest. Know, too, that you don't have to stay with your experience if it feels overwhelming -- you can just touch and go.
Next week, I will provide a bit of a theoretical foundation for this (no, I don't just make this stuff up...) and offer some tricks that, once you are able to tune into your state, you can use to shift it if you so desire. For now, though, just practice tuning into your felt sense a few times a day, everyday.
Oh, and self-compassion. Practice that too. It’s the secret sauce.
Barrett, Lisa Feldman. How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.
Gendlin, Eugene. Focusing. New York: Bantam, 1982.