How often do you catch yourself overthinking things?
Do you ever find yourself lost in thoughts about what happened last night or last year? Maybe about what will happen next year?
Perhaps you start practicing and are suddenly lost in thoughts of that wrong note you played in a performance two years ago, or you're wondering what your income will be like this year and how the job market will look when the pandemic begins to subside? Maybe you're just thinking about that hair that's always completely out of place.
The examples above are valid and also distracting in different ways. It's certainly not uncommon to get lost in thinking about the bigger picture.
There are a million ways we can distract ourselves: overthinking something from the past, obsessing over things that haven't happened yet, focusing on things that are actually inconsequential, or telling ourselves what a terrible job we have done, are doing or will do. These are just a few that I may, or may not, have some personal experience with.
What has helped me tremendously with overactive and critical thoughts is mindfulness meditation.
I don't mean that meditating has stopped the ridiculous banter that can happen in my subconscious. I'm not actually sure it is possible to stop that. Rather, meditating has shown me a new perspective on my tendency to overthink and overcomplicate my day to day life.
The reality is, most of us end up in this chaotic mind state without even realizing we have let these thoughts run rampant.
What mindfulness meditation tells us is that we have a choice about how to react when we have these feelings or distracting thought patterns.
You may not notice right away that your mind has wandered, or that it's taken you down another rabbit hole of dissecting one of your self labeled flaws, but at some point you will notice.
That moment of noticing is the magic moment! When you notice you are telling yourself stories or being exceptionally hard on yourself, or even that you are simply distracted, you acknowledge that it's happening. Notice what it feels like physically and mentally. Then, send those thoughts on their way by beginning the task at hand again.
In mindfulness meditation, the goal is usually to focus on the breath. Or, that's the assumed goal. The real objective is to notice when your mind has wandered and bring yourself back to focusing on the breath.
The intention is to see your thoughts and patterns of thought as passing events. You didn't actively call upon them or set out to derail your warmup, meditation session, or performance, but once you notice that it's happening you can move on.
It's ok to also acknowledge anything helpful coming from these thoughts. In fact, it's encouraged. Can you learn anything useful from how you've distracted yourself? If you can, great, keep the material you can use. If you can't, also great, then it becomes even easier to let those thoughts go.
Here's an example of how this could play out in a regular activity, let's say, beginning your first practice session or warm-up of the day:
The real magic of mindfulness meditation is the awareness of what happens in our subconscious, and that's what I think translates so well to life, and especially life for a musician.
Give it a shot the next time you notice yourself thinking about that note that happened two lines ago or about all the reasons you shouldn't start practicing. Be aware that your subconscious has taken you on a little side trip and then do your best bring yourself back.
It's important to note that we will need to do this again and again, thousands and thousands of times. But like our muscles we train through regular practice, the more you exercise this ability, the stronger it becomes.
Thoughts and feelings are not truths, rather, they're events that we can choose to participate in or not.