Instituted by the United Nations in 2015, June 21 marks the International Day of Yoga. Last year I happened to be teaching yoga on this date, and built my class around gratitude and pillars of yogic practice. At the time, it still felt surprising to me how much I enjoyed leading others in their practice.
As I reflect this year, I am admittedly surprised to see clearly all the new, often subtle, ways that my personal practice is showing up in my life with impact each and every day. Science is only just beginning to confirm what practitioners of yoga and mindfulness have know for thousands of years, and what I am just barely beginning to scratch the surface of.
This year, as I reflect with personal gratitude on the International Day of Yoga, I felt compelled to write a little love letter to my practice to see if I could articulate just a little of the heartfelt gratitude I have that yoga found me and continues to teach me.
It has been roughly three years since I started to practice regularly again. Getting back on the mat felt difficult - I was inflexible, uncomfortable, and distracted. Even though I was practicing at home, my mind wandered…”Do these pants fit differently than they used to? I bet this top looks weird. I wish that I could comfortably do such-and-such pose. I will probably never be able to do x,y, or z.”
My personal practice rattled around like that for six months or so before I started my teacher training. I wondered how far out of my depth I would be. Although I was more athletic than before, would I be able to keep up? It had been some time since I had a regular yoga practice - maybe I wouldn’t be able to glean enough basic knowledge.
Part of what prompted me to pull the trigger on doing a 200 hour teacher training was the multitude of free hours left by the pandemic. Some of the reasoning was a desire to learn about anatomy in a way that might help my flute playing and instruction. But deeper than that was a tiny glimmer of an idea that yoga had felt like home once before, and maybe there was more it could teach me about me and the way I show up in the world.
That seems like a lot to expect though - could I really learn so much from these poses?
As I moved through training, I can’t say that I found any more comfort in myself…”I definitely look weird in this outfit. Everyone can see how weak and inflexible I am. I don’t like sharing this much about myself.”
But objects in motion are able to stay in motion, so I continued.
I learned that the postures, or asana, are only a tiny portion of yoga. I learned about the eight limbs of the practice and the way they encouraged kindness to ourselves and others. I learned that yoga is not about our own movements on the mat, but community. I learned that yoga can be translated as “unite.”
I learned that yoga in the fullest sense is meant to teach us humanity - to help us observe the ways in which we are alike and connected, and how we can treat both ourselves and others better.
And then, I started to see these other pieces of the practice outside of asana come to life. I made friends with my other trainees. We shared our fears, our aspirations, and what we were proud of. We celebrated each other. We bungled our practice teaching and landed awkwardly together in postures that were out of place. We forgave our mistakes. We practiced, meditated, and breathed. I felt my heart loosen in the safe space on my mat.
As we left our teacher training, I could already see how differently I recognized the stories I was telling myself. I was starting to push through the superfluous judgements of “good” and “bad” and finding greater equanimity - certainly not with any perfection, but simply a budding knowledge that nothing is black and white. I had learned that I could change, that my thoughts were not my true nature, that my flexibility did not impact the depth of my practice.
When I started to lead others in yoga, all the insecurities came back. There was so much to learn, so much I didn’t know, how could I possible help to guide anyone? I studied and studied, over prepared and read book after book. In the ways I always have, I leaned on my ability to learn to cover up my insecurities.
Inevitably, I gave an incorrect instruction during class, told my students to use the wrong hand, or said something that was so awkward and bumbling I was sure people wouldn’t come back to my class. But I had new tools to lean on - humility, equanimity, and self-acceptance - and nothing terrible happened. People kept coming to my classes.
Recently, I noticed that my inner commentary on my appearance has changed. It’s not totally gone, but when I sit on my mat I no longer worry so intently about how my leggings fit. I step into my practice with the intention to meet myself below the surface. One of my favorite teachings in yoga continues to be that we can and should meet ourselves exactly where we are. What we could do yesterday or what we will do tomorrow simply doesn’t matter, but what we can do in this exact moment does.
That particular lesson is one that I have tried to carry off the mat. Not only will I be different in each passing moment, but so will the people around me, and that is neither good or bad. As I begin to see myself with more depth, I am able to do the same for others. We are all unique and complicated and yet we are all the same. Community.
There is so much left to learn, but I feel more like I am not behind than ever before. That this place is just right even with its imperfections.
Perhaps that’s the biggest lesson I have learned - that imperfections are not problems or things that need added to a to-do list. I don’t mean that I love my imperfections either, because I certainly do not. I still have plenty of thoughts about how I will fix this part of my appearance or that part of my professional life. The difference now is that I have tools.
Yoga has given me tools not to be used to fix or change myself into something different, but to see myself fully and honestly. To help weed out the superficial noise and thoughts and discover my true priorities. To seek out what carries the deepest meaning and purpose and to be kind to myself and others while seeking.
When I step on my mat now I know that I am helping my body and my mind. That this work of bringing the two together opens up a whole new view of life and the ways that we are all connected. I never expected yoga change me so deeply, which is maybe why it could.
I always use the same closing when I end my classes, because I think the community of yoga is the heart of the practice:
“…with a deep bow of gratitude for your self, your practice, and everyone who practices with you.”
The inkling I had three years ago that yoga could feel like home was only partially true. It does provide a home base, but where I actually am beginning to feel at home, for the first time ever, is in myself. And this is where I am, with a deep sense of gratitude.
If I don’t meditate - how could mindfulness become a regular part of my warm up?
Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation are huge, broad topics. There is a tremendous amount of information to digest. If you are a practitioner of mindfulness or mindfulness meditation you know that, like playing an instrument, it’s a slow and often internal journey that requires consistency and dedication.
So how can we take these far-reaching concepts and pare them down to fit our specific needs as musicians, while still respecting these disciplines and what they have to teach us?
As a practitioner of mindfulness meditation, I have a great appreciation for the amount of work it takes to meditate and grow a meditation practice, and for the ups and downs that come with such an introspective practice.
However, the fundamentals of mindfulness practice are accessible to all of us, whether we are seasoned meditators or not.
Conceptually, it’s not a far leap from the focus required to be a musician to mindfulness. We already have some experience wrangling the mind away from distractions so that we can get work done in the practice room and so that we can focus in performance.
Even though as musicians we might be more mindful than the average person, I would guess that most of us still have plenty of distractions like self-critiques, concern about the judgment of others, or stress over the situation that bombard our experiences of practice and performance. Which is exactly why taking the time to address our mindfulness can greatly benefit our work.
I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage the development of a regular mindfulness practice here. In recent years there has been a tremendous amount of research about how much practice, or how little, is required to make an impact. (Amishi P. Jha’s book Peak Mind is a great entry point, and suggests that about 12 minutes a day is all it takes to help create our peak state of mind more frequently).
But if you’re still skeptical, I understand. Most of us find the idea of sitting in stillness and silence with ourselves laughable.
As with most challenging undertakings, we need a relatable entry point. Something that is attainable, but also shows us the potential benefits. One of my favorite mindful practices is below. It’s short, simple, easily repeated, and never loses its impact. Even now as a more seasoned practitioner of mindfulness, I still use this one all the time.
Following the breath:
While at first this may seem like a breathing exercise, the breath is really just an anchor here. It is a place to rest our attention that doesn’t require any action from us. The breath provides somewhere to place your attention when you begin and when you realize you have become distracted again. It simply provides a resting place for your mind.
Try it out for yourself. Try not to judge your ability to follow the breath - that’s not the point of the exercise. Make sure you do this exercise a few times, for at least a few days before you pass judgment. Continue to note how you feel after each practice.
There are many more ways to bring mindfulness into our warm ups and the way we approach our instruments. We’ll go in depth in the Warm Up to Flow workshop!
A regularly updated list of books that are excellent for musicians, yogis, mindfulness practitioners, and humans.
The Music Lesson by Victor Wooten
The Flute Book by Nancy Toff
The Listening Book by W. A. Mathieu
Uncommon Measure by Natalie Hodges
Self Development for Creatives:
The Practice by Seth Godin
Deep Work by Cal Newport
Essentialism by Greg McKeown
Originals by Adam Grant
When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink
Drive by Daniel Pink
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
In Pursuit of Excellence by Terry Orlick
Range by David Epstein
Mindfulness & Meditation:
10% Happier by Dan Harris
The Mindful Athlete by George Mumford
The Posture of Meditation by Will Johnson
Lighter by Yung Pueblo
Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer
Peak Mind by Amishi Jha
Eastern Body Western Mind by Anodea Judith
Wheels of Life by Anodea Judith
Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
Breath by James Nestor
One of the most impactful skills mindfulness meditation can help us develop is a true exploratory mindset, but for many of us, and for a variety of reasons, it can feel challenging to cultivate an approach based in exploration.
Thinking in an exploratory way requires curiosity and an ability to detach from desired outcomes, which might feel unnatural. We grow up in a school system that doesn’t always encourage curiosity and uses testing outcomes to show value. We are performance and outcome driven in our society, and being a musician has the potential to make us even more so.
Even though being a musician at its core requires us to be exploratory in getting to know our instruments and the styles of music we play in, it’s hard not to have an end result or potential accolades in mind. If you’ve ever given a jury in college, that’s the perfect example of where exploration and outcome lock horns.
If we encounter a limit or problem in our practice or daily life, we may immediately start to be hard on ourselves and judgmental. Perhaps we know how to fix the issue in our playing but can’t execute it just yet, or we can identify a conflict but not the solution. It’s easy to become distracted by the “right” or “wrong” way we’re approaching the situation, or by how much we do or don’t know.
When we start to assign quality or judge ourselves, the problem we’ve encountered is no longer a three dimensional issue that includes perspective, experience and prior knowledge, and exploration, but a very one dimensional view of what we’re doing correctly or incorrectly. Getting stuck ruminating on how we’ll get to a successful outcome leads to a shortsighted view of the challenge we’re facing.
Our gut reaction to gauge and label what we are doing wrong can feel so natural we don’t even question it, but it is less instinctual than you think. Our approach to problem solving is directly linked to the way our mind has been shaped by our personal experiences, education, and what the culture around us values.
Our experience and culture based perspective was explained to me once as “conceptual baggage.” I think it’s the perfect way to describe how we unavoidably (and without any fault) bring all the messages we have received, perceptions we have built, and experiences we’ve had into each roadblock we face.
The example that comes to mind so easily for me is when we’re doing something in our playing that no longer creates the desired result and we need to make an important fundamental change (think air use, embouchure, hand position, etc.). It can feel impossible for a time to release our old method, our critiques, our conceptual baggage, and yet slowly through perseverance and building new perspectives we are able to adjust and adapt.
We all have conceptual baggage, and it is also possible for all of us to bring more ease to how we approach challenges.
The next time you encounter a frustrating situation in the practice room (or in life), rather than getting caught up in right or wrong or obsessing over the outcome, try encouraging yourself in an exploratory mindset by keeping the following in mind:
Ascribing meaning to something is an internal value - can you take a step back and notice what you are assigning meaning and value to? How does it make you feel to consider that the meaning and value could be different than what you assumed? What might they also mean to someone looking in from the outside?
Harsh judgements we make about ourselves are not coming from our true self - they come from our judgement of how well we are doing something based on an outside metric and expectations that are often external. Could you view the task at hand without assigning good or bad? Could you see yourself with no judgement at all?
Holding something lightly is just a suggestion - meditation practices will often invite us to hold something lightly, instead of becoming attached to a feeling or outcome. Even this is an invitation, though. You can try it, but maybe just consider what it would mean or how it would feel if you could let go of the outcomes, even just a little.
You don’t have to solve the problem.
The awareness is enough. Knowing what you’d like to change, or even knowing how but not being able to execute it yet is ok - things need time to sink in, percolate, and come to life. What would it be like to sit with your awareness?
Taking a step back and challenging your view, looking at things from a new angle, checking your intentions, and encouraging yourself not to cling are just as valuable as fixing the problem. They create lightness and space around whatever it is we are dealing with, and that’s helpful for all of us.
Last Friday I had the chance to perform the Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto. It was a transformative and rich experience, but the performance was just a small piece of the whole.
Side bar: There will be some backstory here, and it’s for slightly selfish reasons because I want to catalog this period of time so that I can revisit this experience later and fully remember the months leading up to this performance as well as the performance itself. If you’d like to skip ahead, I won’t be offended - jump to the bullet points further on in the post for the lessons I’ve learned that I think could benefit anyone preparing for something big.
The performance fell in the middle of an extremely busy summer festival, and an especially busy week and a half of performances. The run down went something like: Friday - Peter and the Wolf; Monday - Flute and Harp Recital; Wednesday - woodwind sextet performance; Friday - Mozart Flute and Harp Concerto; Saturday - Beethoven 5 and other pieces.
Now, I knew well in advance that I would be facing that timeline, as well as the repertoire I would need to have prepared. I had from roughly January to prep the concerto and late spring to prep the other pieces. It just so happened that I played Peter and the Wolf in March (on only a week’s notice!), so it helped to have that one fresh in my fingers.
What I could not have predicted was the fact that we would buy a house this spring (we were not planning on moving!), do some quick construction on our old house, and move all before the festival got here in mid-July. Add in hosting the first Flute Day at MU and a concerto with the MU Wind Ensemble, and it made for a wild ride in the first half of 2022!
Any one of these things could have completely thrown me in a tailspin not that long ago, but I had a few things working to my advantage. Like most freelance musicians, I have gotten good at learning music in a pinch. Years of filling in and jumping on board have made me confident in my abilities to make it work when I have to.
What that really equates to is squeezing in practice anywhere you can, because you have to. I took my flute on family trips or any time I was away from home for more than a day, squeezed in ten or fifteen minutes any time I could between lessons, and listened to the pieces I would be performing while I was painting walls during our moving and selling process.
So far, none of this is earth shattering information - these are the regular things we do to prepare for performances when we’re busy.
In this case though, I was preparing for an important performance of a concerto that is both famous and long (roughly 30 minutes), just a few years after a major run-in with performance anxiety/regular anxiety/stress.
I’ve spent the last two years learning about why I feel nervous, what I can do before, during and after performances to help with that, and implementing that knowledge so that I am able to give a strong, confident performance that I can enjoy.
That’s no small order, no matter how much experience we have performing, competing in a high performance activity, or putting ourselves out there as creatives.
There are many things that have helped me balance my time so that I can focus on what’s important, which include a willingness to say no to things that might be good (or less than good) but not great; getting enough sleep and eating well; hydrating; making time for things that help me unwind both physically and mentally (like yoga, reading, meditation, and family time).
But there are also some very concrete things that help me tackle feelings of worry and stress, concern about being judged, perfectionism in performance, and my ability to enjoy the moment that I know could benefit anyone who finds themselves in my shoes.
I have to give credit here to a few sources that inspired most of the items in the following list - my teachers who planted pedagogical seeds that have grown into both saplings and strong trees, yoga and mindfulness meditation which have allowed me to begin to understand what it means to be embodied and not just in my mind, George Mumford’s Mindful Athlete course, and Terry Orlick’s book In Pursuit of Excellence.
Here are some of the lessons that I’ve learned about trust and preparation:
The most impactful part of this concerto performance for me was that I enjoyed the entire experience. I enjoyed being able to work through difficult practice days and remind myself that nothing is just right from the very beginning. I enjoyed visualizing myself in the moment and thinking about what my best performance could sound and look like. I enjoyed collaborating with the other musicians tremendously - what a treat after months of prepping alone. I even enjoyed feeling nervous on stage because I was able to see my thoughts and nerves for what they were - events, not facts.
What I’ve learned over the last few years is that I’m not actually looking for perfection or virtuosity - I’m looking for balance. Balanced thoughts, balanced embodiment. And this time, I think I found a little of both.
As I was sitting here staring at a blank page thinking and thinking about how I didn’t have anything to write, it occurred to me how much time I spend thinking so hard about so many different things that don’t really matter very much, or maybe aren't even real.
Why did that one G come out so funny in rehearsal last week? Why do I feel so disorganized about what I need to practice? Why can’t I remember to water my plants? Why didn’t I plan better before I went grocery shopping this week?
I would guess not everyone does this to the same extremes, but I’m also pretty sure I’m not alone in the amount of brain space and time I can spend considering a lot of important (and unimportant) things ad nauseam.
A few days ago I caught myself doing this while I was practicing. I’ve written about different scenarios of this before, but for some reason it sparked a light bulb moment this week, even though I’ve already experienced similar realizations. (We keep being given the same messages until we learn what we need from them, I think.)
When I’ve written about this before it was about overthinking that happens when we have so much on our to-do lists that we catastrophize all of it to the point of not being able to get started. My experience this week was different in a subtle, but important way.
As I was practicing, I was honed in on something that felt a little weird or “off” in my playing - something that, I kept thinking, I should be able to do effortlessly and that I shouldn’t ever have to think about at this point. I caught myself thinking that this particular aspect of my playing was so solid and easy before, how could I have regressed so that it wasn’t?
As I was ruminating, out of nowhere and for a brief moment, I had a sliver of outside perspective. I remembered the reality of previous practice sessions days, months, and even years ago. I realized that I might not have been paying much attention to this aspect of my playing before, but that wasn’t because it was perfect. I remembered clearly other times that I had off-days with this particular skill.
This tiny moment of clarity allowed the thought fog to lift and reminded me that we really can’t believe everything we think.
I had been understandably frustrated with something that doesn’t usually require my attention, but in allowing my frustration to run rampant I had started telling myself stories that went well beyond the actual experience at hand about my abilities, approach, and playing without even realizing how far into the fabricated future I was letting my thoughts travel.
Even though this experience was subtle, it felt like a huge step forward. How long would I have created unnecessary frustration and distraction over this issue in my practice if I hadn’t been able to see what was happening with a wider perspective?
I believe whole heartedly that mindfulness meditation is what has created an increasing number of these very subtle “ah-ha” moments for me both in music and life.
Much like practicing our instruments, practicing mindfulness can seem slow to progress and sometimes tedious, but the growth is always available to you if you are willing to stick with the practice.
How aware are you of your thoughts in the practice room?
Can you really see where the division is between what’s happening now in the moment and what you’re predicting about the future?
How could you strengthen your mind to see the moment clearly?
The mind-body connection is both simple and straightforward and incredibly complex. It makes sense that our thoughts and our physical body would be intertwined (we do carry our brain around in our body all the time!), but the ways they affect each other are many and it can be overwhelming to consider how we might address this to improve our day to day life, performance, and ability to play and communicate through our instruments.
I love exploring the mind-body connection through yoga. I’ve learned so much about anatomy through my yoga practice and teacher training, and I have gained a lot of understanding about the way our fascia, muscles, and bones work. (I’m still learning, of course - this is not a small topic!)
No one part of the body operates alone.
As an example, recently I was finding that one side of my jaw/tongue felt stiff and immobile when I was practicing. My initial thought was that I must have been clenching my teeth throughout the day or while sleeping. As I observed myself, though, that proved not to be the case.
Further observation led me to notice that when I turned my head I could feel strain/tension in the muscles around my collar bone that connect the shoulder and (surprise!) the jaw on the side of the tongue where I was experiencing limited mobility. By following up with some simple exercises for the point of origin in my shoulder and neck, I was able to relieve the tension inside my mouth.
It’s not just our physical body that benefits from this kind of knowledge and attention. In the situation I described above, understanding that the limitations I had been experiencing in articulation and mobility around the jaw were coming from something clearly temporary and fixable gave me a peace of mind in practice and the ability to plan well to alleviate those issues.
This is a small example of how growing our understanding of the way the body works can help us solve problems in our practice and understand barriers that come up in playing and practice.
I always try to be on the lookout for ways to deepen my understanding of how the physical and mental aspects of playing are connected.
Recently, I’ve been discussing the role of the sinuses and soft palate in tone production with a lot of my students. I once had a teacher explain this to me by saying that you should raise the space just above the center of your eyebrows inside your head. (Did you try it? It’s possible! Kind of weird, right?)
You can create a similar feeling by breathing in quickly through the nose, or by mimicking the beginning of a yawn (are you yawning now from trying that?).
Doing this helps us create resonance by using open space real estate already available in our head - the sinuses!
As I was working through this concept with a student, I was thinking about how that space above the center of the eyebrows is also the location of the third eye or anja chakra.
In yoga, the third eye chakra is our seat of knowing or intuition. It acts as our center of wisdom and consciousness. This chakra allows for clear thought and self-reflection, and when it’s balanced trades “me vs. them” for a more interconnected approach to thought.
When this chakra is blocked or out of alignment we might notice tension around the brow or headaches, sinus issues, or trouble concentrating and sleeping. Emotionally, we might feel a lot of self-doubt and worry, or find ourselves overthinking a lot if the third eye is out of balance. A blocked anja chakra can impede our ability to be confident.
Have you already noticed some connections between the third eye chakra and what we do as musicians? At our best, we want to be able to connect with our audience and our fellow musicians - we strive to stay open to others in performance. Not to mention that I think we’re always in need of clear self reflection and the ability to trust our intuition and abilities without overthinking.
I don’t think it’s a far stretch to consider how the third eye chakra and the same space in our physical body might be connected in the creation of resonance and our sound, not to mention our phrasing and clear communication through music.
So, how can we bring this concept into a more concrete application? How can we balance this chakra that it will benefit our musicianship? Some of these ideas may be things you already do in your practice and performance. If that’s the case, focusing on them in a new way might help to bring about new benefits or a greater understanding.
Visualization is a great way to focus the mind.
Try visualizing yourself in detail, playing at your best and connecting with your audience and fellow musicians. Or, visualize tension leaving the area at the center of the forehead, like a light flowing through allowing you to open up resonance and the third eye.
Moving your body is a great way to balance any of the chakras.
To bring the third eye back into balance, try child’s pose. Rest your head on a block, blanket, or the mat/floor and gently rock the head from side to side. Any gentle neck stretches will also help with opening up this part of the physical body.
Meditation is a powerful way to balance the mind and the third eye.
Try a guided mindfulness meditation. Or, simply sit quietly and with stillness, allowing yourself to be present to your thoughts and feelings.
At first it can feel like a far stretch to combine the chakras with an aspect of musical performance like tonal resonance. As we grow our understanding that the body and mind are always intertwined, we close the gap between thinking of them as two separate entities and open up new resources for ourself as musicians.
“If I’m suffering, there is something I’m not mindful of.”
Dan Harris said this on an episode of the Ten Percent Happier Podcast this week and I actually said “Oh,” out loud when I heard it. One of those moments where it feels like the author or speaker had you in mind when they thought to say this particular thing.
I want to clarify here that Dan Harris was talking about suffering in the Buddhist sense, not the type of human suffering we see in war or medical illness. In Buddhism, suffering (also called dukkha) is thought to exist because of dissatisfaction we create for ourselves - because we crave or desire things we don’t have and look past what is in the present moment. Not being open to change and trying to hold on to the past or an idea of the future can also cause dukkha. (This is paraphrasing, of course, and this is an interesting concept worth exploring more).
I’ve spent this whole week feeling tense and jittery, and also preoccupied with some big performances that are coming up.
All week I kept trying to push those feelings away thinking, I’ve worked SO hard on my mindset and focus for the last two years, why do I still feel like this? I am preparing well and I’m not unhappy with how I’m sounding, I’m meditating and paying attention to my mindset around performance, and I’m doing my best to maintain my sleep hygiene and eating healthy meals.
As I listened to this particular episode of the TPH podcast, it occurred to me that, yes I have done a lot of work, but there were so few demands on me as a performing musician during the early part of the pandemic and it was the least work I’ve had to do I the last, um, almost twenty years. So, although I feel like I’ve sorted a bunch of stuff out, I’m still human.
What was I not being mindful of that was leading to suffering? My suffering this week was coming from the expectation that I would never be frazzled again because I’d done some work (even typing that seems totally ridiculous!).
I wasn’t being mindful of the situation - yes I am applying things I have practiced, but in a completely new set of circumstances.
With a little perspective, it seems appropriate that facing my first concerto performance since the pandemic might feel a little stressful even if I’m mindful and focused.
So now the task at hand is applying the things I’m learning to do better while allowing myself to feel the stress.
It’s not bad to feel nervous or concerned - what matters is my ability to flip the focus around to the right things. To allow the emotions to come up and pass away because they are just emotions - not facts.
The title of this blog is a little quote I’ve jotted down countless times in the last ten or fifteen years. The memory of where I first heard it is foggy, but the message stuck with me.
We are meant to enjoy, in joy - our purpose is to enjoy all the things life throws at us, fully immersed and steeped in the experience of it all.
Is it always comfortable to be submerged in all the good, bad and in between things that happen to us? Definitely not - consider how much time we spend on our phones, watching Netflix, or playing video games trying to avoid all the uncomfortable parts of our lives.
I’ve mentioned before how I have come to love mindfulness meditation so much because it teaches us to be fully present no matter what the situation is. It is often an uncomfortable (and sometimes annoying) practice as it points out exactly how much we try to not be present to our experiences every day.
There is another type of meditation with Buddhist origins that I have had a hard time connecting with that, ironically, is probably most closely related to my favorite mantra ("Enjoy, in joy"). It’s called Metta. Metta is a practice of extending love and kindness (or lovingkindness) toward all beings - ourselves, our loved ones, people we don’t know, and even people we really don't like.
Metta can sometimes feel forced - traditionally you recite or think phrases like “may you be happy” or “may I be happy” while focusing on yourself and others in turn. It’s unusual for us to sit and purposefully direct positive thoughts like this toward ourselves and people we don’t like very much. As we think about ourselves, we might even fall into that category of people we don't like very much sometimes!
Side bar: One of the things that helped me have a more relatable experience with Metta was a Metta for Musicians workshop offered by Shauna Fallihee. (Shauna’s Instagram account @embodiedsinger and her website are amazing resources for musicians and she shares so much useful information about myofascial release, mindfulness and movement for musicians.) In the workshop, we practiced seeing our experiences as a musician and ourself as a musician with equanimity - with kindness, even when it is difficult.
What has always fully reverberated for me from Metta is the idea of giving without expectation. Offering someone love and not expecting anything back, offering someone kindness and not worrying about their response…offering your music and not expecting praise, success or validation.
When was the last time you played your instrument that you enjoyed, in joy?
I hope it was today, but I know for many of us as we become better musicians our relationship with sharing our music becomes complicated. Our music making can become entangled in our sense of self worth, our sense of success and our sense of who we are at our core.
If we are constantly nitpicking our playing and never enjoying it can start to feel like we are constantly at war with ourselves.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone, and lately I’ve made it a bit of a mission to share and enjoy, in joy - no strings attached.
I'm doing my best to stay focused on the message I want to share, the character of the music, and the experience of playing with those around me.
Of course this isn’t a magic erase button for all self-critique that comes up, but it is helping me to unwind some of it - to see it for what it is. It is allowing me to be more in the moment, enjoying it for whatever it is.
I have become very committed to my meditation practice over the last year. As with any new or developing interest, this has led me to do more research and reading on the subject, seek out references and examples of how to apply it to my daily life, and of course, to lots of meditating.
I think it’s inevitable that an interest in mindfulness meditation will lead you to some understanding of Buddhism. Buddhism is the inspiration and origin of much of what we think of as mindfulness meditation. Buddhist practices and principles can be traced back to ancient times, and if you’re like me, you might have found through your meditation journey that many are quite useful and applicable to our modern lives.
Occasionally, though, there is a concept that seems un-relatable (or just plain far out). Maybe you have even had this experience in a lesson where a perfectly intelligent and respectable teacher presents a concept to you that just seems out of place for your own playing or practice, or maybe they taught you a concept that you just find weird and hard to do or conceptualize.
Somewhere along my path of growing a meditation practice I ran into the Buddhist concept of Non-Self or No Self (anātman). At first read, it can seem a little nuts:
Non-Self: in Buddhism, the doctrine that there is in humans no permanent, underlying substance that can be called the soul. Instead, the individual is compounded of five factors that are constantly changing.
(Are you wondering how this relates to music yet?)
I didn’t give a lot of thought to this concept initially, because, frankly, it’s a big one. There’s a lot to take in and consider in this view that’s very different from how we often perceive ourselves.
If we look at this concept from the simplest angle we can (which, let’s be honest, is still a bit mind-bending), then it means that each of us are always changing. That while there are things about us that may be the same from year to year or moment to moment, other aspects of us, both big and small, have changed. We are always changing in some way.
Another perspective that might be helpful is that we are not our mind and body, but we do have a mind and body. We are not our experiences or our thoughts, but we have experiences and thoughts. The mind, body, experiences and thoughts we have are always in flux in some way.
Part way through my first year of meditating, I did a guided meditation on the Ten Percent app led by Anushka Fernandopulle that addressed this concept and a little light bulb went off.
(Now we’re getting to somewhere this connects with our study and performance of music!)
The perspective that Anushka Fernandopulle shared gave the example of any mistake we might make, big or small. Mistakes are on not on purpose - if we had complete control over our self then we would never make any mistakes.
There would never be a wrong note, an out of tune note, or a late or early entrance. You would never play badly in lesson you had prepared for. You wouldn’t eat that ice cream at midnight after a gig when you weren’t even hungry.
But there are all of those things, we do play badly sometimes, and we also eat midnight snacks (not for lack of trying to do otherwise).
I’m sure that you can conjure up at least a few situations where you tried your absolute hardest, and things just didn’t come out the way you wanted.
The lightbulb moment for me in the concept of non-self though, was the idea that because things are always changing and malleable, and because we have many parts, elements, experiences and thoughts, we cannot possibly expect to control everything.
Let me repeat that for all the perfectionist musicians, including myself: because all our physical parts, our mind, our thoughts and our experiences are always changing in some way, we cannot expect to control everything.
The next time you play out of tune or miss a note, even though you practiced and prepared as best you could, do not blame yourself for making a stupid mistake. Do not personalize the experience as if you can control absolutely every variable at every moment.
Yes, from moment to moment we are mostly the same, and we do have to make our best effort (or right effort as George Mumford would say), but the lesson to learn here is that we need to release the things we are not responsible for or in control of.
Focus on what you can do with well moment to moment with a positive mindset and right effort and release the idea that we can somehow control the fact, or the ways, that we are always changing.
For those of us who struggle with an incredibly strong inner critic, the pressures of performance and our own expectations, this Buddhist concept of Non-Self at it simplest might provide us with a new perspective.
At its core, Non-Self provides space for self acceptance, self forgiveness, and a path out of perfectionism.
How could you incorporate this view of Non-Self in a healthy way in your practice or performance? I would love to hear about your thoughts and experiences!
Hi, I'm Morgann! A flutist, teacher, meditator, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.