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!
We all have both self-encouraging and self-deprecating thoughts, but I think it's safe to say that most of us are more negative than we are positive when it comes to how we think about ourselves.
If you're a musician, it's possible that being in a competitive field, largely based on being able to self-critique, has made this worse for you. We are expected to observe ourselves daily as musicians, note our flaws, and find solutions to improve them.
No one says that should translate to being mean to ourselves, and I'm sure that none of our teachers want that for us, but I don't personally know a single musician who has created a completely healthy relationship with themselves in the practice room from the beginning of their studies. Unfortunately, we seem prone to this as humans.
Most of us have a moment of reckoning in our musical journey, especially if you pursue a career in music, where we realize that it's simply not sustainable to improve our playing by berating ourselves for the rest of our lives. Hopefully it prompts us to make positive changes and improve our relationship with ourselves.
Although I think I've had my fair share of moments of reckoning, we can never let our guard down.
Recently in preparing for some performances, I noticed a repeating series of events in my practice. I would start out with good intentions and have a centered warm up, but as I'd dig in to the repertoire I would find myself nitpicking technical things. Suddenly, my brain was off down a rabbit hole of turning something that wasn't an issue, like my hand position or some random muscle stiffness into a crisis.
I wasn't choosing those thoughts. In fact, I wasn't choosing any particular thought, so they were running rampant, wrecking the rest of my practice session and setting the tone for what the rest of my day will be like.
After a day or two of this happening (and wallowing in it a bit if I'm being real), I got my act together.
I decided to make a choice.
Mindfulness meditation teaches us that thoughts are events, not facts. We can choose to latch on to them, or we can decide to watch them arrive and then bid them a firm goodbye.
If you don't allow yourself to fixate on a negative thought, it can't take hold. Without anything to feed it, it can't grow.
To do this, though, you have to practice awareness.
We are programmed to want to avoid negative thoughts and feelings. But by allowing yourself to see those negative thoughts show up and notice how they are making you feel, you stop hiding and giving up your control. Acknowledging them gives you the space and clarity to see them for what they are and send them packing.
You retain the power over the situation.
It's the difference between a few seconds of negative grossness or finding that you just beat yourself up for fifteen or twenty minutes and ruined your day.
I want to point out that this is not easy.
We have spent years allowing our thoughts to read like facts from a reputable source, and it takes practice to both notice your thoughts and then convince yourself that you get to decide what sticks.
It's not easy, but it's worth it.
To sustainably create positive change for yourself, you must choose to be the conscious observer of your thoughts,
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.
Sometimes I love it. Sometimes, it feels like absolute torture. I haven't done it for very long, and it took me a long time to decide to start.
Maybe that all sounds crazy to you. Maybe you are thinking, "who has time to meditate?" or, "that sounds awful!" Sometimes I have those thoughts, too. It can still seem crazy to me to spend time getting to know my mind - shouldn't I already know it based on the amount of time we spend together?
But, when you start thinking about the speed of our every day lives, the amount of information we process, the expectations we have for ourselves (we all have at least one constant, nagging self critique....why isn't my waist smaller? why don't I speak up at work? why I am so bad at xyz?). it makes sense that we might not be super in tune with ourselves.
I think we could all benefit from a daily dose of meditation.
There's so much to unpack about understanding the difference between thoughts and facts or how we allow our feelings to run over us repeatedly day in and day out, but one of the concepts that has recently thrown on a hundred lightbulbs for me is what's known as efforting.
This particular idea of effort vs allowance is something I picked up after reading (and re-reading) The Mindful Athlete by George Mumford, and then more recently, from doing a guided meditation also by George Mumford on the Ten Percent App (I would highly recommend both the book and the app).
Sometimes concepts take a few iterations to stick.
As musicians - or anyone in a highly self-driven and competitive field (this absolutely includes being a student!) - we are constantly self-critiquing. It's how we get better, and it's important for continued independent musical growth. However, I know I am not the only musician that has gone so far down the rabbit hole of self-critique that you can't get back out, even (or especially) when you are in the middle of a performance.
So recently, as I was doing this guided meditation, George was talking about pushing yourself through something because you believe you HAVE to do it, even if it's not working. You're pushing through because you want the end result (that you actually don't even believe you will reach) so badly. He calls this frustration and discomfort that we create for ourselves "wrong effort." Wrong effort lacks sensitivity toward yourself - it's when you are just trying too hard.
Here's what he said that completely smacked me over the head: "When your energy is driving you to the point where you are always looking to see how you are doing, you're not present to what you are doing."
All of the performances where I struggled for an entire concert to forget that one note that was a little out of tune, or cracked, or was just wrong came racing back. Times where I couldn't think about the phrase because I was stuck thinking about how that breath I just took wasn't as good as it was in practice, and any experience where I couldn't turn off the thoughts that are meant for the practice room were suddenly vivid in my mind.
You could also just as easily apply this to the way our culture has us comparing ourselves to others constantly.
We are not meant to think about how all the time.
Now, I certainly haven't mastered the application of allowance over efforting, but I do know that the way I can get better at this is by working on my mindset. Creating a right effort is creating spaciousness in my attention and allowing the thoughts of how to flow like water. To allow them to come up, and then also consciously allow and encourage them to move on.
What I'm learning most through meditation right now is the importance of creating space - creating awareness without attachment. I have a long way to go, but in just two or three months of consistent practice, I already see the impact in both performance and every day life.
Have you ever considered effort vs allowance in your own practice and performance? In what ways are you efforting?
Hi, I'm Morgann! Flutist, teacher, aspiring yogini, and life long learner figuring out how to create my way through life one crazy idea at a time.