When I finally decided to visit the New York Insight Meditation Center, I was filled with apprehension. Could I really sit still for 40 minutes? Could I focus on just my breath for that entire time? I knew that the answer was most likely a no, but it seemed like it was worth a shot.
Two hours later I walked out onto a balmy Manhattan street feeling giddy and invigorated. It turns out that I have been meditating for years. Ok, not in the strictest sense of the word. Still, during my first sessions I noticed that I was able to slip very easily into some of the meditation practices. Why, you ask?
Meditation practitioners sometimes use different techniques and “focus objects”. At the beginning of each meditation one might set an intention to focus solely on an object, sensation or saying. One might focus on the breath for instance, or the feelings in the body. Sometimes one might decide to focus on sounds, or the thoughts that are flowing through the mind. Sometimes there are sentences that one chooses to repeat, and so on.
As a professionally trained saxophonist at her instrument for almost 20 years now, a number of these practices came quite naturally to me as a beginning meditator. For years I have been focusing on my breath, as I find it to be one of the key components in controlling tone on the saxophone. Focusing on sound is probably the number one skill utilized during my practice sessions. In later years I find myself focusing more on tensions in my body as I play, as those unchecked tensions morphed into some serious carpal tunnel during my college years.
That first visit to the meditation center was now more than a year ago, I still believe that my skills as a musician helped me to slip more easily into a regular meditation practice. At the time I didn’t realize how much meditation would help me in return, not only in my daily life but also as a musician.
I have decided to write this article about meditation from the perspective of a musician. Meditation can benefit us all in our daily lives, but it can help musicians in a few particular ways. I have given a brief description of some meditation practices below. If you find this interesting, I have also given some links to beginner resources.
Meditation: The Breath
First choose a place and a time when you know you will not be interrupted, turn the cell phone off or leave it in the other room. Next you should position your body in a way that allows you to be comfortable but alert. Some people choose to lie down, while others will sit either on a chair or a cushion on the floor. You may choose to close your eyes, or leave them half-open with a gentle gaze towards the floor.
Once you have assumed a comfortable position, take a few moments to draw your attention inwards. Do a quick sweep through the body, establishing the intention to relax. Start to take notice of the senses; be aware of physical sensations, moods and sounds.
Then in a very gentle way, start to become aware of the movement of breath. Notice where the movement of the breath registers most vividly: for some it is the nostrils, the rising and falling of the chest or the sensations in the abdomen.
Once you have decided on a place to rest your awareness, it becomes almost like an anchor. It is a place for your awareness to return to again and again, even after the mind begins to drift off. Watch the breath with mindfulness; you are not trying to control the breath. Be with the breath as it is in this moment.
Now, you may notice that after some time the mind has drifted off. That’s only natural. Without any judgement, simply note that “thinking is happening” and gently bring your attention back to the breath.
The breath is something that is always there. In our lives we can sometimes feeling stressed, frustrated, annoyed or angry. Drawing our attention momentarily to the breath can help us to remain centered and calm during these times. That helps us to approach certain unsettling or high-pressure situations with more clarity.
This is particularly helpful strategy for musicians. In the practice room we can easily get caught up on that one passage that’s not quite right. On the stage, we are exposing ourself to high-pressure situations. If we are mindful enough to take a moment to step back and focus on that ever-present breath, we may find ourselves able approach these stressful situations with a newfound sense of clarity.
Begin this meditation just as you would a meditation on the breath. Choose a place and a time when you know you will not be interrupted, and find a position in which you can feel both comfortable and alert. Close your eyes, or if you are feeling sleepy you may choose to keep them half-open with your gaze towards the floor.
Once again, you will draw your attention inwards. Establish a presence in your body, becoming aware of sensations, feelings and moods. Make a note of your intentions to relax. Next, bring your attention gently to the breath and rest here for a few moments as you breathe in and out.
When you are ready, start to notice the sounds that are happening around you. First notice the sounds that are happening close to your ear, in your immediate surroundings. Maybe you hear your own breath or heartbeat. Gradually you can move outwards to listen to the next layer of sound, perhaps you hear a fan running in the room. After some time you can move even further outwards, maybe to a bird outside the window. Eventually you can move to sounds that are very far away, perhaps a train passing by in the distance. There is no need to try to identify these sounds, nor is it necessary to focus on one specific sound. Just be with the sounds as they are happening.
This is another helpful strategy for musicians. With enough practice, one gradually begins assigning less and less meaning to the specific sounds that we hear. One learns to listen without attaching labels or emotions. In the practice room, this could translate itself into a more relaxed and balanced attitude. As musicians we can sometimes criticize or beat ourselves up for what we perceive as mistakes and errors. Through this meditation practice, we are able to hear what is happening without being carried away by an emotional response.
Meditation: The Body
Once again, find a place and a time where you will not be interrupted. Find a position where you are comfortable but alert. Some people prefer to do this meditation while laying down, just try not to use pillows as they may encourage you to fall asleep!
This meditation is used as a mental scan of the body, focusing the attention on various parts of the body from the toes to the head. The purpose of this meditation is not necessarily to relax, but to be aware of sensations (or lack of sensation) experienced as you focus on each part of the body.
First, close your eyes and draw your attention inwards. Rest your awareness gently on the breath, following it as it moves in and out of your body. When you feel ready, bring the awareness to the physical sensations in your body. Notice the places where your body is touching the ground. Notice where it is touching other parts of your body. Are you experiencing any sensations of pressure in your body? Tingles? Aches?
Bring your awareness first to your left toes, focusing on each toe and the sensations that may be present. When you are ready, slowly let go of the awareness of your toes and move the awareness to the bottom of your feet. Rest here for some time before moving the awareness to your ankle. Be aware the breath in the background. If it helps, you can imagine that you are ‘sending’ the breath to each part of your body as you exhale.
Continue this pattern as you slowly move up through the rest of your body, eventually reaching the top of your head. Once you have scanned your entire body, spend a few moments noticing the sensations in your body as a whole. Feel your breath as it moves through your entire body, in and out. Feel how your entire body is connected.
As musicians, we are oftentimes unaware of the effect that our movements have on our bodies. Repetitive motions and unchecked body tension are both things that can lead to injuries. When we’re injured, we are not operating at 100%. Sometimes the pain can get so bad that we’re not operating at all!
Mindfulness and awareness of the body can be highly beneficial. It allows us to be mindful of tension, postures and repetitive motions that could cause injury. For those of who have experienced injury, body meditations can allow us to bring a gentle awareness to the sensations associated with the injury. When we pay closer attention to pain, we may notice that it is not always the same. It ebbs, flows, pulsates or burns; it is changing and moving. Such mindfulness can sometimes help us to have a better understanding of and relationship to pain. If anything, it makes us more aware of the actions we take to exacerbate the pain. Being aware of the sensations in our body allows us to see more clearly when it time to “ease up” or take a break.
There are plenty of online resources if you would like to learn more about meditation.
Teacher Sharon Salzburg has a wonderful 28-day meditation program for beginners. Her book Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation is available for purchase, and offers a step-by-step guide for beginners along with some useful audio files featuring guided meditations. I would highly recommend this book for beginners. If you are interested in finding out more, you can check out some of her guided meditations that are generously provided on this website: http://www.workman.com/static/realhappinessebook/
Jon Kabat-Zinn is a scientist and writer that started teaching mindfulness and meditation practices to patients dealing with chronic stress, pain and illness. In his eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course, he combines meditation and yoga to help his patients. While these methods have proven very useful in treating individuals with chronic medical conditions, they have been used to teach meditation practices to people from all walks of life. His book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness is available for purchase. Some of his materials are also available online:
A printable meditation guide: http://www.oprah.com/spirit/Mindfulness-Meditation-by-Jon-Kabat-Zinn
If you have the time, I would highly recommend this series of talks by teacher Gil Fronsdal. Several times a year, he offers a 5 or 6 week instructional series for beginning meditators. You can find his recorded talks and corse materials generously provided online: