From 2007 to 2014, I taught an undergraduate mindfulness course at Indiana University Bloomington that was academic yet highly experiential. Not surprisingly, a number of talented IU Jacobs School of Music students took my class through the years.
In previous posts, we’ve looked at the general relevance of mindfulness for musicians, examined the benefits of mindfulness for stress reduction, explored how mindfulness of the body can help musicians enhance their technique, and considered how mindfulness of emotions can help musicians cultivate greater emotional intelligence and openness.
In this post, we’ll examine the practice of mindfulness of thoughts and ask how it can help piano players and other musicians.
Thoughts Can’t Hurt You (If You Don’t Believe Them)
An American spiritual teacher likes to tell this story:
Some years ago a six-year-old friend of mine walked up to me and said, “Pretend you’re surrounded by a thousand hungry tigers. What would you do?” I gave it some thought, imagining the scary scenario and feeling more and more tense. Would I pray? Probably not. Would I run? One doesn’t outrun tigers. Anxiety began to take hold as I saw in my mind’s eye the tigers closing in. I said to my young friend, “I don’t know what I would do. What would you do?” And he replied, “I’d stop pretending!”
Tigers or no tigers, it seems to be the nature of thoughts to cause us unnecessary stress and anxiety. Children, like the boy in the story, may not yet be so entranced by the matrix of thoughts as to think they’re all true, but most adults are spellbound by them.
Yet thoughts, which are words, images, or other creations of the mind, are pretending. You can’t drink a thought of water, and there’s no need to be afraid of an imaginary tiger.
Pretend though they may be, thoughts have the amazing power to influence body, emotions, mind and behavior, i.e. every aspect of ourselves that’s involved in making music.
Often when people begin to practice mindfulness, they treat thoughts as a nuisance, like a whiny two-year-old that keeps demanding attention. There is some logic to that attitude, because you may intuitively recognize that compulsive and incessant thinking is correlated with stress. Excessive stress is counterproductive to good music-making.
Yet not only the quantity, but the quality of our thoughts affects our stress. While positive thoughts have the power to improve our mood or create pleasurable feelings, negative thoughts create emotional stress. In fact, cognitive-behavioral psychology has shown that negative thought patterns are the most common cause of mood disorders such as clinical depression.
Thoughts also powerfully affect our behavior, because thoughts typically precede actions. If you’re not mindful of your thoughts, then even seemingly innocuous ones like “Am I really talented enough to learn the piano?” may lead to undesirable outcomes.
Thoughts are Like Clouds
In their essence, thoughts are like clouds. We don’t look at the sky and wish the clouds would stop being there, and assume this will make them go away. Arguing with clouds is a waste of time.
Just as the sky contains clouds, the mind contains thoughts. If we’re willing to watch and allow thoughts in the sky of awareness, just as we watch and allow clouds in the sky above, then thoughts give us much less trouble.
We Identify With Thoughts
Unlike clouds, which may sometimes cover the sky no matter what you think of them, the mind will become clearer and quieter as your mindfulness deepens. Here’s why. Have you ever considered why you have so many thoughts in the first place? The reason is simple. The mind is going almost all the time because we have created an identity for ourselves out of our thoughts. We believe that thoughts tell us who we are, and in order to maintain this identity, we must continue to think. Have you ever noticed that most thoughts are about yourself?
Most of time we think our thoughts, which means we identify with each thought and believe it uncritically: “My teacher said such and such, and that must mean I’m a good musician/bad musician etc.” Our relationship to our thoughts is typically unconscious – mindless – which is disquieting, since thoughts nearly always determine our intentions, and thus our behavior.
But when you are the witness of thoughts, you can discover a different and fresh relationship to them. You may see that thoughts, like bodily sensations, are transitory events. Like clouds, they come into view, stay for a while, and pass away. Thoughts don’t necessarily mean anything about you, your musical abilities or your musical potential, just as clouds don’t mean anything about the sky.
Benefits for Musicians
Mindfulness of thoughts will gradually lead to a reduction in the mind’s compulsive thinking. This will reduce your body’s stress levels and its effects on your music-making.
Mindfulness of thoughts can also enhance practicing and performing. While practicing piano recently I became aware that instead of paying attention to the music I was playing, I was caught in a runaway train of thoughts about the potential for a major earthquake here in the Pacific Northwest! At that moment I was able to mindfully and intentionally return my attention to the task at hand – practicing (and listening to) Scarlatti.
Mindfulness of thoughts can also reduce performance anxiety, which is usually preceded by thoughts (often unconscious – until they’re not!) like “I’m going to make a fool of myself” or “I haven’t practiced enough.” When we recognize and release these thoughts, they no longer have the power to amplify our anxiety.
Most important, mindfulness of thoughts brings musicians freedom of choice. We musicians often hold self-judgments and nerve-wracking beliefs that powerfully shape our musical growth, or lack thereof. Awareness of such thoughts is the first step towards extricating ourselves from them. For example, you may often be unconsciously identified with unkind or even callous mental commentary like:
“Piano [or tuba, etc.] is too hard for me. I should probably give up.”
“I don’t have a chance in this competition.”
“I’m not as good as they are.”
With mindfulness, you can recognize that these thoughts, which may lead to behaviors and choices you later regret, are just thoughts. You don’t necessarily need to believe them or act upon them. Of course, you may decide to act, but you can choose not to.
You can also become aware of assumptions you have about the value of holding harsh or self-critical beliefs. (These assumptions or beliefs are just particularly tenacious thoughts.) For example, we may think if we aren’t harsh or demanding with ourselves that we won’t reach our full potential as musicians. In fact, this belief lies at the root of the common pattern that leads many (particularly young and “serious”) musicians to burnout, injury from overpracticing, or both.
Au contraire, I believe that it’s possible to reach one’s full potential as a musician from the simple love of music.
In Part 2, I’ll offer a guided audio exercise on mindfulness of thoughts.