How My Meditation Practice Has Affected My Life and Music Making
Guest Post by Aline Benoit, clarinetist and faculty member of the Longy School of Music, Boston MA
Coming of age in the 1960’s had a profound impact on my emerging adulthood. In high school English class I encountered Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha.” It changed my life forever, and started me off on a path that continues to unfold to this day. As an undergraduate at the Eastman School of Music, I was always drawn to the meaning of art, and the person: the creator, the performer. I read the letters of Brahms and Van Gogh, and found in them fascinating insights into the creative process and the artist’s psyche. The idealist in me loved the idea of art as a means to enlightenment, of art as the expression of the soul’s deepest yearnings. Eugen Herrigel, with his “Zen in the Art of Archery,” captured these feelings; I believed that this intense pursuit of excellence, beauty and skill served an even greater purpose in the evolution of an artist, beyond ego and fame.
My first job after graduating from Eastman was playing in the National Symphony of Coast Rica. There I encountered a world of performers and thinkers who expanded my understanding of human potential, artistic expression and the idea of wholeness in mind and body. The human potential movement was in its heyday then. After my Costa Rican experience, I came to Boston for graduate study; it was no surprise that after several years of teaching and playing professionally, I ended up pursuing graduate degree in holistic counseling psychology. These studies informed my teaching and playing in ways a graduate music degree could not have. Over the years I have given many workshops in mental skills, performance enhancement and for the past seven years, I have taught in the Mind/Body program of the Longy School of Music of Bard College.
In 2005, having read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books and used his meditation recordings for years, I enrolled in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course at the Center for Mindfulness at U. Mass. Medical School, in Worcester, MA, and began my formal meditation practice. In 2009, I completed the teacher-training program. So here I am, nine years later. How has this simple, yet profound practice changed my life and impacted my music making?
The impact of my meditation practice has been both dramatic and subtle, and in truth, it infuses everything I do, on and off the stage. As I tell my students, “It’s mental training skills for the most important performance of all—your life!”
We musicians are no strangers to discipline, and we have first-hand experience with the power of the mind/body connection. Live music performance is, by nature, a “present moment” experience. We spend countless hours honing our technical skills in the practice room, yet, quite often it’s our minds that derail us. My meditation practice gives me a daily opportunity to practice being present in the moment—it’s the essence of the mental discipline we need for making music, and the essence of being present for your life.
Most powerfully, meditation has given me a different relationship to my thoughts: By observing our thoughts in meditation, we begin to see, over and over again, that we can choose to respond to thoughts, rather than react. We have our thoughts, but we are not our thoughts.
In a technical, practical sense, meditation has deepened the kind of awareness we performers rely upon: an awareness of the body, as well as the mind. Where do we have tension, how much effort do we need for a passage? What am I telling myself about this concert, this passage, this colleague, and this music? Am I present right now, or am I worrying about something that hasn’t happened, or something that just did happen? What is here right now? Certainly my concentration in general has improved. I am less distracted, and when I do succumb, I know it, and can often let it go and return to the present, an ability that our “culture of distraction” constantly attempts to take away from us.
One of the most dramatic realizations I have experienced is that I am not at the mercy of the turbulent, often dark, overwhelming feelings I used to experience in the past. Surprisingly, after a few years of meditation practice, I feel like I am wearing some kind of “life preserver” that keeps me afloat: no matter how much I am thrown around by my emotions and perceptions, I just can’t sink. Coming from a family with a long, intergenerational history of depression, this is no small thing.
Another feeling I have is that of being in the eye of a storm: like those dramatic weather photos of hurricanes that show the clear, blue eye. When I meditate, I often feel as though I am in that eye. I can feel the pull of the storm, I know it’s there….and sometimes, it does get me! But there is this sense of being able to step outside the raging winds.
Practicing meditation is not a chore for me. It’s something I savor and look forward to, like a cool drink of water when one is thirsty. Mindfulness as a way of life has enabled me, to be present for the beauty, connection, and meaning of the moment—in the simplest ways. There are so many moments throughout the day to experience joy, beauty, and connection—to really be present with the people I care about, to hear the music I play. To experience my life as it is unfolding—now.
Meditation practice has deepened my compassion for myself, and others. It has made me aware of the interconnection we share with each other, the audience, and the world! Best of all, in any moment, wherever I am, I know that I can come home to my breath, and wake up to the present, my life, in “real” time!
There are many wonderful books. Two books, which contain CDs for beginning meditators, are Jon kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness for Beginners (Published by Sounds True) and Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness-The Power of Meditation (Workman publishing)
My favorite book of Kabat-Zinn’s is Wherever You Go There You Are. I like to read one page daily after I meditate.
The endearing and wise Zen master, poet, author, teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has written over 30 books—all of them informative and readable. My favorites are: Peace is Every Step; The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (Bantam Books) and The Miracle of Mindfulness. (Beacon Press).
In closing I’d like to share a simple technique I learned in my MBSR class. You can do this any time you feel anxious, angry, fearful or stressed:
Take a breath
Another simple way to incorporate mindfulness in to your daily life is to create your own personal “bell of mindfulness.” Choose something that occurs frequently for you—it can be the signal that you have a text message, or, every time you come to a red light when you’re driving. Let that be your cue to breathe and ask yourself, “What is here, now?”
What greater gift can we give ourselves but to be present for the precious moments of our lives.