A yoga and meditation teacher once said to his class:
The physical poses move the breath.
The movement of the breath causes awareness.
The awareness of the movement of the breath is the practice.
In our current society, so much of what we do is unconscious. We are flooded with stimuli and are frantic to respond. So frantic that we don’t realize where our bodies are in space, what our hearts feel, or what our own minds are really trying to tell us. Today I was looking through the offerings at Stanford Continuing Studies for the upcoming session, beginning about a month from now. The only class with a waiting list, sold out more than 40 days before the start date, is “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction“.
What does this say about our current lifestyles?
Music training on an instrument – and I’ll focus here on violin – is a form of mindfulness practice because it provides an externalization of your inner process at all times. How you sound – how you make the sound – reveals everything about your mind. Because your mind determines your posture, your weight distribution, your spinal alignment, your muscle engagement. Your mind also determines the path of your bow, the bend of your wrist, the extension of your elbow, the shrug of your shoulder. Your mind also determines the stretch between your fingers, or the squeezing of the fingers together, or the pressure on the pad of the finger, or the loosening of the grip of the thumb.
So I might say this about playing the violin:
The movement of the bow across the strings of the violin produces sound.
The kind of sound you make with each bowstroke tells you where the mind is focused at that time.
The awareness of the mind’s focus is the practice.
Practice, then, is the process of NOTICING the CONTRAST between what your mind intended and what was actually produced. As the quality of practice increases, you notice MORE. You are able to detect smaller and smaller contrasts, and to whittle away at that ever-undulating gap between ideal and actual. But you must always be present in order to notice. This is what makes it “hard”. Being present throughout so many fluctuations of the mind, and sorting out each sound that is made, is a tricky process. It takes practice!
Even a very simple tune played well requires supreme organization of the mind in order to control the body in space, and to notice the interrelatedness of every body part with the production of sound. We move our awareness around to different parts of the body as we learn to command the instrument. We process one set of muscles at a time, all the while listening. We feel the movement of the bow to the rhythm. We notice the stopping of the sound with the stopping of the bow movement. We notice the energy required to propel the bow when going up versus down. We notice the speed that the bow travels. Then we feel. We feel the pressure of one finger on the string, touching the fingerboard. We hear the difference in the pitch when our finger presses down here versus there.
So a “master violinist” is not unlike a master yogi who seemingly magically “levitates” due to a heightened state of awareness. Does the fact that most of us will never reach this level of enlightenment deter us from practicing yoga, or deny us the benefits of the practice in our everyday lives? The millions of modern Americans currently practicing yoga indicates no.
If “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” is a sold-out continuing studies class for adults, then learning to practice a musical instrument – mindfully – is giving our children a “head start” as we prepare them to deal with the challenges of their own future.
The first step toward healing and growth is mindfulness. The first step of mindfulness is noticing where we are, right here, right now. Only with pure recognition of where we are now can we move in any intended direction. When we notice, we just might start to care enough to change.