Recently, I was engaged in a lengthy discussion with a family member about my life as a cellist. As we were talking, she was fascinated about how calm and content I was, despite the numerous amounts of challenges I have met along the way. During our conversation, I discussed my passion for performing and connecting with others, explaining that by focusing on my purpose for playing cello rather then on desired outcomes, I am able to be completely content with my experience as it is right now. She looked at me with a very intrigued expression, “Are you a Buddhist now? How do you apply this to every day life? I want to know more!”
The scenario I described has repeatedly come up for me, and what I find interesting is that despite their skepticism, the people I speak to about these concepts are deeply fascinated and searching for something to make their lives more manageable. Coincidentally, this is what I was experiencing as I began to learn about meditation and mindfulness for myself.
Throughout my life, I have had a variety of teachers and techniques of incorporating meditation or mindfulness in my day-to-day life, but it wasn’t until this summer where my body refused to continue to work under the conditions I was living with, that I truly embraced them with complete openness and willingness. As I did this, I have begun to see significant changes in all areas: my playing, my performance abilities, my practice efficiency, my ability to withstand adversity, and most of all, my ability to handle the day-to-day stressors without falling apart so easily.
When I began to meditate, like many I was under the impression that the purpose of meditation was to clear your mind completely. However, in reality the goal isn’t necessarily to stop all thoughts, but rather to be aware and observe our thought patterns and emotions from a third person perspective. In doing so, not only do you develop an increased sense of self-awareness, and practice tolerance of discomfort, you are also able to create a separation and distance from the “train” of thoughts that are part of the human condition. By doing this, after compassionately accepting what is, without attempting to change or manipulate it, we are able to have clarity and eventually an understanding of how to move forward or act accordingly to the situations at hand. (Mumford, 2015; Siegel, 2010; Baltzell, Summers, 2017)
Although there are many different forms of meditations, most have a concentration on three main skill sets that it enhances. These skills include: Focus, Clarity, and Balance (Summers, 2017). In addition to this, there is often a fourth component that includes self-compassion, (Balzell, 2017).
For me, I find that utilizing a variety of these skills depending on what I need in that moment help enhance my ability to be present and most productive. Although it was difficult to set aside time to incorporate meditation in the beginning, as I began to see an improvement in my practice and performing abilities, I couldn’t get enough. As a result, I have included below, a typical day using these different practices. Hopefully it will give you an idea of how I use meditation on a day-to-day basis, and stay tuned for Part II to hear about detailed examples of how these meditations have enhanced my learning abilities in the practice room, decreased my performance anxiety and built confidence when performing under pressure.
Almost immediately after waking up, I go to my meditation pillow on my porch and begin my 20min. morning practice. Once on my pillow, I use the IPhone app Insight Timer and set it for two 10minute intervals.
For the first 10 minutes I use what is called the Loving Kindness Meditation (Siegel, 2010) in which I spend 5 minutes breathing and opening my heart to receiving whatever I need most in that moment, whether it be rejuvenation, inspiration, trust, openness, etc. During the second 5 minutes, I spend connecting and giving to either specific individuals or others in general what I think they might benefit most from, such as trust, compassion, openness, gratitude, etc.
For the second half of the practice, I use what is called the Labeling Flower Meditation (Summers, 2017). During this time, I focus my attention on sounds and sensations around me: my breath, the breeze, the tree leaves blowing in the wind, the car noises or the birds chirping. As my mind wanders I allow it to follow the path that it wants to go onto, but then as it does I label it into a category such as “worrying”, “future” “past”, “planning”, “ideas”, etc. Once I do this, I return back to environment sensations and to my breath until the cycle occurs again. If there is an idea that feels inspirational or something I have strong feelings about, I note it and trust that if it is truly important I will remember it when the meditation is complete. Once my timer goes off I observe my surroundings with fresh eyes. I take in every detail possible and feel the connection I have to my environment.
Following this practice, I then spend 10-15minutes engaging in a moving meditation, which usually consists of gentle yoga and a chi-gong routine. During this time I spend extra attention focusing on my body and coordination of breathe, as well as how I fit into the environment around me. I release any tension that has developed from the previous day and open my heart to receive what is needed from this practice. Each time my mind wanders I gently bring it back to my body and how it feels in a pose. Once I have completed enough poses to feel recharged for the day I thank my body, and move on to my informal practices.
The informal practices I use consist of every-day activities such as cooking, cleaning and getting ready for the day. During these activities my sole intention is to be completely present and mindful in the tasks I am engaging in. If my mind wanders, I gently bring it back to the activity and if there is a thought that comes back consistently I note it, label it and “file it” for later, and then return to my task at hand.
During this time, after I am ready for the day, I spend at least 15minutes journaling about my meditation experiences. If there are any inspirational thoughts that came up during my meditations, or patterns of thoughts and/or emotions that arose, I jot them down and take the time to process them from a third person perspective. Many times, I gain some clarity on issues I have been working with, or on projects I want to create.
Once these practices are complete, I am ready to begin my day. I take out my cello, and set up my space for my morning practice. Before beginning I take some time planning out what needs to be worked on, which skills need to be addressed and how much time I will spend on each technique. I organize the plan on my dry erase board, leaving room for ideas or charts that I want to create as I practice. I then sit down and enter practice with a silent prayer of gratitude asking to remain present and open to hearing all sounds, ideas, and inspirations. Once this is complete, I tune my instrument and begin a very deliberate practice session, taking note to every detail both on the page as well as how my body and instrument are reacting towards one another.
Depending on my rehearsal schedule, after about three hours, I take a lunch break. Usually during this time, I eat a silent lunch taking in my food as slowly as possible, and then spend 10min. following the meal using a breath meditation. There are two kinds of breath meditations that I use during this period. The first is a counting practice in which I count each breath up to 10 and then back down to 1. The second is focused on breathing out twice as long as I breathe in (ex: in, 2 counts, out, 4 counts). Each time my mind wanders I gently return it back to my breath and the meditation I am using.
Once the meditation is complete, I either enter my afternoon practice session, attend afternoon rehearsals, lessons, or coaching sessions for the next five hours. At my dinner break, I use another 5-10min. breath focused mediation practice to reboot before my evening practice session, rehearsal or performance.
Once home and settled, I enter my final mediation practice for 10min. before bed. This practice usually consists of a body scan that releases all tension in each area of my body from head to toe. At the conclusion of this practice I thank the universe for a productive day and set my intention for a restful night of sleep, as well as for the next day's events.
Balzell, A., Summers, J. (2017). Lecture on Mindfulness and Performance. Personal Collection of A. Baltzell, J. Summers, Boston University, Boston, MA.
Mumford, G. (2015). The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to pure performance. Parallax Press: Berkley, CA.
Siegel, Ronald (2010). The Mindful Solution. Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems. Guilford Press, New York, NY.