I sometimes treat myself to Holland & Barrett’s Healthy well-being magazine. It encourages me to sit down, relax (which I find difficult) and read about things that really interest me and it’s a way of bringing some calm into my life. An article called “Mindfulness is making our stress worse” by Ronald Purser, professor of management at San Francisco University, caught my attention. And, why wouldn’t it? In the UK, mindfulness is offered as part of NHS mental health programs and is promoted as a DIY therapy for combating stress, anxiety, pain and many other emotional, mental and physical issues.
In fact, I attended a twelve week mindfulness course a few years ago and I loved it. It was great to be part of a group and amongst other people on a similar journey of de-stressing and finding calm in their lives. The group was really supportive and, as an added bonus, I met people who have become great friends.
But . . . what about the mindfulness? My first impression? It was interesting! REALLY interesting! It was fascinating to become aware of the thoughts that floated into my mind. They were so incredibly random yet must, on a level, have been connected. I could really see the benefits of practising this. It’s like brain training and not dissimilar to working out at the gym. Building up a strength and resilience in order to allow troublesome thoughts to pass through, to let the thoughts come and go without inflicting their negative messages on one’s mind both consciously and subconsciously is a wonderful and, most importantly, beneficial practice.
However, the process of focusing inwardly actually made me more aware of the aches and pains that I had been experiencing. In fact, I became aware of pain that I hadn’t, until then, consciously realised I had. I came out of the first session with a sore knee and limped home! When I relate this experience to people, I add an element of humour to it. I do look back and have a good old chuckle at myself! Now, this could be viewed as a positive experience. Having realised that I had a sore knee, I was able to look for the root cause of the problem. Perhaps I had, in a sense, become dissociated from that part of my body. Is that a positive or a negative thing? I’m not sure there’s an answer as it really depends on how we each perceive this particular scenario. On a more serious note, however, I do agree, in part, with the author of the article, Ronald Purser. He states “many people come to meditation as a way to escape pain and emotional issues, a way of numbing the self . . . my view is that it enables people to avoid critical thinking which might otherwise benefit them by allowing them to look at and address the causes of their distress.”
Although Ronald Purser is suggesting an outcome that doesn’t necessarily fit into my own experience, he does have a valid point. What if one begins to let helpful thoughts come and go? Do we really want to be dissociating ourselves from our minds and the myriad of thoughts both positive and negative?
I’m simply asking questions here and even if people who practice mindfulness feel its benefits and do not experience any of the points I’ve raised here, that is equally valid and any comments regarding different perspectives are welcome.
So, how does the practice of mindfulness relate to musical performance anxiety? In terms of helping clients with musical performance anxiety, I would suggest that a practice such as mindfulness which focuses one’s attention inwardly is not appropriate or helpful in the moment of performance. Think about it. For those of you with experience of performance nerves, do you really want to draw your attention to how you are feeling, physically and mentally? Yes, I know that one of the aims of mindfulness is to be able to let thoughts drift away without judgement as soon as they enter your mind but, in that moment, in your performance, do you want to heighten your awareness of these things: panic, sweating, shaking, fast and shallow breathing, tension? Will that help? Surely we want the opposite. We want to be immersed in the music in that moment. We want our attention to be more externally focused. We want to be receptive and reactive to the music and the performers around us and we want our musical intuition to be free.
For a successful musical career, I believe that a strong belief and trust in our innate musical abilities and in ourselves is vitally important. In this respect, I’m not convinced that mindfulness is the most appropriate or helpful therapy. How we perceive ourselves is rooted deeply within our belief systems and any negative beliefs, in my opinion, need to be addressed through therapies that can explore and re-think such unhelpful assumptions and thoughts.
However, back to mindfulness . . .
Away from musical performances, I would suggest that when used with an understanding of how and why it works, then, for seeking calm from intrusive thoughts and for training and strengthening one’s mind, mindfulness is great and well worth exploring.
As Ronald Purser says, it is not a “one-size-fits-all self-help tool” and as I say, simply use mindfulness mindfully.