From 2007 to 2014, I taught an undergraduate mindfulness course at Indiana University Bloomington that was academic yet also highly experiential. Not surprisingly, a number of talented IU Jacobs School of Music students took my class through the years.

Emotional openness and emotional intelligence are critical for musicians because music is the language of emotion.

In previous posts, I’ve explored the general relevance of mindfulness for musicians, investigated the benefits of mindfulness for stress reduction, and explored how mindfulness of the body can help musicians enhance their technique among other things.

In this post we’ll explore the “why” and “how ” of mindfulness of emotions for musicians. An engaged practice of mindfulness takes us more deeply into the body, as explored in previous posts. But when we get there, what do we find? Bodily sensations for sure, but also the somatic component of our emotional experience. Our emotions live inside us as felt experiences (at least if we are open to feeling them). In fact, feelings are bodily experiences.

The Benefits of Mindfulness of Emotions

Emotional Openness/Intelligence = Superior Musical Interpretation

The practice of mindfulness can help us to create an open, allowing space for our emotional experience. Of course, this may sometimes entail opening to emotions that we have repressed for years. Doing so can be challenging, but the personal and musical rewards are well worth it. By allowing us to access all of our emotions – not just selected ones – mindfulness can help us more deeply feel and thus express the emotional component of the music we play.

Another way of saying this is that mindfulness can and does enhance our emotional intelligence, and by extension our musical intelligence. We’ve all heard music performed by musicians who are emotionally repressed to some degree. We’ve also heard music performed by musicians who are emotionally open. In my experience, a performance by an emotionally open and fully expressive musician is vastly more engrossing and musically intelligent than a performance by someone who is not completely comfortable with the feelings that life and music can evoke within them.

Reduced Bodily Tension = Better Technique and Overall Playing

Most of us hold some amount of control over our emotions by contracting our muscles (most often the muscles responsible for the natural and easy flow of the breath). If we do this consistently and unconsciously (as is typical) it generally leads to chronic tension. It may be surprising to learn, but all chronic tension is in muscles that are under our voluntary control. In other words, chronic tension is actually something we are doing to ourselves, though we likely don’t realize it!

By being mindful of our emotions, over time the body begins to relax. Inexplicable tensions and habitually contracted breathing release.

Interesting side note: mindfulness may not only shift our bodily experience, but can actually change the structure of our brain in a positive way. Researchers at Harvard and Yale have found that meditation physically alters areas of the brain that are related to the processing of emotions.

Our Relationship to Emotions

Cultivating mindfulness of our emotions is for most people a fundamentally different way of relating to them. Emotions, like thoughts or bodily sensations, are by themselves naturally short-lived. Like a bodily sensation, emotions come and go in a flow. Even when they seem to remain for awhile – such as a dark mood that persists for several days – they do eventually change.

We usually think of our emotions as positive or negative, light or dark. Some feel good, some not so good. We generally welcome the “light” emotions, such as joy, love, or contentment. In fact, we may not only welcome them, but cling to them. For example, if we are with someone we love, we may worry that when they leave, our happiness will leave us too.

Our relationship to the “dark” emotions tends to be more problematic, since we tend to instinctively resist them. Unfortunately, as the psychologist Carl Jung wrote: “What we resist, persists.” If we resist our dark emotions, they persist within us and gain much more influence over our lives, and possibly our music-making, than is necessary.

What Does It Mean to Be Mindful of Emotions?

Emotions have a mental and bodily aspect, though the bodily aspect is primary – the real place where our emotional life unfolds.

The bodily aspect is the feeling of the emotion in your body; for example, when you feel happy, there’s a bodily feeling of happiness.

The mental aspect is the thoughts that describe or interpret the bodily feeling, such as the thought “I’m happy.”

Being mindful of emotions simply means observing and allowing them to be.

Because emotions have both a bodily and mental component, we want to welcome them in both body and mind, and also look to see how we might be resisting or clinging to them.

In the body, you can mindfully observe the bodily feeling of an emotion.

In the mind, you can become aware of thoughts that cling to or resist an emotion, such as “This feeling is never going to go away.”

It’s interesting and even profound to notice the tendency of the mind to identify with emotions. Say you have the thought “I’m afraid.” That thought is just a mental interpretation of what is first and foremost a bodily experience. It may cause us to cling to the emotion of fear much longer than we need to, because we are now identifying with it (identifying means to “make I”). Yet the thought “I’m afraid” doesn’t reflect the reality that the emotion is a temporary bodily phenomenon, if we allow it to move through us. The thought “I am afraid” seems to make it more permanent. Clinging to emotions by strongly identifying with them is one reason why certain emotions may be threads in the tapestry of your life. If you’ve strongly identified with an emotion, particularly in your early years, it may reappear again and again, for it has become part of your identity.

Even worse, the thought “I am afraid” tends to cause unnecessary psychological suffering on top of the bodily feeling. Without that story, fear, anger, sadness or any other dark emotion is simply a series of bodily sensations. While these sensations may be temporarily uncomfortable, they do pass. In truth, all that any emotion “wants” is to be seen and allowed in the light of our awareness. A powerful inquiry is to look for yourself and see what fear or any dark emotion is in the absence of a story about it (even “I am afraid” is a story!).

It may be intimidating to consider the idea of allowing emotions mindfully. But if you consider the price you may have paid, and may still be paying, for avoiding them, you may conclude that a new, mindful relationship to your emotions is worth it after all. I can tell you from personal experience that knowing how to mindfully liberate stuck emotions is a skill that is priceless.

Now I’m not suggesting that we must get rid of our emotions. Like bodily sensations, we have them for a reason. For one, they are part of what makes us human. They inform us about ourselves and others, just as bodily sensations inform us to not keep our hand on a hot stove. Emotions come and go in a natural rhythm, and only stick around if stuck to. The word “emotion” itself illustrates this: “e” means “out,” so “emotion” means “motion out” or just “moving out.”

As one of my own mindfulness teachers put it, we think we resist an emotion like fear because it is there, but actually it is there because we are resisting it. If it sticks around, it’s because we are preventing it from “moving out.”

A Story

Once there was a hermit who lived in a cave high in the mountains. It got very cold at night, so during the day he would leave his cave to gather firewood. One evening after gathering wood, he returned to his cave, only to find it filled with demons of every size and shape. These demons had gotten very comfortable – cooking, reading, and lazing by the fire. They’d made his cave their cave, and they hadn’t even asked.

The old hermit was crafty though. He’d practiced mindfulness for many years, so he figured he knew how to get rid of the demons.

He decided to teach them about mindfulness. He talked about allowing and the like, but they didn’t seem to care. They just ignored him.

This made the hermit angry. Who did these demons think they were, moving in without permission? He was much taller than the demons, so he stood up and ran after them, trying to chase them out. But they easily stayed out of his reach, and laughed at him.

Finally, he gave up. He said to the demons, “I’m not going to leave this cave, and it doesn’t look like you are either. Maybe we can live together in peace.”

At that moment, all the demons left the cave – except one.

The hermit thought to himself, “This one has got some nerve. He seems particularly mean. How will I get rid of him?”

He thought for a moment, and then approached the demon. He put his arms out and leaned against it, trying to push it out of the cave. But the demon just grew bigger and heavier. It didn’t budge an inch.

He sat down next to the fire, closed his eyes and tried to pretend it was all a dream, that the demon wasn’t really there. But that didn’t work either. When he opened his eyes, the demon was across the fire, staring right back at him.

Next, he tried to feel love for the demon, to accept it fully, so he put his arms around it. The demon started to shrink a little, but it didn’t leave.

Finally, the hermit realized that he wasn’t actually feeling love or acceptance for the demon, because deep down he was still trying to get rid of it.

He realized he had no choice but to surrender. He walked over to the demon, put his head in its mouth, and said, “Go ahead and eat me up, if you want to.”

At that moment, the demon disappeared, and never returned again.

In Part 2, I offer a guided MP3 audio exercise on mindfulness of emotions, as well as a written exercise that teachers can use with their students.

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