From 2007 to 2014, I taught an undergraduate mindfulness course at Indiana University Bloomington, and so it won’t come as a surprise that I will be exploring the relationship of mindfulness to piano playing in this blog. In this post I’ll look at the importance of body mindfulness for pianists and other musicians, and give you a guided exercise (MP3) for trying it yourself.

A major component of a mindful approach to music-making involves awareness of the body. Everything from stress management to approaches to healthy technique such as Body Mapping emphasize the importance of body awareness.

Like an athlete’s body, a musician’s body must be functioning optimally to perform at its best. Yet, perhaps because music is more intellectually-demanding than athletics is, this fact hasn’t been as strongly emphasized for musicians.

The foundation of bodily health is awareness. If you’re not fully in touch with your body and its needs, you’re not likely to give it the attention it deserves. For musicians this may result in injury from overpracticing, or health issues related to lack of exercise, a diet too rich in fast food, or poor sleep habits.

Body awareness is a basis for healthy and highly-skilled musicianship. Yet musicians are no different than anyone – most of us are not as “body aware” as we could be.

A pleasant side effect of bodily awareness is stress reduction. This is because there is a direct correlation between stress and the amount of attention we give our mind (thoughts) vs. the body (sensations). Flooding the body with awareness – mindfulness –can be extraordinarily relaxing and healing! It could even be said that mindfulness is the polar opposite of stress. While there may be such a thing as healthy stress, mindfulness and unhealthy stress – the kind that most of us are familiar with – cannot co-exist.

The Wisdom of the Body

Fence AnimalThere’s a wonderful saying that “sometimes your body is smarter than you are.” This timeless Sufi story about the holy fool Nasrudin makes the point:

Nasrudin bought a donkey. The donkey ate one bale of hay each day, and Nasrudin soon noticed that the donkey was eating up his wallet too. So Nasrudin reduced the donkey’s daily rations to half a bale of hay. This saved him so much money that he reduced the donkey’s rations again, to a quarter bale of hay each day. Then the donkey died. A friend came to visit Nasrudin and asked what had happened. “It’s such a shame,” said Nasrudin. “If the donkey had lived a little longer, I could have gotten him used to eating nothing!”

Serious musicians know how this works. We may reduce our sleep, the quality of the food we eat, and how much we exercise, all in favor of our musical ambitions. We allow the mind to dictate to the body, like Nasrudin dictated to his donkey. But eventually, as Nasrudin discovered, it will catch up to us.

Dissociation from the Body

Almost all of us are disassociated from the body to some extent. James Joyce put this tendency memorably in one of his stories, when he wrote, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” Or as philosopher Ken Wilber writes more seriously, “Few of us have lost our minds, but most of us have long ago lost our bodies.”

Decades of psychological research have confirmed this split that most people feel between mind and body. We say, “I have a body,” or “my body,” as if it were our possession, and not actually us. It’s as if there were a miniature Wizard of Oz up in our minds, pulling levers and pressing buttons that control the body. We may stay mostly in our minds, devoted to our thoughts, rarely giving much attention to the body.

This split between mind and body is one of the reasons that serious musicians get injured, or may not realize their deepest musical or technical potential. Just as it’s impossible to be in control of your golf game without being aware of the golf club in your hands, it’s impossible to be in control of your music without being aware of your body.

Origin Of The Mind/Body Split

It’s obvious that young children experience mind/body wholeness. So how and when does the split between mind and body occur? We live in a highly-mental culture, so we’re taught to give attention to thoughts, and less to the body. Instead of feeling all of ourselves, body and mind, we give so much attention to thoughts that our very sense of self becomes defined by them – particularly the thoughts “I” and “me.”

This mental sense of self then develops its own desires and ambitions – e.g. “to be a world-class virtuoso.” That’s all well and good, but what if those desires are in conflict with the body’s needs?

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll offer a guided MP3 audio exercise on this topic.

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