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.

In Is Mindfulness Relevant to Piano Playing? I talked about the numerous applications of mindfulness for musicians. Perhaps the most important and fundamental reason to practice mindfulness – and the reason most people start to practice it – is stress reduction. In this two-part series, I’ll explain the essential practice of mindfulness of breathing, which millions of people use as a stress reduction practice. In the second part I’ll offer a guided audio meditation so you can learn how to do it.

Being a musician can be stressful. Whether we’re practicing hard to make it into a college program, preparing for a recital or competition, or simply leading the busy life of a professional musician or music teacher, it’s all too easy to feel overwhelmed at times.

One of the easiest ways to begin practicing mindfulness, and one of the most effective for reducing stress, is mindfulness of breathing. Mindfulness of breathing is very simple. It involves focusing awareness on the physical sensations of breathing in the body.

Mindfulness of breathing is directly correlated with many of the physical and psychological benefits of mindfulness meditation, many of which are related to stress reduction.

Mindfulness of breathing also provides an anchor for mindfulness of the body, as well as mindfulness of thoughts and emotions, which I will discuss in future posts.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of mindfulness of breathing is that the more you practice it, the more your stress will diminish, allowing you to taste deeper states of calm. Awareness of the breath is calming because it interrupts stress caused by compulsive or negative thinking. This kind of thinking often leads to a vicious circle of stress, in which the body’s stress, itself a consequence of compulsive and/or negative thinking, feeds back to create more stressful thoughts, which then feed back to create even more stress in the body. And round and round it goes!

This vicious circle is a basic cause of chronic anxiety and panic attacks, which aren’t fun for performing musicians especially!

But when we take our awareness away from thoughts, bringing it to the breath, the cycle of stress and anxiety is disrupted, and begins to dissipate.

The second primary benefit of mindfulness of breathing is that it provides an anchor point (focus) for our attention. In the beginning of our practice, without an anchor point, we may easily get distracted and find it difficult to remain mindful.

While the breath is a wonderful anchor point, that doesn’t mean that the mind is just going to stop wandering. Our minds have had years of practice wandering from thought to thought, and we shouldn’t expect that it will stop right away.

Fortunately, this isn’t a problem. Each time our attention wanders and we bring it back to the breath, we learn something valuable about ourselves.

We start to notice states such as boredom, restlessness or anxiety that may be compromising our musical progress. In the mindfulness tradition, these patterns are called “attachments,” because we often get stuck in (and by) them, even though they’re usually dissatisfying. In modern lingo, we might call them “velcro thoughts” or “negative states of mind.”

Not only do we learn what our attachments are, which is the first step to dissolving them, but each time we disengage our attention from an attachment and bring it back to the breath, we release its grip on us a little more.

Now it’s possible that after you start meditating, you may feel that you’re thinking more than before you began. But this isn’t the case. You’re just becoming more aware of the thoughts you’ve had all along.

So in mindfulness meditation, thoughts aren’t a problem. If there is any thought that’s a problem, it’s the one that says “I shouldn’t be thinking so much,” or “I need to stop my mind.” Just let go of these thoughts when you notice them.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll offer a guided MP3 audio exercise on mindfulness of breathing for musicians.

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