Music and Meditation: The Key Role of Practice

Richard Wolf maintains that practice is a key element in meditation and playing a musical instrument.  Richard explores practice along with other parallels between meditation and playing music in his book, In Tune: Music as the Bridge to Mindfulness. Previously, I explored his ideas on achieving harmony through music and meditation.

It is through practice that we can master playing an instrument or achieving a high standard in sport.  The same is true of meditation – our capacity to meditate and achieve its benefits is dependent on how well we practice.  The greater the regularity and length of our meditation practice, the greater are the benefits that accrue to us.

Practice and repetition

Practice requires repetition and may be experienced as boring, e.g. playing scales on a musical instrument.  However, as Richard notes, after a period of practicing, if we persist, we can be keen to “practice for practice sake”.  With sustained practice, comes the realisation that the practice itself achieves the desired benefits of competence, concentration, harmony and spontaneity.  This is as true of meditation as it is of practising a musical instrument.  It is similar with sporting practice. I recall practicing tennis drills with my brothers when we were playing A Grade tennis fixtures.  Repetition was a key part – hitting the ball up the line over and over or practising volleys again and again.  However, as we grew in competence, we would marvel at the shots we played, laugh at the fun we were having and experience a real sense of happiness.  We would look forward to our practice sessions.

As our meditation practice improves and starts to flow into our daily life, we begin to experience a greater variety of benefits which, in turn, feed our motivation to practice.  Richard suggests that this occurs because when you meditate, “your mental, emotional and physical awareness are the instrument you practice on”.  The essence of effective practice is to maintain focus in the present moment on what we are doing, whether playing a musical instrument or meditating on nature.

Breathing in time – treating your breath as a musical instrument

Richard highlights the role of beats in music and the need for a musician to master different times in music such as 4/4 time and 3/4 time (as in a waltz).  He suggests that “counting beats internally” is an essential component of mastering a musical instrument.  He proposes that as a form of meditation practice, you can adopt the parallel technique of “rhythmic breathing”, e.g. what he calls a “four-bar sequence”.   This involves holding your breath for four beats (counting to four) for each of the four “bars” involved in breathing – inhalation, holding, exhalation, holding. 

In his book, he offers other variations on this breathing sequence that you can adopt but stresses that the important thing is to go with whatever helps you to experience calm and equanimity.   It is vital not to beat up on yourself if you lose count in the middle of your practice – just start over again.  The outcome is achieving a mind-body rhythm that is beneficial to your sense of ease and wellness.

Reflection

Meditation practice becomes enjoyable as we grow in mindfulness.  This increasing inner and outer awareness flows into our daily life and brings a variety of benefits such as focus, productivity, creativity, calmness and richer relationships.  The benefits can grow exponentially if we sustain our meditation practice.  Rhythmic breathing can enhance our mind-body connection.

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Image by Brenda Geisse from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

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Developing Mindfulness through Playing Tennis

I have enjoyed playing tennis since I was about 10 years old. It is only recently that I have come to realise what an opportunity playing tennis represents in terms of developing mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness in the following words:

Mindfulness is awareness that grows through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.

Paying attention

With tennis, you learn to focus and concentrate on the tennis ball and to tune out other distractions – planes flying overhead on their approach to the airport, voices from other courts, the sound of tennis balls being hit on courts, near and far.

If you entertain distractions – stop paying attention – you lose concentration and invariably mishit the ball, or worse, miss the ball entirely.

In this day and age, with “disrupted attention” and the decline in our capacity to focus on a task, practicing paying full attention to a tennis ball is a great way (and enjoyable means for some) to redress that declining capacity.

On purpose

Well, even in social tennis which I play on a weekly basis, the purpose is to win the point or the game for yourself and your partner.  There are times when you are more mindful, the purpose is the sheer enjoyment of playing the game.

It is only when you lose something that you really appreciate having had it.  Many years ago, when my back collapsed and I could not walk, let alone play tennis, I began to really appreciate the opportunity to play when I was fit enough (18 months later).  So now I remind myself what a privilege it is to be able to run and hit the ball and just enjoy the act of playing tennis and its associated pleasures – the conviviality of other social players, the new relationships that are formed, and the sense of satisfaction from the exercise and demonstration of some aspect of skill and competence in the game of tennis.  This certainly develops a sense of gratitude.

In the present moment

Sometimes when you play tennis, you become very aware of your surroundings – the feel of the wind, the freshness of the air and the smells of flowering plants and trees and freshly cut grass, the sound of birds flying overhead or the laughter and enjoyment of others.

You are really in the present moment in terms of your external environment. At other times, your focus on the ball makes you really conscious of what is happening here and now.

There are times when I just marvel at my mind’s capacity, almost instantaneously, to read the spin and speed of the ball coming to me, to get my body into position to return the shot, to assess the balance and positioning of the opposing players and to determine and execute a responding tennis shot with the right spin, angle and speed – certainly an instance of unconscious competence and a cause for delight in the moment.

Non-judgementally

On the tennis court, as in life and work, we can experience negative thoughts and doubts, emotions that distract us from the task at hand and cause us to lose concentration and focus.  You might be undermining your confidence and competence by the thoughts that pass through your mind – “I’ve missed three returns in a row!”, “What will my partner think?”, “The other players seem to be so good, can I give them a decent game?”.

So, you have to learn to let these thoughts pass you by and not entertain them or they really negatively impact your game.  You gain self-awareness about your anxieties and concerns, your self-evaluation and your assumptions about others and their needs.

You also learn self-management in terms of not getting upset or “sounding off” (or, in the extreme, smashing your racquet), when you miss a shot or fall behind in a game.  You have to learn to control your emotions – disappointment, frustration or even anger – and to channel the negative energy to a more positive focus.

In my situation, where I am older than most of the other social tennis players, I have to learn to deal with the negative impact of their assumptions.  Some people who have not played against or with me before, assume that being older I am slower to the ball and not able to hit a decent shot, so they will not hit the ball to me because they think that I will “muck” up the rally.  Others, who have played with me or against me on a number of occasions (or who know that I played competitive A Grade tennis for years), will not hit the ball to me in a rally because they are concerned that I will hit the winning shot and finish the rally.  The net result is the same – I feel excluded from some rallies.  I have had to learn to stay focused, to enjoy the moment and stay uncritical about these assumptions and how they play out for me.

Being mindful

What served as a catalyst for this post, is a description of being mindful during tennis which was recorded in a novel, Purity, by Jonathan Franzen.  Purity, or Pip as she was called was having an extended hit of tennis with her hitting partner, Justin.  Franzen describes Pip’s mindful experience in these words:

Pip was in an absolute groove with her forehand…They had impossibly long rallies, back and forth, whack and whack, rallies so long that she was giggling with happiness by the end of them.  The sun went down, the air was deliciously cool, and they kept hitting.  The ball bouncing up in a low arc, her eyes latching on to it, being sure to see it, just see it, not think and her body doing the rest without being asked to.  That instant of connecting, the satisfaction of reversing the ball’s inertia, the sweetness of the sweet spot…she was experiencing perfect contentment.  Yes, a kind of heaven: long rallies on an autumn evening, the exercise of skill in light still good enough to hit by, the faithful pock of a tennis ball. (p.545)

Playing tennis can help us to grow in mindfulness if we maintain our attention and focus, be conscious of our purpose in playing, experience and enjoy the moment and learn to manage our own negative self-judging and associated emotions.  It is a great learning opportunity for mindful play and the development of skills that can transfer to other arenas of our lives.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of skeeze on Pixabay