It’s under two days until Christmas and the gift shopping was just completed this morning. For us that’s truly squeaking it in; we like to be done at least a week before hand but the past couple of years have been quite last minute. I guess that this is at least in part due to being busy people. My wife works full time in a demanding position at the University of Chicago, and spends close to three hours a day commuting. She gets up super early so she get her mileage in running before work, so she ends up going to bed at the same time as our twelve year old daughter. I’m usually filling my time chasing my three careers (writing, teaching, and music making) around in circles, so it’s not unusual to have a gig, two or three evening rehearsals, a day-time rehearsal and various other aspects eating up time. We are the multi-tasking task force between the two of us, and then my daughter has her after school activities as well. I have more time to simply be than my wife does, but when I do it’s usually at the expense of something I should have been occupied with.
I’m working my way toward adopting an eastern religion, Buddhism, and I’m fairly certain that I’ll end up there, but some things have to change in order for me to get there. One of these is mindfulness. I’m struggling with the Buddhist concept of the mind; it’s not super difficult but it’s also not exactly straightforward, so the mindfulness I’m attempting at this point is being aware of what I’m doing or not doing. This might seem like a simple matter, but I can just about guarantee that most people aren’t fully aware of what they’re doing when they’re doing it. For example, when I practiced scales a long time ago I was painfully aware of what I was trying to do with my fingers, but once I had the pattern locked in it became an automated process, and still is to this day. I think this is how most of us really run scales, by rote and in a programmed sequence. We don’t think about where the whole or half steps are, or even what the key signature is because we’ve linked our entire concentration on one aspect of the process: where our fingers go.
Once we have locked in the physical process and can run up and down at varying speeds, our focus, if we have one, is perfecting our accuracy and increasing our speed. We might reach a point where we figure we have mastered the process, and run these lines up and down with fluidity, but we’ve also, more often than naught, gone onto autopilot, particularly guitarists because for us the patterns are often either the same or a simple variation thereof. Once we have the patterns a key change is just a matter of shifting the pattern to a higher or lower point on the neck, so we don’t really have to think about it. While we think we’ve gained mastery we’ve actually missed a huge part of the train, the actual notes that construct the scale and the actual music that a scale can be. If we are truly mindful, then we are turning our awareness toward the construction of the scale, we are taking the time to be aware of the note names and relationships as we move through them, and we are being aware of our physical state of existence in this moment of the note, where we’re carrying tension, how we’re breathing, our bodies’ relationship with the physical process and the emotional tension and release we are invoking in the entire process. The entire practice of scales becomes exercise of the complete physical process paired with the theoretical relationships and then crowned by the emotional expression of the music itself. Now we are being mindful, as well as growing into a better understanding of what we are doing in those moments.
An aspect of mindfulness that I find very appealing is that it is aimed at being in the moment. This means that your focus is locked into what you are doing, thinking or what ever it is right now and you are giving this moment in your life your full attention. You are being the best you that you can be in that moment and giving your best to that moment. For instance, if I have a performance and I walk out on stage with my guitar, then that is where I need to be mentally, physically and emotionally. Lives are complicated; I know mine is. I spend a good deal of time worrying about things, some of which I have the power to change but most of which I don’t. Most of the things I’m worried about aren’t going to change during the time I’m performing and worrying about them isn’t going to change the outcome either way. The worry is a distraction from actually living. The performance is part of really living and is something I have the power to prepare for and execute. This is where mindfulness comes into play as well, because we are living right now. We can make plans for our futures, and should, but what really makes the difference is what we do in the moment.
Mindfulness is something that doesn’t come easily to me. Part of this is due to my ADD causing a certain amount of mental flitting around. It’s difficult to sit and run scales even without going into the deeper aspects of what I’m actually learning and doing. My brain has a tendency to ricochet and ping pong around even when I am maintaining a guise of being focused which is one of the reasons that I’ve been writing essays for the past two years, to help train myself to maintain a focused train of thought and chase it to a logical conclusion. The essay format helps me enter a somewhat mindful state, as did the five paragraph operations order in the military. Through mindfulness I hope to start finding my path, and to elevate my awareness of who I am through what I do. I hope to become a better person through it, a more focused person, a more empathetic person and a better musician as I work my way along.