What are we doing when we sit down to meditate? What is meditating? What are we achieving? Asking such questions is understandable, especially when we may be dedicating our precious time to this pursuit, although they are not so easy to answer.
I attended a Mindfulness Teachers retreat earlier this year where we explored these questions. It was suggested that the word meditating almost be banned as it doesn't really explain the story of what is going on.
Essentially we are practising and bringing into our lives certain psychological characteristics or skills which are more helpful in living our lives than many of the things we have been unwittingly practising before.
As I was thinking about writing these words this morning, I thought that, in order to visualise these skills, it may be helpful to visualise learning an instrument to play in an orchestra (in no particular order of importance):
1. Deliberate attention
In order to learn any instrument to the best of our ability we can choose to focus on our own particular instrument rather than be distracted by all of the other instruments playing their own pieces in the orchestra pit.
2. Protective Awareness
We learn through Mindfulness practice that often the thoughts and distractions in our mind such as " you're going to mess up this piece'" or "the tuba player is so much better than I am" rarely helps the playing of our own piece. We develop the skill of choosing which thoughts we allow in and which we decide are best left alone.
Unless we make the intention to dedicate some time to practice the chances of us playing a beautiful piece of music, or even a one handed scale, is unlikely to happen.
4. Resonance (or how we relate to ourselves and others)
We learn that we are not experts when we first pick up a new instrument and instead of a rap across the knuckles each time we make a mistake , it's more helpful to show a certain kindness to ourselves, to be a bit patient and to be more understanding when we make those mistakes which will inevitably happen. Equally it's so important appreciate your efforts and enjoy the feeling and the beauty when a piece comes together.
Being curious about how your instrument works, about what is actually happening when you play notes in a certain order and when you don't can help in learning how to maybe avoid some of those pitfalls in the future. But it's a curiosity without any associated harshness that may work best to get that beautiful piece out in the end.
It's not always easy but by practising and practising to stay on track with a difficult piece of music, and not giving up despite things going awry, we can learn to stay with more challenging tasks in our own lives maybe.
As we play our instrument we may feel the vibrations directly in our body and this direct sensing can be a different way of knowing whether we are in tune or not.
We may come back to the present moment at the start of a performance and sense whether there is anxiety, or excitement or fear present and this simple knowing may be more helpful than all of that feeding of thoughts which may impair our performance.
As well as awareness of our own piece to play in the orchestra, becoming aware of the place we play among all the other musicians in the orchestra and the theatre we're playing in can help to deliver a wonderful ensemble performance.
You may recognise in your own practice one or more of those 9 skills which we are developing as "meditate".
But picking up a new instrument if you’ve never been a musician isn't easy and takes time. When I played the piano up to Grade 4 as a child I remember it taking about a year to go up each grade. Mindfulness training doesn't go in such regular steps. There may be quick jumps in your learning and then more steady improvements or even some dropping off in your playing after a lapse in practising.
But you always have the choice to pick up that instrument again.
We don't have to go straight into playing a Grade 8 Concerto to gain some benefit - even a simple scale can sound beautiful and be a real achievement .
If it's any help after nearly 5 years of practising, I am probably half way through Grade 1 at the present…. but luckily I've got the rest of my life to work my way up!
As soon as I felt a necessity to learn about the non-human world, I wished to learn about it in a hurry. And then I began to learn perhaps the most important lesson that nature had to reach me: that I could not learn about her in a hurry. The most important learning, that of experience, can be neither summoned nor sought out. The most worthy knowledge cannot be acquired by what is known as study- though that is necessary, and has its use. It comes in its own good time and in its own way to the one who will go where it lives, and wait, and be ready, and watch. Hurry is beside the point, useless, an obstruction. The thing is to be attentively present. To sit and wait is as important as to move. Patience is as valuable as industry. What is to be known is always there. When it reveals itself to you, or when you come upon it, it is by chance. The only condition is your being there and being watchful