These were the words painted on a van parked outside my home recently. It turns out to be a quote from the jazz saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, or at least that’s the attribution given a number of places on the internet. Meditation, too, is about making mistakes. Like the jazz musician, the meditator needs to constantly relate to the spontaneous impulses that pop up in his mind and make them an integral part of his actions. How can you do that without making mistakes?
Don’t try harder!
Actually, the van parked outside my home had twisted the quote a bit: “If you don’t make mistakes, you aren’t trying hard enough!” Typical Norwegian? At least it seems to reflect a belief in the power of blind force. In meditation, that’s one of the mistakes we are likely to make from time to time. Instead of keeping allowing for a bit of jazz-like improvisation, where impulses are allowed to come and go, we get tense and suppress our spontaneous thoughts and feelings. Try harder!
People say that “experience” is the name we give to our own mistakes. Only to comfort ourselves? In fact, the mistakes we make in meditation are even more meaningful than the ones we make in our daily lives, or even when playing the saxophone. When we try just a little bit too hard in meditation, this usually reflects unconscious patterns that have been brought to the surface. The challenge is to relax rather than to try hard, and thereby begin to act from a deeper level of ourselves. When we meditate, play jazz, or simply just live.
The key for me is to become the observer of the thoughts so I can let them go. Trying to stop them has not worked for me.
Yes, that’s the common way in a number of mindfulness practices. Another way would be not to do anything specific to the thoughts themselves, not even observing them or actively letting them go, but to let the focus on the meditation object (the sound, the breathing or whatever) be so light that spontaneous thoughts and impulses are given the room they need. In either case, so-called digressions, when you forget the meditation object, are an integral part of the practice, the difference lying in what you do when you discover that you have been “lost in thought”.
Everyone having tried to contribute to resolve a conflict knows that the choice words matter. The following sentence of yours, from your recent comment, was truly very potent one for me at the current stage of my meditation process:
” …. be so light that spontaneous thoughts and impulses are given the room they need.”
Gems like this can very helpful. So, I’d like to thank you for this one, Dr. Eifring! And of course for your original post!
This makes me think that it is through acting that we come to know ourselves – in meditation and also in work and relationships. You do something, you realise that your action is a manifestation of your own personality rather than being based on an ‘objective’ view of reality, and then you have the chance choose to do things differently next time.
Meditation creates a special situation, outside the usual activities that everyone does, a world where you can understand yourself better through the action of repeating the sound. Similarly, therapy creates a special situation where another person enables you to see your personality reflected in your projections on him and on other people.
The blogwriter ask how the jazz musician can constantly relate to the spontaneous impulses that pop up in his mind and make them an integral part of his actions without making mistakes. Being a musician myself, I feel drawn to explore the question in light of my own experience and examine the role of mistakes in effective development of musicianship.
First, given that a goal has been formulated, I believe it’s crucial to adapt rehearsal in ways that minimizes the number of mistakes (e.g., by approaching complexity in a step-by-step fashion). Second, the mistakes one inevitably makes are necessary for feedback and should always guide future rehearsing. However, If you do not reduce the number of mistakes, you’re in danger of reinforcing them, and progress will fail. Third, performing sufficient amount of focused and effortless repetitions without making mistakes permits establishing fluency. This is a necessary property of performance for building complexity upon. In addition, one will also need to practice performing exposure to habituate non-relevant mistake promoting arousal, and to get experience and feedback in musical communication. All in all, however, this is a very arduous approach, and very difficult to stick to, partly because of our impulsive nature. One needs a minimum of commitment to excel here. Furthermore, relevant stressors (e.g., an upcoming concert) will act as “a gun to your head” and greatly increase the learning curve.
As a consequence, practicing will not only help the musician transform his impulses into articulated playing, but also profoundly color the content of his impulses (through strengthening associative power). Together, this results in a reduced discrepancy between impulses and competencies, thus becoming more fluid. This is also the reason why you don’t become an expert in playing other kinds of music by playing jazz alone.
As for meditation, one could ask what the significance of repeating the meditation sound is. According to simple neuroscience, what you repeat is what you’ll learn, and therefore it doesn’t seem worthwhile to repeat nonsense syllables. However, it is the attitude attached to the action and attention that come with the meditation sound that is what really is being developed – an attitude of effortless action and attention. Similarly, one could also achieve this through musical training as described above. However, meditation may work on a more specific level – it develops the way we act and use our attention when influenced by our personality’s pattern of tensions (patterns that repeatedly and spontaneously come to mind thanks to being unresolved issues).
Like the musicians advance to effortlessness in performing the content of choice, the meditator will perhaps over time also achieve effortlessness in coping with his unresolved issues.
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All in all pleasant read. I hope to make more mistakes and learn more.
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