Be Mindful: Self Compassion for Musicians

Be Mindful: Self Compassion for Musicians

Being kind to yourself on and off the stage. 

John Julian
Melbourne, Australia

Be Mindful: Self Compassion for Musicians

Being kind to yourself on and off the stage. 

So, what is mindfulness anyway?

It’s remembering to be here and now, to see what is going on, and create a pause where you can hopefully take wiser action. Jon Kabat-Zinn has been quoted as saying: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” We start to notice what we don’t normally notice, because our minds are too busy with thoughts of the past or the future. The straitjacket of our habitual way of being starts to soften.

It seems to have become a bit of a buzzword. In your opinion, what are the biggest misconceptions about mindfulness practice?

The biggest misconceptions are that mindfulness takes thoughts away, and that it is the same as meditation.

Mindfulness can be done simply in the moment with eating, walking, and so on – it brings our attention to what is happening right now, letting go of judgement. I guess for a musician it would be like rehearsing, or actually playing, but having your mind constantly slipping off into thinking about how the audience is responding, or the old patterned thoughts that you are not good enough, or about the last time you made a mistake - and then you cease being one with your performance: your attention to the task lapses.

Meditation helps with concentration and learning patience with observations, so that we are constantly becoming aware that our minds have slipped off target and need to be brought back, by watching what is happening with our mind/body/heart systems. It's like going to a mind and emotion gym: it really strengthens up the muscles of being aware of how your attention is going, where it is, and practising bringing it back, time and time again. So, we practice mindfulness when we remember during the day and then use meditation to deepen our practice. Part of the skill is learning what mindfulness practices work for you - for example, calm breathing doesn’t work for everyone. 

When you start mindfulness, one of the first things that happens is you become aware that you have a lot of thoughts. Most of us already know this, but for some reason we get shocked at how many we have when we start mindfulness and we think it’s not working for us. You quickly learn that you are not your thoughts. Jon Kabat-Zinn sometimes paraphrases Einstein who noted that "if you have one or two good thoughts in a lifetime, you are ahead of the curve". Most thoughts are not that important, we just think they are. When we get to attention, to letting thoughts go by, we can start to rest in awareness.

What's happening in the brain when one practices mindfulness?

This is an interesting question. Two forms of research are currently happening regarding mindfulness. Firstly, there are the traditional Random Control Trials (RCT’s) that examine what people believe is occurring (i.e. do they feel better?) from an intervention which may be a form of therapy, medication, or meditation or mindfulness. The good RCT’s are blinded and have pre-observations and a range of formalised post and post-post observation methods. In this group of research, cognitive researchers theorise that mindfulness meditation promotes meta-cognitive awareness, decreases rumination, and enhances attentional capacities through gains in working memory.

The second form includes studies of the brain either during or pre- and post- mindfulness interventions. In this latter group, neurophysiology scientists report changes to brain structure. There are then meta-analyses or systematic reviews of these studies that compare and examine the evidence more closely for validity.

Overall, studies are showing that benefits of mindfulness include: reduced rumination (decreased repetitive thinking), stress reduction, improvements to working memory, improved focus, less emotional reactivity, and more cognitive flexibility.

A recent study through Victoria University found that musicians are five times more likely to suffer from depression, and 10 times more likely to show symptoms of anxiety. In addition, suicide attempts were more than double that of the general population. There's no easy overnight fix for this, but what are some basic strategies musicians can use to help combat mental health issues?

I recommend the following for people - all or even just one of them helps:

  1. Start a meditation practice where you maintain attention on your body or breath for 10 minutes a day (to start with)
  2. Stop for 1 minute 5 times a day and just come to the present - think "what is happening outside me, what are my thoughts, how am I feeling", and then do whatever you need to think rationally and to be kind to yourself. You can also try simply sitting in total silence (put on head phones to cut noise if you must). This allows the brain to have a deep rest from noise and is therapeutic and healing.
  3. Quiet the voice in your head, and always speak calmly and warmly to yourself – it takes practice but will change your life.
  4. Learn to be kind to yourself. When something difficult is occurring, pay attention to it and use three sequential acts:
    • Say to yourself quietly and warmly “This is difficult”;
    • Note to yourself, quietly and warmly again, "I am not alone in feeling this, everyone has difficulties like this in life";
    • Say a few words to yourself as an act of kindness: "May I be calm"; "Take my time"; "This too shall pass", or others that work for you. 
  5. Eat a broad variety of food – challenge yourself to eat over 80 different foods, spices, and herbs each week, and eat slowly and with gentleness.
  6. Exercise reasonably.

Currently, 48% of the Australian population will have depression, anxiety, or struggle with substance abuse in their life. You are not alone. Get a check up and see if you have any dysfunctional thoughts and dysfunctional thinking styles.  Perfectionism and needing approval of others are two of the biggest thought patterns that create suffering across the whole planet.

Your website, Thinking Healthy, offers information on mindfulness courses, full day retreats, and workplace training. What's the benefit of attending an actual mindfulness course, over doing self-guided research and practising in one's own time?

When it comes to learning mindfulness, generally there are three options: learning from a book or an app, learning from a teacher in a one-to-one session, and learning mindfulness in a group.

Learning from a book or app

Learning mindfulness by yourself can by painstakingly slow. In my opinion, most apps are about making money rather than teaching mindfulness. Many apps also spout the science, but what they offer is then unrelated to the methods that were used in the scientific studies they quote. You also do not learn from others in the group. Apps also tend to get ignored after a while, but Insight Timer is very good.  You can set it to the amount of time you wish to sit for and then just go for it – you can be just curious about where you mind goes to start, with not taking anything personally.  It will also tell you how many others are sitting around the world with you.

Learning from a teacher in one-to-one

Note the word ‘teacher’. You can also use a therapist. With both a teacher or a therapist, you would need to ask them about their training and lineage - this is slanted more towards secular teachers as they now appear more common. Lineage refers to the background of their training. Mine, for example, includes the secular traditions of mindfulness and mindfulness self-compassion. I then have a Buddhist lineage where I started with the Theravadin’s and learnt simple breathing meditation, then undertook Zen meditative forms for a seven-year period. After this, I transferred to Tibetan Buddhism where I learnt Shamata, or calm abiding, and became a teacher of this in the 1990’s.

A teacher's training should include a sound understanding of meditation/mindfulness methods and attendance at an 8-week course, attendance personally at a teacher-led silent retreat for at least five days, then attendance at a train-the-trainer retreat. More senior secular teachers will have been accredited in the chosen area, have undertaken further study and mentoring, and have submitted video tapes of themselves working to a highly-experienced mentor.


In the most common 8-week group programs you get a threaded sequential teaching of the skills; as such, it can be a more structured way to learn than one-to-one sessions. Groups are cheaper!  You can get 8 sessions of secular group training in MBCT, MBSR or Mindful self-compassion for between $400 to $700.

Musicians often feel time-poor as it is, with the constant pressure to practice their instrument, continue their other studies or jobs, maintain a social media presence and network, and generally put themselves out there. How can mindfulness "fit in" to a musician's day?

To become, and then keep, healthy, we need to reset the mind-body system to a healthy level and then maintain it. For many people, the action of becoming healthy occurs over a period of time, and for some of us, it can take a few years to get over our learned habits of being anxious, depressed, or of avoiding the negative through substance abuse. While it all takes time, it's time well spent, as you become more efficient in your working hours and you end up with a sounder sense of values and a longer and healthier life.

Musicians, like everyone, have the idea that they do not have much time. However, you can walk mindfully from your public transport stop, or your car, to wherever your job or class is. Everyone has time to do that. By doing so, you interrupt a series of automatic thoughts where you are either dwelling on the past or over-planning the future.

Mindfully planning your day, so that it fits with your values, will also help a lot!