We know we ought to concentrate, be aware, and focus on what we are doing. But for most of us it’s rather difficult. We all know people who seem to have an uncanny ability to do this. For a few, it’s so strong they can be totally unaware of what’s going on around them.
But many of us are easily distracted, sometimes so much so it’s even hard to get to the piano in the first place. When we do sit down to do something, it seems dozens of things pop into our minds. This makes focusing seem impossible. It feels like that’s just the way we’re made.
Our minds are so practiced at being distracted that this pattern of thought has become a habit. Like all habits this one results from neural pathways in our brain being established and then repeated so often that they become well-worn connections. In time they become so strong it seems to be second nature and undeniable. Being distracted is just as automatic as walking or talking.
It is always difficult to override these strong neural pathways. But we can do it. New neural pathways can be built, developed and strengthened.
Smokers who quit smoking and people who change their eating habits build new neural pathways that begin to take precedence over the old ones and then become automatic. Practicing a musical instrument is one such habit. In the same way, focusing is a skill that can become a habit if only we can find ways to practice it without being overtaken by the old habits of distraction.
Meditation instructors work on this problem constantly. The meditative task it to quiet the mind, to keep distractions at bay, to get the mind to cease its endless chatter. Whether it is Buddhist, Transcendental, or any other meditation, they all seek to breakdown the habit of the distracted mind.
Those who teach and practice meditative disciplines know how hard this is. There are countless books of instruction and encouragement for meditators. But practice, not reading, is the bottom line in meditation just as it is in music making or anything physical.
In meditation, we try to quiet the mind by focusing on the breath, by using repetitive chants, and/or by visually focusing on a picture or pattern. Our focus constantly gives way to distractions about what is within and outside our own heads. But the more we practice, the better we get at being quiet and mindfully focused. It takes lots of time and lots of patience.
Can we learn something from these meditative disciplines to foster new neural pathways of concentration in our music making? Can we actually learn the habit of musical mindfulness? I will explore that possibility in the next article.