Playing and Living • Beyond the Notes
Written by ANDREW EALES
“Leave your thoughts in a place you will not visit …”
Most of the pianists that I have met are easy to describe as “deep thinkers”, and I would argue that an aptitude for analytical thinking is an essential skill for the advanced piano player.
But the jump from analytical thinking to overthinking is a small one. And here’s the problem. In recent years, we have become increasingly aware that overthinking any problem can break rather than solve it, and can often lead us to bizarre conclusions. Overthinking is inextricably linked to anxiety.
If we overthink an upcoming performance, this can undoubtedly contribute to performance anxiety. And in the same way, if we overthink life in general, this can have a significant and debilitating effect on our whole lives.
A growing body of research supports our suspicions that many physical health problems are rooted in the activities of the mind. Overthinking can be associated with anxiety, fear, paranoia and mental instability, all of which can have serious physical as well as social consequences.
Nothing is Absolute
Are we musicians particularly prone to wasting mental energy?
Do we allow “two plus two to equal five”?
Throughout the Pathways for Wellbeing series, I have been challenging readers to consider common situations and issues from a different perspective, employing the philosophy and practices of the Eastern traditions as a tool for reflection.
When it comes to overthinking, the ancient Daoist sage Lao-Tzu wrote these words, which are worth returning to for their wise advice, especially when we are most troubled:
“Nothing in the realm of thoughts or ideologies is absolute.
Lean on one thing for long, and it collapses.
Because of this, there is nothing more futile or frustrating than relying on the mind.
To arrive at the unshakable you must befriend the Dao.
To do this, quiet your thinking.
Stop analysing, dividing, making distinctions between one thing and another.”
Lao-Tzu, Hua Hu Ching (translated Brian Walker).
Look at each of those last three points slowly, in turn:
- Stop analysing.
- Stop dividing.
- Stop making distinctions between one thing and another (i.e. stop trying to put everything in boxes)
Instead of fixating on our quest for simplistic explanations, we can engage with the far richer complexities of reality, embracing the truth of constant change:
We can discover that while all things are in a continual state of flux and change, this is actually a positive thing, not cause for anxiety.
Because to change is to live.
This leads to quiescence of the mind, a sense of connectedness and acceptance. But understand that it is neither fatalism nor submission, rather an act of claiming power over our own anxiety, our fear, our uncertainty.
In popular jargon, it is cultivating the flexibility of going with the flow, rather than the futility of resisting it. The complexity of change is wholesome, and exciting, and brimming full of potential. And leaving aside fear and embracing change is a pathway that not only leads to life and peace but also to better health.
This is again something that the ancient Daoists knew many centuries ago, as illustrated by this quote from Peng Zu’s Method of Prolonging Life (trans. Eva Wong):
“The spirit knows contentment and understands the limits of the conceptual mind. Too much thinking and scheming damages the spirit. Too much desire can make us anxious and indecisive …
Thoughts expend the energy of the spirit, and when the spirit is exhausted it will no longer produce generative energy. When generative energy is low, the body will weaken and be vulnerable to illness.”
If Peng Zu is right, it rather seems that we cannot have it both ways: we can’t be overthinkers and live a healthy life. So what is the solution? Here are two possibilities which might help us, and which we can embrace:
The first is moderation. Think – but don’t “overthink”. Moderation and balance are key concepts throughout Daoist philosophy.
Secondly, we can take up simple meditation. This counteracts the negative effects of too much overthinking, allowing renewal to take place, and counteracting our anxiety.
As Peng Zu goes on to say:
“Rest in stillness, and let the body sink into the subtle vapour of life … Leave your thoughts in a place you will not visit, and let yourself return to the natural way.”
These are beautiful poetic words – I just love the idea of “leaving my thoughts in a place I will not visit” for a while! How about you?
Right now we can practice this with a very simple exercise:
Simply write down on a piece of paper all the things which bother you, which cause you anxiety – all your fears and concerns. Your thoughts about your piano playing or teaching – and your thoughts about all of life.
And having done so, take that piece of paper and “leave it in a place you won’t visit”. You can come back to it later if you choose – but for now, leave it there while you practice moderation and meditation.
The first of many steps
Within the Daoist traditions, there are many styles of meditation, including both still and moving meditations in which breathing and stretching provide the primary focus. Qigong is an umbrella term for a variety of practices that are associated with both forms of meditation.
Personally, as one who is susceptible to anxiety myself, I have found that moving meditation is the easier place to start. In the introduction to her translation of the Peng Zu, contemporary Daoist Master Eva Wong writes:
“In Daoist meditation the first step is to turn our awareness inward toward the life of consciousness…
In this stage, we relax, let go, and learn to appreciate that we have an internal universe.”
This is the essence of what Qigong is.
The Qigong exercises featured on Pianodao are selected to help pianists apply specific stretches, movements and breathing to aid the development of their physical relaxation, mindful awareness and connection, balance and flexibility. There is no need to consider the meditation aspect in this context. But those who find Qigong beneficial will soon also discover that it offers a fresh and powerful route into meditation and spiritual development.
Qigong allows us to develop a deeper internal focus – one that will surely also benefit our piano playing and personal creativity.
Sit Up, and Shut Down
A particular Piano Qigong exercise that will help you to calm and still your mind from too much over-thinking is explained in my post Sit up and Shut down.
This is a seated meditation with an emphasis on breathing, and on clearing the mind of unwanted clutter. The practice is an easy hack for diminishing the effects of anxiety in our lives. So it can help pianists before performing, taking an exam, or simply enable us get through the basics of daily life.
Please also read my post The Pianist’s Emotions, which offers advice for those who are struggling with anxiety or any other mental health issue.
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