At the time of writing, most of us are feeling uneasy. We are, after all, in the midst of a global pandemic, concerned for ourselves, our loved ones, our finances, and fearful of what our world might be like in a few months time.
But as we spend more time away from our usual routines, we might also discover a deeper unease. A rock has plunged into the pool of our lives. The ripples are still clearing, and a lot of mud has been churned up. As the waters settle again, we are coming to see things that were perhaps unclear to us before.
As pianists we might hope to see glimpses of answers to life’s most profound questions sat before our piano, absorbed in our playing. And certainly, as I’ve written here before, piano playing can provide a sanctuary from all else that is unfolding around us.
But while some presently find they can use their piano playing as an escape from grim news, many others are experiencing frustration at their lack of motivation, focus and inspiration.
In this entry to The Pianist’s Reflections Series I will consider some basic elements of self-care from a Daoist (Taoist) perspective in the hope that readers will find some helpful suggestions, and that each of us can enjoy a piano journey that reflects an easier, more connected and settled experience of life.
Steps towards self-care
When people have an accident, personal or health crisis, they typically have to reassess life, often making radical choices to live differently. At this moment in our history, we are collectively experiencing this together on a global scale. There has never been a better time for us to “reboot” our priorities and get back to the basics.
Daoism teaches that regardless of external circumstances, our sense of unease ultimately comes from our being disconnected from Dao, the natural Way and fundamental essence of all that is. And in the modern world, many of us are increasingly aware that something is amiss.
You may be wondering whether the answers I’m going to propose are strange, mystical or complicated. They really aren’t.
The contemporary Daoist master Deng Ming-Dao writes in his classic 365 Tao Daily Mediations:
“Whenever you feel out of sorts, or cannot sleep, or find it hard to work and think, you are separated from Dao. If you want to get back in touch with it, ask yourself three questions:
1. Am I eating right?
2. Is my mind tamed?
3. Is my world safe?“
These three basic lifestyle questions may appear simple enough. But in reality, they can probably only be answered with a lifetime commitment to making checks and adjustments.
1. And I eating right?
“It is not facetious to look at the way you eat whenever you feel out of step with life. Many problems can be alleviated by feeling better physically, and even if this doesn’t remedy things, it will give you a good basis for coping.”
This is solid scientific advice. If in any doubt, simply google articles dealing with the impact of nutrition on our mental health and emotional state, and the efficacy of ‘food therapy’.
As a simple personal example, some years ago I had a common candida problem which led to mild depression. Adjusting my diet facilitated the cure. It also led to some weight loss, which in turn made me less lethargic, and I felt more positive about life in general.
Now it would be silly to generalise, but I am sure I am not the only musician who would benefit from a better daily diet. And many of us these days surely know a heck of a lot more about healthy eating than we actually practice!
Alongside the basic information widely available and publicised in the media, Deng offers the following advice:
“Eat a balanced diet rich in nutrients.
Take the time to understand proper nutrition,
and eat a large variety of foods according to the seasons.
The skilful use of foods is far superior to medicine.”
2. Is my mind “tamed”?
“Taming the mind” is an issue that I struggle with constantly, and I am sure that many other pianists, educators, and students all face the same difficulty. To pursue clarity and find peace within, we need to let the waters still so that we can actually see what really is.
“Next is the difficult mind that seems to have its own interests, habits, and excesses. The only way to counter this is guard against worry, stress, intellectualism, scheming, and desires.
This can only happen through a strong philosophical grounding and by methodical meditation.”
Deng here identifies five types of mental activity that we would do well to avoid:
- Worry: ruminating fearfully on what might happen in the near or distant future
- Stress: our nervous mental tension in response to the pressures of a current situation or ongoing conflict
- Intellectualism: the tendency to overthink things, often resulting in intellectual pride and a sense of superiority
- Scheming: the competitive response, plotting our advantage at others’ expense
- Desires: focusing on what we don’t have rather than enjoying what we do
One of the best ways to diminish our destructive mental activity is to avoid information overload. Often our problems stem from trying to sift through and make sense of too much information, which can soon lead to mental fatigue and even depression.
To counter this, try switching off the news alerts, unplug from social media for a while each day, and as Deng counsels, pursue a strong philosophical grounding and methodical meditation practice.
If you are not sure where to start with this, try the simple exercise in my article Sit up and Shut down.
3. Is my world safe?
We are all presently full of questions about our safety. Is it safe to leave our homes? Is it safe to see family members? Will it ever be safe to attend classes or concerts?
In the post-coronavirus world, we will need to find ways of overcoming the excessive fear that has resulted from the shock and trauma of our present situation, and to regain a more confident assurance of our personal safety.
We must equally accept that throughout our lives we will face many dangers, however much we minimise them, and whether or not we are conscious of peril. How often are we sufficiently alert to our surroundings?
Deng Ming-Dao again:
“Environmental factors such as weather, natural and man-made disasters, and socio-economic problems can break our unity with Dao. To cope with this, gain as much control over your environment as possible. Keep your home a haven, have control over your work place, and be independent enough to face emergencies. “
Deng links safety to our home environment and our independence, both of which we have some control over…
Under lockdown, some may be suffering from cabin fever, and starting to view their home more as a prison; it remains important to appreciate it as our haven, though, and make it the best environment that we can.
The advice to have control over your work place is even more striking. The Daoist way is one of careful self-management. There is nothing wrong in working for and with others; often it is essential to do so. But having some degree of self-determination is important, as is freedom from dependence, and from the manipulations or control of others.
Concluding this section, I recommend taking a few moments to reflect on the wisdom of the great sage Lao Tzu, and consider how his words might apply to you at this time:
“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.”
Tao te ching, verse 33
Lao Tzu, translated Stephen Mitchell
Though perhaps not intended as a comprehensive manual for living, Deng Ming-Dao’s short meditation offers three clear and simple strategies that I believe can help us all move forward during challenging times.
Life brings many struggles, and maintaining our inner peace and sense of security is the biggest challenge of all. As Deng concludes:
“It is inevitable that one will fall in and out with Dao. The wise arrange their lives so that they can always return to balance.”
By considering Deng’s three questions, we can take small steps that will help us regain our equilibrium and, hopefully, restore balance in our lives.
Let me leave you with some final thoughts from Lao Tzu:
“Do you have the patience to wait,
till your mud settles and the water is clear?
Can you remain unmoving,
till the right action arises by itself?”
Tao te ching, verse 15
Lao Tzu, translated Stephen Mitchell