FeaturedIssuesSeptember 2020

The Benefits of Meditation

by Rena Urso 

A favorite quote from Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl encapsulates meditation perfectly: Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Some believe that in order to mediate, all the conditions around them need to be perfect; for instance, they must be completely alone in a silent space, without any thoughts to cloud the experience. The notion that everything has to be just right, or completely silent, or the absence of thoughts in order to practice is a false assertion. Meditation isn’t about achieving perfection, even if there was such a thing; it’s about the possibility of growth and improving our well-being. Put simply, meditation is the process of training our attention, developing deeper awareness, and creating sustained voluntary attention. 

We live in a society that is abuzz and where people are constantly striving for “perfection.” The practice of the ancient art of meditation gives us the gift to let this go. Rather than lingering when a thought enters our mind or focusing on an external sound, we learn in meditation to reframe these distractions by simply acknowledging them and then letting them float by like big, fluffy clouds. We turn our attention to our breath, allow it to be our anchor, and return to the present moment. Thus, our practice can encourage curiosity both in our daily lives and invite us to become more observational and inclusively aware. 

Imagine how this can positively affect us as musicians and performing artists? 

Having experienced anxiety both on and off the stage, meditation has made a profound difference in my life. I recently completed my 50-hour Meditation Teacher Training and my 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training. The journey has been challenging, enlightening, and enormously beneficial in more ways than I ever imagined. Honestly, when I began this journey in January, I just wanted to get better at yoga, and as it turns out, it’s one of the best things I have done for my playing, and, further; there is a great sense of personal pride that accompanies the completion of these achievements. Also, I have. . . 

  • More stamina in my daily practice.
  • Can weather the storms with greater resilience. 
  • Have noticed a distinct shift in my ability to be less judgmental or subjective about myself in my practice room.
  • Experienced greater enjoyment with the process of becoming a better flute/piccolo player. 
  • More curiosity, creativity, and freedom to color outside the lines in my flute and piccolo playing as well as my practice of yoga. 
  • A beautiful ongoing friendship with yoga, pranayama (Sanskrit word meaning the control of breath), meditation, and Body Mapping, which will continue to pay dividends not only for my work as a musician but more importantly for my overall well-being as a human. 

The benefits of meditation are tenfold: 

  • The ability to deal with stress in a better way by becoming more patient and non-reactive. We can’t stop stressful situations from happening, but we can help ourselves gain the tools to deal with these moments in a better way. 
  • Improved focus and attention.
  • Greater self-awareness and inclusive awareness.
  • Replacing subjective or judgmental behavior with objectivity and a deeper and more sincere level of empathy, kindness, and compassion. 
  • Lower blood pressure and slower heartrate.
  • Improved sleep and overall general health and well-being. 

A regular practice of meditation has the ability to literally change our brain; creating more grey matter, enlarging the prefrontal cortex (decision making), thickening our hippocampus (learning/memory), enhancing gamma brain wave activity (greater awareness/bliss), and shrinking the amygdala (reduced stress/fear/anxiety). 

Pranayama has also become a part of my daily practice, both as an accompaniment with my yoga/meditation practice and as a stand-alone. The beauty and simplicity of Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana) for example, is something I have often done backstage or in a dressing room before a performance, or in the on-deck room before playing a round at an audition. A few rounds of this breathing technique can go a long way to help ground us and quiet our inner critic.  

We, classical musicians, are famous for living in our heads, ruminating over how we could/should play a phrase, a measure, an interval, a note, dissecting everything to the tiniest granule. Mistakes are not something we take lightly. This is precisely why yoga, meditation, and pranayama are essential, and why I’m excited to share this with my musician colleagues and students, so we all can begin to invite greater peace, acceptance, and non-judgment, and ultimately find more joy as performing artists. 

If we really want to fix something, it takes courage to dig deep, get to the root of the issue, and address the issue at its base level. Anything less is simply a band-aid, particularly now during COVID and all of the atrocities and general unrest in our world, it is easy to avoid deep introspection. At these times, we all can feel a bit like a little shrub in the middle of a wild tornado. It can be a struggle to maintain our daily practice of yoga, meditation, pranayama, and yes, even our flute and piccolo playing; however, it is in these very moments that I would suggest that we must return to our breath, take what we need, appreciate the peace, and continue to create for ourselves because it’s all about the process. If we take care of the process, the product will be there when we need it.

As I’ve said in previous columns, we do well to reframe our mindset of being stuck inside to an opportunity to become more mindful. Cultivating a practice of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment can be tricky - we’re all living a lot of life right now. This is exactly why making this shift in our minds and our breath is so vital.  

Be well. 

Happy Practicing!

Rena Urso is a member of the faculties at California State University Long Beach and California State University Stanislaus, and a Course Coordinator for California State University Summer Arts – home to her popular biennial summer flute course, The Complete 21st Century Flutist at CSU Summer Arts. As a Licensed Body Mapping educator, she presents Body Mapping workshops and masterclasses all over the world. An active freelance musician in the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a member of the Oakland Symphony, the Oregon Coast Music Festival Orchestra, and Alcyone Ensemble. Rena lives in the Chicago area with her husband John and their dogs Lillie and Po. For more information about Rena and Body Mapping tips, please visit www.renaurso.com.

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