The first major benefit I noticed when I began meditating 22 years ago was that I started making progress much faster. I thought it was magic! But it turns out that as we meditate, we awaken the prefrontal lobes of our brain while putting to sleep the reactive limbic system. The limbic system is responsible for handling stressful situations, to save our lives when we need to run away, fight, or even play dead. It’s not so helpful fired up during practice and performance.
Years ago I was working with an enthusiastic student on a passage in Daniel Squire’s Tarantella (a favorite of young cellists everywhere!) which climbs from the low G string all the way up into thumb position. He wanted to be perfect – can’t blame him! But every time he missed one of the 24 notes (especially the highest), he uttered a clenched growl and descended deeper into a downward spiral of frustration, fighting his way through the passage with an even tighter set of limbs and fingers. The more reactive he became, the worse it got, the tighter he got…As you can imagine, he wasn’t successful until he was able to cool his mind and relax his body enough to engage slow, centered practice.
I used to be deathly afraid of slow practice, not only because it might be boring but because making mistakes playing slow means that…
I’M NOT AS GOOD AS I THOUGHT!
Our egos resist slow practice because it shows how much we need to improve. But perhaps you’ve experienced how the simple willingness to do the patient, nonreactive work is half the battle. As soon as we engage a calm, centered response to challenges, we’re halfway to their solution. Now, I’m addicted to slow practice, often going very deep into centered awareness. It often feels as good as a deep meditation, leaving me incredibly clear, refreshed and energized.
I have a young student who is highly unusual. For the past 2 years, I have yet to see him get physically frustrated. His 6-year-old body remains completely calm as he figures out the patterns. He’ll say “Ah! Now I get it!” and if he fails, he’ll try again with amazing poise and inner freedom. He told me his magic word: YET. When I asked him about it, he said, “I can’t do this…YET!” Needless to say, he’s made incredible progress, learning incredibly fast. As we finish our lesson and he jumps up out of his chair to show me his latest Taekwondo moves. I’ve never met such a young child with high energy AND such calm focus.
Energized, calm focus is a potential for each and every one of us. Meditation is not meant to put you to sleep. It’s been scientifically shown that meditation decreases activity in the limbic system while activating the more highly evolved parts of our brain that enable empathy and creativity.
So next time you find a huge challenge in front of you, yes, take a breath. Take a few. Count to 10. We’ve all heard this a million times.
But then go beyond.
Instead of simply returning to “neutral”, use a meditation like the one in the video below to take you even more into the enjoyable state of calm, deeply centered awareness.
Practicing meditation beings to give you control over your own brain. The more you practice putting the limbic system to sleep, the easier it becomes to do it when it matters the most.