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Zoned Out

Updated: Jul 7, 2023

It has struck me that musicians would benefit greatly from some kind of meditation practice. As a former classical musician myself, for many years I appreciated firsthand the effort it took to prepare a piece of music for public performance. Countless hours of repeated techniques and ever-nuanced honing of skill. All aimed at when the work was finally revealed in front of a paying audience. During all of those endless hours spent in practice rooms, it’s fair to say that thoughts of practicing meditation never entered my head.

However, one of the things that often troubled me was how different life felt inside the practice studio and out of it. Like one passed into another dimension where the stresses and strains of trying to make a living disappeared to some extent and one could get lost in a world of notes, bars, phrases, and creative expression.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that it is a world that I would ultimately be disillusioned by. Also because of the other troublesome phenomenon; the amount of Jekyll and Hyde characters around who made great music onstage but had incredible egos off it. (myself included!) Now, one may very well argue that it is this very conflict that results in great music and as the target audience is also conflicted (in the sense that they are unaware of their true nature) then it works perfectly well!

But something always seemed off to me. There was always the nagging feeling of a discrepancy that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Of something not being quite right.

It was not until I put music down and started my Spiritual journey that I eventually began to get to the bottom of it all.

(I say “put down” because performing music had become a very heavy burden, both literally and figuratively. I carried a 15kg accordion around on my back for years!)

My spiritual journey took me down many avenues, from Zen meditation to Japanese Archery to Taoism and Nonduality. But it was not until many years later when contemplating my former musical life it occurred to me that musicians do have access to a form of meditation, but it is not “conscious access”. This limited access is known as being in “The Zone"

The Zone is a somewhat sacred space for the artist and can be described as follows...

When athletes or musicians are in the zone they are in a state of effortless flow. There is little or no thinking, movements feel good, fluid, and smooth, they are relaxed, have good energy, sure, confident and calm (Chantal Duarte)

This is a meditation and freedom from the ego of sorts, as it is a freedom from thought within the limited framework of physical movements, which, having been repeated over time, become second nature and can be performed by muscle memory without thinking about it. Thus the performer enters a state of “no mind” where a feeling of freedom is present and the sense that "something other than themselves" has taken over.

However, because it relies so heavily on physical activity, as soon as that activity ceases the "I" re-enters and says "I was in The Zone". As when we wake up in the morning and say "I had a good sleep". The "I had a good sleep" relies on the apparent physical activity of going to bed.

Performance is then akin to some kind of exotic escapism and reminds me of the following comment by the renowned spiritual philosopher, Jiddu Krishnamurti...

Do not sit on a cushion and meditate for ten minutes a day, then stand up and be a butcher (J. Krishnamurti)

As harsh as that sounds, it does ring true.

As long as the feeling of "I" is there, which is “doing something”, the apparent person will never have full access to the creative energy in all areas of life, as there is restriction. However, when the illusion of the "I" is seen through, there is an apparent opening up or letting go and creativity then floods through the empty vessel. Thus we can say that, as there is now no restriction, the musician is truly creative!

But the average musician is unaware of this and will no doubt argue as mentioned previously that it is the rollercoaster joys and troubles of life that are experienced and result in great music. However, this point of view is from the mistaken position of Self-ignorance, where they believe themselves to be a separate person who “experiences life” and “plays music”, unless they are in The Zone, when something else is present, which they cannot quite put their finger on but ultimately enjoy.

They may also argue, and be correct to some extent, that one of the joys of being a musician is playing with other people. At the pinnacle of this, The Zone is often referred to as Group Flow. Where a group of people is so well matched, balanced, and synchronized that a feeling of being in The Zone "together" arises and with it effortless creativity. (Jazz is a good example of this)

Again, however, as soon as the activity ceases the egos come back in and the apparent separation is restored.

So close yet so far!

As an aside, I don't think that it is any coincidence that there is a high rate of substance abuse among certain categories of musicians (particularly Rock, Pop, and Jazz). This may be a subconscious attempt to reconcile the apparent discrepancy between the high felt in The Zone and the comedown back to real life. However, this falls more into the area of Psychology and is slightly out of my jurisdiction.

So, how can one reconcile the apparent divide between being in The Zone and not?

This is where I feel that some kind of meditation or spiritual practice would help musicians.

If their awareness can be brought to other repetitive physical activities that are going on all the time, such as their heart beating and blood circulating, they may notice something very ordinary but at the same time, remarkable. Taking awareness out of their head and feeling their actions flowing as effortlessly as their breathing, could result in the possibility of the realization that there is not, and never was, an "I" doing anything. Let alone being in The Zone!

Of course, the parallels between music and meditation have been explored before. The work of the contemporary composer, John Cage is a prime example. Cage's study of Zen resulted in one of his most famous works, 4'33", in which any musician can "play" by simply remaining silent on stage for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. At the time, this was revolutionary, but what Cage was very cleverly pointing out to the audience was that silence is just as important as the notes. Just as the words on this page cannot be seen without the background of the page itself.

But just how much of Cage’s musical pointing resulted in self-realization for either performers or listeners is somewhat unclear.

It is, however, true to say that musicians are a very sensitive bunch and many of the greatest artists innately feel, sense, and emote this balance between the notes and the spaces, even if they cannot necessarily explain it in a way that would resonate with the layman or recognize its deeper meaning. But then, that is simply a reflection of the fact that the world itself neither exists nor doesn't exist and therefore cannot be explained!

I think it is also important to point out that, as musicians rely on expressing emotions through their instruments, the apparent opening up, which occurs upon recognizing the falseness of the “I” will allow them to express true emotion for the first time. As it is not the case, as is often thought, that one becomes less emotional upon self-realization, rather each emotion is experienced and expressed fully, genuinely, and without resistance. Whether it be sadness, anger, or joy, it simply flows and is allowed to be.

This feeling of effortless expression is what every artist wants but as long as they identify as a "person" ultimately they will always be frustrated. They may sense something more, something beyond, but are unable to recognize it.

So, perhaps it is time for musicians to embrace meditation as part of their everyday practice.

For the reason that, in music as in life, the apparent "I" learns particular techniques to survive which results in a mechanical body and mind. However, true freedom, and in turn true creativity, is only accessed when there is a letting go of all techniques and tactics. The "I" is then seen to be false and one's true nature is recognized.

"How can you proceed on from the top of a hundred-foot pole?" (Zen Koan)

Answer: Woohoo!


© [David Farmer] and [], [2021]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to [David Farmer] and [] with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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