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Listening to one of my favourite piano pieces by the French composer and pianist Satie this afternoon, it dawned upon me why I was so drawn to music as a child suffering from depression. Today we know about the research demonstrating the healing effects of music on children and adults but was that it?
At the music academy I adored my specialisation – the piano. No one really had acknowledged back then, in newly independent (yet still occupied in peoples’ minds at least) Eastern Europe where I was born and raised before leaving for university, the impact of music on young people suffering from mental illnesses such as depression. I did not even know why I often felt so sad for no reason. I clearly remember being most drawn to the piano when I was very down. When I was nine or ten I would play best when I was feeling this awful nerve-wracking emptiness inside.
What is important is that while my fingers ran across the wooden keys of this receiver and giver, I felt relieved and everything felt at ease. I was not idle, because I had to be aware of the next chord. An artist cannot spare too much attention to the next page or think of yesterday’s events, because he would lose the present note. Completely aware of every harmony, I played for hours while every single note allowed me to be one with the present moment. That is the true essence of mindfulness.
Mindfulness means being engaged in any activity, whether it is playing the piano, drawing, dancing, running or practising yoga with total awareness of each step, each breath you take. This complete awareness of the present moment creates space in the mind and, therefore, also the body.
Undoubtedly, mindfulness is transformative for someone suffering from anxiety or depression if practiced daily, as it lights the lamp of awareness on downward spiral thinking. As a result, one is able to notice thought patterns before it is too late (and we have all been there when someone says something hurtful to us that triggers another situation and that memory leads us to a whole lot of other images and feelings from the past that no longer even exist). Whether you suffer from depression or lack of concentration and often find yourself anxious, stressed out and in search of some ways to cope with day to day stress without losing your head, here are three mindfulness practices:
1. 10 minute Selfish Breakfast
I call this technique “selfish” because it entails not talking to anybody, checking your cell phone or reading the newspaper, nor even having a table conversation. If you usually have breakfast with your family – inform them in advance so you can be left at peace. Notice the speed you eat your food. Chew well, maybe even close your eyes and see what sensations arise and allow your senses to bathe in the appearance, texture and flavour of your food.
2. Clean Mindfully
While washing dishes or sweeping the floor, observe the movement of your body: your arms and fingers. Is the body soft or tense? Notice the sense of touch between your hands and the utensils, vacuum, sponge, etc. If the mind wanders off and you forget where you left the broom – it’s ok! You have noticed and that’s the first step towards living mindfully. Then ever so gently bring your awareness back to the task at hand.
3. Walk Here not There
Walking meditation is one of the oldest mindfulness practises. Whenever you do not need to rush somewhere, take your time. Observe how your foot lands on the ground as you take each small step, feel the ground from the heel to the instep to the toes. After mastering this, you can incorporate this into daily life, especially when you’re feeling stressed. Once I was running late for a meeting and couldn’t even gather my thoughts as to what I would have to present once I arrived late at the meeting. So I began to really feel and witness those fast yet firm steps and suddenly I felt some release and my mind became calm.
The key to having a calmer mind is to extend mindfulness from the meditation cushion or yoga mat into daily life. The great news is you can’t go wrong with this, there is no right or wrong when it comes to mindfulness, just mind the mind. Without judgement. Only witnessing. Miles Davis, my other favourite composer and musician, once said, ‘It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.’ I would say that living a mindful life in order to see how rich and wonderful the world around us is, is to experience it all, the notes you play and those you don’t play – be an observer of your actions and those natural pauses in between.