Guest Post by Joe Hickles: Mindfulness, Meditation and Music Therapy

I’d like to start by being quite honest with you: writing this post has been a challenge. When the opportunity arose to write a guest post for this blog I thought ‘Hey! Great! I’ve got stuff to say about things! Let’s do this!’. But alas, the task has proved easier said than done.

I decided fairly early that my post would focus on meditation, and it’s influence within my life and my continuing training as a Music Therapist. Great! Yes? I meditate every day so writing about it should be easy. Right?

Wrong! This post has been swimming in the digital limbo of my laptop for more weeks than I care to admit, with barely a hundred or so words on the page. Whenever I started up the laptop, I expected a message to appear: ‘There are unused files on your desktop which may be reducing performance. Do you want to delete them?’. However, joking aside, perhaps (internally) this wasn’t far from the truth. My procrastinating on the task rather than completing it was causing some stress; writing this post was hard, and it was bothering me.

So why was I procrastinating? What was stopping me from writing this post? Stephen Nachmanovich writes that a creative person can be seen as embodying both a muse and an editor. “If, however, the editor precedes rather than follows the muse, we have trouble. The artist judges his work before there is yet anything to judge, and this produces a block or paralysis”. I was getting too wrapped up in the questions: ‘Who is going to read this?’, ‘What will they think?’, ‘Is it relevant?’. Perhaps the most challenging question for me was ‘How do I write about something that is very personal to me, yet make it accessible for a wider audience?’.

Boom. There it is. Meditation is an integral part of my daily life, and I was worried about how to express my thoughts and experiences in a way that would be beneficial for others. How very un-mindful (mindless?) of me. I’ve written my fair share of essays, reports etc. for teachers, mentors and managers, but the thought of my words being out there on the world wide web for any and all to see was more daunting that I anticipated.

So, after giving myself time to procrastinate think some more, I’ve decided to go ahead and share of my thoughts and musings on meditation, mindfulness, improvisation and other aspects of my journey as a student Music Therapist. Take what you need from this post, do you want with the rest, and I hope it helps.

Some people tell me they can’t meditate because they can’t “switch off”, or because they can’t stop their thoughts. The truth is you’ll never be able to stop thoughts from arising, but you can change your relationship to them. The mind is like a pool of water, and if you sit and allow the water to settle, things become clearer. Thoughts will come and go like clouds in the sky, but instead of reacting to them, you can simply respond by paying attention to them. This is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is about paying attention to what’s arising in the present moment, without judgement, or fear, or anger or any of our other habitual responses.

So through meditation we can allow the mind to quiet, we let the mud settle. Then instead of getting caught up in all our worries about the past and our anxieties about the future, we can approach the present moment with an attitude of curiosity, and see what we notice. What’s going on for me right now? How is my body feeling? What are my thoughts turning towards? Is there joy? Sadness? Irritation? Perhaps there’s nothing? That’s OK, just notice that too. Over time we can begin to attune to our own bodies and minds. A sensation in the stomach may arise, and instead of reacting to it we can say ‘Oh! I know this, this is what anxiety feels like’, or something like that. Practicing mindfulness in this way can allow us to be less reactive and more responsive to our internal and external worlds.

I truly believe that meditation and mindfulness can be a beneficial practice for therapists. We’re always being told to “Remember self-care”, “Look after yourselvesand “Put your own oxygen mask on first!”. The truth is, you have to look after yourself. Otherwise, the people around you are likely to suffer, including the individuals we come to work with.

Meditation is about relationship; it’s about developing a sense of trust with your own mind and body-in the same way you would with a personal therapist or supervisor. I think it’s a wonderful way of strengthening your own internal supervisor (the one you can’t cancel an appointment with!). Once we begin to develop this trust towards ourselves, we can create more space for our clients. More space in which to hold them in mind, more space in which to receive whatever it is they choose to give us. More space in which to decide ‘Whose anger is this?’, ‘Is this MY grief?’, ‘What should I do with these feelings of insecurity?’.

These notions of trust and space are so important when working therapeutically. Once, during a session whilst on clinical placement, the client I was working with got up from the piano we were both sat at, walked across the room, switched the lights off and came back to sit at the piano. We both sat there, in the dark, in the silence. What on earth to do? As of yet, being plunged into darkness had not formed part of my clinical training! I felt uncomfortable, it was agonising. My mind got very busy: Should I turn the lights back on? Should I play? Should I talk? What I did do was draw upon my meditation practice. I sat. I breathed. I let go of the stories. I paid attention to my client and trusted that the moment would unfold. A short time after, my client began to sing, it was the first time they had ever initiated this type of contact with me! It was wonderful, and I believe it transpired as a result of the trust I was able to give during that moment. Trust in myself, trust in my client and also trust in the present moment…not holding on too tightly to how I think things should be and just allowing them to be.

I’d like to finish by looking at musical improvisation as a kind of meditation. Improvisation happens in the now, and when you’re in the thick of it, when you’re in the flow…it’s fantastic. But you have to stay present. As soon as you start worrying about what came before, or what’s coming next, then you’ll lose it. Meditation is like that: getting caught up in past and future, should and should not, will make your practice more challenging. The antidote is acceptance, simply allowing these things to come and go without holding on to them too tightly. Whether we’re meditating, improvising, or both! When we’re fully absorbed in the moment, that’s when the magic happens. Nachmanovitch writes “everything around us becomes a surprise, new and fresh. Self and environment unite. Attention and intention fuse. We see things just as we and they are”.

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Joe Hickles Written by:

Joe is a first year Music Therapist student training with the University of South Wales. His primary instrument is piano and he has a background in blues and jazz music. Joe currently works part time in a special needs provision and has done for the past five years, and he believes that his experiences working alongside children with ASD, physical disabilities and additional learning needs enriches his current training. Joe lives with his wife and daughter in the Welsh valleys, and is currently expecting baby number two very soon!

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