At my first guitar lesson my teacher attempted to show me how to play “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” It felt painfully simple and uninteresting. I never went back for a second lesson.
Luckily, three years later, I brought my guitar to my friend Brad’s house party. Rumor had it, there was a major jam session going down. At this point, I still didn’t know much more than the two chords to “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” But I thought perhaps I could just play along, blend into the background, and maybe learn something.
Due to something I had ingested at the beginning of the night I never made it to the jam. But right when the party was starting I sat down in the corner by myself with my guitar and started playing those two chords that I knew over and over. It felt like hours. At some point I stopped feeling my hands and became one with the guitar. I was no longer playing the music. The music was playing me. I could hear overtones and subtle rhythm variations. It felt like a symphony was being extracted form my fingertips and the spirit of Jimmi Hendrix had possessed my whole body.
After that night, I was hooked. I knew that I was going to play the guitar for the rest of my life.
I’m not saying that you need to get wasted to learn how to play a musical instrument. But learning how to play an instrument is as much about breaking through self judgment as it is about how many notes you can play or how many chords you know. It’s about learning to love the process or… the practice. I had to fall in love with the music inside of me that I was capable of at that present time in my life.
In mindfulness we talk about “practice” vs perfection because we understand that all things are moving and evolving at all times. When I was first starting to play guitar, it was physically painful to correctly form the most basic chord shape. The idea of reaching a particular level of competency to become a “valid’ guitar player was a daunting and actually undefinable prospect. I felt frustration and judgement every time I attempted to play.
At the party, my mind rejoiced in the tiniest amount of progress. My self judgement was suspended. I was able to keep returning, over and over, regardless of my mistakes or what it sounded like to other people. Before I knew it, I was just playing. Pretty soon the muscles in my hands strengthening and the tips of my fingers formed callouses. This made it easier to play and get better.
The art of learning to meditate has a similar process. We build the muscle of our mind so that we can return to a calm place in order to function more wisely and improve. Right away, we notice the mind wanders. We bring it back. It wanders again and we judge ourselves for not being able to stay present.
This is where the Buddhist concept of Vipassana becomes useful. Vipassana is defined as: seeing things as they really are. When we meditate the mind will wander because that is what minds do. When we are learning an instrument or a new skill we make mistakes because that’s what is supposed to happen.
When we accept this fact we release the mind from judgement. We soon learn that the elimination of that judgment makes it much easier to return to the calm presence. When we stay in the present we learn to appreciate how things are in the moment and how they evolve, no matter how small.
So, going back to me playing guitar at the party, one might say, “But how you REALLY sounded was probably pretty awful.” In this case, the only person that needed to appreciate the sounds being made was me. As a wise person once said: “One person’s noise is another one’s music.”
Below is a playlist of songs that have resonated with me in the past month. I hope they bring more joy to your life. Thanks for listening, MMM
Included are songs by: Large Planets, Lady Wray, Lucy Dacus, Dan Reeder, Surprise Chef, Prince, Arthur Russell, Delvon Lamar Organ Trio, Brian Hutgen, Jean Carn, Adriean Younge, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Taj Mahal, Black Country New Road
If you’re in the Kansas City area catch me the first Friday of the months at the miniBar from 7-9ish playing songs from my playlist live as well as a selection of songs from some of my favorite records of the month.
(Subscribe to get a new playlist every 1st Monday of the month. Click on my user link or search: Major Matt’s 1st Monday on Spotify to cruise past playlists and discover more music. Since it’s only one day off, I’m technically releasing this playlist on Monday February 28th.)