Many years ago when I was in college, I performed a solo piano recital. Even though I prepared for months, on the day of the recital I was a nervous wreck. I still had several passages that I hadn’t been able to master, and that was just enough to shake up my confidence. I was all too familiar with every spot in those pieces that could trip me up. I remember taking a deep breath and walking out on stage with a smile plastered on my face, but behind it I was carrying a huge sense of dread.
To make a long story short, the recital worked out fine. I got a big round of applause, and lots of congratulatory hugs from my teacher and friends. But the sad thing is I missed the whole thing. I was so busy worrying about not making mistakes that I never really heard my own music-making or took in the experience. I was fortunate that the recital was recorded, so I was able to listen to my performance afterward. All those supposedly obvious and horribly embarrassing mistakes I thought I had made — in the whole scheme of things they were negligible. Most people probably didn’t even notice.
This was the beginning of my learning about the nature of fear. I tend to be a pessimist, so it’s much too easy for me to see all the ways that something can go wrong. And when I climb aboard the train of those thoughts, my view of reality can get very skewed. In fact, my negativity probably ended up to some degree becoming the proverbial self-fulfilling prophecy. Even though nothing disastrous happened, I also didn’t play anywhere near my best. I was so worried and self-absorbed that there wasn’t room for all the grand and beautiful moods and emotions that the music called for. And above all, I wasn’t there to share the experience with my audience.
In the years since, I’ve taken up meditation and have reflected often on the nature of mistakes and fear — not only in music, but more broadly as part of life. Too often we go about thinking that mistakes are bad things that we must avoid. But what are mistakes? It’s true that things often don’t go as we intended — an unfortunate fact of life — but does that make them “wrong”? Despite all my mistakes, wasn’t it ultimately my humanness (wrong notes and all) coming through the music that my listeners appreciated? Aren’t “mistakes” often opportunities in disguise?
And what about fear? Of course fear is essential for prompting us to act when we’re in danger. But was my life in danger when I walked on stage for my piano recital? What was I afraid of? And by allowing myself to be guided by fear, didn’t I limit my ability to see all the other possibilities in the situation?
Over the years, I have come to understand mindfulness as much more than slowing down to appreciate the beauty in life. I think of it as living life to its fullest — and learning to move beyond my fears, judgments, and stories that keep me from seeing and experiencing things as they really are. It’s when we’re able to be present with our experience — even when it’s scary as hell — with a calm, steady mind, that we get past our self-created fog and move out to a place of freedom and possibilities.
I think a master jazz improviser like Miles Davis is a great model for what mindful living looks like: confident and completely, fearlessly open to the present moment. That to me is the promise of mindfulness.
Sunada teaches Wildmind’s meditation courses by day, and continues to pursue her musical inspirations by night. She also runs her own business, Mindful Purpose Life Coaching, that helps people navigate the choppy waters of their own spiritual journeys.