For thousands of years, people have cultivated practices and disciplines that have allowed them to tap into altered states of consciousness where they could find solitude, endure stress or share ceremonial experiences. These concentrated states of consciousness are essentially what constitutes mindfulness. Mindfulness has been practised by humans for thousands of years. Its cultural and spiritual significance is suggested in ancient art and writing dating back over seven millennia. The essence of mindfulness has been interpreted in diverse ways across many different cultures throughout history; it’s practically synonymous with higher forms of abstract thought whether it be specific religious practices or spirituality as a whole. Today, it’s taking on a whole new form; a modern revival in popular Western culture.
It’s easy to be cynical. In the last 10 years especially, an interest in mindfulness has swept through Western society in the form of smartphone apps, self-help books, TED talks and online gurus. In 2021, it’s not considered so unusual for people to unwind with a full body scan, complete with positive affirmations and the sound of a running stream. Whether at home or the commute to work, mindfulness practices have become increasingly widespread: they’re becoming increasingly popular across many online platforms, attracting crowds by the million.
Some might be tempted to lump mindfulness together with other urban fads like sourdough and parkruns. But beyond the gimmicky side of mindfulness, I believe it does in fact meet a deep human need which is urgently felt today in the hectic digital world we inhabit.
In some ways, the modern West has adapted mindfulness as therapy to counter the negative side effects of ‘always on’ culture, and the intrusive tech world we inhabit 24/7. A modern assumption is that the average person is burnt out; mentally overstressed by our toxic, inseparable relationship with technology and our complex society. The exponential evolution of the internet in just 20 years, and the unique social ecosystem that has developed as a consequence, is unlike anything experienced by past generations; we’re all connected, so long as we have a decent Wi-Fi signal. Social media has dramatically reformed the fundamental behaviour and organisation of society in ways we likely underestimated. A leisurely scroll through Twitter (or anything Zuckerberg) will tell you everything you need to know about the digital climate. It’s a bubbling broth of the human psyche—can we turn the heat down?
Intrusive social lives, questionable ethics in data marketing, social and political polarisation, fake news and alarming world leaders… Needless to say, mass integration into the dizzying digital realm has left many of us craving peace and quiet. Enter, mindfulness. Mindfulness is perhaps the cooling tonic to soothe our hyperactive, overstressed brains, helping us feel a sense of wellbeing and clarity under the unique stress that our augmented lives entail. It may help us keep our feet firmly on the ground when we need them to be; to help us reconnect with our physical being. With the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic stuffing our lives even further into the digital void, mindfulness may be a worthwhile pursuit to nourish your mental wellbeing.
How is mindfulness relevant for musicians? In this series of articles, I’ll explore mindfulness from a musician’s perspective, considering its relevance to performance and creativity, its practical uses for the jobbing musician, and finally looking at the role which music itself can have in the practice of mindfulness. There’ll be no gimmicks or gurus, but I hope to show how mindfulness offers much of value for musicians if we give it a chance.